McNabb awarded second in Road to the Horse

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

A lifetime relationship with horses has culminated into widespread recognition for Ken McNabb, as the trainer and lifelong Cowboy recently clinched second place in the Road to the Horse Competition.

Held from March 25 to March 28 in Fort Worth, Texas, Road to the Horse challenges the world’s best equestrians to build a partnership with an untrained colt across three days of competition. Competitors begin with selecting their colt and then progressively train their horse for a final obstacle challenge on the last day. Essentially, it’s a competition in horse whispering.

Since the competition began in 2003, it’s gained a prestigious reputation according to Pryor Mountain Horse advocate Steve Cerroni. Cerroni is a personal friend of McNabb.

“It’s the Super Bowl of the horse world,” Cerroni said. “That would be a good way to describe it.”

As for McNabb himself, he owns a ranch on Crystal Creek Road where horses are trained and sold, but his expertise in horse training often has him traveling across the nation and even abroad. He even hosts a weekly television show, “Discovering the Horseman Within,” which has been on air for 17 seasons. 

He’s no stranger to competition. He competed in Road to the Horse twice before, once in 2008 and again in 2010, but found himself on the losing end both times. McNabb said he stepped back and won several small competitions throughout the United States and Canada in the years since. In 2019, he finally got the call asking him to compete in Road to the Horse again. 

After the 2020 competition he was slated for was cancelled due to COVID-19, McNabb finally got his opportunity to compete in 2021. He was edged out for the top prize by Idaho horseman Wade Black, but this year’s competition was razor-tight. 

“The reason I struggled in clinching a win in my events is because the competition ends and goes away the moment I step into the pen. I divorce myself from the judges. It’s about building a relationship with the horse,” McNabb said. “…You can’t make new old friends. It takes time to make old friends. I start working to build that friendship with my horse in the opening moment. On Sunday my horse was flawless. No less than 20 worldclass horsemen came up to me and said ‘I love what you did with your horse, and I would love to take your horse home.’ I may not have won, but the horse won and I’m there because I would love the horse to have the opportunity to be the winner.”

McNabb said three of the five judges spoke to him after the competition and told him they would have rather gotten on his horse Saturday over any other competitor. Sure enough, McNabb found himself disagreeing with the official verdict when it was handed down. 

“I feel like I had the calmer, more prepared horse,” McNabb said. “What the audience saw was the relationship that my horse and I created.”

Regardless of his personal thoughts, McNabb recognized Wade as a tremendous horseman and competitor. 

“He’s an incredible man,” McNabb said “I would list him among the people I admire and respect and would consider a friend.”

Beyond personal recognition, McNabb said the competition was an opportunity to show what the bond between a horse and its trainer should look like. It’s a bond McNabb has been building since he was a young child.

Training the horse

“Have you ever looked at a horse track in the dirt?” McNabb asks.  “Look at it upside down. It’s a heart. The horse is a gift from God to us.”

This is a fact McNabb has always known. As a small child in Lovell, McNabb’s father, Kurt, owned a ten acre piece of ground at Sykes Pasture, located right at the bottom of the East Pryor Mountains. Nearby was a ranch owned by the Tilletts, and without much to do as far as he was outside of town, McNabb made quick friends with the Tilletts’ horses. 

“At a very young age, cowboys were my heroes. At the same time, I was a pretty lonely kid a long ways from town. I didn’t have a lot of other kids to play with, so I would sit and form a friendship with the horses,” McNabb said. “Horses have a natural affinity with children, and they had time to do nothing but sit and look at me.”

That bond has grown increasingly more intimate and aware since it began in those early days. It’s an authentic connection that makes McNabb so successful at training horses today.

“What is so unique about Ken, what he is able to do as a trainer, is find the courage within the horse and then bring it out,” Cerroni said. 

Horses have been a partner with humankind in building civilization, McNabb said, and even in war, horses would charge in as valiantly as the warriors on their back. None of that bravery has left the animal, McNabb said, even as new generations arise.

“When you realize you’re in the presence of a king, you start speaking to the horse as if he’s already courageous,” McNabb said. “We’re in this together. We’re never opposed. Much like your parents and grandparents showed you how to ride a bike, you’re gently directing the horse until one day it realizes that it has this courage inside them. They are naturally courageous, they just have to bring it out.”

McNabb practices what is called natural horsemanship, where the trainer mimics the behaviors of a more dominant horse in a herd to create a more natural, connected and gentle state of training for the horse. 

“We call a dog man’s best friend but my horse is capable of everything my dog does,” McNabb said. “I’ve watched horses play catch, I’ve watched horses give love and comfort. It’s similar to raising a child. Children unattended become criminals as adults. Horses with guidance and direction become the courageous kings they are.”

Going forward

He may be lacking a first-place prize, but McNabb said he has no regrets or bitterness as he moves on from the competition.

“Walking away, the greatest thing I’ve come away with in this competition is the knowledge my peers have gained about my approach and the friendship I’ve built with my fellow competitors. That’s the only accolades I really need, the confidence that what I do works,” McNabb said. “I’ve been blessed by God to be in amazing situations, to represent both my faith and my horse.”

Following the competition, McNabb’s plans are as to be expected. He’s going to continue to train horses and teach others in the art, as well as work to maintain a ranch he can take pride in.

“By the grace of God, I was born a cowboy of America,” McNabb said. “A cowboy, by his nature, is a tender of livestock. It is my calling to tend to livestock to the best of my ability.”