Appalachian Trainer Face Off: The Competition Arrives

Sep 7, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Virginia-based trainer Justin Haefner just completed his participation in the Appalachian Trainer Face-Off, a 100-day challenge in which horses taken in by Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue are paired with trainers to learn new skills and, ultimately, make them better candidates for adoption. Over the past few months, Haefner has taken us along on his training journey with his assigned horse, Scottie. This is the final post in this series. Read his other blogs here.


In my dad’s dented one-ton dually, heading up Interstate 79 northbound out of Charleston, West Virginia, with trailer in tow, I had plenty of time to reflect on my trip to the Appalachian Trainer Face Off. It was a wild ride full of ups and downs, and far different than I could have expected.

We pulled into the Winfield Riding Center on Aug. 18, the evening before the event began, and unloaded Scottie, my horse for the 2021 Appalachian Trainer Face Off. He appeared unsettled and worried as we walked down the same barn aisle where I first met him 100 days ago. A time when life was hard, and people were a source of fear. He tightened, snorting quietly as we walked past hay bales, water buckets and assorted tack belonging to other competitors. I laid a hand on his tense neck and walked on, smiling to myself because I knew this weekend was an opportunity to change the way he would see this place.

My girlfriend, Tara, and I settled into the Red Roof Inn down the road, and that night I fell asleep thinking about what crazy journey this summer had been.

Just three weeks prior to our arrival in West Virginia, Scottie began to spiral backwards. Previously, even though several aspects of training and daily life had remained difficult, overall we made incredible progress. Up until that point, I was feeling increasingly positive about the upcoming competition. However, as things came apart, behavioral issues were returning that I thought we had overcome. Scottie was generally unsettled and uncomfortable wearing the saddle. He had difficulty standing still yet was reluctant to move. Tools like my flag became a source of fear again, and the hard look in his eye returned. Soon after, physical issues followed. He tied up in the round pen on a few different occasions. My vet was concerned about polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a typically genetic muscle disorder that results in an excessive accumulation of sugar in the muscles. It seemed that a lot of his issues were coinciding with changes in feed, and he would get much worse with a couple days off.

Scottie_lastblogErinGilmore
This was taken a week or so before our backslide. It shows a moment when Scottie and I are in a good place. He is content here, reaching out to sniff me and I’m reaching equally to him. In my mind the goal is always to find a way to meet in the middle. Erin Gilmore Photo

With 10 days until the ATFO and few answers to many questions, I called Tinia Creamer who founded and runs the Appalachian Trainer Face Off and the Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue, which it supports. What needed to happen over the next 10 days to get ready to compete, I told her, looked nothing like what needed to happen in order for Scottie to be OK mentally, emotionally and physically. I wasn’t OK with continuing on a path that could bring harm to Scottie, and she agreed. I decided in that moment that we would back off, take each day in stride, keep his needs at the very forefront, and accept any progress we could make. If I felt good on the day of the competition we would participate, if I didn’t, then we would pull out.

I slept poorly that first night in West Virginia, and I got up early the next day to go check in on Scottie. I rumbled into the sleeping show grounds in our loud and angry Dodge, taking in a peaceful scene that would soon come to life in a unique kind of chaos. The matter-of-fact crunch of gravel beneath my boots cracked through the silence as I walked between two covered arenas up to a group of simple barns. I strolled down the aisle and was met with a wave of hungry greetings from each stall as I passed. I was happy to see Scottie settled in his stall; he nickered and turned to me as I opened the door.

The most I did with Scottie was go for a few long walks to keep his legs stretched, as I had made the decision the day before that we would not participate in the competition. The final few days leading up to our trip had made this clear. The possible explanation of his issues being pain-related is a hard one to accept, but I feel like I did right by him this summer.

The day or so before we arrived, we decided that Scottie would be pulled from the auction, so it was unclear to me what exactly our involvement in the Face Off would entail. Saturday was the third and final day of the event, and the phase where competitors perform a freestyle to showcase creativity and their horse’s strengths. There wasn’t much I could do with Scottie, so my original plan was to simply not participate. But that morning, after a chat with Tinia, I changed my mind. I wanted to do the most I could with the situation at hand and hopefully connect with a few people in the crowd.

When the time came, I led Scottie into the main arena, accepted a microphone, and I talked. I talked about the summer he and I have had, I talked about plans and disappointments, and I talked about perspective. It is a rare occasion in life that we get to make a plan and have things fall into place exactly as we hoped. Oftentimes we need to take a deep breath, make a plan, move forward with it the best we can, pause to reflect and repeat. I learned many lessons from Scottie this summer, but the most important was the ability to change my plans as quickly as he needed. Over and over again. In the end, when the moment has passed, all we have is our perspective. It is the way we view the world and we are in control of it in more ways than we may think.

When I was done talking, we played a song through the arena speaker system. Since May, I have been working with my longtime guitar teacher Andrew McKnight to write a song and produce it for my freestyle. The song was about Scottie, but the lesson in changing plans came at the end: We wrote the ending based on what we had hoped would happen, but when the time came, and we were in front of the crowd, it didn’t work out that way. In this bittersweet contrast lay the lesson in changing plans.

As the song played, I walked the perimeter of the arena, and I made eye contact with as many people as I could. I walked out with tears in my eyes, emotions that came not just from Scottie, but from what I had seen in the eyes of those watching. At the end of the day, I feel like the story of the little sorrel Quarter Horse connected with others in a different sort of way. My hope is that this story of a horse can somehow reach the heart of humanity in those following along.

Back on the road driving home, the truck began to whine, a shrill submission to the steep mountains of West Virginia that have become so familiar to me this summer. I glanced in my mirror at the two-horse trailer tagging along behind us. Just from the way the truck is driving I am reminded that it is lighter now than it was on Wednesday. Just a few hours before, I said goodbye to Scottie, gently closed his stall door, and made a graceful exit from the competition.

He is staying with the rescue for now so they can run a number of tests and hopefully get some answers. Yet again, this will most likely lead to a shift in plans.

As I stepped out of his stall it felt real to call him my friend, and from the deepest place inside me I am wishing the best for him in life. For now I will focus on telling his story. I appreciate every single person who has followed along.


Justin Haefner is a born and raised Virginia horseman who dedicates his life to helping riders and horses reach their full potential. He specializes in the foundational development of young high-performance horses, and with a background in vaquero-style natural horsemanship, Justin has developed a passion for creating a style that incorporates the teachings of classical dressage and equine bodywork to best understand the psychology and physiology of every horse he trains. In his partnership with his father, Dr. Paul Haefner, Justin runs Riding Far, LLC, which brings together modern psychology and foundational horse development to help horses and riders work through their individual roadblocks to reach their full potential. 

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