Going to Extremes

Joy Sawyer Mulligan
What’s your best bet for an effective go at a gymkhana race? Ask anyThacher rider who’s competed in the past eighteen years, and you’llhear the voice of Cam Schryver, Director of the Horse Program: Find the nexus of speed and control.
What’s your best bet for an effective go at a gymkhana race? Ask any Thacher rider who’s competed in the past eighteen years, and you’ll hear the voice of Cam Schryver, Director of the Horse Program: Find the nexus of speed and control. Repeat it like a mantra when you’re on the back of Chocolate or 85, Podoco or Sparky, calibrate accordingly, and you’ve got a chance out there amid the poles, the barrels, the ribbons, and the rings.

Cam had the chance to locate that precise intersection on several runs of his own when, having qualified in a race last spring, he loaded his trailer and rig up with gear, part of the family (wife Lori, 3-year-old Cora Mae, and her imaginary unicorn, Juliet), his  six-year-old stud Sticks, and as much grit-and-gumption as would fit, and headed east to the Extreme Cowboy Race National Finals. The setting of the racecourse, just south of Kansas City, would be familiar (it was where Cam took #1 back in March), but not necessarily the obstacles (modified or entirely new each of the three days) nor the competition—21 fellow qualifiers from Montana to Kentucky, and sixteen other U.S. states, horsemen and horsewomen who’d also brought home the bacon from other ECR events: tooled saddles and buckles the size of hubcaps.

On every one of the three grueling days, though, there was no gauntlet that ECR creator (with Ryan Dohrn of HorseCity.com) and course designer, Craig Cameron, could throw down for the Schryver-Sticks team that the duo couldn’t pick up, and handily: Cowboy Curtain, Tunnel-and-Tassels, Rank Mare (ponying her through a steep, lumber-cluttered ravine; roping and riding her), Log Pull, Double Bareback—15 or 16 different obstacles made up each day’s event.  There’s more to it than just getting it done efficiently, since the judges are constantly evaluating not only how effectively the rider communicates with his or her horse to contend with the obstacle, but also the approach and exit. In a sense, the “extreme” in the title of the event modifies not “speed” or “endurance” as much as “technical proficiency.” Strategy also plays a major role in success; for example, in one ten-second wonder on Day Two, as Sticks galloped from one end of the field downhill towards a barrel, Cam was both directing his mount and balling up the big yellow slicker so that he could slam-dunk it on the turn—a move that, combined with speed and finesse on nearly all the others, kept him in the #1 position for each of the first two days of competition.

The final day contained, among other trials, some cow sorting-and-roping—good news for a guy of Cam’s extensive ranch experience. Discounting that mare (who was giving something Craig Cameron called “not exactly an ‘I love you’ look” to each approaching rider), the twist was times two: the cows would be the only obstacle of the day performed in full tack. For the first several challenges (including moving through a small pond barely free of the night’s ice), contestants would be using yarn as their reins (not breaking it earned big points); for the last several, it was bareback all the way. At that point, as throughout the two days prior, Cam had Teryn Muench on his heels at #2—a young Texas horse trainer and reigning ECR Champion. Clearly, the crowd had reason to cheer both.

In the end, Cam and Sticks executed each challenge nigh-perfectly, and, as the setting sun tinged the fields and woods with amberglow, Cameron announced that the victor’s crown would go to the dark horse from The Thacher School (“of Horsemanship,” as it was announced at one point). Cam had finished out at 783.5 points, 22.5 ahead of his closest rival.

Said admirer Jennie Wentworth (third place winner, the top female rider, an ER nurse in her day job, and, in an "It's a Small World, After All" coincidence, sister of Thacher faculty member Joy Sawyer-Mulligan) of what she saw in Cam as a horseman: “You just couldn’t find a better example of what this sport is all about. Light touch, totally in tune with his horse, and vice versa. You talk about walking the walk? This guy rides the ride.”

Home again, thirty-five hundred miles later, Cam was welcomed at Assembly with congratulations from Head of School Michael Mulligan and a several-minute standing ovation by the whole gathered throng. When the hootin’ and hollerin’ died down, Cam thanked Thacher for its support of his participation and said, “Well, I can’t make the football team anymore. This is something I can do.” Then, smiling, he added, “But it’s pretty much all about the horse—and I have a good one.”

Nexus of speed and control? To be the kind of champ Cam clearly is, you'd best line out a few other key vectors: equanimity, dedication, passion, and humility.

P.S. Add “vision” to that list: Cam’s hot to trot with the notion of bringing Extreme Cowboy Racing to Thacher. “It’s a natural for us: we’ve got the setting, and we’ve got the riders.” A possible start will be some of our kids entering an ECR in Acton, Calif., later this year. We’ll keep you posted.


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