Talking Mountain & Extreme Trail with Mark Bolender

Mark Bolender Mountain & Extreme Trail

Mark Bolender Mountain & Extreme Trail

By Horse Journals

If the idea of working in partnership with your horse to navigate obstacles such as bridges, logs, water, and switchbacks appeals to you, then Mountain Trail might be for you. The discipline of Mountain Trail was founded in 2000 and over the last 13 years has skyrocketed in popularity due to its accessibility, the benefits it can bring to horses and riders specializing in other disciplines, and, simply put, because it’s just plain fun.

Mark Bolender discovered Mountain Trail many years ago and became a major proponent of the sport, even creating his own take on the discipline, Extreme Trail, which he describes as “Mountain Trail on steroids.” Bolender designed the first Extreme Trail course at his own facility – Bolender Horse Park, in Silver Creek, Washington – where he hosts and teaches clinics, and has since gone on to design many other Mountain and Extreme Trail courses throughout the U.S., in Germany, and in British Columbia, Canada.

Recently, Mark Bolender took the time to tell Canadian Horse Journal why he thinks Mountain and Extreme Trail can benefit horses and riders of all disciplines, what makes his horse Checkers such a superb trail mount, and the new Mountain Trail course opening in BC this spring.

Mark Bolender training Mountain TrailPhoto courtesy of Mark Bolender

When introducing a horse to a new obstacle or challenge, Bolender prefers to start on the ground and allow the horse to figure things out for himself as much as possible.

Horse Journals: What are Mountain Trail and Extreme Trail, and what makes these disciplines so unique?
Mark Bolender: Mountain or Extreme Trail is a discipline that shows off the ideal trail Horse. The horse should be able to navigate various obstacles with boldness and confidence in a safe manner. This discipline is unique in the fact that the horse is expected to navigate obstacles that a normal horse would never be exposed to in a calm manner with very little help or direction from the rider.

What drew you to the idea of Mountain and Extreme Trail, and led you to become a pioneer in these disciplines?
I was drawn to a discipline that forced the rider to humble themself and learn to be a true partner, which means they need to trust the horse. I saw the beauty of Mountain Trail (only if the horse has been properly trained) in the fineness and brilliance of how instinct can help the horse navigate seemingly impossible obstacles.

Why do you think Mountain and Extreme Trail have grown in popularity so rapidly and on such an international scale?
Only three percent of horse owners show their horses in formal shows. Often the other 97 percent just want a good trail ride and for one reason or another have been turned off of showing.  This discipline is bringing the fun back into shows and is tapping into that huge market. Many in the show world have been looking for something that is new and fun – and this is fun.

Mountain and Extreme Trail course obstacles

ABOVE & BELOW: Bolender designs his courses to safely challenge, but not intimidate, the horse and rider/handler.

Photos courtesy of Mark Bolender

Mountain and Extreme Trail course obstacles

You’ve built Extreme Trail courses around the world. What types of obstacles are featured in your courses and how are they designed to challenge horse and rider?
I like a trail course to be functional art. The trail courses should have obstacles that will challenge all levels of riders yet be safe and not intimidating. I like the balance beams (both straight and ones with a bend), and the rocks, step downs, water, and logs, for they are found on most trail rides around the world. My two signature obstacles are the suspension bridge and trestle bridge. I engineered both to last for many years under very harsh conditions. I like a 3-D course which brings everything to life, but with no cheap knick-knacks around the course which I feel are distracting.     

Can you tell us about your new Extreme Trail course in BC that’s opening in the spring of 2013?
This course is at Hayton Creek Ranch in Oyama (near Kelowna), and will feature six levels, a stunning trestle bridge, two bridges over water, three ponds which are natural and fed by a spring, a suspension bridge, a major switchback on a steep hillside, logs, and rocks. It was carved from a hillside that overlooks lakes and a beautiful valley.

How can Mountain Trail and Extreme Trail set horses and riders up for success in other disciplines?
Every rider in every discipline wants to ride a horse that is bold and confident. I have never seen a tool that so effectively builds boldness and confidence in a horse as does Mountain Trail. It gives the horse a job. It helps brighten up the show horses and they for sure find out where their feet are.

Mark Bolender rides Checkers bridlelessPhoto courtesy of Mark Bolender

Bolender regularly rides Mountain Trail courses with his horse Checkers bridle-less, even in competition, giving great credit for the success of their partnership to his absolute trust in his mount.

You regularly ride Mountain Trail courses bridleless with your horse Checkers, even in competition. What key elements in your training and your bond with Checkers allow you to do this successfully and confidently?
Checkers was born here on the farm and was special from day one. He is the most arrogant horse you will ever touch, yet I have complete trust in him. He has been ridden on some of the most rugged horse trails in the world, and has come across bears and cougars, all while bridleless. He is great on cows, does cowboy mounted shooting, roping, and jumping, and is my pony horse for starting the new horses. He is an all-around Quarter Horse but has excelled in Mountain Trail, winning the high point in 2008 through 2010. The key to success in riding bridleless is finding a horse that likes a job, likes people, has an attitude, and is broke. Then you must humble yourself and trust the horse. The biggest bit you will ever have in a horse’s mouth is the one that is in their mind.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you, your courses, or Mountain and Extreme Trail?
This new discipline is fun for all and can be mastered by all who ride on any breed regardless of size and shape. Fun, fun, fun!

To learn more about Mark Bolender and Mountain and Extreme Trail, visit his website at

Main Article Photo courtesy of Mark Bolender

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal - Pacific & Prairie Edition.

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