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MORGAN TWP. — It was a scene from the Wild West Saturday, when the outdoor arena at the Midwest Saddle and Bridle Association showcased the most talented cowboys and cowgirls in Northwest Indiana.

Over 30 horse riders and their hard-working mounts competed in the 2019 Extreme Cowboy Race, an annual fundraiser hosted by True North Training Stables, of Chesterton.

The nonprofit, faith-based equine-therapy program for at-risk youth and their families was founded in 2014 by Colleen Lee, of Chesterton, and Mendy Norman, of Valparaiso. In the program, 120 youngsters 8 and over learn life skills by caring for 17 horses on the 20-acre farm and stables in Chesterton from April through November each year.

Youth in the program, who struggle with depression, self-harm, bullying, eating disorders and are victims of sexual abuse, learn life skills by grooming, feeding and caring for the program’s horses. Counselors and instructors work with the kids, who learn about relationship building, leadership, respect, patience, focus, communication, problem solving and trust.

Saturday’s fourth annual race featured riders competing in youth, novice and advanced classes in an obstacle course designed to mimic challenges encountered by cowboys “on the range,” like opening and closing a gate, riding through overhanging tree branches, walking on a bridge, jumping a fence and lassoing and dragging objects.

Riders took turns negotiating obstacles that simulated those tasks, including standing on a raised wooden pallet (a bridge), jumping and stepping over posts (downed trees), riding through a curtain of Styrofoam pool noodles (tree branches) and opening, walking through and closing a gate.

“All the winners from the last three years are here today, so there is stiff competition,” said Norman.

In Saturday’s race, Cathy Covell, of Orland, Indiana, took first place in the advanced division on her 13-year-old American Quarter Horse mare, Holly. This was Covell’s second time in the winner’s seat after also winning first place in 2018.

Jean Calderone, of Hanna, took first place in the novice division on Red, her 16-year-old Morgan cross gelding, while Morgan Hartwig, 9, of Valparaiso, won the youth division on Grit, his 4-year-old American Quarter Horse gelding.

Morgan Hartwig recently placed fourth in the world in the flag race at the National Little Britches Rodeo Association’s 2019 Rodeo Finals in Guthrie, Oklahoma in July, said his mom, Janet Hartwig, who won the advanced division of the cowboy race in 2016 and 2017.

Mollyann Wilbourne, who rode her 12-year-old American Quarter Horse cross mare, Diamond, in the novice division, was in the competition Saturday for the second time.

“It’s very exciting” said Wilbourne, of Crown Point. “Last year, I got all my friends together and said ‘Let’s do it!’”

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Wilbourne said about a dozen of her friends were in Saturday’s competition, and the group is now hooked.

Last year, Wilbourne had never heard of True North, but since then, one of her former horses, Athena, is now being used as a therapy horse in the program.

“Now, I’m kind of connected to them,” said Wilbourne. “It’s a great cause.”

Race entry fees help the group care for the farm’s 17 horses, which cost about $250 per month each to feed and keep healthy, said Norman.

Lee said the entries this year nearly doubled that of last year, and the group plans to continue the annual event.

“The word is getting out and it’s getting bigger every year,” said Lee.

For more information on True North Training Stables, visit their website at truenorthtrainingstables.com.

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