Matson Projects ‘Cowboy’ Image

By February 6, 2012


Two competitors astride their horses at Project Cowboy.

The final phase of Project Cowboy was a Saturday clinic with the winner. Here Matson (left) poses with student and fellow contestant Alex Griffiths. (Photo by Caroline Craven)

A freestyle with flying changes that had the crowd whooping, smooth moves on the dance floor and a thumbs-up on his screen test earned Temecula horseman Mark Matson the Project Cowboy championship title: Great American Horseman.

The competition took place over five rounds Feb. 2-3 at the Pomona Horse Expo, the debut Southern California event from the company behind the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento.

Matson, a professional reined cow horse trainer, trumped 14 others riding his own Smart Little Whizard, barn name Hermione. The 11-year-old AQHA mare is just under 15-hands and has been in training with Matson since she was two, winning more than $40,000 in cash.

In a dramatic punctuation to his freestyle, Matson announced Hermione’s retirement by sliding the bridle off her head and making a gift of it to a woman in the audience (thereby securing his win in the “Cowboy Congeniality” category, voted by fellow contestants. He later confided to The Equestrian News that Hermione is with foal). Matson finished his freestyle performance by sorting a calf sans bridle.

“Having a well-trained horse could help you advance to the next round, but contestants also needed star power in front of the camera and behind a microphone,” said Patti Colbert, who produces the event in partnership with Tootie Bland. Colbert is best-known as the producer of the “Extreme Mustang Makeover” events, while Bland is creator of the “Road to the Horse” competitions.

Colbert describes this show as “‘America’s Got Talent’ for cowboys.” There is a “Project Cowgirl” scheduled for the Western States Horse Expo June 8-10, as well as a “Project Cowboy: Madison,” that will pit girls against boys at the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, WI, Aug. 17-18.

Mark Matson rides his red pony at a fast canter.

Mark Matson delivered a rousing freestyle that included bridleless sorting. (Photo by Paula Parisi)

In addition to the more traditional cowboy skills of reining, herding and fencework, “Project Cowboy” contestants were judged on handiness with “unbroke fillies” ― which turned out to be a roundpen full of cowgirls! Each cowboy had to pick a dance and was randomly assigned choreography. Matson chose Miss Rodeo California, Brittany Slayton, and got the Two-Step.

“He’s a great dancer, I know from experience!” his current partner, Marika Vierling, chirped. Believe it or not, that wasn’t what Matson considered the biggest test of the weekend. “For me, the hardest part was the trail course, because my horse had never done anything like that. They set out an Indian teepee, a fake river with a statue of a dinosaur, 50-gallon barrels. We were miked and they were asking us questions over the loudspeaker” (thus demonstrating a facility to “think on four feet”).

Contestants were also judged on their ability to engage the audience and on-camera presence. “It was a fun couple days, and a great chance to ride with an incredible group of guys!,” Matson said. “They seemed to make an effort to select finalists from different backgrounds and disciplines. One guy was primarily a trail rider, another a reiner. There were cowboys from Texas, Arizona, Australia and Japan.”

The competition is sponsored by the American Quarter Horse Association, and was originally publicized as having a $10,000 cash prize that was subsequently cancelled. Matson said he’s grateful for the exposure the event is bringing to his Matson Performance Horses. He recently expanded his commercial activities to partner with Vierling in the Temecula Carriage Company, which offers horse-drawn rides through the wineries and Old Town. The fledgling fleet currently has three Percherons and a variety of exotic conveyances.

Born in Ohio, Matson migrated to Temecula from Idaho in 1999, working there for 10 years, during which time he helped form the Southern California Reined Cow Horse Association, a chapter of the National Reined Cow Horse Association. He then relocated to Northern California, settling in Porterville before moving back to Temecula in the fall.

He currently serves as the president of the NRCHA’s Valley Cow Horse Association, which produces about 10 shows annually in the San Joaquin Valley. In addition to training and coaching, Matson serves as a judge and clinician.

The RFD-TV “Project Cowboy” telecast is scheduled to air on Sept. 27.

2012 Project Cowboy Placings:

1. Mark Matson, 470.5
2. Brian Bausch, 403.
3. Byron Hogan, 356
4. Gilbert Chavez, 349.5
5. Joe Novy, 341.5
6. Joel Sheridan, 330
7. Len Judd, 325
8. Matt Sheridan, 309.5
9. Joe Misner, 301
10. David “Cody” Pendant, 256.5

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