“We’re seeing the highest numbers we’ve ever had,” Ms. Snell said. “There’s a real need to think outside the box.”

When the colt challenge finally arrived in June, rain intermittently sprinkled on the horses.The children whispered last-minute instructions to their mustangs, patted their noses and fed them carrots.

“I’m feeling good,” said Kati Hallmark, 14, a seasoned livestock show participant who trained a Devil’s Garden colt named Walker. “I think he is, too. His ears were forward, so he’s alert.”

Cliff Thomas, volunteering as a judge, walked the obstacle course with his grandson.

Mr. Thomas said he saw the program as a desperately needed corrective to a decline in youth participation in horse culture.

“My approach is if you can communicate with a horse, you can communicate with people,” he said.

One by one, the 19 competitors whose families were able to bring them back to Modoc County coaxed their horses around the ring.

Ben watched with a slight frown.

“I’m excited,” he said. “But I’m most nervous about the trailer — it’s a new smell.”

“If you’re confident, he’ll be confident,” his mother said. “Just be patient.”

In the ring, Mason Sedillo, a 10-year-old, led his horse, Sassy Llama, to a tarp meant to mimic a small stream. She balked.

Afterward, Mason’s best friend, Joshua Fernandez, ran up to offer solace.

“I’m so proud of you,” Joshua told Mason throwing an arm around his friend’s shoulder.

Some young trainers exited the ring teary-eyed. Kati tried several times to lead Walker through a tunnel of dangling pool noodles, clicking her tongue and quietly coaxing him, to no avail. Mr. Thomas nodded at her to move on.

“It was a learning experience, for sure,” she said later. “I worked so hard, but he put his whole entire body weight against me.”

At one point, Buddy reared back as Ben tried to urge him forward. Buddy stood stock still at the edge of the ramp into the trailer. Ben, shorter and smaller than his equine companion, took deep breaths, a frown fixing itself on his face as he tried to move an animal that would not budge.

“To see the kids with a young horse and trying to do an obstacle course is just like life,” Mr. Thomas said as the competition came to a close. “They got to see how they deal with the frustrations and the challenges.”

At the end of the day, Ms. Snell handed out awards, and no one left empty-handed. Ben joined a row of five children in his age group to accept a yellow fourth-place ribbon and a bag of Purina. His parents smiled and clapped.

The next morning, Kati woke up at her family’s sprawling ranch outside of town. The day before had been disappointing. But just like every other day, she got up and headed toward the red barn where the animals lived. She cleaned the stalls. She fed the horses. Walker munched happily on hay.

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