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Moonrock Madness

Terri Stardust carrying puppy

Terri "t." Stardust founded an equestrian competition in an unlikely place — the lunar-like landscape of Wyoming's badlands. Photo: Marc Piscotty

T. Stardust remembers the looks of disbelief.

Stardust (BFA ’91), an artist and competitive rider, was determined to build an Olympic-caliber equestrian course in the middle of the Wyoming badlands. The site she proposed was so stark and foreboding she called it “Moonrock” for its resemblance to a lunar landscape.

There wasn’t a tree within miles.

No electricity.

Water had to be hauled in by truck.

If a thunderstorm approached, you drove hell-bent-for-leather to the nearest blacktop or you’d find yourself buried to your axels in mud. Oh, yes. Then there were the rattlesnakes.

“One thing I learned from my days at DU was that if you can dream it, you can do it,” she says.

Ten years later, Stardust’s dream has become a destination. Each June, riders from as many as 10 states and Canada haul their horse trailers to Worland, Wyo., home of one of the most unique horse competitions in the country.

Welcome to Worland

Stardust, who grew up on a horse farm in Fort Collins, Colo., attended DU on a volleyball scholarship. The athletic 6-foot-3-inch middle blocker still holds a few school records.

She graduated in 1991 and, fine arts degree and teaching certificate in hand, she started looking for a job. At a job fair she learned that a little school district in Wyoming was looking for an art teacher and a volleyball coach. She started teaching in Worland that fall.

Worland is a blue-collar, middle-class town of about 4,800 people. “It’s not huge,” Stardust says, “but it’s big enough to have everything that you want. We have two grocery stores and a movie theater. It’s the perfect place for what I want to do. I love it here.”

The town was founded in 1900 by Charles “Dad” Worland, a fruit tree salesman who opened a saloon and stage stop about 150 miles southeast of Yellowstone. Butch Cassidy is said to have been a frequent visitor, and the town’s first “bank” was an unguarded cigar box that Dad left on the bar.

But in 1906, the struggling community almost became a ghost town. The townspeople were shocked to learn the approaching railroad was building its tracks on the other side of the river. So they waited patiently for the dead of winter and moved all the buildings on skids across the frozen Big Horn.

No wonder Worland’s first newspaper was called The Grit.

T. Stardust with a horse and rider

T. Stardust founded and runs the Moonrock equestrian competition. Photo: Marc Piscotty

Stardust tackled Moonrock with that same frontier pluck and resourcefulness.

The idea for an equestrian event took root at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. “I had a chance to tour their cross-country jumping course and found it amazingly artistic,” Stardust says. “I realized I could apply my art talent to another aspect of something I love.

“I thought, shoot, I’ve got thousands of acres right behind where I live that are unused. It’s public land. If I could pull this off, it would be a fascinating thing to do.”

Stardust went to the regional Bureau of Land Management office in Worland to plead her case.

“Everyone came together for this project, even if they knew nothing about the sport. Frankly, nobody had a clue about what I was going to do with the land.”

Mike Bies, an archaeologist with the BLM, helped Stardust untangle two years of government red tape.

“I’ve been a bureaucrat a long time,” he says, stroking his beard. “You don’t just jump to step four. You have to follow the process.”

That process involved making an inventory of American Indian artifacts and fossils on the 135-acre property.

Bies and Stardust identified several ancient fire pits and a 45-million-year-old fossilized sea turtle. The course had to be designed so those relics wouldn’t be disturbed.

Eventually they worked out a deal allowing the County Fair Board to own the lease while Stardust was named its caretaker.

The cost?

“There’s no annual rent,” says Bies. “It’s basically for free.”

But Stardust’s work was just beginning.

Horse sense

Horse trials, or eventing, is a highly regulated sport. Although each cross-country course is different, certain standards have to be met for a competition to be sanctioned. Rider and horse safety are paramount, and liability issues abound.

“It takes a lot of planning,” Stardust says. “You have to hire a designer and, even though I planned to do my own artwork, I needed to find a builder, too. There are so many legalities to consider, you just can’t drop a bunch of jumps in an area and say, ‘yee-ha!’

Horse and rider jump a barrier

Instinct tells horses to go around an obstacle, not over it, says Stardust. Photo: Marc Piscotty

“A lot of people I talked to didn’t believe me. They thought I was crazy and didn’t want to be a part of it.”

That’s because most jumping courses, especially those in the East, resemble well-manicured golf courses, she says.

“They’re tree-lined with lots of hedges, the exact opposite of what I was proposing.”

After numerous rejections, Stardust found two Canadians who were willing to take on the challenge.

Robin Hahn, a four-time Olympian, agreed to design the course, and Steve Buckman, a builder from British Columbia, would help her construct it.

“Robin provided the basic design for the loop,” Stardust says. “Then Steve and I would collaborate. He would build me a frame or shape and I’d adorn it a certain way.”

Stardust spent hundreds of hours carving, painting, creating mosaics and etching copper for each obstacle.

“Each jump is unique, but they’re all interconnected,” she says.

“They mean things to the space they inhabit.”

For example, part of the course is called Turtle Alley, in honor of the fossilized turtle she and Bies discovered. The water jump has fish carved into the timbers, a reminder that the site was once an inland sea. Three jumps dominating a ridge are painted with majestic stallions. They pay tribute to the wild horses that still roam the badlands.

“Everything is there for a purpose,” she explains. “I tried to honor the history and the landscape of the area.”

Stardust raised $100,000 to design and construct the course by selling her artwork and soliciting sponsorships from local businesses.

But once she built it, would the riders come?

Dozens of horse trials are held across the country each year. Most are easily accessible and close to large metropolitan areas. Worland is a hundred miles from the nearest interstate. And while a local barrel racing competition might offer a $25,000 purse, the winner of Moonrock would take home a blue ribbon.

Yet the riders came. In 2006, more than 200 competitors and 250 horses converged on Worland.

“It’s been great for the economy,” says Michael Willard, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. “But many of the locals really don’t know what to make of Moonrock. You see, around these parts, the idea is to keep your horses inside the fences.”

Although first-time competitors can be intimidated by the rugged terrain, veterans like Meridith Hatterman find it can be less dangerous than more traditional venues.

“The footing is wonderful. The horses like that because it’s easier to gallop on,” says Hatterman, who won the 2008 competition. “If you’ve ever seen cross-country on TV, the lanes may be roped off. But, at Moonrock, it’s not so restrictive. It’s much more of a positive experience, especially for a younger horse.

“Moonrock is just more fun,” she adds. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. And [Stardust] makes it more fun by adding non-horsy type competitions after everyone’s done riding. She’ll have a dog competition or grill up brats at sundown—something that brings everybody together. That’s what so unique about the event.”

The cross-country ride is the last of three separate competitions at Moonrock, following dressage and stadium jumping.

“Eventing is like a horse triathlon,” Hatterman explains. “There are three separate events and you ride the same horse. It’s difficult to be really good at one phase and still be competitive. You and your horse have to excel at all three.”

“The sport goes back to the days of the cavalry, when riders used to test their horses to see if they were ready for battle,” Stardust says. “Dressage is an art form for the horses, almost like gymnastics or ballet. But, years ago, the objective was to maneuver yourself against an enemy and survive on horseback. On the battlefield, you might have to jump a hedge or stone wall to pursue the enemy. That’s where the stadium jumping and cross-country come in. There are lots of things a horse had to be able to do.”

It takes years of training for both horse and rider to reach the higher levels of competition.

“It’s all about trust,” says Stardust. “Your horse has to trust you implicitly because you’re asking him to do something he’d never choose to do. If he were a wild horse on the badlands, his instincts would be to go around the jump rather than over it.”

Despite the fancy boots, britches and riding jackets, the sport is definitely not for sissies.

Rules call for an ambulance, paramedics and a veterinarian to be on hand for every event. During the cross-country phase, riders are required to wear a protective vest, helmet and an armband containing medical information in case they’re knocked unconscious. Unlike the stadium jumps, cross-country obstacles are built of solid timber or rock. So when the irresistible four-legged force meets the immovable object, the smart money is always on the immovable object. Riders can be ejected and their mounts become flying, 1,200-pound sledgehammers.

Fortunately, in Moonrock’s 10-year history, the most severe casualty has been a broken leg.

“Horses have big hearts and small brains,” says Shane Foote, a longtime Moonrock volunteer. “Eventing exposes both. But a horse with a big heart can also bail out a rider with a small brain.

“There’s an adrenaline rush,” Foote adds. “I think bungee jumpers and higher-level riders can definitely party together and speak the same language.”

There are six different levels in eventing, and each level increases in complexity and the height of the fences. Even though the three events take only a combined 15 minutes, riders and horses must train for weeks beforehand.

“Three very different styles of riding are required,” says Barbara Chase, who serves as secretary for Moonrock. “You have to be able to manage a horse well for their endurance. And it can be a very humbling sport because you can be first after dressage and find yourself sitting in a water jump. A lot of things can happen in the two days of competition.”

Stardust lives in a trailer on the cross-country course the week before the event. She busies herself making gifts for volunteers and chasing away pronghorn fond of eating the flags marking the course.

She can be seen motoring about Moonrock in her dilapidated 1959 Chevy school bus, empty brake fluid cans rattling around her feet. In town, her ride of choice is a Yamaha 650 motorcycle.

What’s the difference between riding a motorcycle and a horse?

“Bike riders can be more sociable,” she replies.

“Yeah, especially when you’re a good looking, tall blonde!” a friend calls out from the grandstand.

The day before the competition, an official from Cheyenne takes a tape measure and level to each jump to make sure it meets requirements.

In 2006, heavy spring rains caused several to be out of kilter. Stardust had less than 24 hours to fix the problem or her event wouldn’t be sanctioned.

How would she move several 1,000-pound obstacles? No problem. She fired up her 50-year-old John Deere tractor, which promptly caught on fire. “A critter had built a nest in the engine,” she explains. A few hours and second-degree burns later, tractor, artist and cross-country course all passed with flying colors.

During the competition, Stardust keeps a walkie-talkie pressed to her ear. Surrounded by horses and riders, she’s like a cop directing traffic at a busy intersection. Meanwhile, she does everything from replace rails on the jumps to check horses’ bits to make sure they comply with the rules. Occasionally she lapses into “schoolmarm mode,” but her easy smile usually gets the job done.

“When I started Moonrock, I really wanted this place to be on the map,” she says. “I wanted to be someone who everybody gave a tip of the hat to. But that’s not important to me now. I want Moonrock to be a place where people enjoy the environment and the experience. And, most of all, to have fun.”

Pam Burke, a competitor from Montana, described the eventing experience in a 2004 article she wrote for the Montana Horseman’s Journal: “I can feel my horse hesitate … but I keep asking with my legs for her to continue forward. … I feel her relax to the jump and sail confidently over it as I soften my reins and flow with her. I want to throw my hands in the air and shout, but can’t pause to celebrate just yet as we plummet over the bank galloping and sliding toward our next jump.

“It is this moment though, this perfect moment, that defines the allure of eventing. It is the mastering of body, mind and emotion. It is knowing that your horse is also doing this in sync with you to reach the same goal — beating this course.”

Period of transition

T. Thurman and her painted schoolbus

"I’m at that stage in my life where I can do whatever I want," says Stardust. "It’s a neat thing." Photo: Marc Piscotty

After the horse trailers depart Worland, Stardust’s routine continues at a full gallop. “I’m going through transition in my life big time,” she admits. A few years ago she went through a painful divorce and quit teaching to become a full-time artist.

“When I was at DU, my name was Terri Plum. When I got married, I was Terri Thurman. Now I’m really trying hard to be ‘t.’ Stardust.”

Why “t” for a leggy biker who refuses to live her life in lower case?

She pauses for a moment.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I just want to do stuff differently. Lots of things just occur to me. I guess I can just claim artist and leave it at that.

“I’m 41 years old now, and it’s nice to be doing the things I wanted to be doing for a long time and for whatever reason, I haven’t. I’m at that stage in my life where I can do whatever I want. It’s a neat thing. Not too many people get to say that.”

And whether it’s astride her mare or motorcycle, if obstacles get in her way, you get the feeling Stardust will find a way to leap over them.

Or wait until winter for the river to freeze.

To see examples of Stardust’s artwork, visit

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to properly cite an article in the Montana Horseman’s Journal as the source for Pam Burke’s quote. We regret the omission.

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