If you pay attention to the press, "specialized" seems to be the name of the horse game. But before you decide to trade in good old Mr. Reliable for a horse who can star in just one discipline-you might want to consider getting involved in versatility ranch horse events.
There's currently a push to celebrate horses that aren't super at just one thing but competent at many! These are the kind of good, all-around horses that have truly shaped our country-the kind of horses that are probably standing right out in your pasture today.
Interest in versatility has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years-and not just among cowboys. For example, the American Ranch Horse Association (ARHA), home-based in Kentucky, formed in 2004 with 12 initial members. It now has more than 3,500 members and nine charter organizations. It's just one of the many organizations that are carving out a place for horses and riders with a variety of talents.
What is Ranch Horse Versatility?
Long before horse shows as we know them began, ranch cowboys got together to show their stuff, just for fun. The versatility aspect is what gives ranch horse riding its flavor today. Versatile ranch horses are expected to be competent in a range of situations. And while not every organization recognizes the exact same events in the ranch horse tradition, for the most part, there are five dimensions to the competition:
1. Ranch Conformation. These horses aren't built like the halter horses at the Quarter Horse Congress. Well-built ranch horses are balanced and designed to do the jobs that life on a ranch requires.
"It's form to function. Conformation does not necessarily mean pretty. Conformation is correct. Pretty can be correct, but I've been on some plain-Jane horses that have been put together well," says trainer and ARHA judge Bill Black.
2. Ranch Riding. This division is the ranch horse equivalent to western pleasure.
"When you spend 10 to 12 hours in the saddle, you're looking for a horse that makes it easy for you," says Southern Stockhorse Association (SSA) president Creig Dawes.
In competition, a horse is judged on the gaits, consistency, and manners that are necessary in a working horse.
3. Ranch Trail. Again, think about the trail class at the local 4-H show. In addition to the usual mailbox, gate, and raincoat tasks, horse and rider traverse obstacles that are encountered on a ranch, such as roping a dummy (fake) steer, loading and unloading from a trailer, or dragging a log.
4. Working Ranch Horse, Working Cow Horse or Roping. The difference between working ranch horse and working cow horse is minimal. In both, the horse and rider perform a reining pattern, cut or work a cow at one end of the arena, turn the cow, and move the cow in a circle. This requires the widest range of skill of all the events. Some organizations provide the option of roping a cow instead, without the necessity of tying it fast to the saddle.
5. Cutting or Ranch Cutting. In cutting, a rider guides his horse into a herd of cows, separates one from the herd, and does not interfere with the horse as it keeps the cow from returning to the herd. Ranch cutting is the same idea, although the rider is allowed to assist the horse in keeping the cow from returning to the herd.
• No specialty needed. Ranch versatility encompasses basic tests of conformation, ranch riding, trail, cow work, roping and cutting.
• Explore the ranch horse activities in your area. There is probably an organization, clinic, or competition in your state.
• Get to know other people who have experience with the ranch horse discipline.
• Work with your horse on the basics, developing a good mind and multiple skills.
• Don't be shy. Ranch horse competitions and educational events tend to be laid back and designed for all levels of experience.
In addition to these five events, many ranch competitions also host speed events, horsemanship, and roping-encompassing important ranching skills. For folks without the desire to work cattle, the other aspects of ranch horse riding are just as challenging and enjoyable. In many organizations, a number of members are novices in working cattle, or riders who stick to the non-cattle events altogether.
Why is Ranch Horse Versatility So Popular?
Ranch horse versatility is gaining popularity because people enjoy the low-key, family-friendly atmosphere and the opportunity to participate in a number of events.
"It's a great place for amateurs to get started showing. It's inexpensive, and the quality of horse flesh doesn't have to be as great as it necessarily would for a national-level reined cow horse," says trainer and Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association (RMQHA) Competition Organizer Blue Allen.
The working cowboys who use their horses for a living and want to have some fun with them also have a place at ranch horse competitions.
Plus, there's something for every rider.
"You can take one horse and show several different disciplines within the organization," says trainer and ARHA Director Ben Bowman. "The horse may not be great at one particular thing, but he can do a little bit of everything."
Outside of the competition arena, the organizations are built upon camaraderie and education.
"There's a place for the people who are just beginning, there's a place for the extremely experienced competitor, and there's a place for everyone in between," says trainer and ARHA judge Linda Black.
Many groups host clinics or practice sessions the day before the show so competitors can get feedback and non-competitors can ride with a group.
Whether participants are die-hard competitors or just riding ranch horses recreationally, helping to promote the versatility of the true working horse is a primary reason for involvement.
Finding an organization to hone your ranch horse skills is as easy as a click of the mouse:
American Ranch Horse Association: www.americanranchhorse.net
American Paint Horse Association: www.apha.com/ranchhorse
American Quarter Horse Association: www.aqha.com/showing/divisions/versatility.html
Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association: www.rmqha.com/recreational/ranch
Southern Stockhorse Association: www.southernstockhorse.com
Ranch Horse Association of America: www.rhaa.org
Stock Horse of Texas: www.stockhorse.com
Eastern Mountain Ranch Horse Association: www.emrha.com
How Do I Get Started?
Getting involved with a ranch horse organization is the best way to learn more, find knowledgeable people, and become a part of this growing discipline.
Word-of-mouth has done wonders for driving the membership of many organizations. Riders and trainers in disciplines related to versatility, such as reining, working cow horse, and roping, might know of a group in the area. An Internet search is another good tool.
With organized ranch horse events as a fairly new concept, the different groups are still evolving to meet members' needs.
Some are open to all riders and breeds. American Paint Horse Association (APHA) and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) events are open to their respective breeds. APHA does have a breeding stock division in its annual competition, so all of its members can be involved. Some AQHA affiliates with ranch horse programs, such as the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association, allow non-registered and grade horses to compete and participate in its activities.
The ARHA currently restricts horses at its competitions to those registered with AQHA, APHA, Appaloosa Horse Club, International Buckskin Horse Association, Palomino Horse Breeders Association, or Pinto Horse Association registries.
"It's not that the other horses can't do the job," says Bowman. "When we were just getting started, we didn't want to make it where there was a bunch of different types of horses because of the difficulty in judging."
Now that ARHA is on its feet and the interest from all breeds is apparent, the organization is considering opening to other breeds.
For non-competing members, many ranch horse organizations offer other programs. The ARHA has the Horseback Riding Program, recognizing time spent trail riding and riding recreationally. Additionally, most associations host clinics, trail rides, and practice rides for competitors and recreational riders alike.
What Kind of Horse Do I Need?
Everyone interviewed for this story agrees that, above all, a versatile ranch horse has to have a good mind. All the talent and ability in the world do not matter if the horse can't concentrate on the job at hand.
"They need to get a job done in a workmanlike manner. No foolishness," says Dawes.
When ranching was a way of life-and in areas where it still is-thinking, workmanlike horses were the norm. These horses were ridden every day, every week. There is no training substitute for time spent in the saddle.
While the atmosphere at ranch horse events is laid back, there is a lot of pressure in the arena, especially in the cattle classes.
In addition to a good mind, Thurow likes to see a horse that uses his hindquarters and has a steady headset, a good stop, and the ability to neck rein and pick up leads. When you hear a cowboy talk about a "handy" horse, these are the skills he is referring to. Being handy is being well-mannered and ready, willing, and able to work.
In reality, the ranch horse's attributes matter more than its breed. If you want to compete, check the show's requirements. But if you want to work with ranch horses for fun, every breed is capable. Some of the largest ranches in the West use Arabians, Morgans, Tennessee Walkers, and even mules.
Common sense is needed when choosing a horse. If you want to rope 2,000-pound bulls, a waif of a horse is not going to do the job and can quickly create a dangerous situation. Thurow likes not-too-tall horses, around 15 hands with stocky builds, especially for roping.
Having a "cowy" horse is definitely a plus for ranch work, but those without a lot of cowsense can still do great in the non-cow events.
"You've gotta have a horse that's got the ability and desire. Taking a horse without cow sense into a cattle class is like taking a Mexican Chihuahua bear hunting. The horse has to be suited and be willing," says Bill Black.
Horses suited for versatile ranch horse events don't have to cost a lot. The general characteristics outlined so far are ones that aren't necessarily a result of tons of training but of tons of riding. Horses designed to do well in all events will cost more, but they are not going for the price of specialized reining or dressage horses.
"If you want an old, seasoned horse with experience, you will pay good money for him. There is no substitute for seasoning, hauling, and showing these horses. It takes a lot of time in preparation at home, whether that's your time or someone else's," says Black.
How Much Experience Do I Need?
Because the versatile ranch horse discipline is new to many, beginners are in good company. Many organizations are set up to support and encourage riders who are new to the sport.
"Basic horsemanship will get you a long way. If you, as a rider, can position your horse in different places and know how to move your horse and change leads, you can do most ranch horse events without major training," says Bowman.
Before diving into the ranch horse discipline full-force, scout it out to see if it's what you want to pursue.
"Come to a show. See what everything is about," suggests Bowman.
Not only will you know what to expect when you enter a competition, but you will find out who is experienced and can help guide you. Here, you won't see the sliding stops and spins that you would at a national reining competition, but you will see good horsemanship, safe practices, and a good time.
Another place to visit is a clinic. Many trainers and organizations hold ranch horse clinics and practice rides; some before a show and others as entirely separate events. These usually fill up quickly.
"There are a lot of people in this neck of the woods that want to learn better horsemanship skills," says Moulton of EMRHA's New England-based membership. "Pretty much everything we do is to try to help each other. That's what the practices are all about."
Allen agrees, "The clinics are great. Find some local clinics, and you'll get to meet a lot of people."
Many clinics and practices focus on one or two aspects of the versatility discipline. Other clinics are held in actual ranch settings. The Blacks' annual Cross 9 Ranch Cow Working Clinic started nine years ago as a group of friends helping a neighbor doctor his calves. This quickly turned into a friendly clinic environment for many veteran and beginner ranch horse riders in and around Indiana.
When it comes to competition, tack and attire requirements vary between organizations. No rider would be out of place by entering the arena in their everyday equipment. You're less likely to see riders with the sequins and silver than you are to see them with regular working tack and attire.
"I don't want anybody going out and spending a lot of money on what they're going to show in," says Dawes.
Everything should be clean, safe and well-maintained, emphasizes Linda Black.
When considering venturing to a show with your horse, read the rule book first. Organizers agree that working cowboys, especially, know their job on the ranch, but tend to overlook show-ring subtleties such as when to change leads in a reining pattern or what bits are legal.
What you'll find at all of these events is down-to-earth people who are riding ranch horses as a passion. Even the larger versatile ranch horse events aren't too competitive or cut-throat. They are friendly, supportive places to be. You won't make a killing with your earnings in this discipline, but you will come away with a new appreciation for the ranching heritage of this country.