In My Boots: Ranch horse, show horse

Not unlike the hunter world’s “return” to its foxhunting roots via hunter derbies, the Quarter Horse world is taking its show horses back to the ranch. Kristen Kovatch explains.

From Kristen:

All of the classes offered at AQHA shows are derived from real-world applications of horses: western pleasure originally rewarded the best-riding ranch horses; reining is based on the maneuvers a cowboy’s horse would perform on a cow; showmanship tests the ability to handle a horse safely on the ground (and as one astute reader of this column pointed out two weeks ago, exactly mirrors where one should be standing to hold a horse for the farrier). Somewhere along the way, the original messages of these classes got convoluted into the glamour of the show ring. The show horses of today, while athletes in their own right, are a far cry from the original American Quarter Horse, the cowboy’s choice—until now.

It’s an unusual way to come full circle: to honor the ranch horse, the AQHA gave him a show of his own. The first Versatility Ranch Horse World Show took place in 2008 and it’s been experiencing a steady growth since then.

The class contains five events: ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch trail, working ranch horse and ranch conformation. Rather than looking like a beauty pageant/fashion show on horseback, versatility ranch horse competitors wear practical working clothing: long-sleeved button-downs, chaps or chinks, a well-worn cowboy hat and the ubiquitous Wranglers and boots. The horses themselves come in right off the ranch: they are encouraged to be neatly groomed and presented, but excessive clipping and cosmetics are discouraged and fancy silver tack is not permitted.

The five events contain a multitude of tests: basic conformation, quality of ground-covering gaits, trail ability, cow sense, reining ability, and the most basic skill of all good cowboys worth the title: roping. It’s an impressive resume to master and essential for a solid working ranch horse and cowboy, qualities which seem to go underappreciated in the modern concept of the Quarter horse.

So why not try it the other way around? Why not drop pleasure horses into the middle of the open range and let them ride the fencelines for awhile? Every showmanship competitor should intern with a farrier and practice their handling skills on reluctantly-shod steeds. Let’s take horsemanship riders and put ropes in their hands, test their talents on tying up calves. Abandon the fake tails and silver saddles and return to our roots, riding the range from dawn ‘til dark. Why make the ranch horse go to the show ring? Why not take the show horse to the ranch?

Actually, I bet we’d be surprised. An athlete is an athlete; a good horse is a good horse. Bred for the ranch or bred for the pen, our horses are adaptable, versatile, remarkable and amazing. It shouldn’t matter how they’re bred or how they’re trained or how they’ve earned their Registers of Merit—the Quarter horse should be able to do it all, a living reminder of ranching heritage.

For more information about the Versatility Ranch Horse competition, check out

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