At some point in her childhood, doesn’t every girl harbor the dream of riding free on the back of a beautiful horse? Perhaps the dream begins with a My Little Pony doll, a Disney film, a new riding outfit for Barbie, or an actual riding experience. For many, the dream never really goes away, but burns like an ember in their hearts beyond the childhood years.

Is this you? And have you bought or are you thinking about buying a horse? Let me tell you, living the dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The problem with the fantasy is that you can only ride up and down that golden strand of beach or circle the trail that winds through your property so many times before boredom sets in.  At that point, you’ll be craving an activity that focuses your time and energy and gives you some goals for riding and training your horse or horses.

Perhaps you’ve gone looking at traditional western riding sports like barrel racing or team roping.  But the risk of a high-speed fall or losing your thumb in the bight of a rope made you hesitate.  So, you considered other high-profile arena sports, like cutting or reining.  But the cost of the specialized and highly-trained horses and the years of instruction required seem like a steep hill to climb for someone just looking to have some fun and share quality time with friends, both equine and human.

In short, you want something fun that you can learn with relative ease, without risking life and limb.  And you’re not alone.

Over the past two decades, cowgirls like yourself have been discovering new horse sports that are fun, easy, and won’t break the bank.  We’ve rounded up four of the most popular to add some direction and focus for when your fantasy comes true.

American Competitive Trail Horse Association competitor takes on the river crossing obstacle. Photo courtesy of ACTHA.

Competitive Trail: An Obstacle Course For Your Horse!

Trail riders make up about seventy percent of all recreational riders in America.  Corralling that huge population, however, proved challenging for show-ring oriented sport associations and breed registries.  That is, until Carrie and Tom Scrima of Austin, Texas, created a fun and novel competitive format just for trail riders.

Carrie, who was raised in Bronx, New York, was a lifelong horsewoman and show horse competitor.  But when she reached her fifties, she grew weary of the long drives and exhausting show weekends.  She liked the idea of a trail riding competition, but not the 25 to 100 mile long races against the clock that characterize cross-country endurance events.  Carrie wanted something more casual and social–but still challenging.  And she also wanted to elevate the profile of the often under-respected trail horse to that of performance horses.

So, she and a friend created a new type of western horse competition in which riders followed set trail courses of five to ten miles.  To make the courses challenging, they added obstacles such as water crossings, tree logs, embankments, and bridges.  Course judges scored each obstacle and riders competed based on skill rather than speed. 

Friends and fellow riders near the Scrima’s home participated in the earliest events.  Their enthusiasm for the contests emboldened the Scrimas to form the American Competitive Trail Horse Association.  Today, there are ACTHA chapters throughout North America that sponsor hundreds of annual competitions.

“We have created something in the horse industry that is both needed and wanted,” said Carrie Scrima.  “ACTHA is a way to keep your horses exercised, to better their training, and add to their marketability.  And it is just fun!”

Any horse breed can compete in ACTHA events, even “grade” horses without pedigrees.  The behemoth American Quarter Horse Association breed registry also offers competitive trail contests. The AQHA events compose their “Trail Challenge” program and are open to all breeds, though special titles are awarded exclusively to registered Quarter horses.

Cowboy Mounted Shooting has entry levels for any rider.

Cowboy Mounted Shooting:  Annie, Get Your Gun!

Here’s a sport “little sharp shooter” Annie Oakley would have loved.  A rider on horseback must dash through the arena shooting .45 caliber revolvers at balloon targets.  Yes, it sounds like a potential blood bath, but the six-shooters fire blanks, and the concussion of gases un-burnt black powder released from the gun barrels cause the balloons to pop.  A rider can typically hit a target at up to 15 feet–if she’s got Annie Oakley’s aim.

This fast-paced shooting sport grew out of western six-gun shooting contests organized under the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) banner.  At these events, participants dressed in period costumes from the 19th Century and were required to have aliases such as “Calamity Jan” and “Dead Eye Dave.”  Eventually, horsemen at these shows concocted a ride-and-shoot contest, and cowboy mounted shooting was off and running.

Once horse sports entered the picture, gunslingers eventually broke off to form the stand alone Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, which allows but doesn’t require period costuming. (Other mounted shooting associations have followed). Most of today’s mounted shooting participants wear the modern cowboy costume of jeans, boots, button shirts and hats.

The contest is against the clock so fast, agile stock horse breeds like Quarter horses and Paints prevail. However, a rider may use any breed of horse, a non-pedigreed “grade” horse, or even a mule.  Riders not only have to master their mounts, they also need to hone their shooting skills, as time penalties are assessed for missing any of the balloon targets.

To make it more attractive for newcomers, mounted shooting classes are organized by skill levels and divided by gender.  Even youth riders can take part, although they ride through an abbreviated course and then shoot targets from the ground, each with a parent by his or her side.

Ranch sorting.

Team Penning and Ranch Sorting: Express Your Inner Cowgirl!

Sorting and Penning are two closely related sports that come directly from real-life ranching activities such as doctoring and branding cattle. Both involve separating and holding cattle outside the herd.

In team penning, groups of three riders lope into a tightly-bunched herd of thirty numbered cattle, separating out the three individuals marked with the team’s assigned number. The cows have prominent number patches stuck to its hide.  For example, a team crosses the start line and the official shouts out “five!” Then, one team member eases into the herd and separates out the three head marked with that number while her two teammates, called “turnback riders” hold the three “cut” cattle from the pack.  Once the cattle are successfully cut, the team must guide them down the arena and into a pen.  Time stops when the cattle are successfully penned and one of the riders dashes into the pen and raises an arm.

Ranch sorting, also called team sorting, is a bit like playing a game of pool on horseback.  A herd of numbered cattle are arrayed at one end of an arena.  Fence panels at mid-arena create an opening much like a fence gate.  The team, made up of two or three riders, has to take the cattle one-at-a-time through the gate in numerical order, beginning with the number called out by the arena judge.

Riders of almost any age and ability can compete, making both Penning and Sorting fun family sports.  Handicap systems in both events assure that teams are equally matched.  Any sound, fit stock horse can compete, although they will require some preconditioning around cattle.  Getting involved usually means joining a club that maintains a herd of cattle, as cattle are the single biggest fixed expense for competitors.  Clubs will sometimes sponsor demo days where potential new recruits can try the sport alongside veteran competitors.  Penning is also popular at many guest ranches, so if you’re planning a guest ranch vacation, ask in advance if they offer this activity.

Cowboy dressage is not a clone of English dressage, however, it incorporates similar maneuvers. Photo courtesy of Oregon Cowboy/Western Dressage Alliance.

Cowboy Dressage: Where The Old World Meets The Old West

Cowboy dressage began with Israeli-born rider Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  Classically trained in the English riding discipline of dressage (“training,” in French), Halachmy was also fascinated with the image of the western cowboy. 

After moving to the U.S. to study veterinary science, he began incorporating elements of both Old World dressage and Old West costuming.  His elegant exhibition rides, sometimes performed with symphony orchestras, sometimes with western “cowboy” singer Michael Martin Murphey, thrilled crowds throughout the country.

Eitan’s big breakthrough, however, was at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany.  In the closing ceremonies, Eitan performed before a world audience on his famed Morgan horse Santa Fe Renegade, gaining huge attention and admiration for this unique form of riding.

Simone Windeler, a classical dressage instructor and owner of The Elegant Rider in Black Forest, Colorado, says that horses suitable for this type of dressage typically sell for a fraction of the price paid for the Warmblood breeds used in English dressage.  Expect to pay between $2,000 for a started horse up to $5,000 for an advanced, well-trained mount.

But, Windeler says, you don’t need to go and buy a specialized horse to get started.  “A western rider already has most of the basic requirements: a stock horse, a western saddle, and western tack,” says Windeler.  Further, because the sport emphasizes horsemanship rather than speed, it’s considered a safe alternative to riskier western activities such as barrel racing or competitive roping.

Shelby Reine of La Place, Louisiana, becomes 2013 AQHYA Ranch Pleasure World Champion. Photo courtesy of AQHYA.

Ranch Pleasure: More Show Ring, Less show Bling.

Western pleasure is a long-time staple of the show ring.  Riders demonstrate their horses calm, collected personalities by circling the oval arena at the walk, trot, and lope. 

Understandably, many critics and even western pleasure riders over the years have complained that this event can get tedious, and sometimes lacks the energy and excitement of other equine competitions.

Furthermore, there’s no getting around the fact that competitors often invest small fortunes to catch the judges’ eyes.  Elaborate hand-stitched and sequined riding outfits with color-coordinated blankets plus saddles and bridles that glitter with sterling silver appointments are de riquer in the western pleasure ring.  One can easily invest five figures as the price of earning a blue ribbon.

Enter ranch pleasure, an arena event that’s become one of the most popular show classes in the American Quarter Horse Association.  The AQHA began offering the class in 2012, and by 2013, it was the third biggest class by entries at the AQHA World Championship Show.

In ranch pleasure, riders follow a predetermined arena pattern.  Horse and rider teams perform required maneuvers and obstacles that demonstrate the horse’s willingness and responsiveness under typical ranch riding conditions.

Horses are asked to perform at the walk, trot, and lope, and must also perform stops and changes of direction.  A competitor may also elect to perform optional moves such as changes of lead, 360-degree turns on the hind legs, side passes, and the walk, trot, or lope over poles.

In order to promote the fresh-from-the-ranch look, horses competing in Ranch Pleasure must be simply groomed.  Saddle silver and other bling are likewise discouraged, and most riders keep costuming simple and true to authentic ranchwear.

Which of these sports are you ready to try?

(Originally published in the February/March 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).