Tanya Brandon works her cow at the 2017 RHAA World Finals in Abilene, Texas. All photos by Devin Sisk.

Pam McCleskey sized up the competition prior to last year’s 2017 Ranch Horse Association of America’s World Finals, studying one cowboy in particular.

Each May for the past 20 years, top-level cowboys and cowgirls flock to Abilene for the RHAA World Finals—not to compete in the show ring, but to compete against other horse-and-rider pairs in tasks that reflect the day-to-day partnership needed to accomplish the long, arduous, and diverse tasks that make a cattle ranch run. It’s authentic, spectator-friendly, and hotly contended among the competitors.

“I’m pretty competitive,” she tells me later. “I didn’t want him to beat me.” McCleskey, who rides for the Silver Spur Operating Company, had come to Abilene to benchmark her skills against the “best of the best,” and she knew that the cowboy she was eyeballing was one of them.

“I was born into the ranching tradition,” says McCleskey. “My grandfather and dad were cowboys. I married a cowboy.”

McCleskey herself is a working cowgirl, running a cow camp on Silver Spur’s 290,100-acre Bell Ranch in Mosquero, New Mexico. Her cow camp—one of eight or nine on the Bell—comprises about 600 cows and replacement heifers that she cares for on a daily basis. All told, the Bell Ranch alone has 3,800 head of cattle and boasts the largest remuda of any of the Silver Spur Ranches, which has holdings in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, as well as in New Mexico.

“Spring’s just the best time of the year,” says McCleskey,” when the cows are calving and new babies are everywhere. If I’m having a bad day, I just go check ’em out; you can’t help but smile. She’s also been semen-testing more than 200 bulls before putting them out with her cows. “I don’t want to feed ’em all summer and then find out they’re infertile,” she laughs. “There’s always a lot going on out here.”

Still, it’s fun to compete, she admits. She used to do Women’s Ranch Rodeo, a team event, but with time at a premium and ranches so far-flung, she gravitated toward Ranch Horse competitions.

Elizabeth Yeary ropes her steer at the 2017 RHAA World Finals.

Mama Tried

While working cowboys still—and perhaps always will—greatly outnumber working cowgirls, the gals bring their own special gifts to ranch horse competitions, including humility, family values, and an intuitive gentleness with horses and livestock.

Oh, and that cowboy McCleskey was competing against? When he finished up as Wrangler Class Reserve World Champion last year, her competitive drive was overtaken by motherly pride, as that cowboy was her then-12-year-old son Cooper on his mare One Eyed Reflection. He would also win “Top Horse” with her at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo’s Ranch Rodeo and be named the 2017 Zinn Lindsey Rising Star recipient.

“Cooper started working her when he was 9 or 10,” she says, “and I couldn’t be more proud. I think he was proud of me, too, for going out there and giving it my best.”

McCleskey’s husband Elwyn also competed, finishing up as Reserve World Champion, Cowboy Class. Her other son Casey would have joined them, but he was riding in another rodeo that weekend. These ranch horse competitions are truly family affairs.

Tanya Brandon, who competed in the 2017 RHAA Wrangler Class World Finals on TRR Sugar Trix, also comes from a family ranching tradition, living on the 79,000-acre Tongue River Ranch in Texas, with her husband Tye, who is employed as Wagon Boss, and their two children, Brylee Bo and Bronc.

Tongue River Ranch horses have earned a reputation for cow sense, heart, stamina, quickness, and speed and have won both World Champion and Reserve World Champion titles at RHAA.

Hannah Yeary Shafer, who works in a bank in Spur, Texas, started competing while a student at North Central Texas College in Gainesville.

“I think what I enjoy the most at the RHAA World Finals is the atmosphere,” says Shafer, who competed in the 2017 RHAA Cowboy Class World Finals on her buckskin Mito Sunny Lena. “It’s all people from a ranching background, and everyone has fun. It’s a level playing field, where cowgirls are on equal footing with the cowboys.”

Hannah Yeary Shafer during the reining portion of her competition at the 2017 RHAA World Finals.

These Girls Got Game

Although greater numbers of women compete in the entry-level Wrangler Class than in any other class, that doesn’t mean they don’t have what it takes to go all the way into the stratosphere. And although the world champion titles are predominately won by employees of big ranches on ranch-owned horses, a gritty gal owning a cow-smart hoss can rise to the top as surely as does cream on milk.

In 2015, Kelsey Mosby-Thomas was Senior Class World Champion on her self-owned horse Boons Hot Tamale and took the Junior Class Reserve World Champion on Rey To Cool. In 2016, she won Senior Class on Rey To Cool.

Presciently, Elizabeth Yeary was honored with the 2016 Zinn Lindsey Rising Star Award, which is bestowed upon the most-talented “up-and-comer.” That year, she was named Ranch Hand Class World Champion and Senior Class Reserve Champion on her self-owned gelding Houdini Santana. Yeary and Houdini Santana finished fourth in the 2017 RHAA World Finals Senior Class, edging out Kelsey Mosby-Thomas and highly skilled cowboys on ranch-owned horses from Tongue River Ranch, Burnett Ranches, and Sarco Creek Ranch.

Kaleigh King, who hails from New Braunfels, Texas, and now works for National Cutting Horse Association Hall-of-Famer Bobby Lewis at Bobby Lewis Quarter Horses in Overbrook, Oklahoma, competed on two of Lewis’ horses in the 2017 RHAA Junior Class World Finals, CSR Dual Boonlite and Scootin Jule Lee.

She, too, attended NCTC in Gainsville. “I rode on the school ranch horse team as a freshman,” she says, “and that’s when I met Bobby Lewis and knew what I wanted to do.”

King’s day-to-day routine goes something like this: Rise just before sunrise and catch the horses. If it’s not too wet, she’ll spend the morning cutting cattle. After lunch, she’s usually working the 2-year-olds. “Once I finish with them, I’ll work on chores until I can’t see anymore,” she says, chuckling, “then get up and do the same thing all over again the next day.

“I love coming to the RHAA World Finals because I learn so much from the cowboys at the big, legendary ranches—the Pitchfork, Tongue River, Silver Spur,” says King, “and I love the horses. These are not the fined-boned, petite horses that you often see in the show ring; these are authentic, heavy-boned horses with amazing cow sense. When they come to a sliding stop, they really get into the ground. These competitions can be pretty humbling, too; it can really take you back a notch. I’ve learned to roll with the ups and downs, to remind myself that I am not really competing against others, but competing with all of the odds that can potentially go against me, such as drawing a bad cow or having my horse trip.”

“It may be a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean women can’t do it,” says King. “It just takes mentally tough women to go learn it.” 

Kaleigh King works her cow at the 2017 RHAA World Finals.

RHAA Celebrating 20 Years 

The Ranch Horse Association of America, headquartered in Abilene, Texas, will present its 2018 RHAA World Finals as part of the Western Heritage Classic, May 10-13, 2018 as it marks its 20th anniversary.

In addition to the RHAA World Finals, the internationally recognized Western Heritage Classic includes the WHC Ranch Rodeo in the evenings, plus the world’s largest bit and spur show, a chuckwagon cookoff, a children’s stickhorse rodeo, cowboy poets and Western artisans, a giant Western parade, and more. Everything that takes place over the course of the three-day Classic ties back to the ranching heritage of the West.

When I catch up with Jim Frank Richardson, the executive director of RHAA, he’s happy to oblige me with the association’s history and roots. As Richardson tells it, a little more than 20 years ago, when Phil Guitar was finishing up branding on the famed Guitar Ranch founded by his grandfather John Guitar in 1906, he had an idea that he shared with his friends Bill Smith and Billy Lamb at the Western Heritage Classic: add daytime events to the then-only evenings rodeo to showcase how well the ranch horse and its rider work together on the range.

The three men founded RHAA in 1998 and came up with the events—three divisions all performed as one event within a five-minute time span (six minutes are allotted for performances in larger arenas). First, the contestant and horse perform the reined work portion, then the cow-working segment. From this, they proceed straight into the roping segment. The competition would be wide open, “open to the world,” as the RHAA rules state, to keep large ranches from dominating, and set up stringent guidelines for RHAA-accredited Ranch Horse competitions to be held throughout the country.

“I saw my first ranch horse competition in New Mexico,” says Richardson. “It must have been in 2000. I was immediately hooked. I worked on my skills for two years before I joined RHAA and have been with ’em ever since.

“In the early years, women were held back by the roping segment,” he continues, “so in the beginning, roping was optional in Wrangler (entry-level) Class. Once we saw that 99 percent of the women were roping, we made it a requirement in Wrangler Class. We have lots of cowgirls competing now, and they’ve been roping great.”

Pam McCleskey ropes her cow at the 2017 RHAA World Finals.

In addition to Wrangler Class, the RHAA recognizes four other classes:  Cowboy, Ranch Hand, Junior, and Senior, each with its own dollar win and/or equipment or style restriction.

The contest consists of three divisions all performed as one event within a five minute time span.  The normal flow of the event for the contestant is that he/she enters the arena and performs the reined work portion, then moves straight into the cow-working segment (at this time contestant signals for only one animal to be turned out into the arena for the contestant to work and rope), and then straight into the roping segment. Each rider’s time will begin when he/she enters the arena and the contestant will have five minutes to complete his/her task in an average size arena. The contestant is judged on the segments of his/her run that was completed prior to the calling of “Time”.

The World Finals comprise two semi-final events, held on the Thursday and Friday of the Western Heritage Classic, and the final rounds, which take place on Saturday.

“We draw a crowd of 3,500 to 4,500 that Saturday,” says Richardson. “It’s a pretty good spectator event. I cannot believe, every year, how much this event has evolved, with the quality of the competitors, the quality of the horses. And it’s thrilling to see how much it means to these cowboys and cowgirls to come to Abilene to compete in the World Finals … it’s almost like going down the tunnel at NFR. It’s so rewarding to see our competitors go on to bigger and better things, such as Kelby Phillips, who started out in Ranch Horse and went on to win the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2016 and its World’s Greatest Horseman in 2018.

“This is the greatest organization I’ve ever served,” says Richardson in closing. “Everyone on the board of directors is all about the association and what we can do to make it better. It’s my passion.”

Ranch Horse Association of America: 325-529-5637; rhaa.org

Western Heritage Classic: 325-677-4376; westernheritageclassic.com