As western show horses become ever more specialized, a growing counter-culture of authentic cowboy-inspired competitions are gaining momentum. Instead of a laser-like focus on taking home the trophy or buckle in a specific equine class or event, many cowgirls are challenging themselves—and their horses—in comprehensive competitions inspired by the reality of ranch work.

Versatility Ranch Horse competitions are not only ambitious and filled with variety—they’re loads of fun!  At the end of a dusty day filled with riding, reining, roping, cutting, traversing trail obstacles and, finally, showing off ones horse in halter class, a cowgirl can’t help but have a new appreciation for the profound horsemanship of the American West.

Contemporary western riding  competitions like reining, cutting, western pleasure, trail classes and halter classes celebrate the spectacular results possible when horse owners, breeders, trainers and riders are focused on a singular pursuit. From the precision spins and sliding stops of a world-class reining horse to the catlike agility of a born cutter, to the supernaturally slow-motion lope of a champion western pleasure horse bedecked in silver-encrusted tack, the near-perfection on display at high-level shows is undeniably impressive.

The commitment of time, money and devotion necessary to do well in such specialized riding disciplines, however, is beyond the lifestyles and pocketbooks of many cowgirls. Not everyone has the luxury of dabbling in an arena where horses easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and the necessary clothing and tack quickly reaches into the thousands as well—and that’s not counting training for horse and rider and travel expenses. Moreover, the exquisitely groomed, expensively outfitted and finely tuned horses on exhibit at the world-class horse shows sometimes seem a world away from the working ranch horses whose day to day jobs originally inspired their livelihoods.

Versatility Ranch Horse competitions, which appeared on the western horizon about a decade ago, represent a return to the roots of the working cowboy and cowgirl, where success depended simply on the ability to ride and rope—and having a horse who could get the job done.

As its name suggests, Versatility Ranch Horse competitions reward a well-rounded horse and rider, who compete in five classes: Ranch Riding, Ranch Trail, Ranch Cutting, Working Ranch Horse, and Ranch Conformation. Points and placing are earned in each event, and the horse and rider team with the highest cumulative points wins. For example, a champion cutter or reiner may not excel at negotiating trail obstacles; a great roping horse may not win a halter class, but a horse that places second or third in all events may ultimately score the highest combined total and achieve the championship.

To win, a horse and rider must compete in all offered events. Various class divisions based on experience  and mastery ensure riders of all levels and ages have the opportunity to compete. Additionally, exhibitors in Versatility Ranch Horse classes must own the horse they are showing (riders may also show horses owned by their immediate family or by a ranch that they are a full-time employee of; ranch children may also show a horse owned by their ranch). These regulations encourage preservation of the all-around cowboy or cowgirl, and while specialists in any particular discipline are free to participate, professional exhibitors showing the high-dollar horses of wealthy owners are not.

In homage to the working ranch horse, fancy, expensive tack is actually discouraged, with clean, working equipment the norm. Additionally, horses are expected to compete (even in halter class) without the fastidious grooming, such as hoof and face polish, interior ear-hair trimming and faux tail extensions, which are often utilized in world-class equine events. Versatility Ranch Horse riders usually wear a long-sleeved western shirt, jeans, hat, chaps or chinks and, of course, appropriate footwear.

Adding to the accessibility factor—not to mention the fun—is the fact that many Versatility Ranch Horse Competitions are “open,” i.e. open to any breed of horse. In this discipline, performance is more important than pedigree.  Additionally, most have several levels of competition, allowing beginners and youth to compete in their own divisions. Finally, several organizations including the American Stock Horse Association (ASHA) and the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association (NVRHA) offer clinics associated with each competition, an educational element that allows the average cowgirl to “try out” this exciting opportunity to enter and ride like a real buckaroo.

Of course, critical support from major breed associations like the American Quarter Horse Association (whose World Champion Versatility Ranch Horse event added immeasurable credibility to the sport) and the American Paint Horse Association, as well as the Ranch Horse Association of America have helped make Ranch Horse Versatility one of the fastest growing western stock horse competitions.

So what exactly does Versatility Ranch Horse Competition entail? There are slight differences depending on the Association or sponsoring entity, but the following five classes are usually standard.

Ranch Trail

Demonstrating mastery of authentic, everyday ranch-horse obstacles is the goal of the Ranch Trail class. The course is erected outdoors utilizing natural landscape whenever possible, often very creatively. Mandatory obstacles include opening and closing a gate (as in most trail classes) but also dragging a log—either in a straight line or in a prescribed pattern.

Additionally, Ranch Trail classes require the rider to dismount, unbridle the horse (completely removing the bit), re-bridling and the picking up all four of the horse’s feet. The horse must remain quiet and obedient thought the process. Other obstacles/tasks the Versatility Ranch Horse rider should be prepared for in Ranch Trail include crossing a water hazard, being hobbled or crossing a bridge.

Ranch Riding

This “rail class” is akin to a western pleasure class but with some distinct differences. First, depending on the venue and association, horses may be shown all together in the arena, or, in some cases, perform a pattern individually. As in western pleasure classes, transitions between gaits are called for, including the walk, jog and lope. Unlike traditional western pleasure competitions, however, an extended trot and extended lope are required in at least one direction.

In a departure from western pleasure classes, the expedited gaits are noticeably faster, the “extended lope” often actually a controlled gallop! Stops and backs are also a required element of this class. Responsiveness, purity of gait, correct leads and clean transitions are the criteria judges look for. Horses must be ridden with one hand in Ranch Riding, with the exception of those five and younger wearing a hackamore (bosal) or snaffle.

Working Ranch Horse

This six minute, three part class consists of:

1. A reining pattern.

2. Working a single cow.

3. Roping a cow.

Scores from each segment are added together, forming the score for the class itself. After completing a stock horse reining pattern (loping circles in each direction, flying lead changes, rollbacks, spins, backs and sliding stops) the rider calls for the cow. Once the cow is let into the arena, the horse and rider must “box” the animal at the end of the arena, demonstrating control over the bovine and keeping it contained. At that point the cow is “fenced,” that is, run down the side of the arena, before being stopped and turned at least twice. The cow must be stopped and turned with the horse only, not utilizing the corners of the arena. The final portion of this class is roping the cow, illustrating the horse’s ability to trail, rate and stop the cow without dragging it. A competitor may throw two loops in an attempt to rope his/her cow, but in the event no catch is made, the exhibitor is not disqualified—instead a five point penalty is added to the  roping portion of the score. Other penalties may apply. For example, if the rope falls off the saddle during the class, a score of zero for “equipment failure,” would be assessed.

Ranch Cutting

In this arena event, horse and rider must separate a cow from a small herd (cows are numbered for identification), demonstrate their ability to control that cow i.e. keep it from returning to the herd, and then pen the animal at the far end of the arena. Once the selected cow has been extracted from the group, turn back riders keep the herd at the prescribed end of the arena while the exhibitor works his/her cow. Visible reining by the rider is not penalized in this event, though horses should exhibit some innate cow-herding instinct. Riders are normally given 2.5 minutes to complete the exercise.

Ranch Conformation

Held traditionally at the end of the day in Versatility Ranch Horse competitions, this “halter,” class is less about perfect presentation than about sound, well-put together stock horses. Working halters of rope, nylon or unadorned leather are required (no need to bring out the “good silver” here!) Physical soundness, balanced movement, and structural beauty appropriate to the breed and sex of the horse is the criteria. Mares, geldings, and stallions are shown together (youth classes are usually limited to geldings and mares). Traditional stock-horse phenotypes are often highly placed, and, as mentioned earlier, artificial tails, hoof and face polish and extreme clipping are discouraged, resulting in a more “practical” assessment.

Getting started in Versatility Ranch Horse competition is easiest on a horse who’s been there, done that.  A quiet-minded, well-broke horse with some cow-sense is imperative. Then it’s practice, practice, practice. These competitions require an obedient, quiet riding horse with smooth, clean gait transitions, quick responses, and the athleticism to track, turn and ultimately stop a cow—plus an unflappable demeanor when encountering and negotiating trail obstacles… or put another way, the perfect riding horse!

Even for cowgirls with an unlimited budget, this kind of horse is not easy to find. For the fortunate competitors who begin on a seasoned, good-looking, professionally trained cow horse, the sky’s the limit. For the rest of us, the training and time invested to have fun competing in the novice or amateur divisions of Versatility Ranch Horse classes have an added benefit—your horse will be the most fun to ride and best behaved on the block!

(Originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).