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From Ranch Work to Ranch-Horse Competition by Mike Major



Working conditions for the versatile ranch horse have changed to include the show arena, and his employer now might be a mainstream
recreational rider.

The versatile ranch horse has long been the ideal working partner for those of us in the ranching industry. A half-century or more ago, when the breed associations were being organized, that versatility was admired and respected. It seems we’ve come full circle all these years later with the popular ranch-versatility competitions. The American Quarter Horse Association, for example, and the American Paint Horse Association now offer ranch-horse events, as do the Ranch Horse Association of America, National Versatility Ranch Horse Association, American Stock Horse Association and other groups.

These versatility events might be popular because horses have become so specialized through the years. Many no longer are the all-around horses like those used back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when a person could show one in a cow-horse class, roping and halter, too. With the ranch-versatility event, AQHA, for example, can focus on a horse that shows the real disposition and ability of the Quarter Horse, to me, the best horse in the world.

Mike Major - This shot was taken at the American Quarter Horse Association Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships held during the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Mike Major – This shot was taken at the American Quarter Horse Association Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships held during the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Not only ranch cowboys, but everybody, from trail riders and trail-class competitors to team ropers, seems to like that old-style versatile horse. Versatility events are set up for a horse that can do a little of everything, plus look good while he does it. He walks, trots and lopes consistently, negotiates trail obstacles, maneuvers like a reining horse, and works a cow and a rope. His balanced conformation makes it easy for him to do these things.

He’s a nice-minded, broke horse that anybody, not only a working cowboy, likes to ride. But there also is a lot of appeal in that cowboy part. Most everybody who likes to be horseback has dreamed of sorting and roping cattle, and ranch-versatility competition gives anyone the opportunity to do that.

From Job to Sport

It’s been fun to see what ranchers and cowboys have done so long for a living become a sport. For ranch people, maneuvering around an obstacle or having a rope-broke horse is an everyday thing. Ranch people horseback read a cow and easily send her where they want her to go. They know how she thinks and understand how to use pressure to move or hold her.

That’s timing. A top cutting-horse guy is the best because his timing is so perfect. The other part of the equation is that the cutter also feels exactly what his horse is doing and knows when to bring his horse across from one side to the other.

Feel and timing are everything in making a correction, knowing exactly when to put on pressure or take it off a horse or cow. That feel and timing are why a ranch cowboy finds cow work easy in competition; he’s spent years developing both. Good cowboys understand timing and feel, and even those riding horses that aren’t that great still get the work done because the cowboy’s timing is good and he feels when a horse is in the correct position to maneuver easily.

Before versatility events, I competed in the ranch rodeos, and these first began back in the late 1800s. Ranch rodeo events have never gone away through the years and, since the Working Ranch Cowboys Association formed, have grown even more popular. At one point, some guys who helped me on the ranch made a good ranch rodeo team, and we did quite well.

WRCA recognizes top ranch horses, as well as top hands, and by 1998 the Ranch Horse Association of America had organized to display a using horse’s various talents. Now not only the outfits’ colt-starters and trainers compete; all ranch cowboys do. This has led to better horsemanship overall on the ranches, the same as happened when guys like Ray Hunt helped people, ranch cowboys included, understand the horse and get into his mind.

When versatility competition came along, there was a bit more to that than a lot us cowboys realized at first. For example, a cowboy changing leads moved his horse’s front end to follow a cow and figured the horse’s back end would follow. Most ranch cowboys had good stops on horses, but not the arena slides—just cowboy stops in case we needed to turn the other way to get the job done.

We were amazed at how precise our horses must be when bringing maneuvers from the ranch to the show pen. But that move really has changed cowboy horsemanship for the better, and competitive events give ranch cowboys another reason to work at perfecting their horses.

Hang on for a good ride.

You can find out more in his book by Western Horseman, Ranch-Horse Versatility: A Winner’s Guide To Successful Rides

Follow Mike Major Horsemanship at or or call (940) 872-3742

This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 11

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