An inside look into Ranch Riding with honorable judge and trainer Jason Contreras
Ranch Riding has quickly become one of the most popular classes at the horse show. When looking into the practice pen, you will see a wide array of horses and riders that are all having a great time. Whether competitors are beginners or advanced horsemen, Ranch Riding has a place for all. We sat down with well respected trainer and judge, Jason Contreras, to gain a deeper perspective of what makes a great ranch horse and what the judges are looking for when you step into the ring.
When looking for a ranch show prospect, Jason looks at the overall picture and potential capabilities of the horse. “I look for a horse with some eye appeal, that is an athletic, pretty mover with the ability to perform the required maneuvers with ease.” He explained. “A horse that looks happy to do its job and has a lot of self-carriage. The kind of horse that you can imagine yourself riding all day.” The ranch classes stem from the qualities needed from a horse that would be used on a working ranch. It is important to think back to that when assessing a horse. However, just as important as it is to remember the origin of the class, it is important to remember that the Ranch Riding class takes place at a horse show, so groom and prepare your horse accordingly. Jason broke down the meaning of the new natural ranch horse appearance score for us. “Natural ranch horse appearance to me is a horse that carries himself in a relaxed manner his poll can be level with the withers, slightly above the withers or slightly below the withers as long as it doesn’t get extreme either way. The horse should be clean and in good body condition. He should be soft in the bridle and have a good way of moving. Let’s not forget we are at a horse show!”
Training a great ranch horse for the show pen takes patience and consistency but the process can still be a lot of fun. “What I like most about training a ranch horse is the diversity of events that are offered in the ranch horse division.” Jason shared. “I like spending time on the ranch riding maneuvers as well as working on the trail and even some cow work with my horses.” One of Jason’s favorite maneuvers to train for is the extended lope to the extended trot transition. He appreciates the amount of finesse and connection that a rider must have with their horse to make this transition seamless. He shared how he teaches his horses to understand this maneuver. “First, we teach the horse the difference between whoa and huh. Whoa means stop and huh is more of a half halt but keep forward motion.” Once Jason has the horse listening for the proper cues, he will focus on the body position of the rider and make sure they are executing the cues effectively. “We are in a forward position with our leg on for the lope, rein hand forward and free hand and holding the saddle horn. While at the extended lope, I initiate the downward transition by saying ‘huh’ and releasing my lope driving leg. As the horse breaks down to the extended trot, I stay forward by holding the horn to help me keep my balance (many times riders lose their balance and sit back down into the saddle causing the horse to stop or break to a walk) once I feel my horse has committed to the extended trot, I apply a little leg pressure to keep him moving forward.” He encourages practicing this often to ensure full understanding from the horse. This transition doesn’t need to be done at full speed every time, start slow and build as your horse builds confidence.
Jason pointed out that performing the perfect transition requires patience from the rider. “Don’t try to rush the transition, Ranch Riding is not a speed event.” He spoke. “Whether you are practicing at home or in the show pen, allow the horse to make the desired transition before you ask your horse to continue into the new gait. Especially in a downward transition, say from the lope to the trot, as your horse is coming down, wait until you feel that two beat diagonal gait before you continue.” He sees many riders want to rush their horse as they are breaking down, which can cause unwanted penalties in the pen and confusion in the horse. “Some riders get in a hurry and re-apply the leg pressure too soon and the horse continues to lope so they get way out of position before they actually make the transition.” Making yourself wait on your horse for an extra second will help to keep this transition clean.
Once you have worked at home and are ready to step into the show pen, Jason offers wisdom on how to improve your score. His first words of advice were to know your pattern. Not only will knowing your pattern allow you to show off your horse’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses, but it will ensure that you are eligible to earn a score. “I see too many exhibitors that are having a great ride but get an ‘OP’ for leaving out part of the pattern.” He revealed. The next piece of advice is a reminder that Ranch Riding is not a speed event. While there are several extended gaits that are fun to ride, speed should not be the main goal. “I wish exhibitors would pay more attention to the rate of speed in extended gaits. I often see two ends of the spectrum: too slow or too fast.” He explains what each fault shows him as a judge. “Usually when the rate of speed is too slow the exhibitor will assume a forward potion either posting or standing and push their hand forward, but the horse doesn’t change speeds. The horse that is too fast is being ‘over shown’ by the exhibitor; the horse looks like it’s being forced to perform the maneuver or a little out of control which usually leads to the horse showing some resistance in the bridle. Both examples would warrant a negative maneuver score.”
Ranch Riding places great emphasis on how willingly guided your horse is and how attuned they are to your cues. That is why transitions are so vital to receiving a high score, and points to why Jason’s favorite maneuvers to judge are downward transitions from higher rates of speed. “These maneuvers have a high degree of difficulty and show how obedient your horse truly is.” He shared. “At the extended gait I am looking for a horse that looks relaxed and is willing to do his job at a consistent speed. I don’t want the fastest horse, but rather a horse that shows a lengthening of stride and cadence.” Jason also appreciates a horse that stays relaxed when they gear down to a slower gait. “I’m looking for the horse to respond to the rider’s cue in a positive manner. When the rider picks his hand up, does the horse respond by staying soft in the bridle and quiet with his mouth and slowing down without breaking gait or does he gap his mouth and throw his head in the air and break gait for a stride or two?” When these maneuvers are done well and showcase a willing horse, the exhibitor has given the judge an opportunity to reward him with a credit earning maneuver.
Once you feel that you and your horse are performing maneuvers well, you can begin adding a degree of difficulty to them. Degree of difficulty should never be enhanced until the maneuver is solid and correct. Jason explains what he looks for when assessing degree of difficulty as a judge. “I look to see if the horse appears well broke, relaxed, and quiet and whether he completes the maneuvers with smoothness, finesse, responsiveness, and authority at controlled speed.” Jason emphasized that the best way to know if you are adding degree of difficulty properly is to get help from a professional that is actively competing in ranch events. This horseman will have a trained eye to be able to help advance you and your horse through the levels. “They will be able to access your strengths and weaknesses and help you to improve your maneuvers. Be willing to accept their constructive criticism.” He also added that watching videos of your rides can be of great help. “You need to watch yourself on video and see what you are doing in the saddle and how your horse responds to your cues. Often what it looks like and what if feels like are very different.” Finally, he emphasized the importance of knowing what your association’s rulebook says about Ranch Riding. This will give you a clear explanation about what is ideal for the association as well as a list of penalties and the points associated with them.
Showing in the Ranch Riding class is a huge thrill. The class gives you an opportunity to showcase and improve your connection with your horse through transitions and patterns. It is so rewarding to put time and effort into improving your horse and to see the fruits of your labors laid out in the show pen. No matter what level you are at, Ranch Riding is a great class that everyone should try.
By Lauren Stanley