The horse show world has been shifting the past few years as horse owners abandon glitz and glitter to return to the no-nonsense practicality that made horses such a symbol of the West while it was still being won.
These new-but-old competitions are called ranch horse competitions, and they are designed to test a horse's skill at tasks they regularly perform on the ranch.
"These events are new in the sense they are designed to get away from all the glitz and show the horse's ability to work cattle, rein, be a partner with the rider and become a single unit," Bernie Rose said.
Rose, of Craig, is organizing a ranch horse competition for Grand Olde West Days in May. The event will be the first of its kind at the Memorial Day weekend celebration.
In August, Steamboat Springs resident Jeannie Jo Logan is organizing another ranch horse competition for the Routt County Fair. And the 4-H Club plans to begin holding ranch horse competitions on the state level in the next few years, said Nate Balstad, Moffat County Cooperative Extension director.
But ranch horse competitions are far from just a Northwest Colorado trend. During the past year, the American Quarter Horse Association approved 2,700 ranch horse versatility shows, said Charlie Hemphill, director of shows.
Yet the quarter horse association only adopted show rules in 2002. But in the past two years, ranch horse shows have exploded in popularity.
A Western horse history
When the people who organize these competitions say ranch horse, they have a very specific animal in mind.
"When you think of a ranch horse, you think of a lot of riding in situations that aren't always ideal. It's an easy-going, well-trained horse," Hemphill said.
These aren't animals that were bred and raised for competition, he said. These are horses that know how to do every job on the ranch and do those jobs well,he said.
The history of the ranch horse goes back to the 1870s, when cattlemen began pushing their cattle into and beyond the Rocky Mountains. Herds of thousands were pushed into the Yampa Valley, Rose said.
Rose is an amateur horse historian. As the Western mountains and plains filled with cattle, he said, camps began to appear for the sole purpose of breaking wild mustangs to meet the needs of the cattle herders.
After capturing the mustangs, the horse breakers would sit on the mustangs and allow them to buck until they were worn out. They did the same thing for days straight, until the mustangs got used to having riders on their backs.
Once the horse was broken, the cowboys began teaching the horse to work the herd, a task that required equine skills such as walking, trotting, cantering, stopping, galloping, backing, reining, cutting and roping. The horse carried the cowboy and his gear and served its purpose well.
The only downfall, Rose said, was that having been born in the wild, the horses showed no consistency. Ranchers began breeding them for good temperament, athletic ability and a sense to work cattle.
By the early 1900s, they had bred the horse they desired, the horse that has become the largest registered breed in the world, the quarter horse.
Glamour vs. pragmatism
Money. The point of most horse shows is to raise the value of a horse, Rose said. So everything gets flashy. The riders wear Western-style getups no one wears on the street. The saddles are decorated with silver. It's about being flashy and exhibiting a horse's unique ability.
But it's expensive. Not many people can afford to stay on the horse show circuit very long, Logan said. And many of the competitors are trainers, not the people who work the horse on a ranch every day.
Neither Logan nor Rose said they viewed the advent of ranch horse competitions as a backlash against other horse shows. Rather, it's a cultural event designed to get back to the origins of the West.
"It kind of brings you back to the roots of what the horse was originally used for," Logan said.
The ranch horse versatility competitions that are so popular with the AQHA are a step down from the more glittery horse shows, but riders still dress up and adorn their bridles and saddles with silver.
But plain ranch horse competitions are another step down from the versatility competitions. Silver decorations are banned, and most competitors wear the same clothes they do when they work.
"A lot of average Joes are going to be able to participate and earn bragging rights," Logan said.
Ranch horse competitions test a rider's ability to make the horse lope, gallop, run and trot, Logan said. Reining is included in the competition, as are trail-riding patterns, bridge crossings and log drags. Horses have to box a cow at one end of the arena and run them up and down the rail, exhibiting the control they can exert over a cow.
Riding classes are divided by the age of the horse, not the age of the rider. So grandchildren and their grandparents could be in the same competition.