Maximize Your Scores in Ranch Riding
There's a multitude of reasons why Ranch Riding is one of the fastest-growing classes at AQHA and APHA shows. This class isn't about bling or pizzazz. Instead, it rewards a solid, well-broke horse that shows most suitable for getting the job done on a working ranch, a horse that rides and works with purpose.
So, how can you standout in a class that routinely draws mega entries?
For expert advice, we turned to Kevin Oliver, AQHA Professional Horseman and sponsored rider and advisor to Farnam Companies, Inc. In addition to being a top trainer, Oliver is a successful competitor in Versatility Ranch Horse (VRH), and also an AQHA specialty judge in VRH.
"If you can master the extremely popular AQHA Ranch Riding class, the versatility ranch riding should be no problem," says Oliver, whose ranch, Snaffle Bit Quarter Horses, is located in Canyon, Texas.
"Control is crucial because of all the transitions in Ranch Riding," he notes. "You should have good control of the walk, trot and lope, and also be able to show off some speed variations, such as extension at these three gaits. "
Judges are also looking at the actual transitions to see how changes between the various gaits are performed. They want to see very soft, fine-tuned transitions with the least amount of resistance on the horse's part. Those transitions should look smooth and effortless, which means plenty of practice on your part. You may need to work more on the transitions than the actual gaits.
Extending a gait doesn't mean "go fast." It means the horse should extend the reach of his legs to cover more country. Think of a working cowboy getting from Point A to Point B. In most cases he will choose an extended trot because he wants to get there quickly without tiring out his horse.
"When the pattern requires you to 'extend at the lope,' this shouldn't be a Chinese fire drill," says Oliver. "This extension is only for a short distance, and followed by a downward transition, so the key word is control. You don't want to show the judge you don't have control by running a hole in the wind."
Oliver is fond of saying, "don't show the judge what you don't have! Know your horse's capabilities and spotlight what he does well.
"If you're not used to having control of your horse at speed and being in sync with him, you won't be in control. You'll be pushing your horse too fast and he'll be uncomfortable. It shows up like a big neon light, because the horse will ride more 'on the muscle,' meaning he'll stiffen up and may take possession of the bit. He may even become fractious."
Oliver is fond of saying, "don't show the judge what you don't have! Know your horse's capabilities and spotlight what he does well.Watch That Contact
Don't pitch your reins away and ride with excessive slack. When riding in open country, the terrain constantly changes. You want contact with your horse's mouth so you aren't left scrambling to take up slack if you suddenly come upon a ravine or head downhill.
"Judges want to see contact with the horse's mouth, but with enough extension in your arm to let the horse move out," Oliver says. "I call it 'taking a drink,' because you want to mimic the motion you make when lifting a glass."
Practice by getting out of the arena and ride. Don't "show ride" and worry about having horsemanship posture. Don't lean forward or look down. (Check out the Farnam video, "Getting Out of the Arena" to see more of Kevin Oliver's practical advice in action.)
"Loosen up and get with your horse," advises Oliver. "Keep your shoulders directly over your hips and drive from your hip. You can have that 'cutter's slump,' but don't lean forward, back, left or right."
In Ranch Riding, it's become common to see competitors ride the extended trot while standing in the stirrups and holding onto the horn. Oliver doesn't recommend this tactic, and points out that you'll never see a working cowboy riding this way, because standing in the stirrups would be exhausting if you were long trotting for several miles.
"When you lean forward you put more weight on the horse's front end and you also come out of communication with the horse, because you've lifted your butt out of the saddle," he explains.
"Posting is okay, but get your body in rhythm with your horse and only lift up slightly from the saddle. You want to drive the horse forward in the extension and allow him to move freely. And don't worry about which diagonal you're on--a working ranch cowboy won't ever think about this!"
If life experience is the best teacher, Kevin Oliver has been a model student. This fifth-generation Texan is a lifelong horseman whose cowboy roots have provided a firm foundation for his work as a successful trainer and top competitor. An AQHA Professional Horseman, Oliver is also a sponsored rider and adviser to Farnam Companies, Inc. We caught up with him at his ranch in Canyon, Texas, to find out how the twists and turns of life have brought him to this point and how the cowboy influence is apparent in his training philosophy...