Time off and a change of scenery prior to Januaryâ€™s AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Show proved just the right mix for Sixes Pick and Chance Oâ€™Neal.
Known for his playful personality and love of the spotlight, Sixes Pick felt right at home in January as he made history on versatility ranch horse competitionâ€™s biggest stage. The Four Sixes stallion carried Chance Oâ€™Neal to the open championship at the first-ever American Quarter Horse Association Versatility Ranch Horse World Show, held during the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, Colorado.
Despite the stakes, the horse was as laid back as ever while performing in both the Denver Coliseum and the National Western Events Center during the two-day competition.
Oddly enough, Oâ€™Neal credits the decision to show the horse in performance halter at the AQHA World Show in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for refreshing the horseâ€™s mind before his most important competition to date.
â€śWe sent him to Ted Turner, so I was without him at the ranch for a while,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śWhen I got him back, I spent some time just getting him back into cow-working shape because theyâ€™d put some extra weight on him for the performance halter class. That took most of our time before the show. I didnâ€™t work a single cow on him until about a week before we went to Denver.
â€śThe hardest part for me was just to trust that he was going to be good without working him too much at home.â€ť
AQHA versatility ranch horse competitions include five classes: ranch conformation, ranch cutting, ranch riding, ranch trail and working ranch horse. First up in Denver on a cold Wednesday morning was ranch cutting.
â€śHe felt relaxed loping around the warm-up pen,â€ť Oâ€™Neal recalls. â€śThe time off had really helped him. He felt better than he had in a while, and I guess it was because he was really rested.â€ť
Despite cattle that â€śdidnâ€™t want to be good that day,â€ť the pair claimed second place after drawing up last in the event.
â€śNormally, you wouldnâ€™t want to draw last in a cutting,â€ť Oâ€™Neal admits. â€śBut that day, on those cattle, it was the draw to have. The more people went into the herd, the more settled they got. They called my number as we rode in, and that cow was standing right in the center of the pen. We pulled him right out, I dropped my hand and we were still right in the middle of the pen.â€ť
With five classes to compete in, Oâ€™Neal says his goal was simply to finish in the top five in each class. He figured if he could win one or two along the way, and finish in the top five in the others, heâ€™d have a chance to win the overall championship. Taking second place in the first class had the cowboy and his 10-year-old sorrel stallion right where they wanted to be.
Next up was the trail classâ€”an event that doesnâ€™t always rank among Sixes Pickâ€™s strongest.
â€śThere was a place where I had to ground tie and move a log,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śI was contemplating hobbling him there. Itâ€™s his personality coming out. Every once in a while, heâ€™ll move on me when I go to ground tie. So I took my hobbles with me and decided to see how he felt.â€ť
Again, the horse was so relaxed entering the arena, Oâ€™Neal passed on hobbling him. In fact, Oâ€™Neal even took a little extra time on the ground tie as Sixes Pick â€śstood like a statue,â€ť for the judges. The tactic worked as the pair took first in the class.
â€śWinning the trail is a really weird deal for us,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śSixes Pick seems to like the cow events, and thatâ€™s usually where heâ€™s the strongest. Trailâ€™s never been our best class. Winning it really gave me some confidence going into the other events.â€ť
The final class for day one was ranch riding, which requires horses to move under saddle at a walk, trot and lope, and at working speed. Sixes Pick carried Oâ€™Neal to a fourth-place finish in the class.
â€śHe listens to my body cues really well,â€ť Oâ€™Neal admits. â€śSo ranch riding isnâ€™t usually much of a problem for us. One of the first things I realized when I started riding the horse is how light he is. If I sit up there and be as light as I can be, thatâ€™s when heâ€™s at his best. Heâ€™s so sensitive.â€ť
With a first-, second- and fourth-place finish in the first three classes, Oâ€™Neal felt confident heading into the working ranch horse and conformation classes on the final day.
â€śSomebody told me I had a four- or five-point lead heading into the second day,â€ť he recalls. â€śBut four or five points isnâ€™t a whole lot with two classes to go and 10 other horses and riders to compete against. I was doing well, but I was still thinking about those last two classes and what I needed to get done to finish this thing off.â€ť
Thursday began with Colorado cowgirl Terri Cooper winning the amateur championship on Peppy Chex Your Gun. This created some issues in Oâ€™Nealâ€™s mind, as Cooper would be riding the same horse in the open event that night.
â€śIf there was anyone to be scared of going into that night, it was her,â€ť he says. â€śSheâ€™d already won a championship, so she had nothing to lose that night. She didnâ€™t really even have to be nervous about it. As a competitor, thatâ€™s a great position to be in.â€ť
Oâ€™Neal and Colorado cowboy Mike Major had battled atop the AQHA standings for much of the year and consistently finished first and second at versatility events where they both participated. But Major and his horse, Smart Whiskey Doc, had placed just sixth after a miscue in the trail class.
â€śMike told me he didnâ€™t think he could catch me even if he won the last two classes on Thursday night,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śIâ€™ve finished second to Mike plenty of times, so I felt a little better knowing he wouldnâ€™t be able to take it away from me. But there were still plenty of riders who could have. Terri, Cody Crow and Jimbo Humphreys were all still hanging around.â€ť
Working ranch horse is traditionally a strong event for Sixes Pick, so Oâ€™Neal hoped to finish high and leave everyone else competing for second place by the time the class was finished. But once again, a set of tricky cows had all of the competitors fighting to make good runs.
Working ranch horse begins with dry workâ€”a reining patternâ€”before releasing a cow into the arena. The horse and rider must then box and work the cow before taking the cow down the fence. The horse must then turn the cow, making at least one turn each way on the fence. The contestant then must rope the cow to complete the run.
â€śI ended up trusting him a little too much in the dry work,â€ť Oâ€™Neal recalls. â€śSixes Pick dropped a shoulder in a lead change and had some issues in one of our circles. But I trusted him because he felt so good again that day. I didnâ€™t want to work too much in the practice pen and get him stirred up. He knows his job, so I was content to let him do it.â€ť
The cow gave Oâ€™Neal a great opportunity to exhibit his horse on the end of the arena, but when the trio headed down the fence, things didnâ€™t work quite as planned.
â€śHe just shot out of the corner and started coming up under the horseâ€™s neck,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śI had to get the horse moved over to get the cow turned the first time. We got him turned, and it wasnâ€™t a bad turn, but it wasnâ€™t right along the fence like Iâ€™d have mapped it out ahead of time.
â€śThe second turn was the same way, but a little weaker because the cow kept coming out away from the fence. I thought Iâ€™d turn him one more time, and that was my mistake. The cow got worse instead of better.â€ť
All the difficulties along the fence inspired Oâ€™Neal to make a good throw when it came time to rope the cow. Sixes Pick put him in a perfect spot and Oâ€™Neal made one of the better throws of the night to end the run.
â€śAll I could think riding out of the arena was that I missed my chance to shut the door,â€ť he admits. â€śIt didnâ€™t have to come down to the conformation class, but I left open the chance for someone to come back and get me.â€ť
Of course, it wasnâ€™t quite as bad as Oâ€™Neal might have guessed. He took third in the class behind Major and Crow and still had a good grip on the championship with just one class to go.
â€śIt was nerve-racking to ride out after that cow beat me around the corner,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śWhen they announced Iâ€™d finished third in the class, I felt a little better. I knew I had a nice looking stud and heâ€™d consistently finished high in the halter class. But with three judges, you just never know.â€ť
The conformation class provides a prime time for Sixes Pick to show his personalityâ€”in a way that isnâ€™t always conducive to high scores.
â€śHe really likes to mess with me in halter,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śI can set him up at home and heâ€™ll stand perfectly still, never moving a muscle. But when I get him to a showâ€”and he knows weâ€™re in a showâ€”itâ€™s the perfect place for him to nibble on my hand or move a foot about the time the judge walks up. I guess he figures heâ€™s pretty enough to get away with it.â€ť
And maybe heâ€™s right. The pair won the conformation class in Denver.
â€śWhen they announced that, I knew weâ€™d won the whole thing,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śBut that was the first time all night Iâ€™d been able to take a deep, long breath.â€ť
Horses needed four points in AQHA competition to qualify for the first world show. Sixes Pick claimed three points with a win at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in early 2007. But then the horse was off for the breeding season and failed to earn even a single point at an event in Castle Rock, Colorado.
â€śWhen we went to the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, the clock was ticking,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śI was getting a little nervous that I was going to screw around and not get qualified for the very first one. Missing the first world show definitely wasnâ€™t part of the plan.â€ť
The pair clinched a trip to Denver with a reserve championship (finishing behind Major) in Pueblo. It mightâ€™ve been the first time Oâ€™Neal was happy to finish second.
â€śJust glad to have the points and earn that spot,â€ť he says.
Then, Sixes Pick headed for Ted Turnerâ€™s place, and the chance to add to his AQHA points in versatility ranch horse and cutting with a good showing in performance halter. Oâ€™Neal had qualified the horse for the performance halter class, but he felt Turner provided Sixes Pick with the best chance to win in Oklahoma City. The horse also competed at the Worldâ€™s Greatest Horseman contest in 2007.
â€ś[At the Four Sixes,] we really like to show our horses as much as possible,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śIn addition to AQHA versatility, Iâ€™ve shown horses in National Reined Cow Horse Association, National Cutting Horse Association, Ranch Horse Association of America and Ranch Cutting Horse Association events. But the thing I like about the versatility is finding a horse who can successfully handle five events.â€ť
Oâ€™Neal believes conformation comes first in looking for a versatility prospect. Athletic prowess is also a consideration. He says there are plenty of horses that have one trait or another, but finding a horse with the complete package isnâ€™t easy.
â€śItâ€™s a lot more difficult than it appears to fans sitting in the stands,â€ť he says. â€śIâ€™ve had some that were better in the cow horse than the cutting, or the other way around. Some are gentle in nature, but not the most athletic. Itâ€™s a tough balance for a horse to be able to handle it all.â€ť
As far as versatility competitions go, Sixes Pick is now retired. But that doesnâ€™t mean his competitive days are over altogether.
â€śWeâ€™re glad he accomplished what he did in Denver,â€ť Oâ€™Neal says. â€śIt seems like a good way to end his versatility career. As for other stuff, we donâ€™t know at this point. If I had to pick one area for him to keep competing, it would probably be as a cutter. Heâ€™s an outstanding cutting horse, but heâ€™s only been shown a limited amount.â€ť
Joe Wolter trained the horse to cut before Oâ€™Neal joined the ranch staff, but Wolter left when the horse was just 4 years old. Two years later, Oâ€™Neal began preparing Sixes Pick for versatility competitions.
With Sixes Pick now on the shelf, Oâ€™Neal has a 5-year-old Playin Stylish mare and a 4-year-old daughter of Sixes Pick to consider for his next versatility mounts.
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.