Get Started in Ranch Horse Events
Take your arena career in a new direction with Colorado horseman Mike Major’s strategies for making the right start in ranch-horse versatility.
Ranch-horse versatility became part of the Western horse-show scene nearly a decade ago, and has since become one of the fastest-growing and most popular events in the stock-horse culture. Recognition by the American Quarter Horse Association, and the creation of an AQHA world championship event, can only mean greater growth in years to come.
Getting the right start in this event, says Colorado horseman Mike Major, requires a smart strategy, one that’ll ensure you enter your first event with the right horse, the right gear and the right attitude. Major, a trainer and clinician, earned the reserve title at AQHA’s inaugural versatility world championship show, held in Denver this past January.
“There’s so much to this competition, it can be mind-boggling,” Major says. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to just ride your horse. The more time you spend on your horse, the easier it’ll be.”
Choose Your Group
One of the first considerations is where you plan to compete. In addition to AQHA events, the American Paint Horse Association, National Versatility Ranch Horse Association, Ranch Horse Association of America and Stock Horse of Texas offer their own versions.
AQHA and NVRHA require a halter class. RHAA gears itself toward horses that enjoy cattle work. SHOT hosts Texas events, exclusively. And as breed registries, APHA and AQHA limit their entries to horses registered with them.
“For someone who doesn’t want to do the trail or halter classes, RHAA is a pretty fun association,” says Major. “It’s basically the working ranch horse portion of AQHA’s program. I’ve had some people come to me with horses that wouldn’t halter very well, and that made RHAA a great fit.
“Be honest with yourself about your strengths and your horse’s strengths. Don’t let your pride get in the way. Then you can strive to be the best in the association that’s the best fit for you and your horse.”
All versatility competitions require some cattle work, so riders with experience reading cattle have a distinct advantage. If you’ve spent little or no time working cattle, take the time to learn this skill before adding versatility competitions to your competitive resume.
Some associations, such as SHOT, allow lesser-skilled competitors the option of circling cattle, rather than roping. To move up the competitive ranks, though, a rider must develop his or her roping skills.
Versatility clinics offer the best opportunities to learn the roping and cattle-handling skills necessary for competition. Major, like some other top versatility riders, offers clinics throughout the year. NVRHA and SHOT offer clinics at each of their events.
Hand in hand with picking a place to compete, is selecting the horse on which you’ll compete. Ranch-horse competitions can be demanding, and a quiet horse with good cow sense and excellent conformation is key to showing up in the winner’s circle. But such horses can be difficult to find.
Expect to spend anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 on a seasoned horse capable of carrying a first-time competitor.
Some experts might tell you to look for a horse with great conformation—one who would do well in the halter class—in hopes that proper training would help him overcome deficiencies in other areas, perhaps the trail class or working cattle. Major has a different philosophy.
“Soundness is key,” he says. “Everybody wants a pretty horse, and if you can get one, that’s great. But you might have to throw that out the window and plan on sacrificing halter points. If you’re just getting started in versatility, it’s more important to have a horse who can help you learn the ins and outs of the competition.”
Major recommends a versatility rookie look for a 12- to 15-year-old horse that has been shown in versatility competitions. Such a horse might be a little past his prime and ready to be handed down from a world-championship contender to a novice or amateur contestant.
“You’ll have more fun on a horse like that the first year or two,” Major points out. “Even experienced horsemen new to this competition need to learn everything involved in competing and winning. Seasoned horses allow competitors to have fun and figure things out. Then they can look for younger horses capable of carrying them to world championships.”
Major says everyone wants a horse with a big hip, one that’s big through the heart, with a sloping shoulder, a pencil neck and a baby-doll head. But there are other considerations, such as how the horse handles.
“There are nice horses out there that just don’t ride very good,” he admits. “I want a horse to give me his face when I turn or stop him. You want a horse with good feet, and anywhere from 14.3 to 15 hands is an ideal height.”
Selecting a horse that’s been around cattle and has exhibited some cow sense is important, as well. Major wants the horse to at least attempt to work a cow during a test ride.
One final consideration: the horse should be quiet-minded. If you find yourself pulling on the reins all the time, you probably should pass on that individual.
“I don’t like riding those horses,” Major says. “It’s usually easier to use your legs to get the horse going than it is to pull on the reins to slow him down.”
Horses initially trained for other events can be a great option, as well. Horses previously involved in working cow horse or reined cow horse competitions would obviously be Major’s first choice. Team-roping and cutting horses have the cow sense for versatility competition, and can usually pick up other aspects of the event quickly.
“Team-roping horses are actually great at going down the fence,” Major points out. “They’re used to running hard, then checking back up and slowing down. The bad thing about most team-roping horses is they’ve been ridden with tie-downs. There’s work in getting those horses to bridle up without tie-downs.”
Major’s saddle of choice is a ranch-cutter that allows him freedom during runs.
“You want one in which you can move your legs around,” Major says. “I also don’t care for those deep, roping stirrups. I like a 1½- to 2-inch stirrup that I can get hold of with my feet. With a lot of the old-time roping saddles, you can’t move your legs in the stirrups at all. I also like a saddle with a little bit more swell than most. When you’re going down the fence, it’s nice to have a good front end on your saddle so you have something to grab with your legs if you’re riding one-handed.”
Competitors usually need leggings or chinks to wear during competition, and possibly a set of romal reins for reining classes. Romal reins can be expensive, Major says, so plan on spending $500 or more for a useable set. They aren’t usually required, but provide some distinct advantages in both reining and ranch riding classes.
“I have some old leather reins put together like my competition set that I use for training,” Major says. “I use them to get a horse used to them. What’s great about romal reins is you can really pick up a horse’s shoulder and move it around. That’s harder to do with split reins.”
Traditionally, riders use romal reins only on bridle horses, mounts far past the snaffle-bit and hackamore stages of training, and capable of understanding subtle neck-rein cues.
For competitions that require you to rope, Major favors a poly rope, arguing that it’s easier to get around a cow’s neck.
“A poly helps you get more dip in your rope, and it lays better when it hits the cow,” he says. “If you hit a cow’s shoulders with a nylon rope, it’ll bounce.”
Most ranch-horse competitions discourage flashy, silver-adorned tack. Instead, competitors should look for quality working tack.
“You can’t be intimidated when you show for the first time,” Major says. “You might think your horse isn’t ready, or that you aren’t ready. My advice is to enter one and go. You’ll learn so much more at the show than you will in the practice pen at home.”
Before you enter, Major recommends you honestly assess your weaknesses, and concentrate on making improvements in those areas.
“Rope the hay bale every afternoon until you never miss, and then get on your horse and start perfecting your roping from there,” he says. “Work on changing leads or reading cows, or whatever your weakness might be. There’s no substitute for getting in the saddle every day.”
Major offers a final piece of advice.
“You need to ride your horse, get to know your horse and learn horse control,” he says. “You can’t go down the fence until you know how to control your horse. Once you’ve achieved that, the rest falls into place.”
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. To learn more about Mike Major, visit majorcattleco.com. Send comments on this story to
Here’s a quick glance at five associations that offer ranch-horse versatility competitions.
American Quarter Horse Association
Classes include ranch conformation, ranch cutting, ranch riding, ranch trail and working ranch horse. With a variety of divisions, AQHA competitions offer something for horsemen of all skill levels. Learn more at aqha.com.
American Paint Horse Association
APHA allows contestants to take part in any or all of the following categories: stock-horse pleasure, stock-horse reining, stock-horse versatility and working stock horse. Learn more at apha.com.
National Versatility Ranch Horse Association
NVRHA follows AQHA guidelines. Still in its first year, the group offers a lineup of events in Colorado and surrounding states, but hopes to host competitions across the country. Learn more at nvrha.org.
Ranch Horse Association of America
RHAA requires contestants to complete a reining pattern, work a cow and rope a cow, all within five minutes. Learn more at rhaa.org.
Stock Horse of Texas Association
SHOT contestants can compete in any or all of the following classes: stock-horse pleasure, stock-horse reining, stock-horse trail and working cow horse. Learn more at stockhorsetexas.org.