I was very excited when American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Ranch Versatility was first introduced. Ranch Pleasure or Ranch Riding as it is now called is great because it requires the horse to have good forward movement. When I was showing in my younger years Western Pleasure at that time also required good forward movement. Somewhere along the line the discipline began to require the horse to move much slower, with what I call the crippled canter and that to me is not pleasant to observe or good for the horse physically.
The idea of Ranch Riding is that it is a pleasure to ride and watch. We are looking for a natural headset that is at least at or above the withers. With any head carriage below the withers the horse will be on the forehand. There won’t be a nice fluid forward movement when the horse is on the forehand. You want the horse to carry itself naturally, in a balanced frame. With a low headset if you were really out riding on a ranch, the horse would not be able to see where it was are going. Ranch Riding is based on movement and what a horse can do out in open country. There are hills to climb, objects to avoid and you want the horse to be aware.
When the riding pattern calls for a walk, it needs to be a ground–covering walk. The walk must have purpose; it must be a “go some place” walk. The horse needs to be aware of the surroundings. With a good ranch horse, sometimes the horse being alert can help the rider by, for instance, sighting cows. They are able to pick up on movement and sounds quicker than a horse that has its head down and is plodding along. The walk should be comfortable for the rider and give the impression that the horse is ready and attentive to do whatever the rider asks.
What I call a working trot and some people call a jog, while not extended also needs to cover ground. It should be comfortable for the rider because if it is not comfortable, by the end of the day both the horse and rider will be very tired. With a nice forward trot you can cover a lot of territory and save a lot of wear and tear on the horse because you do not have to canter to cover a lot of distance. We are looking for a ground covering, smooth trot that is a pleasure to ride and watch.
A ranch horse should be driving from behind. A fast trot does not equal a better extension. For some riders, an extended trot means going faster. An extended trot is not faster but while you may go a little faster, covering ground a bit more, it is really a lengthening of the horse’s stride. We want the horse to be balanced, moving with the hocks tracking under and driving from the rear. It is also important for the horse to be smooth in its movements.
When you are loping your horse in a riding pattern, a ground–covering lope is essential. The horse must be driving from behind and giving the impression that it would be comfortable and a real pleasure to ride the horse all day long. We want to see contact with the mouth because on a ranch if a cow was to take off or spook we don’t want the rein dragging on the ground. By the time you pick up a loose rein to get a hold of the horse, the horse will be down the trail at full speed. At the same time, you don’t want to be holding the horse back, or riding the brakes. You want a nice soft rein with a little bit of soft droop to it. I think the contact is also important because when you have a drooped rein, you have no contact with the horse. That contact is part of your communication with the horse.
I’m not poking fun but many times it is interesting to watch cutters lope. I like to watch them lope in the warm up pen. They lope around with a big, droopy rein and all the horses are on the front end, angled down. Just about everything we do not want to see. One time I spoke with a fellow who had come to the barn to work with one of my clients and I offered him a mare that I thought he would like to ride. We saddled her and he went out loping around and he was a good rider. Her head was down below the withers, almost between her knees. The reins were droopy and I got a little concerned. I called to him and suggested he pick up the rein a bit to take out some of the slack. What a difference in the balance of the horse. The change was significant even though he did not go to full contact. The weight of the rein allowed contact and the horse was able to balance herself. It is important to remember that you can have contact with the horse without being heavy on the reins. When you ride with a slack rein there is no contact, no communication and the horse will be heavy on the forehand.
Part II will provide more information on Ranch Versatility. See you next time.