Ranch Horse Ridiculousness

howdy cow

Images by the outstanding Dr. Christine Fortin, DVM. Thanks Chris!

The whole adventure started when I started stalking the internet looking for Ranch Horse competitions in the Midwest.  As you may know, Howdy and I are training to compete in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in the Working Ranch Division.  The competition takes place the first weekend in October at the glorious Motherland – The Kentucky Horse Park.

Then I found it – a clinic and schooling competition for Ranch Horses and their peeps put on by the Northern Lights Versatility Ranch Horse Association, a Minnesota club which was putting on the event in Madison, my old stomping grounds!  Though it was the Tuesday before the event, I happened to know the venue (The Horse First, a beautiful farm in Brooklyn, WI) and I hoped desperately that the clinic wasn’t full.


I contacted Kelly Messera, who, with her husband Carlos Osorio, owns the property.  I enquired if there were openings and there were!  I just squeaked in.  There was no camping left so I had to suffer in a hotel (kidding, I love hotels at the end of a long day outside, this is one of my secret Princess tendencies) and Howdy had a beautiful 14′ x 14′ stall with lovely rubber mats an auto waterer.  These Ranch Horses suffer.


“Turn my fan on medium, please, and I shall nap.” This picture was taken before i put in the provided two bags of shavings. Nice!

After I got all my stuff set up, which doesn’t look that much different from eventing,

IMG_0752I tacked up and got ready for my lesson with Dave Currin who also happens to be the Founder and President of the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association (NVRHA).  Pffft.  No problem.  Might as well start at the top.


That is Dave in the blue shirt on the right. Nice guy. Jeff Barnes, in the white on the left, has won a lot of championships in the sport and he was the clinician for the cow work.

I tacked Howdy up (who was completely unimpressed with the surroundings, even though they looked like this):


and went to my lesson with Dave.  I think Kelly clued him in to my OTTB-come-Ranch-Horse mission because the first thing he said to me after telling me to call him Dave and not Mr. Currin, was “Ok, now what are you doing with this horse?”  I told him about the RRP Working Cow Horse and he listened politely and asked what the requirements for the competition would be.  I said, “Oh, it is run under the NVRHA rules, with only a few changes.”  He beamed and said, “Really?”  Pretty cool when an organization you helped found is reaching out to other sports that you didn’t even fathom!  Huzzah and nice work, Dave.

So we started the work, Howdy and I taking turns screwing up the exercises, the fundamental one of which was “quarter turn, back; quarter turn, back.”  Not more than a quarter turn and actual soft back.  That took the better part of 20 minutes for us to get a pretty good grip on.  Dave was patient, Howdy was game and we laughed a lot.  Then we moved on to walking on the rail and turning a 180 toward the wall.  This, sisters and brothers, is not easy either, until you and the horse figure it out, and the horse hops up and does a really cool walk rollback.  We got it to the left, but right was hard.  Jeff Barnes happened to be walking through the arena and Dave recruited him to help with right walk rollback.  Jeff had also apparently heard of the RRP mission and seemed amused to join the party.  With a few tweaks we had right roll back.  We were all pretty surprised at how far Howdy had come in about 35 minutes.

So Dave says, “Let’s go work him on the flag.”  I’m like, “Let’s!  What’s a flag?”  Turns out  it is literally a flag on a cable along the short wall of the arena.  With a remote you can move the flag back and forth and put in stops wherever you want.  You teach the horse to    “herd” it or at least to track it and meanwhile you put into practice what you learned a few minutes ago, to turn by putting the butt under and lifting the front end like a canter pirouette, but in one step and much faster.  And riders get to learn to sit that.  Yay.

Dave was really good at running the flag, so we could start out walking and focusing on how H was turning.  That was kind of a mess at first between shying at the flag, turning like a tugboat and Dave and I laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.  Lots of praise for Howdy and I’ll be danged if something didn’t click and he started to turn correctly and go faster.  It was astonishing.  (Funny side note, there was a group of about four lovely QH riders warming up in the ring and when they saw H and I doing that, they said, “We didn’t know that was an option!”  I just smiled and thought, “Dave likes Howdy best.”  Dave’s got a secret thoroughbred love. LOL)

We thanked Dave and left the arena at which point Kelly took me aside and said Carlos wanted to ride with me.  I wondered why, but I had taught a clinic at THF last year and had worked with Carlos on his jumping and we laughed a lot so I thought maybe a nice trail ride was in order.  I gave H some time to drink and eat back in the stall and then got back on and went to meet Carlos.

For the record, I am so dumb thinking we were going to trail ride.  Ha!  Carlos Osorio is a very accomplished Cutting Horse rider and he wanted to share some tips with me.  I had no idea that he had watched my lesson with Dave, was impressed at what Dave had accomplished with us, and he wanted to add a few things.


Carlos Osorio, kindly sharing his time and appreciable knowledge and looking the part while he does. Carlos is as generous a man as I know, and with a fire in his heart.

There was so much to learn, I might have gotten a fifth of it.  First he just rode his well-trained horse for me and I listened to him talk.  That horse was as on his aids as a GP dressage horse.  Forward, backward, sideways – all easy to access and relaxed in execution.  He said that ‘ranch horses are always going somewhere to stop,’ a phrase I heard elsewhere throughout the weekend.  He also mentioned that ranch horses don’t just go forward, they take a step back first and then go forward.  I watched that fact all weekend.  It is true.  To an english rider that might sound literally and figuratively backwards, but half halt anyone?  It is about balance and using the hind end.  So I dedicated myself to doing that the whole weekend.  Howdy did not seem to mind.

He showed me about getting the horse to flex his neck without moving his feet before starting a turn (including spins and rollbacks) and to slow everything down and let the horse be relaxed in the movement (sound familiar dressage friends?).  Then it was time to give Howdy some rest.

My head full of new information, and after Howdy was hosed off and settled in with much to eat and a pristine stall it was time to meet friends for supper and then crash out.  The next day the clinic was to begin!  I could have gone home after Friday and had enough to work on to keep me busy for a while!


Working Cow Horse


Howdy watching and learning

I went to my first Iowa Ranch Horse show in May because I wanted to learn about it so that I could maybe show in Ranch Horse at the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October. I had no idea what a fun journey it would be.

At the first ranch horse show in May I was impressed by how friendly the people were (even though I arrived late, had a 17h thoroughbred which is like bringing a semi to a NASCAR race, was wearing a helmet, and begged them to let me show in the boxing (beginning cutting) class which is solely for amateurs because even though I’m a pro in eventing, I certainly don’t know anything about ranch horse work and Howdy had not formally met a cow before that day.) They were sweet and let me do it and all cheered when Howdy “showed some cow” and I didn’t completely mess it up. I love these ranch horse people. They are patient and kind. They care about each other. They care about their horses. They are fair to the cattle. At the first show, at two different times a calf got confused and ran into the fence a little hard. Both riders immediately raised their hands to signify they were stopping, and just walked away from their entry fee and the points. Hella classy.

I watched other people also do it right for the rest of the day, asked a bunch of questions and was impressed at the level of training of their horses. (Those horses stand, by god; they canter from a halt no problem; they stop; they get along with other horses: their trots are real, not a jog; they tie at the trailer, and for many of them, flying lead changes come standard! Huzzah.) After the show I audited a bit of a Clinton Anderson clinic at the invitation of my friend Mary Hanson, stalked ranch horse videos on youtube and practiced a whole bunch.


“Standing nicely is what we ranch horses do.”

Howdy, my Thoroughbred Makeover horse, is level-headed, willing and clever, so we made pretty good progress. At the second ranch horse show, this weekend in Leon, we stepped it up a bit and entered real cutting (and sort of made a mess of it, mostly we quietly scattered the herd, um twice, but eventually did cut our steer from the herd and influenced it a bit). We entered ranch cutting, too, where you have to get the steer to go in the pen down yonder. In that attempt there was more stealthy herd scattering by Camie and Howdy (“stealthy” because upsetting the cattle is a “Bad dog, no cookies” move), but I did get my steer cut and was very psyched when it pretty much volunteered to go in the pen down yonder, with Howdy and I only nearby and suggesting. We are a little slow to get in position, but we got ‘er done and almost got a ribbon. Missed 8th by half a point. So close.


Waiting to enter working cow horse with the big dawgs of Ranch Horse.  We are fully aware we are posers, but he is playing it off and standing quietly like a boss.  Rock star.

Then there was Working Cow Horse. In this class you have to do a pattern and then work a cow. The pattern has “large fast circles,” “slow small circles,” sliding stops (ours were simply, um, stops), lead changes, spins (methodical turns on the haunches for Camie and Howdy) and backing “at least ten feet.” That last one we do pretty well, so I might have done 15 for good measure. After you “hesitate to complete the pattern,” they release your calf and you have to “box” him (which means influence him to turn in both directions so that you demonstrate control over the steer), then move him down the fence line and get him past the center marker and turn him back, then run down to get ahead of him to turn him again before he gets back to the original fence line (and the herd, where they want to be), then make him do a circle in both directions in the the middle of the ring – not using the fences to turn the calf. In three minutes. I had no fantasy that I was going to get that done if I had been given the whole afternoon and a leash-broke calf, but I was there for the party. I was last to go, thank the Universe, because I learned stuff I probably should have known before entering the class by watching the three ringers before me.
The announcer privately told me I was “brave” to enter the class, which made me laugh because I surmised in that moment that “brave” was probably Ranch Horse code for “greenhorn out of her element, but good luck, cowgirl.” She was very sweet about it, and made me feel good for trying.

The class was not a complete disaster and Howdy and I had a really good time. I get why people love this sport! Thank you Jay, for waiting around in the hot sun for half the day, and for videotaping. And now, for something completely different, I present our first Open Working Cow Horse class:


A few steps back


Howdy getting a treat from the cute son of our rescuers when our truck said the air filter was too dirty!  As breakdowns go, it was pretty easy.  Coasted to a Kum and Go, waited in the shade.

It occurred to me that Howdy is missing several steps in his training process, as evidenced by his tension in all gaits.  So we are taking a step back and going for relaxation first.  I am riding him a lot more often, but for 30 minutes at a time, always ending on a good note.  We do a lot of figures.  We sing along with the radio, we breathe, we chill.  He is coming along well and we are still headed for the Ranch Horse show in Leon on Saturday.

Meanwhile, he had an ophthalmic follow-up at ISU today and he has a “minor ERU flare” in that left eye.  We had all hoped it would be completely clear, but this is still not terrible news, as it is minor.  We are going to treat it with a month of doxycycline and hope we get him completely clear.

This list below came across my computer screen today and it seems especially fitting for the remedial work I am doing with all the tbs in the barn at the moment.  Bravado and Otto are here too and a little bit ahead of Howdy in their training, but still we are laying the foundations.  Chop wood, carry water.  Not a bad way to pass the time.  Thanks to Curtis and Dana for videotaping.

Bravado yesterday:

Otto recently:

Training tips from the U. S. Cavalry Manual of Horsemanship, 1936, and still holds true today: 

1. Be systematic. Before beginning work, fix in the mind a definite program of exercises for the day. Be sure that the exercises for the day are in proper relations to the work of previous days.

2. Be patient. Do not destroy the tranquility of horses by demanding a performance that is too difficult, or by demanding it too early in training.

3. Be tactful and resourceful. Take advantage of the most favorable conditions for teaching a horse a new lesson. Never try to train a fresh horse. Undertake nothing new when the horse is excited or frightened. Do not try train the horse when his attention is distracted. Do not give a new lesson to a resisting horse. Do not send the horse to the stable in the midst of resistances or with a lesson incomplete. Finish the lesson first and then send the horse away calm and tractable.

4. Be moderate. Begin with the simplest movements and exercises. These understood, proceed to the next, less simple. In the early training introduce nothing complex or difficult. Use continuously the same means to bring about the same results, thus aiding the horse’s memory. Ask little but ask it it often; it is by repetition that a horse progresses. Nevertheless, do not let a horse continuously execute a movement incorrectly or in a dull, lifeless manner. Demand attention, correctness and a carriage and action gradually increasing in style and manner, then allow a few moments of complete relaxation. Never strain the attention or tax the strength of the horse. Require no position, attitude or movement which in itself causes the horse apprehension, discomfort or pain.

5. Be observant. Do not attribute every resistance of failure of the horse to inattention or stubbornness. These are often due to ill fitting bits or saddlery, to a poor rider, to lack of condition or approaching unsoundness, to noises, unaccustomed surroundings, or even to the weather.

6. Be exacting. Do not be content with the simple tracing of the riding-hall exercises and figures. Every such exercise or riding-hall figure has for its object to teach the horse the aids and to know how to handle himself in doing so. Accordingly, before taking the first step of a movement, the horse should be placed in a position which favors the simple and natural execution of the movement. The movement will then be executed more easily and correctly.

7. Be logical. Do not confuse the means by which an end is obtained with the end itself. Practically all of the exercises and riding-hall figures are the means for which the horse is rendered easy to manage during ordinary riding. Accordingly do not use riding-hall exercises as a proof of training or routine drill movements as a means of training. The first are the means by which the horse is trained. The second constitute the test and the proof of training.

8. Be liberal. Permit the riders to ride the greater part of the time at will, or, if on the track, without regard to the distances. They then have a greater opportunity to really control and to correct the attitudes, positions and movements of their horses. It also permits the horses to assume their individual natural gaits and avoids irritation by forcing them too soon to take regulation gaits.

9. Be tenacious. Never provoke a struggle which can properly be avoided.

10. Summation. In the horses’ training, great attention should be paid, first, to their conditioning; second, to their tranquility; third, to their training, properly speaking. ANY SYSTEM OF TRAINING THAT NEGLECTS THE CONDITIONING OR WHICH DESTROYS THE TRANQUILITY OF HORSES, IS DEFECTIVE.