Ranch pleasure is said to be one of the fastest-growing classes in the show arena today. New to the American Quarter Horse Association in 2012 and sanctioned this year by the American Paint Horse Association (and with grassroots popularity as well), the event is designed to show off the movement, versatility, and attitude of the working ranch-style horse.
Could this class be for you? Most definitely!
Yes, real working ranch horses compete in this class, but you’ll also find reiners, cutters, ropers, and even trail-riding horses. (Note: Both AQHA and APHA prohibit horses entered in traditional Western pleasure events from cross-entering into ranch pleasure.) Part of the appeal is that contestants get to do more than ride along the rail.
Just about any horse and rider can compete in ranch pleasure as long as they have these basics already in place: ability to move off the rider’s leg and rein, and ability to lope off in the correct lead.
Here, I’m going to tell you the basics of the class and explain what a judge looks for in ranch pleasure. I’ll also give you drills I use on my horses to help prepare them for the arena.
What Is Ranch Pleasure?
The first thing you need to know about ranch pleasure is that it’s not Western pleasure.
Whereas a Western pleasure horse is rewarded for calm, collected gaits performed on a loose rein, a ranch pleasure horse is presented in a natural, forward-moving style that looks as if he has somewhere to go. If you were in a 10,000-acre pasture, you wouldn’t want your horse taking one slow step after another. You’d want to get somewhere, on a horse that could move out and cover a lot of ground, and if you were in rough country, you’d want that horse to be able to navigate it safely.
In a ranch pleasure class, each horse competes individually. He’s scored on movement and how he performs at least three of five optional maneuvers: sidepass; turns of 360 degrees or more; change of leads (simple or flying); walk, jog, or lope over poles; and any other reasonable ranch-type exercise.
AQHA has four suggested patterns. However, a judge can create his or her own, as long as all of the required gaits—walk, jog, lope, and extensions—are included, plus three or more optional maneuvers.
Horses aren’t allowed to have hoof polish, braided/banded manes, or tail extensions. Although trimming of fetlocks, excessive facial hair, and a bridle path are allowed, trimming inside the ears is discouraged. Silver on bridles and saddles also is discouraged.
AQHA first introduced ranch pleasure as an open class in 2012. Due to its increasing popularity, the class has since been divided into junior and senior (based on horse age), with approved classes added for amateurs and youths.
In the Show Ring
Let’s assume you’re at a show, watching a ranch pleasure class that I’m judging. These are key points I’ll look for and assess in each horse.
Bright attitude: When a horse enters the arena, he should be bright and attentive. I love to see a horse that comes in working his ears, paying attention to the rider and his environment, and that’s curious but not spooky or dull-looking. On a ranch, you don’t see a horse going across the pasture with ears tipped back the entire time, totally focused on his rider. A horse with his ears up and a lot of expression looks more like a horse that’s out for a ride.
Forward motion: The horse needs to look as if he can cover some ground, whether he’s walking, trotting, or loping. I want a horse to look as if he’s soft to ride, so I wouldn’t mind sitting on him for a full day’s ranch work.
Extended gaits: I don’t want to see a fake extended trot as if the horse is pulling a buggy. I prefer a horse to extend his trot as if he’s naturally covering ground in a pasture. The horse must not break into a lope from his extended trot.
Natural movement: I want to see a horse with natural carriage, moving freely but still responsive to his rider. For example, when a reining horse is bridled up, he’s being placed in an unnatural frame and expected to stay in it. But a ranch pleasure horse should go with his nose slightly out and his neck elevated a little bit. That doesn’t mean his head should be in his rider’s face, though. I still want him relatively flat and level in his neck, but also looking where he’s going.
Rein length: A ranch pleasure horse should be on a rein length that allows the rider to guide him in an unforceful way. A super-loose rein as you see in Western pleasure should never be used in ranch pleasure. The reins can have a little bit of drape, but they also should be short enough for the rider to have ready contact with the horse’s mouth. It should look as though the rider would be able to use the reins to prevent his horse from falling if he stumbled in the pasture. When reins are draped long, this isn’t possible.
Playing Mind Games
Now let’s talk about some of the show-prep techniques I employ, and that you can use for getting your own horse ready to show in ranch pleasure. To prepare a horse both physically and mentally for the show ring, I like to put him through some drills that limber up his body, and that act as games to keep his mind occupied. You can perform these exercises riding one-handed in a shanked bit, as I am here, or two-handed in a snaffle bit.
Bending and counter-bending: To begin, I soften my horse by bending him in both directions. Then, to teach him to get off my leg pressure, I counter-bend him, pushing him away from the fence while keeping his head out and shoulder down. Next, to show him it’s easier to be in the correct form than it is to be out of form (having his head out and shoulder down is uncomfortable), I go back to a regular bend.
Sidepassing and two-tracking: Next, I sidepass the horse down the fence a few times, working in both directions. I want him to sidepass with his nose going the same direction as his hip. When he sidepasses correctly for two to three steps, I release my leg pressure. My whole program is pressure, release, reward. I apply pressure, the horse releases to the pressure, and I reward him by removing the pressure. We progress to the two-track, a lateral maneuver in which I ask the horse to track sideways with forward motion.
Pushing the hip: My next exercise helps a horse learn to keep his shoulders up while moving his hindquarters laterally. I push the horse’s hip around an imaginary square box, keeping both his nose and hip to the outside. You always want to push the hip the same way as the nose is going because if you don’t, you’ll teach the horse to drop, or lean over onto his inside shoulder. That makes his front end less maneuverable.
Feeling for the bit: To get a horse really soft in rein response, so I don’t have to pull on him to change direction, I do a drill designed to get him to feel for the bit and come off the rein—as though he has power steering. With both hands on the reins, I lay one rein on his neck and bump the bit lightly with the other rein. If my horse doesn’t come off the rein, he gets reminded with a harder bump. A horse can feel a fly land on him, so he can feel that rein sliding. Eventually, he should come off the rein cue so softly that I can guide into a change of direction on a loose rein.
Transitions: Once my horse is soft, almost “noodle-y,” I like to put him through a lot of transitions. I’ll trot and lope him in serpentines, circles, over obstacles, and even off the track. We change directions; speed up; slow down; and change leads, either simple or flying. It’s a kind of mind game: The horse has to be able to go fast or slow down, on request, and he has to guide and listen to me.
The biggest thing to remember about ranch pleasure is to go out and have fun.
Today, when events have become so specialized that it’s considered “normal” to be a one-event rider on a one-event horse, ranch pleasure is more like the old-time shows where you and your horse both get to prove your versatility.
Another bonus: You don’t need a $5,000 saddle or a $1,000 outfit to show in ranch pleasure. You just need desire to compete, and a horse that listens to you.
So go out there and try ranch pleasure. Before long, you’ll see how much happier your horse is doing a class where he’s not asked to move or hold his body in an unnatural way—and that will make you enjoy riding so much more.
Fielding “Bozo” Rogers was raised near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on the Conchas and CA ranches, now owned by the Singleton Ranches. A lifelong horse trainer, Rogers has shown in cutting, cow horse, reining, and versatility ranch horse. He rode WM Blasted Smart, the 2005 red roan gelding featured in this article, to the 2013 AQHA high-point championship and the 2014 AQHA versatility ranch horse reserve world title. He currently trains for Wes and Sarah Williams’ Dove Creek Ranch in Rhome, Texas, and is an approved judge for the National Reined Cow Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association (specialized in versatility ranch horse).