Ranch Riding Lowdown

Ranch riding tops the list as one of the most popular western show classes. The appeal? A class that riders can succeed in without expensive silver-adorned saddles or fancy clothes. Most any horse-and-rider team that prepares for the pattern class has a chance to win. 

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) debuted the class and set standards that the “ranch riding horse should simulate a horse riding outside the confines of an arena and reflect the versatility, attitude, and movement of a working horse.” 

Horses walk, jog, lope, trot with extension, lope with extension, stop, back, and change directions. The 15 AQHA patterns also include sidepassing, 360-degree turns, lead changes (simple or flying), poles, and other “reasonable maneuvers that a ranch horse could perform.” The latter may include light cattle work.

Julian Nemmers is a champion-earning trainer and regular competitor in ranch riding. Along with his wife, Nancy, and son, Justin, the family has earned ranch-riding honors at the AQHA World Championship Show, as well as at top Appaloosa Horse Club shows. The Nemmers’ ranch is in Longmont, Colo. Their clients have also received World Champion titles and national-level honors.

Here, Julian Nemmers discusses why the class is so popular and shares tips to help you succeed.

Ranch Riding is Fair Game Class

“This is the class that’s made for the horse we all want to ride: an easy-going animal that’s smooth to ride and is consistent,” says Nemmers. “Many of the horses that do well in the class also show in other classes, but it’s available to all types of horses. A rider can go in with a limited amount of investment and do well.”

He says that horses trained for cow work and reining easily transition to ranch riding. However, those horses may need to learn to extend the trot and work over poles. They’ll also need to stop without sliding.

A horse that has done real ranch work may have the desired ground-covering gaits but may not have fast turnarounds. The winner for the show may depend on the maneuvers required that day. 

A horse loping in a ranch riding class
Some horses may be better at different pattern elements. Do your best at each; every horse has a chance. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

“A great horse can be beaten by a mediocre horse if the great horse breaks gait,” says Nemmers. “There are so many maneuvers in each pattern that you can beat an exceptional horse if you do well at every maneuver and show off what your horse is best at.”

The Ranch Riding Look

In a ranch riding class, you and your horse should present a clean look—ready for real ranch work. For your horse, this means no bands, no hoof paint, and little to no clipping. The Nemmers trim bridle paths and sometimes show a horse that is clipped for other events.

Choose a saddle that you ride in for work without excess silver. Riders compete in a button-down shirt, jeans and a hat. 

Ride the Ranch Way

Judges want to see ranch riding horses ridden with contact. Forget the usual show-ring posture and long, draped reins. For this class, you’ll ride like you are getting a job done.

“All horses should be soft in the bridle,” says Nemmers. “While we strive for a horse that is level-headed, some horses may be naturally higher-headed, and that’s OK.”

It’s permissible to post or stand for an extended trot and to stand for the extended canter. Allow your horse to move forward. 

A ranch riding horse should also be comfortable riding near or through cattle. There may be cattle penned beside the show pen. Make sure you can ride straight past without your horse turning to look or becoming worried. 

A sorrel horse being ridden for ranch riding
If you must ride past a pen of cattle, make sure your horse is focused ahead and not distracted by the sight. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

“An all-around horse may not be used to seeing cattle,” says Nemmers. “Keep in mind that what you look at, your horse will, too. Your eyes turn your body, which turns your hips. Get your horse used to the cattle at home or during warmup, then walk on by. Sometimes you’ll be asked to open a gate and ride through the cattle, move them around, and come back to the gate and exit.”

Show Success

Each ranch riding pattern has a different number of maneuvers, so the score can vary. For each maneuver, you can get a positive or negative mark. Make sure you’re showing at every moment. 

“You almost always enter the arena at a walk,” says Nemmers. “The extended walk carries as much weight in the points as an extended trot. If you come in the arena and ask your horse to cover ground with an alert look, you’ll do much better than if your horse looks half asleep.”

A sorrel western horse being ridden over logs
Keep your horse moving forward over the logs; even the walk should be ground covering. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

He recommends following the pattern exactly. Ride to the correct mark and make your transitions obvious. 

“The speed of your gait should be equal from the start to finish—matching when the pattern asks for that change,” he continues. “You don’t want to slowly build up to the requested gait. Be precise and follow the pattern.”

Nemmers agrees that downward transitions can make or break your show scores in ranch riding. Downward transitions from the extended lope to the extended trot rob riders of points.

Practice at home and make sure your horse knows a precise cue for that transition. Nemmers says that standing up on the transition may help you give your horse a clearer cue.

If you know your horse’s strengths, practice your transitions at home, and memorize your pattern, you may have a new favorite show class.

To see a pattern, watch as Julian Nemmers guides you through AQHA Ranch Riding Pattern 1.

Versatility Classes

The American Quarter Horse Association’s Versatility Ranch Horse division (VRH) includes six classes: ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch reining, ranch cow work, ranch cutting and ranch conformation. VRH judges want to see horses that could “go do a job,” and versatility classes are designed to show off horses’ athletic ability.

Here’s a rundown of each class included in VRH:

Ranch Riding: Riders show individually while performing a pattern, displaying their horse’s smooth transitions and responsiveness.

Ranch Trail: Obstacles mirror objects and tasks on a ranch, such as operating hinged gates, crossing a bridge, backing or sidepassing and dragging a log. The course includes a walk, trot and lope.

Ranch Reining: Judges select one of eight patterns that include spins, rollbacks, stops and speed changes. This class is often combined with the ranch cow work class—riders perform a reining pattern before working a cow—but are scored separately.

Ranch Cow Work: Includes “boxing” (controlling and keeping a cow in one area of the arena), driving the cow down the fence, and boxing again. To finish, riders drive the cow down the long side again until crossing the middle mark. In some divisions, riders must also circle the cow and rope.

Ranch Cutting: Horse and rider team must separate then hold a single cow away from the herd to demonstrate the horse’s ability to work the cow.

Ranch Conformation: Judges look for horses with a balanced look, adequate muscle and correct structure—a horse who looks like he could move easily around the ranch. Wearing only a halter, horses are led in a pattern that includes walking and trotting, then set up for closer inspection by the judge. 

Special thanks to Nancy Nemmers for demonstrating these moves on Sippin on Champagne.

This article about ranch riding appeared in the 2021 special edition of Western Life. Click here to subscribe for more!

Heidi Nyland Melocco

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