Returning to the Ranch
Natural horsemanship methods helped renew Jimbo Humphreys' infatuation with the Western lifestyle, while ranch-horse versatility competitions taught him how to develop a meaningful relationship with his horses.
AS IS THE CASE WITH MANY COWBOYS' sons, Jimbo Humphreys wasn't sure cowboying was for him when it came time to make his way in the world. His dad, Jim, was general manager at the Pitchfork Ranch, and Jimbo called the place home for his first 20 years. He always enjoyed being around horses, but felt the training methods of the time left a lot to be desired.
"I always thought there had to be something better out there," he says now. "But it was during a time when there was a void, at least in West Texas. There were some great things going on in California, but it just wasn't happening at the ranch during that time."
With no Internet or clinicians' videos to turn to, Jimbo simply walked away from it all.
"I got plumb away from horses for 10 or 15 years," he admits. "I just knew there had to be more to the horse deal than I was experiencing on the ranch. But I was still always sort of hooked to the ranch life in some way. I ran a fencing crew that worked on big ranches, ran chuckwagons for ranches, and some other things like that before I came back to it full-time."
The evolution of natural horsemanship methods paved the way for Jimbo's return and eventually led him to the Stock Horse of Texas Association. Less than a decade after first entering a SHOT show, Jimbo is among the association's top open riders. He's also a frequent contestant in American Quarter Horse Association and Ranch Horse Association of America shows.
"I'm still not completely sure what the draw is in the show deal," Jimbo says. "I guess since I work on a ranch every day, it's a good test to see how my homework is doing. I've been able to continue to refine my skills thanks to the shows, so I guess that's the challenge for me."
"WHAT I LIKE ABOUT the stock-horse competitions is that I develop a real relationship with my horse," Jimbo says. "There's more to it than the guys who just ride reiners or cutters or other specialty horses. A lot of those guys drill on one thing, put the horse away, drill on the same thing with another horse, and so on.
"But by doing four or five events with a horse, I have to have a relationship with him. We've got to know what the other one is thinking. That's what holds me to this more than anything."
A one-man crew on the Guitar family's Spur, Texas, ranch, Jimbo concedes he has the perfect setup for developing such a relationship. He rides his own horses, usually keeping about four useable horses at a time. He's also got a yearling and a colt most years.
His current show horse, Josephs Catchum All, aka "Catchum," gets more than his share of days off when it comes to ranch work, but he's earned it. The 7-year-old gelding has been among SHOT's top open division horses in recent years, as well as finishing fourth in the inaugural AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Show in 2008.
"We fit together real good," Jimbo says of the 15.3-hand, 1,400-pound horse. "A lot of people don't realize just how big he is because I'm a big guy, too. But they'd notice if I came riding into the arena on a little-bitty horse. In any show deal, there's got to be a pretty picture when you first ride into the arena.
"He's also well balanced. With a lot of big horses, they usually have one big feature that catches the eye, but Catchum isn't that way. So he stands well in the halter at an AQHA show."
A willing mind and a natural feel for the trail class have always set Catchum apart from the competition. He went to his first SHOT show as a 2-year-old in the hackamore and scored well in trail class.
"He's allowed me to get some confidence in this deal from the very beginning," Jimbo says. "So I'm sure that's helped fuel my interest in showing."
Catchum first caught Jimbo's eye because he wasn't afraid to leave his mother in the pasture. Bred by Jimbo's friend Bill Smith, also of Spur, Catchum traces to Hollywood Gold on the top side.
"A lot of his athletic ability probably comes from there," Jimbo says. "But he's got such a nice, smooth way of traveling. His momma [Olenas Magpie] has that same way of moving. I think we get a lot of points in the show ring because it just comes natural to him. That's something I can't train into a horse.
"This show deal has made me more critical about the types of horses I keep. I think I have some decent horses now, and they are all a joy to ride. I just won't keep a horse that's rough trotting or loping anymore.
"With Catchum, I know going in that as long as I don't mess something up, we're going to be in the top end of the Western pleasure results. He gets around so good, all I have to do is stay out of his way for a couple of minutes while we're in the arena."
IN JUST HALF A DOZEN YEARS, Jimbo has gone from SHOT newbie to instructing the association's clinics. He's comfortable giving direction in any of the organization's four events, but might be best suited to the trail class.
"I learn more from the clinics than many of the people who pay to be there," he admits. "I wasn't always sure I was ready to be there as a teacher, but I guess somebody once said, 'If you want to learn something, then teach it.' After doing it for a few years, I think there's some truth to that.
"Teaching puts me in a position where I have to think about a problem and what might be causing it. Hearing other people talk about problems they're having really gets me thinking. And since I ride horses every day, I have a lot of time to think about those problems after the clinic is over."
Jimbo has also benefited from judging SHOT and RHAA shows.
"Being on that side of the table has helped me tremendously," he says. "I know what that judge is thinking. Having sat in that chair has made me a little more relaxed about things when I'm competing."
Among the most important advice Jimbo offers students in the trail class is to look for opportunities to work with your horse every time you ride.
"Everybody has gates on their places," he says. "Focus on going through those gates the right way. I know it's tough, because a lot of people go to an office every day and might only get to ride on weekends. I wake up surrounded by this stuff every morning, and that's a huge advantage."
Jimbo has a makeshift trail course setup at his home, but uses it sparingly. He leads yearlings through the course and allows them to become accustomed to the obstacles long before he climbs into the saddle. But after that, he'd rather use his daily rides through the pasture as a chance to tune his horses.
"It got to a point where my horses had lost their expression in the show classes," he admits. "That's when I realized I was schooling them on this stuff a little too much. I encourage people to realize that riding through a pasture is a great opportunity.
"There was a time when, if something spooked a horse, people would just avoid whatever that was. Now we know it's best to confront these fears and think of it as an opportunity to fix the problem.
"A lot of cowboys really fight the trail class, but they have the best opportunity in the business to be good at it. We spend half our time or more just riding from one place to another. That presents countless opportunities to work on the types of obstacles in any trail class."
THE JOURNEY FROM RUNNING a fencing crew to becoming among the most-recognized competitors in ranch-horse competitions has been an interesting one for Jimbo. Along the way, he spent time as a chuckwagon cook for many of the West's largest outfits, and even ran a cement plant and lumberyard. Almost by accident he found himself in the middle of chuckwagon cookoffs and spent a few years winning awards for his efforts.
"It was just one of those deals that life throws at you," he says. "I was running a fencing crew working on some big ranches in West Texas, and I was having a hard time keeping hands. So I decided I'd just load them up on Monday morning and we'd stay on the ranch until the work was done. I started cooking for the crew, and then a couple of ranches asked me to cook for their cowboys. Then I started running a chuckwagon full-time and stayed pretty busy from February to July, then from September to Christmas."
The experience gave Jimbo the chance to work on a variety of large ranches from West Texas to Nebraska, something he'd missed out on when he walked away from ranch life during his 20s.
"A lot of kids do that right out of high school-jump from ranch to ranch for a few years and learn a lot from the old hands there," Jimbo says. "I missed out on that, but got a chance to do it later in life. I got to work with some great cowboys during that time, but eventually it got to be just plain old manual labor. The competitions were changing, too, and so I just got out of it altogether. But it sure was fun to work on some big outfits that still try to do things the traditional way."
Jimbo had also begun building bits and spurs during his downtime on the chuckwagons. Eventually, he got his son, Matt, into that business and turned the metal-working over to him. Since then, he concentrated on his ranch work and developing his horsemanship skills.
"There are some things in life that you get so good at, you reach a point where there's nowhere else to go," he says. "But this horse deal is never-ending. There's always room for a horseman to improve. Horses get old and we have to start over with a young one. Not every horse pans out to be a show horse, so it's a never-ending process.
And let's face it-every old rancher wants a horse good enough to take to town and show off, even if it's just once or twice a year."
Jimbo got a chance to show outside of Texas when he and Catchum qualified for the first AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse Show in Denver, Colorado, in 2008. The pair finished fourth overall, despite spending considerable time "in the penalty box."
"That was a really special learning experience for me," Jimbo says. "We just barely qualified to get there. We had one point and went to a show in Albuquerque and had a bad show. Then we came back to Amarillo, and I had a couple of days to get my head screwed on right. We won that show and got qualified."
The toughest part of riding in the AQHA competition was the stricter set of rules than those used in SHOT or RHAA. Jimbo says the best advice he can offer for contestants in multiple ranch-horse associations is to ride by the strictest rules every time out.
"The SHOT rules are a little more forgiving, so going to Denver made me realize that I needed to clean up my act a little bit," Jimbo says. "There are times when I have to be a little more prim and proper or it will hurt my scores. So, the easiest way to keep it all straight is just to ride that way every time."
At age 55, Jimbo looks back on his life with horses and likes the changes he's seen.
"When I was growing up, a top hand was an old boy who could ride an unbroke horse and get a day's work done," he says. "Now, a top hand is a guy who can get a horse pretty broke and enjoyable to ride. That's the difference for me from now to then.
"Growing up, I thought you had to ride that old rank horse. Funny how things change."
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.