The Early Californios Skills of the Rancho celebrates Californio traditions with demonstrations of masterful horsemanship, skillful roping and methodical stock-handling techniques. But the camaraderie and learning opportunities make it enjoyable for all who attend.

Jeffrey Mundell, foreman on the Rancho Cienega del Gabilan in San Juan Bautista, California, competes in the open division at the Early Californios Skills of the Rancho, and adds life to the event as its announcer.

In this era of rapid technological advancement, a certain beauty and satisfaction is found within skills, tools and traditions that stand the test of time. That is only one of the attractions of the Early Californios Skills of the Rancho, where traditional Californio-style bridle horsemanship and stockmanship are not only practiced in the arena, but also are ingrained in the contestants’ values and philosophies.

The annual event, casually referred to as “the Skills,” is slated for July 13−15 at the Tejon Ranch Equestrian Center in Lebec, California, home to some of the early and most renowned vaquero horsemen in California.

The event’s founder, Bruce Sandifer, has spent the majority of his life searching for a better way to train horses and tend cattle with the least amount of stress. He worked with cowboys on ranches from Canada to Texas and applied pieces of their advice. Yet nobody rode and trained horses exactly the way he read about as a teenager. He found what he was looking for in the bridle-horse training and stock-handling techniques of the early California vaqueros. Their methods were so highly guarded, however, that few specifics were docu-mented. The little that was known was handed down through the families of old-time vaqueros such as Ray Ordway, whose father worked on California ranches in the late 1800s with some of the last mission-era vaqueros.

Ordway’s stories deeply influenced Sandifer, who lives in Santa Barbara, California, the heart of where this style of riding and stock handling evolved as vaqueros rode the ridgelines and tended mission cattle in the lush, grassy folds of the hillsides. Sandifer found his calling more than a decade ago, preserving, refining and teaching the traditional techniques of the early vaqueros, also known as Californios. His workshops developed a loyal following of horsemen and -women from all over the world. To further preserve and perpetuate this style, in 2008 Sandifer founded the International Association for the Preservation of Early Californio Bridlehorses and Stockmanship, a non-profit organization operating as the Californio Bridlehorse Association. With the help of CBA members, the inaugural Early Californios Skills of the Rancho was held in February of 2013 in Santa Ynez, California.

“There was no place to show horses in the California style of riding that promoted learning opportunities for novice and intermediate riders to get involved,” explains Sandifer. “We wanted to create an environment where people could come and share what they know and learn from each other with a fiesta-style attitude.

”Even today, there are few events where spectators can get a closer glimpse at the finely crafted trappings and artful manifestations of Californio horseman-ship and stock-handling customs.

Through the years, the CBA has modified its format to offer classes for experienced, intermediate and beginning competitors. But no matter the riders’ age or experience, they are required to wear Western attire, including chinks or armitas, and show their horses in a phase of the traditional bridle-horse training process, whether it’s the hackamore, two-rein or straight up in the bridle with a spade bit. Tie-downs, bits with broken or hinged mouthpieces and other mechanical devices are not permitted. And, if a contestant is caught leading a horse by the bridle reins rather than a neck- or get-down rope during competition, it results in a penalty or disqualification, at the judges’ discretion.

Buddy Montes, a fifth-generation Native American vaquero who grew up on California’s historic Tejon Ranch, manages a cattle operation in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

“You can’t come here and show in just any gear,” says Sandifer. “We’re trying to promote a sustainable way of not only working cattle but also horses. We want to see people riding in a way that is the most beneficial for their horses. The only age restriction we have for horses is you can’t show anything under 4 years old. We want to bring longevity back into horsemanship, rather than having an aged event like a futurity.”

Each contestant carries a rope at least 45 feet long. Open-division ropers swing rawhide reatas, while other riders pack poly ropes. All riders must dally rather than tie on hard and fast, and their saddle horns must be wrapped with smooth mulehide that allows them to slip their dallies and run their ropes, rather than rubber or any other wrap with grip.

This year’s Skills offers two doctoring events. In the open doctoring, three-person teams head and heel two specified cows out of the rodear using mandatory braided rawhide reatas, and gently lay the bovines on their sides while the third team member sets the ropes on the front and hind feet. Two-man doctoring pairs a junior, intermediate or novice rider with a more experienced partner. One team member enters the rodear and ropes a single specified cow while the other person holds the rodear and clears the herd to heel the cow. Once the cow is caught, it is laid down on its side and stretched with the riders facing each other.

While there is a 10-minute time limit in the open three-man doctoring and a six-minute limit in the two-man doctoring, judging emphasizes the quality of roping, as well as safety, skill and sustainability. The latter refers to the cattle and horses being worked in a low-stress, thoughtful manner that would not create costly setbacks if done on a ranch.

“I believe it’s important to have these events to help preserve our heritage and way of life,” says Mark Lundy, jigger boss on the Winecup/Gamble Ranch in Montello, Nevada, and a member of the winning open three-man calf branding team in 2015 with Trevor Fuhriman and Dwight Hill. “I’m not saying how we do things is the best way for everyone, but it works for us and we enjoy it. It’s also conducive to the environment in which we run cattle and makes our work more pleasant. Like team roping, our style of roping takes skill and talent, but ranch roping is a little slower, methodical and less stressful [on the livestock].”

New ranch horse classes are the highlight of this year’s Skills. Hackamore, two-rein and bridle horse classes are offered in several divisions based on age and experience. Each rider is required to open and close a gate, and perform a designated pattern that includes maneuvers such as long-trotting the perimeter of the pen, loping a circle in each direction on the correct lead, rollbacks, stopping, backing, turning on the haunches and sidepassing. The rider then cuts a designated cow from the rodear and holds it for a specified number of seconds with the aid of a turnback rider.

In the more advanced divisions, the rider is required to rope the cow. Green, or inexperienced, riders rope a dummy from their horses instead.

“I really wanted to put the focus on horsemanship and ranch-designed maneuvers, not a show-horse pattern,” explains Sandifer. “For example, we want to see a horse that can long-trot and cover country, and also be able to track and rope a cow.”

Silver bits, rein chains, get-down ropes and rawhide romals are some of the essential gear used at the Skills.

Online entries opened for the Early Californios Skills of the Rancho for the Early Californios Skills of the Rancho in April. It didn’t take long for most of the limited number of slots in each of the classes to fill, and several names were jotted down on the waiting list. Some of the competitors are working cowboys, while others are business professionals, retirees and youth who practice or aspire to this style of riding and stockmanship. A mix of seasoned and novice riders, both male and female, creates an educational environment and cultivates camaraderie among competitors. Open riders do not hesitate to partner with or help less-experienced competitors in classes and want to see them do just as well as themselves.

Unlike the thrills and spills of rodeo and other roping events, the displays of horsemanship and stock handling meant to simulate ranch work might seem drab to some spectators who do not understand the philosophies and miss the purpose. But those who take time to observe subtleties like a horse’s responsiveness to the lightest signals, and who talk to competitors, find it apparent that vaquero customs are more than mechanics and fancy loops. They are art in motion, from the whooshing sound of a swirling loop slicing the air, to the deliberate, catty moves an athletic cow horse makes, to the handcrafted leather, horsehair, rawhide and silver gear used.

Contestants and spectators alike can shop more than 20 vendors of high-quality and custom gear at the trade show. Other highlights include live entertainment, a calcutta of the top five open three-man doctoring teams prior to the finals, and displays of bridle horsemanship, efficient stock handling, and big-loop and bonus-point roping shots. The tough competition and high-quality gear given as prizes make winning a class at the Skills a coveted achievement.

“We try to get really nice prizes for the winners of each division,” says Sandifer. “But prizes aren’t what this event is about. It’s about camaraderie, coming together to learn, share and preserve a style of horsemanship and stockmanship we love.

“The contestants don’t just ride their horses and get the job done; they take pride in finding the art in what they’re doing, because it’s more than a job or competition to them.”

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Western Horseman.

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