Making the leap into ranch-horse versatility competition has been a learning experience for Tripp Townsend and the ranch hands at Sandhill Cattle Company. But training their horses for competition has become a part of their everyday ranch routine.

A decade ago, training horses for competition was the last thing on Tripp Townsend’s mind. The 36-year-old cowboy grew up riding horses in Texas and Colorado, on ranches that his father managed.

The Townsends always considered their horses more than machines used to do a job, valuing good horsemanship skills and seeking ways to improve their horses’ abilities. But solid training information wasn’t as widespread as it is today, and few competitive opportunities existed for ranch horses.

Tripp Townsend prepares his horses for ranch horse versatility competitions.

“My dad was a self-taught cowboy, horseman and cutting-horse trainer,” Tripp says of the elder Townsend, who passed away 13 years ago. “He showed cutting horses when he could, and he did well. We always tried to improve our horsemanship skills, but we never had the chance to learn from a professional cutting-horse trainer. Instead, we gradually learned on the job.”

Tripp is now a third-generation rancher who owns and manages Sandhill Cattle Company, a small feedlot operation in Earth, Texas. There, he continues to hone his horsemanship skills with ranch work. He also encourages his crew, which includes Efrain Corrales, Tyler Rice and Tripp’s teenage daughters, Summer and Autumn, to do the same.

Since Tripp and his ranch hands started competing in the Ranch Cutting Horse Association, Ranch Horse Association of America and Working Ranch Cowboys Association, Sandhill Cattle Company has become not only their workplace, but also their training ground. The horsemen find themselves paying more attention to their form and technique while performing routine cattle work, and taking every opportunity to turn an ordinary riding situation into a productive training session.

“The competition has become so tough that we’re always thinking about things we need to work on and ways to improve our horses,” Tripp explains.

Wide-Open Workout
The nature of a feedlot business requires the Sandhill Cattle Company crew to be horseback seven days a week. This steady work is what gives the cowboys their edge in competition.

“Our training sessions aren’t 30 minutes each day,” Tripp says. “We ride all day. If something is bothering a horse, we have all day to get him over it.”

Throughout the day, the Sandhill horses perform a variety of tasks, from sorting cattle in tight alleyways, to roping and doctoring cattle in open pastures. While prowling pastures for sick or stray cattle, the horsemen look for soft ground to tune up their horses. This training time helps break the monotony for both the horses and riders, and increases the horses’ versatility. Some of the basic concepts the horsemen practice are stops, circles, speed control and turnarounds.

The ranch doesn’t have a sliding track, so the horsemen try to find damp ground to practice sliding and stopping.

“You don’t want the ground so wet that your horse could slip and hurt himself,” Tripp cautions. “But damp dirt encourages a horse to drive his hind legs under him and slide a few feet. This helps build his confidence and puts him in proper position to stop.”

When Tripp first started competing in ranch horse events 10 years ago, many riders pulled their horses to a stop with the reins. As the number of competitions has increased, so has the skill level of the horses and riders. 

“Now, it’s common to see horses in the bridle and stopping and sliding at least 10 feet with subtle voice commands,” Tripp says. “So, we’re always working to get our horses a little lighter in the bridle and to slide a little farther. Sliding has been one of the hardest things for us cowboys to learn, because it’s not something we use every day.”

As Tripp sends his horse at a fast lope down a soft-ground straightaway, he sits squarely and quietly in the saddle, with his rein hand at saddle-horn level. When he reaches his stopping point, his body position shifts backward and deeper into the saddle, he releases his legs from his horse’s sides and he mutters a firm “whoaaa” voice command. He reinforces his voice and body cues with only the degree of bit pressure necessary to stop the horse. He releases that pressure when the horse responds to his cues.

This pressure-release technique is key to keeping a horse light in the bridle, as opposed to resisting and running through the pressure.

“We try to mimic the reiners’ stops,” Tripp says. “We sure haven’t figured it all out, but we keep trying.”

Practicing the transition from a large, fast circle to a small, slow one has proved more productive in the pasture than in an arena for Tripp. He rides perfectly round circles, with his horse’s nose tipped slightly into the circle and ribcage bending to the outside of the circle. To prevent a horse from dropping his inside shoulder and leaning inward, Tripp keeps the shoulder elevated by lifting the inside rein. He also works on speed control while loping circles.

“I used to hesitate to ask a horse to really accelerate, because I didn’t want to teach him to run off,” he says. “But, a good horseman once told me that in the open you can make a really large circle and hold your horse at a steady pace. Before long, he’ll get winded and naturally welcome the chance to slow down.”

Tripp points out that spinning isn’t a skill commonly required in ranch work, but rollbacks are frequently performed when turning back cattle, and spins are a continuation of a rollback. To work on these, he starts out asking the horse to walk a small circle, using his inside rein to turn the horse’s nose toward the center of the circle and his outside leg to push the horse around the circle. As the horse softens to the pressure, Tripp gradually makes the circle smaller until the horse is planting his inside hind pivot foot and turning around it, while crossing his front legs over each other in front.

Powerful rollbacks also help with the cow-work phase of ranch-horse competition. A horse that will blast down the fence, snap back over his hocks and turn a cow separates itself from the rest of the field. While you can train a horse to work a cow on the fence, Tripp says horses that have cow sense bred into them are the toughest to beat.

“Some of the horses we ride go on to compete, and others do not,” he explains. “Stop and cow sense determine if a horse makes the competition cut. If the horse is a natural stopper and really works a cow, we can usually take that horse and make progress in the arena.”

The benefit of working on a feedlot is that the horses get a lot of close contact with cattle, compared to horses that are ridden in large pastures. This helps sharpen both the horse’s and the rider’s cow savvy.

“You have to be able to read that cow and know how close you can get to it without it running over your horse,” Tripp says. “So many people don’t understand that they have to set up the cow to be turned or roped. They stop at the point they finish their last maneuver and then start to rope the cow without thinking about sending the cow on a straight line, which makes it easier to rope him.

“When we rope cattle in the pasture, we practice setting them up properly so it becomes a habit for our horses.”

When sorting and cutting cattle, the cowboys are constantly thinking about whether or not a horse will make it in their show string.

“Sorting cattle is hard work,” Tripp says. “You find out quickly if a horse is cowy. If it’s bred into the horse and you put him in the right spot every time to work a cow, he’ll figure it out pretty quickly.”

When working cattle, the horsemen emphasize keeping their horses soft in the bridle.

“That’s how a horse becomes cowy,” Tripp points out. “He learns that you’ll move him over with the cow and starts to connect the cow with your cues.”

If the opportunity arises to take a cow down a fence, the Sandhill cowboys practice rating their horses’ speed and setting them up to turn the bovine.

“As my horse heads off the cow, I try to keep him straight, with his shoulder elevated, so he’s balanced and working off his hindquarters,” Tripp explains. “I let him run up on the cow, then I check him. Once I know he’s rating, I urge him forward so his head is just in front of the cow. Then I turn him into the cow.”

Once a horse proves it can stop, change leads, turn around and work a cow, Tripp says the horse is ready for competition.

“I’d like to think I have a shot of placing on every horse I show, even his first trip out,” Tripp says. “But realistically, I just aim to get through the entire first run.”

Exposure to the Elements
Tripp believes that everyday use and exposure to different obstacles and situations keeps a horse’s mind fresh so he’s all business when he walks into an arena.

“The horse doesn’t know what to expect next,” he says. “If you constantly work a horse in the arena, he’ll get bored with the routine and start to anticipate the next thing, rather than waiting for you to direct him.”

However, even horses that aren’t shown often can start to anticipate your next move. That’s where time in the pasture and practice shows come in.

“When I campaigned my horse Alotofbull hard, he got sick of showing and started dreading lead changes and turnarounds,” Tripp recalls. “I turned him out in the pasture for a few months. When I started riding him again, I just used him on the ranch and didn’t ask too much of him. Not constantly training on him made all the difference, and he was more relaxed and willing to do his job when I started showing him again.”

Horseman Chris Littlefield also advised Tripp to take his horses to small, local shows to break their anticipation.

“Chris advised me to use practice shows as an opportunity to tune up my horse so he’s ready for the major events,”  Tripp says.

Even though the Sandhill horses are accustomed to a variety of situations, there are still some things in town that will trigger the horses, such as encountering crowds of noisy people, clanging metal bleachers, being alone in an arena, and having banners, lights and other objects flying above them.

“A horse may be bombproof on the ranch, but when you take him to town and get inside the indoor arena, you realize there are some things you just can’t prepare the horse for on the ranch,” Tripp says.

Ideally, Tripp likes to ride his horse in the arena or on the trail course before an event, allowing his horse to absorb the new environment. He says his horses often shy away from objects in the arena at first, but it usually takes only a couple of times inspecting the scary things before the horse is confident.

One thing Tripp doesn’t do at a show is train his horses. He wants to keep the horses relaxed, so he simply rides them around to take off the edge.

“Your horse should be trained before he gets to the show,” Tripp says. “You want to put the least amount of pressure on him as you can so he’ll offer all he has to give.”

Market Demand
A major incentive for showing in ranch-horse competitions is to market horses for sale. Tripp’s first ranch-horse competition was at a show and sale in San Antonio 14 years ago. He and his father had taken horses there to sell.

“Our horses sold better there than they did at a regular sale, so we started going back to that show and sale. Ranch-horse versatility has really made people understand the value of good working ranch horses. The name of the discipline says it all—you can do anything on them.”

Since that first show and sale, Tripp has found ranch-horse versatility to be a perfect adjunct to his cattle business, and he’d like to start more horses on the path to ranch and show-pen stardom.

“I’m always learning more and trying to make the next horse better than the previous one,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I have a philosophy on training ranch horses, except that you can’t do it in one day. It takes time, and you want to improve on something a little bit every time you ride.”

Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected]. Just like their father, cowgirls Summer and Autumn Townsend use ranch work to gear up for ranch-horse versatility competition.

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