Horseman Ben Baldus finds that his practice-pen routine helps his horses understand their jobs for each ranch versatility event.
Preparing for one class is difficult enough, but readying a horse for five classes in one show is an even bigger challenge. Yet it’s what drives competitors in ranch versatility and stock horse events.
Finding ways to help a horse understand the demands of each class is essential for success. Ben Baldus, trainer for the historic Waggoner Ranch in Electra, Texas, found out exactly what it takes when he started competing in those events a few years ago. While he formerly focused on reining horses, Baldus helped expand the ranch’s training program to include versatility and reined cow horse events. His efforts paid off in a big way in March of 2015 when he rode My Boots Are Tuff, bred and owned by the ranch, to win the American Quarter Horse Association’s open versatility ranch horse world championship. The 6-year-old mare has the characteristics and talent of a true all-around horse, he says.
“You need a well-balanced horse with good conformation to place high in the halter, and a horse that’s broke in all events—trail, pleasure, reining, cow work, fence work and cutting,” Baldus says. “The horse needs to be able to do all those things and do them well, so you can have a bobble in one of the events along the way and still be competitive.”
Baldus finds that his warm-up routine is crucial to communicating with his horse and preparing for each class separately. Here, he shares his strategy for making sure he and his horse are ready to compete.
The conformation class in versatility competition is similar to a halter class. Horses must trot beside the exhibitor and square up for inspection by the judge. Baldus spends time at home teaching his horses what they need to know.
“We want the horse to trot next to us,” he says. “I use a lot of voice cues, whether I’m starting a 2-year-old or teaching one to lead, so I’ll cluck to the horse. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have someone on the ground behind the horse encourage it.
“And then I keep practicing it. A little bit of practice every day will help a lot. You can even do this in the bridle when you’re leading the horse to the arena. Just cluck and ask that horse to trot next to you.”
To teach a horse to stand squarely, Baldus moves the lead rope and halter slightly in a particular direction depending on which hind leg he wants the horse to move.
“If I want to move the outside hind leg, I move the halter and lead rope toward that leg. If I want to move the inside hind leg, I move it to the inside,” he explains. “Most of the time in the ranch horse [conformation class], they’ll allow you to pick up and place the horse’s front feet.”
Baldus advises setting the hind legs first by trotting the horse forward and saying “whoa,” which should result in the horse stopping squarely on its hindquarters, and moving the feet slightly if needed. Then the front feet can be adjusted.
Plan Your Practice
In ranch riding, exhibitors must ride at a walk, trot and lope in each direction, and stop and back. Judges also can call for an extended trot and extended lope. The class displays a horse’s ability to perform at a “working speed,” and credit is given for smooth gait and speed transitions.
Baldus says the only way to succeed in ranch riding is to know your horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and practice accordingly.
“With [My Boots Are Tuff], it’s about keeping her quiet and relaxed,” he says. “She’s really sensitive and she’s a big stopper, so I have to be careful in my transitions. If she’s too tuned up and I take my calf away momentarily, she thinks ‘stop’ and she’ll just slide 10 feet.”
If the pattern calls for a downward transition from an extended lope to an extended trot, for example, Baldus will practice that maneuver the night before or the morning of the class.
“If she’s too tuned up, she’s going to stop when I need her to break to a trot. So when I’m warming up, I practice my downward transitions without stopping,” he says. “I practice the elements of the pattern that I know will be there. I don’t practice a sliding stop or a rundown.”
The key is knowing both your horse and the pattern for your class.
“Every horse is different, and once you figure out where your horse’s weaknesses are, then you practice that,” Baldus says. “If it’s his lead change, practice his lead change. If at the extended trot he wants to break into a lope, practice that element of the pattern. If a pattern calls for an extended walk into a right-lead lope, then I won’t practice an extended walk into a jog. If it’s not in the pattern, I’m not going to do it in a warm-up routine.”
Think It Through
In AQHA competition, the ranch trail class includes a minimum of six obstacles, and often they are designed to look like something a rider would encounter in everyday ranch work. The class is worked at a walk, trot and lope, and the horse is given credit for an “alert attitude.”
Baldus rides his horses out on the ranch and goes over trail obstacles he has set up.
“I have a series of trot poles and some lope-over poles, and an ‘L’ to back through, and I do all that on a regular basis,” he says.
Because ranch trail is another pattern class, Baldus memorizes the pattern and then works his horse based on the obstacles included.
“You want to think through the pattern,” he says. “In Houston [at the AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Championship Show], the judges walked the course with us at 7 in the morning. You want to be there early, walk that course and hear what the judges think. And if you have the pattern memorized, even if there’s a bobble it doesn’t mess you up mentally and get you off-pattern. Whether your horse is showing well or poorly, you need to stay on pattern.
“You’ll hear someone say, ‘My horse squealed at another horse, got hot, and I got flustered and went off-pattern.’ And it happens. But always try to get some quiet time where you can visualize the pattern and what it will feel like.”
The trail pattern in Houston called for a lead change after just three strides, so Baldus realized that could be a challenge for his mare, even though she changes leads proficiently.
“My horse will change good in the reining pattern, but there is a lot of setup and preparation time when you’re loping that circle,” he says. “When you scrunch it down in the trail pattern, and as soon as you jog over the poles, you lope off in the right lead and then change leads after three strides, that happens really fast. As soon as I saw how tight it was in the pattern, I knew I needed to practice it on my horse. So I practiced going from a jog to a right-lead lope, loping three strides and changing leads. The first couple of times she wanted to get stronger [after the lead change], but I slowed her down and did it again and again until she was comfortable with how quickly it was going to happen.”
Baldus looks at anything in the pattern that could be confusing or difficult for his horse, and then focuses on that element in his pre-show warm-up.
“With the ground tie, for example, I want to give my horse plenty of signal [to stay put], and walk away confidently for the showmanship aspect of it,” he says. “You don’t want to say ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ as you back away. So you practice the night before. If it’s a ground tie and pick up all four feet, then practice that. If it’s a ground tie and walk away, move a log and walk back, then practice that.”
Stop and Draw
Cutting demonstrates a horse’s ability to drive selected cattle out of the herd and keep them from returning. Reining is allowed, but a horse that is able to work a cow on a loose rein gets credit.
Before he walks to the herd, Baldus makes sure his horse knows what’s ahead.
“How my mare changes leads or transitions from a trot to a lope doesn’t matter in the cutting,” he says. “I want her to stop and draw—start backing on her own—to emphasize that big stop on the cow, and then come back, go the other direction and stay on the same line.”
Once his horse is warmed up with some trotting and loping, he checks to be sure the horse is paying attention to his cues.
“She doesn’t need to be as relaxed as I wanted her for the trail because cutting is going to be quicker,” Baldus says. “I want her to be alert and attentive. About one horse before I cut, I’ll back her up and take my feet off and make sure she keeps backing. Then I’ll back in a circle and be sure she’s stepping behind herself in that circle. I might also jog her in a straight line and stop her, and really make sure she hits that stop and comes back quickly. The only thing she needs to have on her mind is to go straight, stop and back. If that’s on her mind when I push a cow out [ from the herd], she’s going to want to stop and come back with it.”
With versatility classes requiring so much of a horse, a change in equipment is sometimes required, too. That goes right down to the horse’s shoes, which often include sliding plates on the hind feet. Those sliders encourage big stops in reining, but can be problematic in cutting.
“I put screw-in pegs on my mare’s sliders for the cutting so she won’t slide past the cow,” Baldus says. “That gives her some traction. What happens without the pegs is, say there’s a cow on my left and my horse is going fast. When she stops with the cow, she’s going to slide. She’s cowy, so she knows she needs to come back with the cow, and the first thing she’ll start doing is dropping her shoulder and making an ugly U-turn to get back, because she can’t get any traction.
“With those screws, she can stop straight and hard, keep her hocks underneath her, and bring her front end back across to hold that cow and stay really correct. Without those, you just build bad habits. It can also scare a horse that’s a big stopper and really cowy. That horse has to try to catch its balance and come back with the cow at the same time.”
Imagine a Cow
Reining, cattle work and roping are rolled into one class in working ranch horse. The reining is judged first, and upon completion of the pattern the rider calls for a cow. The cow is boxed, or held on one end of the arena, and then taken down the fence, where the horse and rider must turn it at least once each way. The exhibitor must then rope the cow and bring it to a stop.
Because this class involves so many variables, Baldus concentrates on the things he knows for certain.
“I’ll work the night before on my reining pattern. I won’t do the whole pattern, but I’ll work on elements of it,” he explains. “For instance, if it’s a fast lead change [ from one large fast circle to another], there’s no point in working on my slow lead change the night before. But, since it’s after the cutting, I need to practice my stops and make sure my horse’s front end is freed up and she pedals up front [in the stop]. And I need to practice the number of spins I’m going to do in the pattern.”
To prepare for the cow work, Baldus says he rides in the arena just as if there is a cow in front of him.
“I’ll pretend there’s a cow in the pen,” he says. “Particularly on a green horse, it’s important to work exactly as if there’s a cow there. It’s as much for me, mentally. I’ll ride to the middle of the pen and nod for my cow. I ride down to how far I’ll want to be from the end gate when I call for my cow [the next day].”
He’s already paid attention to the direction the gate swings, which has a bearing on which direction the cow will come into the arena.
“I’ll pretend the cow comes out, and I’ll trot over to one side, stop, roll back and go the other direction, and stop. Then I’ll move closer,” he says. “I’ll pretend I’m boxing the cow back and forth, driving my horse all the way to each end, and then I’m ready to go down the fence. I’ll drive all the way into the corner, because if I can’t do it the night before, how am I going to do it with a cow [in the pen]? I make sure my horse is moving off my leg, pass the marker, make sure the horse stops and snaps through that turnaround, and go the other direction.”
While Baldus has access to plenty of fresh cattle at Waggoner Ranch, he realizes not everyone has that luxury. That’s when an exercise like this can help.
“It’s especially good for amateurs or non-pros who don’t have access to cattle every day,” he says. “If you don’t, it’s even more important to have that horse trained to listen to you. The more you can do on a flag or just pretending there’s a cow in the arena, the better you’re going to be when you show.”
Because versatility shows require roping rather than circling the cow, Baldus again advises plenty of practice at home and the night before a show—not just roping itself, but also the way your horse ends the cow run and sets up for the roping. That way you’ll be able to handle virtually any scenario.
“Practice enough to where you have a plan,” he says. “And when you’re showing, make sure to complete that last turn, then come off that last fence turn and head back toward the middle of the arena. If you stop on the fence, it almost looks like your horse got hung up there. Complete that turn, and then if you need to break your horse down to a walk or stop to fix your rope, you can. But you want your horse to show that it can finish the turn and come off the fence with the cow.”
And, above all, be comfortable with a rope before you show.
“Practice your dally until it’s second nature to you,” Baldus says.
Article originally published in the June 2015 issue of Western Horseman.