Tripp Townsend and his Sandhill Cattle Company crew find creative ways to prepare their horses for versatility ranch competition.

Tripp Townsend and his crew begin every day working in the feedyard, pouring out grain to yearling calves and riding through the pens to check the health of the livestock.

Their job involves sorting out sick calves, separating them from the herd, moving them into a long alley and driving them toward a squeeze chute where they can administer medication.

Every once in a while one of the cowboys lopes toward the other end of the alley, builds speed and then sits down and says “whoa!” The horse drops its hocks into the soft ground and slides several feet.

“Did you see our sliding track?” Townsend asks with a grin. “It’s just a little spot down the alley where the ground is pretty ideal for us. It’s hard underneath with a little powder on top—manure dust mainly. At the moment, it’s great for working on your sliding stops. A few months from now it may get real windy and blow away that powder, so we try to take advantage of it.”

Tripp Townsend practicing a sliding stop on horse
Riding Four Metallic, Townsend practices a sliding stop in the alley of his feedyard in Earth, Texas.

Townsend, Keith Johnson and Riley Smith stay busy operating Sandhill Cattle Company in Earth, Texas. But whether they are riding pens or roping and doctoring yearling cattle on surrounding wheat pastures, they figure out ways to train their horses for the ranch rodeos and ranch horse shows they enter throughout the year.

The crew has won the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas, three times. Smith has won two Ranch Horse Association of America National Championships in the Ranch Hand division and earned more than $10,000 with the organization. Townsend has claimed seven RHAA National Championships, either in the Junior or Senior division, and has won more than $37,000. He also picked up $10,000 last November by winning the inaugural Cactus-Clovis Futurity in Clovis, New Mexico. His son, Trail, who often joins the crew after school, won the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Senior Youth Cow Horse Championship last November in Amarillo.

Despite the many accolades, running Sandhill Cattle remains their priority. But many of their duties naturally prepare them and their horses for ranch competition.“I do go to the arena and spend time
loping circles, changing leads, working a cow,” Townsend says. “A lot of times it’s after I’ve ridden all morning and afternoon [workin in the feedyard and wheat pastures]. But I don’t have the time to spend
all day in the practice pen.

“A horse that is exposed to [ranch work] is more broke. He can handle different situations better. Do you have to do all that in order to train a horse? No. But it helps me, so when I get to the practice pen and I’m loping circles or working a cow, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Townsend quickly points out that he still has a lot to learn and shouldn’t be considered an expert. However, as much as he tries to downplay it, he is easily RHAA’s all-time leading money earner and ranks second in Equi-Stat’s list of Top Open Versatility Ranch Riders.

“I enjoy the process,” he says. “Buying a yearling, riding him his 2- and 3-year-old year, showing him. I don’t get to ride many older horses because we end up selling them. But it’s been a lot of fun to see other people ride them and do good.”

Townsend’s training process is unique, giving his horses plenty of practical application and instilling a good work ethic.

“I think there are lots of benefits to it,” he says. “If a horse gets nervous, scared or upset, you’re not going to be done with him in 20 minutes and he stays that way. You have all day to work it out. It increases the odds of you ending on a good note.”

He adds that the nature of the work gives horses a sense of accomplishment.

cowboys sorting calves in alleyway
By sorting cattle in an alleyway, horses learn to read cattle and gain a sense of accomplishment.

“I know when you sort a sick one out the gate, the horse knows that he got him out the gate,” Townsend says. “He knows he got his job done. And I’m sure it’s the same when you rope and doctor one.”

Roping yearling calves in an open pasture involves many more challenges than roping in an arena. The cattle are less likely to run straight, and the ground is slick and bumpy instead of soft and level. But the higher degree of difficulty pays off in the show pen.

In the pasture, a sick calf must be driven from the herd, then chased down and roped as quickly as possible. Townsend says that teaches the horse to focus on a specific cow and rate it, giving its rider a better shot.

“He actually hunts the cow,” he says. “And if you miss [with your rope], as the cow circles around and you rebuild your loop, it doesn’t take that horse very long to really start hunting that cow. And he learns to rate whether it’s running hard or going slow.

“In Ranch Horse Association shows, you can kind of tell which horses have been roped on only in a pen. They don’t lock on quite like a horse that’s been roped on outside, and some of them are scared of speed.

Feedyard tasks translate to plenty of arena maneuvers as well. Opening and closing gates involves moving a horse’s shoulders and hindquarters. Sorting cattle requires a horse to be quiet in the herd, responsive to the rider, and attentive to a cow’s attempts to slip past the horse.

“We sort a lot of cattle in the alley,” Townsend says. “It gets your horse listening to you, but he’s looking at the cow, too. So it gets a horse to start watching a cow, but we still have to go to the round pen to work cattle in a cutting horse type of setting.”

When he has time, Townsend works on stops, spins, lead changes, roping, boxing and going down the fence in his arena. But he also finds opportunities to work on those maneuvers while doing his job.

“Almost everything you do in the arena, you can do it outside and try to make it better,” he says. “Your circles, lead changes, lead departures, cow work—you can work on that as you’re doing your job, and it carries over to the arena. I might look at a set of calves in the pasture, and if they’re good and I don’t need to doctor any, I might just hang out there and lope a few circles before I go back to the trailer. I’m always working on something, and I’m way more like that now that I’ve started showing more.”

It’s clear that Townsend and his crew are equal parts cowboys and competitors. How else would you explain the sight of pen riders practicing sliding stops in a feedyard alley?


This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of Ranch Horse News.

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