Greatest Horseman competition tests cowboys' versatility
By Gary Ryan Bayles
April 5, 2006 | A tradition born in the American West
with roots to the Spanish vaquero, the World's Greatest
Horseman competition is a living legacy to great horsemen
and even greater horses.
With thousands of horses and even more horse lovers,
it's hard to really say that one person is the greatest
horseman or the there is only one super horse, but that's
exactly what this event does. According to the National
Reining Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) which sponsors
the event, "it's one of the most prestigous titles in
the horse world."
The competition consists of one horse, one rider, one
bit and four events. These four events are based on
the culture of the American Cowboy and resemble in a
small way work on the ranch. The events are reining
(dry work), cow cutting (more commonly referred to as
herd work), steer stopping and fencework. There are
many competitions that focus on a single event, or maybe
even a combination of two or three, but this is the
only competition which combines all four which increases
the degree of difficulty.
The first World's Greatest Horsemen event was held
in 1999, but the tradition has been around for hundreds
of years. Vaqueros (spanish cowboys) are considered
the greatest horsemen because of patient hands and love
for horses, especially cow horses.
Ernest Morris, one of the last true vaqueros, has
spent his life doing what he loves--being a cowboy.
Now much of his time is spent on his artwork and catching
his memories of a lifestyle and legacy he loved so much.
Morris has captured mutch of what he learned in four
books: El Vaquero, El Buckaroo, Riata Man and
California Cowboy Inventions. Through Morris'
books it's easy to see where the four events in the
World's Greatest Horseman competition come from.
For a vaquero and any horseman the goal is to train
a horse so that it will neck rein or in other words
when the rider steers the horse it moves when the outside
rein touches the neck of the horse rather than pulling
on the rein. This is the basis of the reining event.
Horses are trained to do several manuevers with very
little pull or use of the reins which attatch to a bit
in the horses mouth.
Some of the maneuvers include spins where a horse
spins in one direction with the inside hind leg of the
horse acting as a pivot point, very similar to a pivot
in basketball. They are also trained to do speed transitions
from fast to slow with only a slight change in the way
the rider sits. The trademark maneuver in reining is
the slidestop. A horse begins to run at an easy pace,
but with each stride it builds speed and when the rider
says whoa, the horse stops and slides on its hind legs.
Cow cutting which is often referred to as the herd
work is a completely different event. Many times the
vaqueros had to sort cows from one herd to another or
cut out a cow that was sick or maybe even a bull. Sally
Harrison, writer for the National Cutting Horse Association
said, "When an animal is selected, it is slowly driven
out of the herd and to the "cuts." If it tries to run
back to the herd, the cutting horse heads it and turns
it around." This may appear to be an easy task, but
a stubborn cow can be almost impossible to hold and
a great cow horse is worth its' weight in gold.
Cutting has grown since the time of the vaquero into
a hobby and past time for many horsemen. It has been
slightly modified to fit competition perameters, but
the basic idea remains. Popularity in the sport has
increased and includes celebrities like Joe Montana
who competes on his own cutting horses.
Steer stopping tests the riders ability to rope a
cow, while at the same time testing the horse's ability
to handle a cow on th end of a rope. Roping is a part
of the vaquero legacy and lives on today as part of
the working cowboy.
Scores are determined based on a score card which
assigns point values to each aspect of the competition.
Steer stopping can be very technical, but according
to the NRCHA score card, the most important aspect is
how smooth the horse works and that it allows the rider
to rope the cow.
Fencework is the defining event in the competition.
The first move is to stop and turn the cow on the small
end of the arena. When the rider feels that he or she
has established some respect from the cow they then
start down the long side of the arena. Usually the cow
will take off and the rider must stay close and as soon
as the cow passes the midway marker on the fence, the
rider will pass it and turn the cow back down the fence.
After turning the cow both wasy on the fence, the rider
eases the cow off the fence and blocks the cow into
making a circle in both directions.
Shane Haviland, professional horse trainer and NRCHA
member, said, "It's so exciting you forget to breath."
It is truly one of the defining events of the World's
Greatest Horseman. According to FenceWork.com, it's
difficult because "three individuals are involved in
a fence run....and the cow doesn't react mechanically
- it has a personality and motivations all its own."
These four events make up the World's Greatest Horseman
competition. Haviland said there are a lot of great
horses that specify in one event or another, "but these
horses do it all." That's what puts them above the rest
and makes them the greatest.