By Hunter Johnson
Imagine yourself at a large equine facility, with at least one full-sized show arena, several large barns and countless horse trailers. You see dozens to hundreds of people on horses, sitting in saddles that range from falling apart to costing several thousand dollars and trainers barking orders for hours on end. Attire ranges from dirty jeans and T-shirts to pristine riding chaps, crisp-button downs, sequined jackets and felt hats. All are wearing boots. The smell of the place quite unique: a blend of dirt, horse sweat, manure and Whataburger.
Step into the actual show arena, and you find yourself watching a class where anywhere from five to 20 horse-and-rider pairs are going around the ring while judges make notes and eventually announce who made those circles best. You could see some spectators on the edges of their seats, whispering to one another and pointing at horses as they transition from one “gait,” or speed, to the next. You would also see more than a few people flat-out asleep, likely because they have been helping a competitor prepare since 4 a.m. or earlier.
On the surface, showing in the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) may seem like a rather strange affair.
“All this fanfare for just a few people to ride their horses in circles,” many have pondered. What they do not realize is the amount of time, sweat, blood and cursing — especially cursing — that goes into getting a horse and rider ready for just that class.
Before you give up on the AQHA, let me just say this: It is probably one of the most complex and fulfilling sports that there is. I would know because I showed in the AQHA for over five years.
There are literally hundreds of classes that push the horse and rider to the limits of their combined capabilities. They range from simple lap classes and pattern classes to obstacle courses and cow events. If you think it looks easy, that is the point. In judged events, it is the horse and rider who look like they are putting in the least amount of effort that will likely win.
It is very feasible to do well in the AQHA, if you have money. You can buy a nice horse with all the trappings for between $30K and $500K or more. I was not one of those people. My horse and best buddy, Mos (rhymes with “nose”), cost a whopping $3,000 — less than the saddles most of my competitors were riding in.
Mos and I would train for at least a couple of hours almost every day. We would work on transitions from the walk, to the trot, to the “lope,” which is like a gallop but slower, making sure that he looked his finest while doing it, and that I looked as stoic as a statue. Again, it is not easy. Do you think a horse wants to move in what we consider a collected posture, with neck and head held down while all movement seems to occur in just the legs? Heck no. In fact, Mos was superb at being stubborn, fighting me tooth and nail to get his way. In the end, though, we were usually able to set our differences in opinion aside and we managed to do well.
We both excelled at trail courses. Essentially obstacle courses, trail classes include the usual gait transitions, circles and posture that are involved in other classes, but with logs, boxes, cones and even trees thrown into the mix. We would have to open and close gates, lope over logs, weave through cones while changing leads, do 360-degree turns in small spaces — all while not bumping into anything. For some reason Mos loved it, and toward the end of our career we were winning classes left and right.
Of course I wish we could have done more classes in our time, but eventually Mos’ tendon in his front left leg calcified, making it difficult for him to support even my weight. With college around the corner for me, we decided to retire him to the simple life at pasture back home.
For myself and for most others in the horse world, showing quarter horses means far more than going to a show every other weekend. It is an investment of time, money and heart. It will forever change your approach to life. It is one of the most intensive sports, and I would give anything to do it all over again.