AQHA Ranch Horse Classes

You've got choices when it comes to showing your ranch horse in AQHA competition.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

An exhibitor competing in Versatility Ranch Horse trail at the Zoetis AQHA Versatililty Ranch Horse World Championships. (Credit: Journal)

No silver. No bling. No fancy clothes. Those were the tenets of the first AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse classes that debuted 13 years ago. Exhibitors were looking for something different from the usual AQHA show classes.

So a task force that comprised ranchers, exhibitors, judges and representatives from other ranch horse organizations developed the five-class VRH shows. At each VRH show, exhibitors competed in ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch cutting, working ranch horse and ranch conformation. The classes harkened back to a day when an American Quarter Horse would show in halter in the morning and do all of the other classes – cutting, western pleasure, etc. – through the rest of the day.

“I can’t believe that VRH has been around for 13 years; time flies when you’re having fun,” says Charlie Hemphill, AQHA director of shows and new events. That has also been enough time for exhibitors to say, “We love VRH, but … "

Well, there are changes this year and some more coming in 2016 to address the “but.”

AQHA Ranch Horse Competition 

First, though, let's talk about the three ways for you to compete with your American Quarter Horse in AQHA ranch-style events. 

Ranch Riding: Formerly known as ranch horse pleasure, ranch riding is offered to youth, amateur and open exhibitors. The class debuted at the 2012 AQHA World Championship Show. In 2013, the class was offered at the Built Ford Tough AQHYA, Adequan Select, amateur and open world championship shows. It is the fastest-growing, most-popular class at most AQHA shows. The class is only open to American Quarter Horses, and exhibitors must earn a specified number of points to qualify for the class at each world show.

Ranching Heritage Challenges: Horses that are eligible to compete in Zoetis AQHA Ranching Heritage Challenges must have been bred by AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders. The challenges consist of working ranch horse, boxing and ranch riding in four divisions: open, amateur, Level 1 amateur and cowboy. In the marquee 4-year-old working ranch horse class, horses must have been nominated to the program to be eligible. Of the six Ranching Heritage Challenges scheduled for 2015, four remain:

  • September 3: Colorado State Fair, Pueblo, Colorado
  • September 19: Tri-State Fair, Amarillo
  • September 26: NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, Reno Nevada
  • October 14: Northern International Livestock Exposition, Billings, Montana

For now, the challenges are stand-alone events, although they often take place within an existing fair or livestock show.

Versatility Ranch Horse: As mentioned earlier, Versatility Ranch Horse events debuted in 2002. Exhibitors were looking for something different from the usual AQHA show classes. So the Association developed the five-class VRH shows, and at each show, exhibitors competed in five classes: ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch cutting, working ranch horse and ranch conformation.

This Year’s Changes

Last year, the AQHA Executive Committee approved recommendations from the AQHA Show Committee to rework VRH, creating six classes: VRH ranch riding, VRH ranch trail, VRH ranch reining, VRH ranch cow work, VRH ranch cutting and VRH ranch conformation. And the Association’s new ranch division gives exhibitors the opportunity to compete in the open, amateur, youth and cowboy divisions in any one of the classes; exhibitors are not required to compete in all six classes.

“Many Quarter Horse enthusiasts appreciate the versatility of the horse and enjoy riding a horse that can do all the events in Versatility Ranch Horse,” Charlie says. “But people are busy, and our members don’t always have time to prepare adequately for all of those classes or even the time in a single day to show in all of them. We think this reworking will address some of those concerns while bringing more people and more horses to our shows.”

For 2015, AQHA VRH shows are stand-alone events that can be run within other similar events, such as Stock Horse of Texas shows, Charlie adds.

The six classes are divided among four categories:

Category 1: VRH ranch riding and VRH ranch trail
Category 2: VRH ranch reining
Category 3: VRH ranch cutting and VRH ranch cow work
Category 4: VRH ranch conformation

Shows that host a ranch event must offer one class from each category, and to be considered for an all-around award, exhibitors must show in three categories, including ranch conformation and one Category 3 class (either ranch cutting or ranch cow work).

Read on for answers to frequently asked AQHA ranch horse class questions.

Exhibitors are eligible to earn AQHA points in each of the VRH classes toward qualifying for the Zoetis AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse Championships in March of the year following the qualifying year. However, points earned in the individual VRH classes are not eligible for payouts from the AQHA Incentive Fund and will not count toward AQHA Register of Merit, Superior, AQHA Champion, Supreme or year-end high-point titles.

At the Zoetis VRH World, champion titles will be awarded for each class, but the world champion title will only be awarded to the all-around winner in each division. And only the all-around points count toward AQHA ROM, Superior, AQHA Champion, Supreme and year-end high-point titles, as well as Incentive Fund payouts.

Changes for 2016

Beginning January 1, 2016, all AQHA shows can begin offering one or all six VRH classes along with their regular roster of AQHA show classes.

“Because our exhibitors have absolutely loved ranch horse pleasure – now called ranch riding – they have lobbied strongly for AQHA to add other ranch horse classes,” Charlie says. “With the changes made in 2015, allowing exhibitors to show in the individual VRH classes, we are excited to open up the opportunity for our AQHA shows to offer the individual VRH classes at regular shows.”

Again, the points that exhibitors earn in these individual VRH classes count toward qualifying for the Zoetis VRH World.

At the Zoetis VRH World, champion titles will be awarded for each class and the world champion title will be awarded to the all-around winner in each division. And only the all-around points count toward AQHA ROM, Superior, AQHA Champion, Supreme and year-end high-point titles. The all-around points also count toward AQHA Incentive Fund payouts.

“Our goal with this division is the same as it has always been with Versatility Ranch Horse classes: to demonstrate the performance, versatility and conformation of the Quarter Horse as a working ranch horse,” Charlie says. “And we’re excited to be able to meet the requests of our exhibitors to make that happen. And for the individuals wanting to compete in specific ranch classes.”

The Zoetis VRH World

AQHA has heard from some exhibitors who are concerned that the Zoetis VRH World is less prestigious than the AQHA World Championship Show.

“Despite the long drive, we were amazed with the hospitality of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo organizers who really roll out the red carpet for the competitors at the Versatility Ranch Horse World Championship Show,” says Sara Gugelmeyer, who has competed at the Zoetis VRH World and at the AQHA World Championship Show.

In 2012, Sara and Colonels Miss Chic were the amateur VRH third-place trophy winners and they nabbed the reserve world championship in the open division at the Zoetis VRH World. In 2013, Sara and “Chic” were again third in the amateur at the Zoetis VRH World. That same year, Sara and Chic made the finals in amateur ranch horse pleasure at the AQHA World Show and Sara was the amateur reserve world champion in the class aboard husband Jeremy’s horse, ARC Alil Cash Please.

“When we arrived (at Houston) in the middle of the night, there was a welcome group of people who used golf carts and helped us unload everything, all the way from the trailer to the stall,” Sara says of the Zoetis VRH World. “Throughout the whole show, those volunteers are there to answer any questions about their city and event, plus they have a hospitality room with full meals provided for all exhibitors and their families for the whole show. It's really an amazing event with a packed house of non-participant spectators for the final events. That, combined with the fun, relaxed atmosphere of camaraderie which we've found at all the versatility ranch horse shows makes the VRH World Show at Houston a must-go-to event.”

AQHA Ranch Horse Class FAQs

Q: AQHA approved some new walk/trot classes for 2016. Don’t those classes require the same database change as adding regular ranch trail?

A: The AQHA Executive Committee approved the recommendation to add Level 1 walk/trot hunter under saddle, western pleasure and trail to the amateur and youth divisions only. AQHA already had Level 1 walk/trot horsemanship and equitation classes. As Level 1 classes do not count toward AQHA world show qualification, AQHA year-end high-point awards or AQHA Incentive Fund payouts, there is no programming involved in adding these classes to the current AQHA database.

Q: The rationale for not offering ranch trail and ranch rail pleasure in 2016 was the expense of programing the current AQHA computer system to handle the new classes. It’s been noted that there were 36,415 entries in ranch horse pleasure in 2014 and that when the programming costs are considered in light of the number of entries and goodwill generated among the membership, that the costs were minimal and well worthwhile.

A: Unfortunately, there are a number of factors. No. 1, entry numbers at shows do not translate into money to pay for the additional programming required to implement these classes in 2016. Outside of the fee paid by show managers to register their show with AQHA, the Association does not receive any income from AQHA-approved shows (see show fees article). At the AQHA world shows, entry fees are paid out 100 percent through winnings and awards. Second, is the cost of programming to add the classes to the current database, then to turn around and do more programming when we switch over to the new system. Thirdly, there is no room in the current database to add more classes.

AQHA wants to integrate ranch horse classes into its shows, which is why this year, we have opened up the option for exhibitors to show in any of the VRH classes. Then, in 2016, all AQHA shows will be able to offer VRH classes.

Q: I understand that AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse competition is open to all breeds, right?

A: No. AQHA VRH competition is only for registered American Quarter Horses.

Q: Do these changes mean regular ranch riding won’t be part of regular shows anymore?

A: The regular ranch riding class will continue to be offered at AQHA shows at the discretion of the show managers. Next year, AQHA shows will be able to offer more ranch horse competition in the form of the individual VRH classes.

Q: Doesn’t AQHA like ranch events?

A: The registry was founded on the backs of hardworking American Quarter Horses used on ranches, and that’s why we’re working so hard to create new ranch events. The AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders, AQHYA Young Horse Development and Zoetis AQHA Ranching Heritage Challenges are all initiatives to bring recognition to ranch horses. And in 2016, AQHA shows will be able to offer the individual VRH classes.

Q: I thought Ranching Heritage Challenges were only for big ranches. How can I participate?

A: If you have a Quarter Horse bred by an AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder – the list is online – and the breeder has nominated your horse, you can win big money. Older horses have been grandfathered in. If the ranch that bred your horse didn’t nominate your horse to the program, you can make those payments and then compete for your share of the prize money.

Q: What’s the difference between a Zoetis AQHA Ranching Heritage Challenge and VRH competition?

A: The difference is that horses that compete in the Ranching Heritage Challenges must have been bred by AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders. Besides the difference between the eligibility, the challenges are made up of regular classes – working ranch horse, boxing and ranch riding – in open, amateur, Level 1 amateur and cowboy divisions. The exciting working ranch horse class asks exhibitors to ride a short reining pattern, box a cow, take it both ways down the fence and then rope it. In VRH classes, exhibitors have the option of showing in six classes within their divisions, with all six classes counting toward the all-around title.

Q: AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse classes sound like fun, but you don’t earn any points.

A: AQHA points are awarded in each VRH class toward qualification for the Zoetis AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships, which are in Houston in March of the year following the qualification year. So if you qualify for the Zoetis VRH World in 2015, you would be eligible to compete at the Zoetis VRH World in March 2016 in Houston. And while those points do go on your horse’s permanent record, they do not count toward AQHA Register of Merit, Superior, Supreme, AQHA Champion or year-end high-point titles.

Q: Do any AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse points count toward ROM and other titles?

A: Yes. The all-around points count toward AQHA ROM, Superior, AQHA Champion, Supreme and year-end high-point titles. The all-around points also count toward AQHA Incentive Fund payouts. To be considered for an AQHA VRH all-around award, exhibitors must show in three categories, including ranch conformation, and one Category 3 class (either ranch cutting or ranch cow work). However, points earned in the individual VRH classes do not count toward the above awards and year-end titles or Incentive Fund payouts.

Q: I’m an information technology specialist. It cannot be that hard to reprogram a database to add new classes. I don’t get it.

A: As some of you might remember, AQHA began a huge database project a couple of years ago to build a new system. When it was completed, that new system did not perform to AQHA standards. So, the Association went back to the drawing board and is rebuilding the new system. A freeze has been instituted on any new programming to the old system, as it would be costly, the current database does not have enough room for new classes to be added and it would take time away from the work being done to complete the new system.

Q: By adding some new ranch horse classes – specifically, ranch trail and ranch rail pleasure – AQHA would see a huge increase in the number of exhibitors. Wouldn’t the money from the increase in exhibitor numbers offset the cost of the programming needed to add those classes to the existing database?

A: AQHA doesn’t make any money off of the shows it approves. The Association receives show-approval fees from show managers, but that money barely pays for the employee time to enter those shows into the database. With the exception of the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show, all entry fees at the AQHA world championship shows are paid out 100 percent – in addition to added money from the AQHA corporate partners – to exhibitors. For a breakdown on show fees at regular AQHA shows, please see “The Cost of Showing.”

Q: Are world championships from other AQHA world shows less prestigious than those earned at the AQHA World Championship Show in November in Oklahoma City?

A: All AQHA world championships are equal, no matter which AQHA world show they were earned at. That is one reason AQHA is so cautious about adding classes for world championship status. Too, adding classes for world champion status would also contribute to the specialization that has taken place in the show industry.

The Zoetis VRH World is special to its exhibitors because it continues the longstanding VRH tradition of no bling and no fuss, with camaraderie more the rule than the exception. All the exhibitors root for one another and enjoy the many spectators, many of whom are seeing ranch horses for the first time in their lives. AQHA encourages all of its members to make a point of traveling to see the show at least once – and returning to compete. The VRH classes allow AQHA to continue to reward the horses that can compete in multiple events.