Western Horse Competitions: Complete Guide

If you’re interested in western horseback riding, there are numerous western competitions available to compete in. I was wondering about all of the competitions available, so I decided to do some research on the topic and compile all my findings here.

Western competitions for horse owners include: 

    • Cutting
    • Western Pleasure
    • Rodeo
    • Gymkhana
    • Trail
    • Horsemanship
    • Western Riding
    • Reining
    • Team Penning
    • Roping
    • Working Cow Horse


Each of these competitions has its own guidelines and regulations, so let’s examine them all in more detail.

Cutting Competitions

Western Horseback Riding Competitions

Cutting originated from the American West when cowboys were hired by ranchers to sort or cut through their cattle to find the ones that might need medical attention or that were ready for branding.

Today, there are large cutting competitions throughout the United States and beyond. These competitions are primarily overseen by the National Cutting Horse Association.

The rules of cutting can vary slightly depending on who is facilitating the competition, but they are generally very similar across the board. In cutting, a rider will select one cow out of a heard of 60 cows.

Their primary goal is to separate the cow from the rest of the herd. Once they’ve separated them, they must keep the cow from returning to the herd. This can be difficult because cows are very eager to stay with one another.

A panel of judges watches throughout the competition and determines the rider’s score based on well the horse responds to and anticipates the rider’s movements. They also take into consideration the difficulty level of the cow that was selected.

The ideal cutting horse is able to work seamlessly with a rider by quickly responding to even the slightest of cues. Dexterity and responsiveness on the horse’s behalf are vital in order to keep a cow from getting back to the herd. The event of cutting is very entertaining for spectators because of how effortlessly the horse and rider seem to work with one another.

Western Pleasure Competitions 

Western pleasure competitions are all about demonstrating that a horse is a pleasure to ride. Judges look for smooth and slow gaits, but also that the horse is very responsive to the cues from the rider.

In western pleasure competitions, the rider must perform three different gaits two times with their horse. At some point, they will also be required to back up with their horse. The gaits that are required are walk, jog, and lope.

The ideal horse for this competition will be very calm and muscular. Additional muscles help horses sustain the slow gaits that judges will be looking for.

Rodeo Competitions 

Rodeos are a contest in which cowboys have the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess through a number of different competition categories. These categories each highlight a different skillset. Here are the categories of competitions frequently seen at rodeos:

Bareback Riding

This event involves a rider holding onto a handhold on their horse with one hand while making sure their free hand does not come into contact with anything. The horse bucks wildly throughout the 8-second ride.

Bull Riding 

The event of bull riding is very similar to that of bareback riding on a horse. However, in bull riding, riders are not required to spur at all. They just get extra points for doing so.

Saddle Bronc Riding

Saddle bronc riding is one of the most iconic rodeo events. The rules are very similar to bareback riding and bull riding, with a few added rules concerning the saddle. Throughout the 8-second ride, the rider must hold on with only one hand and keep it from coming in contact with anything.

Tie Down Roping

Tie-down roping involves a rider giving chase to a calf that has been given a headstart. The rider must rope the calf. Once they’re roped, the rider quickly dismounts their horse, runs over to the calf, and ties three of their legs together. Judges score based on how quickly the rider is able to complete the required steps and how closely they followed the rules.

Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is all about speed. A rider’s time starts as soon as they enter the arena and stops when they exit the arena. They must ride a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels that are spaced out around the arena and exit as quickly as they can.

Steer Wrestling

Steer wrestling involves a mounted rider chasing after a steer that has been given a headstart. Once they reach the steer, the must dive off of their horse, grab onto the horns of the steer, and wrestle it to the ground. This is a timed event. The clock stops when a steer has successfully been wrestled down with each of its legs pointing in the same direction.

Team Roping

Team roping, as the name suggests, involves two riders instead of one. The objective for the riders is to work together to successfully rope a steers horn and hind legs. Once they’ve completed this objective, the clock will stop when they mounted riders both face each other.

Gymkhana Competitions 

Pole Bending Horse Competition

Gymkhana is a word that is used to describe a category of horseback riding events that are all focused on speed. Some of these events include barrel racing, keyhole racing, flag racing, and pole bending. Since I’ve already discussed barrel racing, let’s take a look at the others.

Keyhole Racing 

In keyhole racing, a rider must race through an obstacle course marked with chalk. Time starts when they enter the course and ends when they exit the course.

Flag Racing

Flag racing is similar to barrel racing, however, in flag racing riders must carry one flag with them that they deposit into a barrel, and they must retrieve one flag from a barrel. The fastest time wins.

Pole Bending 

In pole bending competitions, riders must weave their way through a series of 6 poles that are set 21 feet apart. The objective is to have the fastest time possible, without knocking down any of the poles.

Trail Competitions 

In western trail competitions, riders must navigate an intricate obstacle course. The obstacle courses attempt to replicate some of the natural challenges that a rider might come across while riding in a natural environment.

While the exact layout of the course will vary depending on who is hosting the competition, some of the typical obstacles include a fake bridge that the riders must cross, numerous obstacles on the ground that they must seamlessly step over, obstacles requiring the rider to back up and turn around in a tight space, and a tarp that they must walk over with their horse.

Horsemanship Competitions

Western horsemanship competitions mix things up by focusing more on the rider as opposed to the horse, making it perfect for riders that have a young or inexperienced horse that isn’t ready to compete in other types of competitions yet.

In horsemanship competitions, judges are focused on things like the riders positioning, how relaxed they look, and the way they carry their arms. Riders are tasked with navigating a pre-determined pattern that they are generally notified of 24 hours in advance to the competition.

Western Riding Competitions 

The main focus of the western riding class is flying lead changes. Instead of being a timed event, riders are judged on the responsiveness of their horse, their lead changes, the overall quality of their gaits, and a variety of other factors.

Proficiencies in these areas are demonstrated while navigating a set pattern. The pattern will vary depending on which organization is hosting the competition.

Reining Competitions 

Reining is known as the dressage of western riding competitions. The focus of reining competitions is precision. Riders must guide their horses in very precise circles and stops, and use either a cantor or gallop as they perform the required routine.

When judges are making their deliberations for a routine, they focus on the willingness of the horse and how easily it responds to the subtle aids from the rider. Like many western riding competitions, reining has its origins from ranchers in the west who needed horses that would quickly and accurately respond to their instructions as they worked with livestock.

Team Penning Competitions 

In team penning competitions, teams of 3 riders must work together to herd specific cattle that have been called by an announcer in a mere 60-second time span.

Team penning is a fast-paced event that gives riders the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their skills as they navigate the arena in a chaotic situation. In order to win, riders must utilize great teamwork and horsemanship skills.

Working Cow Horse Competitions 

Working cow horse competitions require a horse to perform a series of maneuvers with a cow in the arena. Some of these maneuvers include getting the cow to turn in a certain direction, and performing specific reining patterns.

The National Reined Cow Horse Association holds a number of open competitions for riders to compete in throughout the year. There are other organizations that hold these competitions as well, so the rules will differ slightly for each one depending on who is putting the event on.

Thank you for reading! Check out the article we wrote on the popular types of English horseback riding.


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