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Horsemanship Advice from Abbey Sass

By Wrangler Network contributor Miss Rodeo America
This article was written by guest blog contributor and former Miss Rodeo Kansas, Abbey Sass

The Horsemanship title is a coveted title. It is seen as the category that makes a rodeo queen pageant so unique. We, as contestants, are emotionally invested into this portion of the pageant because we have spent our lives becoming the best horsemen we possibly can become. Yet, it is very difficult to be judged and ranked against our peers in the very title we define ourselves by.

With this section of competition, railwork is an opportunity to demonstrate that you are a leader and a showman. Leader in terms of intentionality and showman in terms of poise. These two words can be applied to any part of the pageant, but are keys to success in the horsemanship portion and when combined with solid foundational riding skills they produce a horsemanship winner.

My horsemanship foundation was built in a variety of ‘arenas’. I grew up on the classic ornery pony, made my way through the 4-H ranks, trained to jump and competed on my college’s rodeo team. Throughout my riding career I learned the importance of needing to readjust my style in order to appeal to the style of my current way of riding. Every time I became a student I built a stronger foundation and more adaptability. These experiences shaped my perspective on how I needed to train for the Miss Rodeo America Horsemanship ride.

The horsemanship portion needs to be approached with a learning attitude and a willingness to readjust your style while keeping your foundational riding skills. The two worlds of grace and western must be married in one saddle. Just like any other part of the pageant, we want to be poised while remaining true to our cowgirl roots. When you study photos of previous MRA Horsemanship winners, they are the image of grace and western.

Think about watching someone warming up their horse before an event. Think about how much you can evaluate about that rider’s skills. Now, think about how much a judge can learn about your skills while watching you do railwork. During railwork there is time – time for multiple passes at different gaits to showcase that you are a leader and a showman, intentional and poised, a graceful cowgirl riding the saddle. During railwork there is an ability to narrow your focus, as less complicated moves are being required. You are not having to ride perfectly matched circles or nail the lead change, and not all eyes are on your every single move.

I want to share three key tips and exercises that made a difference in my competition. The first is ‘soft eyes’. This is the practice of being aware of your surroundings. For example, are you aware of where the other riders are, how their horses are behaving or where the judges are focusing their attention? Being aware allows you to be strategic about your ride. Second, keep that free arm pinned to your side! This is my favorite little quirk. With a silent free arm your ride appears much smoother and instantly adds that poised grace factor. Third, ride bareback at home and challenge yourself to ride with your eyes closed. I would close my eyes during my cool downs. This stimulates your senses and builds a much stronger inner connection and balance, which is extremely helpful when riding an unfamiliar draw horse.

Railwork can be uncomfortable if you have not competed in this type of riding before. It may not seem like what ‘a rodeo cowgirl’ should be doing. Very true! And that is because you are competing at a rodeo queen contest, not an actual rodeo. Just as you usually wear your Wrangler jeans for outdoor work, at the pageant you feature them on stage while modeling to music choreography. Keep that leader mentality you have developed as a cowgirl and refine that style with the showman mentality. It is key to horsemanship and to all other parts of the pageant.