Ranch Horse Events: A beginner’s guide to dress code and tack

Although ranch horse events are very casual, there are some things you need to know before heading to your first show.

This guide is not necessarily true for all ranch horse/ stock horse organizations. Always, always, always double check with the organization’s rule book. A general rule of thumb is stick with “traditional”- functional and safe. You wouldn’t wear a shirt with sequins or a saddle with silver if you’re out looking for cattle. Dress for the job.

Human Dress Code:

  • Collared and cuffed button down shirt (look at CR Ranchwear (high-end, ~$100-200), Cinch (~$50), Ariat (~$50), and Wrangler (~$50) for examples). Keep in mind what temperature it’ll be. Some shirts range in thickness for the different seasons.
  • Comfortable Riding Jeans without holes or frayed edges (preferably without stains but in the horse world, stains are inevitable. In reality, the judge probably won’t notice stains.)
  • Chinks and Chaps are NOT required. If you choose to wear them, choose something simple and traditional looking. Chinks are about knee/calf length, not including fringe, and are great in the summer. Chaps are full leg length. Expect to pay anywhere from $150-$900 depending on what you want. Second hand tack shops are a great place to check out for chinks or chaps on a budget.
  • Safe western boots. They don’t need to be so polished that they’re reflective, but the need to look decent and safe (at least the portion that the judge can see)
  • Cowboy hat or helmet. This is required for most organizations. Straw / felt hats or any type of accredited riding helmet (style/colors don’t matter for helmets). For hats, typically, straw is used in the hotter summer months while felt is used for the cooler months. I like to go for tighter fits so it stays on my head. If the hat is too loose it’ll fly off no matter what I do to it. If you are or have a youth rider, most organizations require they wear a helmet instead of a hat. I’ve seen hel-hats (a hybrid of helmet and hat) or just plain helmets, they’re all accepted as long as it’s designed for horseback riding. Expect to pay anywhere from $50-$1000 depending on what you want.
  • Jackets/coats/vests (optional). If you’re lucky enough to be showing in the cold, jackets, coats, and vests are all accepted as long as they’re clean and in good condition. Most people will wear neutral colored work jackets/vests (tan, brown, grey). Make sure the jacket isn’t too tight or loose where it looks shabby or restricts your movement.
  • Wildrags (optional). Another cold weather option that is very fashionable in Colorado and Wyoming. These are mostly accessories to keep your neck warm. Make sure they match your outfit. Check out Daisy If You Do for some ideas. Expect to pay $30-$50.
  • Jewelry (not recommended). I have seen plenty of awesome ladies show with great jewelry on. I love the style and you won’t lose points for wearing jewelry…but… flowy jewelry is a distraction. Not just to the rider, but to a judge or spectator. As a spectator, if I can see dangly earrings on the rider in the show pen, then that takes my eyes off of the horse and the maneuvers. I can imagine judges have the same problem. When you’re showing, you’re showing off your horse so the focus should be on the horse, not dangly earrings. If you wear jewelry in the show ring, I would recommend keeping it subtle (and cheap). You can show off your personality with your shirt and saddle blanket.

Tack (not including bits):

  • Avoid silver plating if you can. This applies to halters (for ranch halter classes) and saddles. The ranch horse judges take functionality very seriously. Silver conchos are fine and add some personality but anything bigger is usually frowned upon. If you don’t have another option but a silver plated saddle, that’s okay, you won’t be docked any points.
  • Traditional Western Saddle- the type (reining, roping, cutting, etc) doesn’t really matter, it just depends on what you prefer. As long as the saddle is functional and safe, you should be fine. Avoid barrel saddles or trail saddles that have bright colored seats or are obviously synthetic leather (black fabric stands out). Back cinches and breastcollars are optional. Expect to pay $500-$4000 depending on what you want. I’ve heard great things about Corriente Saddle Co for budget friendly saddles and great things about Bob’s Custom, Capo Custom, Martin, and others for higher end options.
  • Traditional Headstalls: Leather is always the safest bet. Make sure all the hardware is in good shape and the leather is not torn. Some conchos and color accents are fine. Avoid nylon headstalls that are non-traditional looking. Expect to pay $40-$200. Weaver Leather has a good range of options.
  • Reins: Most people will use a leather split rein setup. It’s affordable and easy. Another option are romals (romels/rommels) which are traditionally rawhide based reins with a connector and popper. If you’re unfamiliar with romals, I’d recommend starting out in leather split reins. Romals are held differently than leather reins and are on bridle horses with shanked bits only. Roping reins, barrel reins, or any single reins are usually not permitted. Stay away from synthetic materials such as paracord or nylon. On bosal setups (see below), many people will use mecate reins which are also acceptable for that particular set up.
  • Saddle Pad: Something broken in but not tattered. Whatever is comfortable for your horse. I like 1” of thickness (the pad with the show blanket on top) so I prefer 3/4” pads. The pad will be under your show blanket so it won’t be seen. Some pads have a built in show blanket or pattern, it’s an acceptable setup and if you go that route, skip the show blanket. If it is going to be seen, make sure it’s clean. My saddle pad for show is my every day saddle pad. Since it supports my weight on my horse, I invest in a good pad that’ll last and keep my horse comfortable. Personally, I love the SPH pads but I’ve heard great things about 5Star pads. Diamond Wool pads are a great option for a budget or just getting started. Expect to pay $100-$300 depending on quality.
  • Saddle/Show Blanket: The world is your oyster. As long as it’s not tattered, you’re in good shape. This is where you can show your individuality. Pick colors that complement your horse’s coat or you can stick to neutral browns. This will go over your pad unless you have a pad/blanket combo. See sagauroshowpads.com (higher end) or google mayatex show blankets (budget friendly) for examples. Expect to pay $80-$200.
  • Leg Protection (optional): Polo wraps and sports medicine boots are used in reining and cow classes only. Black and white are the safest bets on colors. Polo wraps can be wrapped wrong and can end up doing more damage than good. If you’re not comfortable with polo wraps, go for the sports medicine boots. I would recommend having them for the front legs at least. Classic equine, professional’s choice, and iconoclasts are some good examples. For the hind legs, skid boots will keep your horses fetlocks from getting burned if they’re a hard stopper. They also make sports medicine boots for the hind legs that offer support for the tendons. You can also go with polo wraps or even bare legged. When choosing what you want, remember that you’ll need to take them off for ranch riding, ranch pleasure, ranch halter, and trail classes. So if your show day switches classes pretty hectically, the sports boots will be much faster to put on/off. Polo wraps are most affordable ($20-$30) while sports boots are a little more but are much easier to put on ($75-$200)
  • Halters: Only relevant if you’re in a ranch halter class. NO SILVER!!! You can use a simple leather halter or a good rope halter. Make sure the halter and lead rope are clean and in good working condition. If you use a rope halter, be familiar with tying them correctly.
  • A general comment: In the rodeo world, fringed tack and color have become very popular. Keep in mind those events are usually timed, as opposed to individual maneuvers being judged. Fun tack doesn’t take away from timed events but it can take away from judged events such as ranch horse events. Remember, the goal is for the judge to be focused on what your horse can do well… too much color and fringe can be a distraction.

Bits and Hackamores:

A little more complicated. You’ll have to really read your organization’s rulebook.

  • Bosals: These are a vaquero style hackamore that you’ll see on younger horses (<5 years old). They have a rawhide wrapped nose piece, a simple headstall, and traditionally, mecate reins. If you’re unfamiliar with them, I would recommend finding someone who is to help guide you.
  • Snaffle bits: This is my go-to for inexperienced horses AND inexperienced riders. In most local ranch horse shows, you can show two handed snaffle bit when your horse is <6 years old or if the rider is a novice (this novice rule varies a lot depending on the organization). O-rings, D-rings, and egg butt snaffles are usually all accepted. Avoid shanked snaffles and tom thumbs. If you are showing in a snaffle, you must show two handed.
  • Shanked bits: For more finished horses with a rider that has a soft hand. The horses are called “bridle” horses and are shown one handed. Most of these horses don’t require much communication on their mouth and are neck reining well. There are a lot of differing rules on shanked bits depending on the organization. Some allow you to show in a correctional/swivel port with a broken mouthpiece but some require a solid mouthpiece. When showing in a shanked bit, you must ride single handed with no more than one finger (index finger) between the two reins. Avoid tom thumbs or shanked snaffles.
  • Curb Straps: All bit setups need a curb strap. Check your rulebook but the most common rules are snaffles need a plain leather curb strap (no braids or knots) and shank bits can have a chain (with leather connectors) or leather curb strap. The type of chains vary so again, check your rulebook. Avoid non-leather or chain straps such as nylon, rawhide, or paracord.

If you have any questions, email me, DM me via Instagram, or leave a comment below!

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