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How To Shop For A Ranch Horse You Can Show

How To Shop For A Ranch Horse You Can Show

Matt Koch doesn’t think the line between ranch horse and show horse needs to be complicated.

by Lisa Whinfrey


Some people think a horse has to be either a ranch horse or a show horse, but cowhorse trainer Matt Koch believes in simplifying that divide.

The Sale Horse asked Matt how to shop for horses to take us from the show pen to the branding pen.

how to find a ranch horse you can show
Matt Koch rides through some of Wagonhound's Red Angus cows.

Matt Koch’s training philosophy is simple.

“I hate horse training,” he laughs. “Most of the time we can bypass pretending to be horse trainers and just let the horse be natural and we’re better off.”

Removing complications is a prominent theme when talking to the trainer. He believes in quiet, happy, responsive horses and tells everyone that comes to ride with him to get back to basics.

“Left rein means go left, right rein means go right, picking up on both reins means stop. If you don’t have that on one, don’t worry about the small stuff,” Matt says. “Just make them broke and quiet and like their job and you’ll be fine. Don’t complicate it.”

Over-complication might mean trying to ride differently depending on the job at hand.

“We don’t have to ride any different if we’re in the arena riding or outside on the grass,” Matt says. “Overall, I ride the same way to get from point A to point B outside as I do to get from A to B in my circles in the arena.”

Be smart about the day’s job.

Matt is usually willing to take any horse out to do a ranch job. However, it becomes hard to gamble with the possibility of injury or lameness once a horse has years of training and has proven himself as a show horse.

The crew at Wagonhound often has to move pairs for ten hours or more with no opportunity to switch horses. Koch won’t use one of his top show horses for those long days and instead picks jobs like holding herd or roping at a branding for them.

Even riding out in the rocks can be no big deal. Be smart and let them take the time to learn to pick their way through.

Plan ahead when choosing which horse to ranch on. Matt suggests thinking about the conditions in a particular pasture and if the cows are known for being tough to handle.

how to find a ranch horse you can show
Matt drags a calf on This Cats Sinful at a 2015 Wagonhound branding. NRCHA 2 Milion Dollar rider Todd Crawford helps out on the ground.

Shopping for a horse that can do it all

Matt’s program at Wagonhound is somewhat unique, and it might be tough to find a horse for sale that has experience both ranching and showing. Not many people use their horses for both.

There’s lots of great show horse trainers making horses that excel in the performance disciplines. There are also plenty of talented cowboys making nice horses that have all the parts but haven’t been showed.


If you can’t find a horse with experience doing both, you have a couple options. You can get a young horse and introduce him to both worlds throughout his training process. You can also pick a horse that specialized in either showing or ranch work.
how to find a ranch horse you can show
Matt and Dual With A Shiner, 2016 NRCHA Stallion Stakes Reserve Champion.

Shop with your goals in mind

Koch recommends really assessing your ability level and your goals with the horse. Focus on what’s most important to you before you even start shopping.

It is probably worth sticking with a ranch horse type if you’re thinking of mostly ranching and adding some local ranch horse competitions occasionally on the weekends.

You will need a horse that’s been bred and trained for the job if you want to be a serious competitor in the NRCHA. You can then try to introduce the ranch work to him.

how to find a ranch horse you can show

If you’re just starting out

For a beginner, Matt recommends getting a ranch horse. You can then work on making him into some caliber of show horse. Ranch horses will generally do just fine in an arena. Matt says, “they’ve had enough pressure put on them outside they almost enjoy the arena.”

It may be hard to expect an arena horse to be very good in the branding pen if he hasn’t been exposed to it. Even if you’re planning on mostly riding in the arena and going to a couple brandings each spring, a horse with a solid foundation of experience in open country may be more enjoyable.

In case you missed it, Matt Koch & Dual With A Shiner 227.5!

Posted by Colorado Reined Cowhorse Association on Saturday, April 2, 2016

2016 NRCHA Stallion Stakes Fence Work Finals

This run secured Matt and Dual With A Shiner a Reserve Championship and a $26,859 prize. This exceptional horse stays completely hooked to a fast, tough cow. Turns in the cow work are usually made on the fence, and often turns made in the middle of the arena result in loss of control of the cow or a poor quality turn. Successful runs with two great open field turns like this one are very rare.

How to pick the right conformation.

Shop for a horse with some bone, good hoof, and a decent set of withers. Horses with this build generally hold up longer and are physically better prepared for jobs like roping cattle.

Steer clear of horses that are 16 hands plus if you also want to show. There are big horses that do just fine in the show pen, but buying one decreases the odds of success. Bigger horses often struggle to do the precise maneuvers demanded in cowhorse or stock horse classes.

how to find a ranch horse you can show

Shopping for a good mind

It might be a little tougher to assess the horse’s mental capacity to take the crossover.

Laid back horses in the arena sometimes get outside their comfort zone and become a different horse. A horse that gets hot in the arena is likely to be watchy outside, at least at first.

The best thing to do is try to get the seller to let you ride outside a little and see if the horse is bothered by the open country. It might be a good idea to start a show horse off with a little trail riding instead of going straight to a branding and expecting him to be okay with calves dragging by him.

“Set yourself up for success, not failure,” Matt says.

how to find a ranch horse you can show
Matt bringing in the Wagonhound yearlings colts.

Maintaining your arena horse

Maybe you spend most of your time riding in an arena but want to make sure your horse is prepared before heading to the neighbors’ branding.

Matt recommends treating your arena like a pasture. Stop worrying about bridling your horse up or loping pretty circles and instead, concentrate on pitching him loose and making sure he’s relaxed. Think about guiding your horse from point A to B instead of doing a maneuver.

If the horse goes where you point him and is responsive to your cues to go left, right, and stop, you’ll generally get by just fine in a ranch situation.

You can also practice dragging a log or set up a little bridge to cross.

how to find a ranch horse you can show
Gathering pairs for branding at Wagonhound Ranch

Maintaining your ranch horse

A ranch hand looking to go to town for a weekend show may not have good ground to practice sliding stops. Lack of access to an indoor arena may make practicing out of bad weather tough.

Matt says to make sure you’re not trying to do make your horse do something he’s not capable of.

You’ll be better off if he’s relaxed and quiet and likes his job than if you try to make him into reiner the week before the show. To practice stopping, just trot or slow lope up and simply make sure your horse quits going forward. Don’t worry about sliding so long as motion stops. A sliding stop is dependent on good ground for even the most seasoned show horses.

Just like an arena horse getting ready for ranching, your ranch horse will benefit from concentrating on responsiveness to basic cues.

All photos by Brianna Koch

Matt Koch

About Matt Koch

Matt Koch and his wife Brianna live in Douglas, WY. The multiple time AQHA World Champion has won over $300,000 in the NRCHA and trains in for Wagonhound Land and Livestock. Matt uses his show horses and prospects on the ranch year-round to work the outfit’s 3,000+ pairs of commercial and Red Angus cattle.

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