In the competitive reined cow horse arena, the finesse of modern horsemanship blends seamlessly with time-tested training methods. The show horses of today trace their performance roots to the meticulous, centuries-old process used by the California vaquero to create his most valuable working partner: a horse that could be controlled by a whisper-light touch on the reins, yet still possess the speed and grit to master the rankest cattle.The culture of the vaquero springs from the early Spanish and Mexican horseman of California who managed range-bred livestock on the vast “Californio” ranches during the 18th to the and part of the 19th centuries. Many historical accounts describe the rank and wild nature of these cattle. The vaqueros needed a quick-footed, intelligent horse with nerves of steel to assist them with daily chores like branding, sorting and doctoring. A trusted cow horse was a necessity, not an option, and over time, the vaquero developed a training system still revered for its elegance and precision.
For almost 150 years, the reined cow horse was famous throughout California and into the West. In the early- to mid-19th century, the Gold Rush changed the complexion and future of California. The influx of newcomers into the Golden State helped to dissolve the vast cattle ranches of earlier days. On the ranches that did remain, modern livestock management techniques and machinery eventually eliminated much of the need for a well-trained, versatile working horse.
By the early 20th century, the reined cow horse had gone from being a necessity to a luxury, and there was little activity to sustain the history or background of this training tradition. Most ranchers were struggling to survive the Great Depression. This trend continued through World War II; few people had the time to be concerned with the history, the horses and the training programs of “the old days.”
The National Reined Cow Horse Association was formed in 1949, with the goal of preserving and educating the public about the rich history of this traditional horsemanship. The NRCHA is responsible for promoting the sport and ensuring high standards of competition. The organization was originally called the California Reined Cow Horse Association. Despite the name change, the association has continued to celebrate the early California traditions of highly-trained working cow horses and today, 64 years after its creation, continues to work to keep the vaquero tradition alive in today’s equine industry.
The NRCHA also supports numerous affiliate clubs across the United States and abroad. These groups serve as the association’s backbone, holding many NRCHA-sanctioned competitions and events each year. The affiliate clubs often provide the starting point for riders who are interested in reined cow horses.