FREEZING REIN Frigid temps can’t stop hot Freestyle Reining at NWSS
Judging by sell out crowds every year, the $15,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition is one of the most popular events at the National Western Stock Show (NWSS). Despite outdoor thermometers complaining of near zero temps on January 12, five thousand people showed up to watch hotter-than-a-pistol action inside the NWSS Coors Events Center.
Eighteen reiners from Colorado and the surrounding region — including top-notch names like Aaron Ralston, Shane Brown, Drake Johnson, Devin Warren and the Schwartzenberger family — heated up the stock show arena, and the freestyle format allowed them to have fun with their routines by using popular music and high energy riding to wow the crowd. With one of the prizes being a People’s Choice Award, earned by receiving the loudest cheers at the conclusion of the event, participants worked hard to make their rides memorable. As a result, routines were performed to popular music like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Keith Urban’s “For You,” Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You,” and even the timeless hymns “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”
It wasn’t just music that made the venue sizzle. Themes and costumes played a pivotal role as the riders warmed the cheering crowd with appearances by Shrek and Donkey, Lindsay Lohan on her way to another celebrity rehab, Steve McQueen from his movie Bullitt, pop star Psy and his crazy dance, the big, bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, a soldier wearing camo, a rider in fireman’s gear and even Payton Manning leaving the Colts to become a Bronco.
Despite all the costumes, spotlights, fog machines and popular music, the major reason for the jam-packed stands and high decibel excitement was some of the best riding in the industry. When a final score of 220 plus is said to be good enough to win most freestyle competitions (210 points is considered average), it was notable to watch the scoreboard light up with eight scores of 220 plus. Those tallies are why riders call this contest one of the best in the U.S.
“I don’t know if our crowd really understands, (but) this is the best freestyle in the country,” began popular Wray, Colo., contestant Drake Johnson, who came in fourth aboard Sonic Chic Dream with a routine set to “Amazing Grace.” Johnson has won major freestyle contests throughout the country and is a perennial contender for the top spot in Denver. “There are eight to 10 horses every time that can compete at that high level,” Johnson continued. “It’s a lot deeper (field of riders) than you would get anywhere else.”
“I would agree with that,” said Guy Vernon, a trainer from Kiowa, Colo., who won the competition aboard Starlight N Peppy with 228.5 points to the music of “How Great Thou Art.” “This is probably, if not the toughest one, one of the very toughest (freestyle competitions). You can pretty much win a lot of (competitions) with 219 points. I think 10th place here tonight was a 219 (note: ninth was 219).
Asked for his thoughts on riding Starlight N Peppy for the win, Vernon was happy to recall the ride.
“It just felt really good,” he stated with his victory grin intact. “Everything I asked him to do, he just did and I don’t think he’s capable of doing it any better. I think that was 100 percent. He’s very easy to ride and he’s very physical and talented,” added Vernon about the 6-year-old sorrel. “I was a little worried about changing leads on him, that was kind of the one thing that was hard for me. But it all worked out. Being out there was really fun.”
The fun wasn’t contained to the veteran competitors. Younger riders like Emily Emerson, a second year contestant who is a trainer with Shane Brown Performance Horses, also loved the high energy Stock Show atmosphere.
“All the screaming from all of the people … it was a blast,” said Emerson after placing eighth in the contest with a solid 220 points aboard 10-year-old Shepherd Star. The duo did a Steve McQueen themed routine that showed off the horse’s athleticism. “I just had the greatest time. This is the first freestyle (Shepherd Star) has ever done and he just took care of me,” she added. “It was just exactly what I wanted.”
The fans got exactly what they wanted, as well, when Aaron Ralston hit the arena. Ralston is a diverse horseman, winning everything from gold medals in reining to competitions in colt starting. When he made his entrance to the music of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the crowd cheered. They cheered louder the longer he rode, until the ovations threatened the tolerance of normal hearing. Although Ralston scored a zero due to not completing every required maneuver, the crowd rewarded his entertaining performance with the coveted People’s Choice Award. Despite the zero, Ralston was happy to talk about the contest.
“It’s probably more rewarding to be the People’s Choice Award winner, however, it doesn’t pay very good,” responded Ralston with a laugh when congratulated afterward.
Asked about his score of zero, he readily responded.
“I only spun three and half turns instead of the regular four,” he said with a modest grin. “I show in Reined Cow Horse a lot and it’s always three and half or two and half, there. I just kind of got caught up in the moment,” he explained about getting into his faux Psy character. “I was in the moment a little bit too much.”
When discussing the environment of freestyle events, Ralston added a take about getting in costume and character.
“We don’t get to act this way in public and be rewarded for it,” he revealed with a smile. “This event allows you to take the seriousness out of the daily grind when it comes to riding horses. To break free and have fun and express yourself, it’s a great opportunity.”
Having a ticket to next year’s $15,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition would also be a great opportunity. And don’t worry about the weather. The hottest reining action in the country will always out duel anything mother nature can throw its way. ❖
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