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National Western freestyle reining offers the best of the West

Story and photos Lincoln Rogers | For The Fence Post
Horse Trainer Gabe Garrison and KR Easy Chic entertained the crowd with an enrgetic routine on their way to a score of 213.5 at the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competiton.

Top Results for $15,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining

First place: Shane Brown on Hollywood Golden Gun

Tie for second and third place: Drake Johnson on Sonic Chic Dream/Sharee Schwartzenberger on Game Day Surprise

Tie for fourth through sixth place: Devin Warren on Double Tag Chex/Melanie Wilhelm on Nics Rooster/Shevin Haverty on Whodini

Described by insiders as the best freestyle reining competition in the country, the $15,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition at the 2015 National Western Stock Show (NWSS) lived up to its reputation. On a day in which the Denver Broncos played playoff football, the stands were still full of people looking to be entertained by one of the stock show’s best tickets. That thousands of fans jam the seats each and every year to watch the reiners perform is something they don’t take for granted.

“The crowd is great,” said 2015 winner Shane Brown, an Elbert, Colo. trainer who won the contest with an eight-year-old horse named Hollywood Golden Gun. “The fact that we get this many people, especially on a day when the Broncos are playing (in the NFL playoffs), that is incredible.”

Even more incredible was the fact Brown executed his 224-point routine aboard a deaf horse.



“This is a stallion we’ve had since he was four,” said Brown about Hollywood – the stallion’s barn name. “I’ve learned a lot as a horseman on dealing with a horse like this. It makes things a little bit different. It just makes you more aware,” continued the accomplished trainer in a humble tone. “He’s got a huge heart and when he shows, he can over try a little bit, (but) you’ve got to trust him, too. I’ve just got to tell him and go with it and let him do his job.”

Hollywood did his job just fine, as the pair executed spins, slides and other reining maneuvers to excite the fans and impress the judges. With 220 points described in the past as a mark usually good enough to win most freestyle reining contests throughout the country, Brown’s 224 had the large crowd enthusiastic for the rest of the event.



One aspect that takes freestyle reining events to greater heights is the use of routines choreographed to all styles of music. Brown had the stands hopping with Chris LeDeaux’s “Horsepower,” while other contestants used their own choices to set routines apart. Longmont horse trainer Sharee Schwartzenber went a more dramatic route with her entry, and the bridleless routine to the passionate remake of the classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love” propelled her to 223 points and tie for second place with Drake Johnson.

“A lot of it is the horse,” said Schwartzenberger of one reason behind accompanying music. “The horse I am using (Game Day Surprise), he’s really laid back, (so) he fits the really stylish, slower songs. You kind of have to gauge it a lot by the horse.”

Asked about her run that was good enough to tie for second place, Schwartzenberger responded with a big smile.

“I was excited,” she said about her placement on the leaderboard. “I was happy with that. When I decided to do a bridleless (routine), after being second last year … I thought this was either going to go really good or really bad,” she said with a laugh.

Asked about the competition itself, she was able to answer based upon her family’s consistent participation over the years.

“It’s really fun,” she said of the NWSS competition. “It’s kind of the first big thing we do every year. It’s one of the few times we get open and non-pro guys competing against each other. You want to be competitive, but you still cheer for everyone and it’s fun to see what everyone comes up with every year.”

Along those lines, it seemed no one had more fun with the crowd in 2015 than Wray, Colo. horse trainer Drake Johnson. A perennial contender with a crowded résumé, Johnson let his hair down, so to speak, by wearing a Mrs. Doubtfire costume and cranking the sound system with Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”

While Johnson nailed a solid score of 223 and a tie for second place, he also picked up the coveted People’s Choice Award along the way.

“It’s a great award,” said Johnson after the competition, his outfit changed but the makeup and lipstick still in place. “You put a lot of hard work into a routine, some choreography, originality, makeup, dress, whatever, so it’s neat when all that pays off and you can please the crowd like that. “

Asked how long it took to get in character for the performance, he revealed some shortcuts to looking like Mrs. Doubtfire.

“It didn’t take very long, because everything is part of an apron,” he explained with a slight grin. “I just step in it and tie it behind my back and around my waist and I’m good to go. The sister of one of my clients did my makeup,” he added as his grin grew bigger. “I just sat there and let her do it. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Asked about the level of competition in the NWSS freestyle, Johnson had high praise for the talent that shows up every year.

“Everybody tonight was great,” he answered. “This is definitely the toughest competition you will see of this freestyle reining in the country.”

Contest winner Shane Brown agreed with that assessment.

“This is the best freestyle in the nation, by far,” he said with conviction. “There are some guys that came from out of state and they acknowledge that, too, that this is the best there is. To get to compete with these guys and end up being the winner? You feel pretty blessed when that gets to happen.”

Even stock show officials chimed in on that note.

“That’s a great event,” said Leon Vick, NWSS senior director of rodeo and horse show operations, about the freestyle contest. “Outside of the Kentucky Horse Park, we’re one of the best events there is for reining. It’s a packed house.”

With fifteen talented contestants showcasing top-notch horses in front of packed houses at one of the biggest and longest-running western shows in the country, the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition is certainly in the conversation for best of the West.


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