Not just another guy…

Story and photos by Lincoln Rogers
Always looking to entertain the crowd and get them involved, Guy Vernon acknowledged their roaring applause with his trademark "raise the roof" gesture after completing a first place routine in 2013's NWSS RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition.

2023 NWSS Freestyle Reining honors Vernon

Guy Vernon was a respected Colorado horse trainer and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the RAM invitational Freestyle Reining competition at the National Western Stock Show.  Conceived as a small event in 1996, Vernon helped the stock show’s freestyle reining develop into an annual sold-out-in-advance ticket that has been called “the best freestyle in the nation, by far,” with some competitors describing it as “the best freestyle reining in the world.” For its first 27 years, Vernon was always in the hunt for the top spot, and even picked up a title or two, but he could always be counted on to entertain the crowd. He loved entertaining the crowd.

Long-time NWSS freestyle participant Aaron Ralston rode to the music of Jelly Roll’s “Son of a Sinner” while carrying a cowboy flag throughout the arena. In a nod to appreciating the past and looking to the future, Ralston passed the flag to his sons in mid-routine as a metaphor for passing the torch to future generations. The inspring routine aboard “Bud Lyte” nailed down a fourth place score of 219.5 points.

This year saw the first competition in the event’s history take place without the talented horseman.

Vernon passed away unexpectedly in 2022, and the reining and horse training community mourned his absence. As a tribute to Vernon and his importance to the Denver freestyle reining competition, the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining contest honored him throughout the event.

“It was going to be difficult to have a freestyle without him,” said NWSS Horse Show Manager Kendra McConnell about assembling an event to showcase the sport while also paying homage to the popular Vernon. “We wanted to put some different things together and bring the crowd into it, bring (his daughter) Lacey and (wife) Val into it. Guy was our fun one, our prankster, our wild routines,” she recalled. “Today was to celebrate this event and what Guy brought into it.”

If there was a moment that personified the freewheeling fun and camaraderie among the participants of every NWSS Freestyle Reining competition, it was when popular rider and fifth place finisher Drake Johnson stepped off his horse after his ride to take part in the post ride interview under the spotlights, only to whip out his cell phone and make sure he first took a selfie with interviewer and NWSS Horse Show Manager, Kendra McConnell. The horse he rode for a score of 219 points, “Xtra Voodoos Storm,” didn’t appear to be big on selfies.

Lacey Vernon was brought into it as a contestant, riding a stirring routine aboard “Sure Steps” that was paired with Whitney Houston’s iconic version of “I Will Always Love You.” By the time she finished her ride, there was barely a dry eye left in the place and her resulting sixth place score of 218.5 points seemed secondary to honoring the horseman legacy of her dad.

“There is nobody like him and there will never be anybody like him,” she said to the crowd in her post ride interview located next to the arena.  “My whole goal was to be more like Guy Vernon out there.”

Always a solid contender, Drake Johnson spun “Xtra Voodoos Storm” to loud applause from the packed crowd and a fifth place score of 219 points. Johnson chose the song “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” in tribute to friend and fellow trainer, the late Guy Vernon.


After the competition, the crowd took part in the traditional voting for the People’s Choice Award, a designation coveted by participants and handed out based upon the volume of applause. With Lacey, Shane Brown and Drake Johnson up for the award, Brown and Johnson encouraged the crowd to go all in for the daughter of Vernon, which wasn’t a hard ask for those voting from the stands.

“They are the greatest,” said Lacey about Brown and Johnson after she was given the People’s Choice Award. “(And) there is no better crowd than the crowd in Denver. Just nowhere. I have shown all over the country and you just don’t get the vibes that you get in Denver.”

Always looking to entertain and put on a memorable show, popular Colorado horse trainer Guy Vernon brought down the house and went viral on social media as he played the part of “The Donald” in the 2017 National Western Stock Show’s freestyle reining competition. (Jan. 8, 2017)

Valerie Vernon also appreciated the vibes for her late husband.

“It was incredible,” said Valerie about the contest. “Guy was such an ambassador for this event from the very beginning. It is so sad and devastating for me, but this is so cool.”

Asked about her daughter riding to honor Guy, a widow’s and mother’s tears began to flow.

It was so beautiful,” she said with emotion. “I really think he was riding with her. I do.”

Always looking to entertain the crowd and get them involved, Guy Vernon acknowledged their roaring applause with his trademark “raise the roof” gesture after completing a first place routine in 2013’s NWSS RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition.

While Guy was riding with her, other contestants rode to honor both their late friend and the preciousness of life. Perennial contender Devin Warren is known for uplifting routines that celebrate faith, love and relationships, and he rode Lil Joes Cash N Gold in a manner that did just that. Warren has had several life-threatening horse related injuries in his career, including one in the not-so-distant past, so encouraging others to celebrate life comes naturally to the accomplished horseman. With smooth riding, balletic spins and big slides aboard the dapple grey, Warren impressed the judges for a first place score of 226.5 points and the NWSS title.

“It is just awesome,” said Warren about earning the win. “It is just the icing on the cake to come back from a couple of injuries that very easily could have ended my life. You realize just how quick it can be gone. When we got that call that day, that is not what you are expecting,” he added about the moment in 2022 that he learned Guy Vernon had passed. “You really need to cherish every day.”

In a creative freestyle reining competition like the one held during the National Western Stock Show, you just never know what is going to happen. This year’s version included a huge bowl of fire being dragged out of the arena while NWSS Horse Show Manager Kendra McConnell interviewed contestant Elliot Holtzman after he had used the fire for a “Last of the Mohicans” themed routine.

Asked about performing in front of yet another sold-out crowd for the NWSS freestyle, Warren showed he cherished their enthusiasm, as well.

“It was great,” he said with a smile. “It was good energy, and it is always fun coming here in front of a packed house. You can’t ask for anything better than here.”

Devin Warren of Warren Perfomance Horses in Franktown, Colo., put on a dazzling display of artistry and technical riding aboard Lil Joes Cash N Gold to win the 2023 $25,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

“You can’t ask for anything better than here.” Those were fitting words in more ways than one.

Fitting words for the crowd and fitting words for appreciating the moment. For appreciating life right here and right now. Because in this life, we aren’t given anything better than here. It is how Guy Vernon lived and how everyone associated with the NWSS wanted to remember him on Sunday Jan. 8, 2023.

After all that… you could tell he was more than just another Guy.

Franktown, Colo., horse trainer and breeder at Warren Performance Horses, Devin Warren always puts together an inspirational ride that celebrates faith, life and relationships. His dramatic routine in 2023 aboard Lil Joes Cash N Gold acknowledged Guy Vernon and the preciousness of life on the way to a winning score from the judges of 226.5 points. “When we got that call that day, that is not what you are expecting,” recalled Warren of learning Vernon had passed in 2022. “You really need to cherish every day.”

2023 NWSS $25,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Top 6 Results:

  1. Devin Warren on Lil Joes Cash N Gold – 226.5 points
  2. Shane Brown on Xtra Chex Step – 222.5 points
  3. Sharee Schwartzenberger on Game Day Surprise – 222 points
  4. Aaron Ralston on Bud Lyte – 219.5 points
  5. Drake Johnson on Xtra Voodoos Storm – 219 points
  6. Lacey Vernon on Sure Steps – 218.5 points (People’s Choice Winner)
Guy Vernon’s daughter Lacey shared laughter with NWSS Horse Show Manager Kendra McConnell in a post-ride interview in front of the sold out crowd. The pair laughed as they reminisced about her father’s often humorous and prank-filled approach to life. Lacey performed a smooth routine in memory of her father, set to Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You.” There were not many dry eyes anywhere near the stands by the time she was finished.
Crowd favorite Shane Brown rode Xtra Chex Step to a second place finish of 222.5 points at the 2023 NWSS Freestyle Reining Competition. While Brown is tied for the most wins in the event, he and Guy Vernon shared a passion of always trying to entertain the crowd and putting them first. “I am sure he is up there laughing and smiling with us,” said an emotional Brown shortly after the competition.
In a beautiful display of costume and horseback choreography set to stirring music, back-to-back NWSS freestyle reining winner and defending champion Sharee Schwartzenberger used fog, spotlights, and the audience members’ camera phones to create an atmosphere of clouds and stars as she paid tribute to the important people in our lives, those “stars” that surround us and that we should never take for granted. Schwartzenberger’s bridleless routine on “Game Day Surprise” scored 222 points, which was good enough for third place in the prestigious event.
Guy Vernon’s daughter Lacey posed on horseback after the competition with family, friends, and the horse’s (Sure Steps, also called Wally) owners. Valerie Vernon, Guy’s widow, is standing next to Lacey and holding a photo collage of Guy in freestyle reining action that was created by the NWSS both as a tribute to Guy and as a gift for Valerie.
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