NWSS RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining Competition turns 25 in 2020
From modest beginnings in 1996 in front of small but enthusiastic crowds, the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition at the National Western Stock Show has transformed into a filled grandstands, must-see event. Riding into 2020 on a wave of popularity, NWSS organizers are looking to make the 25th freestyle reining bigger and better than it already is. On top of bumping the prize money from $20,000 to $25,000, other plans are in the works.
“We really want to celebrate what this event has done, not only for our Colorado horse industry but for the national horse industry,” said NWSS Horse Show Manager Kendra McConnell. “We have added a couple of fun elements this year for the 25th. We added a Draw Party on Saturday (Jan. 11) in the west paddock and everyone is invited to attend. We have some special guests attending, as well as the actual riders (who) will draw their positions. During the reining competition, there will be fun ways of celebrating where this event has come from. And then afterward, we want to invite people down to the paddock with the horses and riders to get autographs and pictures and spend some time with those people who were just in the arena.”
As has been the custom, there will be 14 riders invited to compete in the Cinch Arena at the Events Center on Sunday, Jan. 12. The only rider with an automatic invite is the winner of the previous year’s event. Award winning, experienced, and even world famous equestrians fill out the list each year. To a person, they offer high praise for the NWSS Ram Invitational Freestyle Reining.
“I’ve had the opportunity to show at different freestyle reining competitions around the country,” began Australian equestrian phenom Dan James about the NWSS competition. James was co-champion of the event in 2016 and returned in 2019 to post a big score and still finish fourth. “It’s one of the most competitive freestyles in the country. The caliber of the horses and the riders here, they are top notch.”
One of those top notch riders James described was Fruita, Colo., horse trainer Bub Poplin, who is the only back-to-back-to-back freestyle reining champion in NWSS history.
“This is the best freestyle reining in the world,” declared Poplin. “I’ve been to a lot of them. I have judged a lot of them all over the world. This is by far the best one.”
Poplin gets no argument from Shane Brown (Elbert, Colo.), a crowd favorite and previous event champion who pushes for the top spot each and every year.
“A lot of people don’t realize, this is the best freestyle in the nation,” Brown said after coming up just shy of back-to-back titles a few years ago. “The caliber of horses (is) incredible. To see these kinds of horses at this level, I know some of the crowd appreciates that, but for a lot of the others, they have been a little spoiled because they have always seen it here at the Denver stock show. If they looked at what else is out there in the country, there is nothing that compares to what we have here.”
McConnell appreciates those sentiments from the freestyle reining participants.
“It is awesome and it is a huge compliment and it makes me want us to keep going in that direction, because the others are going to catch up,” said McConnell about working to keep the NWSS event at the top of the heap. “Every day I am thinking, what else can we do, what else can we add, what else is going to make this an awesome event for both our exhibitors and our spectators? So I get nervous that everybody else is going to catch up to us,” she continued with a laugh. “We have to keep the talent level high, the creativity high, the entertainment high and spectators wanting to come back. If you are not first you are last, and we want to stay in first.”
It is not just the competitors and their horses that make the NWSS freestyle reining event such a hit. The electric crowd also plays a large role in its success.
“It’s just amazing,” said Poplin about the energy from the capacity stands. “We show NRHA all year long and we never have crowds like this. To see a crowd like that support our sport, it is just amazing.”
“It is a great crowd,” James said. “The crowd (is) electric and they seem like a pretty well-educated crowd.”
“This crowd is the best crowd around,” agreed Sharee Schwartzenberger (Loveland, Colo.) about the NWSS fans. Schwartzenberger has placed second in the competition on numerous occasions and annually showcases creative and challenging routines. “It is one of a kind. This is the one that kind of sets the standard.”
Over the event’s first 24 years, that standard has been raised numerous times.
“We sure encourage (riders) to be as creative as they can and work with them to make stuff happen,” said McConnell. “We’ve had fog machines, people hanging from the ceiling; we’ve had all kinds of stuff. We are all about surprising the crowd and making them leave knowing they saw something pretty spectacular.”
With the upcoming $25,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition turning 25 in 2020’s NWSS, spectacular sounds like a sure thing. ❖
— Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer located east of Parker, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can find him on Facebook at Official Lincoln Rogers Writing & Photography Page.