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Late bloomer makes up for lost time

Ron Ralls will demonstrate his
skills in the hackamore class.

Photo credit: Carole Ehrietto


ot one for self-promotion, praise for trainer Ron Ralls' career is more likely to come from his fellow horsemen or anyone who has seen him perform. Like all great athletes, he makes what he does look easy.

Spectators at this year's Old Spanish Days Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo will have the chance to watch him when he competes in one of the most exciting events in the equestrian world.

Both horse and rider must be tremendous athletes to perform in the sport of reined cow horse. It combines the perfection of reining with the action of cutting. Ralls will appear in the hackamore class where young horses (no older than 5) are shown in a bitless bridle of Spanish origin. The hackamore consists of a simple headstall, bosal or rawhide noseband, heel knot and hair ropes used as reins. Pressure points used to control the horse are the nose and jaw.

The word hackamore comes from the Spanish "la jaquima," which was originally used by the great horsemen of Spain as an training headstall when taking a young horse from a halter up to a full bitted bridle. The hackamore was used by California's vaqueros who spent weeks, if not months, on horseback, and had to have acutely sensitive, perfectly trained horses to cover harsh terrain and work cattle.

The hackamore class is a "transition" showing vehicle for horses before they go on to their bridle careers.

The skills displayed have their roots in the workings of ranch life.

Raised on a cattle ranch in the rugged hills between Tehachapi and Lake Isabella, Ralls grew up learning the skills of roping and riding that make up the life of a working cowboy. As an adult, he continued this lifestyle with his own herd until a few bad years sent him seeking a new life in the world of working cow horse sports.

A turn of fate brought him together with renowned trainer Monty Roberts of Flag Is Up Farms in Santa Ynez Valley.

"I started asking him questions and expressed my interest in learning more about the world of training and showing," explained Ralls. "The only life I had ever known was ranching."

Roberts saw something special in Ralls.

"Monty offered to let me take some young horses back to the ranch for a few months and work them. I guess he was impressed when I bought them back. He said if I moved to the valley, he would give me horses to ride and teach me how to train them for show.

"It was a chance to for me to take the skills of my ranching life and earn a new living."

Roberts sent him to his first show in 1984. It was none other than the biggest show in the sport, the Snaffle Bit Futurity held in Fresno.

"When you grow up out in the brush you have know idea what the world of show horses is like. I thought it would be no big deal. Let me tell you, it is a big deal," Ralls said.

The competition is fierce; the arena filled with a boisterous crowd.

"I took four head of horses and, of course, we didn't do anything but embarrass ourselves.

Monty's attitude was 'just go out and do it,' there is no way to prepare.

"Since I was already 28 when I started in this business, I knew I had to work harder if I was going make a living at it."

The next year he made the finals and has since shown there every year.

Along the way he had help from other trainers like Tom Shelly of Santa Ynez, who helped him turn his abilities into a career.

Ralls struck out on his own in Paso Robles starting his own training facility near the stockyards. This enabled him to be near a source of fresh cattle, upon which his sport depends.

He recently relocated to a ranch nestled in the hills of Santa Ynez Valley where he shares the demands of running a training facility with wife Billie Jo. He plans to continue training not only horses, but riders as well.

"My ranching background was definitely an advantage because I was already familiar with the skills demanded in reined cow horse work," he explained. "But when you're out in the brush, when the dust settles, if the cow is on the end of the rope or in the corral, it doesn't matter how it happened. In the show arena, the judges are looking for perfection."

As in other stock horse classes featured at the Fiesta show, the hackamore class is divided into two sections. First comes the "dry work," where a series of complex maneuvers like flying lead changes, sliding stops and pivot turns must be performed to an exact pattern. It's all done with almost imperceptible cues from the rider.

In the "herd work," a cow must first be cut from a herd and controlled. Then comes one of the most exciting skills in the equestrian world, "going down the fence."

"The rider moves a cow down one side of the arena, keeping it on the fence. Once past the center, the rider and horse run ahead of the animal at a full gallop, stopping and turning the cow back. The harder and faster the horse stops and continues in the other direction (roll back), the better the score.

"I come to Fiesta because I want to support the tradition," said Ralls. "I'd like to see it continue."

In one of the fastest growing sports in the equestrian world where winners can claim six-figure cash prizes, horse trailers and silver-studded tack, Old Spanish Days is a small show. Why does it draw some of the biggest names in the sport, like world champions Ted Robinson and Sandy Collier? They come to enjoy the camaraderie of a shared lifestyle and treasured traditions; traditions tracing back to Spain and honored at Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

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