Montana Derby Days

Montana Derby Days

Landrigan, Marissa
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With the historic traditions of the Old West converging in Three Forks, it’s no surprise that it has become the location for a growing tradition of the new West. The sights and sounds of the Montana Derby Days Horse Show fit right in with the old vaquero tradition—a unique and antique style of cow horse training associated with the West. In only its second year, the event has already become a national qualifying show for the National Reined Cow Horse Association. In only two years, it has already grown beyond expectations, from 90 to over 130 entrants, and now draws riders from as far as Utah, Washington, and Nevada.

The dusty bowl of the Three Forks fairgrounds is the perfect place for an upstart tradition like this one, where floods of miniature cowboys cheer on their mothers and fathers, all coveting the grand-prize buckle embedded with rhinestones and carved to impress even the most weathered riders. The derby is split into three event categories: herd work, fence work, and rein (dry) work. In both the herd and fence work, man and beast truly must work as one unit, as they skillfully dominate a cow’s every move. Judged not only on the cutting success or failure, the team is scored on their combined performances as well as the horse’s natural ability to “read,” or mirror and rate, a cow. After months of near-constant training and practice, this is the time for horse and rider to demonstrate pure skill.

The dry competition, however, is a time to reflect upon the level of communication between horse and rider. With judges watching solely the horse’s performance, the rider must rely on the time spent training, working on softness and feel of communication from rider to horse, pulling the maneuvers together for a dazzling performance. A horse is judged on its spins, stops, and especially the ways in which it reacts to its trainers, with the animal’s body language sending the message to the judge. The sense of competition is fierce and palpable; although snorts and muffled thumps of the horses are ever-present, the crowd can reach near-silence in the moments before a perfect sliding stop.

But the level of challenge has not always been so high. Back in the 1980s, Montana was one of the biggest national locations for such shows, drawing the top competitors from as far as California. But in the absence of a show at which riders could gain qualifying points for the World Reined Cow Horse Show, Montana’s popularity for competition dwindled. Jeanni Higgins, head of the newly formed Big Sky Reined Cow Horse Association, is the woman responsible for the creation of the newest and most promising addition to the national reined riding scene, and she couldn’t be prouder of the reputation her show is already garnering in the Northwest. Higgins was determined to ignite a newfound interest in the Montana tradition, mostly for her own reasons—she wanted to compete in the world show, but she never had the ability to test the waters of national competition. With little but sheer willpower, she single-handedly convinced national affiliates to donate a riding clinic and gathered supporting donors, raising over $6,000 to fund her first show.

Operating with much the same grassroots campaign sponsorship this year, Higgins has established Montana’s largest national qualifying show, and surprised many veteran riders with the level of competition that her state can now offer. Despite balancing a separate full-time job, Higgins is already gearing up with clinics and fundraisers for next year. Once again, it seems, the Old West vaquero tradition has found its rightful home in Montana.
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