How Can Cow-Work Benefit Your Overall Horsemanship

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Julie, when did you first start working cattle?

It wasn’t until I graduated from college and moved to Colorado that I first enjoyed the thrill of working cattle from a horse. After the hunter/jumper identity of my youth and the racetrack jobs of college, I was eager to try something totally new with horses and learning about western performance horses became my personal ambition. My professional ambition still kept me busy teaching people and training horses of all persuasions, so it was really only in my down-time that I got to pursue the nitty-gritty work of the cow horse.
Since I already knew a lot about herding, from a lifetime spent with horses, moving cattle, rating cattle and sorting cattle was easy for me to understand, in concept. But putting it into practice, slowing down the high-adrenalin rush that comes with working cattle and learning the precision of the technique takes a lifetime to master. I’ve had the opportunity to train with many great cow horse trainers over the years and continue to study as much as I can, but not as much as I’d like to. Like a lot of you, my real job keeps me pretty busy.
Working with cow horses that are bred for the sport and live to conquer the cow, is a thrill all its own. The concept of letting a horse do his job and think on his own, of putting your hand down on the neck and trusting the horse to do the job for which he was selectively bred for many generations is an important lesson in letting go. Working with an incredibly cowy horse and keeping him well-disciplined while letting him think and work on his own is an interesting exercise in trust.

How has learning cow work impacted your riding?

First, what I love about good cow horses is how athletic they are, quick thinking and even quicker reacting.

Working cattle head-to-head (while practicing cutting) is exhilarating. When you’re with a horse that is hooked on to the cow, so that every cell in his body is attuned and you are just along for the ride, you can feel every cell in your body. You sit with one hand on the horn (pushing yourself back into the saddle while your rein hand sits on the neck of the horse) and sit back–trusting the horse to do his job. The stops and turns the horse makes cause a rush of adrenalin. Staying in the middle of the horse and staying out of his way requires balance, relaxation of all your joints, good reflexes and the ability to move with the horse exactly as he moves.

Turning a big cow running at full speed down the long side of the pen is a thrill that has to be equivalent to sky diving, but you’re much closer to the ground. When I was youthful, I got this kind of thrill from riding jumpers; in college it was race horses. Now, to me, the ultimate ride is on the back of a good cow horse.

Cutting horses and reined cow horses are among the most elite equine athletes. To be able to ride one, knowing that it is trained and bred to do the job, with only your occasional guidance, and knowing that at best, you will stay out of the horse’s way as he performs, makes you want to become the best rider you can for your horse.

The skills of the ranch horse are many and varied—trail obstacles, riding a pattern of transitions similar to dressage, reining maneuvers, cutting, working cattle, dragging logs, roping, opening gates. Having total body control from head to tail and being able to put your horse in any situation and rely totally on his compete obedience. Any one of these pursuits are fun and challenging; to have a variety of things to work on keeps the horse and rider fresh.

What does it teach you about your horse?

Moving and controlling cattle is like herding horses. Understanding and putting into practice all the spatial understanding involved in herding, learning the balance points, how to move cows slowly, one step at a time and control their every movement makes you a better horseman too since horses and cattle behave the same way in this respect. Whether you are working a horse in a round pen, on a lead line, in a pen full of horses or even riding in a group, it is useful to know how to move horses and where the pressure points are.

Working with a horse bred to work cattle is much like working with a champion border collie or retriever. They instinctively know how to do their job and they live for every moment of working cattle. The rider just keeps the horse correct and makes him follow the rules of play, work on command and remain obedient to the rider. One thing I learned about my over-zealous cow horse is that his reward for performing correctly is getting to work the cow. If every time he makes a mistake, I pull him off the cow as punishment and he has to endure his personal walk of shame for losing the cow, those mistakes soon disappear.

Not all horses can become high-level cutters or cow horses; most are not athletic enough and not all horses will be cowy enough to hook onto a cow intensely. However, most horses can learn the job of a ranch horse and although they may not be naturals, they can be taught how to work a cow with the rider’s help. The same could be said for jumping.

In versatility, since the ranch horse has to do all the tasks of the ranch horse, he may be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Hence the term “ranch cutter.” In ranch cutting, the rider is not penalized for assisting the horse and picking up his hand from the neck for guidance while he is cutting. The ranch cutter may never beat a “hand down” cutter, but if he performs well in all the other disciplines, he’ll rise quickly to the top in the competition.

What skills does it help even if you don’t necessarily want to compete in cutting or cow events? What’s the benefit for all?
Learning total body control of your horse and how to communicate with imperceptible aids through transitions and turns. Working in partnership with a horse that is totally obedient and willing to listen to the cues of the rider in any situation that might occur on the ranch. Challenging yourself and your partnership with your horse to try new things, cross new obstacles, teach a horse to work cattle. Set a variety of goals to improve your own horsemanship and your horse’s training, while having fun and never getting stuck in a rut. Even if you never worked a cow, learning the skills required of a cow horse—go forward willingly, stop, turn, back, leg yield, stay calm and focused—are sure to improve your horsemanship and your horse’s training and are lofty goals.