How Can Cow-Work Benefit Your Overall Horsemanship Logo

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.

Future Clinician? Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight

Dear Julie:

I have a 13-year-old daughter who has been in 4H since she was eight years old. She has become a great rider and is interested in learning how to become a professional rider of reining, cutting…or any western type horses in shows. What kind of advise would you give her as far as working towards that goal? She dreams of making it into the publications some day. She is also interested in becoming a clinician and has already begun training young horses with natural horsemanship. She would love shadow someone during her summers. What would make her a better candidate for these types of goals?
Mother of a horse-crazy daughter

Answer: Dear Mom,

First let me say that I admire your daughter’s perseverance, determination and passion. I think it is wonderful when a child has that kind of focus and drive; horses are such a wonderful tool for developing focus, responsibility and accountability in youth.
When asked this question by youth or parents, I am not typically eager to encourage this career path. While there are many great opportunities in the horse industry, becoming a trainer means that you will work long and hard for very little pay (and even fewer benefits) and not many trainers make it to “the big time.”

What I would encourage her to do is to go to college and get a degree that could be useful whether she decides to be in the horse business or not, like a degree in business, journalism or animal science. There are lots of opportunities in the horse industry for people with these skills (and an interest/knowledge of horses), whether it be managing a breeding farm, writing for a magazine or working in the nutrition, pharmaceutical, retail or marketing fields. With a “real” job, she can afford to continue to enjoy horses on the level she is now—as a participant, rather than as a worker.
I work closely with the Colorado State University Equine Program and they offer a variety of degrees and their curriculum is one of the best in the country. It is aligned closely with the CSU business school and in fact, you can get a bachelor’s in equine science with a minor in business, then come back and get a MBA in one year. If I had it all to do over again, this is what I would do. You can get your hands-on horse experience lots of places, but nothing replaces a college education. What makes most horse trainers fail is a lack of business savvy.

Becoming a trainer is a great career for some people, but you have to recognize that it is very physically demanding—long hours and hard days, not to mention hazardous. In the beginning you’ll be riding a lot of tough horses and the toll can be high. With hard work and determination she may get to a level where she can pick and chose the horses she rides, but not everyone makes it that far.

If she is determined to make a career as a horse trainer, I recommend that she get as much experience in as many different aspects of the industry as possible, in order to make her skills more marketable—English, western, racing, breeding, teaching, colt-starting, trail riding, etc., to round-out her experience. Working hands-on will help build her resume and get her the references she’ll need to get somewhere (it is very much a word-of-mouth business), but these positions can be difficult to attain.

Most successful trainers get constant requests for apprenticeships and many of those people are willing to work for nothing just to gain the experience. To get the attention of a successful trainer, you’ll need to be persistent, humble and willing to work hard in any role. Most trainers will initially say no, but if you are persistent, you may get a foot in the door. But what most trainers have learned is that few people have the work ethic and stick-to-it-ness to actually last. So you’ll have to be willing to pay some dues before you get any where.

One thing that will jump-start her plan is to get certified as an assistant instructor when she is 16. CHA offers a hands-on certification that will teach her a lot about how to teach lessons and keep people safe around horses and this could set her apart from the hundreds of other people trying to get their foot in the door as an apprentice. To read more about this process, visit

Your daughter will need to develop a realistic plan that will involve years of hard work at the not-so-glorious jobs like grooming horses, warming up horses and even doing basic chores like feeding and cleaning stalls. If she can prove herself in these areas, she may get some opportunity to ride some nice horses, but it will probably be a long time before she gets a chance to compete on those horses. It’s pretty easy to get to the “big time” if you can buy your way into the show scene; not so easy to get there based on hard work and desire—but not impossible.

Becoming a “clinician” is something that many young people strive for these days because they see the popular clinicians out there it seems like a cool job. Being a clinician is not really a career in and of itself, but an outcome or result of a career. A clinician is just a trainer or instructor that has years of experience riding hundreds or maybe thousands of horses and teaching hundreds or thousands of riders. A clinician is an instructor or trainer that travels to teach in different venues, instead of teaching regular students in one place.

It would be a great goal to have, to be a clinician, but there are many years of very hard work for very little pay in order to get there. The horse industry is one of the few lines of work where you are expected to work 6+ days a week—you can’t just shut down the barn on the weekend. All successful trainers have very strong work ethics, in addition to their strong passion for horses.

Right now, your daughter has only been involved in the fun side of horses. If she is serious about having a career in the horse industry, she’ll have to see the working side too—the not-so-glamorous side—and decide if this is really something she wants to do. If it is, hard work and determination will get her there—eventually. As Pat Parelli is very fond of saying, he is a “twenty –year over-night success!”
I wish her all the success in whatever path she chooses.

Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician