Working Cow Horse
It’s an amazement to me that Working Cow Horse hasn’t got a professional association all of its own in America. They’ve got a professional reining association and, of course, a cutting horse association. And as Working Cow Horse amalgamates both disciplines, you’d think it would have its own association too. But perhaps that’s exactly the reason why not…
For me it’s the most fun you can have with your boots on. Start by showing the world what a well mannered boy your horse is and put him quietly through a reining pattern. Then let him loose to drive a cow round the same pattern (sort of!). Cows are fleet of foot and they don’t have the handicap of having a rider on their back. It takes a fast horse to keep up with a cow on the run and an agile one to push that cow through a figure of eight.
Inevitably where cattle work is involved, much depends on the luck of the draw with your cow. You don’t want one that’s not interested enough to want to beat the horse. But, neither do you want one that’s so shy that it’s going to run a mile flat out.
George and I only got it just right enough once to win the class with a near perfect score. I tell you, that day it was as though I had died and gone to heaven!
Both the cattle part of this event and the reining part are mandatory. Scoring will be on the basis of 60 to 80 with 70 denoting the average performance. The same basis of scoring shall apply to the reined work and cow work. Fall of horse and/or rider while being shown either in the cow work or the reined work shall not eliminate the entry. The following characteristics are considered as faults:-
- Switching tail.
- Exaggerated opening of the mouth
- Hard or heavy mouth.
- Nervous throwing of the head.
- Lugging on the bridle.
- Halting or hesitation while being shown, particularly when being run out, anticipation of being set up, which is characteristic of an over trained horse.
- Losing a cow or being unable to finish a pattern because of a bad cow. The competitor should be penalised at the judge’s discretion.
The characteristics of a good working cow horse are:-
- Good manners.
- Horse should be keen, shifty, smooth, and have his feet under him at all times, especially when stopping.
- Head should be maintained in its natural position.
- Horse should be able to work at a reasonable speed and still be under the control of the competitor.
- Credit should be given for the horse showing initiative and cow sense.
The Reining Pattern
The competitor will walk to the judge for inspection. Then make their way to the end of the arena. From the end of the arena, they will begin their run up the length of the arena close to the rail or wall. Stop at least 20 feet from the end. Settle and then pivot at least twice in each direction with no hesitation. Then roll back towards the rail and run down the length of the arena. Stop 20 feet from the end and roll back with no hesitation towards the rail. Then, run up past the centre, stop and back-up at least 10 feet. Turn toward the centre of the arena. Begin a large fast figure eight to the right. At completion of the circle change leads and make a large fast circle to the left. Complete the figure eight with a final lead change.
The cattle work shall be as follows:-
- One animal shall be turned into the arena. The competitor shall drive the cow away and hold it long enough to indicate to the judge that the horse is watching the cow.
- The competitor shall attempt to turn the cow at least once each way against the fence or wall.
- The cow shall be taken towards the centre of the arena and the cow must complete a circle in each direction. Return the cow to the pen, before leaving the arena.
- The cattle work must be completed within 2 minutes.
- At the judge’s discretion a re-run may be given if the cow being worked leaves the arena.
Work a reining pattern first
The reining section of this class is just that. It’s a fairly uncomplicated reining pattern designed to show that horse and rider have the skills necessary to work a cow. It goes without saying that this isn’t a class to be attempted if rider and horse haven’t first mastered the elements of a reining pattern. Half the marks in the Working Cow Horse class are awarded on this section.
It’s rare that a competitor puts up such a poor show reining that the judge won’t release a cow but it is within the judge’s power to do that. And I’ve had the experience of having a near perfect run with a cow but to lose the class because of a missed lead change in the reining. That was because I was treating the reining work as just something to get through before the real action began.
Go and get your cow!
So, reining pattern successfully completed, competitors settle their horse and present themselves to the judge for the cattle work. A cow is then released into the arena from a herd penned adjacent to the arena. Although the rule does not specify that the other cows should be handy, it’s nonetheless an important feature of the class because of the cow’s tendency to want to rejoin its mates. And it goes without saying that the other cows must not be loose within the arena itself – having them wandering about while you’re trying to push your cow through a figure of eight would unnecessarily complicate matters!
There are two minutes for this section of the class and it’s plenty. Indeed, when things aren’t going right it can seem like the longest two minutes of your life… it’s really the horse that’s being judged. He needs to be alert, agile and not overly aggressive to the cow. The more he can be shown to be doing the work on his own without cuing from the rider, the higher the score.
The first objective in this class is to show the judge that the horse has locked onto the cow. It’s a delicate balancing act at this stage. You want the cow to show some spirit and try to get back to the herd but you don’t want it to beat your horse.
I always started by positioning George well back from the cattle pen. There, the cow could see him as it came into the arena without feeling especially threatened. In that position, most often, the cow obliged us by just standing there and waiting. I would then quietly move George towards the back of the cow. Just edging closer until the cow started to move away. At that stage, the job was to be in the position shown below – about 45˚ off the rump of the cow. As long as the cow was moving away from us along the fence, we held that position.
At some stage, it varies from one cow to another, it will get it into its head that it really wants to be back with its chums. This is what the competitor has been waiting for and the horse needs to move smartly to prevent that happening. On the bad days, this was the start of an ignominious and fruitless series of gallops up, down and every which way around the arena. George and I were having fun (and it was always a crowd pleaser) but it didn’t overly impress the judge…
The knack is to check this first break and keep the cow moving away from the pen. Then we were halfway to getting this cow to understand that George was in charge. If the cow beat us, I had to resist the temptation to gallop after it back to the pen. We had to get back there smartly but also to avoid over exciting both the cow and George. My approach then was to remember where the cow made its break the first time and be ready for that when it happened again, as it always did. Then we were ready and caught it before it took off again. All being well, we gathered the cow up again in the same way as at the start and moved it off. The object was to get the cow to the first corner in the arena (as shown below).
The first objective is to show the judge that the cow has the horse’s undivided attention and that the horse is capable of holding it away from the pen. This is easiest done with the cow in a corner and the horse standing off facing it. That is, far enough away not to frighten the cow into making another break for it. But close enough to be able to jump in and stop it if it does. And positioned so that the horse doesn’t have to turn a full length to get in front of the cow if it does make a break.
But, the “ideal” situation rarely occurs in this class. So, as long as the horse has the cow held for an appreciable moment away from the pen (so that everyone can see you’re not just sitting there while the cow has a chat with its mates), it gets it done for this stage of the class.
Another reason for choosing a corner for the hold is that the horse can then move the cow off again along a full length of the side of the arena. Because now it’s time to show the horse turning the cow against the fence. By now, the cow shouldn’t need much encouragement to move but its herd instinct is strong and it will want to get back to the pen. So the horse’s position shouldn’t so much be at the back of the cow but off to its side. The trick is to position the horse far enough into the arena to avoid over stressing the cow (and making it gallop off) but close enough to keep the cow aware that the horse is still in charge.
Turning the cow
At some stage well before the other end of the arena (so that it’s clear the horse turned the cow rather than the arena fence!), move the horse in front of the cow to turn it back along the fence. If the horse isn’t already moving smartly, this is when any cow with an opinion of itself will make a break back to the pen. So, really the turn can be a roll back and a brisk move in front of the cow again. This turns it back along the wall in the original direction. If the cow allows, it’s better to let it move down the fence a way again before the second turn. It looks better and shows the judge that the horse is now really on top of things…
Figure of eight
Now comes the really tricky bit! Ideally, the cow must turn a perfect figure of eight. But don’t bother with getting it to make flying lead changes – that’s not a requirement of the class!. At its best, it can be just that with the horse working a circle around the outside of the cow running round the inside. But the judge will accept job done if the cow rotates through 360˚ away from the fence and in both directions.
Again, it’s where having made the cow’s turns along a long side of the arena comes in handy because, as it completes the last of these, hopefully it’s moving back away from the pen. So, the horse hangs back and lets the cow follow its instinct. It will move off the fence and set out for the pen and its compadres.
Now is the moment to put the horse into top gear and get between the cow and the fence, chasing hard around the outside of the cow with the horse tight to it. He’ll probably take this opportunity to try and take a chunk out of the cow’s rump as he goes by. Resist that. It’s not a mark down but, as one clinician once pointed out to me, the George would think he’d got the job done if he can get his teeth onto the cow and stop trying to head him off!
When the plan works…
If it’s all going to plan, the horse beats the cow to the end of the circle. A check of the horse here gives the cow a bit of room. Once again its homing instincts will click in and it’ll be off to the pen again. Or so it thinks. The horse sets off right smartly again and pushes the cow round in a circle in the opposite direction. The time we did it nearly perfectly, George just jinked in a lead change and stepped round from one rump of the cow to the other without so much as changing pace. He was flat out on a loose rein and just did what was needed. Bless him.
The essence of this class is to try and make haste slowly. It only takes a moment to degenerate into a shambles. And, when you’re up to your neck in alligators, you very quickly forget why you entered the swamp. So, don’t try to do everything to perfection. I once spent the entire two minutes trying to get the cow’s turns against the fence done as I have described it here. You have to perform the various phases in the order they’re set out in the rule but you don’t get just one go at that phase if there’s time. Afterwards the judge pointed out to me that we’d done it well enough about 30 seconds into the class and should have moved on. Now, I try to keep a sense of perspective and try and keep an overall sense of the way we’re progressing through the class.
Finish the job
The sense of elation you get after you’re cow has been pushed round a figure of eight is just fantastic. The first time George and I managed that, I just sat there beaming stupidly thinking it was “job done”. But of course, it wasn’t. I just there patting George and feeling pretty darned clever. Then the judge’s watch ticked past the 2 minute mark. The cow was still out in the arena wondering what it had done to upset George. Class timed out and not finished because we hadn’t brought the cow back to the pen. Not finished in a class we could have been well placed in just because I let up too soon. Bring the cow back and then enjoy the plaudits…