cow horses defined

Working Cow Horse:

Working cow horse is a type of competition, known also as reined cow horse, where horses are asked to work a single live cow in an arena, performing specific maneuvers that include circling the cow, turning it in a specified manner, and performing a reining pattern. Horses that can perform these tasks are called “reined cow horses,” “cow horses,” “stock horses,” or “working cow horses.” Competition consists of three parts where a horse and rider are judged on their performance in a reining pattern, herd work, and “fence work”. Horses are judged on accuracy, timing, and responsiveness, as well as how they handle a single cow and their ability to ride into a herd of cattle and quietly “cut” a cow from the herd.

The History of the Reined Cow Horse

The modern horse was reintroduced to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors. By the time the Spanish missionaries were making their way into California in the 18th century, the Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) were well established in other parts of America and came with them.

The King of Spain granted large tracts of land to loyal subjects, which were the basis for the “Californio” ranches and lifestyle common until the mid-19th century (and whose eventual owners were the source of the names of many California communities, including Irvine and Pacheco). These vast ranches raised range-bred beef for Mexican and other markets. The cattle were half-wild and dangerous, requiring a fast, well-trained horse that could intimidate an individual cow, turn it back from the herd, separate it for branding and other handling, and do it all effortlessly.

Over time, the “Californio” cowboy or vaquero developed a system of training working cow horses that became famous for its elegance, precision, and difficulty of training the horse. The roots of these methods are in European dressage, a system to train horses for war. Adopted by the pre-Moors and Moors in Spain, and transferred to the Spanish conquistadors, the Californio methods created horses so sensitive to their riders’ signals they were known as “Hair-trigger” or “whisper” reined horses.

At the time, a finished reining horse (as it was called) required at least seven years to train: three to four years to train the basics in a bosal hackamore, then at least a year carrying both the bosal and the high-ported spade bit (named for the spade-shaped port which was from 1-3″ high) to help the horse learn how to carry the bit, then several years refining techniques in the spade until the horse was a “made” reining horse. The training could not be done by just any Californio, and reining horses were valuable because of the difficulty of training and scarcity.

A finished reining horse could be controlled and directed with minute movements of the fingers of the left hand, which hovered above the saddle horn. (Compare to the grazing-bit style of Western riding developed in Texas, where reins are split between the fingers and the hand moves in front of the saddle, controlling the horse by neck reining.) Because of the potential severity of the spade bit, chains added to the ends of the reins to balance the bit in the horse’s mouth, and knotted and braided rawhide reins which prevented the reins from swinging unnecessarily, even at a lope, the “made” reining horse seemed to run, stop, spin and handle a cow on its own, with little communication from its rider.

In the early-to-mid-19th century, the Gold Rush changed the complexion and future of California. The influx of newcomers into the Golden State helped to dissolve the vast cattle ranches of earlier days. On the ranches that did remain, modern livestock management techniques and machinery eventually eliminated much of the need for a well-trained, versatile working horse.

By the early 20th century, the reined cow horse had gone from being a necessity to a luxury, and there was little activity to sustain the history or background of this training tradition. Most ranchers were struggling to survive the Great Depression. This trend continued through World War II; few people had the time to be concerned with the history, the horses and the training programs of “the old days.” Only a handful of horsemen who remembered the old Californios or worked with them on the remaining California ranchos learned the old ways of training a “made” reining horse.

Reined Cow Horse Competition

Reined cow horse events which are “open” to all breeds and held by the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA). Working cow horse events are also held at breed specific shows, such as at an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), American Paint Horse Association (APHA) and Arabian Horse Association (AHA).

NRCHA competition is very similar to AQHA’s working cow horse event. But where AQHA’s class only consists of rein work and cow work, NRCHA also offers special events for reined cow horses based on the age of the horse (aged events) Futurities are for 3-year-olds ridden in a snaffle bit, Derbies are for 4- and 5-year-olds ridden in either a snaffle bit or hackamore, and bridle spectaculars are for aged horses 6 and up ridden in a bridle. At these special reined cow horse events, horses and riders compete in three distinct competitions, and scoring is on the basis of 60 to 80, with 70 denoting an average performance. These events are rein work, cow work and herd work.

The general rules between various organizations are usually similar to the NRCHA in that the horse is required to perform two or three different sorts of work in one or two sessions. One event consists of reining work, where a reining pattern is performed. This is often referred to as the “rein work.” The other is the cow work, where a single cow is released into the arena and the horse is asked to first hold the cow at one end of the arena (known as “boxing”) then run the horse along the rail of the arena, turning it back without the aid of the fence (known as “fencing”). Lastly, the horse maneuvers the cow into the center of the arena and cause the cow to circle in a tight circle in each direction (known as “circling”). All this must be accomplished before the cow is exhausted.

In three event competition, a “Herd Work” session is also included. The herd work is similar to cutting where a single cow is “cut” from a herd of cattle and prevented from returning to the herd by the intervention of the horse and rider. Herd work is most often included aged events, primarily the three-year-old futurity and four- and five-year-old derby classes. Herd work is also included in a “Bridle Spectacular” class.

Today’s reined cow horse competitors train horses at two levels, similar to the original Californio method. Younger horses, three-year-olds, can compete with a snaffle bit. Four- and five-year-old horses can compete in either a snaffle bit or bosal; six year and older horses compete in a “bridle”. Horses working in curb bits, often “half-breeds,” so-called because the port is about half the size of the original spade bits used by the Californios. Occasionally, one will see a skilled rider with a horse in a spade bit, but because of its potential severity, the difficulty and time involved in training a horse to a spade, and the well-bred horses of today which can perform without such bits, most horsemen avoid the spade.

Cutting Horses

A cutting horse is an athletic and willing animal possessing an innate “cow sense” and ability to respond quickly and turn sharply that is trained to keep a cow from returning to the herd. The horses involved are typically American Quarter Horses, although many other stock horse breeds are also used.

In the event, the horse and rider select and separate a cow (typically a steer or heifer) out of a small group. The cow then tries to return to its herd; the rider loosens the reins (“puts his hand down” in the parlance) and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the cow separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A contestant has 2 ½ minutes to show the horse; typically three cows are cut during a run, although working only two cows is acceptable. A judge awards points to the cutter based on a scale that ranges from 60 to 80, with 70 being considered average.

As the cow turns, the horse is to draw back over its hocks and then turn with the cow. The rider is centered over the horse keeping his or her eyes focused on the cow’s neck so as to anticipate the cow’s next move. The horse’s shoulders during a run are parallel with that of the cow’s. The team is judged on how the horse moves in relation to the cow. Leg aids may be used to steady a horse and keep them from falling in on the cow throughout a run.

Cutting Horse Competition

Each contestant is allowed two and a-half minutes to cut at least two cows from the herd. The rider must bring at least one cow out from deep inside the herd during his run (performance). If he brings out a small group and waits for all but one to peel (go back to the herd), he has “cut for shape.”

His other cuts may be chipped from the edge of the herd. Extra credit is given if the rider drives the cow he wants fromdeep inside the herd. The contestant is assisted by four riders of his choice. Two are designated as herd holders. They are positioned on either side of the herd to keep the cattle from drifting into the working area.

Two riders stay between the cow that is being worked and the judges’ stands. These are the turnback riders; they turn the cow back to the contestant, if it tries to escape to the far end of the working area.

When the rider has clearly separated one cow from the herd, he must loosen his grip on the reins and allow the horse to have its head. The cow instinctively tries to return to the herd, but the horse must defend the herd and hold the cow.

Horses receive extra credit for their skill and style and the exertion used to keep the cow under control. The rider may decide when to stop working a cow, but he will be penalized if he quits when a cow is moving toward the horse. This is known as a “hot quit.” The rider also incurs a penalty for picking up his reins before he quits a cow. A horse will be penalized if he loses a cow (the cow returns before the rider quits it.)

It’s all about cattle in cutting!

Riders spend time watching the herd during the cattle change and mentally sorting the “good” cows from the “bad” ones. A good cow is intelligent, curious and alert. Although it wants to return to the herd, it will not bolt and run like a “bad” cow, but will try to find a “hole” just to one side of the horse for an escape route. The “good” horse will control a cow by matching its moves without being aggressive. If the cow runs, the horse must be quick and agile in order to head it.

Cutting demands extraordinary control on one hand, and lightning-quick action on the other. The smart and athletic American Quarter Horse has been bred for these qualities, as well as a love for the job, and about 96% of all horses competing in NCHA events are Registered American Quarter Horses, although Paints, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds and Arabians can also be competitive. Judges score contestants on a scale of 60 to 80 points.

Cutting, like skating or gymnastics, is judged by a panel of NCHA-certified judges who rate the horse’s performance in points. Each judge’s point rating may range from 60 – 80.

In the contest arena, the art of the cutting horse comes alive in a classic test of intelligence, training, breeding and skill. In competition, the cutting horse and rider must work together as a team in demonstrating their cattle handling skills. The contest begins as the pair approaches the herd. The horse and rider have two and a-half minutes to complete their work.

Major penalties include: horse quitting a cow; losing a cow; changing cattle after specific commitment; failure to separate a single animal after leaving the herd; horse turning tail to a cow; horse falling to the ground.

Credit on a run can be earned by a number of variables, such as: excellence in herd work; skill in driving and setting up a cow; deftly handling a difficult situation; showing courage in confronting a difficult situation.