The University of Wyoming’s newly formed Ranch Horse Team hosted a cow horse clinic Oct. 6, 2012, at the Hansen Teaching Arena in Laramie, WY. World class cow horse trainer, Kyle Trahern of Ault, CO, addressed students of all ages and skill levels. Kyle was honored as the 2004 AQHA Youth Working Cow Horse World Champion and 2005 Reserve World Champion in the Sr. Reined Cow Horse division. He recently attended the Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, NV, where he missed the finals by a slim margin.
Clinic participants learned about moving, turning, the flight zone of cattle, where to position the horse when boxing, circling a cow and most importantly stopping square. Cow work is a scored class. Points are given to the horse for working a cow while maintaining control of that cow at all times. The level of difficulty to control the cow will also be reflected in the score. Horses that exhibit superior “cow sense” meaning they work the cow with little assistance from the rider will also score higher. A horse is also rewarded for overall eye appeal when working the cow. Traits such as cow sense may not be easily taught in a Saturday clinic but position and control of the cow and how to increase your horse’s efficiency can be learned.
Cowboys and cowgirls at the clinic were instructed to turn into the cow because turning away from her would result in a zero score. One of the most important lessons everyone learned was to stop square and rock the horse back on his haunches. So, unlike a spin in reining where the horse must maintain forward motion, in cow horse competitions, the horse needs to reposition its weight on its hind end and turn over its hocks or haunches. This forces the horse to improve its body position when boxing or rating the cow and keeps the horse’s body in line as a shadow of the cow. If the horse does not stop square or straight, meaning the hindquarter or shoulders are to the right or left of the horse’s body, then the horse is at a disadvantage when preparing to turn the cow because the rest of the horse’s body must align in order to turn.
Kyle explained that a snaffle bit (a bit that’s either broken or solid in the mouth with rings on the side) is a good choice when just learning how to work a cow regardless of the age of the horse. The snaffle allowed riders to have more freedom with their hands and the ability to respond to the cow’s movement by using both their hands and legs to guide their horse. Another major issue when working cattle is the length of stirrup. Trahern suggested using a shorter stirrup than one might normally ride. This provides improved balance when the horse is tracking a cow, quickly turning or stopping it.
Organizations such as the National Reined Cow Horse Association, an affiliate of the American Quarter Horse Association, strive for “improved quality of the western reined stock horse as well as promoting the training of reined cow horses and promoting interest among younger horsemen throughout the nation and world.”
The idea of working a cow or selecting a cow from a herd of cows can be traced back to Spanish tradition. Horses that displayed the ability to be reactive to a cow and or work the cow on their own similar to a good sheep dog that only thinks about herding was considered a very valuable animal. The vaqueros or Californios (cowboys) would spend several years training their horses prior to introducing them to cattle. The fundamental training included many exercises and maneuvers commonly seen today in reining shows and classes.
The Spanish being good horsemen also developed helpful training tools such as the hackamore (bosal) and spade bits (a bit with a mouth piece similar to a shovel or rounded piece in the middle of the bit). It is helpful to know more about the vaquero- type equipment when preparing to compete in cow horse competitions. A hackamore is used on younger horses or those just learning the sport. It applies pressure to the nose and chin of the horse which teaches the horse to become more soft in the face – or broke. Once a horse has learned to respond to a hackamore, it will be transitioned into the bit. The bit works by placing pressure at various points in the mouth and the chin. The art of bit making and weaving hackamores is a viable trade and often the beautiful equipment can be found on a working cow horse.
Those riders hoping to learn more about cow horses, practical cow work, or the proper techniques used in cow horse competitions should seek an experienced and knowledgeable person. There’s a lot more to cow work than putting on your boots and spurs and chasing a cow down the fence. More information is also available from the National Reined Cow Horse Association – find them online at www.nrcha.com or call 580-759-4949.
Amy McLean, PhD, is an Equine Specialist for the University of Wyoming.
n The University of Wyoming’s newly formed Ranch Horse Team hosted a cow horse clinic Oct. 6, at the Hansen Teaching Arena in Laramie, WY.