Think of a horse and rider herding cattle across the plains, and your mind immediately conjures up the American cowboy. Certainly, other regions with open space – South America, Australia – have used horses extensively to move cattle, but that image is intertwined with U.S. history.
Those of us who enjoy riding might never have an occasion to emulate a cowboy, but have you ever wondered just what your horse would do with a cow? It could be a fun experience, or it could spook your horse. Like many aspects of training, it comes down to how you introduce your horse to a new situation.
We asked Barbra Schulte, who shows and trains cutting horses in Brenham, Texas, about starting horses on cattle. A former vice president of the National Cutting Horse Association, Barbra has won multiple national cutting championships, including the NCHA Derby, NCHA Superstakes Classic and Augusta Futurity. She is also a professional performance coach certified by LGE Sports Science and has helped riders of all disciplines develop confidence in the saddle.
Today’s cutting horse comes from breeding lines developed especially for the sport. They begin their careers early because many of the big competitions are for 3-year-olds. Barbra said that it takes 18 months to two years of training for a cutting horse to be ready for the show pen. But while you may not be able to turn your 7-year-old trail horse into a champion cutter, you can still find plenty of fun ways to interact with cattle.
Why Look for a Cow?
Depending on where you live and ride, you may already have encountered cattle. Maybe the most convenient path to your favorite trail takes you through a pasture of cattle. Perhaps the road you often ride on goes by a neighbor with a steer or two on his property.
In those cases, it may be wise for you to spend some time getting your horse used to cattle. But we also like to try new things with our equine companions, so you might find that cattle can provide a welcome diversion from your other riding activities. And once you and your horse discover cattle, you may even try something like team penning, a sport that people can enjoy at almost any level.
“In the reining horse industry, one of the diversions that some people use is to introduce their horse to a cow just to give the horse something different to do,” Barbra said.
“By working on something new, maybe turning a cow or circling the cow, you can provide some interest and fun for your horse.”
Barbra brought up another reason to bring cattle into your rid-ing experiences.”There are so many cowhorse bloodlines today,” she said, “especially in reining horses and Quarter Horses. Someone might purchase a horse with cutting training as their trail horse.”
Many trail horses come with a world of experience in all sorts of disciplines, but because we might be their third or fourth owner, we aren’t aware of their knowledge.
Horses past their prime in the cutting ring can make wonderful trail horses, and if you discover that your horse has a history with cattle, you might find a new avenue to explore.
Develop Your Own Cow Sense
Develop Your Own Cow Sense
-Cattle are more afraid of you on the ground than they are of you on your horse.
-Every cow has his own bubble, the minimum distance you can be from him before he’ll move.
-Moving toward a cow’s hindquarters will give you motion, and moving toward his head will give you a change in direction.
-Cattle raised together are more likely to follow you and your horse in a pasture.
Cows Have a Bubble?
Before you go looking for cattle, however, you should know a few things about how cattle react to horses and people.
“Cows have a type of natural ‘bubble,’ meaning how close you can get to them before they move,” Barbra said.
She explained that a cow that is used to horses and people has a small bubble. You could get very close to them before they’d bother to move because they’ve seen plenty of horses and you aren’t going to be an unusual sight. On the other hand, a cow who isn’t used to people and horses or is just naturally wild and nervous would have a very large bubble.
“If you had a really wild cow in a round pen, you might only have to move two or three feet to cause that cow to start running,” Barbra said. “If you have a real quiet cow – in cutting terms, we call that a dead cow – he would have a very small bubble and you’d have to be really close to the cow in order to move it.”
In cutting, how the horse controls the cow greatly affects the score that the judges give him. Cutting horse trainers understand just how a horse should position himself to get a specific movement from a cow. You can use the basics to affect how your horse interacts with cattle.
“If you’re looking at a cow broadside and you’re at a right angle to the cow,” Barbra said, “if you move to the cow’s hip, you will make the cow move forward. If you move to the cow’s head, you will cause the cow to turn away from you.” Moving toward the hindquarters will get you motion, while moving toward the head causes changes of direction.
Barbra explained how you can use this principle to herd a cow. For example, say the cow has his hindquarters toward you, but his head is turned to the right. If you want him to move in a straight line away from you, move to the right of the cow and approach him toward the ribcage area. That will cause the cow to straighten up, because his natural inclination is to move his head away from you, and then move his hip.
A final thing to know about cattle is that they are more afraid of you on foot than they are of you on your horse. So if your horse isn’t experienced around cattle, be aware of this, especially if you drop something, such as your cell phone, and want to dismount to retrieve it. Your act of dismounting may frighten the cattle, causing them to scatter and possibly spook your horse.
“You might want to note where the item is and first move the cattle away from it before getting off,” Barbra said. “Then I would take my time and steady my horse with my hand on his neck before I dismounted. I would pay close attention to my horse’s behavior and make especially sure that the reins are firmly in my hand.”
Does My Horse Have “Cow”?
When cutting horse people talk about a horse’s natural ability to cut cattle, they refer to it as “having cow,” shorthand for having cow sense. Barbra said that sometimes a cutting horse will initially be afraid of a cow, and oddly enough, that often means that they have good cow sense.
“You can never say for sure that the horse has no cow in him,” Barbra said. “If I were on a 7-year-old gelding who was a really quiet trail horse, and the horse had no response when we went past a pasture of cattle, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has no cow. But if my friend’s horse perked his ears and was interested to the point of just interest to downright fear, it could be either cow or shying.”
Cutting horse trainers love to feel that excitement in a 2-year-old in a pen with a cow for the first time. “You can feel them underneath you kind of tense their muscles, put their ears up, or their heart starts to beat fast,” Barbra said. “You can tell that there is something that they feel about the cow, which is a really good thing.”
Another way you can tell that your horse might have cow sense is how he acts around dogs when he’s loose in a pasture. “When dogs run through a pasture,” Barbra said, “the horses who put their head down and follow the dogs or are really interested in them usually have a lot of cow.”
How the Pros Teach Cutting
While the sport of cutting requires very specific maneuvers, teaching a young horse to cut cattle includes a lot of the same foundation work as any other kind of horse training. Barbra Schulte starts plenty of youngsters on cows, and she took time out to give us a look into her world.
“First we have to teach a horse some basic skills that aren’t related to being with cattle,” Barbra said. “It’s called dry work. That includes getting them soft in their mouth so that they will stop and turn well. That is paired with the rider collapsing in the saddle, or applying weight in the seat, so that the horse understands that will be the cue for slowing down.”
Barbra also spends time building the horse’s flexibility. A cutting horse has to be able to change direction quickly so that he can move with the cow and eventually anticipate what the cow will do. The horse must learn to roll over his hocks to turn with the cow.
“As the horse stops with the cow, the weight in his body should shift to his hindquarters,” Barbra said. “Then, as he remains balanced on his haunches, I ask for his head and neck to softly flex in the direction of the turn. As the turn is initiated, his nose continues in the direction of the turn, ‘pulling’ the horse’s body through the turn with elegance and ease. His body kind of folds into a 180-degree turn. His body is very soft.
“The precision, beauty and ease of the turn is one of the factors that separates cutting from other sports. All is in perfect synchronicity with the cow.”
Because many of the top cutting events are for 3-year-olds, trainers begin their cutting horses as young 2-year-olds. After Barbra has done the initial dry work with a youngster, she introduces him to one cow in a round pen that is 120′ to 170′ in diameter, big enough for a horse to work with one cow first and then later with a small herd of cattle.
“When the cow is turned into the arena,” Barbra said, “I’ll walk the horse up in the direction of the cow, just to feel if I feel any response from the horse’s physiology. Do his ears come up? Sometimes he’ll kind of extend his head and neck. He might want to pause, almost like a dog pointing at a bird. I can feel a natural instinct.”
When the cow moves, Barbra moves the horse, planting the idea of connecting the cow’s movement with his own movement.
As with any training, repetition helps teach the horse what she wants. If the horse has good cow sense, he will pick it up quickly. As do all cutting horse trainers, Barbara looks for indications of how much cow sense the horse has as she teaches him his job. She can get an idea of just how good a cutting horse might be from these initial steps.
“We try to make it fun for the horse, kind of cat and mouse,” Barbra said. “The cow stops, and then the horse stops and looks at the cow.”
Keeping a horse interested in his work is critical for cutting horses. Trainers will often return to dry work or even trail ride a cutting horse in between cattle sessions – sometimes several days with cattle and the next day off doing something else. That way, the cutting horse can look forward to his time in the pen.
“Eventually, we’ll work to get progressively more parallel to the cow,” Barbra said. “Then you can actually move a little bit past the cow. The cow will stop and turn on the fence of the round pen. When the cow stops, you stop your horse with the feet and your hands. You ask them for their nose, and then with your hands and your seat, the pressure from your legs and your body control, you ask for that turn and then an acceleration. You can make the turn and then come up from behind the cow, to alongside the cow and then past the cow, stop, turn again. We do that over and over and over.”
Barbra can vary the speed of the cow by correctly judging its bubble, the minimum distance between the horse and the cow that will cause the cow to move. If she wants to slow down the cow, she moves the horse farther away from the cow. If she wants to speed up the cow, she comes in closer.
Once the horse is comfortable working with one cow, Barbra will bring in several cattle. On her ranch in Texas, she has a couple of former show steers that she uses as babysitters.
“They know to stand in the middle of the round pen,” she said. “We’ll add three to five cattle in the center, and the babysitter will hold the cattle in the middle of the arena. Then you can drive an individual cow to the perimeter of the round pen.”
The horse may still only be working one cow, but the addition of more cattle-creating a herd-adds a degree of difficulty. Because cows always want to return to the herd, the separated cow will work more quickly than he would if he were the only cow in the round pen.
By this time the horse has learned Cutting 101 and is ready for more advanced training. Eventually, he will enter the show pen, where his training coupled with his innate cow sense will determine whether he can become a champion.
Horse, Meet Cow
Once you know how cattle react to horses, you can introduce your horse to a cow. Much of your initial work will be similar to teaching him not to spook at other objects, such as a jacket, a towel or a tarp.
You’ll want your horse conditioned to the basic control cues, such as head down and hips over. If he becomes anxious about the cattle, his automatic responses to those cues will help you regain control over him and get him to pay attention to you.
If you are going to introduce a horse to cattle in an open space, Barbra recommended that, especially with a horse you aren’t extremely familiar with, you first become comfortable with him in an arena setting, without the cattle.
“I would make sure that I had spent an adequate amount of time warming this horse up in a controlled situation, even it’s just an open situation around the barn,” she said. “I would make sure that I had control of the horse walking, trotting and loping, going in circles both directions. I would also spend some time seeing how light he was in his mouth, what kind of feel he had in responding to the pressure of my legs.”
Introduce the horse to the cow slowly, making sure you don’t push the horse past his comfort level. Barbra emphasized that how you work with your horse in open spaces is very different from the way cutting horse trainers begin their horses in the round pen. (See sidebar.)
“Take it one step at a time and wait for the horse to relax,” Barbra said. “I find it helpful to put the horse on circles that I have already established, that I know he is comfortable with. Then I’d come back and approach the cattle in the pasture.
“Get him to a comfortable spot and then bring him back to the cow, even if we’re just talking five or 10 feet. Do a comfortable circle, stop, let him relax, go back toward the cow. You may have to do this for days in a row.”
Once your horse is comfortable with being around the cow, start to experiment with moving the cow. Remembering that you get direction from the head and motion from the hindquarters, try approaching the cow from different angles and watch both the response of the cow and your horse.
“Cattle are herd-bound animals,” Barbra said. “So if you try to separate a cow from the group, be aware that the cow’s number one desire is to return to the herd.”
Cattle in a group might also follow you in a pasture, especially if they were raised together. “They don’t come at you, but they follow you,” Barbra said. “That will really scare some horses. If that happens, you should turn your horse around periodically to reassure him. When you turn around, the cattle will stop or move away from you.”
Unless you have access to cattle on your property, you’re probably going to have to take your horse to the cattle. This is another reason to work on your control cues at home before heading to the cattle. Also, the more familiar you can get your horse with the area where the cattle are, the better the experience will be. If you need to cross the pasture of cattle, for example, spend time first riding up and down the fence line.
If you can bring the cow onto your property, the ideal place to work with him is a round pen. But a cutting horse round pen is much larger than a John Lyons round pen. Barbra recommends a round pen of 120′ to 170′ in diameter. “If you’re in a small round pen, you might always be in a cow’s bubble,” she explained. “The absolute minimal is 100′ in diameter, but 120′ would be better. But be aware that working with cattle in a round pen and in an open pasture are very different.”
While you can play with a cow in a traditional, rectangular-shaped arena, a pen without corners means that you can approach a cow from anywhere.
“What’s really nice about a round pen is that you can put a cow somewhere on the perimeter, come up behind it and next to it, and cause the cow to move forward,” Barbra said. “Or if you want to, you can cut across, stop in front of the cow and get the cow to turn by going to the cow’s head. That’s how someone can really play with their horse on a cow.”
If your horse does have some cow sense, he’ll start to become interested in the process. He might surprise you with just how much he already knows. Moving and playing around cattle may never be the number one activity for you and your horse, but it can give both of you another enjoyable way to work together.