The best way to cut a cow is from the ground and, no, we’re not asking you to dismount and do it yourself. O. K. Estes of Granby, Conn., trainer of “a few good cutting horses,” as he modestly admits, says the most important step comes before a saddle is ever on their back — with groundwork.
Actually, Estes traces most performance flaws back to poor ground manners. Regardless of discipline, horses all share the problem — on the ground they’re out of control. “What most people have are 1,000-pound Cocker Spaniels in halters,” he says. “They don’t have any more manners than a dog jumping on a leash.”
Groundwork begins with teaching the horse that whoever’s holding the lead rope is boss. “I’m not going to scream at them. I’m just going to manipulate them with the lead rope, and they’re going to do whatever I want. . . . When I stop, they stop. Never stick their head in front of me. Never get into my space. That’s finished groundwork.”
If you have the ability to do ground training, do it, said Estes, but if you don’t, send the horse to a trainer who can. “Everybody thinks they can start a horse, but not everybody can. If you have the right routine, the right amount of time to handle a horse, you can do it. The best-trained animals have trainers who spent time with them. The best relationships between spouses are the people who spend time together — no difference. It has to do with time and how committed you are to the finished product,” said Estes.
Once you’ve got solid groundwork and a mannered horse, you’re ready to see if he can cut cattle. Three factors help determine potential:
1. Conformation: That’s the easy part. Like any successful athlete, a horse with good loins and long, strong hips will handle the stops, turns and fades necessary to shape and cut.
2. Pedigree: The National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) pays out more than 90% of its purses to Quarter Horses. Sure, other breeds work cows, but Quarter Horses dominate the sport. Certain Quarter Horse stallions have a knack for siring horses with natural talent, but it’s not a given. If you’re researching a prospect, learn which sires are notable cutting horses.
3. Cow Sense: Here’s the catch. You can’t breed in cow sense. Not even full siblings to a proven champion are a guarantee. That third, and most intangible, trait is cow sense, or as Estes calls it, “sting.” And you won’t know if they’ve got it until you ride them and put them on a cow.
Estes starts a horse with one cow at a time, working it off the fence so the horse feels like he’s trailing the cow. “As soon as they’re noticing the cow, they should start picking up on it and rating it. If the cow starts to walk, they walk. If it trots, they trot. . . . You let the horse fall in and you try to keep the cow in the proper vision, meaning you don’t go straight to its head until after they’ve started rating it. Then you can step up to it and start making what I call ‘finding the head of the cow.’”
Finding the head means taking control of the cow’s movements. To turn a cow around the horse should step up and put his head in front of or past the cow’s head to turn it the other way.
“Once the horse can move the cow and run a stop, what you really need to look for is the horse who will go back and forth across the arena and start fading back — because as you take pressure off a cow, it’ll slow down. When you go up to them, they speed up. After a couple of sessions, a good horse figures that out. They learn, ‘Hey, if I drop back, the work’s not so hard.’ That’s when you know you’ve got a cow horse.”
A lot of good cow horses are frightened of cattle, and that’s a good thing. “If a horse gets too aggressive and blows into a cow, you’re going to lose points. You want him to be able to draw back and draw that cow to him. When you go into a cow, you’re charging and you get out of position.
“That’s how you lose a cow, and teach your horse to lose a cow, too. So I want my horse to be a little afraid. I want him to fall back and protect the herd. If I try to run straight at a cow, it’s going to create a hole where they can get away. But if I drop off, I have more room to work with just by changing my angle. A horse that respects the cow and gives it some space will put both of you in a better position.”
Note: When introducing your green horse to a cow, however, you must anticipate how the cow might react. Some cows will just stand there, unmoving, which can destroy a potentially good horse. Others will run away or aggressively charge the horse. Either of the latter movements can elicit a tremendous reaction from a green horse. The bottom line is if you don’t know bovine behavior well enough to predict the consequences, let someone else start the cow work who does.
After working off one cow for a few sessions, it’s time to graduate to a herd, to see if the horse can hold the cow separate from its buddies in the middle of the pen. “The NCHA rulebook says the horse is to hold the cow in the center of the arena. That means he can’t run it from fence to fence. That’s not cutting — that’s chasing,” said Estes.
“And that’s what makes a cutting horse work — he figures out how to ‘shut the door’ on a cow. That’s what we’re looking for. If you can turn him loose and he rides through all by himself, that’s a horse bred and born to cut. You want it as the rider because you don’t want to pedal every step, or pick up your hand and physically or verbally cue them in any way. That’s how judges reduce your score and you lose points.”
It Takes Time
While a cutting horse can be started at two and shown for the first time as a Futurity horse at three, a finished cutter may take until the age of six. “The average age of a horse that can place Top Ten nationally is between 10 and 16 years old,” said Estes.
It’s a long process and all too often driven by the show year. “A calendar can force us to rush. The problem with most people is that they try too hard. Don’t press. To make a good horse takes time. It’s easy to want to skip the groundwork and start cutting cows right away.”
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