Creating Confidence in Cutting Horses

Creating Confidence in Cutting Horses

Grant Setnicka's program starts with the basics and builds equine athletes confident in working cattle.

Grant Setnicka works a cow on a 2-year-old cutting horse (Credit: Journal)

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

Resistance is one way a horse communicates fear or confusion, says cutting horse trainer Grant Setnicka. That’s why Grant tries to figure out ways to develop softness so his horses are receptive to learning and will let him teach them how to work a cow. And, in turn, become confident cutters.

“When training, there are two points we put pressure: the mouth and the ribcage,” Grant says. “If the horse understands that he cannot lean on or brace against those points, then you should have a horse that’s willing to do his job.”


Cutting horse prospects, in Grant’s program, start with the basics via arena and pasture riding. While they are in the vicinity of cattle, they have no face-to-face bovine encounters for the first 90 days. By the end of the 90 days, the prospects should:

  • Give readily to the pull of the rein.
  • Follow their noses.
  • Move off leg pressure.

Then they are introduced to the flag and a mechanical cow. In a totally controlled situation, that’s when the colts start learning to position themselves and use their bodies correctly in stops and turns. Like body-builders working weight machines, they’re conditioning muscles and tendons, and will be better prepared mentally and physically for those early sessions on cattle.

Introducing Cattle

Once a horse has a great foundation, it’s time to introduce cattle. Watching a colt react to a cow for the first time is always fun and entertaining, Grant says. However, for first encounters, fresh is not always best.

“It’s kind of neat the first time you step a young horse up to a cow. Some horses will go right to it; some are scared to death. But I’m not going to run in fresh cattle that are running around like orangutans. I’m going to have calm, slow, confidence-building cattle that don’t scare or blow the horse’s mind.

“We’ll kick one cow in the pen and just trot around it. We’ll show the horse that he can push that cow around – that he or she is controlling that cow. Once we feel a horse has a good understanding of what a cow is, then we’ll start going to the cow’s head. We’ll stop it and create a turn the other way. That’s when we really start training.”

This is when having that handle prevents a lot of confusion. Grant can use his reins and his legs to guide and position his colt without his cues distracting the student from the cow.

Ninety percent of Grant’s training happens in a round pen or square pen, meaning the horse tracks to the inside with the cow positioned to the outside between the horse and the fence perimeter. Stops and changes in direction unfold in a circular flow. As a horse gains confidence, a babysitter steer and additional cattle are added to the pen. The herd sets up in the center, and the horse learns to navigate through and around the herd and figures out how to separate a single cow. It’s no big deal. It’s just one more confidence-building step in the process.

Working Cattle in a Round Pen

“It takes so much pressure off a horse if you work around. If the cow is fast, you can move away from it,” Grant explains. “To keep my horses relaxed, I don’t use a lot of turnback help at home. I’ll step to a cow and drive off it until a cow doesn’t honor the horse or doesn’t move, and then I’ll have somebody turn back.”

He works one or two cows per session, which is usually enough to take the wind out of a colt. And he always tries to quit on a positive note. Depending on how the horse is working, the training period may be three minutes or 30 minutes.

If his colt has been frustrated by a cow, it may require going back to the flag and asking for a nice stop and turn, so the session ends with confidence.

It’s remarkable how quickly these lessons add up. By the fall of their 2-year-old year, Grant knows which prospects are going to make cutting horses – and which ones aren’t. He doesn’t necessarily know how good they’ll be, but he knows whether they have the aptitude and desire for the job.

“I want my horse to stop, bring that nose and turn with the cow. To me, if you keep a program that simple, the cream rises to the top,” he observes.

Some horses have so much cow sense, they grasp the concepts quickly and want to implement the plan to control the cow; others never get it.

With nine months of training, good students will be snapping back to the cow on their own. They’ve been shown how enough times that they’ll begin to position themselves in a defensive way. Grant can take his colt off the cow to work on form and as soon as he releases the rein, his horse will be hunting for that cow. What’s more, they’re starting to understand the angles that give them a working advantage over it. He nurtures and rewards such ambition by keeping work-days light.

Positioning is important. Grant keeps his colt’s nose and front end tied into the cow while pressing ribcage and hips away. This helps his horse focus and provides a physical advantage early in training.


Expectations change as cutting horse prospects begin their second year of training.

“You have to keep them interested, but it can’t be a free-for-all. There’s some discipline,” Grant says.

“The early part of their 3-year-old year is like their freshman year of high school. That’s when I try to create some grit in my horses – whether the cows are good or bad – just hold the cow. I’m not going to be too picky about how they do it.”

Grant also begins to test and challenge his colts.

“No matter what the cow is doing, I want my horse to try. I may put my hand down in a weird spot,” he explains. “I may ask the horse to hold the cow a little longer. Or I’ll put my horse in a bad spot and try to get him to quit me. Early in their 3-year-old year, I’m putting a lot more responsibility on them.

“To create that grit, you have to let some stuff go. You can’t be a perfectionist,” he adds.

Grant admits that turning over greater responsibility can be a confusing time for many young cutting horses. Early in training, a rider helps his horse through every stop and turn, positioning and shaping it to the cow. By the fall of the 2-year-old year, Grant has begun experimenting with how much his colts are willing to do on their own (which he says makes it one of the most fun and exciting periods of training). During the 3-year-old year, he develops that skill set and by summer’s end, Grant wants his horses to be 90 percent finished. A horse can’t get there if he’s micro-managed every step of the way.

“By summertime, no matter what you do to them, as far as softening, or making them wait, or bringing their nose, as soon as you put your hand back down, those 3-year-olds should go find that cow – whether that cow has turned away or is half-way across that arena.”

Grant builds grit by challenging his 3-year-olds with big responsibility. He puts his hand down and lets Justa Lil Catfight manage a tough situation. It’s not her form he’s testing, but her heart. She’s got it.