Reined Cow Horse 101, Part 1

Reined Cow Horse 101, Part 1

In Part 1 of this series, learn the history behind reined cow horse competition and begin to understand its three parts.

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The three-phase events of National Reined Cow Horse Association competition make it one of the most thrilling and demanding of all performance horse classes. At NRCHA futurities, derbies and bridle spectaculars, horses and their riders must compete in rein work, similar to reining; herd work, similar to cutting; and cow work. This three-leg event challenges the skill of both the horse and rider.

Like reining and cutting, reined cow horse traces its roots to the vast ranches of the Southwest.

The California Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) are credited for developing the reined cow horse, which was trained to work with the great herds of Longhorn cattle driven from Mexico to California, as well as perform the day-to-day chores of the ranches.

But in the early 1900s, machinery began to replace the well-trained, versatile working horse, and the honored vaquero training methods began to fade. This trend continued until shortly after World War II, when a small group of Californians decided to preserve the heritage of the legendary ranch horse.

The formation of the National Reined Cow Horse Association preserved the training methods of the Spanish vaquero and brought about one of the world’s largest cow horse events, the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, which is held every fall. The prestigious futurity is exclusive to 3-year-old horses. NRCHA is an AQHA alliance partner.

Reined cow horse traces its roots to the vaquero tradition of training. Interested in learning more about vaquero training? Download AQHA’s Vaquero Horse Training Tips e-book.

What Is a Reined Cow Horse Competition?

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 – futurities are for 3-year-olds, derbies are for 4- and 5-year-olds, and bridle spectaculars are for aged horses 6 and up.

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. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Herd Work

This phase is similar to cutting, as the horse shows his ability to control a cow with little assistance from the rider within a 2 1/2-minute period.

The horse and rider begin this class by calmly separating a number of cattle from the herd without unsettling the rest of the group. They then allow all but one cow to return to the herd. During this phase, horses are expected to keep their heads low and go about their work quietly but alertly.

The main action starts when the horse and rider attempt to keep the solitary cow from rejoining the herd. The horse is on a loose rein and appears to be working on his own. The horse uses fluid, cat-like movements that anticipate where the cow will turn next without any excess spurring or reining from the rider. The cow is unable to get around the horse and back to the herd until the rider “quits” the steer and goes to select another. Two or three cows are worked during the time period.

Credit is given for driving cattle, clearing the herd by sufficient distance and setting up a cow while holding it in a working position as near the center of the arena as possible. The degree of difficulty, eye appeal and the amount of courage in staying on a tough cow are also taken into consideration.

Curious about the vaquero tradition of training? Download AQHA’s Vaquero Horse Training Tips e-book and discover more about the history of reined cow horse competition.

Penalties, between one and five points, are assessed for:

  • Loss of working advantage (miss)

  • Contestant directing noise toward the cattle

  • Working out of position

  • Horse quitting cow early

  • Cattle picked up/running into or scattering herd

  • Pawing or biting cattle

  • Failure to make a deep cut (go deep into the herd)

  • Cow hitting back fence

  • Spurring or hitting in front of the cinch

  • Losing a cow

  • Changing cattle after specific commitment

  • Failure to separate a single animal after leaving the herd

A no-score is given for:

  • Horse turning tail (back end of horse faces cow)

  • Leaving the working area before time expires

  • Horse or rider falling

Be sure to check back for Part 2 of this story, when we’ll review the rein work and cow work portions of reined cow horse competition.