Cow-Horse Training Strategies: Part 1

Improve your performance with an inclusive warm-up and balanced riding style.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series.

Loping circle after circle often becomes tedious for a rider and can certainly bore a horse. AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Williamson has developed a cure for those training doldrums – an exercise he has dubbed the “circle-stop-sweep.”

“The circle-stop-sweep warms up my horse’s body for any situation,” Doug explains. “It doesn’t matter if I’m reining, cutting or doing fence work, the drill allows my horse to get his physical and mental game tuned in.”

However, even with the best preparation, Doug insists, the outcome of any performance will be determined by the rider’s posture, position and balance. He is adamant that people need to ride like there’s “nobody on top.”

“The horse and rider are a one-unit deal,” Doug says. “It all has to go together.”

Keep It Simple

Anyone who has observed Doug’s riding mode would probably classify it as loose and easy. His horses are generally relaxed with ears perked, never over-bridled and are more than likely working with minimal pressure on the bridle reins.

His straightforward “circle-stop-sweep” drill follows his easy training style. Doug begins the drill by loping in easy circles. As the trainer adds a likewise easy stop, the horse reacts by loading up his hindquarters for action. With his hind feet squarely under his center of gravity, the horse is ready to “sweep,” or turn and move out in any direction with propulsion.

There are not a lot of cues to remember if you happen to be an equine in training with Doug. Vocally, you might hear “Whoa” to stop and a few “clucks” to get moving. Doug uses his reins to give orders, seldom referring to “leg aids” unless the trainee ignores his hands.

“If a horse doesn’t honor that cue I give him with the bridle reins,” Doug says, “then I spank him a little with my legs (one foot or the other) to make him do whatever it is I’m asking of him a little better.”

AQHA's "Reining Basics With Craig Johnson" gives you helpful "driving instructions" for you and your horse, communicating through cues such as bridle and rein cues, leg cues, and voice or sound cues.

A main cue Doug gives his horse is just enough direct rein to barely see the eye in the direction the horse is traveling. Using the indirect (or outside) rein prevents too much front-end bend, which can cause the rear end to fishtail to the outside of a turn or circle, allowing the shoulder to drop.

“Everybody with a snaffle bit wants to say, ‘Come here to me,’ ” Doug explains with an exaggerated direct rein. “But the neck rein laid across the middle of his neck helps keep the rear end engaged by keeping him from getting too much arc.”

Find the Balance

Cow-horse herd work is like cutting, except that the rider is able to help his horse by picking up on the reins. Of course, the more a horse works on autopilot, the better. Doug tries to keep his horse properly positioned on the cow no matter where the horse and cow are working in the pen.

“The secret to this cow-cutting deal is to try to keep your horse’s head on the shoulder of the cow at all times,” Doug says. “He has to understand that if he’s on the shoulder of the cow, he can always hold that cow, without me

reminding him.”

Doug allows his horse to hook up with the cow before he begins correcting him. The trainer holds a straight line across the working arena and says that getting the “big stop” is crucial to a good turn.

“Warming up with the circle-stop-sweep sharpens up the horse to turn with the cow,” Doug says. “It teaches him to think stop and back up before we make the turn. A 180-degree sweep (turn) is all we ever want him to do in the herd.”

Balancing off his feet without squeezing with his knees or the calves of his legs and maintaining a relaxed posture in the saddle is crucial to Doug’s riding style and performance. A rider who hangs on by clamping his legs around the horse, he says with a grin, is going to “squirt them out of the saddle like toothpaste from a tube.”

“I don’t grab the saddle with my knees or body,” he explains. “I think that is the worst thing you can do. Rather than squeezing with your knees, you should have your feet underneath you at all times. It’s important to put pressure into the outside stirrup to avoid being thrown to the outside of the turn.”

Doug never uses his feet to ask a horse to turn with the cow. He will use his feet to scold a horse that is late in turning with or staying on a cow.

“You’re not scolding him to get there,” Doug clarifies, “but for not being there when he should have been. People who leg their horse to the cow will take the cow out of the horse. The horse begins to think he’s not supposed to go until he’s told. I want the cow to tell him to go and if he doesn’t, then I’m going to scold him for not getting there.”

In AQHA's "Reining Basics With Craig Johnson" Craig demonstrates how the working relationship between horse and rider softens until the cues are nearly invisible. Order yours today!

Hands Off

Forward, reverse and turn signals are about all that Doug’s hands contribute to his

herd work.

“I’ve got my horse thinking ‘Stop and back up,’ ” Doug says. “I may give him a little bit of direction with a direct (herd side) rein before the cow goes, but once it goes, I let him have the cow. My rein is just giving a directional hint.

“He’s looking at the cow and, at the same time the cow goes, I want his hind end to be toward the cow, too. His body is actually wrapped a little bit around my cow-side leg in preparing to turn.”

Doug suggested a direction to the horse using the cow-side rein. Because the horse is programmed to think “Stop and rock back,” he is automatically loading up his outside hind leg in preparation for the turn. This arcs the horse’s body toward the cow. Without that slight arc, the horse is likely to turn on the inside hind leg, which tends to push the horse toward the cow rather than staying parallel to it.

“As soon as the cow goes, I drop my bridle reins and let him have the cow,” Doug says. “When the cow takes him, my bridle hands are loose, and  the cow draws him through the turn.”

“That is where the circle-stop-sweep comes into the herd work,” Doug says. “As a cutter, it makes the horse think, ‘Stop hard.’ It reminds him to back up before we turn and that he’s got to back up at least straight or with the butt toward the direction we’re going to turn. The horse had the arc, and he’s actually pushing off on the outside hind leg. He is physically prepared to go with, and stay with, the cow.”