Fence Turn Basics
So much about working cow horse training involves getting the correct position for a fence turn.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Bob Avila with Larri Jo Starkey | March 4, 2013
The American Quarter Horse Journal
When people see working cow horse for the first time, a lot of them say, “That looks like fun you’re having chasing the cow.”
What they don’t realize is that there is no “chasing” in cow horse. You’re working the cow and putting yourself in a position to make a good fence run. Many people want to make a great fence turn; well, position is how you make a good fence turn. A great fence turn is the cherry on the cake.
Where to Be
Position is everything. In fact, working cow horse can be dangerous without correct position. Here’s how I do it:
When I finish boxing the cow, I take the cow to the corner farthest from the fence I’m going to take the cow down. I then turn the cow and slip in behind it, which gives me the whole length of the back fence to get in position.
I do that because if you start the cow down the fence from the corner closest to the fence, you have to turn as well, and the cow has the advantage while you’re trying to catch up. When I take the cow to the far turn first, I have time to line up and can tell better how the fence run is going to go.
As I go down the fence, I want my horse’s flank to be between the cow’s hip and flank. If I’m too far behind, say I’m going 15 mph and my cow is going 15 mph, I’m going to have to kick the horse up to 20-25 mph to catch up. If I’m going that fast when I make the turn, the cow has the advantage. It’s going slower, so it can turn better and go the other way – or worse, it can decide to run out into the arena instead of down the fence. Either way, you’re chasing the cow instead of working it.
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If I have my horse’s head between the cow’s hip and flank, I’m in position to catch and turn the cow within two strides.
I base my distance to the side of the cow on what kind of cow it is. There are three kinds of cattle: good, numb and wild. A good cow will let you get in perfect position, textbook position. With a numb cow, one that is really quiet and slow to move, you need to pull in a lot closer. With a wild cow, you need to give it more room. If you push on a wild cow, it’s likely to do something like jump out of the arena.
As I go down the fence in the correct distance behind and to the side of the cow, I give myself two strides to cluck to my horse, pull ahead of the cow and turn the cow.
When I pull in to turn the cow, the cow has two options: It will turn into the fence, which is best, or it can turn into your horse. Turning into the fence is ideal, because you can jump back around the cow and get back in position. If the cow turns into the horse and squirts back into the arena, I get back in position on the cow’s flank and push it back into the fence.
I tend to take a cow a long way down the fence the first time, because I’m taking him away from the gate. When I go for my second turn, I won’t go as far, because if the cow sees the in-gate, it can get the idea that it should go on out the gate. I take the cow past the middle marker as required by the rules, but I turn as quickly as possible. I don’t always immediately move the cow to the center. It’s OK to turn three or four times on the fence if you need to work the cow more, as long as you leave yourself enough cow to make the circles. As a former judge, I’d like to see people unafraid to turn more than twice. It can be a valuable tool.
How to Practice
Many people these days don’t have access to practice cattle.
Teddy Robinson and I have done a lot of clinics together. About 15 years ago, we came up with the idea to work each other. We actually gave the clinic working each other on our horses, and we were able to break each step down in a way you can’t do with a cow.
A cow is going to be different every time, but with a horse and rider, you can work on position slowly, at a walk, even, before you speed it up.
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At that slow pace, you can figure out each problem – what to do if the cow squirts out, for example – one at a time. Working with another horse and rider and taking turns is one way people who don’t have access to cows can practice the event.
Being out of position on the fence is a problem that snowballs. In working cow horse, every action causes a reaction. If you’re out of position down a fence, then your first turn is going to be out of position. If you make that first turn, then you have to work that much harder to make the second turn, and you’re out of position, so your run continues going downhill the whole time.
We’ve got a saying that the longer you’re in the arena, the more things can go wrong. Get in position, make your turns and get out of the arena.
Taking a Hit
Like a good football player, a cow horse needs to learn to take a hit.
Cattle are moved more with ATVs and trucks these days, and fewer of them respect a horse. Many of them will run right over a horse when you’re trying to stop.
Being run over can ruin a young horse’s confidence. It’s important to train your horse to take a hit.
Start by riding along side another person who’s on a horse and decreasing the space between you. The other rider can wave his arms a lot then move closer and even bump his horse against yours. The other rider can put his hands on your horse, slapping him gently on the backside, rubbing his mane or whatever other ways you can think of to move into that horse’s space.
This work can take time, but it’s worth it to build your horse’s confidence in himself and in you as his rider, even when another animal is close.