First Rate

Soften your working cow horse by rating a cow.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

One of the common non-pro mistakes I see in the working cow horse pen is the failure to accurately rate. That is, the horse finding the correct position to be in and waiting for his rider’s cues to step past that cow and turn. Too often, I see a rider pulling on his horse trying to get him to stay in position, then letting go of the reins and kicking to get past that cow all at once. I like my horses to be relaxed in rating and comfortable wherever they’re at. That’s an important deal because I don’t have to kick or pull on my horse to get him in the correct position. If a horse has any cow in him at all, if you have the rate on him and then step by that cow, nine times out of 10, the horse is going to turn. The more I’ve been around, the more I believe a good fence horse is born, not made. All we’ve got to do is stay out of his way, make sure he’s comfortable to do his job, and he’ll do it.

I use this exercise as soon as I start a young horse on cattle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cow horse, a cutting horse or rope horse, I start them the same way, tracking a cow in my big round pen. It doesn’t have any corners that the cow can get caught in, and it’s large enough we can work safely and, if I need to, I can take a lot of pressure off my horse by coming closer to the center.

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This exercise is even more important for my older bridle horses, even after they’ve gone down the fence and been shown, to just come back, track that cow and rate. I know sometimes I get too caught up in working on position and working on the cutting. But once horses know how to go down the fence, it seems like I always come back to this as they get older and as I start showing them.

We start rope horses this way, too. I don’t rope very good, so I want my horse to get in position and be comfortable and give me chance to rope; it is way easier if you’re not having to pull on him.


When I start out, I put my horse where he’s comfortable. I want him to start looking for that cow, tracking it around and going where the cow goes. I don’t care if he’s 10 lengths behind that cow. If that’s where he’s comfortable, if that’s where I’m not having to pull on him, that’s where we are. Eventually, that horse is either going to get more comfortable and get closer, or the horse and the cow are going to get tired enough that they end up closer anyway.

We start out just going where the cow goes. Don’t cross the pen to get to the cow – follow her path exactly. I like to go the same pace and same cadence as the cow. Move up close, then pull that horse back off. Rate him from two lengths, from three lengths, four lengths or right up alongside the cow’s hip.

If my horse gets to a spot where he’s not comfortable, I’ll take him off the cow and go lope him around, soften him up, soften his face. I don’t like to be pulling on horses a whole lot when they’re fretting about a cow. I just take him away from that cow, soften him up, maybe walk him around a little bit, let his mind rest, then go back at it.


Tracking that cow also gives me a chance to work on my dry work without the horse really thinking about it. I’m going to let my horse track that cow, but I also want to check once in a while and make sure I’m still driving – this is reined cow horse, after all.

We’re going to change speeds with that cow, and it’s a real good place to work on transitions. I try to relate my reining and cow work, try to make it all make sense for my horse. If that cow’s going along there fast and I want to slow down, I just sit down in my seat, just like a transition from a large fast circle to a small slow one. When that cow changes direction, I can work on my lead changes without the horse fretting.

There’s a lot of times that cow will step into you or step away from you, and you’ve got to move but you can’t give up ground on that cow or she’s going to eat your lunch. So I make sure I can move my horse wherever I put him. I move my horse back and forth laterally across that cow, dictating where that cow goes by moving to one side or the other.

A big key in making the horse comfortable is not schooling him right there at the cow. Don’t keep hammering on him to get him up close. If a horse doesn’t want to be up close, it doesn’t do any good to kick him up there because once you kick him up there, generally you’re going to have to pull on him. I like to ease my way on up there and make him comfortable wherever he’s at. I try not to get stuck so much on position, position, position, position. I want that to be good, but I also want the horse to be comfortable wherever I take him.

A lot of people, especially coming from a cutting background, say don’t ever turn that horse away from that cow. But every one in a while, I’ll just lope on away from her, soften my horse some, then just go back. It’s kind of like stepping by one, because a lot of times we work and get these horses really tight on a cow, and we can get in trouble getting a horse where he’s real cowy, boy, we love that and don’t want to take it away, but then we have trouble pushing him by. I also want that horse to be soft and relaxed, so I want to make sure that not only is he comfortable to rate, but I want to make sure he is comfortable stepping by, too, and going wherever I ask him to.

If I feel any kind of tightness at all on that cow when I’m not asking for intensity, I want to soften my horse and get him relaxed. I just take him clear away from it. I relate it to being too close to the problem, you can’t see it – just get away form the problem a minute. Let him relax, then come on back.

If I move to the outside and my cow slows down, I can work on circling without pressure. If my horse doesn’t know how, I can just circle way wide. That cow doesn’t have to move for me to circle her.

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Learning the Rate

I don’t want my horse to be intense all the time. I want him there when I ask, but when I don’t want it, I want him to just relax. In working cow horse, position is important, but sometimes we have to ride through some really tricky spots to get the job done. I don’t want to have to spur or pull my horse over real hard, I want him to say “OK, Boss, I’ll go where you tell me to and we’ll get this thing done.”

I just want him to go out there and do what I ask him to do. I don’t want him to get into a pattern of running and going down the fence, where that’s just a pattern, because in cow horse, it’s not a pattern. I have to make sure he’s comfortable and listening at all times.

Using this exercise sure helps me do that, vs. going and hammering down the fence trying to train a horse at high speed. I’ll do that once in awhile and do this a lot. I want that horse to think of going down the fence as a treat – not something to dread.