Riding the Fence
Tips for keeping your cow horse honest on the fence.
January 9, 2012
From The American Quarter Horse Journal
If you’ve ever competed in working cow horse or reined cow horse events, you know firsthand the excitement of taking a cow to the fence.
It’s even more fun with an experienced horse that knows exactly how to get fence work done correctly. But some older horses need a little schooling to make them more honest when they go down the fence. After working numerous cattle, veteran cow horses often get hooked on the cow and forget about the rider.
“You want your horse to take care of you on a cow and read the cow,” says Todd Bergen, who has won the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, three AQHA reining world championship titles and a Superhorse title. “But sometimes some of these horses start dragging you to the cow. They lean their shoulders in, get stiff in the jaw, and you can’t pull them off that cow.”
Todd uses four exercises to make his non-pro and senior horses more honest on the fence. Each reminds the horse to stay hooked on the cow, while reinforcing that you, the rider, have ultimate control.
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All the exercises Todd uses have the same basic goal: keeping your horse in position. To complete these drills, you must have a handle on your horse. In other words, your horse has to respond to your hands and body.
“You need to be able to put your horse in position and block that cow or put him somewhere or move him off the cow,” Todd says. “If you don’t have any handle on your horse, he drags you around. If you don’t have the perfect cow, that’s not very much fun – your horse is just taking you for a ride.”
During each exercise, set everything up like you are going to complete the maneuver. Todd says you want your horse’s nose at the cow’s shoulder, and when you go down the fence, stay close to the cow. Keep everything like you would when you’re showing.
Todd warns that you can’t drill your horse all the time. “Periodically, you still have to let your horse go turn a cow,” he says. “You can’t pull him off a cow all the time and then expect him to go turn a cow. You have to let him cow-up sometimes.”
Exercise 1 – Boxing
When you’re boxing a cow on the back fence, Todd says it’s imperative to make your horse find a stop. He says many horses start to make a figure 8 when boxing, rather than setting their hocks and stopping with the cow.
“When you horse starts to figure-8, he drops his shoulder and is just rolling around,” Todd says. “A lot of people follow a cow around, and when he goes the other way, they just turn the other way. Pretty soon, that horse is just rolling around with his shoulders, getting too round on the end, which makes him late.”
Todd’s first exercise will help your horse keep his shoulders straight and his hocks low to the ground when boxing cows at the beginning of your work.
“Make your horse run over to the cow, stop and be straight with the cow,” he says. “When the cow goes back the other way, then let your horse go back the other way and stop. It gets his hocks in the ground. You want his hocks in the ground first, and then he can roll back through himself.”
Exercise 2 – Down the Fence
After you box your cow and head to the corner to continue down the fence, some horses get a little strong, others downright grab the bridle and go. “A lot of horses know they’re going to run up there and turn the cow,” Todd says. “They blow out of that corner, get on the bridle and take you down the fence. They raise their heads up and try to leave, then you lose all your rate.”
When your horse starts to run down the fence without you, your instinct may be to pull him into the ground. Todd says that will cause problems for you in the future, rather than remedy the situation. “Your horse will get defensive every time you get to that corner,” Todd says.
Todd says instead of shutting your horse down in the corner, you should peel off the cow and circle your horse to make him listen to you.
“Peel your horse off and lope some circle until he quiets down, listens and is soft again,” he says. “Then you can go back and hook up with your cow on down the fence.”
Use this exercise anywhere on the fence, not just in the corner. “Even when you’re clear down the fence and you’re going to turn your cow, your horse can drag you over and he’ll lay on the cow. You can peel him off and lope a circle.”
Exercise 3 – Turning the Cow
An older cow horse may anticipate turning the cow on the fence, which according to Todd, allows him to drop his shoulder. In this case, he says you should stop your horse alongside the cow.
“Don’t let him go in there and turn the cow,” Todd says. “If you do, he’ll start thinking about turning too early, and that shoves the cow forward. You have to be able to ride your horse past the cow to stop the cow and let your horse turn it.
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“Stay parallel to the cow, right next to him,” Todd explains. “When the cow makes the turn and goes back the other direction, then let your horse turn and go back with it, rather than letting him go in all the time and turn the cow. This will keep him honest and his shoulder stood up.”
Exercise 4 – Holding the Stop
When you’re working your cow on the fence, it’s important that your horse holds his stop and then goes through the turn. If your horse tries to rush through the turn, Todd suggests stopping your horse with the cow. As the cow makes the turn, back your horse, then let him complete the turn. Todd says this helps keep your horse on his hocks.