How to be Good Turnback Help, Part 1

In this horse-training tip, pros share what separates the best cutting and reined cow horse turnback help from the rest.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Great turnback people are like good cutting horses – both need keen intuitive powers when responding to situations and cattle. Journal photo

Great herd help, both turning back and in the corners, must have the ability to scan and react to any situation in the cutting pen. They are also able to evaluate the cutter, his horse and read cattle with a sixth sense.

Earning respect as “great turnback help” takes a little natural aptitude and a lot of experience. Paying attention and being aware of the overall pen scene is optimum. Cutting horse trainer Russ Westfall of Los Olivos, California, has earned more than $2 million in National Cutting Horse Association competition and is as serious about turning back for others as finding reliable help for his own runs.

“Turning back, I try to help everybody to their best ability,” Russ says. “Read the cow, read their horse, read their ability, and help them the best you can. You can’t do too much for them, but you’ve got to keep rhythm in that cow; keep the cow fitting the horse.”

AQHA Professional Horseman Jimmy Stickler of San Luis Obispo, California, agrees. Jimmy, who focuses on western performance horses with a concentration toward reined cow horses, also notes that differences between cutting and cow horse herd work have narrowed in recent years.

“The cow horse herd work has become very competitive, with the horses working more like cutting horses,” Jimmy explains. “Unlike cutters, cow horses can be helped by the rider (where cutters cannot pick up the reins), but other than that, there’s not a lot of difference between the two. Turning back for either is pretty much the same.”

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Pay Attention

To help turn back, or work the corner during a cutting, you must be mounted on a good horse, make yourself available and always pay attention, Russ says. Manpower is in demand during those long days, with the best helpers spending long, hard hours in the saddle. Knowing what it takes to be useful turnback help will also help you find the best help when it is your turn to cut.

“You pick the best help, not necessarily your best friend,” Russ says. “And the best turnback guy in the world can’t help to the best of his abilities if he’s not on a good horse. I try to keep good using horses to turn back on; it’s a terrible feeling to try to help somebody when you can’t get to where you need to be because of the horse you’re riding.”

When Russ travels out of his comfort zone to a venue where he doesn’t have his regular turnback crew or even part of a familiar team, he must adapt. His procedure for finding good help for himself is the same he recommends to amateurs. Knowing how to find the better turnback people helped Russ win the 2011 Calgary Stampede open cutting championship with substitute helpers.

“I think you can learn a lot by watching before you show,” Russ points out. “Get a feel for the arena - how deep the ground is, how fast the cattle are and figure out what it is going to take to have a successful run in that arena situation.

“Pay attention to the people who are turning back, and you can tell who the better helpers are. I went to Calgary last year and watched who was on a good turnback horse, doing a good job. I used one guy from California, two Canadians and a Texan, got my horse shown and was successful.”

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Paying attention to the many unscripted movements during a run is very important to people working outside the herd, too. Even when just practicing at home, Jimmy recommends that turnback help keep the run moving at a reasonable pace without letting the action cease.

“When people are just learning to turn back and everything stops, they tend to stop, too,” Jimmy says. “But when the run is going great and you don’t need a lot of help, that’s when they come and start shoving cattle at you. When things are happening, just sit back and let it happen a little bit, just try to slow things down. When the run begins to slow down too much, try to keep it moving a little bit. You want to keep that run (or practice work) flowing.”

“Theoretically, the whole idea is that your help doesn’t have to do much,” Jimmy adds. “They can just confine the area so the cow doesn’t get away (from the working area). They do what they have to do and then stay out of the way and let the cutter do his job. They stay in position to help when needed.”

One of the hardest requirements of being a turnback person is staying alert and ready to help during those long days. Reading the cow and not getting “locked into watching the cutter” can save a run.

“There have been times that I’ve helped great runs and hardly got to watch because I was so focused on reading that cow, getting that cow stopped in the right spot and feeding it to the cutter,” Russ says. “A cow will have a tendency to turn to a cutter on one side and release (or turn away from) a cutter on the other side. It is my job as a turnback guy to catch the cow as he tries to release and feed him back into that cutting horse - it keeps the run more even.

“Teaching somebody to be a turnback person is teaching them to read the situation. It is not rocket science, but it takes a lot of natural instinct and paying attention.”