Eight Pros Share Working Cow Horse Tips

Here are some tips for troubleshooting common problems that arise in working cow horse classes, such as boxing, rating and control.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Know which end of the arena the cattle exit from and use it to your advantage when circling, advises AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Williamson. Journal photo.

Throw three animals – a human, a horse and a cow – into an arena and chaos is bound to ensue. But the trifecta of correct position, rating and control from a horse and his rider can turn a haphazard run into a crowd-wowing masterpiece. 

Working cow horse has been my choice event for more than a decade, and I can attest that it’s an event that as soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, it throws you a curveball just to prove you wrong. Really, though, that’s what I love about the sport – it requires you to constantly improve, cultivate your skills and knowledge, and hone your horsemanship. Below, you’ll find excerpts from several of my favorite working cow horse articles that we have featured over the years on aqha.com/daily. Click the link accompanying that tip and you’ll have access to even more wise working cow horse advice from these eight professionals. 

  1. As you’re boxing, you’re teaching the cow to stop every time you get in her eye and to honor you. Normally, says trainer Fielding “Bozo” Rogers, if you get the cow stopped three or four times, it’s time to go down the fence. If you have trained the cow well during the boxing, the long fence run is just an extension of the boxing. When the cow sees your horse in her eye, she should stop and turn. She’s going to honor you down the fence if she has honored you on the end.
  2. When your horse starts to run down the fence without you, resist the urge to pull him into the ground. Trainer Todd Bergen says pulling will cause problems for you in the future. “Your horse will get defensive every time you get to that corner,” Todd says. Instead of shutting your horse down in the corner, Todd says you should peel off the cow and circle your horse to make him listen to you.
  3. Being out of position on the fence is a problem that snowballs. In working cow horse, every action causes a reaction, says AQHA Professional Horseman Bob Avila. 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. 
  4. Know which end of the arena the cattle exit from and use it to your advantage when circling. AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Williamson says this trick helps him keep control of his cow as he switches the direction he is circling. “The cow will be going slower away from that gate so I can change directions,” Doug says. “Otherwise, he’ll ditch you, and you will end up at the gate. At that point, the cow has likely lost respect, he’s out of air, and once you’re back on the fence, the work goes to heck.”
  5. You don’t want your horse to be intense all the time. You want him there when you ask, but when you don’t want intensity, you want him to just relax, says trainer Andy Adams. To get your horse comfortable and relaxed out in the correct position, start out just going where the cow goes. Don’t cross the pen to get to the cow – follow her path exactly, 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.
  6. Soften the horse off the cow for added smoothness. AQHA Professional Horseman Al Dunning’s back-around drill is a multiple-part drill that really works on one thing – a horse’s flexibility, one side at a time. It can help a horse in the turnarounds in reining or working cow horse. It helps teach a cutting horse to stay in form while bending his neck and looking at the cow, and then be able to load up on his hocks to get ready to spring out of that turn to catch the cow.
  7. Just because you don’t have cattle doesn’t mean you can’t practice cow work. Trainer Dan Roeser says he uses a number of tools to practice cow-work maneuvers – like working the flag and using the back-around drill discussed above. But to make a horse cowy, Dan prefers to work a person on foot because that person can show some expression like a cow. This is a tremendous advantage, especially if the person on the ground knows what you’re trying to accomplish.
  8. When you’re warming up, try an exercise that establishes rate and body control. Well-known horseman Leg Vogt uses this cloverleaf exercise to work the neck, shoulders, rib cage and hips, plus speed transitions, and says it’s much more effective than just loping circles. 

Looking for more working cow horse secrets? Al Dunning and Bob Avila talk position.