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Cowhorses and Competition...A Slow Start is the Best Start

By Wil and Beverly Howe

Competitor News, January 1998


   With the increasing interest and growing number of participants in horse- and cattle-related classes, there is also a growing need for education and instruction for these activities.

   The events of competition cutting, team penning, team sorting, team branding, and roping all require a well-broke horse with cow savy; a unique attribute, instinctively bred into a horse, which gives him the ability to read, predict, and rate a cow's actions. This instinct is what people in the western horse world refer to as a natural cowhorse.

   This cow savy is a trait that is already in a horse from its breeding. The best example to relate it to are cattle dogs, bird dogs, or sheepdogs. An Australian Shepherd or Blue Healer puppy is born with a burning desire to heel cattle. You could take another dog of a different breed and train it on cattle for a year, but it will not out-perform a pup with the breeding behind it but only limited training.

   That’s just like bird dogs with their natural hunting, pointing, and retrieving instincts. They will always out-do, say a Rottweiler, in a field trial. These are bred traits that breeders have refined over the years, and the same falls true with our performance horses of today. That is why you see pleasure horse sires producing smooth pleasure movers, reining horse sires that put stopping abilities into their offspring, running horses bred strictly for speed . . . and cowhorses now refined to the point of guaranteeing cow savy. Each bloodline possesses its own style, personality, and expression while working cattle, characteristics that vary from horse to horse.

   With the added edge in riding a natural, training is now equally as important in order to have a competitive animal. All the talent in the world is worthless without proper training. A young cowdog allowed to run rampant and chase cattle at his own free will without having the basics of "come here", "get back", "sit", and "stay" will become a menace and of no use around cattle.  The same is true of an ill-trained cowhorse. Too much freedom or too much discipline is detrimental to keeping a horse’s attention level up when working cattle.

   Many people burn out their good horses by over doing it.  Some horses need a little more time to develop their own cow savy, while other horses are too over zealous and need a different approach. But like anything, you learn slowly, with lots of practice, before you ask for speed.  If you don’t, your horse can become scared, confused, or mad and turn off.  But whose fault is this? The horse’s?  No, the rider’s!  Educating the riders must come first so they can educate their mounts.

   Team penning is an exciting, fast-action event that demands a lot of horse. Like any timed event, the rider is always pushing the limits of his horse. He must be able to run, turn, chase, stop, and go, while all the time keeping his eye on the cow; a somewhat difficult task when the rider usually has a handful of reins keeping the horse’s head too high to really do his job. Anyone who has ever witnessed or taken part in team penning or roping is aware of how hard it is to stay off a horse’s mouth, yet expect the horse to rate and read cattle.

   In cutting, on the other hand, one must turn the horse completely loose; not only is it in the rules, but it allows the horse to do all the cowwork on its own.

   Exposing your horse to cattle should be a pleasant experience for the horse, an opportunity to find out that it can control the actions of the cow and actually make it move by approaching it. Take it slow at first to build your horse’s interest, confidence and enthusiasm. A horse will soon find out, if shown properly, that working a cow is a fun game. If a horse is enjoying what he is doing, he is much more willing to cooperate and give you his all.  Quitting the work before a horse gets tired as also important. When a horse gets winded, he loses interest and gets frustrated, much like a child.

   Like anything, creating and training a cowhorse is like building blocks. You must have a strong foundation of basics, so when the going gets fast you have something to return and rebuild from.  If your horse is not prepared with a good understanding of the basics, don’t expect it to hang together when you begin to chase cows. Learning more about the mechanics of handling cattle will only improve one’s chances of relating to one’s horse, but this can’t be done at a dead run trying to win.

   Whether you’re a novice or experienced horseman, gaining knowledge is the key to success. Developing a good responsive cowhorse which can be useful in the horse, rider and cattle events takes time, patience, and practice. Remember, practice makes perfection.  Effective practice gets you the winner’s buckle!

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