The bottom line in the cow-horse game is control.
“It always comes down to the fence work” is a familiar adage in cow-horse circles. The cow-work finale is where many championships are won or lost.
Following the herd
and reining works, this final phase entails briefly boxing a cow at the end of the arena, rating the cow down the fence and turning it at least once each direction before circling the cow both ways in the center of the working arena. It doesn’t sound scary or perilous, but when control is replaced by a “thrill of the hunt” mentality, it can be extremely dangerous.
“Control” is the reined cow-horse mantra, according to enthusiasts of the sport. AQHA Professional Horseman Doug Williamson couldn’t agree more.
“I rarely turn cows on the fence at home,” Doug says. “What I do is stress rate. I’ll take the cow down the fence and roll my horse up to that cow’s shoulder. If my horse feels like he’s going to try to go by or take control of the situation, I just stop him. My horse not listening to me is not acceptable at all.”
Before scrunching your hat down for a big fence run, Doug suggests you do a little homework. He scopes out the arena set-up, notes how fast and wild the cattle are, how fat they are, and he estimates how much stamina they might possess.
“I watch all of that before I go in,” he explains. “Getting the respect of the cow in the boxing is the most important thing for the continued fence work. You turn that cow a few times, and when you are able to get in front of it and it goes the other way, then you’re ready to go.”
Doug warns about boxing cattle too long, because it tends to make them mad and runs them out of air prematurely. With most arenas 150 feet wide and 300 feet long, he says, it doesn’t take much to run out of cow. Boxing strategy will vary with different arena designs.
“If the arena is shorter, like at the (AQHA) World (Championship Show) – the arena is only 220 feet long – you have to make (your turn) happen really quick because it is round,” Doug points out. “So now you have to make sure that the cow is run down enough, before you leave the box, to where you can handle it. Once a cow gets to that round corner, he’s going to come to you; you can’t get out away from him enough to get him to stop, and he’ll take you right on around the pen.”
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“Bring the cow so you’ll be beside the cow going down the fence right off the bat and you won’t be late,” Doug says. “At first, when you’re coming around the corner, the horse’s head will be on the cow’s hip. As you get straighter, you roll up to the shoulder, and you’ve got him controlled. The cow can’t dive in front of you, and if he stops and goes back the other way, you still have control.”
Hold off on using your spurs, Doug says. If you’re late leaving the corner or being outrun by the cow, the trainer suggests clucking to your horse or slapping him on the shoulder or flank with a rein or the romal. (Remember to only do that during training, not during competition.)
“Spurring your horse to catch up is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Doug emphasizes. “When they know they are going to get spurred, they take off in a wild run, running through the bridle. What I do is to just roll them around there really easy, and I cluck to mine; if they don’t go, I spank them. They will respect that a lot better than spurring and won’t be so afraid and run through the bridle.”
When a horse runs off in a training situation, Doug stops and scolds him with a stern backing up. He then walks back to the cow and starts over. The horse will face the same punishment until he begins to rate with the cow.
Now the horse is under control traveling down the fence and ready to turn the cow. Because the horse is composed and rating, he can be moved laterally closer to or away from the cow.
“I’m going to run close to the cow to make him run fast,” Doug explains. “About halfway (down the fence), I’m going to move out, and the cow is going to come with me because he doesn’t want to be that tight on the fence. Now I’m going to move forward a bit, and hopefully, my horse’s head is even or slightly in front of the cow’s head.
“A good cow should stop and turn at that point. If he doesn’t, I’ve got the 45-degree angle to make him turn. He will have enough room now to turn into the fence. My horse should be athletic enough to get on the other side and hold him on that fence without letting him pop out into the arena. That is the ultimate.”
Some horses don’t complete the turn, according to Doug. In the cutting pen, the horse knows to make a 180-degree sweep. That is often not as easy when turning on the fence, as Doug explains, because things are happening so fast.
“He needs to finish the turn,” Doug says. “If my horse doesn’t finish the turn at home, I’ll turn him clear away from the cow – all the way around and then go catch up with the cow again.
“I may want him to circle up right there, so I can’t have him just kicking in after the cow before it is time. If you finish the turn, you can more than likely keep the cow on the fence, but if he doesn’t finish the turn, the cow will pop out with you.”
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Doug has made runs that required four or five turns before he thought the cow could be circled successfully. And sometimes those cattle become staunchly glued to the fence. The trainer moves his horse away from the cow, hoping it will move off the fence with him. If it sticks to the wall, he uses his 45-degree angle turn.
“I call it the karate chop,” Doug notes with a laugh. “That forces them to turn off the fence. They have to turn, run over me or jump over me. And right there is where it is so important to circle up. You already have your horse’s head on the shoulder of the cow and you’re taking them off the fence.”
Waiting too long to circle is as bad as dithering in the boxing mode, Doug says. Even enthusiastic spectators often encourage riders to finish up by yelling, “Circle, circle!”
“I try to circle the cow as quick as possible,” Doug says. “Off the fence, during the turn, I am thinking, ‘I’ve got to get to that shoulder.’
Yet again, Doug preaches the lesson of getting the horse’s head to the cow’s shoulder: Too far behind the cow and you’re late; too far in front and the cow can dodge your control.
“If the cow stops and ducks behind you,” reminds Doug, “your horse isn’t reading that shoulder good enough. So now the cow has (escaped), and your horse has to turn and keep on the shoulder going the other way. That puts the steer in control.”
Bring aware of which end of the arena the cattle exit from helps Doug keep control of his cow as he switches the direction he is circling. The trainer always maneuvers so he is moving away from the gate where the cow knows it will find freedom.
“He’ll 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. A run you might have marked a 220 on just went to a 212 in a heartbeat – just because you lost control of the cow.”
Doug remarks that in cutting, reining and fence work, it is imperative that your horse is always thinking “stop” and, when working a cow, the horse’s head is on its shoulder. He says the secret to marking the “big numbers” boils down to being in control, with your horse listening to you every step of the way.