The class is run with either two or three phases and is one of the most thrilling and demanding of all performance horse classes.
- Phase one – dry work – reining
- Phase two – herd work of cutting (phase two – not always included in competitions)
- Phase three – fence work of working a single cow down the fence.
Phase One – Dry Work
The reining pattern is designed to show the horses willingness to be guided through a pattern demonstrating maneouvres of fast run downs, stops and roll backs, spins, large fast and small circles to a set pattern.
Phase Two – Herd Work
This phase is similar to cutting, as the horse shows his ability to control a cow with little assistance from the rider within a 2 1/2-minute period. The horse and rider begin this class by calmly separating a number of cattle from the herd without unsettling the rest of the group. They then allow all but one cow to return to the herd. During this phase, horses are expected to keep their heads low and go about their work quietly but alertly.
The main action starts when the horse and rider attempt to keep the solitary cow from rejoining the herd. The horse is on a loose rein and appears to be working on his own. The horse uses fluid, cat-like movements that anticipate where the cow will turn next without any excess spurring or reining from the rider. The cow is unable to get around the horse and back to the herd until the rider “quits” the steer and goes to select another. Two or three cows are worked during the time period.
Phase Three – Fence Work
The climactic cow work is the most thrilling of the three events. It demonstrates the ability of the horse and rider to control the movements of a cow down the fence and in the center of the arena. For this class, the horse is expected to be alert and attuned to every movement of the cow and should appear to be working almost on its own.
The cow work begins with a horse “boxing” the cow, in which the contestant holds the cow on the prescribed end of the arena for a sufficient time to demonstrate the ability of the horse to contain the cow. The rider and horse then take the cow down the length of the arena along the rail, making at least one turn each way. The horse should appear to control the cow’s movement rather than simply galloping in pursuit of it. When making turns, the horse holds the cow to the fence, keeping it from running to the center of the arena. During the turn, the horse uses himself in a controlled athletic manner, using his hocks to stop and drive out of the turn, while using his front end to balance and run.
The final portion of the cow work is called circling up. The contestant works quickly and efficiently to drive the cow toward the inside of the arena and into a full circle one way and another full circle in the other direction. The circle’s size, symmetry, speed and relative balance from right and left are controlled. The circles should be completed before the cow is exhausted.
The greater difficulty of the performance, the more credit is given. The difficulty might be due to the extreme speed or stubbornness of the cow, or the cow’s reluctance to move down the fence when sufficiently driven by the contestant. The most controlled cow work with the uppermost degree of difficulty is usually marked the highest.
This is one of the hardest performance events to ride and requires a highly skilled horse to compete. Many consider this one of the most thrilling to watch with all the action and skill of the horse and rider.
For all the working cow horse enthusiasts – it does get better than this! Enjoy