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by Kim and Kari Baker

Cow Savvy: Introducing a your Horse to Cows

Mirror KB Equine Article Series


Making of a Cow Horse

Kim and Kari Baker

Over a hundred years ago horses proved to be well worth their keep when gathering and trailing cattle on the open range.  In fact, getting a herd of wild cattle to market in those days took a top hand mounted on a horse with plenty of savvy, cow savvy that is.

Now you might think that horses and cows go together like peanut butter and jelly, but that isn’t necessarily so.  Truth be told, most horses today have never been exposed to cattle, so have a tendency to react toward cows more like water does to oil.

The good news is, “The way the horse reacts at first doesn’t have much to do with the way they end up being,” says C.L. Collins, ranch manager of Twenty Two Ranch in Harrison, Arkansas.  “Making a cow horse is a very long process and they will have plenty of time to make changes in their attitude toward cattle.”

While all horses are not equal in natural cow sense, practically any horse, on some level, can be trained to work with cows.   “Any horse can be used to work cows, but some horses never get cow savvy,” says Collins.   All in all, it’s the trainer’s job to help his horse develop into as good a cow horse as possible.

Just as anything else in training, introducing your horse to cattle and developing in him the ability to work cows is a step-by-step process. 

Before introducing your horse to cattle, your horse should have a pretty good handle of the basics.  “The horse needs to move and stop on command without hesitation and without resistance,” says Collins.   “But, I think lots of horses do very well if they learn to be a broke horse while working cattle.  The cow gives them a reason to stop and turn.  For this reason I like to start working with a horse around cattle as soon as the horse is green broke well enough to take him to where the cattle are.  A horse that is too well trained might have the tendency to wait for the rider’s cue rather than respond to the cow on it’s own.”

However, the average horse owner might find broader success if they start with a well broke horse that responds well to both rein and leg pressure at the walk, trot, and lope, but more importantly have a good stop on him.

Horse, Meet Cow

Some horses are curious and will actually want to approach the strange animal while others have an earnest desire to get as far away from them as possible.  Since you may not know how your horse will react to cows, the best way to introduce them to him is in a safe manner, possibly where you can to some degree, control his reaction.

One method might be to turn your horse loose in an arena or pen with a single cow and let him become acquainted with the cow on his own. However, in this situation you have very little control on how your horse handles the introduction.

Riding in a pasture with a herd of cows is one way to introduce your horse to cows.  Depending on how comfortable, or uncomfortable, your horse is when in a herd of cows will govern just how close you’ll be able to ride to the cows in the beginning.

“Your goal when introducing your horse to cattle is a horse that is calm and comfortable around cows.  A nervous horse doesn’t learn much,” says Collins.  Giving your nervous horse something else to think about while riding in the pasture will help.

To keep up with, and eventually controlling, a wily ole cow your horse will need to be supple both laterally and horizontally, so this is a good time to work at relaxing his poll and loosening up his shoulders. Your warm up should also include executing smooth transitions between all three gaits as well as stops, turns, and leg yields.

Warning. Be cautious when working your horse in a pasture. Grazing land, unlike an arena, may have many concealed hazards, so carefully check the terrain for rodent holes, parts of old farm equipment, and old wire fences hidden in the grass, before you begin working your horse.

In the beginning, your horse may be troubled with the presence of the cows and will give less of his attention to you than he does the cattle.  This is fine, for it gives you the opportunity to draw his attention back to what you want.  Each time his attention wanders, bring it back by asking for a change in direction or speed.

“If the horse is nervous, I often turn him around, maybe once, maybe ten times,” says Collins. “I’ll do it until the horse is relaxed and paying attention to what I’m telling him instead of what he was nervous about.”

As you continue working with your horse, you’ll be able to slowly close the gap until you’re able to ride near the herd without your horse feeling troubled and losing his concentration on what you want.

What if you don’t have access to a pasture of cows? Another approach to introducing your horse to cows would be to use a system of pens or an arena. “Because cattle tend to stop in corners, the best pens to work with cattle are round,” says Collins.  “I have used pens as small as 80 feet and as big as 180 feet, but my favorite size, if I am alone in the pen, would be 100 feet.  If another rider is in the pen with me then a good size would be 120 to 150 feet.”

Keep in mind that the smaller the pen the more pressure there will be on the cow, thus that same pressure will transmit to the horse.  “For this reason, a larger pen is better for either an inexperienced horse or an inexperienced rider,” explains Collins.

Start out by placing a group of cows in a small enclosure at one end of a pen where your horse can easily see them, then ride your horse into the larger pen, at the opposite end from the cows, and begin by warming him up, such as was suggested when working in the pasture scenario.  When your horse is able to hold his concentration on you while riding along the fence where the cows are held it’s time to go, one on one with a cow.

Building Cow Interest

At this point you’ll actually want your horse to hold his attention on the cow rather than you.  You are merely along for the ride and to encourage your horse to watch and follow a cow.

If you are riding in a pasture, you may have a tougher time pursuing a single cow, since cows have a tendency to bunch together when they feel light pressure from a horse and rider.  In the pen situation, you’ll find it easier to turn a lone cow into the large pen and will therefore be able to concentrate on your task.

Whether riding in a pasture or a pen, your objective for this training session is to build the desire in your horse to watch a cow and move when she does.

To do this, ride your horse forward until the cow feels just enough pressure to move off then direct your horse to follow.   At this point in building cow interest in your horse, the cow will determine the direction of travel, while you will simply direct your horse to follow.

When the cow stops rein your horse to a stop and allow your horse to watch the cow for a few moments. If your horse looks away from the cow, use the direct rein and pull his head back in the direction of the cow. In this instance, the direct rein is the rein closest to the cow. When the cow moves, ask your horse to again, “trail” the cow.

Continue this line of guidance until your horse begins to acknowledge the cow on his own.  In other words, your horse begins to “move with the cow” with fewer and fewer directional aids from you.

Controlling the Cow

Once your horse is trailing the cow well on his own it’s time to begin taking control of the cow, it’s direction of travel and speed. Begin by tracking the cow, that is, ride parallel to the cow rather than behind it.

As before, walk your horse into the cow to get it moving along the fence, then rein your horse to move up parallel with the cow.   If the horse tries to slow down in order to slip back behind the cow as he did when “trailing “ you’ll have to cue him with your direct leg, the leg closest to the cow, in order to hold him in position, as well as put enough forward pressure on him to maintain speed.

Tracking can be performed at varying distances from the cow.  The closer you ride to the cow the more pressure you place on the cow which will then take action by either speeding up, or it will stop and change directions. In other words, the cow’s movement all depends on your horse’s relative position to it.  This is where your own cow smarts comes into play. (See Cow Savvy sidebar)

A position behind the cow’s eye will initiate forward movement.  On the other hand, riding toward the front of the cow’s head will challenge the cow and cause it to turn or stop. But how do we hold a cow?

“The surest way to hold a cow is to take the pressure off of the cow,” explains Collins.  “The cow moves because the horse is closer to her than she feels comfortable with.  If we want a cow to stop, we put more distance between her and the horse.   How much distance depends on the individual cow and her own comfort zone. Often, we can do this and still maintain a position that allows us to control the cow.”

Working a Herd

If you’ve been riding in a pasture of cows your horse is slightly ahead of the game, but if you’ve been using the pen system and your horse has gained sufficient experience and confidence with a single cow, it’s time to introduce him to a herd. While your horse may have been comfortable, one on one with a cow, a herd of cows may intimidate him.

Bring a small herd of cows into the training pen and start by riding, at a walk, in a wide circle around them.  When your horse appears relaxed with this, step him closer to the herd in increasingly smaller circles. Next rein your horse into and through the middle of the herd. Try to split the herd into two equal herds, by continuing to walk straight through the herd and out the other side.

Circle the herd once more to bring the cattle back together, then rein your horse back through the center again.  Continue this exercise until your horse is completely comfortable moving through the herd.

As your horse progresses, ride through the center of the herd as before, but this time stop your horse in the middle for a few moments before proceeding to the opposite side. Next time you might try peeling a single cow from the herd then keep it separated from the herd by tracking her around the pen.

Remember that introducing your horse to cattle should be a pleasant experience for your horse. In order to build your horse’s confidence and interest, start slow.  Once your horse realizes that he can actually control the actions of a cow, he’ll become an enthusiastic partner in the thrilling dance of the working cow horse.

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