Working Cow Horse


Howdy watching and learning

I went to my first Iowa Ranch Horse show in May because I wanted to learn about it so that I could maybe show in Ranch Horse at the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October. I had no idea what a fun journey it would be.

At the first ranch horse show in May I was impressed by how friendly the people were (even though I arrived late, had a 17h thoroughbred which is like bringing a semi to a NASCAR race, was wearing a helmet, and begged them to let me show in the boxing (beginning cutting) class which is solely for amateurs because even though I’m a pro in eventing, I certainly don’t know anything about ranch horse work and Howdy had not formally met a cow before that day.) They were sweet and let me do it and all cheered when Howdy “showed some cow” and I didn’t completely mess it up. I love these ranch horse people. They are patient and kind. They care about each other. They care about their horses. They are fair to the cattle. At the first show, at two different times a calf got confused and ran into the fence a little hard. Both riders immediately raised their hands to signify they were stopping, and just walked away from their entry fee and the points. Hella classy.

I watched other people also do it right for the rest of the day, asked a bunch of questions and was impressed at the level of training of their horses. (Those horses stand, by god; they canter from a halt no problem; they stop; they get along with other horses: their trots are real, not a jog; they tie at the trailer, and for many of them, flying lead changes come standard! Huzzah.) After the show I audited a bit of a Clinton Anderson clinic at the invitation of my friend Mary Hanson, stalked ranch horse videos on youtube and practiced a whole bunch.


“Standing nicely is what we ranch horses do.”

Howdy, my Thoroughbred Makeover horse, is level-headed, willing and clever, so we made pretty good progress. At the second ranch horse show, this weekend in Leon, we stepped it up a bit and entered real cutting (and sort of made a mess of it, mostly we quietly scattered the herd, um twice, but eventually did cut our steer from the herd and influenced it a bit). We entered ranch cutting, too, where you have to get the steer to go in the pen down yonder. In that attempt there was more stealthy herd scattering by Camie and Howdy (“stealthy” because upsetting the cattle is a “Bad dog, no cookies” move), but I did get my steer cut and was very psyched when it pretty much volunteered to go in the pen down yonder, with Howdy and I only nearby and suggesting. We are a little slow to get in position, but we got ‘er done and almost got a ribbon. Missed 8th by half a point. So close.


Waiting to enter working cow horse with the big dawgs of Ranch Horse.  We are fully aware we are posers, but he is playing it off and standing quietly like a boss.  Rock star.

Then there was Working Cow Horse. In this class you have to do a pattern and then work a cow. The pattern has “large fast circles,” “slow small circles,” sliding stops (ours were simply, um, stops), lead changes, spins (methodical turns on the haunches for Camie and Howdy) and backing “at least ten feet.” That last one we do pretty well, so I might have done 15 for good measure. After you “hesitate to complete the pattern,” they release your calf and you have to “box” him (which means influence him to turn in both directions so that you demonstrate control over the steer), then move him down the fence line and get him past the center marker and turn him back, then run down to get ahead of him to turn him again before he gets back to the original fence line (and the herd, where they want to be), then make him do a circle in both directions in the the middle of the ring – not using the fences to turn the calf. In three minutes. I had no fantasy that I was going to get that done if I had been given the whole afternoon and a leash-broke calf, but I was there for the party. I was last to go, thank the Universe, because I learned stuff I probably should have known before entering the class by watching the three ringers before me.
The announcer privately told me I was “brave” to enter the class, which made me laugh because I surmised in that moment that “brave” was probably Ranch Horse code for “greenhorn out of her element, but good luck, cowgirl.” She was very sweet about it, and made me feel good for trying.

The class was not a complete disaster and Howdy and I had a really good time. I get why people love this sport! Thank you Jay, for waiting around in the hot sun for half the day, and for videotaping. And now, for something completely different, I present our first Open Working Cow Horse class:

One thought on “Working Cow Horse


    -Wow, you will try everything, won’t you? The last thing I saw was carriage driving at a gallop through gates and stuff. This looks like fun. Did you get your daylilies planted and did the gloves fit?——————————————-

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