Stepping to the Cow—The First Time
In this article we write about the very beginning steps when starting to work your horse on a cow, and the tack
and facility that go along with that. When you are starting your horse on cows you will do many things that
you would not do while cutting in competition. Showing a cutting horse, and training a cutting horse are two
very different things. This article is an explanation of how to start a horse on cows. This is not an
explanation of how to show or even tune a finished cutting horse. These techniques may not be used at all in
later stages. Keep this in mind as you watch someone work a finished cutter.
First, let’s begin with what to expect from this process.
It is very, very difficult to learn to cut while learning how to train your horse to cut. If possible, ride an honest
finished cutting horses that is not soured in the show pen with the guidance of someone who can help you--
like a professional trainer. Said horse will show you what your end result should be. In the beginning your
horse’s movement will not at all resemble a finished cutter, but you will still need to know what the good stuff
feels like so when it does happen you can encourage more of it. What you think may be good… may be bad
if his body is not positioned correctly on the cow. I am sure some of you will think I am saying this because I
am a trainer, but I truly believe you will save yourself money, agony and frustration in the end. I enjoy helping
people work with their horses in this amazing horse sport—that is why I am writing these articles. However,
the simple truth is cutting is a very competitive sport and the most successful individuals are continually
seeking guided practice for a competitive edge.
We are going to discuss tack only minimally because people can get carried away spending a lot of money
before they know what they really need.
Head Gear: We like to start by putting our horses in a D-Ring Snaffle Bit; Side-Pull Bridle; or a Rope
Hackamore by the time they are ready to start on cows. The Side-Pull is a one-half rope nose band with
leather chin strap and head stall. Two rings are located on the side of the horse’s face where the reins are
attached. This is different from a Hackamore were the reins are attached underneath. Both the Side-Pull
and Hackamore could be used for a horse with a sensitive mouth. Always have your horses teeth cared for
by a veterinarian as teeth can cause training problems at any age, but especially in 2-4 year old horses. If
you are using a snaffle bit, we prefer a D-Ring because it doesn’t slip through the sides of the horse’s mouth
Saddle: It is best to get a saddle designed for cutting or working cattle. These saddles are flatter, longer,
deeper seated than most equine disciplines. If you are going to buy a new saddle, be sure you buy one with
a whole lot of room. People tend to buy cutting saddles too small and consequently can’t move enough to sit
back and get out of their horses way when it works a cow. Like I said, don’t spend a lot of money until you
know what you need. My wife still works our colts in the early stages in a light weight large seated ranch
saddle she feels comfortable in.
The best arena for cutting in is a big round or square pen 130 feet across with 6 inches of sand. However,
you can still do this exercise even if you don’t have the above mentioned facilities. As long as the ground is
safe you should be fine in these beginning stages. Your horse won’t be stopping or turning hard enough yet;
in these exercise you are mostly walking or light trotting.
Step to a Cow-the First Time
It is never too early to begin getting your horse comfortable being in a herd of cattle. Often, before I start to
work a horse on cows I step out of the round pen into the working pen while someone is working another
horse in a herd of cattle. I may just sit on the horse in the corner. I may do circles in the corner, or I may
even follow a couple cows. The point is I am introducing them to the cows before I ever really ask them to do
anything with them. The only thing I expect at this time is that they don’t throw a fit. The presence of an
older confident horse working the cattle usually peaks the interest of my colt.
Okay, now you are ready to begin. Put a single cow into the arena and trail or follow the cow around. If your
horse is afraid of the cow that is okay, it doesn’t mean he won’t make a good cow horse. Some really good
horses have a little “cow fear” to begin with. Generally, once the horse learns she can push the cow around
the “cow fear” subsides and cow interest takes over. Take your time, and don’t get into a rush chasing after
the cow. You are pretty much walking through this whole exercise. Used cattle are great in this situation
slow. At this stage you are just trying to keep the horse engaged with the cow. If the horse looses focus or
tries to run away just keep bringing her back to the cow. Soon she will get the idea that the cow is her job
and the object of interest—and that this behavior is pleasing to you.
After you have trailed the cow around the arena about five minutes, or until you can feel the horse’s attention
staying on the cow, try to turn the cow in the opposite direction. When you do this, step to his head working
in a S-turn. (S-turn described in December 2008 article)You will actually step in front of the cow like you are
turning him down the fence—only at a walk. If you are successful, follow the cow around again for a little bit.
Continue this pattern until your session is over. Repeat this training exercise in working sessions for several
weeks to months. Eventually, you will blend these simple maneuvers to create more correct position in
accordance with how the cow moves. I will describe these steps in future articles.
Shorter consistent training sessions are far more successful than long intense training sessions. In other
words…work your horse only a 15-20 minutes or so on the cow, but do it 3-5 times per week over a long
period of time. Even less time is necessary when you are working the flag. Use the methods from December’
s article of circles and riding outside to achieve condition, coordination and balance. I condition using other
methods so the horse is attentive while I am teaching the technicality of the position on the cow.
Stepping to the Synthetic cow (flag) -- the First Time:
HOLD ON! Start way back from the flag, keep a hold to the reins and point the horse to the flag. Put the flag
on slow speed, as you are stepping towards the flag move the flag in the direction you would like to go.
Create a situation where the flag leads the horse. Your horse will be more at the hip of the flag rather then
the head where you would position yourself in a cutting competition. Try to keep on stepping to that flag to
show the horse that the flag is the object with which she needs to engage. Only work a few minutes until the
horse is comfortable and keeping attention on the flag as you have asked.
In conclusion, if you have an interest in enhancing the natural abilities of your horse for any equine sport you
can achieve this through cutting. Trevor Brazil is an 8 time all-around world champion NFR competitor who is
well known for using cutting horses in rodeo sport. If your horse can rate a cow, it can be taught to rate a
barrel, or rate to head and heel; and rate to sort and pen etc.. The horses handle great with superior mind
and body self control. When we take our horses and cross over into other disciplines we are amazed by how
calm they stand in the roping box, or approaching the barrel gate. It will improve your performance riding as
well. These things can be true even if you are doing the training yourself with some instructive reading.
How to Prepare Your Horse to Work Cattle
Whether sending a horse to a trainer or starting your horse on cattle at home, you can save money and
frustration by preparing your horse before you step to a cow.
Cutting boils down to how well your horse rates and reacts to a cow’s movement. Horses have varying
degrees of natural ability both in cow interest and athleticism. The training process enhances these natural
abilities by reinforcing correct position on a cow. In order to do this, the trainer must be able to ask the horse
to stop, give to the bit, turn to the right and left, back, move out and yield to leg pressure without resistance.
In a word, the horse must be supple.
I can’t emphasize enough that the very best thing you can do in preparation for working your horse on a cow,
is to get your horse really broke before you begin on cattle. This will require
nothing less than the proper groundwork, consistency, and time in the saddle. There is plenty of literature on
how to do this, but if you are not skilled in breaking horses or you have not hired someone to do it for you, or
you don’t already own a broke horse you won’t be able to learn that process quickly enough to get the horse
ready for cutting horse training. The following training tips can only complement the above mentioned
Ride your horse outside of the arena so it can learn to rate natural objects such creeks, rocks, and hills.
Open and close as many gates as possible from the saddle. This is a great object driven request and
requires your horse back and yield to leg pressure while trying to accomplish a task. Horses are less inclined
to sour when asked to back and yield to leg pressure when there is an actual job to do. Once that job is
completed (i.e. the gate is opened) they walk through the gate and are rewarded by moving on to a new
activity. Plus, object driven tasks are better for the rider to teach their horse as they are more inclined to
stay intent on the project until it is completed to satisfaction. Notice I did not say perfection--an important
distinction when working with green horses.
Gather and move cattle with your horse. You can begin by just trailing cattle along or road or fence line.
Gradually move on to more a more challenging experience with your horse by moving cattle in an open field.
Make continual s-turns on the ends and behind the cattle. If you are trying to move cattle in an open field you
will have to work up the sides and behind them to keep the cattle in a herd and moving to the left or right in
the direction you would like to send them. What do I mean by an S-Turn? S-turns are big loops at the end of
each movement of direction always turning in towards your herd. If moving cattle South to North you will be
riding West to East (or vise versa). On the end of that direction of movement you will make a large loop
around the outside of the cattle always turning into the cattle. This keeps the herd together and teaches
your horse not to just run into the cattle—hence we begin to teach rate. I one cow breaks off and you have
enough handle on your horse to go after it, use the same technique. Make S-Turns with loops that turn the
cows head so it goes in the direction you desire. Remember to always turn your horse in the direction of the
cow, never loop outward as this takes your horses interest from the cow.
Walk, trot, and lope in small circles as much as possible so your horse will learn to balance keeping its body
underneath itself. Depending on the horse, they may at first scramble and go fast, or move with hesitation.
Just continue to support them with leg pressure until their gates come under control and their body feels
centered with propulsion. Be sure you are not holding too tightly to their mouth and keep the horse moving
forward with leg or/and spur pressure (do not lean forward, backward, or to the side). Put your weight in the
stirrups and ask with your legs and hands, or a crop if necessary. Do this at a walk, trot, then lope spiraling in
to reverse direction. I first walk both directions, trot both, etc. Keep the horse moving forward even in a
circle and through your transitions. You are trying to achieve balance and fluidity and your horse is not
ready to run, stop, and turn like a cutter yet. So don’t ask him to. Your walk circle can begin like you would
pull a colt around with a diameter of 2 –5 feet; trot 5-10; and lope 10 to 20 feet diameter. As you feel your
horse balance itself at the larger diameters try smaller diameters. Visualize a circle in the arena with your
horse’s tail following along the same circle arc as their nose. If your horse is bowing out…use your outside
leg pressure. If your horse is falling in…use your inside leg and always keep them moving forward. Even
after your horse has worked cattle revisit these small circles often to continue to build confidence and
In cutting you are not judged on the technicality of these moves, but rather on how your horse moves in
relation to a cow. This is different from reining or dressage and why a cutting horse has to be worked on
cows. They don’t need to stop or spin like a reiner, only be able to stop and turn when asked by the trainer
for the purpose of positioning on a cow. Over time, the moves will be made better by working a cow. There
are other training tools that imitate a cow, however the trainer must know how a cow moves so the horse can
be worked on that device properly.