Working Cow Horse

In the first of a series looking specifically at cattle and games classes, Philip Holliday introduces the Working Cow Horse. The Working Cow Horse class (also known as Reined Cow Horse) is designed to demonstrate a horse’s control of a cow, speed, balance and responsiveness to the rider. For me it’s the most fun you can have with your boots on. You start by showing the judge what a well mannered mount your horse is by putting him quietly through a reining pattern. This is often referred to as ‘dry work’. You then let him loose to, effectively, drive a cow round the same pattern (‘cow work’). In three event competition, a ‘herd work’ session is also included. The herd work is similar to cutting where a single cow is cut from a herd of cattle and prevented from returning. In the US, the governing body for these classes is the National Reined Cow Horse Association. In the UK, both the British Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Western Horseman’s Association offer classes with slightly adapted rules.


The reining section of this class is just that, a reining pattern designed to show that the horse and rider have the skills necessary to work a cow. Treat the reining as the first of two or three, (depending on the format) distinct classes and you will give yourself the best chance of putting up a good overall performance.

Having completed your pattern, settle your horse and present yourselves to the judge for the cattle work. A cow is then released into  the arena from a herd penned adjacent to it.In the US, you are expected to work this cow until the judge blows a whistle, which he can do at any time. Under the British Rodeo Cowboys Association rules, you have two minutes but it’s plenty. The first objective is to show the judge that your horse has ‘cow sense’ and has locked onto the cow. Start by positioning yourself well back from the cattle pen where the cow can see you as it comes into the arena without feeling threatened. In that position the cow is most likely to oblige you by just standing there and waiting. You can then quietly move your horse towards the back of the cow. You want to be about 45˚ off its rump and as long as the cow is moving away from you along the fence you want to hold that position. At some stage the cow will get it into its head that it really wants to be back with its chums. This is what you’ve been waiting for and your horse needs to move smartly. If you can check this first break and keep the cow moving away from the pen, you’re halfway to getting this cow to understand that your horse is in charge. Your first objective is to show the judge that the cow has your horse’s undivided attention and that your horse is capable of holding it away from the pen. This is called ‘boxing’ and is best done with the cow in a corner and the horse standing off facing it. The ‘ideal’ situation rarely occurs in this class though and as long as your horse has the cow held for an appreciable moment away from the pen (so that everyone can see you’re not just sitting there while the cow has a chat with its mates), you’ve covered this element of the class.


You can then move the cow off again down a full length of the side of the arena to show your horse turning the cow against the fence. By now, the cow shouldn’t need much encouragement to move but at some stage, well before you get to the other end of the arena, move your horse in front of the cow and turn it back along the fence. If you’re not already moving smartly, this is when any cow with an opinion of its own will make a break back to the pen. So make a brisk move in front again to turn it back along the wall in the original direction. If the cow allows, let it move down the fence a way again before you make the second turn. It looks better and shows the judge that you’re now really on top of things. Now comes the really tricky bit. Ideally, you are going to get the cow to turn a perfect figure of eight (but don’t bother with getting it to make flying lead changes!) Again, it’s where having made your cow’s turns on a long side of the arena comes in handy because, as you complete the last of these you are hopefully moving back away from the pen. Hang your horse back and let the cow follow its instinct. It will move off the fence and set out for the pen. Now is the moment to put your horse into top gear and get between the cow and the fence, chasing as hard as you can around the outside of the cow and as close as you can get your horse to it. If it’s all going to plan, you’ll beat the cow to the end of the circle. Check your horse here and give the cow a bit of room. Once again its homing instincts will click in and  it’ll be off to the pen again. Or so it thinks. You are going to set off right smartly and chase the cow round in a circle in the opposite direction. The sense of elation you get after your cow has been pushed round a figure of eight is just fantastic. The first time I managed it I just sat there beaming stupidly thinking it was job done. But of course, it wasn’t, and while I was sitting there patting my horse and feeling pretty darned clever, the cow was still out in the arena wondering what it had done to upset us. This resulted in a no score. So, always make sure to bring the cow back and then enjoy the plaudits.



Working Cow Horse is also know as Reined Cow Horse

The horse is required to perform two or three different sorts of work depending on the competition

The first session consists of a reining pattern and is often referred to as the ‘dry work’ _The next is ‘cow work.’ A cow is released into the arena and the horse is asked to hold it (boxing), run it along the rail and turn it (fencing), and circle it tightly in each direction (circling). All this must be accomplished before the cow is exhausted

In three event competition, a ‘herd work’ session is also included. The herd work is similar to cutting where a single cow is cut from a herd of cattle and prevented from returning

In the UK, both the British Rodeo Cowboy Association ( and the Western Horseman’s Association ( offer Reined Cow Horse events _The governing body for Reined Cow Horse in the USA is the National Reined Cow Horse Association. Visit