In My Boots: Cowhorse deconstructed

This week, Kristen Kovatch takes us inside the world of reined cowhorses, breaking down a video of her own runs at a recent show.

From Kristen:

Reined cowhorse is one of the fastest-growing western sports in the nation—for good reason. There’s no rush quite like working a cow—there is no way to predict exactly how any run will go, given the three brains and eight legs all working in different directions. No two runs are ever the same. Sitting astride a cowhorse that can think and react based on its own instinctual ability to read a cow brings horsemanship to a completely different level.

I have been working with a green cowhorse for about a year and she is easily the most talented animal I have ever ridden. She is bred High Brow Cat, one of the top cutting-horse bloodlines in the country known for quick and catty movers. She can read a cow and dance on her toes to stay in front of it—my job is to develop her natural reactions away from cutting and teach her to track and turn the cow like a reined cowhorse, as well as raising the level of her riding handle to complete the reining portion. Some of my students’ parents were able to video two of my runs from a recent NYRCHA show at Alfred University, so I will break down each portion of the run.

[Video Cred: Mark and Maite Hurd]

Each cowhorse run begins with a reining pattern known as dry work. Unlike an NRHA pattern, these runs do not include rollbacks, for the simple reason that the cowhorse will already be displaying his rollback on the cow and does not need to display it again in the pattern. I compete with Playgirl in green horse classes which is why I ride with both hands—eventually I will work her into the traditional vaquero-style romel bridle and show with one hand.

Playgirl’s dry work has improved vastly in the year that I’ve owned her. Most of my work with her has been teaching her to stay soft on the bit; at times she gets overflexed on the bit in her circles but she is on her way to being able to travel on a loose rein. Her lead changes need work to get her to stand up and stay straight—she tends to swap her lead and drop her shoulder into the new circle. The damp footing on the day of the show discouraged her from sitting down deep and sliding in the dry work—and of course, for anyone looking closely and counting, I overspun the second set of turnarounds, earning a zero for the dry work. Whoops.

Immediately after completing the dry work, a single cow is released into the arena. This particular class is boxing only, which means that the horse and rider demonstrate control of the cow at one end of the arena. Essentially, when the cow moves, we move. Starting at 2:19, we have 50 seconds to work the cow and show off our skills. Working a cow is similar to roundpenning a horse—step to the hip to drive it forward, move to the head to stop and turn. Most of the errors in this portion are due to my still-developing ability to read a cow and failure to yield ground when necessary—though thanks to my reactive and quick little mare, we avoid any major penalties in losing the cow completely. We earned high scores for our courage in tackling this fairly-tough cow and preventing it from running down to the other end of the pen. Fifty seconds goes by amazingly fast.

Our dry work for the next class, green horse down the fence, begins at 3:17. Observe Playgirl’s wet-spaghetti tendencies—I need to spend more time moving her shoulder, rib and hip and bringing all the parts into line. Overall, I was much happier with her dry work in this second class than the first—and of course, I did not overspin, earning us a decent score. The wet footing remains a sticking point (literally) in her stops: she simply isn’t broke enough to stop regardless of the ground.

In a fence run, we do not have any time limits to work the cow—however, penalties can accumulate if the cow is overworked to the point of exhaustion. Playgirl and I had not worked a cow down the fence in a show setting before this run, so I was thankful for the assistance from Harry in the white cowboy hat back in the pens and Josh Veal who is on the rail just out of the frame coaching me through.

Boxing the cow for a fence run gives the rider opportunity to read the cow—is it fast? Slow? Does it need to be worked only briefly before going down the fence, or do I need to take a little gas out of it first before I have a wreck? This cow was obviously fairly lively and I elected to box a little longer until I felt like I could really control its direction and stop. Playgirl makes some fantastic turns as we box, really sitting on her haunches and rolling back to get to the cow’s head as quickly as she can (my absolute favorite move to ride occurs at 7:06.)

At 7:25 Josh advised me to start the cow down the fence—I had worked it down enough and gotten in enough turns and it was important to go while I still had cow and horse left to show. I start the cow from the far corner and push it down the long wall, rating it and keeping it slow until I am in a position to get by and turn. “Giving ground” means giving the cow enough space to let myself get back without pushing it faster, and I am able to gallop past and turn the cow back. The cow turns off the rail and cuts across the arena, which is common in green horse and rider classes—we did not turn back as sharply or quickly to the cow as we could have, which gave it the opportunity to duck and run. I simply continued to push the cow around the arena until I was set up for my second turn (you are required to show two fence turns.) We go for a bit of a run-around until things are vaguely under control again and I can complete a second turn.

The last portion, and most difficult maneuver to pull off, is circling: the cow must be circled in each direction, off the rail. Our first circle at 8:01 starts strong and then I lose position around 8:06, taking half the arena to get back to the cow’s head to finish the turn. I am out of position to change direction at 8:15, choosing a poor place in the arena to attempt to switch, but recover at 8:22 and make a fairly tidy circle to complete the class.

Ultimately, despite the errors and things I could have done much better, I left the arena with a huge smile on my face. The worst run in the world is still the most fun I’ve had on horseback. Playgirl can’t help herself either—her ears are pricked for most of the cow run as she does what she loves too.

Go ride a cowhorse.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

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