In My Boots: Cowhorsin’ Around

Reined cowhorse, team sorting, cutting… it all sounds like a blast. This week, columnist Kristen Kovatch confirms our suspicions that, yep, being a cowgirl is as fun as it’s cracked up to be.

From Kristen:

Any horse-person looking to complete a western bucket list should have job-shadowed me in the 24-hour period from Sunday afternoon to Monday morning: on one horse, I managed to ride a cowhorse trifecta of reined cowhorse, team sorting and cutting.

Reined cowhorse

You might consider this the eventing of the western world—we complete a reining pattern and then get to work a cow. (From what I gather, the reining or dry work to the reined cowhorse rider is what the dressage test is to the eventer: kind of fun, but really just something you do to get to the good stuff. If we wanted to ride reining, or dressage, we would just ride that event.)

I’ve been working my little mare Playgirl for this event for a year and a half now. She was a sort-of-broke cutter when I acquired her in the spring of 2011, and I’m pleased that she’s learned things like getting soft in the bridle, getting a lead change, sitting, spinning and stopping. I will not claim that all of these things actually happened as they should have at Sunday’s reined cowhorse show—but she certainly schooled well. When it all boiled down to it, I had no excuse at all except that I simply let my horse down: I haven’t been riding her like I should have.

We did show down the fence for the third time—we boxed a cow, or showed control of it (sort of) at one end of the arena, then turned it down the long fence, raced it wide open, stopped it and turned it and then repeated the process. Our second fence turn was brilliant: Playgirl got in the ground, slid, turned the cow and rolled right back to chase it down. After this point the rest of the run completely fell apart—the cow happened to circle roughly where I wanted it to but we never really got back in control. We simply just got beat.

But as I mentioned to a friend before the start of the show—even a bad cow run is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.

Team sorting

Monday morning I was back in the saddle again, “working.” I happened to be at my workplace (the Alfred University equestrian center) on a work day, but it was playtime.

The University offers a class in Intro to Reined Cowhorse, and in the aftermath of the cowhorse show and with all the cows just sitting around waiting to be trailered back to pasture, it was logical to run 10 head into the arena and play a little bit. In team sorting, the cows are numbered (in this case, 0 to 9 with one blank cow that remains behind) and they are sorted in number order. In open-arena sorting, like the kind we were running on Monday, riders compete in teams of three.

With six riders in the class, plus myself, plus our very game barn manager who had ridden western only on trail rides prior to this day, we were able to scramble ourselves up and form a good number of teams. By the end of the class, however, a distinct rivalry had developed, and the same three on three continued to go head-to-head over and over again. I won’t say I wasn’t helping to fuel the competition a little bit.

Team sorting is different from reined cowhorse in that it’s a timed event—the horses are ridden a good deal faster and the point is not to show control of the cattle but to move them from one point to another as quickly as possible. The same amount of control is necessary over both horse and cow, but sped up a couple of notches—it’s still important to have a soft and supple horse that can stop and turn on a dime. Playgirl loves this game, and I found myself getting very into it by the end of the class period. Looks like I’ll be competing a little more in the local association next season.


Cutting is a little closer to reined cowhorse than team sorting but has a character all its own. One rider and one horse “cut” or separate a cow from the herd and then essentially play keep-away with the aid of a pair of turnback riders—these riders keep the cow from running away but keep it moving for the cutter to work. True cutting horses move by instinct, reading the cow’s body language and naturally turning and stopping to get in the cow’s way.

Playgirl is bred for cutting and her foundation training is entirely in cutting. I had to fight the urge to rein her around and instead ride entirely off my leg and seat. True cutters never touch the rein—truthfully, they’re holding onto the horn most of the time. After a few minutes and a few cows, however, Playgirl was sitting down low and turning around like she had been doing this all her life. I can’t describe the thrill from sitting on a horse and letting it simply perform what it’s intended to do all on its own, just for the joy of doing its job. I’m even more thrilled to have a versatile cowhorse with whom I can do a little bit of all of these events.

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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