In My Boots: Working cattle 101

This week, Alfred University IHSA western coach Kristen Kovatch explains how she introduces her students to working cows. Hint: It involves some serious role-playing.

From Kristen:

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that my students are getting college credit for classes like this. (To be fair, they all agree that Western IV hardly feels like a class—more like just coming up to the barn, hanging out and learning really cool things like barrel racing and reining.) Today, my students got their first taste of working cattle—without glimpsing a single cow. Today, the role of the cow was played by myself and my trusty cow pony Playgirl (we will accept our Oscar at any time).

I find this exercise to be one of the best ways to introduce the basics of working cattle to students, rather than throwing them into an arena with actual cattle, which presents all sorts of dangers to novice cowhorse riders, or working a cutting flag, which requires the investment in equipment, operation and training. Even when working a single cow, events and actions can unfold too quickly for a coach or teacher to be able to give helpful advice or point out a particular moment—after all, there are three brains and eight legs all going full-bore; there’s bound to be some crazy moments.

By playing the cow, I can speed up or slow down the exercise or bring everything to a halt to point out good moves or errors; I can pause to allow my students to school their horses or resettle themselves. There’s nothing scarier than working a cow for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and losing your stirrups or your seat. On a moving cowhorse, you might never get them back.

Today my students worked on basic control of the cow, or boxing: a rider works a single cow at one end of the arena, seeking to show control of the cow. Basically, when the cow moves, the horse moves. If the cow stops, the horse stops. The horse and rider seek to be at the cow’s head, using the horse’s presence to encourage the cow to go, stop or turn. Working a cow is a lot like lunging or roundpenning—step to the tail to drive forward, come towards the head to slow down.

I don’t profess to be a cow expert—but I’ve worked enough cattle to understand basically how they operate. Give them a hole and they’ll go through it; get too close and they’ll turn and duck right under your nose. My three students made most of the basic mistakes—overshooting the cow when they stopped, simply following the cow from corner to corner, pressuring too close and giving me the opportunity to cut and run in the other direction. Playgirl was very game for playing cow, dancing right off my leg pressure, rolling back elegantly, her back lifting as she powered off the ground or sat down deep on her hocks to stop.

The three reining horses which my students rode sharpened up remarkably quickly, reminding me why I loved to teach this particular lesson; they were smiling ear to ear as their horses worked for them, rather than simply going through the motions of a dry-work exercise. The laziest horse of the trio came alive, light on his feet to track Playgirl’s motion in parallel, his tail arched in excitement, his rider grinning as she dropped her hands low and simply let him work.

After the lesson, when we walked our horses out to let them cool and stretch, all four horses—my own included—walked with an extra swing in their stride, ears pricked forward, more purposeful in their walk. They were proud of themselves. As I told my students, who were carrying themselves equally tall in the saddle, the horses were pleased to put themselves to work. The stops, rollbacks and turns we had been incorporating all semester long were finally making sense to the horses—they could put their skills to work in stopping and turning a make-believe cow. In that moment, work became useful play. Each one of the horses stopped and turned sharper than ever—my own included. Even if none of these horses ever actually saw a real cow, they had a new reason to perform.

Go ride with cows—no matter what kind of horse you have.

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.


Kristen & her horse Playgirl

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