Race Horse to Ranch Horse: Push, Don’t Pull

“The reality that I had learned to accept by Sunday was that my horse simply is not at the point yet to keep up with a truly fast cow, and no amount of me trying to pull his body around by the reins was going to change that fact.”

Photo by Picture My Heart Photography

Our first New York Reined Cow Horse Association show in May gave me a great foundation for the rest of the season and set our standard for where we were beginning the year. Theoretically, the only place left to go was up — and for the first time in my adult equestrian life, I felt like I finally had the tools and knowledge to take the next steps to turn my race horse into a reined cow horse.

Readers of my blog in May should recall one passage:

This sounds kind of stupid to put into writing, but it’s literally taken me 30 years of life to get to this point, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing for the internet it’s that if you’re thinking it about horses someone else is also thinking it too. So for the other random people out there who need to read this, yes — it’s taken me this long to get to the stage in my riding when I can think about how my ride went on Day One, reflect on what needs to change in my warm-up on Day Two, and enjoy some improvement… however minor.

It’s still true, y’all. Imagine my delight when we got our paid warm-up cow on Friday night and I discovered that my homework had actually paid off:

In May, Jobber spent most of his time falling on his forehand and sort of throwing his body around in an arc behind the cow. While there’s obviously still plenty of room for improvement, note how much better he sits into his halt and turns with more weight on his haunches — in some moments, there are true rollbacks starting to develop.

I’ve been perhaps a bit glib in this blog series about Jobber’s ability to become a reined cow horse — which I firmly believe is one of the absolute hardest disciplines in existence in the horse world. I’ve always approached this challenge with the mindset of “if I have enough patience, knowledge and conditioning, we can do anything!”

And while I still believe that’s mostly true, the reality is that Jobber conformationally has more ground to make up than his shorter-coupled, compact Quarter Horse cousins. It’s not necessarily that he’s tall; it’s the combination of his height and his length, specifically in his back and his hip, that make this kind of work more difficult — especially if he’s not as fit as he could be. With a wet spring limiting a lot of my riding to a very small section of field, I haven’t been able to hit the hills that I’ve wanted to in order to better develop hind end strength and a strong topline for this kind of work.

Photo by Picture My Heart Photography

But what I have been able to do is work on two things at the walk that have helped get us to this point:

1. Stopping and backing. This sounds deceptively simple, but it’s been a long work in progress to get Jobber soft in the bridle to where he melts into the ground, sits on his haunches and thinks “back” when I say “whoa” and sink my seat. It started with a lot of up-headed, hollow-backed stops requiring my reins way back in the days when there was still snow on the ground, but armed again with a sense of patience and awareness of overall fitness, it’s developed into a soft process that will get better as he gets physically stronger this summer. (And this is actually one way to strengthen him, now that he’s backing correctly — it’s exponentially beneficial.)

2. Leg yielding. Another simple yet powerful tool to put in the toolbox is lateral work and getting Jobber as soft moving sideways and stepping over as he does stepping backwards. We spend a lot of time leg yielding in both directions in our warm-up as well as between working at the trot and canter, and we’re beginning to get the idea at the trot as well as at the walk.

The best-laid warm-ups and practice sessions, however, don’t do much if you get into the show ring and forget to use your legs. As my friend Joe said at some point this weekend, “we all do it — when the cows get faster, we get too fast with our hands.”

Well, comforting to know it’s not just me, I suppose. I found myself attempting to pull Jobber’s face around more than once this weekend, and by the time I noticed I was doing it, it was far too late. The reality that I had learned to accept by Sunday was that my horse simply is not at the point yet to keep up with a truly fast cow, and no amount of me trying to pull his body around by the reins was going to change that fact.

But there were moments of true brilliance, and I’m hopeful that you’ll be able to see the vast improvement in this horse compared to the May outing: here’s our herd work from Saturday morning.

Obviously, I lose my first cow in a hot second, largely because I get into the herd for the deep cut and then get hasty to choose a cow to work and jump on the first one that looks readily available — what I need to be doing is taking my time, being more patient, and push all of the cattle much further away from the herd so that when I do have a cow separated, it’s far enough away to work.

But that second cow, which was selected with plenty of help from herd holder Jacob who spotted exactly the kind of poky, slow steer I needed for the horse that I have? That work showed a ton of improvement. Jobber is sitting down and using his haunches better, and generally, I’m remembering to push him with my leg and seat rather than pull him about with my hands. (We scored a 61 on this run, which is a giant improvement from May, and also placed eighth out of 12 which is exciting — we beat some actual purpose-bred cutting horses!)

It’s steps on a much longer road, to be sure — but the progress is coming, and I’m so excited to show this community exactly what a Thoroughbred can do. I’m not so innocent to think that I’m inspiring any of my fellow competitors to run right out to the nearest track and buy themselves an ex-racehorse, but the support and encouragement I’m getting from my peers here at the NYRCHA is certainly revealing that this discipline keeps an open mind. I think everyone does want to see this horse have success, and I’m hoping to keep making them all proud.

Follow along with Jobber’s continued journey at Jobber Bill: Race Horse to Ranch Horse on Facebook.

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