Neu Perspectives

Keeping it Fresh

A fresh set of cows is every turnback rider's dream.

Working a fresh cow is a fun and challenging experience.

A girl working a fresh cow
Photo by Ross Hecox

I’ve got a riddle for you. 

What do orange juice, chocolate chip cookies, linens and cattle have in common? 

They’re all better fresh! 

A fresh cow is one that has never been worked by someone horseback. It is often sensitive, reactive and requires almost a kid glove feel at times to be properly handled and preserved before it is worked. But once a cow has been worked, even just once, it is never the same again.

Sure, some cattle are better than others and will create their own stops and turns for several works. But for the most part, there’s just nothing quite like working a fresh cow. (And for the purpose of the post, just know that when I write cow, it is an umbrella term which covers anything bovine, including heifers, steers and young bulls.)

We started some of our colts on cows last week and it got my wheels turning about the year ahead of me, which I’m certain will include plenty of turning back and helping my husband get the most out of his cattle. Anyone who has turned back (basically, assisted a person working a cow by keeping it moving and turning as he or she works their horse) knows it can be a trying job at times. The more cattle have been worked, the less they want to go and the less sensitive they are to the stimulation of a horse and rider. A dull, slow heifer or steer can often force the turnback rider into a situation that compromises equitation, cattle handling skills and proper etiquette in general to try to get the cow to do something — ANYTHING — to get worked. I know in my case, a used-up cow will trigger horrendous mental insults and frustrations that would never occur to me in any other situation. 

But then, once in a great while, we have a magical, wonderful day that elevates over all others — at least to the turnback guy. This day of work is known as fresh cow day. It’s the day when horses get worked well and my turnback horses don’t have to work very hard. I can move very little and get a lot done. And it’s fun to watch our horses improve with a good set-up and cattle that have honest reactions and “real” stops and turns. 

The beauty and fragility of a fresh cow is not something considered common knowledge among the general horseback population. Most folks have seen a cutting competition and probably don’t realize what exactly is happening. For the majority of the time, each cow that is selected, cut and worked by the person showing has been picked for a reason. The herd is large enough to supply the class with enough fresh cattle for each rider to properly show off his or her horse. The same cow isn’t worked run after run for a reason. Each horse and rider team has different strengths and abilities, and the showman needs to pick the best cattle to highlight the horse’s talents and training. And working a re-run cow (one that has been worked before) generally doesn’t set one up for as much success as a fresh one. 

It’s incredibly important to handle a bunch of fresh cattle with a whole lot of feel and sensitivity. If you ride through them and thrash around as though they are grandma’s milk cows, you will affect the herd greatly and tarnish the way those cows work the first time. Once they get stirred up or jostled around while being moved, sorted or penned, they won’t work as well. And it’s a shame to waste that freshness, especially when you only get a new bunch of cattle every so often. 

My mouth waters at the thought of warm chocolate chip cookies, straight out of the oven. And there’s nothing quite like clean, crisp sheets on my bed at the end of a long day. 

But a good, fresh cow, preferably with a little bit of ear? 

Now that’s no joking matter. 

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