Neu Perspectives

Tribute to Turnback Riders


Here’s to the unsung riders who make cutting horses shine in the show pen.

MA1C5222While all the focus is on the horse and rider keeping the cow from returning to the herd, the turn back rider is working to keep the cow engaged. Photo by Ross Hecox.

It’s the early part of November, and for the entire cutting horse community, that means one thing: the 2016 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity is nearly upon us.  

The NCHA Futurity is an annual three-and-a-half week show that serves as the debut event for the world’s most talented 3-year-old cutting horses. Hundreds of horse-and-rider teams battle it out in different divisions for a spot in the finals and ultimately, the top prize of $200,000. For many competitors, winning the NCHA Futurity is considered the industry’s most coveted and prestigious title.

It’s a time to celebrate the years of breeding, dedication, training, sweat and effort that goes into each and every horse entered.

A portion of that hard work can be attributed to the turnback help, of which I am a proud member, and I think it would be only appropriate to celebrate and recognize this unheralded group of riders. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, turnback riders assist the person cutting a cow, whether in the show ring or the training pen. The job requires a combination of horsemanship, people skills and the ability to read cattle—often in a high-pressure situation.

The concept of turning back is simple, but successful execution can be tricky. The turnback rider needs to keep the cow properly performing, turning it toward the cutting horse and rider so it challenges them and tries to return to the herd.

MA1C5221When a cutting horse is able to show off his athletic moves on a cow, some of the credit needs to cow to the turnback rider who kept the cow pointed toward the herd. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Based on the situation, sometimes the cow needs to move slowly and deliberately from one point to another. Other times it needs to speed up. Every once in a while, the cow needs to stand still or make its own decisions.

As turnback help, we need to be able to read both the cutter and the situation. We need to be aware of everything happening in the arena. The herd of cattle needs to be in the proper place and not scattered. Our eyes have to be sharp and trained to see exactly what’s happening with the cutter, the horse, the cow and the rest of the herd. Our ears need to be open and acute for our spoken signals, such as “Steady,” “Whoa!” “Go!” or my personal favorite, “That’ll do!”

Basically, we are glorified border collies (okay, maybe not always so glorified).

The hours are tough and the situation isn’t always optimal. It’s important to keep a gritty attitude and have lots of try, even when the cattle are used up and the pen is dusty. Because if you’ve ever been turnback help (whether it’s your job title or you’ve just helped a time or two) you need to recognize the importance of your job.

By being on the other side of that cow and keeping things flowing, you are helping to train that horse. You’ve also sharpened your cattle handling skills and probably earned an appreciation for a good using horse. You’ve learned to be more patient in a stressful situation, and you’ve enhanced your peripheral vision. Sometimes it may feel like your job is monotonous and thankless, or that you nearly need to be a mind reader to be adept, but know that in every pen where cows get worked, you are necessary, valuable and appreciated. 

As the days tick by and we await that first horse to enter the herd in the Will Rogers Coliseum, I wish all of the trainers, horses, lopers, owners and competitors the best of luck in their journey.

And a special nod goes to the employees, relatives, friends and spouses who are up early and saddle sore. Here’s to those that are keeping the herd in the middle, bumping cattle and knowing when to ease off. You’re much more than just a border collie—and when your team does find success, don’t forget that it’s your win, too.

Now that’ll do!

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