Working cattle is a complex act, especially when under pressure in competition. Cow horse trainer Shawn Hays gives four tips for a successful performance.

Photo by Darrell Dodd

Cow horse trainers spend a lot of time watching cattle, learning to recognize how a cow may react by reading its body language. They also watch other riders, and Texas trainer Shawn Hays has noticed several common problems.

“People start their run down the fence in a corner, and their horse is often facing the opposite way than the cow,” says the 2010 American Quarter Horse Association senior working cow horse world champion. “You start out behind, then you are hustling and playing catch-up. By starting off in the right spot, you can set up a better run.”

Whether showing in a boxing-only class, where the horse and rider work back and forth at the end of the arena, or in a working cow horse class that includes fence work, proper position will affect your outcome. Here, Hays offers four tips to help riders make a successful run.

Box With Purpose

1. Read the Cow

In general, a rider can draw two types of cattle: one that honors the horse and faces up, and one that never looks at the horse.

“A cow that won’t ‘head’ will keep banging up and down the back fence and never look at you,” Hays says. “That cow is going to tell me that it might not head very well when we go down the fence.
“If the cow starts moving across the pen and you are in position where you should be, and it honors you, looks and turns back, that tells me I should think of rating it a little more down the fence. If I get up on top of that cow, it might head quick.”

Knowing the type of cow will help prepare for the rest of the run, and will help determine how the rider shows his horse to the judges.

“In a strictly boxing class, it presents a prettier picture to the judge if that cow stops, turns and looks at you,” explains Hays. “But, boxing classes are luck of the draw. If you are going wall to wall and you are in position where you should be, you can’t do anything about it and the judge shouldn’t dock you.”

2. Get in Position
Hays emphasizes being in the right position on the cow to dictate how it will move when boxing.

“I like my stirrup or my shoulder to be even with the cow’s shoulder, or even a little ahead,” he says. “I see a lot of riders trailing behind, and their horse’s head is at the cow’s belly. That position makes it hard for the horse to get over and get the cow stopped.

“If your horse has any cow in him at all, when you stop the cow even at its hip or belly, the horse will draw back and turn. Then, you are ahead of the cow and that opens a big gate for the cow to run up the middle of the arena. You want to stop even with the cow’s head so that when it turns, you are right there with it.”

Sometimes a rider needs to be in tighter with the cow to control its movement, Hays says. If the cow goes only wall to wall, many riders want to initiate a stop and turn with the cow, but Hays cautions against that in boxing.

“I want to stay in proper position and not try to step up and in front of a cow that is not honoring me,” he explains. “If it stops and turns when I am in front, I left a big window open for that cow to shoot off the wall, and then I’m in trouble. Stay in position and let your horse get hooked to the cow.”

Down the Fence

1. Start at the Middle
“I always tell people to boxing in the middle and then go down the fence,” Hays says. “You want to start the run down the fence going in the same direction, with the same rate and speed as the cow.

“By bringing the cow back to the middle before driving it to the corner, you give yourself an advantage. Once you decide to go down the fence, be aggressive and get on the cow’s hip immediately. Act like you are attached to him like a sidecar and drive the cow around the corner.”

Setting up the run properly from the middle eliminates the chance of get-ting behind the cow at the start of fence work.

2. Rate, Don’t Charge
Cow horses should rate off the cow’s hip, says Hays. However, may riders rate in what he refers to as “roping position,” where the horse is trailing the cow. That can lead to the rider having to ride the horse too aggressively to get to the front of the cow to make the fence turn.

“If you have been coming from behind a lot, then that horse is going to get a little chargey,” Hays says. “Practice getting on the cow’s hip early and instead of going all the way down the fence, break the horse down to a trot or walk and let the cow go. I don’t want the horse to think that every time we go through a corner he needs to go 90 miles per hour.”

Practice rating cattle off the hip at home to make sure your horse is comfortable running, or loping, in that position.

“I want the horse to relax running next to the cow,” Hays says. “The horse’s head should be at the cow’s or belly, and this is where I want the horse to be comfortable. The fence is like a run-down; I don’t want to go all out as soon as I lope off, but want it to build until I turn the cow.”


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