Clayton Edsall shares three drills he wants a horse to master before working a cow.

Clayton Edsall's horse sitting back
When a horse sits back on its hindquarters it frees the front end to turn a cow or work the flag.

Working cattle is enjoyable and exciting, especially if you want to show in reined cow horse or ranch versatility classes. But California cow horse trainer Clayton Edsall finds that many amateurs rush to cattle work before their horses have the collection and body control necessary to effectively maneuver a cow.

“I see people spending a lot of time loping their horses in circles and thinking that’s all it takes to get them warmed up and ready to work cattle,” he says. “There’s more to it than that. When it comes to cow work, you need to get your horse soft and collected. If he’s cowy he’ll pay attention to the cow, but you need to get him using his body correctly so he can easily get into position and not have muscle soreness or injury.”

Here, Edsall shares three drills he uses with all of his horses so they have the skills to work cattle effectively. The best part about the exercises is that you don’t need cattle to practice them.

When working cattle, you want to keep your horse’s body straight so it can move in any direction quickly to direct the cow. However, Edsall says he sees riders loping circles with too much bend in the horses’ bodies, which causes them to drift to the outside and not get their hindquarters underneath their bodies for strong, collected movement. Furthermore, if a horse is repetitively schooled that way it becomes patterned and may do everything with a slight arc in its body.

“If a horse is patterned to be arced, he has to be a good enough athlete to pull the rider out of his way and straighten himself up. If a horse is not straight, he doesn’t have the power of both hind legs under him,” Edsall explains. “To perform a rundown, stop, turnaround and lead changes, a horse’s body has to be straight, and he has to be collected and working off his hindquarters.”

Horse Counter Arcing
A counter-arc exercise that transitions into a two-track supples a horse’s neck and shoulders while encouraging straight body alignment desired for cow work.

To instill straightness in a horse’s body while also encouraging flexibility in the neck and ribcage, Edsall teaches his horses a counter-bend exercise to the right and left that can transition into a turnaround or two-track.

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