Making the Cow-Horse Connection

Jay McLaughlin

Photography by Ross Hecox

World champion cow horse trainer Jay McLaughlin offers advice on how to keep your horse connected to cattle, from the first introduction to the finished show horse. 

From the first time a horse is introduced to a cow until it steps into the show pen, a positive connection with cattle helps it remain focused.

“I don’t really specialize in one event,” says Jay McLauglin. “In [reined] cow horse, you do three events—the herd work, the cow work and reining. Every horse I’ve shown has worked a cow at some point in their life. I think working cattle makes them grow up and be strong-minded horses.”

Jay McLaughlin
Jay McLaughlin’s slow approach to starting horses on cattle enables them to perform better in the arena.
This hands-on approach to cattle delivers results. Working for Carol Rose Quarter Horses in Gainesville, Texas, McLaughlin trains for cutting, reining and working cow horse classes. Here, McLaughlin shares his insight on how to build and sustain the connection between horse and cow by making cattle work simple.

Find the Cow
“The first time we start a colt on a cow, there is nothing in the arena but me, the horse and the cow,” McLaughlin says.

With young horses, distractions need to be at a minimum when introducing cattle. Creating a lasting connection with cattle, one that is not forced, is imperative to future endeavors such as showing or even working cattle in the pasture. McLaughlin has a basic approach to allowing the horse to “find” the cow.

“I walk around the pen, getting closer to the cow, until all of a sudden the horse finds the cow,” he says. “It can take five, 10 or 20 minutes until I see them say, ‘Hey! It’s a cow.’ I walk around until the cow moves and then I [guide] the horse behind them.

“We track around from at least 10 feet back, and won’t go faster than a trot until they hook up. When they hook up and the horse is following the cow around without me pulling them the right direction, I ease up and stop.”

Jay McLaughlin
Working like a cutting horse—taking the cow down the fence, stopping parallel and then turning in unison—is the first step McLaughlin takes toward the higher-level working cow horse maneuvers.
Keeping the initial introduction simple is one of the mainstays of McLaughlin’s training philosophy. He says he wants the cow and horse to be buddies, so he doesn’t force the connection.

“When you scare or force them, that is when you step them back in training,” he explains.

The trainer says a young horse’s introduction is generally to track slow cattle for two or three weeks. While not all horses are instinctively cowy, all will eventually show McLaughlin they have mentally locked on.

“When their ears are cocked toward the cow, you feel it,” he explains. “It’s like a magnet. You feel the pull from the horse to the cow. Their back will lift, and it feels like two magnets you are trying to hold apart. It’s a great feeling when they get it.”

Jay McLaughlin
Prior to taking a cow down the fence, McLaughlin teaches rate, where the horse stays in position with the cow at all speeds. By the time he begins training for this maneuver, the horse has learned to read a cow and can anticipate its actions.
Once mentally locked on, it is McLaughlin’s goal to hook an imaginary string from the horse’s nose to the cow. To do so, he patiently tracks cattle, offering assistance but really allowing the horse to build a parallel connection with the cow.

“Most of the time, I trot up beside a cow and quit riding. I want to see if the horse will keep up and move the cow by itself,” says McLaughlin. “I help them a little. Like if the cow stops and they only start stopping, then I pull them into the ground or tip their nose to the cow.

“I do this for five, 10 minutes, or whatever it takes, depending on the horse. If the horse stays with the cow and stays focused, I quit in 10 seconds. Always leave them wanting more. When they are getting good, that is when you quit for the day.”

Though this sounds simple, it takes repetition to build a connection, McLaughlin says. Give an abundance of chances for a young horse to find and hook onto a cow, and then repeat the process.

Next Step
One point McLaughlin makes is the importance of ensuring the horse does not worry when it works a cow. He says he gauges a horse’s anxiety by how they breathe during maneuvers. A sign of worry is if they hold their breath.

To create a buddy-buddy relationship between horse and cow, and reduce the potential for stress, he corrects a horse away from its buddy, the cow.

“The cow end of the arena is good. The other end, where they are alone and get corrected, that is bad,” he says. “I make it black and white for them.”

As 2-year-olds, McLaughlin’s horses simply track cows wherever they go in the arena. In November of their 2-year-old year, he asks them to step up. Taking longer runs down the arena wall and then stopping and turning toward the cow sets up one of the most critical maneuvers that define a working cow horse. However, when advancing a young horse’s training, the pressure of the new expectations can affect their performance.

“For two weeks, I start the 2-year-olds down the fence,” he says. “It’s not necessarily to see if they can go down the fence, but to start that learning process. The cattle are usually sour by then, and slower and easier for the horse to learn on. I don’t go down the fence the first time, but work them like a cutter with longer runs [down the fence].

“When I am working a cow and the horse gets nervous on the ends because that is where we turn a cow or box them, I drop my hands,” McLaughlin adds. “If they don’t stop [when I drop my hands], I let them go a bit, then stop and back up and ask again. I work them hard on the end aw
ay from the cow—lots of circles and hustling them—until they remember the cow is their friend.”

Jay McLaughlin
Most maneuvers are completed at the ends of the arena—cutting, boxing the cow and turning the cow on the fence.
Before actually working a cow down the fence, or completing the maneuver where the horse turns the cow against the fence, McLaughlin has to know the horse is locked onto the cow. For the horse to have learned to stop the cow, they must have the ability to read cattle and be connected. If a horse learns to stop with a cow, then McLaughlin feels comfortable advancing them.

“When you take the horse to the show, the only goal you should have is get a cow in front of you and do exactly what that cow does,” he says. “If you try to do more, it can go downhill real quick. My big thing is to prepare them for anything—stop hard, run fast and turn. Whatever the cow does, that is what the horse should do.”

Keep the Connection
Whether working an older, finished show horse or molding a prospect, McLaughlin listens to their breathing for keys to their comfort level with a maneuver.

“If I ask them for a maneuver, I want them to exhale when they do it and not [suck air in] as if they are bracing for the impact,” he explains. “If they hold their breath, something is going on—wrong bit, [poor] shoe fit, they are sore or they don’t like their job.”

If a competitive cow horse doesn’t like its job, that leads to problems in the show pen. A fresh horse that craves its job is more focused and will perform better. And while horses are trained to complete specific maneuvers for one event, McLaughlin says there is no reason a competitive Western horse cannot work in different events.

Jay McLaughlin
Roping can help the horse learn that proper body position and rate are necessary to stop the steer. McLaughlin changes up training by incorporating roping to refocus the horse on the cow.
“Showing in the [World’s Greatest Horseman] has helped me as an all-around trainer. You have to show four events and they are all judged,” he says. “I’ve found that roping off older bridle horses helps them learn ‘rate,’ and gives them something different than just going down the fence.”

Roping off seasoned cow horses keeps them interacting with cattle, but their job has changed. Instead of working the cow on the fence or in circles, the horse must learn to run and rate in a different area of the arena, and often on the opposite side than it would normally approach the cow.

Rate, McLaughlin says, is like driving up behind another car, then releasing the accelerator until your vehicle follows the other at the same distance and speed. Ride the horse up to a certain point on the cow, and that is where it should rate, or stay.

Using a knot-rope, where the loop does not draw tight on the steer’s head, McLaughlin can train rate and work on stopping, but is not working the horse in a traditional manner. He uses this to correct a fading horse (one that drifts away from the cow) and a horse that leans in when circling the cow. The connection, from horse to cow, is still important.

“When a horse comes off a cow [when circling], or breathes too hard—basically shows it is not focused—then I rope one off it,” McLaughlin says. “It helps [the horse] to connect with the cow and teaches him a new aspect. It taught him to read the steer because the steer goes left and right, and the horse needs to go with him.”

In essence, the horse draws on the training it has in cow horse to track and stop a steer when roping. However, the event is new and different, and elicits a new focus. McLaughlin cautions that you need to swing a rope around a horse prior to roping a steer, and that the first steers roped should be slower-moving animals, allowing the horse to understand this new event.

“I wouldn’t suggest everyone go rope off their horse today,” he says. “I do this on a non-scare basis, where everything is set up. I track a steer around, swinging the rope until the horse slows down or just to get a better read off the steer.”

Like taking a horse out of the arena into a pasture to work cattle, or by asking it to drag a log instead of lope circles for awhile, roping allows a horse to step out of the monotony of training. This refocuses it on cattle while correcting bad habits it has in the arena.

“If the horse is leaning or pulling [against me], I keep moving him until he is back in position to rope the steer,” says McLaughlin.

By keeping the horse working until he is allowed the reward of stopping the steer, McLaughlin is teaching it that the correct body position is the easy way. Instead of countless rundowns to refocus a horse on getting deeper into the ground during stops, McLaughlin uses the knot-roping method to achieve the same results.

“If you let a horse take a jerk off the saddle horn [from the steer stopping], they will start pulling harder when they stop,” he says. “Then, attach the word ‘whoa’ to that and the horse will start pulling the steer into the ground rather than letting the steer jerk them.”

Instead of more fencing, circling or running, McLaughlin uses the connection between horse and cow to train. He prefers the psychology of that over discipline because, as he says, you gain a horse’s trust more with reward than with discipline.

“I’ve taken sour horses and won more on them in an event they were sour in because I didn’t practice the ‘bad’ event,” McLaughlin says. By changing the work environment, it changes a horse’s perspective. “I worked them in the pasture or roped off them. I try to keep it simple for the horse.”

To build a trusting relationship, the horse must view the cow as a positive presence and crave interaction. Keeping it simple—both in the arena and out—can lead to a lasting cow-horse connection.

Jay McLaughlinJay McLaughlin trains for Carol Rose Quarter Horses in Gainesville, Texas. He has nearly $780,000 in lifetime earnings in working cow horse, reining and cutting events. Riding A Shiner Named Sioux, he captured the 2010 AQHA Junior Reining World Championship, and aboard Genuine Masterpiece won the 2010 AQHA Junior Working Cow Horse World Championship. At the 2011 NRCHA World Championship,
he captured both the open two-rein world championship and reserve world championship in open hackamore. For more information on McLaughlin, visit


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Kate Bradley is an assistant editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to [email protected].

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