Working Cow Horse

Beginner Basics to Ride, Drive, and Slide

Competing in a working cow horse class, or reined cow horse class, consists of two separate components. A horse and rider team has to work a cow performing specific maneuvers and perform a reining pattern.

If you are interested in competing in this class, this guide will serve to get you started towards your first show. Below we will be discussing what to expect when entering this class, what the judges are looking for, and a few helpful tips.

A Working Cow Horse Class

Class Breakdown

In this class, both the reining pattern and cow work are required for scoring. Exhibitors will perform each portion of the class individually for the judges.

During the reining portion, the horse is expected to perform specific reining maneuvers such as loping, lead changes, sliding stops, turns, and backing. Judges likely choose from a set of pre-set patterns approved by the association you are showing with. The AQHA has AQHA approved working cow horse patterns.

Horses are expected to perform the pattern as it is posted. Deviation from this or riding "off pattern" is grounds for a potential zero score from the judges.

During the cow work portion, the horse must keep control over a live cow. The horses that are able to keep such control with minimal cues from the rider demonstrate a more natural ability also called "cow sense".

Some cattle will be more difficult to work than others and therefore more credit will be given to the horse and rider if they are able to maintain control. Higher scores are given to horses that are able to control difficult cows with minimal rider involvement.

The cow work portion of the class begins when the cow enters the arena. Ideally, a working cow horse will hold that cow at that particular end of the arena to demonstrate control over the animal.

Then the exhibitor should move the cow down one side of the fence performing a turn away from the fence in each direction. Then the cow should be moved to a more open portion of the arena, circling it in each direction.

This is the order of maneuvers when performing the cow work portion. Arena size and degree of difficulty of the cow are both considerations in scoring.

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Judging Criteria

When judging a working cow horse class, judges are also looking for potential faults as well as the credits. Faults can come from both horse and rider during the class.

Faults can include hesitations or halting, losing control of the cow, inability to finish the pattern, touching the horse or saddle, using arena corners to turn a cow, biting or kicking the cow, or a fall of the horse/rider during the class.

Credits are given to working cow horses that demonstrate good manners, responsive to light rein contact, maintaining head in a natural position, and working at appropriate speeds while keeping under the control of the rider.

For more information on competing in a working cow horse class, make sure you check the rulebook of the association you are showing with. Most regional stock breed shows offer these classes (AQHA, APHA, ApHC) and there are also specific cow horse associations such as the National Reined Cow Horse Association to offer shows.

Class Tips

  • Always watch the cow for shifts in direction to prevent a loss of balance on your horse
  • The class focuses more on control over the cow. Don't chase after it, but maintain control
  • When driving the cow forward you should have your horse positioned at the hip of the cow
  • Moving laterally away from the cow will cause it to slow and moving laterally towards the cow will cause it to speed up
  • If your horse is in the correct position at your horse's hip there should not be daylight between your horse and the cow
  • Take some time to watch and study the cattle at events. Pay attention to how they react to the horse during different class runs

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