Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why Do We Chase Cows?

Jess said - my horse is afraid of cows. And not just a little afraid, the other night my sister put her in our dry lot to feed her. She almost jumped the fence trying to get away from the cows that were a good 50 yards away on the other side of their own fence. My sister ended up letting her out, because she was worried that she'd jump and break a leg in the muck.

Somebody else asked - Why do we like doing this (cow work) so much? What's the attraction?

Jess's horse may be crazy afraid of cattle. I don't know. I have never had a horse I couldn't get to eventually track a cow, but hers might be the exception. She may have had a wicked bovine trauma, either real or imagined. My first goal would be to go and just watch sorting for a while.

Here's how I'd get there.

Pssst. I have a secret. Horses love to be bullies.

Even the lowest, most picked on 3-year-old in the pasture will turn into an entirely different animal when she figures out she can bully a cow.

The poor little baby has been slapped around by her mother, the other broodmares,fellow foals and so on. Her life is one of wallowing around in the pecking order that defines horsedom.

Then we come and buy her. From the day we get our horse we begin teaching her we're alpha. We work on manners, obedience and patience. Certainly not how she would choose spending her days, but it's how the world works.

All of a sudden we give the horse this amazing gift. Not only do we let her be a bully, we actively encourage it. Not only do we encourage it, but it works! The cows can be bullied! I know I am pretty strong minded about not feeding horses treats. But I give my horses cattle. So whose the best friend now? Hmmm?

Horses are often afraid of cattle. It just means you have to take smaller steps and be ready to go slow. The trick here is to figure out how to help your horse see she can control the cow.

I would take her to the arena where the sorting is going on. I would ride her as close to the cows as she would tolerate (even if it's across the road), let her move away until she is comfortable and then work her hard. Don't be mean, just work her tail off. Then get as close as I could to the cows and let her air up. Then I would do it again and again. I'd keep at it until she was so happy to stand by those cows she started mooing.

This can take a long time. Be satisfied with little steps. When you can get her calmly and happily in the arena while the sorting is going on or next to the holding pen for the cows then it's time to work a cow.

Sorting is great training for a horse. It's a lot of quiet sensible work.

But I prefer to start my horses on a single cow instead of starting in the herd. Forcing your horse in the herd will make her anxious. I want my horse walking in the herd with happy confidence, looking for her prey. She has to learn this.

By starting with a single cow my horse has a chance to learn she can direct the action.

I would be inclined to ask the folks running the sorting if you could buy some cattle time with a single cow. They'll probably not only say yes, but will help you.

I don't mind youngsters who are afraid of cattle. It happens more than you think in a cow horse. They are bred to be highly reactive. If you add this to a timid nature you can have a big spooking thing on your hands. It means the baby is aware and reactive and chances are she'll really watch her cow.

My mare Loki was so afraid of cattle as a 3-year-old she would spook and blow if she saw them in the pasture from the arena. We're talking at least 1/4 mile here.

Her first cow work was done with a single, slow, used up cow in an indoor arena. I let her just stand across from the cow staring bug-eyed with her butt mashed against the wall.

The cow eventually walked a little. Loki started to spook. I let her, but I directed her energy to move with the cow.

The cow stopped. Loki stopped. The cow moved, Loki jumped and I steered her with it. Eventually she realized she could stop the cow by jumping with it. Suddenly she was willing to step a little closer.

As she learned to control the cow her sense of power, or control or whatever it is a horse psyche needs, began to grow and she became more and more interested in the whole deal.

Loki became a very handy cow horse.

When I could work a single cow I would go back to the sorting. I would get another rider on a calm seasoned horse to walk into the herd with me.
I would walk in and out, back and forth in front of the herd and behind it.

As soon as I could take my horse in the herd alone I'd start sorting. I'd be patient and let my horse slowly figure out the game.

It took patience and time to get Loki going. It was worth it. Every horse deserves a little power trip once in a while.

So why do we like cow work so much? I can only answer for myself. The first time I saw a Reined Cow Horse go down the fence I was just blown away.

I knew I wanted to learn this amazing sport.

I thought it was the most beautiful exciting thing I'd ever seen.

I think we get caught up in it because it's so amazing to be riding a horse who is cutting a cow or turning one on the fence. If they are trained right they love it too.

I'll be honest, the phrases, "true partnership," or being "one with my horse" can usually make me shrug and think, "Whatever."

But I do get it. A good cow horse comes from good training. A good cow horse also comes from allowing my horse to think for herself. A good cowhorse comes from us trusting each other to get the job done.

Then there's the adrenalin. As I go down the fence, here's what's going on in my head...

"Get through the corner, now line up, wait, wait, drive, drive DRIVE!!!! NOW STEP BY!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! BAM!

"Whew, now line up and lets go again......."

That's why I'm hooked on cows.


  1. And off I go to watch some reined cow horse videos on YouTube, dreaming of the day I can finally get Oliver into the same arena as a bovine...

    Good post.

  2. LOL -- you have also just described why I am hooked on cross country jumping, same rush, same team effort, same thrill. Great post!

  3. Great post mugs.. Brings back memories of last year with my mare. When I bought her I knew she had lived with cattle and been pastured with them. I took her down to the arena where they had cattle in half of it. We were on the other side of the arena that is split with a fence. She walked in, and was walking the rail and the mintue she seen them cows on the other side of then she went sideways faster then I thought possible but I manged to stay one. I worked her until she would walk to the other side and them on the other side of the fence.

    Silly girl, I think she felt embarrassed when she realized that they were just cows.


  4. You so hit the nail on the head about the low horse in the pecking order wanting to dominate something! My horse is a big boy, but when it comes to the pecking order horses establish, he is always, ALWAYS, the low man, he eats last, drinks last, etc. When it comes to cows, he thinks he is the KING. He loves pushing those beast around. And he is pretty good at it. Out of ignorance, I did a bad thing early on when we were first starting to go to the cattle sortings, I would let him bite at them and sometimes I would even let him get a little taste of hair. Now I am having to re-train that behavior out of him. He will still get a little snarky with them if given the opportunity.

  5. Kel- I let my babies chew on the cattle some. I never punish them for it.
    If it gets bad I just pull their face away from the cow. When the horse realizes he is more effective controlling the cow with his body than his teeth he'll knock it off.

  6. WOW! Sounds like a rush! I totally understand that! Barrel racing will give you that rush! I would LOVE to be able to haul up to the local cutting ranch and fiddle around with their cows, just for fun. But even though they're only 20 miles north, they get a LOT more snow and ice. but it sounds like SO MUCH FUN!!

  7. mugs - I have been going to a working cow horse trainer and he doesn't like it that my horse pens his ears and chomps his teeth together when he is working a cow in the round pen. Says it is disrepectful??? It is so out of this horses character to be aggressive that it just cracks me up and I can't bring myself to get mad or punish him for it. In fact I kind of snicker to myself when he does it. I have been just checking him a little or giving him a stern verbal "hey" and he knocks if off. At this point he knows he isn't supposed to bite at them, but sometimes he just can't help himself.

  8. Wow! Sounds great...

    Can TB's cut cows? LOL!

  9. Kel- I know what you mean about that snicker when your horse gets a little chompy/snarky with the cattle. My mare, while good at moving them around and getting the job done just doesn't pay a whole ton of attention to them. It's more of a "Oh, oh my. There's a cow there, oh it's running from me? I'm going to chase it, perhaps it would like a race..." So when last Sunday during sorting she reached out and bit a cow in the butt, I was just tickled pink.

  10. Awesome, Mugs! Yeah...I don't really get the same excitement during a dressage test. The most excited I get is when we're coming in to the first salute and my pony is 100% with me. Boring compared to yours.

    My mom had a great endurance horse. Tough little guy. Did Old Dominion frequently and yet terrified of cows. It was the only thing he was scared of. Once, he spooked so hard he fell down while at a ride. My mom said she looked around and realized her feet were touching the ground. He was completely fine, not a scratch on him, but very silly. I bet your approach would have worked great for him. Too bad he's retired...

  11. OT - Just letting everyone know I posted picture of Jazzmine on my blogg so people could see her.


  12. I wish there was somewhere in the UK I could take my horse out and train on cows with him. There's one guy I know of who teaches clinics involving cow work and I'm going to try and get on one of those next year, but it's so far from being a part of british culture that it just doesn't happen- even the people riding western are really only doing Western Pleasure, Trail or Reining classes and mostly the former at that.

  13. glenatron - same here, except not even reining, just WP, halter, and trail. I've been researching a lot on reining trainers and cow horse people and there aren't a whole lot in my area...there was a grand total of three entries in the reining classes at the last AQHA show here.

    That's why I get my cow fix here!

  14. I think I was the one who originally asked what it was that was exciting about chasing cows. I think I'm a little like the horses and I also think its kinda cool to make those big ol' beasts move around just because I said too. :) I've never gotten a chance to run one down a line. Hmmm...

  15. I'm new to cows and have a green 6y/o QH. My riding experience had been English and trail riding western. Then I met and fell in love with a rancher.

    My mare was terrified of cows when I moved out to the ranch this past summer. We're talking WWIII terrified! So I turned her out for 6 weeks in a 600 acre pasture with a cow experienced horse and about 35 head of cattle. Not only did she learn to be a horse, but she got over her fear of cows.

    My mare has introduced me to the definition of "cowy." Now I have to hold her back from the cows because she gets so chargey. She has turned into the biggest bully! My mare pins her ears flat to her neck and bites the cows that won't push fast enough. No little love nips either; mouth gaping open and she's going in for the kill! I'm waiting for the devil horns to pop out when she's on the prowl. She's starting to think on her own too, which is exciting.

    It's the neatest thing to know that we've gone from her being a spastic freak that could have killed us both just a few months ago, to riding her in the midst of a group of bunched cows in the sorting pens.

    I'm very excited to see what spring calving and gathering will bring for us both! My mare and I are two greenies who are learning this cow stuff together.

  16. kel- It's just a different approach I guess. I never punish my horse while he's on a cow. I want him to hunt them.
    I puul them off, redirect their focus, stuff like that.
    Like I said, they quit biting when they learn where their feet ned to be.

  17. I have a funny sorta story. Introducing Jazz to Cows, she was wary, but as soon as she figured she could move them, she was super happy. Get her one on one with a cow, and she comes alive.. Ears pinned, neck snaking out etc just wanting to eat it up. Even made a couple of moves on her own this summer.
    Anyhoo, she is fine in the herd and we do alot of hold back to reinforce that, BUT, GOD FORBID if one cow mounts another cow, which they do quite frequently. Then the somehow transorm in her eyes into dragons! I am not sure how to get her over this yet, and was hoping the more she saw it, the more she would get used to it. Alas, so far, it has not happened. we could be quietly standing there holding herd and one dumb cow will mount another cow and next thing you know we are halfway across the arena going sideways. Sigh.. Any ideas mug on what to do?

  18. oh, one more thing!

    When I was taking a cow down the arena fence this summer (just playing) and working on turning it back, etc it was the greatest rush EVER when Jazz anticipated that cows moves and made moves on her own a few times to cut it off and turn it!

  19. badges- anticipate the issue. As soon as the cow goes up loosen your reins, take a deep breath and look.
    If she jumps, turn her around a time or two and end up facing the cow.
    If she leaves, let her, then ride down to the end of the arena and lope circles until she needs to air up.
    Then go back and quietly watch the cows again.
    Make it work to leave the cattle. She's screwing with you.

  20. My girl just learned about biting cows last week and I think it did give her a feeling of empowerment. She had been a bit fearful of them but now that she knows she can totally be the boss of them she walks into the herd with confidence.

    There definitely is something exhilarating about chasing cows. For both horse and rider!

  21. I've been learning to herd sheep with my dog and one of the things I like is the puzzle. How do I help my dog get them through the gate, off the fence, etc?

  22. My horse was afraid of HORSES the other day! he can handle the deer, cows, and rabbits. but he saw the 'wild' (ranch) horses turned out on the BLM land for the winter and he became a basket case.
    ho hum, back to the drawing board.
    : /
    - The Equestrian Vagabond

  23. Horses might be afraid of cows, or horses might bully them - I don't know. But I know that some cows are smarter than others and they like to antagonize humans! My partner broke a rib chasing a cow out of our olive grove, and I'm convinced the cow planned it!