Down the Fence
Those who’ve done it will tell you there’s no adrenaline rush in the world to match that of riding a cow horse wide open as he focuses solely on a fleeing cow. Watching someone work a cow down the fence at breakneck speed, hoping the cow’s ducks and dives don’t send horse and rider in different directions, generally elicits one of two thoughts from the crowd on hand: 1. “Not in a million years,” or 2. “Wow, that was pretty cool. Sign me up.”
For those inclined toward the second response, the National Reined Cow Horse Association and other organizations sanctioning working-cow-horse events want you.
There’s no doubt some intestinal fortitude is required for those preparing to make the run down a long arena wall, but longtime participants say there’s nothing like trying to sit the saddle as an athletic cow horse does his job.
The horses aren’t cheap, equipment regulations are very specific, and the learning curve is huge for those looking to make the leap into one of the horse world’s most exciting events. But for reiners looking for a little more action, or cutters looking to build on their horsemanship skills, the reined-cow-horse world is a logical next step, says NRCHA President Lyn Anderson.
“I get a lot of team penners here in California, as well,” she says. “But anyone looking to improve their horsemanship skills can benefit from this event.”
Anderson joins recent reining convert Jennifer Leiker and longtime trainer and horse breeder Walter Wright in offering some insight on the sport to would-be contestants.
First Things First
Long before you decide to take up reined-cow-horse competition, you should know what’s involved. All associations offer a variety of classes that require a reining pattern and some cow work. Novice classes usually require a contestant to only box a cow, not work him down the fence. Some events add herd work, or cutting, to the dry work (reining) and fence work.
Going to a local show will help you establish contacts with contestants and trainers in your area. NRCHA local affiliates or other local associations are the best place to start. Take in an event, figure out what’s required in the novice or non-pro divisions, and then get to work.
“You’ve got to start with an established trainer who’s shown horses and knows what’s involved,” says Wright.
His son, Justin, is a second-generation working-cow-horse competitor who now starts and trains all the family’s horses.
Leiker benefited from an existing relationship with NRCHA members Jim and Jill Cook of Erie, Colorado. The pair routinely brought working cow horses to her for reining tune-ups when she was still training reiners from her home in nearby Lafayette, Colorado. Leiker eventually grew tired of “just loping circles,” and left the training world for a career in Web site design. And that left plenty of time to enjoy her new hobby at the Cooks’ arena.
“It really freshened up my horses, and me, as well,” Leiker recalls of her decision to take up reined-cow-horse competition nearly three years ago. “When I stopped training reiners, I just knew this was what I wanted to do. But there’s no way I would have done it without Jim and Jill’s help.”
When Leiker first started, Jim predicted she’d need at least two years to learn and understand the intricacies of the sport.
“Just learning to read cattle—if you haven’t done that in the past—is a big thing,” Leiker says. “Reining is my strength, but even the way it’s done in the cow-horse world is different. It’s a very different style, with very different ground conditions.”
Leiker points out that even experienced horse trainers understand the importance of seeking experts when outside their comfort zone. Beginners in any event, should follow their lead and work with a seasoned trainer to get started on the right foot. Expert trainers can make the first few weeks in a new discipline both safe and fun.
But don’t expect miracles.
“I had a guy come to me at 50 years old,” Anderson recalls. “He thought he needed to learn fast so he could get out there and compete. But it doesn’t work that way. He wanted a timeframe and I couldn’t give him one. Some people learn quickly and are very athletic, while others take a little longer. It takes time for a trainer to figure out which one you’re going to be.”
There are no set-in-stone rules about a horse’s size or conformation when it comes to choosing the right working cow horse.
“A horse has to have a certain amount of innate athletic ability,” Anderson says. “But I’ve had a variety of horses from all different backgrounds who’ve been successful through the years. It helps to have a big, free-moving horse that can use himself. Sometimes those free-moving horses don’t know how to use themselves to get down on that hind end and push hard.
“But I’ve had such a variety of horses work in this event, I couldn’t really pick a prototype.”
Coming from the reining world, Leiker quickly learned that she’d look for horses with some drastically different skills from those she trained in the past.
“Unlike in reining, you don’t want a horse that skates along the top of the dirt,” she says. “Working cow horses have to get into the ground and hold the ground in much heavier dirt. There’s a little more contact involved, and I was sacrificing the length of the stop for that deep, cow-horse stop. For a reiner, it’s a whole different deal.”
Leiker cautions that riders coming from events not involving cattle, such as reining or Western pleasure, will also have to adjust to a “cowy” horse.
“These horses pay attention to everything going on around them,” she says. “Cow horses are really external, a lot more alert, and that affects how you ride.”
Good bridle horses are often hard to come by because of the time it takes for even a talented trainer to produce them. Leiker recalls a conversation with California trainer Benny Guitron, who said he can’t produce bridle horses fast enough to keep up with the demand from non-pros getting their start in the event.
“They are going to cost you some money,” Leiker says. “For a good bridle horse you should expect to pay anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000. And that figure goes up every year as interest in the sport grows.”
There are benefits, however.
“The usability expectancy for a cow horse seems to be a lot greater than that of the average reining horse,” Leiker says. “I’ve seen 19- and 20-year-old cow horses that are still great horses. They stay fresher from the cross training of reining, fence work and herd work. And because they’re doing different things, they don’t seem to get some of the repetitive-motion injuries that afflict horses in other events.”
Anderson, herself a longtime trainer and competitor, contends that looking for an experienced horse is still “the cheaper way to go sometimes.”
“Because you’re working at speed, you really need a horse trained for the event,” she says. “The horse needs to be fully broke because you’re going to be running next to a cow at 30 miles an hour, and that cow is liable to do something unexpected. You’ve got to have a horse that can react, and for beginners, keep you out of trouble.
“Often, the better the horse you get up front, the cheaper the event will be in the long run. You’ll require less training time and probably avoid some costly medical bills along the way.”
Anderson also has some strong views on matching horse and rider. A timid rider needs an aggressive horse, she says, while an aggressive rider, such as many of the team penners she works with, need a laid-back horse.
“You really need to be honest with yourself about where you fall in this area,” she says, “and choose an appropriate horse.”
Generally, any Western saddle is acceptable in competition. But there are some things to consider when selecting your tack.
“Sometimes, people will get on a saddle that doesn’t have any swell on it, or anything to help them,” Wright says. “Some saddles won’t have any cantle to speak of, so I know they’ll be going out the back end of that thing before long.”
Anderson says going down the fence requires a saddle the rider can “move around in.” She leans toward a larger saddle that’s easier to get “back into” for those times when she might briefly lift out of the saddle.
“And a breast collar is a must,” she says. “It’s saved my life a few times. And if you compete in the bridle division, you’ll need romal reins because we don’t allow split reins,” she continues. “You need to talk to folks in the association you’re going to compete in, and figure out their equipment requirements. Everybody’s a little different.”
For example, NRCHA requires riders to wear chaps, while the American Quarter Horse Association doesn’t.
“If you have a question about equipment, just ask,” Anderson says. “We’ve got some great people involved in this sport, and they’re willing to help.”
Long before you head for the trainer’s arena and get horseback, there are other ways to acquire knowledge about the sport. Leiker volunteered at a number of area competitions, allowing her to get a better handle on the sport’s detailed rules.
“Even if you don’t have a horse, they always need volunteers at the shows,” she says. “I volunteered as a scribe for the judges. That will teach you a lot about what a judge looks for during runs. I found them pretty accommodating during breaks if I had a question about a score. It’s a quick way to learn about what goes through a judge’s mind as he watches a run.”
Leiker also attended an NRCHA judging clinic; a number are hosted across the United States each year. She took the course, opting out of actually testing for her judging card.
“Learning what judges like and don’t like by trial and error is a tough way to go,” she says. “Going to a judging clinic is a great way to develop knowledge about the sport before you find yourself in the arena.”
As a reiner turned reined-cow-horse competitor, Leiker was amazed to find relatively small non-pro classes and large open classes at NRCHA events. She’d found just the opposite to be true in the reining world.
“Because of that, the people who are there are welcoming to that next generation of contestants,” Leiker says. “The two biggest hurdles are the access to cattle and the time it takes for an occasional rider to put everything together.”
The size of a competitor’s learning curve depends on his or her background, but Anderson says rating cattle is consistently the biggest issue she faces with her students.
“Starting out, people are usually 20 feet behind the cow,” she explains. “Then, as they get more confident, they get too close. I have to help them find that happy medium between the two. Almost all of my students go through that progression.”
As for her students’ attitude going down the fence, Anderson says she would prefer to work with those who are too timid.
“I don’t mind beginners being a little timid going down the fence,” Anderson says. “The aggressive ones scare me and will usually get themselves hurt. I’d prefer that beginners take it slow, learn the basics and know where they should be before they start going 90 to nothing.”
“Almost everybody lets the crowd bother them more than they should at the show arena,” Anderson says. “I tell my students that if they’re having a bad run, nobody’s watching them. Spectators have all been there and done that, so if a run goes bad, they stop watching and just talk to their friends or head for the concession stand. The only reason anyone else will remember your bad run is if you do something dangerous and something spectacular happens.”
Anderson says she can tell beginning competitors are making progress when they start to remember what happens in the show arena. The ability to break down and analyze a run after it’s happened means the competitor has reached a certain comfort level.
“That’s when I know they’ve started really thinking out there,” Anderson says.
Having made the switch to working cow horse events in recent years, Leiker offers one final piece of advice.
“Just do it,” she says. “It’s the biggest rush. It’s the pinnacle of performance and a great feeling to know you can ride a cow horse well. There’s a high learning curve, but the payoff is worth it in the end.”
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. To learn more about reined-cow-horse competition, visit nrcha.com or downthefence.com.