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Making A Cow Horse Turn
Making a Cow Horse Turn Photo by K Higgins

Working and handling cattle with your horse is exciting, fun and challenging. With Richard Winters

Many riders enjoy cutting, reined cow horses, sorting, penning or simply working cattle out on the ranch. Regardless of the particular activity, your horse needs to make a particular cow horse move when turning with the cow in order to be effective. Let's talk about the particular elements of the cow horse turn that you and your equine partner need to know.

1. You've got to stop before you turn.
Backing up parallel to the fence

One of the most common mistakes that a novice horse and rider make is not stopping before they turn. If you are moving across the pen parallel to the cow and suddenly the cow switches directions, your horse must first stop before doing anything else. If you fail to stop, your horse will make a big swinging turn with his whole body like a motorboat out on the lake. Your horse will not be using his hind end and will no doubt be late when coming back to the cow. At this point, the rider is actually pointed towards the cows’ rear end and is driving the cow farther away rather than being in the proper position to hold and stop the cow.

This is why it is important to create scenarios for a green horse that will give him time to think through the process and position his body correctly. It's been my experience that Saturday morning at the local team penning is not the ideal place to teach this maneuver! Trainers who want to teach their horses correctly spend a lot of time in a square or round pan with a single cow where they can take a lot of time and not over pressurize the situation. A mechanical cow or "flag" is also ideal to teach your horse the footwork, cadence and muscle memory necessary for a proper cow horse turn. Without the variable of an unpredictable cow this can really support your horse and accelerate the learning process.

2. Draw back.
Initiate the turn with direct rein, neck rein and outside leg.

To properly teach a cow horse turn, a horse needs to "load up" on his hind end before the turn. This is accomplished by backing the horse up a few steps before initiating the turn. This is similar to compressing a steel spring so that it can then expand and release its energy when released. When you back your horse properly, you're compressing his body and putting energy on his hind end. He is then in a position to push off when executing the turn.

By drawing back before you turn will help your horse get off his front end. This is also a good opportunity to make sure that he is soft in his face and is not pulling on you during the stop. As your horse progresses you will not necessarily back up every time you stop with the cow. However through much repetition, your horse will have the muscle memory to rock back on his hind end and turn in one fluid movement.

3. Cue sequence.
I am mirroring my riding partner in a right hand turn.

After you have stopped and backed up, it is time to turn with the cow. I cue for the turn in a particular sequence. First I give my horse a direct rein. Then I use my outside rein as a support along his neck. Immediately following, I use my outside leg. Direct rein, neck rein and outside leg, in that order. If I am turning to the left, I want to be sure I can see the corner of my horse’s left eye. Coming in with too much neck rein too soon could cause my horse to tip his nose away from the turn. Then my horse would not have the proper body posture to come through himself and make a good turn. I also want to make sure I have my inside leg away from my horse so I am not blocking the direction that I want to go.

Here are two ways that you can practice the elements of a cow horse turn on any horse. Even without the availability of cattle.

1. Walk your horse down a fence line and then ask your horse to stop and back up. Make sure that your horse is soft in the face and backing up readily. Then open up your direction rein and ask your horse to turn toward the fence and walk off the other way. Remember, the cue is still direct rein, neck rein and outside leg. The fence will actually help your horse stay back on his hindquarters as he comes through the turn. As you and your horse become more competent and comfortable with this exercise, you can pick up the pace and do it at the trot as well.

2. You and a friend can also practice together on horseback. Walk parallel to each other down through the arena. You should be stirrup -to-stirrup and about ten feet apart. You want to be a mirror image of each other. Simultaneously stop your horse and back up. Remember to always work on the quality of the stop and back up. You want to keep your horse straight and soft. Now execute a turn toward each other and walk off the other way. You are now again parallel to each other again and traveling in the opposite direction. This particular exercise also gives your horse a frame of reference similar to a cow. Your horse is not only following your direction but is beginning to read the other horse and responding accordingly. You can also increase the speed of this exercise, as you and your horse get more comfortable. However, remember; slow and right always beats fast and wrong!

There's no substitute for spending time with your horse on cattle. However, the preceding exercises will better prepare you and your horse for the time when you step into the pen with a live cow.
Richard Winters Horsemanship WintersRanch.com

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