Cow work can help improve your barrel horse’s responses to your cues and encourage versatility. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Incorporate cow work into exercises like this circle drill to sharpen your barrel horse’s responses.

By Cheyenne Wimberley with Abigail Boatwright

Barrel racing can be a hard sport for tuning up your horse. Everything is stationary—your horse is running around three stationary barrels, and when horses start anticipating your cues, sometimes just putting a moving object in front of them to move around pacifies the mind.

I put a lot of my horses—barrel and rope horses—on a cow, because it’s a distraction. I work them on a lot of techniques while they’re working with the cow, and you don’t get into a tug-of-war match.

If your horse is hot, chargey or pushing on the bit, you can put them on a steer and their demeanor changes. You’ll find that you won’t have to pull on the horse as much, because he’s focused on the cow.

Most of the horses I ride are probably going to go on to some type of rodeo career. If I get the horse on a cow and get them used to having a rope swung around them and season them at some rodeos, I’ll be a little further ahead than if you take these horses to a rodeo without that experience. No matter what, at any rodeo, some team roper is going to be swinging his rope near you, and the bulls are probably going to be near you when you run down the alleyway.

If your horse is getting irritated with you asking him to do something over and over, try putting it on a cow—it helps a lot. It just takes the horse’s mind off what you have been trying to drill into it. With this drill, it’s not really a drill. It becomes fun for the horse. The same goes for a horse that is dull and tired of the barrels. It’s like going on a field trip.

All my horses get patterned, and I believe in repetition. But I ride all my horses in the pasture, I warm up in the pasture and I work cattle on all my horses. I don’t just go from barn to arena to pattern, back to the barn. I like a versatile horse. It helps them in the long run, because they’re a lot more broke.

Preparing to Work

You might think you don’t have the space for cattle, but you really only need one, and they’re not very expensive to maintain. You can have a couple if you’ve got more than one horse to work. I have a couple of track steers I use, and they’re pretty patterned. They know to go in their circles, and the biggest thing is they’re not too fast. They’re a bit older than the cattle you’d use in working cow horse or roping, and they have a bit more endurance. Of course they won’t last all day, but they’ll last long enough to do a couple drills on a horse.

girl tracking steer on horse
Start by tracking the steer around the arena. This is a good way to warm your horse up. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

You’ll run into problems if you choose a cow that’s too fast. You want a cow that’s already been roped—a secondhand cow. The whole object is to work on drills and specific techniques at a controlled speed.

When I work cattle, I don’t have a specific bit in mind. I use what works best on my horse. If my horse is heavy on the bit, I may start out with a stronger bit and switch to a lighter one as my horse tunes in to the cow. If I’m using a snaffle or a lighter bit, I can usually stick with it during my practice. You’re actually working the horse more than they think—you’re working their mouth constantly as you’re guiding the cow. It’s not a trail ride, tracking a steer on a loose rein.

For a 3-year-old I’ve already patterned on the barrels, I’ll work a cow probably once or twice a week, sometimes carrying a rope and swinging it around—but not actually roping—and sometimes without a rope.

turning cow to the fence on a horse
Don’t worry about mastering working cow horse turns. Focus on getting your horse to respond to your cues as if you were asking it to turn around a barrel, and the cow will react with a turn. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

The Drill

The goal of the drill is to work on whatever problem I want to address on the horse—but in a setting that places the cow in front of the horse. This includes picking up the horse’s shoulder, turning the horse on its hocks, and for the drill I’m going to explain, rounding out its circles.

You can do all kinds of drills with a cow, but the one I think is the most helpful is a perfect circle around the cow. Of course, you’ll need to start with just tracking the steer around the arena and working to turn the cow on the fence. But then you can move on to circling.

You’re not doing working cow horse here. You don’t need to rush up past the cow’s head to turn it on the fence, and you’re not looking to score points circling up. You are simply working your horse’s responses to your cues as you would going around a barrel—but the barrel is a cow.

You can work on picking your horse’s shoulder up while you’re working the cow on the fence. Instead of focusing on the turn like working cow horse, I will follow the cow down the fence, and when we’re ready to have the cow change directions, I’ll pick the horse’s shoulder up, move it over, and then move past the cow and allow the cow to turn. But take caution to keep the speed slow—you don’t want to run the cow down the fence.

circling a cow on a horse
Push the cow off the fence and allow it to slow to a stop, then move around the cow as if it were a barrel, working on picking up your horse’s shoulders. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Once your horse is warmed up and you’ve tracked the cow around at a trot and slow lope, turning each way on the fence, point the cow toward the middle of the arena. You’ll do this by positioning your horse near the cow’s hip on the side opposite the way you want the cow to go.

Once the steer is away from the fence, pick up your horse’s shoulder and step away from the steer so you take pressure off him to move. Allow the cow to slow to a stop. You want the steer to stay in the middle of your circle, and you’ll walk, trot and lope a circle around it like it was a barrel.

When you want to switch directions, bring the steer to a stop by taking pressure off him, and then go to the other side of the cow and circle that way. It’s like having a live animal as the barrel, so the horse is constantly watching the cow. You can work on barrel pattern techniques while it’s watching the steer.

horse tracking cow across the arena
Once you’ve circled one way a couple times, take the pressure off the cow to allow it to slow down, and switch to the opposite side for circles the other direction. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Pick the horse’s shoulder up and move the horse away from the cow, then let it go back. If your horse has any cow sense at all, it’ll want to go toward the cow naturally. You’ll work your horse on a perfect circle around the cow, correcting dropped shoulders by bringing your inside rein up against its neck and your inside leg nudging the cinch. You’ll also press with your outside leg further back to keep the horse’s hip engaged in the circle. Keep encouraging your horse to move laterally away from the cow to pick up its shoulder, keeping the hip in alignment.

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.

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