Ten Tips For Starting Out in Herdwork

Ten Tips For Starting Out in Herdwork

This month, I thought it would be fun for you to help me respond to the following note I received:

“Hi, Mrs. Schulte! I have just now started to ride cutting horses ……. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone like myself who is just now starting to cut. Thanks!” ~ Liz C

This note gave me pause to reflect on one of my biggest beliefs.

No matter if you are just starting out, or if you have been cutting for a long time … it’s always about the basics.

I thought a list of basics could serve Liz well, AND be a source of reminders to all of us about making sure OUR OWN fundamentals stay sound.

I think it would be beneficial to Liz, and to all all of us, for you to comment at the bottom of this article with any advice you have for Liz starting out. Please feel free to comment on my suggestions as well. Your comments will be posted under this article on our website.

Here are my Top Ten Tips for new cutters and when you’re learning herdwork:

1. Find a horse that suits your needs.

2. Find a trainer/mentor you can trust and who can teach you well. Never underestimate the importance of being a good match with that person personality wise. Just because a trainer is supposed to be “the one” per another person’s opinion, you have to feel comfortable in the relationship.

3. Learn the rules via the NCHA Judges’ Rules and Guidelines.

4. Learn to be very proficient at cutting for shape. You will use this fundamental skill for the rest of your cutting life no matter how skilled you become at cutting specific cattle. 

5. Seek to become a better horseman or woman. Keep learning basic horsemanship skills. Become a student of the horse and cutting through any and every educational resource you can lay your hands on … free, borrowed and purchased. Take what works. Leave the rest. 

6. Understand where you are supposed to be on a cow. You can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going. Learn correct positioning on a cow and how to achieve that on your horse. 

7. Understand and then seek the rhythm of the … stop, draw, “drag” through the turn, acceleration to stop … cow sequence.

8. Cultivate mental and emotional skills as diligently as you cultivate technical cutting skills.

9. HAVE FUN. It’s a challenging sport no matter if you are just starting out of if you have been cutting for a long time. Never lose sight of the fact it is just a sport and you are in it to have fun.

10. As long as you love it, NEVER GIVE UP. Blue skies are just around the corner.


Go ahead and agree or disagree with what I just said.

What are your greatest pearls of wisdom?

Your advice could really click for someone just starting out. It could help them avoid some of the pitfalls you endured along your way.

Describing Cattle, Part 1: Faces

Describing Cattle, Part 1: Faces

Herd work in cutting, reined cow horse, ranch cutting, etc., always involves describing cattle. 

There you are, walking your horse up through the cattle. You see cattle moving all around you. You’re trying to make sense of it all in the heat of the moment. Of course, you want to make the best decision possible. 

Often times your helpers are talking to you about which cow to cut “if it works out” and which cow to avoid. 

And then, when you combine your excited state of wanting to do the right thing (and not being sure) with listening to your helpers speak in what sounds like a foreign language, things can get a little hairy. 

This is the first in a series of articles about describing cattle. My intention is to provide you with ways to decipher the lingo of your herd help. 

In this article, I start by describing a cow’s head using these possible parameters: color, head shape, poll, ears, eyes, and distinguishing characteristics. I’m going to walk you through three different cow face examples. I’ll use whichever of our parameters most apply (as would your helpers). 

Please know, too, that the language of cattle description is far from universal. Each helper describes cattle in their own way. Typically, however, most helpers begin by noting the breed and/or color of the cow they’re describing.

“Black baldy” … the face is all white except for the black marking under the left eye (as contrasted to multiple colors at other parts of the face, which is called “mott” or “brockle face”).

Half white/half black … half and half “fluffy swirl” 

“Small-eared” … white in the ears (highlights) … turquoise ear tag with #1

Black “teardrop” (as contrasted to “rings” that encircle the entire eye) … white eyelashes … rub mark above and under the right eye

“Black mott” … medium star (referring to the size of a white shape in the forehead) or maybe heart head … also, “brown beard”

Head shape:
Small, “baby faced”

“Airplane ears” (extend to the side) … yellow #30 tag in the left ear 

Distinguishing Characteristics:


Head shape: 
Classic Limousin breed head shape … wide forehead … box-like


Rounded with “bangs”




Light around the eyes (if you had a group of all Limousins, the rather obscure pink skin “rectangle” under the left eye might be noted to distinguish him from the others)

Distinguishing Characteristics: 

Huge cow-lick/swirl in the middle of the forehead … light nose

Final Thoughts:

Describing cattle takes practice, and again, it’s not a perfect science.

I suggest that you get an order to the sequence as you describe their characteristics as noted above (breed and color first, for example) and go from there. 

Have fun with this! Gather a group of friends. During the open class, for example, begin to describe cattle physically as they are being settled. Make it a learning game. 

Then, if you can hear the herd helpers in the bleachers as the open riders show, listen to their descriptions, too. The more you observe and practice, the more comfortable you will become.

A Little Secret

A Little Secret

It is widely known that visualization is a key mental skills tool. That’s because we tend to get what we think about. 

I bet you’ve heard this a lot. 

However, sometimes riders tell me they feel frustrated, “I’m so disappointed. My rides don’t turn out the way I see them in my mind. What’s the point? Now, what?” 

Perhaps you don’t know a secret about visualizing. 

Let me explain. 

The role of visualization is not to ensure that everything turns out exactly as you imagine it (although it might!). 

The role of consistently seeing and feeling the good that we so desire in our riding is to provide a consistent exercise for moving toward our dreams. 

No one can control outcomes. And no one can control the exact road they will travel in pursuit of skills and excellence. 

So here’s the secret. The role of visualization is not to control outcomes. It’s to give you a disciplined and consistent routine during which you see and believe in possibilities. 

Consistently seeing awesomeness with your horse in your mind is your job. 

The job of life (or God, or the Universe) is to determine how that unfolds. 

Your job is to keep feeling it and seeing what you love about riding … and know that what you so love will come to pass in some form. 

Your job is also to take action. Go to a trainer, or study, etc. BUT, you don’t have to figure out EXACTLY how it will all unfold. 

Will the results be the exact expression of what you dream about/see inyour mind? 

Maybe … but probably not. 

Who knows? They might be better! 

People and opportunities might come out of the woodwork when you least expect it to take you to great outcomes beyond what you can imagine. 

So, keep visualizing. Trust the process. 

Give gratitude for all you do have now. 

Turn over the need to figure out and control exactly how it will all happen. Those things are not your job. 

Your job is to believe and love your own unique adventure with your horse … frustrations and all … and take the actions that ring true to you. 

Be patient. Great things are coming … and … when you look around, so many are already here.

How to Coordinate Your Hand and Feet on the Cut

How to Coordinate Your Hand and Feet on the Cut

There are three main things going on as you’re walking through the herd to make a cut. The first is effective communication with your horse. The second is reading an ever-changing situation. The third is making good decisions moment-to-moment.

That’s a lot to manage all at one time! 

This article is about how to use your feet to communicate with your horse on the cut (as opposed to the natural tendency to go to your hand almost exclusively.) The truth is, good communication with your horse on the cut is about seamlessly integrating your hand with your and feet. 

Here are 5 guidelines to help you coordinate your hand and your feet on the cut.

1. Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going. 

When we’re not sure exactly what to do next, it’s easy to get flustered, look down and start moving our hand erratically. 

No matter what, keep your eyes up with a wide vision. Then as you develop the feel of moving your horse with your feet, you will guide him more accurately because your eyes are always focused on where you want to go. 

I’m not sure why this is such a powerful concept, but it is. Controlling your eyes is instrumental in using your feet and hand appropriately. 

2. Know that when you have light contact with the horse’s mouth, he will respond. 

You want to know that at any moment your horse will “listen” to you when you pick him up to direct him or guide him. Ideally, when you pick your hand up, he is light, pauses and waits for you to give him his next direction with your feet. 

3. Point your hand. 

Point your hand on the mid-line of his neck in the direction you want to go. Additional communications as in lateral movement, forward movement, and acceleration come from your feet. 

4. Add your feet purposefully after you point your hand.

  • To add speed to continue on in the same direction, use both feet simultaneously.

  • To shape a horse’s body part, use one foot. For example, a light foot pressed against a horse’s rib cage will typically cause him to turn his nose in that direction.

  • To hold a horse steady, apply consistent pressure with one foot to keep a horse from “wiggling” back and forth. For example, if he wants to move his hind quarters to the right, just move your right foot back and towards his hindquarters and hold it there until he stops moving. Then release your foot.

  • Both feet may be used in sequence or simultaneously for different functions like shaping a horse’s body in the direction of the turn prior to a pivot, but then use the opposite foot to move the horse through the turn.

5. Coordinate your hand and feet when a cow jets quickly across the arena. 

When you get a fast cow on the cut, the movements are the same as described above, but they are happening at mach speed. In general, use your hand to point in the direction you want to go and “keep your horse with you.” However, it’s your feet that shape a horse’s body, move him laterally or across the arena and then up into a cow. 

It takes patience to develop these complex skills. With time they will become more natural.

7 Steps for Making Good Decisions in the Herd

7 Steps for Making Good Decisions in the Herd

It’s easy to wait to hear your name called and then rely on your trainer for a cow plan as you walk to the herd.

However, I believe this is the slow road to becoming skilled in the herd.

There is so much you can do to set yourself up for herdwork success … as you collaborate well with your trainer or #1 helper.

Here are 7 steps to help you make the best possible decisions in the herd:

1. Have a plan for your herdwork. Will you cut shape, specific cattle, or both?

Be proactive in planning details. Will you watch cattle? Who will keep your horse warm? When will you get on your horse? If you cut shape, where will your eyes be?

Then there’s the universal plan for all cutters: cut your cow way up and in the middle of the arena.

2. During your warm up and/or as you practice watching cattle in previous classes, mentally rehearse scanning the cattle as you walk through the herd. This mental rehearsal will prepare you to see situations as they change as well as respond to them moment to moment during your show run.

The ability to scan the cattle by moving your head and observing the big picture of what is going on in the herd, as well as seeing the cow you want to cut, is one of the most important skills for making good decisions in the herd.

3. Set up a communication system with your helpers for the cutsprior to your run.

Who is your main person? Visit with them about things they say during your cuts that really help you. By initiating a conversation about what confuses you and what helps you prior to your run, you will set yourself up for success during your cuts because everyone will be on the same page.

4. Get into a calm and focused state of mind before you walk to the herd.

Review your herdwork plan. Focus on what you will do. Feel grounded and patient … yet authoritative. Put your chin up and shoulders back. Keep your eyes on the herd. Breathe.

5. On each cow, enter the herd with purpose. Know where you are going and why you are moving in a specific direction before you enter the herd on each cut.

Remember to pause, breathe and take time to do regroup and re-focus before your 2nd and 3rd cuts. It’s easy to feel mentally sped up after working a cow.

Always enter the herd with purpose. Resist the tendency to just start walking and then decide what to do.

6. Walk through the herd with patience and purpose as you continually scan the cattle to evaluate how the situation is shaping up moment by moment.

Scanning allows you to see and take advantage of opportunities to drive your cow way out, up and to the middle of the arena. Scanning is the master skill of making good decisions.

7. Get re-grounded between cattle.

Have a routine between cattle. Quit with smooth hand motions. Turn your horse slowly. Pause. Breathe. Decide what your next move will be. And only then, continue on.