Rating is probably the least understood and undervalued part of run content in a fence work, yet besides position and control, could be the most important. Rating is a skill that both horse and the rider can and must develop. It is crucial in steer stopping, cutting, going down the fence, boxing, as well as in our newest box/drive class.

Rating is when the horse eases into position, then adjusts his speed to match that of the cow, enabling the rider to throw his rope or squeeze him forward to stop a cow on the fence or stop him as he moves across the pen. Horses and people that can read a cow have a definite advantage over those who can’t, but it can be learned.

Cattle signal acknowledgement of the horse being in a position to control and dictate to them usually by dropping their head slightly indicating that they are getting ready to “set up” and turn. They can also roll an eye or flick an ear. If we are in good position rating along beside a cow, then increase our speed just a bit, all the while, watching the cows head, we’ll see that tiny signal just before they stop and turn. When we see them start to “set up”, if we drop down into the saddle as an additional cue to our horse, it also prepares us to stay in balance as our horse stops on his hind end to turn.

On the fence, rating starts when the horse is leaving the corner and continues until the rider is ready to circle. Good rating both up and back are crucial to receiving full credit in the rate box and important to a high scoring fence run. If a horse doesn’t rate well, it’s difficult to nail the turns and receive full credit there too. In the box/drive class, this is one of the most difficult skills to learn and has a box of its own for both directions that you go. If the cow slows down, the rider must also and not go by it in the box/drive class.  I liken it to merging from an onramp into traffic on the highway, as you ease your way into the flow of the traffic. We also need to rate our cow when circling and the same cow-signals apply so we don’t overshoot.

Rating a cow in the herd work is similar because you’re moving into position to get the cow to stop and turn without overshooting it. Same as when you move across the arena while boxing. The more you focus on their head and as you see them start to set up, drop down into your seat, the more successful you’ll be in helping your horse get to the bottom of the stop before initiating the turn. This will help you get in sync with your horse and cow and achieve a rhythm in your run that is very pleasing to watch and increases your control of the animal.

In steer stopping, the horse leaves the box and goes right to the position of control just off the steer’s left flank. He should stay there and not run up on the steer for as long as it takes until the rider throws his rope and signals the horse to stop. If the horse doesn’t rate well, the rider has to throw from the awkward position of being too far behind or up too far on the steer. Even if he successfully catches, there will be no credit for rate.

Start watching cattle and learn to recognize when they are starting to set up. Watch the rider’s body as they sink down into the saddle to encourage the stop and help them stay balanced in the turn. When the horse rates well, it will never miss a beat and thus eye appeal and position and control all go up. It’s a skill worth working on and will increase your odds of winning!

Let me know what you observe as you start watching for these things.


The Loop

The Loop

Many times when turning a cow on the fence, it manages to come off the fence. There are a few reasons why this happens.

One would be the cow jumping over the horses rear end (see the picture).

There’s no way, that this wouldn’t require a loop. There’s no penalty for this either, as working advantage was never lost.

It is a penalty (1pt), if loss of working advantage was the cause of having to loop in the first place.

What that means is there was a big space/gap between the horse and the cow. Either the turn wasn’t tight, or the horse was slow exiting, or the horse got too deep into the turn and caused it to jump out.

Whatever happened, the horse lost working advantage and so had to loop the cow.

Working advantage can also be lost during the execution of the loop. That means that somewhere in the loop, the horse got far enough away from the cow, to lose working advantage.

I’ve heard it said, that if you couldn’t rope the cow at any time during the loop, you’ve lost working advantage.

So, let’s go back to the picture.

The cow jumps over my horse’s butt.

I would have to wheel around to the right (towards the cow, otherwise I’d be turning tail and get zeroed).

Then, I’d have to shape the cow around to the right, by staying off to it’s left just a bit, or I’d risk jumping it into the fence, or turning it left and switching sides of the arena.

As soon as the cow was approaching the end wall and was committed to going right, I’d switch over and be just off the cows right hip. This would enable me to drive it along the fence until I was ready to turn it again.

If I was on the fence and turned the cow and it came off the fence at a 30* angle, I probably would not loop it, but would try to shape it back to the fence for my next turn. If it was more than 30*-40* would have to decide whether to loop or not to loop.

There’s a higher degree of difficulty and a bigger risk taken if you don’t loop it. It definitely requires more skill for the horse and rider to shape it back to the fence without looping or to execute a good open field turn.

In that split second, the rider has to choose. If you have a horse who can really do an excellent open field turn, go for it! If the angle is wider than 45*, you’d probably want to loop it around.

It’s good showmanship to get the cow shaped however works best, so your horse can get the best turn possible.

Practice all the different scenarios at home, so when you’re showing, choosing the best option becomes second nature.


The Circling Turn Part 2

The Circling Turn Part 2

By popular demand, I’ve burrowed down into the archives to get you 2 really good runs to clear up any confusion about that darned “circling turn”.

The first video shows a very difficult cow. It’s numb and pushy and doesn’t want to be on the fence. Matt open field turns both ends at a very high rate of speed and then switches sides (which is now the correct way to do it if you have executed an open field turn) before circling. That run was marked 76 and 77s. It is very evident where the second turn ended and the circling began and he exhibited perfect control of the cow as well as his horse.

The second video doesn’t have the same high degree of difficulty. The first turn is very good, however the second turn blurs into the first set of circles. Where does the turn stop and the circles begin? If he had switched sides before circling that would have been evident, as well as shown a higher degree of difficulty and exhibited how broke his horse was.

That was not a 2 point penalty then, but it is now.

Check it out and see if it’s more clear now. A picture’s worth a thousand words!


Circling Turns in a Fence Run

Circling Turns in a Fence Run

Finally, there’s clarity on the circling turn! The NRCHA 2020 rulebook now has a 2- point penalty for a horse that “fails to change sides after a circling turn, prior to the first circle”

What is a circling turn? When the horse is in the open field (20’ off the wall) and turns the cow, it is called an “open field turn”. It is very hard to execute well, because there’s no fence to help keep your horse on his butt and help keep the cow contained. If your horse gets on it’s hocks and stays close to the cow, it can be a big credit, because it’s very difficult to do, but it can be hard to differentiate between an open field and a circling turn.

An open field turn becomes a “circling turn” when the horse doesn’t use his hocks and continues right into circling it after making an open field turn. It looks more like the horse is actually circling his cow while he’s turning it. It is not a difficult maneuver to do, but it’s hard to judge. Where does the turn stop and the circle begin? They blend into each other like a run on sentence. Both maneuvers have to be judged separately, so it’s important to know when one stops and the other begins.

It’s best never to make the judge have to decide something like that. The solution is to switch sides before circling. That’s hard to do and it shows the judge where your turn stopped and the circle began. It also demonstrates a lot of control at that high rate of speed.

You might say that’s a lot of fuss about nothing, but circling turns can get the audience really excited. Those runs are fast and action packed, and many a good judge has gotten tricked into marking a circling turn run higher than it should be. Lots of spreads come on a run with a circling turn (a spread is when there’s a large spread between scores. For instance, one judge marks a 69 and another a 73, on the same run).

The solution to that is making it a 2 point penalty to make a circling turn and not change sides before circling the cow. Now, if all the judges don’t penalize the circling turn, that run will be reviewed. The judge(s) who didn’t call that penalty, have the opportunity to adjust their score.

Now, the score becomes very fair and very accurate. It takes all the guess work out and the judge knows exactly how to record it, and how much to credit or debit the run. It helps the riders and the audience know why a fast, exciting run doesn’t always score as high as they thought it should. It also adds a degree of difficulty that helps separate horses that have a fast, hard run with an open field or circling turn and exhibit exemplary skill in handling switching sides first versus a run with a circling turn that spills into their circles.


Two fence turns or 3?

Two fence turns or 3?

The quicker you get your job done with the cow in the fence work, the better chance you have of a big score. That said, many scores have gone way down, because the rider decided to go with 2 turns on the fence instead of 3.

Dun It With Chics- One of my all time favorite fence horses. He could circle so fast, I never had to worry about 3 turns, but that’s the exception not the rule!

There’s a little bit of strategy involved with making that decision. If you’re in the prelim’s and you don’t need a big score to make the finals, you might take a third turn to be sure you don’t get outrun when you circle. However, if you’re already in the finals, and you’re going for the Big Burrito, you might go with 2 turns if your horse is an excellent circler. Then, there’s always the cow coming off the fence, and going out towards the middle after your second turn. You’re just flat stuck with circling without a third turn, in that case. There might not be a worse feeling in showing, than starting to circle, only to have the cow grab another gear. It’s like being caught on the end of the whip. There’s really no repairing that. You can switch quickly to the other side well before you’ve completed your first circle, and gain a bit of ground (be sure to come back and circle the original way though), or loop it back for another turn on the fence. Either way though, you’re not fooling the judge! Just make the best of it. In general, 90% of the time, it’s better to take a third turn, so until your level of experience dictates otherwise, I’d just plan on it.


Fence Work Credit Part B – Run Content Credit and Debit

Fence Work Credit Part B – Run Content Credit and Debit

In my last fencework article, I went over boxing, rate and form and quality of your turns. In this article, I’ll continue with the run content boxes of position and control, degree of difficulty and eye appeal.

Position and Control

I think most judges would agree that this is the most important element of the fence work. We can all forgive a little loss of eye appeal, or some other minor toe stub, if you maintain excellent position and control. That means there is never any significant separation between the horse and the cow. In other words, you could rope the cow easily at any time during the run. In this high-speed event, control is crucial, so no one gets hurt. What it really means is every second, you’re dictating to the cow, where it’s going to go and where you’re going to turn it. And, you have total control of your horse, and are able to maintain position on the cow to execute this. Anytime there is “separation” from the cow (ie distance), it should be reflected negatively in this box. If it is a full-fledged “loss of working advantage”, the penalty (an “A” 1 point loss of working advantage) will go in the box above the part of the run where it occurred. Or, if it is a general lack of control, you might have a minus in the position and control box. 

Degree of Difficulty

Degree of difficulty can refer to the cow’s extreme speed, or recalcitrance. If your cow isn’t a challenging one, it’s impossible to have a stratospheric run. The general rule for a new cow is “can the rider mark at least a 70 on the beast?” But, no matter how difficult your cow is, you won’t receive any credit if you don’t get the job done. And likewise, the more difficult, and the better you do, the more credit you will receive in that box.

Eye Appeal

The “eye appeal” box is used for negative marks to take a rude horse’s score down and show why. On a really good run, it can be the box used to get it up to a great score.  Everything else being equal, the horse who goes wherever he’s pointed, with no resistance (mouth shut, head where it belongs), and handles a cow with a high degree of difficulty, will always be the winner. He will look the best, while appearing to do the least, and make it look effortless to control the most challenging bovines. He’ll give you goosebumps, and make you wish you could steal a ride on him!

Any of these boxes can be ++ or = (double plussed or double minused). If I find myself saying “OMG, how could that horse go any faster and exhibit any more control”, I might be thinking ++ on position and control or degree of difficulty. Likewise, if a horse spits the bit several times, I’m probably going to be a = the eye appeal box.


Every horse circles one way better than the other. If you have the choice, go his better way first. For maximum credit, always try to circle in the middle of the arena (ie not down by the out gate or side walls). Be sure you have enough cow left to create some degree of difficulty. And, always change sides when the cow is aimed towards the center of the pen. It’s considered a loss of working advantage if you lose it to the wall while circling. Fast circles in the middle of the arena, drawing down to a tighter circle should be credited more. This is a very important part of the run, because it’s the last thing the judge sees, so finish strong!!

Below is an example of a fantastic run by one of my all-time heroes Doug Williamson. I had the honor of being one of the judges at this event. We all marked him 77 (with full plusses in every box), but I don’t think an even higher score would have been out of line! Please enjoy watching a master craft a masterful run. 

Click Here for Doug’s video.



Fence work credits Part A – boxing, rating, quality of the turns

Fence work credits Part A – boxing, rating, quality of the turns

Let’s go over ways that the score for a fence run can go up (or down) from a 70 by getting credit in the run content boxes. In this article I’ll go over boxing, rating and quality of the turns.

Boxing – your score can go up if you step right up and challenge your cow, and maintain excellent control over it, especially if there’s some degree of difficulty. If you can keep it in the middle 3/4 of the back wall ie not going fence to fence with it, that will help too. You also need to “tee your cow up” correctly to go through the corner smoothly, because that can make or break your run.

What will reflect negatively in that box is if you dawdle and don’t get into position and start working your cow, allow it to drag you around or go from fence to fence. If there’s a high degree of difficulty, but you don’t maintain position and control, you will be below average in that box. One of my pet peeves is when the horse isn’t in the bridle and doesn’t turn when asked, or puts his head the wrong way when he does. This can be addressed in the “eye appeal” box, in the “boxing” box, or both.

Another thing that happens frequently, is the rider’s trying to go, but the horse gets a little ahead and turns the cow back. I’m referring to before you actually get lined out, so it’s not a 1 point penalty. Instead, it’s usually considered a run content issue and will be reflected in the “boxing” box.

Rating – Rating is when the horse runs down the fence with the cow in perfect position to control it (neither too fast, nor slow, neither too far behind nor ahead), and then allows the rider to inch him past it, enabling him to perfectly synchronize his turn with the cow. Many runs start off with a good rate down the wall, but not so good coming back. Either the horse or the rider gets in too much of a hurry, or in exiting the turn, position was lost. This makes it necessary to accelerate too much to catch up, and then hard to throttle back before turning the cow. All of this causes the rhythm of the run to suffer. In order to credit that box, you need to rate the cow in above-average fashion both up and back.

Form and quality of turns – If your rate is good, you have a much better chance of your turn being above average. That’s because your horse is dialed in and going a speed only slightly faster than the cow when it turns. Set up like this, he should be able to nail it and exit well. There are 3 parts to the turn. They are: entering it, the turn itself and the exit. At no time during any part of this, should there be any separation between you and the cow. When the cow and horse synchronize the turn, and there’s speed, and perfect form. It’s hard not to gasp and even harder not to put a big + in the turn box!


Boxing Pitfalls to Avoid

Boxing Pitfalls to Avoid

I really don’t like to dwell on the negative aspects of a run, that’s why I started the previous segment on boxing with the ways to improve your score. However, the score card has many more ways to lose points than to gain them, so let’s spend some time on things we can avoid, so we score better.

Marking a 70 isn’t just staying out of the penalty box, but that’s a really good start.

There is a 1 point penalty every time you lose working advantage of the cow or are out of position. That can be a miss (the cow zigs and you zag), a quick move by the cow that causes significant distance between you and the cow, or even working the cow cockeyed (technically called out of position). Meaning you’re way past it on one side, and you don’t get to the other side and get “evened up”. The bummer is, that if you lose working advantage once or twice, the one point penalties are in effect, AND your “position and control” score is going to suffer too, so it’s a double whammy.

When you lose a cow down the fence for a 3 point penalty, it’s almost always accompanied by a 1 pt loss of working advantage. How else would a cow escape down the fence, if you didn’t lose working advantage? And, to add insult to injury, if the cow gets away not only do you have those 2 penalties, but your “position and control” box suffer, and “time worked” and maybe “courage” are going down too!

The 5 point penalty of spurring or hitting in front of the cinch are always under our control. But not so, blatant disobedience. Sometimes, horses will be horses, and pull a nasty on us. In my humble opinion, if that happens, I would opt to school my horse within the limits of good horsemanship/showmanship, take my zero, and hope that doesn’t happen again.

Other ways to score below 70, aren’t always penalties, but run content. The judge considers that you are below par, in any (or all of the run content boxes). That will affect your score negatively.

I think the best strategy for beginning boxers is to stay out of the penalty box (just like reining). Then, strive to get a check in the 5 run content boxes (position/control, degree of difficulty, eye appeal, courage and time worked). In my next boxing article, I will go over how your run content in those boxes is linked together like I did with building a credit earning run previously.

When you can mark a 70 fairly consistently, then try to start to up your game. Watch the open riders box (before they go down the fence). Study the people in your class who consistently mark well. How do they approach the cow? How close do they get? How does their horse move with it? What do they do with their hands and legs? Study your videos with someone who has a trained eye. Get input from your trainer what to focus on each week, or between shows. And, most important, learn the mental skills, so that you can take more control over your mind, and put the adrenaline and self-sabotaging thoughts out of your head permanently! And so, for those last reasons, I’m not including any pictures of sub-par boxing runs!!


5 Boxing Ways to Improve Your Score

5 Boxing Ways to Improve Your Score

There are only 5 credit boxes for the Limited Cow class. They are all connected to each other. By that, I mean, that if you are crediting one box, you’re probably gaining credit in at least one other box. And likewise, if you are losing credit in 1, you’re probably in the negative in at least one other. Let me explain, by starting with what makes a really good run.

When a rider walks confidently into the arena, nods for the cow, steps right up to challenge it, and crisply moves right and left with the cow, many good things are happening! When I’m judging that class, and see a run start like that, the thoughts going through my head in those first 15 seconds are….”this is probably going to be a good run”. My “thermometer” is going up. I’m thinking that the rider is starting to show courage, utilizing their time (time worked), getting to the right spot (position and control). So already, I’m wanting to be in the positive (71 range) in at least 3 credit areas.

My next thoughts are, can they maintain these credits? Will they put more pressure on the cow, and be able to control it? If they do, the score for position and control, courage and maybe even time worked can all go up together. If the cow is challenging, then degree of difficulty goes up too. That’s how to mark above a 72.

Now, if the degree of difficulty is there (the cow is challenging), position and control are very good, the rider keeps the pressure on (courage and time worked go up) and looks good doing it (ie smooth, athletic, riders hands are quiet), then we’re getting into the 73 and above range.

When the buzzer sounds, my next question is how good was that? Exactly how difficult was the cow? What really stood out that I can give a full plus to? Usually if there’s one thing that was very good, there are other things that were too.

This is what a skillful exhibitor learns, and can use to start to increase their score.

Conversely, if the rider hangs back, doesn’t move crisply left and right, they will not only go down in courage, but probably also time worked, and position and control. If a horse isn’t moving with the intention of holding the cow (because the rider isn’t insisting on it), eye appeal will suffer too. All of the categories are headed down, and suddenly a 68- run is what’s happening.

As you gain experience showing, try to “connect the boxes”. If you’re controlling the cow by getting to it’s head and keeping it in the middle 2/3rd’s of the arena, and if your horse moves fluidly, because you’re using your feet more than your hands, and you’re advancing and keeping enough pressure on the cow to show your horse off, and you can maintain that level of performance throughout your time, you’re probably going to be at least a 72. The degree of difficulty of the cow is something you can’t control, so to have a really good run, that element has to be there too. But, my point is, and the good news is, that a lot of this is within your control! So, get with your trainer so you can work towards increasing your score in each area, because they can all go up together!!


Circling the Cow

Circling the Cow

In previous articles, I shared boxing tips, leaving the corner well, rating and turning on the fence. All that’s left now is to “circle up”.

There are some strategies for circling like all the other phases of the fence work. Let’s say you’re going down the left wall, away from the out gate, and you’re ready to circle. You can get right behind the cow, tight on the wall, so it’ll see wide open arena, and come off the wall for you.

If it does that, and turns sharply back on you (as in 170*) so it’s heading to the out gate, your best option and shortest path, is to double back and “pick the cows head up” and circle to the left first (counterclockwise). If it came of the fence at 90*, straight out towards the center of the arena, you could go either way first. If it only came 30* off, so it was still travelling away from the out gate, you’d want to get between the cow and the fence and circle right (clockwise) first, so you didn’t circle it right back into the fence.

If it doesn’t peel off the fence when you’re right behind it, jump in front of it again, turn it quick and using the ideas from above, choose the best way to circle first.

Always go at least 370* around, in position of control, before changing sides. If you go less that 360*, it will be hard to credit that set of circles, and you might have to come back and circle that way again. What I mean by that is, if you go 340*, switch sides and circle the other way, and you don’t hear the judge’s whistle, go back and do the first way again. The judge didn’t feel that you satisfied the requirement for the first set of circles. More judges these days, will just deduct a bit for that first set. They figure you chose to do that, so that’s what they’ll mark.

When circling, try to get your horse’s nose all the way up to the cow’s ear. Lot’s of horses know the drill, and they want to lean on the cow at the hip or rib, because it’s easier than getting all the way up where they belong. It’s very easy to knock one down, when trying to force the cow at its hip or rib, and that’s expensive (-3).

When you do switch sides, always be sure your cow is heading out towards the center of the arena, so you won’t lose it to the fence (-1). And then, come right up beside it, all the way to the cow’s ear and circle it the new way, until you hear the whistle. It might be hard to hear with all the screaming and clapping that’s sure to be going on as you finish up!!

Pull up, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back! You’ve just finished one of the most exhilarating things you can do horseback.

Below is a photo of my “fence mentor” Lyn Anderson in perfect circling position!