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!!



In the last boxing/fence article, I wrote about the importance of leaving the corner well and rating the cow down the fence. These two components can make or break your run. If you leave late and have to catch up, you’ll be going too fast when you turn your cow, which can cause you to be less than accurate, and your ability to control the cow will suffer. And, if you get going too quickly, you’ll turn your cow before the middle marker.

Assuming that you left well, and you have rated your cow down the fence, now it’s time to sneak past it. I emphasize the word “sneak” because you want to overtake the cow and cruise by it, going only a little faster than it’s running. This way, your horse will be focused on the cow, and able to turn right with it. He will be able to be very accurate and control the cow through the turn.

In order to credit your turns, the horse must engage its hindquarters while stopping and turning the cow. This enables the horse to maintain control both in the turn, as well as upon exiting it. If your horse doesn’t engage its hindquarters, but instead turns like a Coke bottle spins, it will feel like you’re riding a buffalo. If your horse drops its shoulder before engaging its hindquarters, it will feel like you stepped off a stair in the dark, that you didn’t know was there. Both are hard to ride and even harder to control the cow when exiting the turn.

So, as you sneak by, you’re watching the cow like a hawk. You have him in your crosshairs. Try to slow time down, and focus, so you can see the imperceptible drop of the cow’s head or the blink/roll of its eye. This is the cow “setting up”. Real cowy horses can see this, as can real cowy riders. That’s when you sit deep, think core, drawback on your reins to initiate the stop, while pulling the cow side reins a bit more. This ensures your horse gets on his hocks and goes all the way through the turn nose first. That way he won’t get hung up on the fence. You want to be very accurate, read the cow all the way through the turn, and exit right with it, in control.

Then, with it either on the fence, or requiring you to shape it back to the fence, you set up your next turn, and cruise by, never taking your eye off the cow’s head.

What if things didn’t exactly go as planned? If you made your first turn, and the cow came off the wall for any number of reasons, you might opt to make the “California Loop”. To do this, assuming you’re on the left wall, you would need to loop your cow around counterclockwise, and then head back down the fence to get your right turn. This would set you up to be on the fence most of the way down the arena, giving you a better shot at a good turn. If the cow came off the fence and you had to loop, the question is, “did you lose control/working advantage, so the cow came off the fence?” If you did, there will be a 1 point penalty. If not, then there shouldn’t be. If you opted not to do the loop, you would head back towards the out gate, and try to shape the cow back to the fence, in hopes of having it on the fence before you ran out of the arena. It is a higher degree of difficulty to do that, so if you pull it off, you should get more credit for it.

Let’s say you executed a good left and right turn, it’s safest to take a third turn before circling. This will ensure the best placement in the arena to circle and decreases the possibility of getting outrun when you start to circle.

For the next fence article, I’ll go over circling. Hope this gave you some good ideas! Below is one of NRCHA’s great non pros, Shannon McCarty!

Control Leaving the Box and Rating Down the Fence

Control Leaving the Box and Rating Down the Fence

In the last boxing/fence article, I talked about control being the most important ingredient in the cow work. I covered the purpose of boxing and preparing to start down the fence. In this article, I’ll cover the transition from boxing to starting down the fence and rate.

Correctly gauging the length of time spent boxing will affect the cow’s speed down the fence. The rider should move the cow back and forth across the end of the pen enough to make it respectful and to take some of its air out.

It’s a judgment call to know when you’ve worked it enough, so you don’t get outrun, but not so much that you decrease the degree of difficulty to the point that you won’t score well.

Most of the time, the cow will tell the rider when it’s ready to go down the fence. It will be more accepting of your control, paying attention to the horse and not moving quite as fast.

Those signs are good if you can get them, but sometimes, the rider has to realize that the situation is just not going to get any better. Maybe the cow keeps bumping into the fence getting tired and more numb, or just running back and forth. If you feel that this is as good as it gets, your only option is to just go and hope it all works out.

You can always ask a knowledgeable trainer tell you when to go, if you’re uncertain. Strategy is another factor in this decision. Is your strategy for a high degree of difficulty and a big score like for a finals run? Or are you trying to get to the finals? I would always prefer my Non Pros take a few more turns in the boxing, rather than too few.       

One of the most critical times in the run is the transition from boxing to going down the fence. Your ability to position yourself and your horse to drive the cow from the box and line it out down the fence, so you never lose working advantage, is the key to setting up a great run. It’s harder to get scored on a run that isn’t seamlessly put together. So, be sure to spend enough time on this at home.     

If you leave the short end late, you won’t be able to catch the cow in time to get it turned, or you’ll have to run so fast to catch it that you end up going by it. It can also come off the fence if you’re not in position. 

Conversely, leaving the boxing end and getting ahead too soon results in turning the cow too soon, which is a penalty.

That first burst of speed down the arena fence can be intoxicating to horses. They can anticipate and want to charge down the fence like they’re shot out of a cannon. Knowing that, I spend lots of time teaching my horses to get into the position to control the cow, and to stay there without argument until I decide to go by.

We call it rating. They learn their place on the cow from lots of repetition. Then, easing by when you ask. If they take hold and try to speed up, I’ll just stop straight, then lope after the cow again and hold the position until it’s a non-event.  This event is called REINED cow horse meaning we should be able to rein them at any time, and have them respond well.

It’s all the control in between the turns that’s the real challenge. I spend lots of time transitioning from the short end and rating with the cow down the long side. I do this over and over at home until the horse doesn’t mind being directed. That’s one of the ways to make them stay correct and disciplined.

Riding smart contributes to the longevity of the horse. How in control you are of the horse and the cow directly affects how long they’ll stay honest in the show pen, as well as your score. Taking the time at home to keep them correct and honest really pays off.”   

Then, when show time comes, if the horse is prepared and if the rider reads the cow correctly, the stage is set for a spectacular trip down the fence. 


Five Things to Remember:

  • Always watch the cow! Never take your eyes off it, especially in the fence turns. Things happen very fast
  • Sit up straight – Don’t lean. When you lean, the horse does too
  • Be sure you leave the box with the cow in the right position.
  • Maintain control of your horse and the cow at all times
  • Strive to have very little separation (ie distance) between your horse and the cow

Tip 1: Control in the Boxing Part of the Fence Work

Tip 1: Control in the Boxing Part of the Fence Work

The key to consistent success in the fence (and the boxing) part of a reined cow horse run is in attaining and maintaining control of the cow

How well you can read the cow, the situation and the better you are at getting your horse to the right place at the right time, will determine how well you will control your cow and your run.

You have to be able to interpret and respond to the cow immediately. 

A lot of times, people can see what needs to happen, but they can’t get their horse to the place where they need to be.

Taking control has to begin when the cow first enters the arena. This is also the time the rider assesses the cow, teaches it to respect the horse, and works it enough to insure just the right speed down the fence.

To take control, the rider must watch carefully and respond instantly to the cow. For example, cattle that have been in a feed lot, often have become accustomed to riders and they’re dull about responding to horses. They have a smaller “bubble”. Others that have been out in the hills, may be pretty wild and a lot more fit. Watch to see what kind of physical shape they’re in – whether they will tire quickly.  In general, these are trends, one see early in the show, but remember every cow is an individual.

The other part of the formula rests with the horse. Be sure your horse is responding to you in a way that will enhance performance, before you enter the arena. He should be soft in the bridle, moving off your legs, been adequately loped and in a mental frame to walk into the pen and go to work.

When the gate swings open and the cow enters the pen, the rider must make instantaneous assessments.

If a cow has been bouncing off the walls in the holding pen, and then comes out into the arena with its tail up over its back, pull down your stampede string, because you’re probably going to go fast. That type have a bigger “bubble”, so you won’t want to get too close. It will be harder to get that cow to honor your horse.  You’ll have to move quickly and aggressively to block it, while being somewhat defensive – staying inside the cow and ready to move your “line of scrimmage” back.  I might also make some noise to get its attention.

Sometimes cattle come out with heads pretty low, like they’re looking for a way out – nosing the fence as they go along. This type cow might try to run under a horse’s neck – it’s crafty, maybe pushy. Working that one might be a body-blocking affair.  They are generally numb cattle and less aware of you. To work them successfully, you might have to get right in their faces (head them) and make some noise. They require a more offensive plan, as they’re not easily intimidated.

The ideal draw is the cow that comes out, sees the horse and stops, acknowledging it, perhaps curious, then moves away. With this type cow, when you make a move, you get a response.  That’s the kind you want.The goal is to get the cow’s attention and respect – whatever it takes.

In NRCHA competition, there are two kinds of cow that will cause a judge to call for a replacement.  Judges will award a new cow if it won’t move enough in response to the horse, or, if it won’t honor your horse. In both cases, you must be in the correct position, and doing everything possible to work your cow, in order for the judge to award a new one.

Since the boxing sets the stage for the rest of the run, be sure your horse gets dialed into the cow – moving the way you want him to move and feeling the way you want him to feel – before you go down the fence. If your horse is leaning or dropping a shoulder or not reading your cow, not stopping on his rear, your only opportunity to fix it is before you start down the fence.

Boxing is also the time to establish authority over the cow. You should train the cow to honor the horse.  You do that by getting its attention if it’s numb, and getting it worked down if its wild. In general, your goal is to teach it to stop when you get into position whether you’re just boxing or getting ready to go down the fence.

(more next time on leaving the corner and rating the cow, stay tuned!!)​​​​​​​