If you cut, or do herd work in reined cow horse, or do ranch horse cutting, the nature of those classes is that you have to make moment-t0- moment decisions.
There are no pre-set patterns or courses. You hold the reins. You have to make on-the-spot choices.
This makes these classes exciting … and often frustrating.
One of these crucial decisions is when to quit a cow and go for another. Part of your decision making will depend on your ability to understand cattle.
Here are a few of the things you can weigh when you decide to stay with or quit a cow:
Is your “good” cow maximized … that is, did you get all the credit-earning work out of her yet?
Is your “mediocre” cow worth staying on?
Is the cow you cut so “bad” that the only smart thing to do is quit and get another one?
Let’s begin with a description of an ideal cow.
It faces your horse and goes back and forth for 15-30 feet at a medium clip in the middle of the arena. It has “feel” which means it stops and goes the other direction when you ride your horse to the correct position to stop her.
Our “wonder cow” never darts toward the turn back people, the herd holders, towards the back fence or towards the ends of the arena.
These behaviors in all in one cow during a cutting or herd work class are rare, but they serve as a great references for deciding when to quit.
Okay, with those ideas in mind, here are the most common cow behaviors that should be red flags that it’s time to look for a place to quit and get another cow.
This list does not discuss the multitude of situations that also affect your decision at any moment in time, (like how much time you have been working it, or how much time is left on the clock, etc).
That’s a discussion for another day. This list is meant to be a simple set of key indicators about when a cow is probably “used-up”. Her best stuff is gone … if she ever had it!
I also understand you have to work a cow until you can quit it legally.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming you will wait until a legal opportunity is available to you.
With “ideal cow” behavior understood, here are some red flags for when it’s time to quit a cow and go for another:
1.) She starts off well, but darts hard towards one of the corners. The key word here is dart. You can bet the next time she travels back in the same direction, she will try even harder to get to the corner.
She’s no good. Do your best to stop her and quit working her as soon as possible.
2.) She has no interest in your horse. She wanders from one place in the arena to another … everywhere but in the vicinity of you and your horse.
She may or may not be that “bad”, but without you being able to really affect her behavior and stop her, you won’t be able show much of what your horse can do.
3.) She is numb. She stands there and your turn back helpers are yelling and slapping their chaps. She barely moves.
4.) She is crazy! Her tail goes up and maybe over her back. She is on a mission to go anywhere at jet speed and get by any horse she can.
She might aim at the turn back horses or just run wildly around the arena.
Quit working her ASAP. If she is super wild and you keep working her, even if she’s not coming in your direction, chances are she’s going to turn on you sooner or later and mow you over!
5.) She starts off like our ideal cow, but then starts moving in any direction out of the middle of the arena.
Quit at an opportune time. She may not be that bad, but chances are you’ve gotten all of the good work out of her and she’s not coming back to center stage.
6.) She starts running from wall-to-wall.
It’s time to quit.
7.) She starts trying to get through the turn back helpers.
8.) She snorts at you!
Adios, amigos! Quit ASAP.
A great way to practice knowing when to quit is to watch cattle from the bleachers in as many classes as you can. Study how cattle behave. Pretend like you are showing.
When does her behavior change and when would be the most ideal time to quit?
Barb and I have spoken a lot about reading cattle and watching them settle, etc. However, in the reined cowhorse event, we don’t get to choose our cow. So our surveillance techniques become more general, trend seeking vs studying individual cattle traits.
I’d rather see Cowface #2 come through the gate for me as it ‘s lowered head and floppy ears make it seem a more relaxed, workable sort. Cowface #1 looks a bit too bright and feely…..but they both could be fibbing!
The difference in how we respond to their reactions to us, can be the difference in whether we make a bad cow good or a good cow bad!
Be sure to watch the cattle before your turn, for general trends in the cattle that day.
Most groups of cattle contracted for a show, are similar breed, age, condition and sex. It’s helpful to know if they’ve been out in the mountains, in which case, they haven’t been disturbed by many horses. They might be a bit more flighty, and in much better condition to run longer and harder, than ones kept in a feedlot. Feedlot cattle might be duller, having been bumping into each other all the time, and being ridden through regularly. The mountain cattle probably have a bigger bubble than their feedlot friends.
By bubble, I mean, how big the area around a cow is before they feel compelled to react to a horse’s intrusion.
A wilder cow, with a bigger bubble, will respond to a horse that’s further away, in a quicker more reactive manner. If you misread a cow’s bubble, by stepping up too quickly, and create a bad reaction (ie their head and tail come up, ears are no longer drooping and relaxed, and they squirt across the arena), don’t panic. Just take your foot off the accelerator pedal, back off a step and recalibrate. Slow everything down, and approach in a softer, slower manner. Be prepared to play defense on these kind.
Every cow is an individual with their very own personality, so it’s essential to become a “student of the cow”. A good cattleman doesn’t see a large group of black cattle that all look the same. They see many cattle with unique characteristics, and each will respond differently to a horse.
There’s a really big difference between working steers and heifers too. Steers tend to be more docile, get fat more easily, tire more quickly, and might quit you when they do tire. Heifers, on the other hand, tend to be quicker, faster and get on the prod (mad) more readily. But, I’ve seen steers that could run all day, and heifers that I could outrun on foot….so there you go!
Another character trait most cattle have, is if they get away with something once, they will try the same thing again, usually in the same place. So, if they slip by you, or beat you in a turn, be prepared for them to try it again. If they set up quick when you’re boxing (in other words, stop and change directions before you actually get in position), then be prepared for them to turn on the fence, before you actually get them headed.
So, let the open class be the test pilots. Watch them go. It might make you nervous to see how fast they go, or to think of all the things that might go wrong. But, knowledge is power. The more familiar you are with what you’ll be working, the better your game plan will be, and the calmer your nerves will become. Having a Plan A, B and C, and the ability to shift from one to another seamlessly, is a big confidence booster.
Those riders who put in the extra time and effort to study cattle for sure have a little leg up on those that don’t.
Perhaps you are an amateur or a non-pro who did not grow up around cattle … and now you still don’t have many opportunities to be around them or work them. You’re not alone.