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.

Thumbs down.

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?

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