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HorseShowCentral > Riding Styles & Disciplines > Cow Horse

Cow Horse - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Cow horse and rider working calves. Cow Horse Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

A cow horse is one that is mostly used to work cattle with. The term can imply both that a horse is used for working and herding cattle, but also that it is bred for that purpose, or is very good at cow work.

Another term is ranch horse, and most ranch horses do indeed do cow work. However, on all ranches there are those that stand out in their ability to work cows, and are therefore referred to as cow horses, in contrast to general ranch horses. Here the term again is used as a title, to express special abilities.


The world’s greatest cow horse was developed over the last 100 years or so on America’s cattle ranches: the Quarter Horse. It had its origins in the Spanish cow pony, a descendant of the horses brought over by the Spaniards, and the short distance running horse that was developed in colonial America, which moved west when long-distance races became popular in the East. This short distance racing horse, or quarter mile running horse, was also created with the help of Spanish blood which had found its way up there through various Indian tribes, in particular the Chickasaw. Today’s amazingly able cow horse resulted from the nick of these two, plus selective breeding for cow sense.

The only other horse breed possessing this cow sense would be the Camargue pony of southern France, which certainly has proven its worth in working fighting bulls and cows, but never reached the specialization of the American Quarter Horse and its derivatives, the American Paint Horse, and, to a degree, the Appaloosa.

Today’s competitions for cow horses are completely dominated by Quarter Horses, and all major open breed events have been won almost exclusively by either Quarter Horses or Paint Horses.

The governing bodies are the National Reined Cow Horse Association and the National Cutting Horse Association, and all their contests are all-breed shows, so the Quarter Horse’s dominance is a fact, and no advertisement claim. That Paint Horses traditionally do well in those competitions only underlines this fact, because they are nothing but Quarter Horses with excessive white. There seems to be a special dose of cow sense in those Paint Horse lines, because they win proportionally more than the ration by which they are outnumbered by Quarter Horses. In any case, no other horse in the world can hold a candle to the Quarter Horse in such competition.


During round-ups on ranches, cattle were gathered and held in one place, then mustered for specific reasons: all yearling heifers may be cut out to be branded; all yearling bulls may be cut out, branded and castrated; all beef cattle may be cut to be send to market. The cutter would enter the herd and bring out cut out the animals that met the requirements.

Once he had brought out an animal, it was driven to the cut by other riders, that is, to the group, or herd, that was going to be branded. The better a cow horse the cutter had, the easier the work was for him. The other riders horses also should have enough cow sense to make work easier, but only the best cow pony was allowed to do the actual cutting. It takes a special horse to do this job well, a quiet one, an observant one, and one of great athletic ability.

Only who has worked cows himself or herself knows how fast and tricky a cow brute can be, and can appreciate the extraordinary abilities of a good cutting horse. In the sport of competitive cutting today, the qualities of the horse to work a cow are still put to the test, and honed to perfection.


The reined horse evolved in California. In contrast to the cutting horse, which is a self worker, the reined cow horse works according to the aids of his rider, but the best do so with very subtle aids. The rider gets the job done with such subtle aids because of the inherent cow sense of his horse, which anticipates what needs to be done and is all too willing to execute.

This type of horse was at one time in history the greatest stock horse and reined horse anywhere, and the envy of cowboys outside of California. The reined cow horse, for competitive performances, was taken in a different path than his counterpart to the east, according to their different traditions. They were at first shown in competition classes provided through the governing body of the American Horse Show Association, at so-called stock horse contests.

Over time, an association was formed in California just for this one discipline with the goal of promoting this horse and this discipline and these classes. Then later, with the intention of forming a nation-wide organization, the name was changed to reflect this goal, and what began in California became the NRCHA, the National Reined Cow Horse Association. In the various breed associations such as the American Quarter Horse Association, the discipline is called working cowhorse, but the demands and rules are alike.

In contrast to cutting, this event always consists of two parts: the reined work, also called “dry work”, which is like reining, and the fence work, where the rider works a cow one-on-one. For the NRCHA Futurity, a third go is added, called “herd work”, which is basically like a cutting. The composite score of the two gos or of the three in case of the Futurity determines the placings and the winner.


The sport of team penning has become rather popular over the last few decades, and here again, a horse with cow sense is a bonus. In team penning, cow sense is not such a top requirement as in cutting, but a horse that shows interest in cattle, that observes and reads a cow, is certainly better suited and a great help

As the name implies, this discipline involves a team of riders. Team Penning is a timed event, and the task at hand is for rider and horse to cut out designated and marked cows and drive them into a pen.


There are a number of different roping events, and while a roping horse’s main requisite is speed, and not cow sense, roping is listed here because these disciplines involve cattle, after all. Ropings are put on as single events, but also as part of rodeos, and at certain breed shows. The most popular roping contests are team roping, also called heading and heeling; calf roping; break-away roping; steer stopping; goat tying, and single steer roping. The roping horse starts out of a chute (starting box), and its job is to bring the roper in throwing distance in as fast a time as possible.

2 cow horses and riders working a herd on oldtime Western ranch

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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