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Reined Cow Horse - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Mount and rider circling the cow in a reined cow horse competition. Reined Cow Horse Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

For the reined cow horse, fence workis the most exciting (and dangerous) part, and also the traditional part.


Reined Cow Horse is a discipline that evolved from the methods of working cattle in California, with its roots deeply in Spanish traditions. Ranching in other parts of the American West was also influenced by the Spaniards through Mexico, like Texas or New Mexico, but it was in California where the Spanish heritage was kept the longest, and where methods and skills and equipment were developed to new heights.

California reinsmen and vaqueros were the apex of mounted herdsmen and their way of training and the results they got were unique and incomparable. Any work not done from the back of their reined cow horse they regarded as below their status. Just when they had reached their highest level of reinsmenship is not known anymore today, maybe in the 18th century, maybe in the 19th century. All we know is that by the time the 20th century rolled around, those high-class reinsmen were a thing of the past. Whether the few old-timers that were still around had seen, and ridden with, the best of them, or if what they had come to know was while young was still very good while already on the decline, nobody knows. We do know though that the fame of the California reined cow horse lasted well into the 20th century.

The uniqueness of the California reined stock horse was based to a great deal on the training methods, which differed considerably from those east of the Rocky Mountains. The California horses were trained with the rawhide hackamore, then advanced to the bridle, typically a spade bit. The hackamore had its ancestor in the iron Spanish serreta, but is a piece of equipment unique to Spanish America. It consists of a rawhide-braided noseband called bosal, and a mecate, which is a rope made from horse hair that serves as reins and lead rope.


Traditionally, the reined cow horse was trained with the hackamore until he mastered his job, then gradually advanced to the spade bit, which is a specially designed curb bit the roots of which do not just reach back into Spanish history, but like the hackamore - even to that of Spain’s Moorish rulers. The spade bit’s design was developed by California bit makers. It was ridden with rawhide-braided reins, traditionally closed reins attached to a romal, which has a popper at the end and serves as a quirt. These reins have rawhide buttons and were attached to the bit by chains, the buttons giving the reined cow horse a warning, when it feels them slide up on his neck.

The spade bit has a high port in the shape of either a spade or spoon, hence the name. It has a straight bar across the horses tongue, and braces going from the side to the port (spade), and is loosely hinged, not rigid. Its design conforms to the horse’s mouth cavity, and it works more as a signal, touching the roof of the horse’s mouth with the spade when the reins are lifted. In contrast to what is commonly believed, it is not a severe bit for the reined cow horse when properly designed and used. The ratio of the old-time spade bits was such that it worked less off of curb action and more as a signal bit, that is, the shanks were relatively short.

The whole bridle - spade bit, chains, and rawhide reins - worked as a unit and were carefully balanced. Transition from the hackamore to the spade bit took place over a period of time at first, the horse was just bridled up with the spade bit, but was further ridden with a bosal (the size/diameter of the bosal and mecate used were decreased as the training of the reined cow horse progressed), then gradually, more and more bit reins were used, and, finally less and less bosal reins, until the finished horse was ridden straight up in the bridle.

The idea behind this concept was to save a horse’s mouth, to never expose it to any pressure, also, to ride a young horse without anything in his mouth as long as he was still changing his teeth. The horse-hair mecate is felt more by the horse than smooth reins, and aids in the training. Generally, the result of a competent and skilled hackamore training is a very light and flashy reined cow horse.


When about half-way through the last century there was a growing awareness that a great tradition was being lost, it was actually almost too late to really preserve it. Still, if the group of dedicated people that got together in California to found an association for the express purpose of preserving the California stock horse tradition, that was a bright idea and a well-meant effort and could have worked - if they had listened to, and sought the advice of, the few surviving old-timers who had had first-hand experience during the tail end of the era of the famous California reined cow horse.

Those old-timers, with the exception of one, were very reluctant to part with any knowledge, but they were largely ignored anyway. Even so, what they had told about the old days would actually have been enough to expose contradictions with what was being outlined. Instead of true preservation, what took over was American show business, the new association was run by Anglo-Americans whose only ambition seems to have been to create a better market for their horse breeding programs and training services, fashioned after the already well-established cutting horse association and futurity.


The first futurity put on by the California Reined Cow Horse Association in 1970 made it all too obvious that the old ways of the California Reinsmen were not honored: The contest consists of three parts, the herd work, the reined work, and the fence work.

The herd work is basically a cutting, which is a Texan thing and never was typical for California. But because riders can use two hands on the reins, and actually are allowed to use the reins, this herd work is destined to be a mediocre cutting at best, if not an inferior one.

Reined work and fence work are typical and traditional for the reined cow horse, with the fence work the most exciting (and dangerous) part.

The real deviation from traditional California reined horse training though is the fact that this futurity is ridden with that contraption from way east, the snaffle bit, which never had any place in Spanish horsemanship, or old-time Californian horsemanship. It was, most likely, a concession to the inability of the trainers to train a real hackamore horse.

The California trainer of the early 20th century may have known the snaffle bit by then, but used it with difficult horses only, usually only for a few days. The reined cow horse association’s concept of riding young horses with a snaffle bit for a year, then ride him another year in a hackamore, is in no way consistent with traditional California reined horse training, The horses were trained in a hackamore, not with a snaffle bit, and even the hackamore was not used for a complete year it was used until the horse functioned well, then the transition was made.

The old-timers knew when the horse was asking for the bit. They made the switch to the bit before the horse became dull in the hackamore. The snaffle does not make a reined cow horse in the old California tradition. Yet the futurity of the association allegedly created to preserve that tradition became known as the snaffle bit futurity!

What is even worse is the fact that, after all, this whole new industry did in no way result in a renewed aspiration to produce reined horses, especially hackamore horses, the hackamore being an indispensable part of the traditional way of making a California reined horse. Horses are usually trained with everything available, maybe even ridden in the warm-up pen with some type of curb bit, then shown in a hackamore. That is not a reined cow horse, certainly not a California hackamore horse.

Paradoxically, in the hackamore classes (for four-year-olds) and bridle classes (five years and older), the herd work is not added, only in the futurity, which would already be very strenuous for three-year-olds without the added strain of the herd work. No other event requires so much hard training to be put into young horses as the snaffle bit futurity. Needless to say, quality is compromised, and the reining horse has been outshining the California reined horse by far and for decades as far as the reining qualities are concerned

Some reiners now also enter reined cow horse competitions, and were able to raise the bar there at least in regard to the reined work.


Reined cow horses are judged equally on their reined work and their fence work, nowadays also called cow work. The reined work is basically a reining, but patterns are a little different, and the class is also judged a little different, with less emphasis on slides but more on hard, deep stops.

The fence work is what really sets the event apart, and is absolutely thrilling to watch if it is done expertly. A single cow is let into the arena, which the reined cow horse is to work one-on-one. First it shows dominance over the cow by controlling it on the short side of the arena, where it usually is let in, which is called boxing.

Then the rider will let the cow run down the fence, staying closely behind it and a little to the side. After the cow passes the middle marker, the rider tries to block the cow with his horse, ideally turning her into the fence, or wall, and forcing her to run in the opposite direction.

After thus turning the cow at least once in both directions against the fence, the reined cow horse takes the cow toward the middle of the arena and drives her there in such a way that she describes at least one circle in each direction, which completes the run. Taking the cow down the fence and turning her is referred to as fencing, driving her in circles as circling. The judge will blow a whistle to mark the completion of the run.

Spectators unfamiliar with how the fence work is judged should simply observe whether the whole performance looks like the cow is leading horse and rider, determining the direction where to go, or if the reined cow horse looks like it is in control and dominating the cow.

Breed associations like the American Quarter Horse Association call this event working cowhorse. There, horses up to the age of five years may be shown in a hackamore or snaffle bit in junior working cowhorse, and older in a bit in senior working cowhorse.

Article ©HorseShowCentral.com. Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos ©Oelke or Oelke Archive.For information regarding the Sorraia horse, the Vale de Zebro Wild Horse Refuge, and the Sorraia Mustang - visit www.sorraia.org Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

Taking the steer down the fence in reined cow horse competition.
Photo 1) Down the fence.

Reining action called Turning against the fence.  Reining move called Circling the steer. The famous cow horse stop.
2) Turning against the fence.  3) Circling.  4) Stop in reined work, also called “dry work”, at the Snaffle Bit Futurity

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