Training a Horse for Being a Working Cow Horse

The working cow horse is a competition where a horse works a single cow in an arena and is asked to perform specific maneuvers with the cow. They can be asked to circle the cow, turn it in specific ways, as well as performing certain reining patterns. What makes this competition unique in equine sports is that it requires both mental discipline as well as physical endurance as the horse is required to sustain elite agility and explosive performance. Over the course of a full performance, the horse will be asked to move at a variety of speeds from quick, agility movements, to high speed, short bursts of running. Each pattern will take about five minutes of constant movement and change in direction. These horses require exquisite discipline because they involve specifically changing pace for each circle as well as the occasion, intentional hesitations.

Reining pattern

Figure 1 is an example diagram of one of the many patterns that these horses may be asked to perform (2).

This event requires speed training, mental stamina, and moderate physical stamina, classifying it as moderate impact exercise due to the short periods of high intensity. Depending on the starting point of the horse, it is common that training will take 12-16 months in order for it to be properly responsive and physically ready. Additionally, it requires anywhere from 12-26 months of on cow training for the horse to get properly tuned with the correct mentality that is necessary for working cows (4). Physiological systems such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, musculoskeletal, and respiratory systems all have to conditioned for an optimal performance, along with longevity for the horse. From a skeletal perspective, this sport involves a lot of hard impact on the leg bones and joints that can lead to injuries if the horse does not practice accordingly to strengthen the bones. Because of the short duration, high intensity of training and competition, it is an anaerobic workout. Increasing the size and volume of the heart and lungs is beneficial for optimizing blood flow and gas exchange. It is also important to have an efficient digestive system so that the horse can have the best possible utilization of feeds for both muscle and bone development, as well as maintenance and recovery with proper passage rate.

In best efforts to maximize training effectivity as well as limiting potential of injury, it is best to have multiple, short workouts per week. It is critical to limiting training to no more than six, 30-minute sessions weekly (3). Younger horses especially need to be monitored closely as preventative measures against injuries and adjustments should be made accordingly to how the horse responds. Even with the short time limit placed on training, the high intensity of this exercise will still strain the skeletal and muscular systems, as well as condition the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The down-time intervals allow for recovery as preventative measures so that bones and joints are not damaged, muscles do not get strained or torn, and they are able to rest their feet.

Training needs to consistently cover both physical preparations as well as mental/mechanistic preparations. It is important to revisit the basics of stopping before changing direction so that the horse can load up its rear to allow for better control and more powerful change in directions when it’s competition time. Both in a low intensity run through, as well as during normal competition conditions, the horse needs to compress its body and load its back legs to allow it the maximal hind end energy when pushing off into the turns. At the same time, this is a good time to make sure the horse’s mentality is in check and is not resisting the command. Exhibiting smooth, controlled maneuverability with finesse, attitude, authority, and quickness are sought after in competition ready horses. They can’t be caught jogging, having out of line stops, or non-pivotal spins. Changing leads and side of propulsion along with straight, controlled, run-downs that end with square, smooth stops (1). The next factor to consider when evaluating a cow horse’s readiness, is derivative of the actions of the cow and the necessary response to be made by the horse. The horse has to be fairly light and very quick-footed in the front to be to change its direction in coordination with the cow. A horse that can consistently stay in position where it is facing the cow or in a proper driving position, is an indicator of its readiness. Finally, it is important to assess the recovery ability of the horse because its ability to recover from the first perform is vital in order for it to compete at its best in the next.

Diet should be based on forage with supplements added to supply adequate carbohydrates and fats to replenish energy stores. After supplying the core feedstuff, it is critical to monitor electrolytes to make sure they are getting sodium, potassium, chloride restored after being lost through sweat. Cow horses should not be fed large amounts of concentrates within four hours of performing. It may be advantageous to hold back on the concentrates earlier prior to competition and feed small amounts of hay instead. After competition, in addition to feeding fats and carbohydrates to restore glycogen stores, it would be beneficial to feed amino acids from a protein source to aid in the speed of muscle recovery. To help optimize the correlation between performance, recovery, and cost of feeding, finding feeds that have higher fat content would be better than using direct fat supplements because then the horse can benefit from getting the proper amount of protein, amino acids, and essential minerals (5).

Horse working cow

Figure 2 shows a horse training with an emphasis on focusing on the cow.

In competition, these horses earn two scores on a scale of 0-80 with one score representing the score of the cows and the other representing the horse and rider to create fairness because of the variability between cows. Judges will score the execution of the assigned pattern based on a range -1.5 for being extremely poor and +1.5 as being excellent. The horse will be evaluated for performance of its circling, lead changes, presence of jogging, run-downs, stops, spins, back-ups, and hesitations. Additional penalties may be inflicted based upon excessively poor execution of different maneuvers, inappropriate spurring by the rider, and no-scores are assigned when illegal equipment was used or if they leave the working area before completion (1).

This sport originated from cowboys who would work cattle herds out on the open prairie from horseback. As the cattle industry changed over time, resulting in more cattle raised on smaller pastures and in feedlots, the application of this way of working cattle has declined from an industry standpoint, but it is still common practice on ranches out west as well as kept alive as a competitive sport. When used for the industry purpose, the horses are an investment of the ranch and need to be properly maintained and prepared so that they can perform as effectively as possible to get the job done efficiently with minimal risk of injury.

By Austin Kosusnik
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals

Works Cited

  1. “NHSRA Rules Cow Horse Rules.” NRCHA,
  2. “NRHA Pattern Book.” NRHA, 2018,
  3. “The Sport of Reining.” Equine Science, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 2018,
  4. Trocha, Larry. “Horse Training Time Frame.” Horse Training Videos and DVDs, Horse Training Vidoes,  2019,
  5. “6 Ways to Feed Performance Horses for Greater Achievement.” The Horse, 13 June 2018,