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The working cow horse category is one of the most interesting of the Western riding disciplines since it tests both the practical skills of horse and rider and their ability to ride a show performance of a high standard. This is also known as the reined cow horse class and competitors can be judged in three areas: The performance of a precise reining pattern, herd work, and individual cow work. The competition originated in the traditions of Californian cattle management, which was greatly influenced by Spanish (Vaquero) equestrian culture. Working cow horse events are a showcase for genuine cowboy heritage. They prove that properly performed, Western riding and cattle work require grace, intelligence and skill, and the horses are elite performers.

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Quarter Horse, Stallion, 2 years, 15.1 hh, Chestnut-Red
Simen Horses
6,000 €
~ 7,232 $ ONO
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Quarter Horse, Gelding, 6 years, 15 hh, Sorrel Exceptional Reined Cowhorse gelding
Cowhorse - Western horses - Cutting - Ranch Riding
Star Idaho
40,000 $
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Criollo, Mare, 2 years, Brown
Cowhorse - Western Riding
Salsomaggiore Terme _ Emilia Romagna
6,500 €
~ 7,834 $ ONO
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Characteristics of the Working Cow Horse

It takes time and commitment to produce a working cow horse. The original Spanish tradition was, in effect, a horsemanship programme that took years to complete. During the training, the young horse advanced from working in the bitless bridle, known as a bosal, to responding to the lightest of touches on the reins while wearing a spade bit. The horses the vaqueros worked with were bred for the job, often over many generations, meaning they developed the innate “cow sense” that is still vital for competition work today. They were compact and intelligent horses, capable of turning on a coin and shifting between the different gaits instantly and effortlessly. Short strong cannon bones, pasterns that were not too long, and muscular, but not too heavy, quarters were – and are – required in working cow horses.

Working Cow Horses: The Best Breeds for this Discipline

Cow sense and agility count more than breed in the working cow horse competition, but certain breeds are far more likely to succeed, as they have been developed for this work. These include the American Quarter Horse, the Appaloosa, and the American Paint Horse. Spanish, Portuguese and other Baroque breeds are highly successful, too. The Iberian breeds; the PRE, the Andalusian and the Lusitano, have been working cow horses for centuries, and although breeds such as the Italian Murghese are less well-known, they are also part of European “cowboy” traditions. South American breeds, such as the Criollo, are also specialist cow horses. Working cow horses participate in popular events at some Arabian horse shows.

Working Cow Horses in Equestrianism

In the days when horses were a vital part of cattle management in the USA, it took seven or more years to create a “finished” cow horse. Horses became so responsive as a result of this training that they were said to react to a whisper or a "hair-trigger"; in other words, they could feel and react to the equivalent of the weight of a single hair on the reins. While not literally true, this is a very good analogy for the speed of the response that the horse developed when it felt the lightest touch from the rider’s single hand on the reins. As technological changes reduced the need for horses for this work, enthusiasts decided to keep the traditions alive by creating events dedicated to reined cow horses. In modern competitions, horse and rider participate in two sessions, the first one being the “dry work”, which involves performing a set reining pattern. The second session is the cow work and there are two parts to this. First of all, a single cow is sent into the arena and the horse must hold the cow – prevent it from moving – at one end. This is called “boxing the cow”. Then the horse and rider run the cow along the rail of the arena and turn it back, but without the aid of the fence. This part is known as “fencing”. Then the horse will bring the cow into the centre of the ring, making it circle tightly both clockwise and anticlockwise (“circling the cow”). Some competitions also include herd work, which involves cutting a single cow from a herd and preventing its return to the others. From this, it can be seen that a working cow horse demands a high level of commitment to succeed. It’s certainly challenging, but also very rewarding!