Circle Up Safely

Stay in position when finishing a cow horse run, and both you and your horse will stay safe and possibly earn credit for your score.
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Stay in position when finishing a cow horse run, and both you and your horse will stay safe and possibly earn credit for your score.

When it comes to working cow horse, most people focus on the fence work—it’s exciting, but it can be overemphasized. Too often, riders and spectators overlook circling the cow at the end of the run. Solid circling can put the icing on the cake if you have good fence turns; and it can salvage your run if things go wrong down the fence.

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Throughout an entire cow horse run, we want to see control—of the rider, the horse, and the cow. Not only is that the desired goal for judging, it also ensures that all three parties stay safe. If the horse is in an offensive position to control the cow, there’s a cushion of space between the horse and the cow, and the rider is balanced in the saddle, it’s hard for things to go wrong. If you lack any of those elements, you’re setup for an unsafe situation.

Here, I’ll analyze photos of myself circling a cow on one of my young horses. I’ll point out the positives and the negatives, so you can watch for those traits in your own performances.

1. I’m just beginning the circling phase of my run here. We came off the wall from our fence turns, and I’m getting my horse set up to circle the cow. There’s about a horse length between my horse’s nose and the cow, so I need to catch up. This kind of separation between horse and cow happens frequently. I’ll ride aggressively on a straight line to catch up to the cow. If I make an arc, it’ll take me longer to get to the cow. If I hesitate, I’ll lose ground. Both of those mistakes can result in loss of control of the cow. By taking a direct path, I can hustle my horse, close the gap, and then regroup. Maintaining control and focus means we’ll all stay safe, too.

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2. Because I hustled my horse forward, we’re starting to close the gap here. Notice the slack in my reins and my body position. I’m not pulling on my horse’s face; I’m sitting deep in my saddle and driving my horse forward. This is a point where I turn my horse loose, sit deep, and allow him to accelerate for the final few jumps until I catch up with the cow.

3. My hands are away from the cow. We’ve closed the gap on a straight line, but I can’t let my horse commit to circling the cow yet, because my horse’s nose needs to be closer to the cow’s head. If I committed to circling now with my horse’s head over the cow’s body, the cow could duck under my horse’s neck, and we’d somersault. I strive to get my inside foot even with the cow’s front legs before I start to circle. There’s a chance that the cow could honor the horse in the position shown in this photo and that the cow will give the necessary cushion between the cow and the horse. Taking a horse down the fence requires the ability to read a cow, which allows a rider to predict a cow’s next move. If the cow looks like it’ll honor my horse according to how I read it, then I can move in and circle.

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4. We’ve achieved fairly good position. My horse is leaning a little, which when at a steeper angle can be dangerous, but this is a fairly safe angle. The critical factor is that I have contact with both hands—not just my direct rein. Too often riders focus on pulling the horse’s nose to circle the cow. For correctness and safety, I circle the cow with my horse’s entire body, not just his head. This position sets my horse’s hip closest to the cow, rather than his shoulder, which allows him to stay in balance and in the correct lead. There’s less chance that his back feet will slip. If his hip was away and his shoulder was closest to the cow, my horse could fall. My body position also helps. I’m seated straight in the saddle rather than leaning into the turn, and I’m focused on the cow rather than looking at my horse.

5. Here’s an example of when leaning could become a problem. Even though my horse is in the correct lead, his shoulder is leaning steeply toward the cow. I attempt to offset that angle by sitting straight up, perpendicular to the ground. Both my hands are elevated and to the right to compensate for my horse’s leaning and to realign his body to be at less of an angle toward the cow. Once we get that taken care of, this is a good spot to switch sides to circle the opposite direction. There’s enough of a gap that I can make a quick turn to the left behind the cow’s tail to get on his left side and start circling to the right.

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6. You can see more of my inside leg contact here. My left toe is out, and I’m holding my horse’s ribcage up with my left heel. This encourages forward motion, but also maintains the cushion between my horse and the cow. If I kick with my outside leg here in an attempt to go forward and turn and forget about my inside leg, I’ll almost sidepass into the cow and lose the distance I need between the two animals. By using my inside leg I can keep the cushion and continue forward.

7. I’m getting ready to change sides to circle the other direction here. I’ll need to slow down to keep a safe distance between my horse’s feet and the cow’s. Switching sides without sufficient distance is very dangerous because the horse’s front feet and cow’s hind feet can become entangled, resulting in a wreck.

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8. I’ve switched sides, closed the distance, and can begin circling in the other direction to finish my run. I’ll have to slow down as the cow falls away from my horse, or I’ll go past the cow. Judges don’t like that kind of separation because it shows loss of control. I sit deeply, keep contact with my reins, and drive my horse’s inside hip toward the cow to keep the animals parallel so we can safely and effectively finish the last circle.

Brad Barkemeyer, Scottsdale, Arizona, grew up on a ranch in Montana, which gave him an appreciation for versatile horses. He now trains open and amateur horses and coaches riders to success in AQHA, NRCHA, and NCHA competiton.