Herd Work Basics

Learn a little more about herd work from world champion trainer Brad Barkemeyer.

In a reined cow horse competition, there are three components a horse and rider must compete in. The herd work, reined work, and fence work. The basic fundamentals of herd work are to enter a herd of cattle, cut one out from the herd, and work it for an appropriate amount of time while keeping it away from the rest of the herd.

You’ll have 2 1/2 minutes to work up to three cows, and in that time the judge will assess the form and quality of your horse while working the cow.

Keeping Calm
Before you even approach the herd, it’s important to take a deep breath and relax. While it’s easy to have your adrenaline rushing as you walk in the show pen, the last thing you want to do is run toward the herd and have them scatter in every direction. So avoid any sudden or fast-paced movements. Instead, slowly approach the herd, which lets the cattle know they are free to just walk out away from you and then deliberately make your cut. This is also going to keep your horse more relaxed in the long run. If you have high energy every time you approach a cow, your horse will feed off the energy, which can create anxiousness and lack of control.


Give yourself and your horse the advantage by starting your work quietly in the middle of the pen. This will give you a greater chance of maintaining control of the cow.

Cutting The Cow
When you’re cutting a cow, there are two ways to approach the herd. You can search out a specific cow, or you can bring a group of cattle out and allow all of them to travel back to the herd except the last one. This is referred to as cutting for shape. When just starting, It’s very common to cut for shape.

However, you might notice that during the cutting, some riders sit in the arena on their horses and take notes on the cattle as others compete, so they know what cows to work and what cows to avoid.

The disposition of the herd, how experienced you and your horse are at cutting, and where you are in the draw will help you determine which approach to take on your cutting strategy.

To cut for shape, enter the herd and bring several cows to the middle of the arena. Allow the cattle to start drifting back to the herd and pay attention to the cattle that are paying attention to you. Try not to focus on a particular cow until there are only a few left.

Once you know what cow you want to cut, position yourself in the cow’s line of sight, and stand between it and the herd to stop it from going back.

Losing Cattle
While it’s never ideal to lose a cow in the show pen, don’t let that be your only focus when you’re working on your cutting at home. I’d rather have two or three nice turns from my horse and lose the cow than have a horse keep a cow away from the herd but start to form bad habits.

At home, prioritize form and quality of work over holding a cow from the herd. Understand that not every cow will work and respect your horse. Be willing to sacrifice a cow to maintain good habits.


Legal Quit
To maximize working time, most cutters will work two or three cows during the 2 1/2 minutes of show time. When it comes time to quit working one cow and go back to the herd, it’s important to understand how to legally stop. There are three ways that you can quit working a cow. The first happens when the cow is at a complete stop and has all four legs on the ground, the second way is when the cow turns away from your horse, and the third happens when a cow runs beyond the turnback help and the turnback horses are behind the time line.

Failure to quit legally results in a three-point penalty and is called a hot quit.

When it comes time to quit the cow there are two ways you can let the judge know you’re done working the cow. The first way you can signal to the judge is by taking one hand and putting it on your horse’s neck. The second way is by sitting deep in your saddle and pulling up on the reins. Once you do that, you’re free to go back into the herd for the next cow.

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