Are you an experienced, motivated rider who’s up for a new challenge? Does your horse need to be freshened out of same-old-same-old doldrums?
The one-two punch of box-only cow horse class, which also requires reined work, is offered through National Reined Cow Horse Association events, as well as in American Quarter Horse Association competition at youth and amateur levels, including their novice and Select counterparts. These organizations have made cow horse events more accessible and enticing to riders in all parts of the country.
Read on, and NRCHA World Champion trainer Blue Allen’s insight will help you decide if you and your horse are ready to get in the ring, as well as explain what’s necessary to have a knockout boxing performance.
What Is It?
“The most important thing to know about the box-only class is that it doesn’t take any less a rider or horse to show in it versus traditional cow horse classes where you take a cow down the fence in addition to boxing it,” advises Allen, from Alamosa, Colorado. “There’s a saying: ?If you can’t control the cow on the short side (boxing), then you don’t stand much of a chance going down the fence.’ It takes a good rider, with a trained horse, to compete in this class.”
That said, if you and your horse are skilled enough to try out the event, it has two elements: reined work and boxing.
In the reined work, you’ll complete a reining pattern, consisting of the same elements of a National Reining Horse Association pattern?circles with speed changes and lead changes, spins, stops, rollbacks, and a backup.
After your reined work, you’ll move to the end of the pen and call for your cow, where you’ll have 50 seconds to box the cow and show off your horse’s-and your own?cow sense. This is when the real fun starts.
Calling for Your Cow
Once you complete the final maneuver of your reined-work pattern, you’ll trot to the end of the arena where the cattle await in an adjacent pen. This brief time is when you’ll clear your mind and get focused on the cow work. Stop and set yourself up to call for the cow. Leave enough space between you and the fence that you’re confident there’s enough room for you to either stay off your cow if it’s got a little zip to start, or to step toward the cow if it starts off a little dull. (It’s all part of “reading the cow,” which we’ll discuss later.)
“Just before you call for your cow by nodding at the gate man, get yourself situated in a confident position, so you’re ready to take control,” Allen notes. “Your horse should be bright, with his ears forward to show that he’s ready, but he shouldn’t be overly strong. He should be set in position and wait patiently rather than anticipate what’s going to happen.”
When your cow comes into the arena, keep your eyes glued on it for the duration of the run.
Your first impression of the cow will give you insight into its temperament?it’s called “reading a cow.”
“Your ability to read a cow comes with lots of practice working many different types of cows,” Allen continues. “When you’re at home or taking lessons, expose yourself to as many cattle as possible, study their reactions to different kinds of pressure, and keep solid mental notes that you can quickly recall when your cow enters the arena at a show, so you can determine what it’ll take to best work the cow.”
No matter what type of cow you get, it’s what you’re stuck with for the next 50 seconds, unless the judge calls for a new cow, which is a rare occurrence.
Getting to Work
Once the cow sets foot in the arena, keep your eyes on the cow, not on your horse.
“It’s the horse’s job to take control of the cow; your horse should initiate every movement the cow makes,” Allen explains. “Every cow has a different flight zone, so it’s your job to read the cow and be able to interpret that ?bubble.’ Your reading skills will let you determine how close your horse should be to the cow?in a more aggressive (closer) position or one that gives a wild cow a little more space.”
Your horse’s placement in relation to the cow is what, ideally, determines where the cow will go, and at what speed. When the cow moves in one direction, your horse should be parallel to the cow, moving alongside it. If the cow stops, so should your horse. And not a roll-through-a-stop-sign kind of stop. You’re after a real, hind-end-in-the-ground, hocks- underneath-the-horse stop, so that your horse has the power underneath himself to turn the cow and quickly head in the other direction without letting the cow get away from you.
“You don’t want your horse to race the cow, but rather the goal is to go as far down the end as the cow goes, get a good stop, step your horse to the cow, and initiate the next move,” Allen explains.
“You don’t want what we call ?motorcycle turns’ or to ?peel out,’ meaning a big U-turn to follow the cow. Those types of turns take away from the precision and eye appeal of the run.”
If your horse can really work a cow, and you get one that cooperates, you’ll earn points if you can trap the cow in the middle of the fence, in what looks a lot like a cutting horse working a cow.
You’ll continue to work your cow on the end fence for 50 seconds, when the judge or steward will blow a whistle to end your run. Both you and your horse will need to catch your breath!
So your first, second, third…fourth…boxing class didn’t go according to plan. Don’t give up.
Allen asserts that practice is key. It’ll expose you to more cattle, which will only improve your cattle-reading abilities. He even goes so far as to advise having a practice horse and a show horse.
“That way you aren’t teaching your good horse bad habits when you make mistakes as you learn the ropes of the class,” Allen says. “And this really is a case where taking lessons is important. A trainer will have access to cattle and help you through the learning process to be successful.
“Don’t be discouraged when you first start,” Allen concludes. “Everybody gets better, whether it’s at a fast pace or it takes a little more time. That’s what’s great about boxing?it’s you and your horse against the cow. You can compete on an individual level with yourself, just trying to get a little better each time you go show.”
Are You Eligible?
The box-only class has strict requirements, in terms of limited experience in working cow horse classes. For NRCHA, Limited division youth and non-pro exhibitors can have only shown “down the fence” three times. (Even if you
pulled up your horse and quit before going down the fence, being entered in the class is enough to keep you from competing in box-only classes.) You also can’t have earned more than $5,000 in NRCHA competition. There’s also a separate class for riders who’ve won more than $5,000 but don’t want to go down the fence. The only loophole is if you’re over 50?then you can fall back into the Limited Non Pro class and compete in the box-only event.
According to AQHA rules, a youth rider is eligible for 13 and under, 14 to 18, and/or all-ages youth and Novice youth boxing classes if he or she has never been a finalist in working cow horse at any AQHA world championship show or down the fence at an NRCHA major event, and if he or she has earned fewer than 10 points in working cow horse. Additionally, a rider is eligible for Select amateur, amateur, and Novice amateur boxing classes if he or she has never been a finalist in working cow horse at any AQHA world championship show or down the fence at an NRCHA major event, and if he or she has earned fewer than 10 points in working cow horse in the last three years.
For specific, official rules from either group, check out their respective rulebooks.
What’s the Draw?
The precision of the reined work and the adrenaline rush of working a cow have led riders across the country to join up in the cow horse movement.
What used to be a strictly Western United States discipline, beginning in California, has spread steadily across the country. You’ll now find major NRCHA events in places that hadn’t even heard of the organization 15 years ago.
“I love the cow horse events because of the challenge, the rush of working a cow, and the great people,” says Marisa Vetula, active member of the Ohio Reined Cow Horse Association (and a former jumper and barrel racer). “It’s unlike any other group I’ve been involved with. I was at the East Coast Classic show in Tennessee in July, and it was great to see all the trainers helping the non-pros, and the non-pros cheering for each other. The camaraderie is a huge draw.”
Get the Gear
When you show in NRCHA classes, you’ll need specialized tack, both to follow the organization’s rules and for safety. Set your horse up with romal reins attached to a solid-jawed, California-style bit with a roller (also called a cricket), per the rulebook. You’ll most often see riders use one-eared headstalls for shanked bits; snaffles require browband headstalls. Allen also recommends a double-rigged saddle for safety, and he adds that a breast collar is a good idea, but it’s your preference. To prevent injury to your horse, Allen advises outfitting him in protective legwear, such as splint boots and bell boots.