The Physics of Cow Work

In high school, did you ever ask your teachers or your parents, “When am I ever going to use this information?” Math and English have obvious connections to daily life. However, physics class is probably the last thing you think would apply. But riders—especially cow horse or versatility ranch horse riders—relive some physics lessons out in the arena. Understanding the connection between the two can help you improve your performance and increase your scores. 

In boxing and cow horse events there are two objects running side by side—the horse and the cow. Both are in a uniform state of motion until one, ideally the horse, controls the cow’s speed. Ultimately this forces the cow to stop and turn. Think back to science class and Newton’s first law of motion. Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless acted upon by an external source. The cow (object) will keep running until the horse (external force) stops or changes that motion.

Remember Newton’s second law, force equals mass times acceleration. When two cars drive down the same road, one at 35 miles per hour the other at 55, by the laws of gravity, the slower moving car stops quicker. The same theory translates to cattle. 

If your horse is too far behind a cow, say by a horse length, and the cow is running 6 mph, you have to run 9 or 10 mph to get by him. Then when you get by the cow, there’s no way you can stop and turn as fast as the cow.

In this article, I’m going to apply physics to cow work. Then I’ll show you a few exercises you can do at home to help improve your score in the show pen.

The state of uniform motion.

There’s an adrenaline rush that comes from sliding into a stop and making a turn on the fence. However, you need to be able to rate your horse when going down the fence to avoid rushing the maneuver. It’s easy to want to get ahead of your cow and make that turn, but going down the fence requires you to stay patient.

Finding the spot of rate—uniform speed—is more important than dashing down the fence. When you’re watching an event like the Snaffle Bit Futurity, you might notice that a lot of the riders position their horse so his nose is near the cow’s ribcage when they go down the fence. This position allows a horse to travel at the same rate as the cow and not get too far ahead, or behind, it. This is so that when it’s time, you don’t have to work as hard to get the cow turned.

Tracking the cow around the arena—and not focusing on the stop and turn-—can help your horse get more comfortable rating the cow rather than trying to rush past it.

Learning how to rate. There are a few things you can do to help your horse get more comfortable rating a cow. The first exercise you can do involves following a cow around the perimeter of the arena. Follow him through the corners, without allowing your horse to stop and turn at the end of a wall. Each horse is a little different. Some will need to be pushed forward, while others want to run on their own. Doing this exercise helps you evaluate what your horse likes to do. Then you can adjust your training to fit his needs. 

This is no different than when you school your horse on different pattern elements. The more circles you lope on your horse, the more comfortable and relaxed he becomes. When you ask him to lope and hang with the cow, rather than focusing on the stop, he’s going to get more relaxed as you make your way down the fence. It’s also going to improve your stop as your horse is going to be looking to the stop as a reward.

Read More: Learn How to Control the Cow

What to do if he rushes. If you find that your horse doesn’t want to stay in that sweet spot and wants to get ahead of the cow, you can do something as simple as pull him into the ground, ask him to stop, and then back up a couple steps. Then ask him to lope back up into the cow. You want to control your horse’s energy and speed. Then the run and rate is the most important part of this game. Once you’ve got that, the stops and turns will happen.

No cow? No problem. If you don’t always have access to cattle, you can also practice rating with the help of a riding buddy. As you begin, pay attention to where you and your friend are in the arena, as you don’t want to get too close to the other horse. This could potentially get into an accident (or get somebody kicked).

You’ll start by trotting alongside that horse and teaching your horse patience. Once he wants to comfortably keep his nose next to the other horse’s ribcage, you can cue your horse into a lope. Continue doing this drill until he wants to relax and stay near that position on the other horse’s body. As you get more comfortable in the saddle, try relaxing your hand on your horse’s neck and see how well he’s able to rate without you having to take ahold of him. 

When it’s time to turn. By focusing more on position, you’re already setting yourself up for when it comes time to run past the cow, stop, and turn it. Your horse is longer than a cow. As you step up into the cow, you’ll only have to increase your speed by 1/2 mph if your horse is in the correct position. Then you’ll be able to safely turn the cow. If you’re going too fast, it’s going to take longer to stop, leaving you out of position on the cow. And if you’re going too slow, you’re not going to be able to catch up to the cow and get into a proper position to safely turn it.

Tracking the cow around the arena—and not focusing on the stop and turn-—can help your horse get more comfortable rating the cow rather than trying to rush past it.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s third law of motion identifies two forces: action and reaction forces. Some forces are the result of an applied force, like friction. Others are the result of action-at-a-distance interactions like gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces. While Newton had no experience working cattle, his theory still applies. When your horse takes an action without touching the cow, his body motion will act upon the cow and direct its next movement. 

As you’re going down the fence, you want your horse’s head to be near the cow’s ribcage. This will ensure that you’re going the same speed as the cow and not rushing him.

The 270-degree turn drill. Watching from the stands, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking these interactions are all about speed. As silly as it sounds you’ve got to slow things down to speed things up. By rushing the process, it’s easy to miss the little things that add up to make a powerful run. When you’re in a hurry, you’re more likely to make a bad decision. You’re also not going to be seeing things clearly, which can put too much pressure on the cow.

It’s easy to get so focused on exerting a force on the cow, the desired outcome is missed. That’s when I like to use my 270-degree turn drill to help slow things down through the stop and turn. 

You can do this drill with a flag or with a cow, but I recommend starting on a flag first. Then, you’re comfortable with the steps before applying them in a real-life situation. 

When you ask your horse to stop and turn, ask your him to do a three-quarter turn instead of a 180-degree turn like you would normally do. Overturning your horse in practice will help him come through the turn completely and will help him from anticipating your next move. 

If he anticipates that turn when you’re working a cow and doesn’t complete that 180-degree turn, you’re positioning yourself to ride directly into that cow. The 270-degree turn releases pressure away from the cow, and teaches your horse to hustle a little more to get turned around and caught back up with the cow.

Take your time. It takes a lot of time, practice, and patience with a lot of mistakes along the way. Learning how to work a cow is going to be a lot like training a young horse. There’s only so much that can be accomplished in each session. When done correctly, skill and confidence will build over time. Each time you make a run on a cow, take a mental note of the scenarios you go through. Then you can start recognizing what you did and how you can adjust your ride for the next run. 

The physics of cow work.

Horseback is probably the last place you thought high school physics lessons would prove to be valuable. Thinking back to the basic laws of motion can provide new insight for working cows. Of course, no two scenarios are alike. Each cow will react differently to pressure from the horse.

Knowing how far away to stay has a lot to do with the individual cow. Wait to see what the cow tells you. Start by giving yourself some distance and slowly creep in on it. If you get a cow with a big ear, a brahma type cross, that comes out with its tail over back, you need to give yourself a little distance and crawl into that cow. If it’s a Hereford-type cow and seems quiet, you might have to move in there and push him. I always say you must make a runny cow stop and a stoppy cow run.

There’s no set distance that will work in every situation. The most important part is showing the cow that you’re taking charge. It can’t control you, drag you around, and dictate where go. At the same time, you must respect
it, too.

There are three minds in the arena. Don’t get flustered, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t see a major change overnight. These skills take time and a lot of hours in the saddle. It could take a couple years before you start understanding how the game goes. There’s no one thing a person is going to tell you that will make it magically happen. It takes a lot of time, focus, and desire to want to be good at it. 

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