Cross Country and Cow Sense: An Eventer Tries Her Hand at Reined Cow Horse

My sweet ride Shiny Sugar Shaker.

Firsts are always memorable. Reading a hunter’s account of their first event, or watching a reiner ride a show jumper gives you a sense of anticipation. Will they be successful? Will they enjoy their experience? Watching others experience eventing for the first time renews my passion for the sport. So when I wound up in grad school and became close friends with a rider whose equine sport of choice is Reined Cow Horse, I decided to flip the script. Heels down and grab mane for: An Eventer Tries to Be a Cowgirl.

Reined Cow Horse is truly the western counterpart to Eventing. In competitions run by the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA), horse and rider compete in three events. Reined work tests the horse’s ability to be willingly guided through a pattern. Herd work, or cutting, shows a horse and rider’s ability to select a cow out of the herd and keep it out. Fence work demonstrates the pair’s ability to work a single cow in a series of maneuvers and maintain control of that cow. In the cow horse world they refer to this as “maintaining a working advantage.” Cow horses must be versatile enough to take a variety of training and athletic enough to excel in events that each require a very different set of skills. Sound familiar?

Just like in the English world where dressage and show jumping are standalone sports, reining and cutting are also their own respective sports with the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) and the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA). But just like cross country, fence work only exists in reined cow horse shows. “Going down the fence” is what draws people to the sport. It’s high intensity, high adrenaline and can make or break your show. Unlike eventing, each event in a cow horse show is scored by a panel of judges. The scores from all three events are added up and the total highest score wins.

When I started my Equine Industry Management graduate program at Texas A&M University in the fall of 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting Brooke Wharton. A fellow grad student and horse enthusiast, Brooke introduced me to the sport of Reined Cow Horse by inviting me to the 2017 NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity at the Will Rodgers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas. Among the attractions at the event was a special showing of the documentary Down the Fence, which followed the stories of several professional reined cow horse trainers on their road to the Snaffle Bit Futurity. The movie brought me to tears, and I was hooked.

I opted for my Charles Owen instead of a cowboy hat. #mindyourmelon

I’m fortunate to live in Texas, where Reined Cow Horse is one of the more popular equestrian sports. Through some of Brooke’s connections, I was introduced to Matlock Rice, the head trainer and owner of Matlock Rice Performance Horses. He graciously allowed Brooke and me to come out and ride some of his cow horses. Matlock introduced me to my horse, Shiny Sugar Shaker. An adorable little “sorrel” mare, Matlock told me “sometimes she bucks” and I swung my leg over with a little less confidence.

We rode into the large arena, and Matlock guided me through some different reining maneuvers. Spins were pretty fun and easy to get the hang of, flying changes aren’t that different from ours, but the stops … that was a different story. As I explained to Brooke and Matlock the only time our eventers slide to a stop like that is if something has gone wrong. We never do this on purpose. Slouching in the saddle was also a new concept to me. After years of being told “Shoulders back!” it was hard to train my upper body to sink into the saddle and let my shoulders hunch and follow the motion of the horse. This is essential however if you don’t want to get thrown over your horse’s head when they tuck their butt and stop.

This is what you don’t want to happen:

But then I got the hang of things:

Once Matlock was comfortable with my reining skills it was time to get a cow. We rode out into the adjoining field and actually drove the cattle into the arena. I was beaming when Matlock told me I “made a pretty good hand” when, with little fuss, all the cattle were successfully in the pen. Matlock went in on his own horse and cut a cow out of the herd and into the arena for me. He gave me the basics, “Always ride parallel to the cow; stop straight, and watch their eyes to read what their next move will be,” and turned me loose to experiment.

Gathering the cattle.

Now, when a horse has a lot of “cow sense” they’re described as being “cowy” and man was my little mare cowy! All of us eventers can relate to that amazing feeling of being on course with your cross country machine and feeling your horse lock onto their fence and land searching for the next set of flags. There’s nothing better than being on a game horse! It’s the same with the cow horses.

As soon as that cow loped into the arena, Shiny Sugar Shaker was taking me to her. Matlock would try and coach me through the ride: “Get in front of her, go with the cow, use your outside rein to stop, kick her forward!” But Sugar was doing it all for me. I was just along for the ride. She had begrudgingly gone through the reining maneuvers with me and was gracious enough to not buck me off, but when we got in the pen with that cow her whole attitude changed. That little mare’s ears perked up and she was locked on that cow! I just had to keep my balance, and let her do the work. Much like a good jump, you set your horse up for success, and then you get out of their way.

My short ride on the cow raised my respect for this sport to a whole other level. When done well, it looks so easy. You just move the cow up and down the fence and push it in a circle each way. This experience gave me a whole new insight and appreciation to the difference in working a cow and chasing a cow. Sugar and I were more reacting to what the cow would do than actually controlling where she went. Horseback riding is challenging enough dealing with an animal that has a mind of its own, but in the cow horse events you have to factor in a second animal that doesn’t speak English!

With my interest in the sport growing, I contacted Morgan Moreno, the coach for the Texas A&M Stock Horse team. The 2017 American Stock Horse Association (ASHA) National Champions, the stock horse team is an inviting, club team that welcomes riders of all experience levels. Much like the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing program, collegiate stock horse teams have divisions for those new to the sport and divisions for those who have been competing in cow horse, ranch versatility and other western disciplines their whole lives. Morgan invited me out to the Texas A&M Team’s practice at Still Creek Ranch in Bryan, Texas, to learn a bit more about how the sport works at the collegiate level.

Texas A&M Stock Horse Team member Jaci Marley and her gelding Hickory’s Chic Olena working a cow

The Texas A&M Stock Horse team holds tryouts in both the fall and spring semesters. Students can compete with their own horses or ride horses provided by the school. Riders are paired up with one horse that they will show for that semester with the team. Based on their experience level and show record, riders are put into one of three divisions: Novice, Limited Non-Pro and Non-Pro. Once a student wins an event at their current level, the next calendar year they are required to move up to the next level.

Texas A&M Stock Horse Team member Nolan Self and his mare Light Dots demonstrating a proper sliding stop.

I spent the afternoon watching team members run through their reining patterns and work cattle. Towards the end of the evening, Morgan let me get on her young horse, TAMU Itsa NuDeelight, and sort cattle in the back pens for team riders to practice on. Just starting out in her career, Deelight didn’t have the same refined skills with the cattle that Sugar did, but just like the rest of the horses on the team she knows her job is to move those cows and she loves it!

All in all, I had a pretty great time getting to try a new sport and check another thing off my equine bucket list. Reined Cow Horse is a demanding event – my abs were hurting in ways I didn’t know they could – and for an adrenaline junky eventer like me, it was right up my alley. I am definitely going to continue taking all the opportunities I can to learn and ride some more cow horses. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go out for the Stock Horse team this fall!

Thank you so much to Brooke Wharton, Ben Baldus, Matlock Rice, Morgan Moreno and the Texas A&M Stock Horse Team for helping this eventer be a cowgirl for a few days!