Thursday, May 3, 2018

On Sundays, We Chase Cows


If you get a chance to mess with cows with your horses...


Back in December, I saw a Facebook event called, "Intro to Cattle". It was a beginner clinic that introduced horses and riders to cows, and then the basics of working them, with the end goal of competing in sorting. I emailed the organizers and said, "Do you allow English horses to come in? I ride dressage but this looks like fun!" I got an "Absolutely!" as a response, and then found out it was a 4 hour session, all mounted. I was like uhh, nevermind.

Fast forward a few months, they posted there were still two openings in the Sunday morning session and I decided to sign up anyway. I could always get off and stand for a while, or just be done, and then I wouldn't be sitting on Penn for 4 hours. One of the other ladies at my barn signed up for the other spot, so at least I had company!

I just want to insert this here, since we were talking vet in my last post: THIS TRIP WAS VET APPROVED. Since it was mostly walking and standing, she didn't see a reason we shouldn't go. In fact, she brought it up and asked if I was still going. I said I'd only go if she approved it, and she's like, "Yupp, that's fine. You should still go!"

I also got a new bridle for the occasion...

He is very cheeky to ride with the noseband converter! Also, I am on a black and navy roll.

I ended up getting a Berlin Beta Biothane headstall with a Thinline bitless noseband converter and 10' yacht rope reins. I didn't get the headstall from RW, I ended up getting the buckle end version from Ebay. Looking back at the reins though... They didn't send me the scissor clips and apparently they were supposed to (I thought I had misread the item description when it arrived sans clips)... It's a bit late for me to be like "hey! you shorted me my stuff!" when I ended up buying gunmetal black scissor clips that I like more from Amazon and wouldn't have any use for an extra set of clips. I wanted a bitless bridle to trail ride in, and this seemed like an excellent reason to buy all the pieces since I didn't want to use my nice dressage bridle around cows. I did use a bit for the clinic though!

Such stunning beauty... I rode him lightly in this set up the day before the clinic and he was quite foamy and happy with it. Remember, the vet did approve light riding up until his SI injection.

We pulled out of home barn at the dark hour of 5am (meaning I got up at 2:35am that morning). We allotted 3.5 hours to get there (Google said 2.5, but it's all back roads), and it took us about 3.75 hours to make the trip. There was a snafu with Google though... I entered the address, and the maps plopped me out on a dirt road 3 miles off course, not even on the correct road. Eyeroll. Come on Google, I gave you AN ADDRESS. I guess this is why I got into the habit of using coordinates. I'll have to get back into that habit!

We were panicking and in a hurry to get the horses off the trailer and tacked since we were supposed to be "tacked up, warmed up, and ready to ride at 9" and we still had horses on the trailer at 8:45. We shouldn't have hurried, the clinic was VERY relaxed. Hell, they said the usual route to the indoor was extra muddy, so just hop through the man door into the arena. Which we totally did, NBD. #prouddressagehorsemom

This barn is gorgeous BTW. And I love the set up. They have a huge indoor with nice footing (standard size ring plus a little length and width I think), hooked up to H-shaped stabling. The vertical part of the "H" has stalls where every stall has a shared run with one other stall. Over each aisle, there's a catwalk with hay storage so hay can be dropped from above. All of the horses go out in regular fields too, which is great. It's a more western oriented barn, but that's ok. Everything was neat and tidy and it had a low key atmosphere. I lifted a few pics from their Facebook page since the barn is newly constructed (and how I found out so much about how its layout):

Anyway, as soon as Penn got into the arena, he was on red alert (he was already on red alert from tacking up with a jumpy/hurried rider at the trailer). He saw the cows in the paneled off section at the end of the ring and was like, "WHAT IS THAT". He was very brave up until about 20' away from them, and thank goodness I decided to go "semi-western" with the clip-on rope reins... I ended up unclipping the right side so I had a 10' long lead rope attached to my horse shaped snorting kite.

I have a lot of pictures like this. Blurry, most of the horse is missing (or all of it), and sometimes without cows. This was one of the best ones.

I wanted to stay on the ground for a little while because Penn was acting semi-feral and snorting up a storm (it was as if he's never traveled before in his life), but the guy who was running it suggested I get on and put him to work and keep him moving, and slowly circle him down the ring until he was working nicely next to the panels. Sure, why not?

I hopped on, using the buddy system with my barn mate that came with us as shield that kept Penn in place, and put him to work. It worked like a charm. I put him on the bit an on my outside aids, and he was worried and distracted but was like, "Ok, let's work."

They eventually put the cows back behind their little "blind pen" and had us ride into the cow enclosure so the 6 horses could sniff and investigate the tarp covered panels that held the cows. The tarp was a bigger issue for the horses than the cows were! Especially when the cows ran into the panels and the whole thing clanged and moved. I did sit a few big spooks, but I am proud to say I stuck them out like a champ in my dressage saddle. Much better than the other riders in their western saddles!

This is literally the only pic I have of the arena and set up. Like, what was I thinking? Oh yea, I had a kite instead of a horse.

We had a baptism by fire moment when two cows busted through the opening in the little pen, and were free to mingle with the horses. The guy running it was like, "Crap, didn't mean for that to happen. OK, we're moving this along a little faster everyone, deal with it!" It worked out great actually, I hooked up with a more confident horse and Penn fed off his confident energy and kept his brain in between his ears. He eventually got bold enough to try and sniff the cow, which ran away, and he immediately was like, "Hey wait, I wasn't done sniffing you!" and chased after. Ice. Broken.

They let out a few more cows so we each had our own, and moved us on to the next step: to "pick a cow and follow it around" so the horses learned the cows would move away from them. Penn thought this was great, and got a bit over excited and tried to trot after his cow (I was then told to keep him at a walk...).

Eventually they let all the cows out of the blind, and we cornered them between the wall and panel by standing in a semi-circle, so we could practice walking through the herd one at a time, and then peeling a single cow out of the herd.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This brought out an interesting characteristic in Penn... He got all big and macho and became chargey. He also had two settings: ears super forward and watching, or ANGRY DRESSAGE HORSE with his neck arched and ears pinned back. He got so aggressive with the cows that the guy teaching told me that if he goes to charge a cow I haven't locked on to, I need to stop him and reprimand him. He had to get used to the cows walking around him with him just standing passively. He did not like that one bit!

It took about 1.5 hours to get to this point, and Penn finally started to relax. He spent the first bit of the clinic on high alert with super flared nostrils, fast breathing, and his blood vessels popping out. After his initial OMG WHAT IS THAT, he never once felt like he was checking out or wanted to leave.

We did basic sorting moves after that, getting progressively more difficult: get a cow out of the herd and get it outside the semi circle of horses, get a cow and take it to the opposite wall, get a cow out and go to the wall and make the cow change directions once, then twice. Get a cow out and make it walk between two cone 15' apart, then repeat but the cones are only 5' apart. Get a cow out and walk it between the panel and a cone 5' away, go to the wall and turn it once, and go back through the cone and panel back to the herd.

Big bad dressage horse!

We did all of that! And did it well! We actually did better than a few people who have worked cows before. Cows work off of the same shoulder/hind pressure that horses work off of, and to get them moving you kind of aim the horse across the cow's spine. The trick to to keep the horse's nose pointed at the cow so you can turn either direction quickly, and not get head on with it. One thing I had to get used to was when the cow is going straight along the wall, to kind of run across the ring with the cow, but not towards the cow. Cows also work off the energy your horse brings to the party- walking is low energy and they'll react with a slow moving response. A lot of the other riders were kicking and yanking and flinging their horse around, so the cows were really moving, and it got a little annoying because they would get close to running into the other horses (one actually ran into my barn mate).

Around the 2 hour mark, I hopped off and took Penn out of the cow area to give him a break. He didn't feel bad, but I wanted to give him a break from me sitting on him. We stood outside the panels for about 20 min, and he went back to being a semi-kite. Funny, he's ok when he can actually touch the cows, but they're a bit scary when they aren't responding to him from the other side of the panels!

The video was during a "break" about 2.5 hours in. I can tell because the cows aren't stuck in their semi circle.

After doing individual sorting, we started working on moving the herd as a group. The first thing was to use the horses to put all of the cows back in their blind pen, then one horse goes into the pen along the panels and pushes the whole herd back out. Penn wasn't quite brave enough to go in with all the cows in a compressed space, but he followed a brave horse in.

After that, the exercise became put all the cows away, then bring them back out, and take all the cows out to the big ring, down the long side, around the short side, and down the next long side and put them away again... I don't have video of that but it was more of a figure 8 the first few times we tried it, haha! It took all 6 of us to move the 15 or so cows, which is apparently overkill for 15 cows... #totalbeginners

We finished up with an exercise where we took one cow at a time out of the cow area and pushed it to their overnight holding area, which wasn't too hard. The hard part was taking one cow at a time OUT of the overnight holding area and back to the paneled area in the indoor. It took 25 min for 6 of us to move the 15ish cows one at a time to the indoor... Yea, we sucked at it, haha.

The cows were pretty dead to us by this point- as they get used to the horses and exercises, they become less responsive. There was one long horn in particular that got chest bumped a few times and just wouldn't move. They had been worked for 8 hours the day before, and we were almost through our 4 hour session.

Penn REALLY liked chasing the cows around. He hated when it wasn't our turn and he had to stand still. He got way too confident and aggressive though. By the end of the clinic he was trying to bite and kick the cows. That's why in the videos I'm keeping a contact with his mouth- it's so he can't bite the cows. The guy who ran the clinic said it's always fun watching the horses progress, and sometimes the most afraid horses in the morning are among the most confident by the end since they're a bit intense to begin with.

My barn mate gave me the biggest compliment, and I just wanted to share: "It was very cool to see how your dressage horse being able to move any part of his body in any direction become a "dressage cutting horse". The other participants used brute force to their reins or by kicking their horse to move them - you were able to move Penn by more subtly using your legs and seat." I was just so moved by that, it was so nice. I did get in touch with our dressage side when we did longer distance work, his ability to half pass and leg yield made it very easy to keep his eye on the cows and ready to go at any moment while still encouraging the cow forward where we wanted it to go. Dressage training also made working the cow on the wall much easier, he responded so quickly to what I wanted. I wish I had video of us doing that!

"Hello cow!"

Everyone seemed to enjoy Penn. They called him Slick, because he was so freaking clean and shiny (yes, I did give him a bath the day before, lol). They also called him "the big horse" because apparently at barely 16 hands, he's taller than everything they have, hahaha.

I have to say, the guy who ran the clinic and instructed (I actually never caught his name, wtf), was incredible. He's done this so many times and was just very very chill about everything. It made it easy to trust his suggestions and get better at moving the cows. He kept everything very low key.

He was SO PROUD of himself.
Aww poor guy. All the adrenaline wore off, haha.

We're totally down to come back, and I think more of our barn will come with us next time. We'll sign up a bit sooner so we can basically take over an entire session. I'm looking forward to playing with cows again!


  1. That sounds like SO MUCH FUN! My neighbors have cows and do a lot of ranch horse stuff (like the official association, not just that they have a ranch lol) and a few years ago I got to push cows on my old dressage horse Topaz. She was a little like Penn, a kite at the beginning but gradually getting confident enough to really go after the cows! I need to see if they'll let me bring Ruby out this summer 😁

  2. Hell yes. This sounds like a blast and job well done to you both! I'm trying to find an opportunity for Grif and I to finally try our hand at things this year, too. He's super gamey, always chasing and cutting my dogs, so I'm hopeful he'll enjoy it.

    And I'm glad you noted what your barnmate said - and the point about Penn being able to keep an eye on the cows easier and being ready to go thanks to the lateral work. I've always said similar things about dressage horses to friends around here who do primarily western disciplines. They think of dressage as being so hoighty-toighty (and honestly, I get it, it really does come across that way to much of the world and is why I was afraid of it for so long) and totally miss all of the functional things it teaches horse and rider. There are certainly "western" trainers who have equally responsive horses, but they're few and far between!

  3. THAT LOOKS LIKE SO MUCH FREAKIN' FUN!!!! Would you mind sharing where this was?! If it's close enough for me to make the trip I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE TO DO THIS!! Penn was a rockstar! :D

  4. Are you suuuure he's not part cutting horse? Because damn he loves those cows!

  5. omg his face in that "bad dressage horse" pic haha, omg! i'm pretty sure charlie would end up wearing a similar expression, sassypants! sounds like so much fun!

  6. Let me know when the next one is. It's only a few hours south of me and I'd love to come watch at the very least!

  7. His ear pinning is cracking me up! What a fun day!

  8. I love how much confidence he gained!! Though based on how much he bosses around his herd companions, I'm not surprised!

  9. So awesome! I love cattle sorting. Bitey horses are the best.

  10. This looks like SO MUCH FUN!! What a cool thing to do to get out of the arena for a bit:)

  11. Carlos loved working cows, I miss it