Cattle Work 101

Learn where to position your horse to influence a cow’s movements, plus how to practice when you don’t have access to cattle.

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A cowboy aboard a sorrel horse performing cattle work
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Whether you’re new to cattle work or want to improve your cattle-driving skills, you’ll need to learn how to influence a cow’s movements. How you and your horse approach, track, and drive a cow influences where it will go next. To master driving and turning a cow in the arena, you must know where to position your horse.

“The best way to control a cow is to be closer to the cow,” says trainer Cody Crow. “A lot of people feel it’s safer away from the cow, but if you’re too far away, the cow can move where it wants to go. Make sure to step up and influence where you want the cow to go.”

Here, Crow helps you position your horse so you can drive a cow forward and then change the cow’s direction. He’ll teach you how to visualize where to be.

He also shares his teaching strategy: to take turns acting out the part of cow and rider with another riding friend. Whether you don’t have cattle to practice with or if you just want to boost your confidence, riding and “moving” another horse and rider can help you understand where to be when you’re working cattle.

The Pressure Points in Cattle Work

When he first teaches students to drive and turn cattle, Crow says he has riders follow a cow and learn where to be to get the forward drive. Working in his large arena, riders first follow and track the cow, then learn to drive it forward.

Driving: “If your goal is to drive the cow forward, you want the horse’s shoulder putting pressure on the cow’s hip—between the outside of the hip and the cow’s tailhead,” says Crow.

A horse and rider performing cattle work
To drive the cow forward, have your horse put pressure on the area between the cow’s hip and tailhead. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Only after riders feel comfortable following and pushing a cow forward will he teach them to move up and turn the cow.

Turns: “If I’m going to make the cow turn, I want my horse’s shoulder even with the cow’s eyeball,” says Crow. “You’ll need to change your pace and move faster than the cow to get in position. You’re not merely pushing but moving forward to change the direction. Whether you’re circling the horse or turning, this is the position to keep the cow turning away from you.”

Once you learn where to position your horse, you’ll need to practice so you know which position to be in at the right time.

“Sometimes you’ll have a cow that wants to move off of the fence,” says Crow. “You may have to move quickly between drive and turn, then get back to the drive spot to keep the cow moving. If you linger at the eye during your turn, the cow may stop when you don’t want it to. Make sure to return to the drive line—focusing on the cow’s tailhead.”

A horse and rider performing cattle work
To make the cow turn, it should be between the fence and your horse. Get your horse’s shoulder even with the cow’s eye. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Find a Practice Buddy

Most riders don’t have consistent access to cattle, but you can still practice your position when you ride with another horse and rider.

“It’s important for you to see where the cow’s escape routes are and how the horse’s position influences that,” says Crow. “When you’re just riding around a cow, I don’t think most riders are trying to see the cow’s perspective. Where does the cow see the open door? Learning the cow’s perspective can help you know where to be.”

Whether you’re new to cattle work or just want to practice cow work without cattle present, riding with another horse and rider can help you learn while removing some of the fear and speed. Ask a friend to ride with you and take turns being the rider and the cow. Make sure to ride horses that get along well and keep a safe distance as you practice.

Make sure to communicate. Since you’re riding with a friend, talk through your moves and share what you notice. Tell your friend where you’re going and when you’re moving in position to turn. Ask each other what you notice and where you felt you had to move or turn.

Crow suggests starting by driving your friend—who’s acting as the cow—forward along a fence line. To get in the best position, stay slightly behind the other horse, looking at his tail. That’s the point to watch as you push that horse’s hip and drive your friend forward.

Two western riders riding their horses along a fenceline
Stay slightly behind the other horse, looking at his tail, as you push that horse’s hip and drive your friend forward. Be sure to communicate your moves with the other rider. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Next, make your friend—the cow—turn. You’ll move from the drive position and instead focus to the cow’s eyeball. Move ahead so that your horse’s shoulder is even with the other horse’s eye. You’ll need to speed up your horse to move into position. When you move your position and focus, you’ll influence your friend to turn.

A rider bringing his horse even with another horse and rider
Speed up so that your horse’s shoulder is even with the other horse’s eye. When you move your position and focus, you’ll influence your friend to turn. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

When you move your horse’s shoulder to ride parallel to the other horse’s eye, she’ll feel a shift in pressure and that the forward movement is blocked. There’s nowhere to go but to turn away from the pressure at the eye.

Two riders turn their horses along a fence
Your friend will feel a shift in pressure and that her forward movement is blocked. There’s nowhere to go but to turn away from the pressure at the eye. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

You can practice this drive-then-turn pressure change as you ride down your arena’s long side. This is a great way to practice going down the long side without the fear of too much speed. You’ll drive the “cow” down the fence, then turn when you’re ready.

Use caution and communicate as you ride with your friend. While moving in a trot or lope, you can learn what position to move into without fearing that the cow will move into you.

Cattle Work in Real Time

With lots of practice, you’ll learn how to read and influence cattle because of your positioning. It will feel natural and you won’t have to think so much.

“Now it’s muscle memory for me,” says Crow. “I grew up on a cattle ranch, and I had the opportunity to read cattle and learn how to influence their behavior by my positioning. The more you practice, the more it becomes second nature. You can just get to the spot where you want to be instead of having to stop and process, ‘Where should I be and where do I need to be?’ By the time you process all of that, the moment is lost, and the cow has just dragged you down the arena.”

When you’re confident knowing how to move the cow forward and how to make a turn, you have the basics down. Then there are always tweaks to help you move your horse through the turn and polish your moves. But you’ll need these fundamental driving and turning skills to get started.

Meet the TrainerHorse trainer Cody Crow

Cody Crow owns and operates No Where But Up Performance Horses with his team of trainers in Johnstown, Colo. He trains horses and riders to compete in versatility ranch horse, ranch riding, ranch trail, and reined cow horse competitions. He has earned world and reserve world championships and helped his horses earn titles in American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, Appaloosa Horse Club, National Reined Cow Horse Association, and National Snaffle Bit Association events.

Special thanks to Payton Porterfield and her horse, Steps of Perfection (bay), for helping demonstrate these exercises.

Read More: Introducing Your Horses to Cattle

This article about cattle work appeared in the April 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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