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Western Events

The Difference in Reining and Cow Horse Stops

A fast-stopping horse sliding into a cloud of dust is an icon for western riding. Horses in reining classes stop with sliders on their back hooves to accentuate downward transitions. In cow horse classes, the horse’s stop blocks the cow’s motion—compounding the action as arena dirt flies.

Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Here, trainer Aaron Ralston demonstrates how the western stop is differs with and without cattle present. Ralston says the same horse can stop well in a reining class and learn how to stop a cow.

“The best cow horse must be as broke as the best reining horse and as connected to a cow as the best cutting horse,” he says. “Then responsibility falls to the rider. If you use your reins and leg, it must be in time with the objective of the cow.”

The horse must be tuned into the rider for the reining stop cue and tuned into the cow for great cow horse stops.

“For the reining stop, you need to have a great stop, then change directions,” he says. “When you’re working cows, the cattle shift right and left, and you’re always reacting.”

Stopping Time

No matter what type of class you’re preparing for, Ralston recommends keeping your cues consistent. When you visualize how to move your hands to rein for the stops, keep in mind the clock image from part 1 of this series.

With the clock face over your horse’s body—and 12 o’clock at his ears—you’ll move your hands toward 6 o’clock to cue for a stop. You’ll then return your hand to the middle of the clock to allow your horse to move his neck freely without a tight rein.

The Reining Stop

For the perfect reining stop, the horse’s back should hunch into the stop while his hind hooves reach toward the front hooves. The horse’s front legs should move freely as the horse skates into the stop.

The horse’s neck naturally telescopes out and down to counterbalance his weight going down in the back. There will be a nice arc from the nose to the hind end. Ralston warns that you don’t want a lot of rein or bit contact—little to none.

To put this scene into action, Ralston says he approaches the stop with gradually building speed. As the horse runs down to the stop, his body position naturally changes, and his shoulders move back with the motion.

When you’re ready to stop, make sure not to force your shoulders back. Instead, the way the horse moves should send your shoulders back—just like a jet taking off propels passengers back into their seats. This relaxed, natural back position means that the horse is moving his shoulders freely without weight tipping forward onto his front legs.

The horse should have a relaxed, rounded back when doing a sliding stop. There should not be any excess pressure on the reins to give the cue. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

When it’s time to ask for the stop, say “whoa,” press the balls of your feet into your stirrups, drive your heels, then lift your hand for light contact. As you sit the stop, point your belt buckle to the sky and keep your chin up.

The reining stop was developed for the arena-performance class. Reining crowds cheer the loudest when horses glide over a long distance. This stop isn’t used to work on the ranch. However, the horse’s free movement and willingness to change speeds on command are always essential.

Cow Horse Stop

For a cow horse stop, the horse’s front end doesn’t pedal to balance the hindquarters’ sliding. Instead, the horse’s front legs move more abruptly to allow him to change directions when the cow turns.

“If the cow and horse move down the fence then stop at the same time, the horse would keep moving down the fence while the cow changed directions and got away,” Ralston says. “The reining stop with sliders is not practical for working cows.”

Ralston says that for a well-trained horse, the easiest way to change from a reining stop to the stop needed for cattle work is to change the shoes. Ralston chooses back shoes for cattle work that allow the horse to move through the footing with his hind hooves but that have more friction than those that allow for a sliding stop.

To stop for a cow horse class, position your body just as when stopping in a reining class. While the horse will move differently, your position remains the same. As you move with the cow down the fence, you want your shoulder, hip, and heel to align.

With your body relaxed and shoulders back, you’ll be balanced for the cow work stop; you don’t want your upper body to lean forward and put weight on your horse’s front end. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

The trained horse will speed to take you to the spot that will stop the cow. The momentum of the horse should naturally move your shoulders behind your hips. With your shoulders back, you’ll be balanced for the stop.

Note that in either stop, your body position should be relaxed with your shoulders back. If you lean forward on a cow turn, you can get thrown forward while the horse tries to change direction. In that case, the horse has all your weight on his front end—making his job difficult. Instead, keep your shoulders slightly back to be ready for any western stop.

Meet the Trainer

Trainer Aaron Ralston works his horses on his family’s Collbran, Colo., cattle ranch and prepares them for world-class competition. He won Top 10 honors at the 2021 AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Show riding Blue Tucka Jo in Open Junior Ranch Trail and overall championship finals. Ralston also has championship titles in reining, cutting, working cow horse, and calf roping and earned gold for the United States reining team at the FEI World Equestrian Games.


This article appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Read the first installment of this series, demonstrating the difference in turns between reining and cow horse classes.

Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; AQHA gelding, Golden H Mister T; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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