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What Is a Reined Cow Horse?

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It's a match made in Hollywood heaven: horses and cattle. The two seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. In reality though, it's hard to teach a horse to work with cattle. It's even harder to find a horse who has the natural ability to anticipate a cow's movement, and is a willing partner in working cattle. When a horse meets those requirements he's usually trained as a reined cow horse.

Reining and Cow Horses

A reining, or reined horse is one who has learned special techniques like sliding stops, spins and rollbacks, or speedy changes in direction. A cow horse, on the other hand, is a horse who is highly skilled in working cattle. Not only can a cow horse herd cattle, but can easily split a herd or single out a specific animal and move it to an exact spot or position. A reined cow horse is a master of both skill sets.


When Spanish vaqueros, or cowboys, needed to move large herds of cattle through Mexico and California in the 18th century, they taught their horses to do both reining and cattle work to get the job done. Their methods and style of riding became the basis of the modern western-style riding discipline. Like most elements of western riding, reined cow horses were developed for the purpose of getting a job done. The vaqueros based their training on the formula created by the world-renowned Spanish Light Cavalry.


Although reined cow horses are still used to work large ranches, today many are trained for competition. They are judged by three basic criteria: reining, cow work and herd work. Cow work involves moving a single cow up and down a fence line or in a particular pattern, while herd work involves driving the herd and cutting, or separating, a cow from the herd. The horse must demonstrate not only skill, but also willingness to perform the maneuvers. Reined cow horses are judged only by their performance and not by appearance.


Driving or herding cattle is only part of a reined cow horse's job. His real skill shines when an unwilling or wild cow needs to be separated from the herd, or when a small group of cattle split off from the group to avoid being herded. Keeping the cattle together is a matter of safety and ensuring the entire group is moved together. On the other hand, separating a single cow is necessary for tagging, branding, castration, worming and medical treatment.