Working cow horse is a type of competition, known also as reined cow horse, where horses are asked to work a single live cow in an arena, performing specific maneuvers that include circling the cow, turning it in a specified manner, and performing a reining pattern. Horses that can perform these tasks are called "reined cow horses," "cow horses," "stock horses," or "working cow horses." Competition consists of three parts where a horse and rider are judged on their performance in a reining pattern, herd work, and "fence work". Horses are judged on accuracy, timing, and responsiveness, as well as how they handle a single cow and their ability to ride into a herd of cattle and quietly "cut" a cow from the herd.
The modern horse was reintroduced to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors. By the time the Spanish missionaries were making their way into California in the 18th century, the Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) were well established in other parts of America and came with them.
The King of Spain granted large tracts of land to loyal subjects, which were the basis for the "Californio" ranches and lifestyle common until the mid-19th century (and whose eventual owners were the source of the names of many California communities, including Irvine and Pacheco). These vast ranches raised range-bred beef for Mexican and other markets. The cattle were half-wild and dangerous, requiring a fast, well-trained horse that could intimidate an individual cow, turn it back from the herd, separate it for branding and other handling, and do it all effortlessly.
Over time, the "Californio" cowboy or vaquero developed a system of training working cow horses that became famous for its elegance, precision, and difficulty of training the horse. The roots of these methods are in European dressage, a system to train horses for war. Adopted by the pre-Moors and Moors in Spain, and transferred to the Spanish conquistadors, the Californio methods created horses so sensitive to their riders' signals they were known as "Hair-trigger" or "whisper" reined horses.
At the time, a finished reining horse (as it was called) required at least seven years to train: three to four years to train the basics in a bosal hackamore, then at least a year carrying both the bosal and the high-ported spade bit (named for the spade-shaped port which was from 1-3" high) to help the horse learn how to carry the bit, then several years refining techniques in the spade until the horse was a "made" reining horse. The training could not be done by just any Californio, and reining horses were valuable because of the difficulty of training and scarcity.
A finished reining horse could be controlled and directed with minute movements of the fingers of the left hand, which hovered above the saddle horn. (Compare to the grazing-bit style of Western riding developed in Texas, where reins are split between the fingers and the hand moves in front of the saddle, controlling the horse by neck reining.) Because of the potential severity of the spade bit, chains added to the ends of the reins to balance the bit in the horse's mouth, and knotted and braided rawhide reins which prevented the reins from swinging unnecessarily, even at a lope, the "made" reining horse seemed to run, stop, spin and handle a cow on its own, with little communication from its rider.
In the early-to-mid-19th century, the Gold Rush changed the complexion and future of California. The influx of newcomers into the Golden State helped to dissolve the vast cattle ranches of earlier days. On the ranches that did remain, modern livestock management techniques and machinery eventually eliminated much of the need for a well-trained, versatile working horse.
By the early 20th century, the reined cow horse had gone from being a necessity to a luxury, and there was little activity to sustain the history or background of this training tradition. Most ranchers were struggling to survive the Great Depression. This trend continued through World War II; few people had the time to be concerned with the history, the horses and the training programs of "the old days." Only a handful of horsemen who remembered the old Californios or worked with them on the remaining California ranchos learned the old ways of training a "made" reining horse.
Among those who maintained the tradition in its purest sense is Ed Connell, author of the definitive spade-bit reining horse training manuals Hackamore Reinsman and Reinsman of the West. Trained in the 1940s by some of the last of the original Californio reinsman, Connell recorded this knowledge that provide an overview of the methods of training a "made" spade-bit horse resembling the famous horses of the past.
Reined cow horse events which are "open" to all breeds and held by the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA). Working cow horse events are also held at breed specific shows, such as at an American Quarter Horse Association or Arabian Horse Association show, The general rules between various organizations are usually similar to the NRCHA in that the horse is required to perform two or three different sorts of work in one or two sessions. One session consists of reining work, where a reining pattern is performed. This is often referred to as the "dry work." The other is the cow work, where a single cow is released into the arena and the horse is asked to first hold the cow at one end of the arena (known as "boxing") then run the horse along the rail of the arena, turning it back without the aid of the fence (known as "fencing"). Lastly, the horse maneuvers the cow into the center of the arena and cause the cow to circle in a tight circle in each direction (known as "circling"). All this must be accomplished before the cow is exhausted. In three event competition, a "Herd Work" session is also included. The herd work is similar to cutting where a single cow is "cut" from a herd of cattle and prevented from returning to the herd by the intervention of the horse and rider. Herd work is most often included in three-year-old futurity and four- and five-year-old derby classes. Herd work is also included in a "Bridle Spectacular" class. (The Arabian Horse Association omits the reining work in its breed shows.) The horse is judged on the ability to control the cow, as well as speed, balance, responsiveness to the rider.
Today's reined cow horse competitors train horses at two levels, similar to the original Californio method. Younger horses, three-year-olds, can compete with a snaffle bit. Four- and five-year-old horses can compete in either a snaffle bit or bosal; six year and older horses compete in a "bridle", which utilizes a curb bit, usually a milder version of the original spade bits used by the Californios. Occasionally, one will see a skilled rider with a horse in a spade bit, but because of its potential severity, the difficulty and time involved in training a horse to a spade, and the well-bred horses of today which can perform without such bits, most horsemen avoid the spade.