Pas De Deux With a Cow: Cow-work for the dressage horse

Written by Sylvana Smith

We dressage riders pride ourselves on riding with precision, executing transitions and figures with accuracy and accountability.  The sport of dressage calls for riding very precise tests with specific attributes.  We must therefore have a particularly good connection and harmony with our horses, right?

However, riding a known pattern is one thing. It is entirely another thing to ride a pas de deux with a wary steer who would rather be somewhere else. Suddenly it becomes clear that a whole different level of lightness, collection, and precision is needed—introduced by the element of unpredictability and the requirement for speed.

When you ride a dressage test, you know exactly what to expect and when. But a suspicious steer demands that you and your horse communicate well, act fast, and do it all with little or no time to set up and prepare. The accomplished cow-working mount sits back on his haunches more than a Prix St. George mount doing a canter pirouette—and faster. He shows more get-up-and go impulsion than the Third Level horse powering into an extension. And he does it without a host of wake-up half-halts that forewarn him some request will be made of him in the near future.

My mount for the weekend was a First Level dressage pony that has been my love for 20 years. I’ve prided myself on his versatility; he has foxhunted, shown creditably in hunters and dressage, won many a hunter pace, and carried me on many cross-country miles. But none of those jobs requires the unique skillset of cow-working, or that the horse work relative to some independent-thinking creature (besides me, of course). As such, cow-working can be a perfect complement to traditional English endeavors in the complete education of the horse. FIRST STEPS OF MOO-SICAL FREESTYLE

In 1998, I drove to the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia to attend a Buck Brannaman horsemanship clinic hosted by Gary Ford. There, I was offered a late-breaking slot in the afternoon cow-working session. It didn’t seem relevant, but I signed up on a lark. Just for fun, I thought. I came away from the weekend thinking the experience had real value for dressage/event horses.

Think of it as the melding of a liberal arts education and vocational/technical training. With that combination of experiences, a voc/ed student would be not just a worker, but a craftsman… the ivory tower graduate would be not just a philosopher, but a thoughtful practitioner.

I have no more need to herd cattle than to herd cats, but this looked like a fun and different thing to do with my pony. Then, being humbled at seeing it done well (not by me, mind you), it turned out to be much more than a fun diversion. It was an opportunity to broaden perspective, see if those dressage skills could be taken out of the arena and put to a real job, and gain appreciation for the difficulty of doing a fast, real-world job with quality, in harmony with the horse.

Don’t construe my remarks as unqualified awe for anyone who pushes cows around. I’ve seen enough team penning to know that quality and harmony are rare indeed. The most common modus operandi is to punch the accelerator, snap the steering wheel around and screech the brakes—hardly the picture we were seeking to achieve in the clinic.

Claire Sibley, Steamboat Spings, Colo.
Claire Sibley, Steamboat Spings, Colo.


Sixteen riders gathered in the main arena at Little Moose Ranch for three days of intensive instruction in practical cow-working. We were mounted on various types of horses, from my 14-hand Arab-Connemara pony to some elegant Hanoverians, and other athletic horses of more traditional stock type—Quarterhorses and Appaloosas.

Although the participants were varied—veterans like our host and the Staunton cowboys, or newcomers like myself—we shared common ground in our bridles: snaffle bits with mecate rein setups, which we were to use two-handed. No curb bits, no neck-reining allowed. In the Californio bridle horse tradition, a ported bit and one-rein guidance are the reserve of the highly educated horse. We would no more have put a ported bit on our snaffle-bit mounts than you would put a double-bridle on a Training Level dressage horse.

The clinic was organized around four principal exercises:

• As a group, holding the herd in the center of the arena

• Individually, cutting one out of the group and keeping him apart from the group

• As a group, moving the herd single-file along the perimeter of the large arena

• Individually, tracking one cow along the perimeter of a smaller arena

These exercises involved four key maneuvers: driving the cow, blocking him, drawing him and turning him back. How do you do this without ever laying a hand or a rope on the steer? You do it by manipulating an invisible force field between you and the cow. This invisible force field (my term, not an official one) is created by your presence, direction of movement, position relative to the cow, and the shape of your horse’s body. The well-handled cow will respect this invisible force field, and respond in relatively consistent ways.

For instance, you can…

• Move your horse with presence toward the cow’s haunches to drive him forward

• Follow a parallel track as the cow but at a distance angled slightly back from his haunches to keep that energy going (“going short on the cow”)

• Ride a parallel track to the cow, moving at his pace, to keep energy flowing and block him from leaving his track

• Leg yield toward him to press him to the rail without blocking his forward energy

• Move up to his shoulders or further ahead (“going long on the cow”) to block him, either to slow him or turn him back

• Shrink a distance away from the cow with your horse’s rib cage away from him, to draw him in to you

• Sweep closer to the cow with the horse’s rib cage toward him, perhaps to keep him moving through a corner where he would like to dart across the arena.

• Move in to the cow’s haunches until he takes a step, then back out of there quickly, to move along a cow in a line without blocking the forward energy of the ones coming up behind him.

Imagine for a moment that the cow is a balloon. If you want to move it forward, you’d “squeeze” it behind the center point. If you wanted to move it back, you’d squeeze it closer to the front. To encourage forward movement, you position yourself toward the hindquarters. To slow or stop the cow, point yourself at his shoulder or ahead. To draw him to you, back off.

How much pressure is that figurative squeeze on the balloon? Is your invisible force field two feet from the cow or 10 feet? Is your horse perpendicular to the cow, at a 45 degree angle, or parallel? When “going short” on the cow, do you hang back a cow’s length, a half a length, or overlap by a half length? Where is the right position to turn him back? When do you pressure, and when do you back off?

Therein lies the trick. Every cow, every moment, was different, and the game is one of constantly trying to judge the appropriate timing and degree of pressure.

Too little, and you’re ineffectual, can potentially draw the cow toward you when you meant to push him away. Too much, and you can make him dart off in erratic ways. Too early, and you can make him change his mind when his mind had been headed in the right direction. Too late, and he can get away. Too passive, and you don’t get much accomplished. Too aggressive, and you don’t give him enough incentive to deliver the right response.

That means you’re not so much trying to influence the cow’s body as to influence his mind. Look for where his mind is, and act on that. He might be standing stock still, but if his mind is focused on the gate you want to drive him through, wait. Less is more. Go slow to go fast. If his mind is in the right place (thinking about doing what you want him to do), let the natural flow send him there, if at all possible. Pressure him at this point and he might get anxious and dart somewhere else entirely, and you’ve botched what could have been an easy task.

Buck spoke often of “building a feel” in the cow, developing a consistent pattern of quality in this work to develop a better driving herd, just as you would seek to develop consistent, quality responses when driving a horse at liberty in the round pen.


Buck Brannaman Arc, Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Buck Brannaman Arc, Steamboat Springs, Colo.


What constitutes quality cow-working? The principles were remarkably similar to quality horse-training. Direct the cow toward the correct response, using considerate andconsistent communication. Make it undesirable (block him) if he delivers the wrong response. Reward him by removing the pressure when he’s delivering the right response. And don’t let him discover that there really is no such thing as an invisible force field.

“A good litmus test for your work is when you’re done working the cow, he looks like this,” Buck said, pointing to a steer standing calm, contented, in the middle of an arena, sans buddies. “He should look like you could step off your horse and walk up to him.”


Day One with the cows tightly bunched in the center of the arena, held there by a circle of riders (“in rodear,” Spanish for “to surround”). We then took turns cutting one out of the group and keeping it apart for a few minutes. Our objective was to ride in a mirror image of the cow, and to turn him frequently for practice. Two or three minutes doesn’t sound like much until it’s your turn trying to keep the animal where it doesn’t want to be.

Watching the other riders, I had lots of opportunity to observe what worked and what didn’t, and resolve not to make the same mistakes—just before getting my turn to go in and make all the same mistakes and more.

Every turn was an enlightening experience. I had always considered my pony to be educated and attentive. But you get a completely new perspective when working with an unpredictable cow, compared to a predictable dressage test or equitation pattern.

Adding a third mind —the cow’s—into the equation gives you a clearer picture of how well you and your horse share one mind. The proficient cow horse/rider team may well surpass their dressage counterparts in some fundamental skills, such as these:

Moving out in a hurry. Sure, dressage horses are expected to do clean upward transitions and powerful extensions. But in a dressage test, you can set up for it in advance. You have plenty of time to say, “Horse, get ready, wake up, it’s coming… here we GO.”

On Day One of the cow-working experience, my pony was taken by surprise by my requests to move out in a hurry without the customary advance notice. He’d waste valuable seconds wadding up a bit before really moving out. I realized that of all the varied jobs he has done in life, none required that he really scoot out with gusto on first indication.

Sitting back on the haunches. In the blur of Day One’s rodear exercise, I tended to forget to stop Roadie truly straight and set up for the turn. We’d stop while wallowing the hindquarters away from the cow. This is a darned inefficient way to set up the stop, because if the hindquarter is moving, the horse’s weight is shifted forward rather than back. It’s not great to have the cow turn more athletically than the horse!

The turn is supposed to be done on the haunches, after stopping straight and rocking the weight back. By Day Three, Roadie and I did a couple of nice turns, with a bit of leap in front. The more experienced teams could have readily done a canter half-pirouette, given the lightness of their rollbacks.

Doing crisp halt-to-back transitions. On Day Two, Buck had us collaborate in a group exercise that sounded deceptively simple. Move the herd single-file along the perimeter of the arena. There were almost as many riders as cows, so how hard could it be?

Our group’s early efforts were chaotic. It requires great finesse and timing to stir up energy in one cow in a line without blocking the energy of the ones behind him. You have to get in there, get the energy started, and get back out of there fast. In, back out, in, back out.

It seemed I was never quite fast enough, even though Roadie is a dandy backer-upper. The presence that would drive one cow forward would invariably block another behind him. If the reinback isn’t genuinely balanced on the hindquarter, there will be a moment of stall between the last backing step and the next forward step. To be successful in this game, the horse must do a crisper and lighter reinback than you would see in the typical Third Level test.

Zig-zagging leg yields. In a one-on-one exercise, each rider tracked a steer around the perimeter of the arena. We were to “go short on the cow” to drive him forward, riding a parallel track but angled back from his haunches. If he got stuck, we could ride in closer to the rail to push him out from behind. If he tried to leave the rail, we’d move up to block, then drop back so as not to accidentally turn him back by being too much in front of the energy.

That means the horse must do a leg yield zig-zag—with any number of steps or degree of angulation to the left and right—without hesitation and while adjusting his pace as well. This proved to be excellent cross-training for First Level leg yields. Because my pony could clearly see a reason for the movements I was requesting, he responded ever more lightly to the aids as we worked.

Working softly at speed. If it wasn’t enough to keep our eyes on the cows, try to predict his every move, plan the right response, and act on it… we were to do all of this with quality horsemanship. Straight halts with the horse’s chin down and in. No slinging heads and gaping mouths. Rock the horse back to set up the turn on the haunches correctly. Soft feel (rounded frame, yielding to the bit) in every transition. Guide first with legs and seat, following up with reins only when necessary. Bring up the life without nagging and squeezing.

In the calm of a solo dressage ride, you can devote full attention to these qualities and have leisure time to get them. It is challenging to achieve those qualities in the fast, uncharted choreography of the bovine pas de deux.


Each evening, Roadie and I joined other riders to help put the herd back out in the 100-acre pastures. Since the herd didn’t need our coaxing to head for the lush grass, it was a relaxing opportunity to socialize and enjoy 360-degree views of farm and forest. It was also an opportunity to reflect on the experience from an English rider’s perspective—compare and contrast with the other jobs my mounts do to “earn” their living with me.

As I mentioned earlier, I have zero need to herd cows. But the cow-working experience was a great way to bring clarity to the exercises we practice in the Horsemanship clinics, to put our flatwork skills to the test under pressure, and to provide some big-picture perspective on the working bridle horse tradition.

On further reflection, the experience didn’t even seem that obscure in relation to the “jobs” of an English rider:

• Having the horse “bring up the life” very quickly to a fast pace, and returning immediately to a calm posture… isn’t that exactly what we need when foxhunting on a red fox, then settling in quietly for a check while the hounds try to find the line?

• Operating the horse with quality and attentiveness at speed… isn’t that exactly what we need to be safe at 450 meters-per-minute on the cross-country course at a horse trial?

• Being able to expect instant response from the horse, even when you don’t have a chance to set him up… isn’t that just the ticket when a hound jumps out in front of your horse, or a horse or rider falls in front of you, on a full cry run?

• Having the horse sit back on his hocks and lighten the forequarter to carry out a movement… isn’t that maybe just a teeny bit useful for dressage? ;-)

• Having the horse carry out crisp walk-to-canter transitions, soft canter-to-halt transitions, and reliable departures on a designated lead… aren’t those essential ingredients for winning any hunter hack or equitation class? Sure, those skills can be taught in other settings and other ways, but cow-working is a terrific opportunity for cross-training. The horse is broadened by the exposure. The rider gets a clearer picture of his/her readiness with the horse, gauged honestly against a real-world job rather than some subjective standard.

So my recommendation, whatever your chosen English discipline, is to dust off the husband’s saddle and give it a try!

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.29