You aren’t imagining it – reined cow horse events are becoming more popular. But what exactly is it, and why does a champion competitor think that anyone with a ranch or rodeo background has a leg-up?
Traditional reined cow horse competitions, such as those sanctioned by the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA), are three disciplines combined into one event: herd work (cutting), reining and fence work. Each horse and rider team competes in all three. Fence work is perhaps the most thrilling to watch, as the cow runs down the fence and is turned and circled, along with other required maneuvers.
The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) calls its version working cow horse. And, the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) uses the reining and fence work disciplines while keeping cutting a separate event.
Both NRCHA and AQHA have four levels: snaffle, hackamore, two-rein and bridle. And, there are divisions classified for the rider: youth, novice, non-pro and pro. As with other equine disciplines, competitions for younger horses have become very popular, often with significant prize money. Futurities are for approximately 3-4 year old horses. Derbies are generally 5-6 year olds. There are strict guidelines for eligibility. Open events are just that – open to any age of horse.
Based on the traditional vaquero training style, each level advances the horse’s skills. You may have heard of the prestigious Snaffle Bit Futurity, a NRCHA event, which actually has both snaffle and hackamore levels for horses up to 5 years old. “The contestants are the epitome of perseverance – and the winners always inspire,” wrote the Quarter Horse Journal.
“This event makes every horse better,” says Janiejill Tointon, who owns Diamond Double T Ranch with her husband Bill near Longmont, CO. She’s a national champion non-pro rider, most recently winning 2019 NRCHA Limited Non-Pro at the Denver Stock Show riding Shining Lil Nic.
“I think anyone with a ranch or rodeo background has a leg up in reined cow horse,” says Janiejill. “They already know how to read a cow, and that’s a critical element.”
And so is patience.
“My advice to anyone who is just starting out is to be patient with yourself and your horse,” she says. “A great mentor told me to go for 1% improvement every training session. After 100 sessions, you’ve got 100%.”
“This event takes a lot of pieces being put together, so the result is like a beautiful dance,” says Janiejill. “There’s a lot more finesse than it probably looks like, especially the fence work. You’re going fast after that cow, but there’s truly an art to reading the cow, knowing when to cue your horse, and then riding all the way through. The timing, responsiveness and teamwork will make any horse and rider better.”
What’s the cornerstone for rider success? “Mastering your emotions and being focused on your horse every second.” Tointon uses this example: “In the herd work you are asking horses to do it themselves while in the fence work you are telling them to wait for you to give the cue.”
Mia Lil Pink making another great reining run in the two-rein division, trained and ridden by Justin Lawrence for Long Pines. This world champion versatility horse is now a broodmare.
Janiejill Tointon competing in the reined cow horse herd work. This is in the bridle division.