California cowboys of the 18th century (Spanish vaqueros) are credited with developing the reined cow horse. These expertly trained horses worked the herds of cattle driven from Mexico and performed the day-to-day chores on vast cattle ranches. Among the finest horsemen ever, the California vaquero developed the equipment, riding styles, and training techniques for this special horse.
By the early 1900s, machinery began to replace this well-trained, versatile working horse, and the honored training methods began to fade. This trend continued, until shortly after World War II, when a small group of Californians decided to preserve the heritage of the legendary ranch horse. The organization formed in 1949 was originally named the California Reined Cow Horse Association and is now called the National Reined Cow Horse Association.
It would seem to be a match made in heaven: horses and cattle. They should go together like peanut butter and jelly. In reality, it is hard to train a horse to work with cattle and even harder to find a horse who has the natural ability to anticipate a cow’s movement and be a willing partner in working cattle. When a horse meets these requirements, he is usually trained as a reined cow horse.
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 has mastered both skill sets.
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 might be necessary for tagging, branding, castration, or medical treatment.
Although reined cow horses still work large ranches, today many are trained for competition. They are judged on 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.