by Laura Crum
The other day I had an interesting conversation with my horse trainer friend. He, like me, has ridden cutting horses, reined cowhorses and rope horses, and though it may seem to those who have not ridden such horses that they are all much alike, the truth is that they are very, very different. About the only thing these horses have in common is that they all wear western tack and work cattle.
My horse trainer friend is going back to showing reined cowhorses after several years in which he only competed at team roping. He just bought a little cowhorse to show and has been riding him along with a local trainer who competes a lot in cowhorse events. “My God,” my friend said, as rode around the roping arena together, “now my rope horse feels like riding some old plow horse. I never noticed it for years, but now that I’m riding this cowhorse with a real rein on him…I feel like Red barely steers.”
I laughed. “I know exactly what you mean,” I said.
I rode cowhorses for several years, and my Gunner horse, trained to be a cowhorse, was broke to death. Would slide, spin...etc. When I first started roping, I was quite smug about how much better broke my horse was than the other rope horses.
Come to find out, however, it wasn’t an advantage when it came to heading a steer. The stiffer rope horses with their somewhat rigid necks had a much easier time making a correct set and “picking up” the steer. I’ve watched many people try to rope on reined cowhorses over the years, and, especially when it comes to heading, the horses are at a disadvantage—because of the soft, flexible way that they yield.
And yet, in an overall sense, reined cowhorses are much better “broke” than rope horses. Unless, of course, you want to tie a horse solid for a few hours and then go out and round up some cattle in rough country. For this program you might want that not-so-well broke rope horse or ranch horse, because some (not all) of those reined cowhorses are rather touchy show ring prima donnas, who will not stand tied quietly and are too flighty to get much done out in the big, wide world outside the show ring.
My horse trainer friend and I talked about this, and about how people sometimes buy flunked out cowhorses and re-train them to be rope horses and how this can work pretty well, depending on the horse and his overall personality and background. And another guy, who has never done anything but team rope, rode up to us and said he knew where you could buy some ex- cutting horses really cheap—and would they make rope horses.
My trainer friend and I looked at each other and at the same time we both said, “Probably not.”
The roper looked puzzled, so I explained. “I worked for cowhorse guys and for cutters, and in general the horses are trained really differently. Reined cowhorses are broke to death, and cutters aren’t broke at all, in the way we understand broke. Cutters know how to do one thing—cut a cow, and other than that, well, some of the best of them barely steer and don’t know how to pick up a lead.”
The roper looked disbelieving, and my horse trainer friend laughed. “She’s right,” he said.
“It depends on the cutter, of course,” I told him, “but the guys with the old school Texas type background will let a horse do pretty much anything he likes, if he does his job—cutting that cow—really well. I was loping a solid cutter for a guy when I started working for cutting horse trainers instead of reined cowhorse trainers, and I asked the cutting horse trainer if he wanted me to collect this very strung out horse. His response was along the lines of God forbid. You let him lope any way he wants to—including on the wrong lead and whatever.” I laughed. “And then I went out to gather the cattle with a gal who was riding a horse who won the open cutting division on the west coast. That mare became so unglued by trying to get the cattle out of a twenty acre field that the gal got off and led the mare back to the barn—couldn’t even ride her. You literally could not open and close a gate on horseback from the champion cutting horse. My horse was one thousand times better broke than this mare in any sort of working ranch cowhorse sense”
The roper shook his head. Virtually all rope horses will allow you to open and close a gate on horseback. They will virtually all stand tied up solid to a fence or horse trailer as long as you want to leave them there. None that I know, once they are past being green broke, need any kind of lunging or round penning before you step up on them. Rope horses are not well broke in some ways, but they are real broke in others.
It’s not an issue for the average roper that his horse won’t take the right lead (many rope horses are like this) or can’t be ridden without a tie down (many rope horses qualify here, too). Whereas these would be a huge issues for a reined cowhorse guy. What are issues in one horse-chases-cow sport are not issues in the other.
My horse trainer friend and I have both only a slight acquaintance with endurance, but we both commented how endurance riders (in general) seem to tolerate what (to us) are incredibly pushy ground manners out of a horse. My friend had crewed a ride just once for a well known endurance guy (Jeremy something) and said at one point the horse was pushing right over him on the ground and he asked tentatively, “Is it all right if I get this horse off the top of me?”
By which he meant what both he and I would do to any rope horse that had the bad manners to get in our space at any time—which is wallop the heck out of said horse with the end of the leadrope and let them know that behavior was completely not acceptable.
He was met with the same aghast response that I got when I offered to collect the cutting horse. “Hell no. Leave him alone—he’s got fifty more miles to go.”
My friend laughed. “As long as these endurances horses are raring to trot another fifty miles down the road, these guys don’t care how pushy they are on the ground.”
This got us talking about stuff that is an issue in one equestrian discipline and not in another.
Hunter/jumpers mostly can’t be ridden outside on the trail at all, according to our friend who trains them. Just too flight/spooky. They also cannot be tied solid and left there (in general). These would be huge and completely unnacceptable issues for any of us who ride rope horses, but this behavior is taken for granted in hunter/jumper world.
I’ve noticed that endurance riders and those who mainly trail ride often have no idea how to get their horse to lope a decent circle or take the correct lead. They just have no need for this skill. And then there’s the manners thing. Again and again I read a description of a horse’s behavior and think, really? You put up with that? But the horse is doing well in endurance and the rider is happy…and that’s what counts.
Barrel racers accept a degree of fairly psychotic behavior as their horses get ready to start their run; it looks absolutely ridiculous to me. Rope horses have to run just as hard but because they must “score” (start from a dead standstill) no such crazy behavior is tolerated. But barrel racers take this running sideways crazy stuff for granted; it’s not a problem from their point of view, as long as the horse runs a good pattern and “clocks.”
I think it’s interesting that things that are “issues” in one equestrian discipline are taken for granted as normal in another discipline. Does anybody else have examples of this?