Working cow horse refers today to a competition which has also been known as reined cow horse. Horses are asked to work a single live cow in an arena, performing certain maneuvers that include circling the cow and turning it in a specified manner, as well as performing a reining pattern. Today, horses in this kind of competition are referred to as "reined cow horses," "cow horses," "stock horses," or "working cow horses."
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-1800s (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 Conquistadores, 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.
For almost 150 years, the Californio's reined cow horse was famous throughout California and into the West. They helped work the huge herds of longhorn cattle driven from Mexico to California, and performed the day-to-day chores on the vast cattle ranches.
In the early-to-mid 1800s, 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 1900s, 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, Mr. 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.
Working cow horse events are either held at a breed specific show, such as at an American Quarter Horse Association or Arabian Horse Association show, or are "open" to all breeds and held by the National Reined Cow Horse Association. The general rules are essentially similar 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 & 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". Horses working in curb bits, often "half-breeds," so-called because the port is about half the size 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.