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Cow Horse Boxing Class

Want to get in the ring? Find out if the box-only working cow horse class would be a good fit for you and your horse, with insight from pro Blue Allen.

Photo by Jennifer Paulson

Are you an experienced, motivated rider who’s up for a new challenge? Does your horse need to be freshened out of same-old-same-old doldrums?

The one-two punch of box-only cow horse class, which also requires reined work, is offered through National Reined Cow Horse Association events, as well as in American Quarter Horse Association competition at youth and amateur levels, including their novice and Select counterparts. These organizations have made cow horse events more accessible and enticing to riders in all parts of the country.

Read on, and NRCHA World Champion trainer Blue Allen’s insight will help you decide if you and your horse are ready to get in the ring, as well as explain what’s necessary to have a knockout boxing performance.

What Is It?
“The most important thing to know about the box-only class is that it doesn’t take any less a rider or horse to show in it versus traditional cow horse classes where you take a cow down the fence in addition to boxing it,” advises Allen, from Alamosa, Colorado. “There’s a saying: ‘If you can’t control the cow on the short side (boxing), then you don’t stand much of a chance going down the fence.’ It takes a good rider, with a trained horse, to compete in this class.”

That said, if you and your horse are skilled enough to try out the event, it has two elements: reined work and boxing.


In the reined work, you’ll complete a reining pattern, consisting of the same elements of a National Reining Horse Association pattern—circles with speed changes and lead changes, spins, stops, rollbacks, and a backup.

After your reined work, you’ll move to the end of the pen and call for your cow, where you’ll have 50 seconds to box the cow and show off your horse’s—and your own—cow sense. This is when the real fun starts.

Calling for Your Cow
Once you complete the final maneuver of your reined-work pattern, you’ll trot to the end of the arena where the cattle await in an adjacent pen. This brief time is when you’ll clear your mind and get focused on the cow work. Stop and set yourself up to call for the cow. Leave enough space between you and the fence that you’re confident there’s enough room for you to either stay off your cow if it’s got a little zip to start, or to step toward the cow if it starts off a little dull. (It’s all part of “reading the cow,” which we’ll discuss later.)

“Just before you call for your cow by nodding at the gate man, get yourself situated in a confident position, so you’re ready to take control,” Allen notes. “Your horse should be bright, with his ears forward to show that he’s ready, but he shouldn’t be overly strong. He should be set in position and wait patiently rather than anticipate what’s going to happen.”

Your horse should be bright and focused, but not overly strong, when waiting for your cow to come into the arena.
Photo by Jennifer Paulson

First Encounter
When your cow comes into the arena, keep your eyes glued on it for the duration of the run.

Your first impression of the cow will give you insight into its temperament—it’s called “reading a cow.”

“Your ability to read a cow comes with lots of practice working many different types of cows,” Allen continues. “When you’re at home or taking lessons, expose yourself to as many cattle as possible, study their reactions to different kinds of pressure, and keep solid mental notes that you can quickly recall when your cow enters the arena at a show, so you can determine what it’ll take to best work the cow.”

No matter what type of cow you get, it’s what you’re stuck with for the next 50 seconds, unless the judge calls for a new cow, which is a rare occurrence.

Your ability to read your cow will let you know if you need to ride more aggressively on a duller cow, like the one shown here.
Photo by Jennifer Paulson

Getting to Work
Once the cow sets foot in the arena, keep your eyes on the cow, not on your horse.

“It’s the horse’s job to take control of the cow; your horse should initiate every movement the cow makes,” Allen explains. “Every cow has a different flight zone, so it’s your job to read the cow and be able to interpret that ‘bubble.’ Your reading skills will let you determine how close your horse should be to the cow—in a more aggressive (closer) position or one that gives a wild cow a little more space.”

Your horse’s placement in relation to the cow is what, ideally, determines where the cow will go, and at what speed. When the cow moves in one direction, your horse should be parallel to the cow, moving alongside it. If the cow stops, so should your horse. And not a roll-through-a-stop-sign kind of stop. You’re after a real, hind-end-in-the-ground, hocks-underneath-the-horse stop, so that your horse has the power underneath himself to turn the cow and quickly head in the other direction without letting the cow get away from you.

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