Stay Connected to the Cow

Stay Connected to the Cow

Legendary trainer Don Murphy shares advice on training cow horses.

It takes years of training to make a good fence horse like the champion mare Sparking Train that Don is show here. (K.C. Montgomery photo)

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By Don Murphy with Sara Gugelmeyer

Training a cow horse takes so much time because the horse has to have that feel in their face and body, but still stay connected to that cow.

And the fence work is never cut and dried. Everything is always changing, and every cow is differ­ent. A good cow horse must be able to read that cow through the stop and turn and make adjustments.

The cow horse has to be hooked to the cow, but also listening to the rider. It’s a two-way street where they are working the cow, but not just drag­ging the rider around. When we pick them up, we don’t want them to come off the cow, but we want them to listen to us and let us guide them to the position we want them to be in.

First Connect to the Cow

I am kind of old-fashioned about the way I like to start colts. As soon as we can get out to the big arena, we track the cow around on them. Just real simple, track the cow and get connected to the cow. It helps us put the steering on them and then get where I can put leg on them, too. Two or three times a week, I track cattle on those colts. Then I jog up beside a slow cow and teach the colt to read the stop of the cow.

I think that’s the most important part. After I teach them to stop with the cow, then if the cow turns, I just back a step back and then let them follow through that turn. I don’t care if it’s a real good turn, as long as they learn to go with that cow. Eventually, as I progress in their other training, they will make the turn better.

Mostly, I want the connection to the cow from the very beginning. To get a horse connected to the cow right away is important even way down the road. Nowadays, a lot of people put all the handle on their horses before they introduce the cow. To me, even when that horse is finished, he always waits for you a little bit more than a horse taught to read the cow first. Those horses learn to read a cow, but they will react to you before they react to the cow. I want the horse to read that cow first and listen to me second. If I want them to wait, they better wait for me, but I want them to think about going with that cow every time.

Back in the old days when I was ranching, if a cow got out then we’d get on a colt and go get that cow back in. So the colts learned to go get that cow from the beginning. To me, those horses made better cow horses in the long run, because they were more connected to the cow. And they knew their job was to turn that cow and bring it back. So I want to do that same thing in the arena, teach the horse that his job is to go get that cow.

Then Add Speed

I don’t want to go fast at first, but as the colts get bet­ter broke, I make them go faster. As their training progresses, I make them gallop around the arena without a cow. That’s important, because once I start speeding up on the cow, my colts won’t get nervous about going faster. I think the biggest thing that horses do down the fence is that speed starts bother­ing them. They think it’s a race, and so I want to make sure that traveling fast doesn’t bother my colts.

Now throughout their training, we are doing a lot of herd work, which helps their fence work, too. I’ve got them read­ing that stop when I do the herd work even though that’s in a smaller pen. I also work cattle in a big arena throughout their 2-year-old year so the colt learns to travel a long ways with the cow and stop. I don’t believe you can only do one thing at a time with them. Now at this stage, I keep them off the cow 15 or 20 feet if it’s moving very fast. Then I move them in to about 5 feet and stop with the cow if it’s traveling slow. But I don’t run down the fence and ask them to step in front of the cow and turn it yet.

The biggest thing I am wanting at this stage is to teach that colt to read that stop. When the cow’s feet stop moving, the horse’s feet stop moving. And that takes time.

Try the Circle

The other thing I do before I really go down the fence is circle quite a bit on a slow cow. This is so colts get used to being next to the cow and traveling with that cow in a circle. For me, I think it helps prepare them to go down the fence, because they are comfortable galloping up to that cow and traveling beside it.

Through this process, I might get a little faster cow to work. On one that wants to be real fast, I box that cow and just work it there. And then that’s all I do that day. Then the next day, I might box that cow, go on around the corner, stay off of it and just travel down the fence and stop with it.

I just keep continuing with my program, and just keep adding to that program. In other words, I don’t just say, “Today I am going to go down the fence.” My colts are going down the fence without even realizing it. Even then, I might go down the fence a couple days then just work them out of the herd a couple days then the next day just rate them around.

We are on a timeline if we’re getting them ready for the Snaffle Bit Futurity, so sometimes we might have to speed that process up a little. But, usually, if you start these colts early working a cow, they are ready to go down the fence in time by going through this process.

Finesse in the Turn

After I have them going down the fence and stopping hard on a cow, then I really start teaching them to stop and then immediately get out of that turn and go somewhere with that cow. They need to leave the turn fast and travel out of that turn because the exit plan has to be as good as the entrance plan. A lot of people just work on the big stop but that’s not enough.

We kind of contradict ourselves between the herd work and the fence work. In the fence work, we want them to beat that cow out of the turn, and in the herd work, we want them to wait and react to that cow. As we are coming down the fence, the horse needs to read that stop so they can get back up out of that turn. So I work a lot on getting that big turn. I want them to stop straight and get a full half turn or more so they can cover that cow if the cow wants to come to the center of the ring. I work on a big half to three-quarter turn a lot. So my colts draw back and get all the way through that turn with the cow.

Sara Gugelmeyer is a special contributor to The American Quarter Horse Journal. Sara and her husband, Jeremy, manage a ranch at Dalhart, Texas, and a guided hunting operation that encompasses Kansas, Texas and New Mexico. Sara is an open Versatility Ranch Horse reserve world champion and an amateur ranch riding reserve world champion. To comment, write to


DON MURPHY is a legend in the cow horse business, having trained multiple world champions in National Reined Cow Horse Association and AQHA competition and is a member of the NRCHA Hall of Fame. He now focuses on coaching and mentoring young professionals and elite non-pros in cow horse events. He has been called the “trainer’s trainer,” as many of the top professionals in the business seek his advice.