Cow Horse Exercise: Doug Williamson's Circle-Stop-Sweep

Cow Horse Exercise: Doug Williamson's Circle-Stop-Sweep

Good for reining, cutting or doing fence work, this training drill allows a horse to get his physical and mental game tuned in.

Doug Williamson and High Brow Shiner compete in junior working cow horse at the 2012 AQHA World Show (Credit: Journal)

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

Loping circle after circle often becomes tedious for a rider and can certainly bore a horse. Doug Williamson, legendary reined cow horse trainer, has developed a cure for those training doldrums – an exercise he has dubbed the “circle-stop-sweep.”

“The circle-stop-sweep warms up my horse’s body for any situation,” Doug explains. “It doesn’t matter if I’m reining, cutting or doing fence work, the drill allows my horse to get his physical and mental game tuned in.”

However, even with the best preparation, Doug insists, the outcome of any performance will be determined by the rider’s posture, position and balance. He is adamant that people need to ride like there’s “nobody on top.”

“The horse and rider are a one-unit deal,” Doug says. “It all has to go together.”

Circle-Stop-Sweep Drill

Anyone who has observed Doug’s riding mode would probably classify it as loose and easy. His horses are generally relaxed with ears perked, never over-bridled and are more than likely working with minimal pressure on the reins.

His straight forward circle-stop-sweep drill follows his easy training style. Doug begins the drill by loping in easy circles. As the trainer adds a likewise easy stop, the horse reacts by loading up his hindquarters for action. With his hind feet squarely under his center of gravity, the horse is ready to “sweep,” or turn and move out in any direction with propulsion.

There are not a lot of cues to remember if you happen to be an equine in training with Doug. Vocally, you might hear “Whoa” to stop and a few “clucks” to get moving. Doug uses his reins to give orders, seldom referring to “leg aids” unless the trainee ignores his hands.

“If a horse doesn’t honor that cue I give him with the bridle reins,” Doug says, “then I (hurry) him a little with my legs to make him do whatever it is I’m asking of him a little better.”

A main cue Doug gives his horse is just enough direct rein to barely see the eye in the direction the horse is traveling. Using the indirect (or outside) rein prevents too much front-end bend, which can cause the rear end to fishtail to the outside of a turn or circle, allowing the shoulder to drop.

“Everybody with a snaffle bit wants to say, ‘Come here to me,’ ” Doug explains with an exaggerated direct rein. “But the neck rein laid across the middle of his neck helps keep the rear end engaged by keeping him from getting too much arc.”

Find the Balance

Cow-horse herd work is like cutting, except that the rider is able to help his horse by picking up on the reins. Of course, the more a horse works on autopilot, the better. Doug tries to keep his horse properly positioned on the cow no matter where the horse and cow are working in the pen.

“The secret to this cow-cutting deal is to try to keep your horse’s head on the shoulder of the cow at all times,” Doug says. “He has to understand that if he’s on the shoulder of the cow, he can always hold that cow, without me reminding him.”

Doug allows his horse to hook up with the cow before he begins correcting him. The trainer holds a straight line across the working arena and says that getting the “big stop” is crucial to a good turn.

“Warming up with the circle-stop-sweep sharpens up the horse to turn with the cow,” Doug says. “It teaches him to think stop and back up before we make the turn. A 180-degree sweep (turn) is all we ever want him to do in the herd.”

Balancing off his feet without squeezing with his knees or the calves of his legs and maintaining a relaxed posture in the saddle is crucial to Doug’s riding style and performance. A rider who hangs on by clamping his legs around the horse, he says with a grin, is going to “squirt them out of the saddle like toothpaste from a tube.”

“I don’t grab the saddle with my knees or body,” he explains. “I think that is the worst thing you can do. Rather than squeezing with your knees, you should have your feet underneath you at all times. It’s important to put pressure into the outside stirrup to avoid being thrown to the outside of the turn.”

Doug never uses his feet to ask a horse to turn with the cow. He will use his feet to scold a horse that is late in turning with or staying on a cow.

“You’re not scolding him to get there,” Doug clarifies, “but for not being there when he should have been. People who leg their horse to the cow will take the cow out of the horse. The horse begins to think he’s not supposed to go until he’s told. I want the cow to tell him to go and if he doesn’t, then I’m going to scold him for not getting there.”

Hands Off

Forward, reverse and turn signals are about all that Doug’s hands contribute to his herd work.

“I’ve got my horse thinking ‘Stop and back up,’ ” Doug says. “I may give him a little bit of direction with a direct (herd side) rein before the cow goes, but once it goes, I let him have the cow. My rein is just giving a directional hint.

“He’s looking at the cow and, at the same time the cow goes, I want his hind end to be toward the cow, too. His body is actually wrapped a little bit around my cow-side leg in preparing to turn.”

Doug suggested a direction to the horse using the cow-side rein. Because the horse is programmed to think “Stop and rock back,” he is automatically loading up his outside hind leg in preparation for the turn. This arcs the horse’s body toward the cow. Without that slight arc, the horse is likely to turn on the inside hind leg, which tends to push the horse toward the cow rather than staying parallel to it.

“As soon as the cow goes, I drop my bridle reins and let him have the cow,” Doug says. “When the cow takes him, my bridle hands are loose, and  the cow draws him through the turn.”

“That is where the circle-stop-sweep comes into the herd work,” Doug says. “As a cutter, it makes the horse think, ‘Stop hard.’ It reminds him to back up before we turn and that he’s got to back up at least straight or with the butt toward the direction we’re going to turn. The horse had the arc, and he’s actually pushing off on the outside hind leg. He is physically prepared to go with, and stay with, the cow.”

Starting Out With Circle-Stop-Sweep 

Doug starts his young horses with a slow version of his circle-stop-sweep exercise. He’ll begin by trotting around in a small circle, stopping, backing up and turning while keeping the drill low key, eventually building to a lope at increased speeds.

“I want my horses to be framed up the way I want them without a lot of contact on my bridle reins,” Doug explains. “I want them to be light and supple.

“My direction rein doesn’t mean to turn,” he explains. “When I lay the neck rein on his neck, that means go. I want my horse supple so when I pick up on the bridle reins with the slightest contact, he honors my reins.”

When a horse fails to react to the neck rein with the proper enthusiasm, he’ll feel encouragement from Doug’s leg – just a quick reminder to pay attention to the trainer’s most subtle cues.

Often, especially on more seasoned horses, just a few clucks will snap trainees to an intended response. Not overusing spurs, Doug notes, has the bonus of avoiding unhappy horses with pinned ears and flailing tails.

Circles and Changes

Horses responding to the lightest touch make easier work of reining circles, according to Doug. Reining patterns call for transitions between large fast and small slow circles. Breaking down from fast to slow can become a pulling contest between horse and rider.

“My circle-stop-sweep gets a horse thinking slow when he gets to the middle where we change speeds or leads,” Doug points out. “A lot of people want to pull a horse to a stop, then they say the horse is cheating on them when they come to the middle and he wants to scotch (or initiate a stop before being asked).

“My horses seldom scotch on me because I don’t pull on them to stop. I am going to back them up hard for not stopping. By stopping, having them think about backing up, then by sweeping or turning and continuing the other direction my horse is thinking, ‘Slow down,’ and I can let him go easy. It makes your circles really soft and good.”

Doug only wants a horse bent enough to see the inside eye in the direction he is going. This, he says, keeps the horses balanced in every maneuver and keeps them from becoming discombobulated in their circles. The correct bend comes from the counterpoise between direct and indirect reins.

“I make sure my neck rein comes just hard enough that I can barely see his inside eye,” Doug says. “That is enough direction and puts his body in the position I want him to be. The head is not tipped, and he’ll have a little bend to the poll. I don’t think having his head between his front legs is a good thing.”

Referring to a horse framed with his head too elevated, Doug adds: “Whenever the head gets above the saddle horn, the brains all run down their neck, and they can’t think.”

A horse traveling balanced and responsively in his circles should have no trouble generating smooth lead changes. Coming through the center of a circle, Doug picks up his outside rein and asks his horse to change leads. He pushes the horse toward the new direction as the front feet hit the ground and the hind legs are off the ground in mid-stride.

“The butt is up taking a stride, I push him over, and he changes leads behind before he changes direction in front,” Doug says. “If a horse changes leads behind first, he has to change in front. If he changes up front first, he’ll likely be late a few strides or never change up behind.”

Stops and Spins

Doug Williamson and High Brow Shiner perform a sliding stop

Response to the reins and a balanced frame are equally important when long sliding stops and fast turnarounds are demanded. And while there is a lot of talk about up and down shoulders or in and out rib cages, Doug typically keeps it simple.

“If I have my horse broke from the saddle horn to his nose, the rest of his body will follow,” Doug says.

Doug’s hands are normally close to his body and the saddle horn. The trainer says each rein needs to move toward the opposite hip.

“When you are pulling on a snaffle bit, or even in a bridle, you’ll find that the best posture for a horse is to have the bridle reins guided to the opposite hip,” he says. “In other words, the right bridle rein goes to the left hip and the left bridle rein goes to the right hip. The pull needs to be directed toward the rider’s body, not way out away from it.

“When you are turning your horse around, once you establish direction with the direct rein, the neck rein locks that hip right into the ground. If I don’t use some indirect rein, the hind end begins to come apart.”

When Doug pulls on the left rein, it goes toward the horse’s right hip, and when he pulls the neck rein across as if he were going to turn the horse to the left, he pulls straight through his body to the left hip with the right rein. That keeps the horse in a posture to be able to turn around and pivot on the inside foot. The rider is actually driving the horse with the right rein, and the horse is planting his left hind leg in the ground.

As the horse executes the turnaround, he steps the inside front leg back under the rider’s inside stirrup to enable the outside front leg to step comfortably across the inside leg, making for a faster spin.

Doug gives his horses a quiet ride during a rundown and stopping. He thinks it is important to have his body properly positioned to flow with the stop.

He also employs the same timing as in the lead change, asking for the whoa as the front feet hit the ground and the back legs are midstride, off the ground.

“I think the horse lands (into a stop) with his hind feet right at the back cinch,” he says. “When you are running to the stop, you need to be in the posture where your shoulders and upper body are behind the back cinch.”

“If you’re ahead of where the hind feet land, your bottom will bounce out of the saddle,” he adds with a grin. “That will be a rough stop.”

Doug doesn’t like putting much pressure on the bridle to circle, stop or turn, but admits that some horses appreciate a little security via support from rein contact.

“Some horses need for you to take a hold of them a little bit,” Doug notes. “I just think you should never pull your horse with any more pressure than it takes you to back him up.”

By incorporating the same basics for all three cow horse events, Doug’s program keeps the learning process uncomplicated for his horses.