The Sport

Guide to the Action

Nowhere in the world of equestrian sport will you find more spine-tingling action than in the reined cow horse arena. The finely tuned equine athletes will dazzle you with their athleticism, cow sense, courage and finesse.

The limited aged events in the National Reined Cow Horse Association are judged in herd work, rein work and cow work. While the ancillary horse show classes—hackamore, two-rein and bridle—are judged in rein work and cow work only.

Herd Work

In this event, one horse and rider enters a group of cattle, separates a single animal, and then prevents it from returning to the herd. The horse should step into the herd willingly and quietly, sorting out one cow without disturbing the rest. There is a 2 ½-minute time limit for each run, and two or three cattle are worked during that time.

Judges are impressed by horses that display exceptional courage while holding a difficult cow, work on a loose rein with a bright, alert expression, maintain proper position on the cow and spend the majority of the time limit holding a cow out front.

Judges also will deduct for losing a cow, failure to control the cow, insufficient working time, low degree of difficulty or lack of eye appeal.

Rein Work

The rein work is the only phase of cow horse competition that does not involve a cow. Sometimes described as the equestrian equivalent of figure skating, horse and rider perform a pattern with specific maneuvers: loping fast and slow circles, performing flying lead changes, spinning in each direction, sliding stops and backing up.

In the reined work, judges look for a horse that is willingly guided with little or no apparent resistance. Points are deducted for disobedience or deviation from the pattern, while credit is earned if the maneuvers are performed with extra speed and finesse in a manner that is pleasing to watch.

Cow Work

The cow work, also called the fence work, is the final, adrenaline-fueled stage of reined cow horse competition. Fortunes can rise and fall in a split second during this fast-paced event, and the outcome of the Snaffle Bit Futurity is not certain until the fence work is complete. The key to a good score is maintaining control of the cow at all times. 

After horse and rider enter the arena, a single cow is pushed through the gate at the opposite end. The horse must first “box” the cow, or hold it at the end of the arena, maintaining control and staying in proper working position. Next, the rider allows the cow to run down the long side of the arena. The horse and rider must turn the cow at least one time each direction on the fence before taking the cow into the middle of the arena and driving it in a circle each way.

The most controlled cow work, with the highest degree of difficulty and the best form, scores the highest.


All events are scored using a plus and minus system for each maneuver. If a rider incurs penalty points, they are deducted from the overall score.

A score of 70 is considered average. Each contestant begins with a 70 as soon as they enter the arena. Each maneuver receives a plus, a zero or a minus from the judge. A plus indicates an above-average performance, zero means it was done correctly, and minus means a below-average maneuver.

Anything above 70 means horse and rider earned credit during the run, while a score below 70 means something went wrong; either the maneuver quality was poor or penalties were assessed.

“The most important point when working a cow is for the horse to have the advantage or be in control of the cow. At the same time, the horse should exhibit a smooth willingness to do his job. He should respond to a light rein and show good manners in his face and body.”

Bobby Ingersoll1996 NRCHA Hall of Fame Inductee

The Evolution of a Reined Cow Horse

The training of a reined cow horse is a methodical and meticulous process, taking years to reach the end result so prized by the Vaqueros – the finished bridle horse.

Reined cow horses are first eligible to compete in snaffle bit futurities as 3-year-olds. For many successful show horses, this is only the beginning.  Beyond the futurities, three more show divisions await. The training process is a progression, with each stage building upon the one before it. The various phases of training beyond the snaffle bit are showcased  with competitive divisions for cow horses aged 4 and up – Hackamore, Two Rein, and Bridle.

The Beginning: Snaffle Bit

The Snaffle Bit is one of the most important tools in training a Reined Cow Horse and is the foundation for the training progression within the sport. The Snaffle Bit is a simple device; when you pull the rein, the pull is direct and easy to understand. This makes the tool ideal for starting younger horses.

Snaffle Bit shall be either “D” or “O” Ring type, no larger than 4 inches in diameter on the inside of the ring. They must have a broken, 2 piece, mouth piece, being a minimum of 5/16 inch in diameter, measured 1 inch in from the inside of the ring on the snaffle bit, with a gradual decrease to center of the snaffle. The mouthpiece should be round, oval or egg-shaped, smooth and unwrapped metal. It may be inlaid, but must be smooth.

The NRCHA premier event for 3-year-old horses competing in the Snaffle Bit is the Snaffle Bit Futurity®. This event is open to Non Pro and Open competitors alike who  will pilot their horses through the herd, rein, and cow work. Horses are allowed to stay in this type of headgear through their Derby year.

The Hackamore Years

When young cow horses are 4- and 5-year-olds, they become eligible for the hackamore class. The hackamore is the traditional bitless headgear. It consists of a bosal, a braided noseband usually made of rawhide or leather, and a closed rein called a mecate. The customary mecate material is horsehair, but mohair or synthetics are also common and legal in the show pen.

To showcase the traditional cow horse evolution, the Hackamore Classic provides hackamore horses the opportunity to compete in the three-event derby which includes the herd/rein/cow work.

In the NRCHA Hackamore Classic derby, there are classes for Open, Intermediate Open, Limited Open, Level 1 Open and Open Novice Horse riders. Non-professional riders may compete in the Non Pro, Intermediate Non Pro and Limited Non Pro or Level 1 Non Pro classes. Eligibility is based on rider earnings. There is also a Non Pro Boxing class (herd/rein/boxing) for Non Pro riders who do not go down the fence.

The Two Rein

When reined cow horses turn 6, they are no longer eligible to be shown two-handed.  At this age, they begin the transition to bridle horse status via the two-rein, when a bridle is added to the hackamore. Two-rein horses are shown one-handed in a bit with shanks, a non-jointed mouthpiece, a port, and a roller, or “cricket.” Under the bridle, horses wear a second headstall with a pencil-thin bosalito, a narrower version of the hackamore bosal with a skinny mecate rein. The rider holds two sets of reins: the closed rawhide romal, which is attached to the bridle bit, and the thin mecate rein, which connects to the bosalito. Riders may guide the horse with both sets of reins and are permitted to use one or more fingers between the reins to direct the horse.

Horses may show only one season in the two-rein division. During this year, they may also enter the bridle classes. In the two-rein classes, riders first perform a rein work pattern and then work a cow down the fence.

The Bridle Horse

A finished bridle horse is considered the most elite competitor in the reined cow horse world. If they started their show career as a 3-year-old, and progressed continuously through the stages of training and competition, these bridle horses are now highly experienced 7-year-olds and older, ready to perform at the highest level. Bridle horses are shown in a shanked, ported bit with a cricket, in the traditional closed romal reins with the popper attached. The rider’s hand must be closed on the reins with no fingers between at any time.

At the Snaffle Bit Futurity, bridle horses will compete in the Open, Limited Open, Non Pro, Intermediate Non Pro and Limited Non Pro Bridle class, depending on the rider’s eligibility. They will be judged on rein work and fence work only.

An increasingly popular division at NRCHA premier events is the Bridle Spectacular. Like the futurities and derbies, Bridle Spectacular horses compete in herd work, rein work and fence work or boxing for Boxing division riders – often for very rich purses.

Another avenue for bridle horses is the four-event, or all-around competition, where steer-stopping is added to the herd/rein/fence lineup. The signature event of this kind is the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman, part of the annual NRCHA Celebration of Champions, held in February in Fort Worth, Texas.

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