• Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

Top 5 Boxing Tips with Jay McLaughlin

Boxing. The premise sounds so simple: keep the cow against a short-sided arena for a short amount of time. The reality is much more complex.

The purpose of the class — a serious business in the reined cow horse and ranch versatility worlds — is to gain control of a cow by moving it forward, stopping it and turning it back. It’s a step-up event for many to launch their National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) show careers.

But, as with any cattle event, there are a number of ways things can go wrong for a horse and rider. Equi-Stat Elite $1 Million Rider Jay McLaughlin shares the five things most boxing class riders do wrong and how to fix them.

1. Calling for the Cow Too Early 

Riders typically enter the arena from the opposite end of the side where the cow enters, meaning the rider must trek across the show pen and decide when to call for the cow. McLaughlin advised riders to wait until they are approximately 65 feet from the cow gate, or about where the third rein work marker is placed.

“A lot of people call at the middle of the arena, and then take 10 seconds to get up into position,” McLaughlin explained. “What I see people do is, when the cow first comes out, the cow runs across the arena and the rider follows, but when the cow stops, the rider doesn’t move in, but just stands there. They wait on the cow. It is dead time.”

Instead, McLaughlin coaches riders to call for the cow when they are closer so they are able to engage the cow faster. Their horse can hook to the cow faster, too.

From the judge’s view, waiting to call for the cow shows courage.

“There is no degree of difficulty or courage in that for me, as a judge, when you call for the cow that far away,” he said. “There is an element of showmanship, taking off working time if the cattle are working poorly that day. You have 50 seconds, and riders need to utilize all that 50 seconds as best they can, not waste it.”

2. Staying Too Far Off the Cow

“When a rider uses the fence to stop and turn the cow, as a judge, I don’t see any difficulty in that,” McLaughlin said. “Staying too far back from the cow, working far away, there is no courage in that. It is also hard to stay even and keep everything even when you’re working so far away.”

True, a cow that is on the run as soon as it enters the pen can cause a rider to feel more comfortable hanging back, protecting the run from a loss-of-cow penalty. But, the rider is then likely losing points from other areas of the score sheet.

McLaughlin advised riders to get in closer to a cow when it is at a stopping point, then repositioning to move sideways.

“One way to move closer to a cow I see is the rider side-passing with the cow, instead of moving flat across the pen. This is incorrect,” he said. “When you do that, it takes away from the run, and your eye appeal, courage and form are lacking. That is a 67 or 68 run. You have to go straight to stop and turn. If you side-pass, you’re already turning.”

Staying too far away from the cow can show a lack of difficulty or courage, hurting a rider’s score.
• Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

To move in closer, turn the horse and ride straight to the cow. When the cow breaks to the side, the horse can follow, no matter the direction.

McLaughlin also advised riders to not think they should stay in a flat, straight line to move with the cow.

“Learn to get close and break your horse off,” he said. “Don’t think about being flat. Flat implies you are, for example, walking a straight line, stopping and turning 180 degrees around and running the other way. That is hard.

“Instead, think about going a little bit at an angle [into the cow], and it is a lot easier to stop and turn. There are a select few horses that are able to do a 180-degree turn with a cow and keep up — that’s the Futurity champion usually! Most of them can’t or don’t. You want to make the run as easy as you can on your horse to keep that flow and to maintain control of the cow.”

3. Improperly Working a Cow That Won’t Move

In McLaughlin’s opinion, almost all cattle are ones that can draw a solid score if the rider knows how to handle it. He said many riders go into panic mode and try to hurry a cow, forcing it to move. But, that isn’t the best way to start a successful run.

“The rider usually pushes the cow in the rear and starts it running,” he explained. “You have to put a horse in the right spot to be perfect to work a cow.

“Walk straight up to the cow — straight to the middle, not one side or the other. If the cow is facing me, I walk right up between its eyes. If the cow is facing away, I walk to the shoulder so I can go right or left with the cow. A cow facing away, I watch to see which way the head is going to go so I don’t get too far to the other side and get behind.”

McLaughlin said to turn the horse straight into the middle of the cow, riding in until it moves.

“Don’t be afraid to drive the cow. If it gets too rapid, then get away from the cow.

Break off,” McLaughlin said. “Nine times out of 10, if your run goes too fast, give the cow a little air and it will slow down. That shows the judge you know what you’re doing, and you want me [as a judge] to think you know what you’re doing!”

4. Not Reading the Cow Correctly

“It’s the horse’s job to read a cow. You have a day job and the horse’s full-time job is to read the cow,” McLaughlin said, explaining that both parties are responsible for the task of reading a cow. “A lot of times, a person will get the horse out of position because [the rider] isn’t reading the cow. It can mean not riding far enough to control the cow’s stop or going too far past the cow to maintain direction.

“What you really need to do is concentrate on staying even with the cow, especially when you have a wild cow that is running.”

Rather than try to predict what a cow will do, McLaughlin says riders should focus on the mechanics: stop, draw, turn and stay even with the cow. • Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

Boxing competitors should aim to learn when a cow will stop, which ensures the horse makes a solid stop with the cow.

“When a rider drives across the pen, they are not reading the cow but following it, then allowing the horse to whip around through the stop,” he said. “The shortest distance to a cow is [for the horse] to draw and go across its hocks to get around and go stop the cow again, just like in the cutting. But, many stop way outside the cow and then whip around like a teardrop, which pushes the cow in the rear and makes it run.”

To correct that, the rider needs to focus on the mechanics of getting even with the cow and making the horse come to a full stop. 

“Even with a runner of a cow, making a whip-around, teardrop-looking turn is not earning points,” McLaughlin said. “Usually, a cow that is running at first will air out in 10 or 15 seconds. If you can stay even with the cow — even and stop straight — then you can move in to show a little courage, and go again. By the end of the run, you can break it down to have the cow moving more around the middle gate.”

5. Causing a Ruckus

Some runs just look smooth as silk, while others are like a hurricane in the arena. McLaughlin said riders can cause horses to make moves that are too big and off-putting to cattle. In other words, horses can spook cattle.

“Some horses tend to draw a cow to them, others push cows away,” he said. “How the horse moves can spook a cow away versus stepping quietly so a cow draws closer. You want to look for that movement in a nice boxing horse. A horse that flops down on the ends can spook a cow away.”

A horse’s natural movement is hard to adjust, while movements caused by a rider — such as pulling, kicking and making big moves in the saddle — are quite fixable.

“I’d say this is 40% rider and 60% horse. A horse that pushes a cow away almost makes that big, pronounced and flailing move. It hits the ground with tail swishing and head in the air,” McLaughlin explained. “Most of the rider’s contribution is when they pick their hand up and also kick the horse with both feet.

“I see that happen a lot in a lot of events,” he continued. “Riders don’t separate their feet from their hands. You can’t hold the horse’s head and kick to go to a cow. You push your hand forward and squeeze.”

Remember, big movements and sound are what handlers use to move cattle from pen to pen. Instead of taking a leg off to kick a horse, which makes a big move and sound on impact, practice squeezing the horse forward.

* This article originally appeared in the March 15, 2020, issue of Quarter Horse News.