When a cow gets into a round corner, it has the advantage unless the rider breaks off, putting more room between him and the cow. This takes off some pressure and can cause the cow to stop before it gets into the corner. • Photo by Ross Hecox

Shape Shifters

The age-old reined cow horse dilemma of how to control a cow becomes even more convoluted when an event is held in an irregularly shaped arena. Rounded corners give the cow an advantage over the horse and rider, and shorter fences to run down mean the duo must act quickly.

Wade Meador, a reined cow horse trainer from Marietta, Oklahoma, strongly advises that riders do their homework about the next show’s pen before stepping into the arena.

No matter if Meador plans to take an open horse down the fence or if he is coaching a limited non-pro or youth rider for the boxing class, he focuses on the same goals.

“In a smaller arena, everything is going to happen faster because there isn’t enough room for that cow to go somewhere,” Meador explained. “He makes short, quick moves a lot faster. If you have a bigger arena, you have a little more time traveling across the pen, and the cow doesn’t react as quick and snappy. There is a little more flow.”

The objective is for a run to have a flow that gives the judge a positive impression and makes it clear the rider has control of the cow. To do that, riders need to be aware of how the arena shape and size affects the way cattle behave. Meador discussed just that and how to adjust a ride in the show pen based on a unique arena layout.

Understanding the Arena

Reined cow horse has premier events in multiple arenas around the country, and National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) affiliate shows occur in eight geographic regions. There is no standardized arena shape, though premier events in Las Vegas at the South Point Hotel & Casino’s equestrian center and at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas, utilize arenas with rounded ends.

Boxing in an arena with round corners can make for a tight, fast run. Riders need to be tuned
into the cow’s actions to ensure quick reactions. • Photo by Ross Hecox

Arena layout is the first thing Meador advises riders know and understand before heading to a show.

Working a cow in an arena with a round end can be deceiving. The corner brings the cow closer to the rider, Meador explained, and the rider’s perception of distance between themselves and the cow is often skewed. He uses the word “tricky,” and it is.

“In a pen with square corners, you can travel straight across that pen and further to the corner,” he said. “That lets the tempo of the cow slow down so it won’t feel as rushed. When you chop the corners off, you make it a smaller space. That cow feels trapped and he is going to find a way to get away.”

When an arena has square ends, the rider can follow a straight line back and forth while boxing. That’s not always the case with round ends. Not only is the cow going to stop and turn back faster because of the shortened arena length, the entire run will feel faster.

“An arena that has rounded corners, it is making the arena smaller because of those rounded corners,” Meador explained. “The other thing it does is put the cow at a farther distance from where you are to the top of the arena. It’s more distance there than where the [square] corner would be.

“Your depth perception gets out of whack sometimes because you have to step in close to have them move [away] from the gate, but then close to the corners the cow comes to you a lot faster. You don’t have room to travel straight across the pen because the wall is pushing the cow to you at the same time.

Often, cows will come off the fence and head back to where they sense is home. In this case, the cow ducked back in the turn to head straight across the pen, which requires an in-field turn to continue the run. • Photo by Ross Hecox

It is tricky to finagle your horse forward and backward while you’re trying to hold a straight line, so you’re moving the back and front more.”

Meador often advises his riders to visualize the ride in a “V” shape. When the run starts, the rider is at the point in the middle of the V and watching the cow’s reaction. Then, instead of moving straight right or left, the rider should move in a diagonal line that allows them to cut the cow off before it gets all the way to a corner.

The corners can cause a myriad of issues in a run. It’s an area where Meador sees riders make a critical error that can cost points: They don’t break away from the cow soon enough.

“What ends up happening is the cow comes around that [end] curve, and you’re with him, but if he out-bluffs you, then you are run over or carried down the fence,” Meador said.

Often, more timid riders don’t step up to hold their position and stay too flat. This makes things more difficult, he said.

“A lot of times, a rider will get in a bad angle in the round corner, so you have to make a three-quarter turn instead of a half-turn to get back around. Most of the time, you’re not going to catch back up before you get to the other side.”

Instead of allowing a cow that is not honoring the horse to push into a rounded corner, Meador said the rider should “break off” the run. This means to angle the horse away from the cow in an effort to remove the pressure.

“You can’t pinch that cow in a round corner; it only puts you in a bad place,” Meador stressed.

Round corners in the arena also affect riders as they work a cow down the fence. While the curve can give more finesse to the start of the fence drive than a square pen, it can also have a negative effect.

“Keep in mind on arenas with rounded walls, when you’re going down the fence after you box and go around the corner, remember that curve helps you get flow down the fence, but what gets you is the next corner,” Meador said.

The cow and rider will arrive at the next corner faster because the rounded corner takes length off the wall.

“That wall will bring the cow to you and it will push you around the corner if you don’t get straight by the cow fast enough,” he said. “In a rectangular arena, you can ride tight next to the cow for a longer distance because it is a straight wall to the corner. In a rounded pen, you almost have to be wider before the wall brings the cow to you.”

Do Your Homework

Meador also suggests riders find out where the cattle stay penned at each event.

“Know where the cattle are held and watch some runs. Watching cattle isn’t just for herd work,” he said. “Watch several runs to get an idea of the pattern on how the cows will behave that day; they change every day. Those cattle patterns will even change during the day. Know how cattle work, think and operate so you can have an idea on how to manage them. It all ties in.”

Many scenarios play out in pens across the country, so how a rider prepares for the run can make a major difference. Part of prepping for a positive run is knowing where the cattle are kept during a show in relation to the arena.

“Cows always want to go back to the herd, one way or the other,” Meador explained. “Some facilities have solid walls and some are board-slatted that cattle can see through. Cattle have a sixth sense to where the other cattle are, no matter a solid or open wall. The cow always drifts back to where the other cattle are held in the arena.”

With this in mind, taking a cow down the fence on the side opposite of where it would drift back to its buddies is more difficult.

“The cows typically don’t want to stay on the fence as much or as easily. They come off the fence and across the arena more so,” he said. “That causes in-field turns and  loops to get back to the wall. If you take a cow down the fence on the same side as where the other cows are penned, they hug that fence stronger.”

It may not seem ideal to turn a cow on the fence where a judge is sitting, but if the cow hugs the wall instead of popping off, it will make for a better picture. Preconceived notions aside, a good score is the ultimate goal, so this unusual scenario can be better than getting multiple penalties on the run.

“Sometimes, you’re trying to set up a scenario to make it easier for you to get your horse shown,” he explained. “Part of it is knowing if your horse can handle those in-field turns or not. If you have a horse that cannot handle those maneuvers as good as it needs to, you may be better off to take a cow down the opposite fence to hope the cow stays a little better to give your horse the advantage.”

Watching the runs prior helps riders understand how a cow may act at show time.

This is something Meador advocates to all his clients, no matter what level of the class.

“Cows get in a rhythm and you can watch a half-day’s worth of fence runs where every cow comes off the wall out of the first curve, making a rider loop around,” he said. “It is your job to see that and make a plan to have that work better in your favor – including taking the cow down the other fence.”

When there is enough room between the rider and cow, it takes the pressure off of the cow and the rider has more maneuverability. It’s easier to ride closer after assessing the situation than it is to try to pull back, Meador said. Photo by Ross Hecox

At home, Meador has clients work cattle all around the arena – boxing the long side and both ends, and making fence turns anywhere. His past mentors – including EquiStat Elite $3 Million Rider Todd Crawford, EquiStat Elite $3 Million Rider Faron Hightower and renowned coach Don Murphy – always advocated teaching a horse to work anywhere, anytime.

“I work a cow anywhere and everywhere so my horse knows it can work a cow anywhere. I had those guys tell me that you have to be able to put a horse anywhere at any given time to work because you don’t know what a cow will throw at you,” Meador said. “The only way to do that is to create scenarios in all different places. A show run doesn’t always happen to set up like a pattern. You have to handle it, and that is what sets up an exceptional run from an average run.”

Leave Space & Be Accurate

No matter the arena shape, there are certain goals Meador has for himself and for his clients at each show.

“First, start off with enough space between you and the cow to be on the defensive side, initially, and then get aggressive when you go in the show pen,” Meador said. “If you get too close [to the cow] too soon, the cow can come out and run you over. With enough room, you can push the cow one direction or the other, and then take charge of where you need to go.

“Second, you want to be accurate. That way, you aren’t playing catch up if you have a miss or are late in a turn,” he continued. “You want to be accurate and precise from the get-go. Then, you stay in time and rhythm with that cow from start to finish.

“When that happens, the cow doesn’t typically think it can outrun you or outsmart you as easily, but if you’re late and out of time, that cow figures out it can outmaneuver you and outsmart you. Then, the cow can throw tricks at you that make it hard to keep or regain control.”

With accuracy and control in mind, Meador starts off a run watching the cow to see how it reacts. In turn, he adds pressure either by moving in and getting more aggressive with the cow or remaining in the position in which he started.

Leaving enough room at the outset keeps him out of a bad spot. How aggressive Meador is when driving a cow back and forth boxing or taking it through the corner and down the fence depends on the cow and the arena setup.

“To be accurate, you kind of have to play it safe sometimes until you get control,” he explained. “After that, you can start stopping outside the cow or pushing your run a little more. In the beginning, you want to be safer and more cautious, then grow into boldness based on what horse you have and what cow you have.” ★