Photo By Bridget Kirkwood

Learning Curve: Roberson’s Rules

In this learning curve called Roberson’s Rules, trainer Ben Roberson discusses techniques for helping non-pros and amateurs make the best of their cutting runs.

Published first in QHN October 15, 2017

The basic concept of cutting – stop the cow – is simple but learning that concept can be difficult. Trainer Ben Roberson, of Mineral Wells, Texas, has impressed upon his non-pros and amateurs the importance of getting the cow stopped. To do that, a beginner must learn how to move with the cow and be a mirror image of it. That foundation has helped many riders achieve their dreams of being competitive in the show pen, including winning National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) World titles.

“Whether you’re going from wall to wall of the cutting pen or working in the middle, each turn is initiated by stopping the cow. But stopping the cow is a hard concept for many amateurs to understand, because they rely on the turnback help to stop the cow for them,” Roberson explained. “It is important for people to remember that their help are called ‘turnback men,’ not ‘stop men.’”

Body position

When Roberson first works with a new cutter, his initial focus is on their position in the saddle so they are prepared for the stop.

“When the horse is going across the pen, a lot of times the people will know that the cow is going to turn, so instead of riding the horse to the stop, they’re getting ready for the next turn,” Roberson said.

Anticipating the turn is often a result of the rider not trusting in a horse’s training.

“The hardest thing for new people to understand is that trainers work really hard for years to train that horse to know what its job is – to stop, to draw back and to turn,” Roberson said. “The Rider’s job is to help them stop better, to draw back better, and to turn easier.”

To help the horse stop more efficiently, the rider should be relaxed in the saddle with their hips rolled underneath them. Being stiff causes the rider’s body to become rigid, which could throw the horse off balance and cause the rider to unintentionally grab the horse with their feet.

Roberson likes his student’s feet to be down by the horse’s side. If the feet are pushed out away from the horse when the rider needs to kick, the distance between their feet and the horse will cause their timing to be off.

“The rider’s feet need to be where they can use their feet easily without being in the horse,” Roberson said. “If you want your horse to stop on its rear-end, then you have to be on your rear-end in the saddle.”

 “We as riders are an addition to the horse. The horse can feel everything that you do up on top of it. If you’re up there leaning around or standing up in the saddle, then the horse will feel it. If you fall forward, then the horse will fall forward. But if you keep your hips underneath yourself when the horse is getting to the stop, then the horse will stop harder.”

To achieve good cutting posture – a relaxed body with feet close to the horse – the rider should break their core at the belly button while holding their shoulders back.

“If your shoulders go forward, then you’ll fall forward,” Roberson said.

 Roberson related the rider’s position in the saddle to how children are taught to get in the “athletic position” to learn football.

“That means that you get on the balls of your feet, bend at the knees and have your shoulders back so that you can block the opposition if they come at you. That is the same position that you should be in when you’re sitting on your horse,” he explained. “In cutting, the opposition is the cow, and you have to stop it.”

Prioritizing the cow

Photo By Bridget Kirkwood

The No. 1 priority for both horses and riders in cutting is the cow. Making the cow the priority means you mirror the cow’s movements by doing what it does with the intent to stop the cow. Doing this builds confidence in both the horse and the rider, and makes it easy for them to identify where they need to be in relation to the cow.

“If my horse is not doing something right, then I’m probably not going to stop them harder, back them up stronger or turn them faster. Instead, I’m going to relate it more to the cow. I do that because without the cow, we don’t have a sport,” Roberson said. “If we have a problem during the training process, then we make the horse work harder to find the cow and to stay in time with the cow. Doing that allows me to not have to snatch them through the turn.”

This method also allows amateurs to more accurately discipline their horses.

“If they get behind because they missed a stop, if they don’t turn good or if they don’t back up good, then the amateur needs to get through that turn, go catch the cow and stop it,” Roberson said. “They have to chase the cow until they finally get back in the correct position to stop the cow.”

 “That chasing is hard work on the rider and it’s hard work for the horse, but 99 percent of people will learn where they need to be from doing that. Then, the next time they get out of position, they’ll get back to where they’re supposed to be quicker and they’ll know that they’re in the right place, because they’ll get the cow stopped much sooner.”

Once the cow has been stopped, the rider should let the horse get back to doing its job. This means they must be careful not to hustle the horse or kick the horse past the cow on its next turn.

If a horse makes a mistake, Roberson advises his non-pros and amateurs to do something, regardless of whether what they do is the correct or incorrect reprimand for that situation.

“The important thing is that they recognize that something has happened or the horse will learn that it can get away with making that mistake,” Roberson cautioned. “If the amateur does the right thing to correct the horse, then I can praise them for it. If they do the wrong thing, then I can correct them so that they know what to do the next time it happens. If they do nothing, then that problem is going to get worse.”

Improving the turn

If a horse’s stop and draw are good, a rider may need to help him turn faster, but they must be careful not to get in the horse’s way.

“The cow needs to be what turns the horse around, not the person,” Roberson said. “The horse is twice the size of most of the cows that we cut, so the horse can cover twice the ground that the cow can per move. If you turn before the cow turns, then you’ll get ahead of it.”

A cow usually initiates the turn with its head. The horse should mirror this action.

“When the horse initiates its turn, we want its nose to come first, just like the cow’s did,” Roberson said.

How fast or slow the turn needs to be, can be measured by running an imaginary string from the cow’s nose to the horse’s nose. When the horse and cow are stopped together in the correct position, the string is loose because they are parallel. As the cow’s nose starts to turn, the string would become tighter and pull the horse’s nose through the turn. If the horse got behind the cow, the string would pull the horse forward toward the cow’s nose. If the horse was too fast in the turn, the string would pull the horse back toward the cow’s nose.

 Helping a horse turn better is easier for riders mounted on a well-broke horse. As the rider works to keep the horse’s position ideal for the turn, a willing partner makes the process simpler.

“To encourage your horse to turn better, you need to get its ribs and shoulders out of the way to allow the horse to draw and pull through himself and make a 180-degree turn,” Roberson explained.

 For problems with timing, a rider can ask the horse to go faster or slower to help them get back in time with the cow. When the horse is trying to stay in time with the cow but the rider feels something else isn’t right, it is important they ask a trainer for help.


Photo By Bridget Kirkwood

Roberson likes amateurs to take lessons every week. Because many shows start on a Friday, he likes to schedule lessons for Thursdays. Lessons are usually conducted in a group setting, enabling people to also learn by watching others.

Each person in the group works two or three cows and then they have a group discussion. After that, each person works another two or three cows, using the knowledge they picked up from the first work and the discussion.

“Regular practice is important because we are trying to paint a picture for the judge,” Roberson said. “The first picture that you paint probably wouldn’t be very good, but the more you get used to your paints and brushes, the better your painting will get. That’s the same with working a cow – the more you practice, the better you’ll be.”

When a person first begins learning how to cut, Roberson concentrates on teaching them about mirroring the cow’s movements. As the rider progresses, the intensity of the lessons increase and the rider is called on to help the horse more.

“For example, if the horse kicks its hip out of the stop, which prevents it from being able to draw and causes the horse to do a barrel turn, the important thing for a beginner to do is to stay in time with the cow,” Roberson said. “As they get better, we can teach them to keep the hip up underneath the horse by using their herd-side leg, but you can’t do that until they know how to stay with the cow.”

Check back at for Part 2 tomorrow.