How Working Cattle Helps Your Horsemanship with Julie Goodnight

In preparation for our first ranch-horse clinic of the season, I asked Julie to tell me a little about why she loves cow work and how it has improved her overall riding.

When did you first start working cattle?

It wasn’t until I graduated from college and moved to Colorado that I first enjoyed the thrill of working cattle from a horse. After the hunter/jumper identity of my youth and the race track jobs of college, I was eager to try something totally new with horses and learning about western performance horses became my personal ambition. My professional ambition still kept me busy teaching people and training horses of all persuasions, so it was really only in my down-time that I got to pursue the nitty-gritty work of the cow horse.

Since I already knew a lot about herding, from a lifetime spent with horses, moving cattle, rating cattle and sorting cattle was easy for me to understand, in concept. But putting it into practice, slowing down the high-adrenalin rush that comes with working cattle and learning the precision of the technique takes a lifetime to master. I’ve had the opportunity to train with many great cow horse trainers over the years and continue to study as much as I can, but not as much as I’d like to. Like a lot of you, my real job keeps me pretty busy.

Working with cow horses that are bred for the sport and live to conquer the cow, is a thrill all its own. The concept of letting a horse do his job and think on his own, of putting your hand down on the neck and trusting the horse to do the job for which he was selectively bred for many generations is an important lesson in letting go. Working with an incredibly cowy horse and keeping him well-disciplined while letting him think and work on his own is an interesting exercise in trust.

What did it feel like to rope your first cow?

I never really threw my first loop until about 10 years ago. After more than 40 years of riding, the most important thing for me to work on in roping was building a loop (the first great challenge), throwing with accuracy and learning when and where to swing and throw. Unfortunately I was not very disciplined about practicing on the dummy but fortunately, I had a finished rope horse that was great on both ends and knew exactly how to get you to the right spot to throw. So I did practice some. He taught me a lot, once I managed to learn how to handle a rope.

I’ve taken a bunch of roping clinics and learned from some top-notch pros in the sport, from Florida to Hawaii. Beyond rope handling, rating a cow and throwing with accuracy, you have to learn how to dally and stop a cow and that is the tricky part-the part where you can lose your thumb. From ponying colts for years, the dally wasn’t too foreign to me and again, with good instruction, I learned to dally fast, safe and without looking down (thank you Charlie).

I threw a bunch of loops at live cows before I finally caught one. It turned out my first catch was during a competition-quadrupling the thrill that comes with roping, catching and stopping a running cow. I had participated in a ranch roping clinic the day before with one of my favorite clinicians, Merritt Linke. The day of the competition, I sat outside the arena with Merritt and watched the dozens of competitors that went before me. He showed me the predictable pattern the cows were following and where the sweet spot in the arena was to throw your loop. Rider after rider, I saw the cows turn and memorized that spot in the arena and now many strides before it I would start my swing.

It was the working ranch horse class-the hardest of the five classes of versatility ranch horse competition. First you ride a reining pattern, then call for a cow, box the cow on the end of the arena, turn him twice on the long fence, then get your rope out, build a loop while you are following the cow and rating him, then throw, catch and stop the cow. All of this within six minutes of entering the arena, so there is a little time pressure.

My horse reined well, boxed brilliantly, then we took the cow down the fence and made two high-speed turns. I got out my rope as we loped behind the cow, my horse patiently rating the cow while I built my loop. Then I looked up and saw we were about two strides away from the sweet spot-just enough time for two swings and a throw. It was exactly as I visualized talking to Merritt but still I was stunned as I watched the loop settled around her neck, seemingly in slow motion. Miraculously, I kept my wits about me long enough to straighten out with the cow, dally and stop. What a thrill! What an honor to ride such and incredible horse that works so hard in so many different things and teaches me how to ride.

How has learning cow work impacted your riding?

First, what I love about good cow horses is how athletic they are, quick thinking and even quicker reacting. To work cattle head-to-head like with cutting…