Dunning\’s Cow Horse Words of Wisdom


If you\’re in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area this winter, it may be well worth your time to check out Almosta Ranch – home of 37-time World Champion and Reserve World Champion, Al Dunning. As an American Quarter Horse Association approved judge for 27 years and serving on numerous association boards since 1970, Dunning\’s expertise in reining, working cow horse and cutting is extensive. We had a chance to catch up with Dunning at a Canadian cow horse clinic where he shared several of his tips for choosing \”pay\” cattle, taking control of the cow and proper rider positioning to increase a cow horse score. Here are nine of the top tips we picked up on:



#1 – The principles of cutting and boxing are the same. The horse should always move in straight lines, approaching in a straight line, stopping, turning and advancing with the cow again in a straight line. Ideally the horse should “mirror” what the cow does, hitting the stop at the same time as the cow. Then as the cow changes direction, it should essentially “pull” the horse with it through the turn.

“The goal is to hit the stop, stop straight and wait for the cow to turn. Turn with it and then get straight again,” says Dunning. “You donʼt want to run at the cow. Let the cow pull you. Hit that stop and ensure you have equal rein pressure in both of your hands while doing so.”

#2 – Stopping straight is key in both boxing and cutting for maintaining position. If the horse stops crookedly, he puts more stress on one side of his body instead of distributing it evenly through both hocks. Stopping straight also allows the horse to be in an optimal position for lifting his cow-side shoulder to turn quickly with the cow. If a horse tends to drop its cow-side shoulder into the cow, he will have trouble hitting the stop and sweeping through himself.


#3 – “The hardest part about cutting out a single cow from a herd is getting them far enough up away from their buddies. The horse and rider need to move that cow into a good working position to mark some points. Make a plan for advancing towards a cow, then execute it. Choose which side of the cow you are going to go, then proceed. Think about what you want to do with that cow.”

#4 – “I donʼt like a cow that looks like it is going to go to sleep or run you over and go back to the herd. I like a cow that when you say, ʻbooʼ to it, it wants to go away. Conversely, I donʼt like cows that want to get too close to you either. I want the cow that will get away from you and move and will give you some work. Those are the ones that you can win something on.”

#5 – “When the cattle come into the arena and during all the previous works before me, I pay close attention. I will mark all the cows on on a sheet. ʻGAʼ is a go-again cow – one that I like. GA means that someone just cut that cow a little bit and I saw how it moves. This is a cow that is really good and attentive and didnʼt push on the rider. This is a cow that will not run you over, will give you a little room and work really well.”

#6 – “I like to see if thereʼs a cow in there that kind of walks out and walks back to the herd, but still looks attentive. Thatʼs the cow that I want to cut. Then again, If you go to cut a specific cow when you walk out and a cow goes to the top and you know it is fresh, you have to remember: Itʼs better to cut a bad cow good, than a good cow bad. That is a really famous term by Buster Welch.”



#7 – “When going down the fence, the rider can actually shove the cow ahead faster. Which makes it difficult to get the cow turned at the marker or before the arena corner. Schooling oneʼs horse at home while working a cow down the fence is key to show ring success. Make sure you are relating your dry work practice to fence work with keeping a focus on body control and softness while chasing after a bovine.\”

#8 – “Don’t confuse activity with excellence. When your horse gets too busy, he may not actually be doing anything.”

#9 – When I go around the corner I set my hand down temporarily before we go down the fence. My hand might not stay there as I may pick it up again but it gives my horse a chance to breath and “get there” instead of me hanging on his face the whole time. We need to turn the head loose! I want to ensure the rider is not balancing themselves on the reins or the horse’s head as they prepare to go down the fence. If so, they won’t have the proper riding position for a safe turn when the cow decides to go another direction.


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