Riding Tips

Cutting Horse FAQ: What’s a Mechanical Cow?

horse mechanical cow
Written by Natasha D.

An Invaluable Tool for Cow Work Training

Have you ever wondered how a cow horse learns to track and “cut” a cow? Although extremely important to the training process, access to live cattle can be expensive and time consuming. Fortunately, there is an alternative—a mechanical cow.

The mechanical cow is used in training for events such as the reined cow horse and cutting. These systems create a “mock” cow environment that aid in the day-to-day training. Because of the considerable cost of owning or renting cattle, mechanical cows are also a great option for riders on a budget.

Cutting Horses: An Overview

Cutting horses are typically stock horse breeds like the American Quarter Horse.

The horses that have the most success are those with natural ability to read a cow (i.e. anticipate what it will do next) and can keep up with the intense athletic ability that is required.

What does a cutting horse do?

Utilizing skills needed on a working ranch, cutting horses “cut” or isolate cattle from the herd. These skills can be seen in a
cutting horse class at horse shows.

These exciting competitions showcase the cattle handling skills between horse and rider.

How are cutting horse classes scored at a horse show?

Teams of horse and rider have two and a half minutes to complete the required tasks of cutting a cow from the herd.

Similar to reining, scores start at 70 points and move up and/or down based on credits or penalties earned.

Mechanical Cows vs. Real Cows

To clear one thing up, the type of mechanical cow we are discussing here is NOT a mechanical bull.

Not a mechanical bull

Photo Cred: Canva

While the underlying concept is similar, a mechanical cow (for training purposes) can be as simple as a flag moving back and forth on a string between two points—or it can resemble a little cow.

So how do you begin to train your faithful steed to be a standout cutting horse? Well, you need something for your horse to track! This is where the mechanical cow and the real thing come into play.

  Pros Cons
Mechanical Cow
  1. Safer than working a real cow
  2. Less expensive – no care needed
  3. Ability to complete drills with a horse that is just learning
  1. Lack of realism; only moves back and forth along a line
  2. Can require maintenance over time
  3. Need space to install it in your arena
Live Cow
  1. Is the “real deal”
  2. Can train off the unpredictability of the animal
  1. Expensive training option if you aren’t already raising them
  2. Not always readily available to use

Mechanical Cow 101

Live cattle are expensive. Depending on where you live, they may also be hard to find. This is when the mechanical cow might become your best friend!

How does a mechanical cow work?

Made up of either a fake cow or sometimes a flag, the mechanical cow runs along one of the sides of your arena on a line. The device is then hooked up to electricity in which you can remote control which way the mechanical cow moves.

How do you teach a horse to track a cow?

Guiding your horse to find their cow sense is most easily achieved early on in the training process.

Showing your young horses the cow so that they can begin to focus on the livestock is key.

Once they are able to focus on the cow, you can move forward to teaching your horse to follow the cow around the pen. This will begin the learning process of tracking a cow.

Make vs Buy

The great thing about mechanical cows is that you always have the option of either making one at home or buying a pre-made system. If you are handy and like a challenge, taking the DIY route may be your best bet.

How to Make Your Own Flag System

Making your own mechanical cow requires some electrical knowledge and building skills.

These DIY systems are made up of a combination of pulley systems, a battery, electrical wire, flag, and posts.

There are many resources available for learning to create your own system. This video will help you better visualize a DIY version:

Best Options to Buy a Mechanical Cow System

There are various mechanical cow systems available for purchase. Before choosing one, make a note of the specific qualities you need in a mechanical cow.

Do you want a system that is extremely quiet? Has a “cow” rather than a flag? Perhaps a portable system? A wireless remote control?

 Check out this video on the CowTrac Mechanical Cow:

Or, see what the Pro Cutter Mechanical Cow is like:

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a pro cutter?

The Pro Cutter is one of the industry’s leading mechanical cow systems.

Q: How do you start a cutting horse?

Cutting horses are started the same as most western performance horses. A solid foundation and ability to walk, trot, lope, as well as lightness and suppleness to bend is extremely important.

Cutting horses will also be introduced to livestock at an early age.

Q: How do you make a mechanical cow?

A great “how-to” can be found on AQHA’s website.

Q: What is the difference between a mechanical cow and a mechanical bull?

A mechanical cow is utilized to train cow horses to read and track cattle.

A mechanical bull is utilized to mimic a bucking bull to train the bull rider.

Parting Thoughts

The invention of the mechanical cow has not only made training cutting horses easier, it has increased the reach of the sport as more people are able to become involved regardless of if they have access to cattle.

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About the author


Natasha D.

Natasha is a Certified equine massage therapist with experience showing in western pleasure, hunter under saddle, horsemanship, showmanship, and trail. She now focuses on reining horses, but dabbles in dressage training when time allows.