The traditional means of transport for the cowboy, even in the modern era, is by horseback. Horses can travel over terrain that vehicles cannot access. Horses, along with mules and burros, also serve as pack animals. The most important horse on the ranch is the everyday working ranch horse that can perform a wide variety of tasks; horses trained to specialize exclusively in one set of skills such as roping or cutting are very rarely used on ranches. Because the rider often needs to keep one hand free while working cattle, the horse must neck rein and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.
A good stock horse is on the small side, generally under 15.2 hands (62 inches) tall at the withers and often under 1000 pounds, with a short back, sturdy legs and strong muscling, particularly in the hindquarters. While a steer roping horse may need to be larger and weigh more in order to hold a heavy adult cow, bull or steer on a rope, a smaller, quick horse is needed for herding activities such as cutting or calf roping. The horse has to be intelligent, calm under pressure and have a certain degree of 'cow sense" -- the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.
Many breeds of horse make good stock horses, but the most common today in North America is the American Quarter Horse, which is a horse breed developed primarily in Texas from a combination of Thoroughbred bloodstock crossed on horses of Mustang and other Iberian horse ancestry, with influences from the Arabian horse and horses developed on the east coast, such as the Morgan horse and now-extinct breeds such as the Chickasaw and Virginia Quarter-Miler.
Horse equipment or tack
Equipment used to ride a horse is referred to as tack and includes:
a saddle specially designed to allow horse and rider to work for many hours and to provide security to the rider in rough terrain or when moving quickly in response to the behavior of the livestock being herded. A western saddle has a deep seat with high pommel and cantle that provides a secure seat. Deep, wide stirrups provide comfort and security for the foot. A strong, wide saddle tree of wood, covered in rawhide (or made of a modern synthetic material) distributes the weight of the rider across a greater area of the horse's back, reducing the pounds carried per square inch and allowing the horse to be ridden longer without harm. A horn sits low in front of the rider, to which a lariat can be snubbed, and assorted dee rings and leather "saddle strings" allow additional equipment to be tied to the saddle.
a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.
(leather or nylon) can be mounted to the saddle, behind the cantle, to carry various sundry items and extra supplies. Additional bags may be attached to the front or the saddle.
a Western bridle usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the horse in many different situations. Generally the bridle is open-faced, without a noseband, unless the horse is ridden with a tiedown. Young ranch horses learning basic tasks usually are ridden in a jointed, loose-ring snaffle bit, often with a running martingale. In some areas, especially where the "California" style of the vaquero or buckaroo tradition is still strong, young horses are often seen in a bosal style hackamore.