Read Your Stock

Increase your livestock awareness to develop a solid ranch horse and work cattle effectively, or become a valued ranch hand. In "A Ranch Horse, A Ranch Hand" in the November 2004 issue of Western Horseman, I discussed forming a rodear to work cattle and gave a specific example of handling cattle at one of my working-ranch clinics. This Web Extra offers suggestions to increase your awareness when working with cattle. Such awareness helps develop a solid ranch horse and make you a valued ranch hand.

Knowing how to efficiently and effectively do a job horseback on a cattle ranch is very rewarding, and cattle work develops a horse's overall trust and confidence, which carries forward to all other situations and activities. Here, I discuss handling cattle once confronted with the situation, assuming you and your horse has established a good riding foundation.

Stay aware at all times of how you handle your horse and how he responds. Have fun, but don't let anything compromise the quality of your horsemanship.

You're training the cattle at the same time you're training your horse. Teach the cattle to yield quietly to pressure, so they'll be easy to handle. Avoid training the two extremes - dead and dull or wild and unyielding. Use the same training philosophy as with horses: Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. Reward a cow for doing the correct thing by removing pressure. Always set up situations so your horse and the cattle come out winners. This means your horse and cattle respond how you want them to and without force or stress.

Cattle are intelligent, thinking fight-or-flight animals. They want to get along in their world and have things as safe, routine and predictable as possible. They're very trainable, as with a horse, and if approached correctly, will learn to handle with ease and finesse.

To help better understand how cattle operate naturally when you approach them in a pasture, consider these suggestions to help make things go well.

  • How you start the day could determine how the day goes. Starting the day with a positive attitude toward the cattle work helps make things go better.
  • When gathering or checking cattle in a pasture, approach them at an angle rather than straight on.
  • Individual cattle have a flight zone. Depending on the cow, the flight zone can be very large or very small. Neither is desirable. Ideally, a cow's flight zone is large enough that it takes little to get her to pick up her calf, move out and stay with the herd. A yearling or bull would go from being shaded-up to easily moving out with the herd. For all cattle, the flight zone should be small enough that the cattle don't put a "9" (kink) in their tails and run off when you enter the pasture. This zone should be large enough that cattle move when approached, especially through trees and brush.

    Flight-zone determination begins when you first spot the cattle in the pasture. If all the cattle look at you, they could be nervous with larger flight zones. If they look in various directions, graze, lie down or stand chewing their cuds, they're more relaxed. Adjust to fit the situation.

    When you penetrate a cow's flight zone and it moves, ease the pressure by moving back to the flight zone's edge. Do this by stopping, backing up, or moving away at a wide angle, etc. Avoid putting too much constant pressure on cattle when they move; that only trains them to be dull, just as it would a horse. Instead, stay at the flight zone's edge as long as the cattle keep moving. Moving away farther with no pressure should cause the herd or a cow to slow and/or stop. There's a real balancing point between applying too much or not enough pressure to keep the cow or herd moving. With experience, this point becomes more recognizable.

  • An individual cow has a small blind spot in front and a large blind spot behind it. Don't stay in a cow's blind spot. When driving cattle, if you're in the rear blind spot, it makes a cow nervous and more difficult to drive; the cow wants to turn to see where you are. This causes cattle to slow down, stop or change direction. Instead, ride in and out of the blind spot in a zigzag pattern, changing eyes each time, so a cow sees you alternately in its left and right eyes.
  • Being ahead of this balance point tends to turn, stop or back a cow. A rider behind the balance point tends to move the cow forward.
  • A herd has a collective flight zone, blind spot, and balance point. To handle cattle effectively, efficiently and with finesse, these are important concepts to learn and practice. Working with cattle has it's own feel, timing and balance, similar to working with horses. Learn to read cattle and make the appropriate adjustments. Observe individual cattle within the herd and the entire herd when you work with them.
  • Cattle follow their noses - going in the direction they look. To get a cow to move in a certain direction, first apply enough pressure to get her to look in that direction.
  • Handle cattle quietly. Be in the correct position and at the best angle with your horse to influence their direction of movement. Yelling or hollering at cattle creates stress. At my cow-working and working-ranch clinics, I ask participants not to use their voices. Instead, I ask them to concentrate on timing and their horses' positions to influence the cattle. Good cattle-handling is a matter of correct timing, position and angles.
  • Ranchers take pride in seldom moving their horses out of a walk or trot while handling cattle. They strive to handle cattle quietly and as stress-free as possible. Finesse is favored over force.
  • Use the magnetic-draw effect of the herd to pull strays back into the herd. Cattle are herd animals by nature and generally don't want to be left behind. I've seen cattle come out of the brush or trees, over a hill, or across a creek to rejoin the herd, and I didn't know they were there before they did it. This doesn't work in every case, but does in most, particularly when the herd is moving away. Quiet handling makes the herd a safe and comfortable place to be.
  • When pressuring a cow, it needs to see a place to go. Don't continuously pressure a single cow or the herd when it's moving where desired and at the correct speed. As with your horse, remove pressure when cattle make the smallest change, and reward their slightest effort.
  • Moving a herd isn't a static thing. It's dynamic, changing moment by moment, and requires riders to constantly anticipate and adjust to situations, preferably before they occur.
  • When moving a herd, work the sides, not just the rear. Use only one or two riders at the rear, riding a zigzag pattern, in and out of the rear blind spot to prevent the herd from bunching together.
  • A lead rider ahead of the herd helps draw the herd in many situations. This gives the other riders, as well as the cattle, an orientation point to head toward.
  • Cattle are comfortable when they can walk in the opposite direction of the riders - like a vehicle approaching you on a two-lane highway. When you move in the opposite direction the cattle are traveling, they tend to speed up and move along more smoothly than if you just push from the rear or ride parallel in the same direction they're moving. This works because when walking in the opposite direction, cattle don't feel they're being pursued.
  • The above principle makes it easy to work the herd's sides when driving cattle. The desired driving formation is for cattle to be lined out rather than bunched up. Cattle travel this way naturally on the open range when they trail to water or salt. If the herd is lined out properly, only one or two riders at the rear are necessary, riding the zigzag pattern.
  • Start a herd moving by getting some leaders out in front to move in the desired direction. These leaders then draw the others behind. This works much better than pushing the rear toward the front to move the entire herd. A lead rider ahead of the herd also can be helpful to draw the herd because the cattle will be attracted to the motion ahead.
  • Riding flank, or working the herd's sides, helps keep the herd moving, caught up and lined out instead of bunched together. This is particularly important with pairs. If the herd bunches up, calves get pushed around, separated from their mothers and eventually pushed to the rear of the herd. They start bawling, then leave the herd to go back to where they last nursed to find their moms. You just can't stop them, and you have a wreck on your hands. Then the mothers turn back to find their calves. You can't stop them either. This makes for a very long, frustrating, tiring day, not to mention how poorly the cattle are being trained for handling.
  • Riding the flank has three sides that form a triangle. When moving the same direction as the herd, ride off at a slight angle to prevent parallel pressure against the herd, causing them to slow down, split or stop. When ready to reverse directions, look for a cow needing more forward movement (or to see if all or a portion of the herd is straggling). Ride perpendicular to the herd toward that cow's rib cage. When it speeds up, turn and ride closely parallel to the herd and opposite the desired direction of travel. This causes the herd to speed up, line out and maintain forward motion. You won't ride the same shape and size triangle every time. Adjust to fit each situation.
  • Be aware and keep track of the other riders at all times, as well as how the herd is moving in general. This works very effectively once you get the hang of it. A rider's triangle varies in size, depending on the number of flank riders and how the herd is moving, so all riders need to pay close attention to the herd's position and that of the other riders. Pressure from both sides of the herd should cause equal forward movement. There shouldn't be bulges, separation or slowing, due to unequal pressure from the flank riders.
  • The herd should travel at a walk with good impulsion - without rushing, trotting or constantly stopping.
  • If a cow is separated from the herd and looks back toward it, don't ride out and loop around the cow to drive it back. As you go past, the cow might turn and look at you, rather than where you want it to go. When the cow looks at the herd, ride at about a 45-degree angle toward its shoulder, instead of looping around the cow. Since the cow has learned it can walk past you, it'll walk back to the herd easily. The herd's magnetic draw might be all it takes it bring back the stray.
  • When driving pairs, first make sure they're all mothered up and have nursed before moving. When moving them a long distance during warm weather, start very early in the morning. On a long-distance drive, occasionally stop to assure they're mothered up and allow the calves to nurse, then move on. This works particularly well at a natural stop such as the other side of a gate or water-crossing. These stops might seem to waste time, but can save time and frustration in the long run. This way, you won't have to go so far if a calf gets separated from its mother and goes back to where it last nursed.
  • When moving longer distances over hard or rough ground, mother cows and bulls tend to get sore-footed and more difficult to drive. Take this into consideration when planning the day's work.
  • Once the herd is moving, maintain forward movement unless stopping for a reason. It's easier to maintain forward motion than to restart the movement. Use the leaders' magnetic draw to help pull the herd forward.
  • Once in the new pasture, first take the cattle to water. With yearlings in particular, don't allow them to hit a trot and take off when they enter the new pasture. Hold them up and walk them quietly to water if possible. At the drive's conclusion, stop the flow front to back. Keep the pairs loosely gathered until all calves have mothered up and nursed. If there's any bawling, they're not yet paired up. Before leaving, be sure they're settled - lying down, standing quietly chewing their cuds or quietly grazing in different directions, and still mothered up.
  • When moving cattle out of a pen, set up the cattle's flow so they perceive the gate as their means of escaping pressure. Ride from the gate area toward the cattle. Adding pressure away from the gate encourages them to hunt the gate and move toward it. Allow cattle to pass by you as they move to the gate. The gate then becomes the path of least resistance.
  • When driving cattle through a gate, one rider should be in position near the gate and perpendicular to the flow, stepping forward and back to keep the cattle walking through the gate in a line instead of rushing, bunching up and/or crowding at the gate. The other riders don't push cattle toward the gate, bunching them up. Instead, riders use only occasional minimal pressure and allow the herd's magnetic effect to draw cattle through the gate. Crowding stresses cattle.
  • When separating cows and their calves at weaning, branding etc., sort off the cows, leaving the calves behind in the corral. Drive the pairs into the corral through the gate you will send the cows back out. The cows will know which gate they came in and will want to leave through the same gate. Set it up so only one or two cows at a time come off the edge of the herd. Let the calves collect near the fence farthest from the gate. By putting slight pressure at the edge of the herd toward the opposite end of the corral, between cows and gate, the cows will want to split themselves off and head out the gate they entered. This is much easier than trying to ride into the herd to sort off cows, sorting out a different gate or, worse yet, sorting calves off the cows. Once a few cows go out the gate, the others naturally want to follow. Then you'll be working to keep the calves in the corral rather than forcing out the cows.
  • Leave your stock dog (or any other breed) at home unless specifically invited by the rancher. Stock dogs can be very helpful if well trained and the cattle are dog-broke. Unless cows are dog-broke, generally pairs and stock dogs don't get along because the mothers become overprotective of their calves, which disrupts the work. Quiet working dogs can be helpful with any type of cattle, in rough country where the terrain is impenetrable due to heavy trees, brush or bogs and also for trailer-loading and alley work.
  • The more effort you put into using good techniques with the cattle this time, the easier they'll be to handle next time.
  • When you help on a ranch, the owner, foreman or cowboss outlines the work and how it's to be accomplished, so always do the job however he wants it done.

    Conclusion

    These suggestions give you an introduction to cattle work that helps you know what's taking place and why. This is not an exhaustive list, so be aware and observant, and follow the rancher's instructions to the letter. You'll learn more with each experience.

    These also are just a few suggestions to help you develop a good ranch horse and become dependable ranch help whenever you have the opportunity. As you spend more time horseback and with cattle, these concepts will make more sense and you'll also pick up on others not mentioned here.

    Riding in open-range country and working cattle is a very natural activity for a horse and very rewarding for both horse and rider. As this stretches you and your horse out of your comfort zones, it develops your mutual trust and confidence. Having control of your horse in various situations heightens safety and enjoyment. It'll definitely build trust and confidence, which carries over into other activities. The result is improved horsemanship.

    The most lasting way to obtain your horse's trust is to make things interesting, seek challenging situations, such as cattle work, and direct him successfully through them.

    As stated before, every ranch does things a little bit differently, so you should adjust to fit that situation. You'll find there are more similarities than differences among ranches. Go with the flow and just appreciate having the opportunity to help, no matter how they go about completing the work.

    Resources

    For more detailed descriptions of specific cow-working maneuvers horseback, see my books, Problem-Solving, Preventing and Solving Common Horse Problems, Volumes 1 & 2, published by Western Horseman.

    A complete ranch horse should be capable of being used for roping. My Problem-Solving books give examples of how to acquaint your horse with dragging a log. For more on roping, refer to Buck Brannaman's booklet, Ranch Roping, also published by Western Horseman.

    Read about my working-ranch clinics in "Moving Cattle at the Meadow," in the February 2004 WH.

    Hopefully, this information will assist you and your horse in being more helpful handling cattle whenever you have the opportunity.

    Marty Marten, 2401 N. 119th St., Lafayette, CO 80026; 303-665-5281.