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How to Herd Cattle From Horseback in 7 Easy Steps

Seriously, guys, you all need to try this some time in your life.

Recommended supplies before beginning:

  • horses that are accustomed to being around cattle (cutters not necessary–I’ve herded cattle from the backs of Welsh ponies, Arabians, mustangs and draft crosses, though I’m now quite happy to be working with Quarter horses with some cow horse in their bloodlines.)
  • tack–western tack is not a requirement as long as you’re comfortable!
  • helpers–cattle herding generally operates on the phenomenon that the more cattle you have, the less help you actually need, as long as your help is all competent. Not pictured is farm-hand-to-the-stars Jonah, who assisted greatly throughout this entire process by attempting to lure the cattle in the correct direction by timely application of corn. (Eventually the cows caught on but it was a good start.)
  • understanding of your terrain–our working farm is located in the beautiful Southern Tier of western New York, meaning that our pastures are not the rugged mountain settings of the Rockies nor the giant open plains of the central United States. Our pastures are rolling hills stubbled with rock as well as dense thickets of woods, crisscrossed by creeks. Knowing what kind of physical setting you’ll be up against can change the way you approach this job.
  • patience and a sense of humor–because you’re now working with lots and lots of animals rather than just one.

Step 1: Saddle up and get excited because you’re about to step into the life of a working cowboy.

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Ok, Kaitlyn and Skip don’t look particularly impressed but they’re both jumping for joy on the inside.

Kaitlyn and I saddled up Skip and Red, our equine partners of choice. Skip’s been in the Peterson Farm herd for quite a few years, and while he’s not particularly “cowy” he’s willing and is happy to do almost anything he’s asked. Red, my photobombing little gelding, is only five and still fairly green, but he’s got a lot of potential to be a well-broke all-around ranch horse.

2. Make a plan. And then also make a Plan B, C, and D.

Jonah and Kaitlyn work out the details of our master plan.

Jonah and Kaitlyn work out the details of our master plan.

Don’t neglect to plan what exactly you have in mind BEFORE you hit the cow pasture. Our plan was very simple: gather up the cows, push them down off the hillside where they were grazing quite happily and undisturbed, then turn them up the little draw, around the cabin, hang a sharp right to cross the creek and then push them right through the gate that Jonah helpfully already had opened for us. What could possibly go wrong?

If cattle haven’t gone through a gate in a long time, or ever, they’re very reluctant to walk through what might look like an obvious opening. Our fences are electrified, which does a great job keeping the cattle away from them, especially when you need them to get closer. Having the gates set ahead of time would make our lives infinitely easier–there’s nothing worse than having your cattle amassed at the gate and then having to move them away just so you can get the thing opened.

3. Find the cattle.

How helpful of you to be as far away as possible from where we need you to be going.

How helpful of you to be as far away as possible from where we need you to be going.

In our pastures, there aren’t too many places for the cattle to actually physically hide themselves, but the herd did a spectacular job on this particular day of making our job as hard as possible. To get to these cows, we had to ride uphill, cross a swampy creek and then wade through a bog that came up to the horses’ knees. As soon as we were clear of the bog a giant flock of Canada geese took off just ahead of us as well. Irritatingly, as soon as Jonah started honking the horn on the tractor like a crazy person the cattle brought themselves down the hill of their own accord.

At this point in your cattle drive, you will start to adopt your own personal cattle-call. I prefer the high whistle to save my voice whenever possible, but when the going gets tough I also hiss and holler “gitupcows!” Kaitlyn preferred the lower growlier “gitupgitup come on!” and later adopted the “NO YOU DON’T YOU #*$!!#” as well. The physical act of driving cattle is simple–get behind them and they’ll move away from you. Need to stop or turn? Go to the head and push them away. If you know how to round pen a horse, you are already winning at herding cattle–the concepts of body control are essentially the same.

4. Know thine enemy.

Freckleface, you are literally the worst cow ever.

Freckleface, you are literally the worst cow ever.

There’s one in every herd–the cow that just doesn’t want to go where everyone else is going. Most of the time, cattle’s herding instincts work in your favor; if you can get the leaders moving in the right direction the rest of the herd will generally follow. On this occasion, however, even though we had Horn Lady and the other ringmasters of Peterson Farm headed happily for new pastures, this red cow with the freckled face continued to trot back in the other direction. At one point Kaitlyn and I had her cut off between a grove of trees and the fence, and just when victory was in our sights Freckleface crashed right through the center of trees and trotted for the lower gate, leading me and Red the cow pony on a merry chase until we were able to head her off again.

5. Rejoice! Everything is going really well!

At last, everyone is finally going the right way.

At last, everyone is finally going the right way.

No matter what the western movies might tell you, herding cattle is realistically a lot of walking around–when it’s going well. When the cows are finally moving in the right direction, you can hear Jonah continuing to honk the horn on the tractor somewhere in the woods ahead and Freckleface the demon cow is at last firmly embedded in the herd, you can loosen your reins a little, relax and enjoy the cowboy life. There’s no need to run the cattle needlessly and work off all that beef weight you’ve spent all summer trying to gain or get the herd running to the point that you can’t stop or steer them.

6. …but be ready for anything.

Cattle and creeks at the same time are no problem for Red the cow pony.

Cattle and creeks at the same time are no problem for Red the cow pony.

At this point in the drive I was pleased as punch with my little green cow pony, because he was marching right along behind the straggling calves like nobody’s business and happily stomping through this creek to hurry them along.

And immediately after this point in the ride, there are no more photos for awhile because it basically all went completely to hell. Remember when I said cows don’t like to go through places where there previously stood an electrified gate? A few of the older cows who remembered being pastured in that section went through willingly, but the rest were pretty sure we were force-marching them to certain electrocution and did whatever they could to avoid going through the wide-open gate. Before I actually made it across the creek, Kaitlyn had dismounted and handed me Skips’s reins, so I was attempting to move the stragglers and pony a horse at the same time. Kaitlyn, meanwhile, was dancing back and forth across the creek through thorn bushes, armed with a big stick, yelling furiously to try to keep the nervous cattle from drifting back downstream and out to the old pasture. I eventually had to leave Skip with Jonah and then go back across the creek and be led up and down the pasture by a wayward knot of recalcitrant cattle who finally gave in after fifteen minutes of furious cantering hither and yon.

But a mere two hours after we started, the cows were happily in fresh pasture! Simple, no?

7. Reward your sweaty, tired horses. You did it!

Red the sweaty cow pony.

Red the sweaty cow pony.

I was beyond impressed by my green cow pony on this day–he covered miles at the walk, trot and lope, up and down hills, in and out of woods, bogs and creeks, and never once complained or balked (compared to our first cattle drive this spring to tag and castrate, in which the entire herd ran at him and he squealed and bucked in place for a few moments in sheer excitement/terror.) He was a sweaty, tired boy who earned a nice hosing-down and a carrot. Skip wasn’t nearly as sweaty…but Kaitlyn certainly was, thanks to her own personal charging up and down a thorn-choked creek bed screaming obscenities at cattle. Either way, we both felt accomplished and pleased in the ways that only doing real work with your horse can bring you.

We celebrated our success later by dining on lasagna…with ground beef.

Go riding!

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