Reading Cattle 101

How does one go about reading cattle and why is it even important?

Boyd Rice, professional cutting and reined cow horse trainer, and T.J. Roberts, manager of AQHA Best Remuda Award winner Tongue River Ranch, share their secrets for reading a cow’s behavior.

What is Reading a Cow?

In the most general sense, reading a cow is watching the cow’s movements and body language, and being able to anticipate what she will do next.

Ranchers rely on their ability to read cattle day in and day out. Many a horse competition celebrates that ranching spirit with classes like cutting, reined cow horse and working ranch horse, and many a time it’s the rider’s ability to read cattle that gives his or her horse an advantage in competition.

Why is the ability to read cattle an advantage? Because being able to anticipate the cow’s movements can make a huge difference in the success of a run. T.J. Roberts, manager of  Tongue River Ranch, explains why reading a cow is important.

“If you can read a cow, you can set your horse up in a good position to work her,” T.J. says.

What happens when you misread a cow? Take this example:

  • A cow is preparing to stop, but you don’t read that it’s preparing to stop.
  • So you kick your horse to speed up.
  • This puts your horse out of position to stop and turn with the cow.

Obviously, misreading a cow happens to everyone. But consistently misreading cattle can cause a horse to be too short or too long on cattle and make for bad performances. Multimillion dollar earner in National Cutting Horse and National Reined Cow Horse association competition Boyd Rice says:

Reading a cow simply means having an idea of what the cow is fixin’ to do.

The best way to be good at reading cattle is to be around them. However, even if you haven’t spent a lifetime training cutting horses or weren’t raised sorting cattle on a ranch, watching cattle and practicing reading them can really help improve your cattle runs.

As you’re practicing, whether it’s actually working cattle, or just watching cow horse or cutting runs, keep these tips in mind.

Type Can Be An Indicator Of How The Cow Will Handle.

Some breeds of cattle are wilder than others. Oftentimes, cattle with “more ear” or those with Bos Indicus or Brahman influence will run harder and be more sensitive to pressure. Comparatively, white-face cattle or those with a lot of Hereford influence are typically quieter and less sensitive to pressure.

Watch How They Come In The Gate.

Specifically in cow horse or ranch cow work classes, when one cow is turned into the arena to work, the way the animal enters the arena tells the rider what to expect. If she runs into the arena with her head up, typically she’s going to be wild and fast, Boyd says. If she strolls in with her head down, those are usually not as fast. But, he cautions, you never really know until you roll around the corner to go down the fence.

T.J. breaks down how cattle enter the arena into three categories.

  1. The “Numb” Cow. This cow comes out and doesn’t really look around much, puts her head down and starts smelling the ground. She might even turn around right away and try to go back out the gate she came in.

T.J. says typically cows of this type are going to be a little numb, meaning they need more pressure to react to the horse and probably won’t run as fast. That said, sometimes these cattle can trick you so that you get too close, and they will stick their head up and run over you.

  1. The “Good” Cow. The second kind of cow trots in with her head up, maybe even comes straight toward you, but when you move, she reacts by turning away and running back toward the fence.

T.J. says these are indicators of a “good” cow that will have some movement but will honor your horse by moving away from it.

  1. The “Eat Your Lunch” Cow. The third kind of cow is a green rider or green horse’s worst fear. She comes running out of the gate with her head up and runs right toward you. When you move across the pen to turn her, she turns, but it’s toward you, and then she runs fast to the other side.

“That’s the one that’s going to pressure you and your horse and challenge you to see how well you can hold a cow,” T.J. says. “Sometimes a judge will blow you a new cow, but if your horse can hold it, these are the kind you can score high on.”

He explains that usually after the cow tries to get by your horse a couple times and can’t, it will respect your horse, and you can drive it back toward the gate it came in and set it up for a big fence run.

Watch How They React To Other Horses.

The challenge of cow work is dealing with the cow you’re dealt, so to speak, because you’re at the mercy of whatever cow you draw. In cutting, however, you can use your ability to read cattle to choose the best cattle to cut to get your horse shown effectively.

  • On a green horse, you are looking for more of a quiet cow that might not test your horse’s ability to hold it as much.
  • On a finished horse, you’re looking for the perfect cow that will honor you, yet has plenty of try so you can show off your horse’s skill.

Boyd’s keys to watching and picking cattle to win in cutting:

  1. Pick cattle that will honor the horse.
  2. Watch whoever is settling.
  3. Pick a cow that stops and gets away from the settling horse.
  4. Stay away from cattle that have their heads up and don’t stop.
  5. Don’t pick cattle that just stand there and don’t pay attention to the settling horse.
  6. Continue to watch the cattle throughout the set. They change a lot through the course of getting worked.
  7. Pick cattle with “feel,” those that are out away from you, but trying you.

Don’t Get Discouraged.

Reading cattle can be tricky, and even the pros make mistakes. T.J. recalls one time at the Ranch Horse Association of America Finals, “I had a cow that did not want to move, and I felt like I had the horse that could go win. I got myself in a pinch.”

Right away, T.J. stepped to the cow and his horse was really wanting to work, so he mashed on the cow and when she headed toward the corner, he went with her, but she wasn’t going fast enough and didn’t make it too far before turning right back on her own.

“I was holding her tight between the middle and the corner, instead of pushing that cow all the way across the end and speeding her up and letting her know she could run and get away from me before going down the fence,” he remembers. “I should have known, knowing that cow was that laid back, I should have moved her back and forth across that pen and got her moving more.”

But that’s the challenge of cattle classes. Sometimes things don’t go as we plan and cattle don’t react the way we’d expect, even though we can practice and use these tips to help us set up the best possible run.

Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association