This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.72
A lot of times people have trouble understanding cattle because the cattle are so simple minded. Their decisions are made for comfort, nutrition, or survival reasons.
Unlike people, cattle are not driven by greed or humiliation and they don’t care who looks better or what others think about them. The more we can understand things from the cow’s perspective the better we can anticipate what they are going to do when working with them.
For example, from the time a calf is young other cattle will head butt them to discipline them. So they get real keen about reading aggression toward them when another animal’s head is pointed toward them. This is why people can have trouble working cattle from a horse. People don’t realize how easy it is for us to show aggression in our movement and we are sometimes incoherent to how the cattle see our body language.
Too often while we are working from a horse our movement is forward as we are looking at the cow in front of us. The cow notices our horse’s head pointed toward them and if any aggressive movement toward the cow is felt it is taken as a threat and their survival instincts can take over.
I like to use the shotgun analogy to help people understand how the cow feels. The story goes like this. Let’s say you are in a rural area in a local café during hunting season, a man walks in carrying a shotgun with some of his buddies and they are all relaxed just talking to each other and sit down at a table and stand the shotgun up against the wall behind them.
You may not see him as a threat but you might keep your attention on him. But if he laid it on the table and it was pointed in your direction, you may keep a little more attention on him, and let’s say that he had his hand on the trigger and it was lying over his arm pointed at you and he had eye contact with you. That would give you a whole different feeling. He may not intend anything by this but you’re not sure what he is thinking and you feel like you are in a very vulnerable position that could be life-threatening. As long as the shotgun was pointed away from you and there wasn’t any attention on you, you could be more at ease, but as the shotgun was pointed at you and you could tell his attention was focused on you, that gave you a whole different sensation.
So if you think about the shotgun analogy as you’re working cattle from a horse, it may give you a better idea of why cattle respond the way they do. The cow is only reacting based on its previous experience with other four-legged animals coming toward them. When they see a suspicious-looking four-legged animal much taller with something on its back possibly making noise, this only raises their suspicion even more. Understanding this concept can help us understand things from the cow’s perspective.
If we can move in a more submissive way like backing our horse away from the cow as we turn, or moving toward the cow with the side of the horse or even the rump of the horse instead of the horse’s head, we can be a lot less threatening to the cow.
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