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Pulling the Strings

Moving cattle is an art that can never really be mastered. If you were to apply pressure in the same way, at the same time, on two different days, it may very well work the first day but not the second. Cattle are wily, their daily routine so apparently simple that it obscures their true intelligence. The assumption that cattle are mindless creatures of habit, responding predictably and robotically to every stimulus in their environment is a dangerous one. That’s what makes working cattle so enjoyable, and always an opportunity to observe and learn something new.

Sorting cattle in the corrals at Chico Basin Ranch. Photos by Brennan Cira.

I’ve moved the same herd of cattle between the same exact two points here on the Chico several times, and never has the move unfolded the same way. Sure, with a handful of cattle in a controlled environment like a narrow alley in the corrals, the way one animal might move (or not move) in response to pressure is more predictable. But out in the pasture, in an unrestricted sea of grass and brush, there are many more variables at play.


There are several key elements that interact to determine how moving a large herd of cattle out in the open pasture will go. First, of course, are the cattle themselves, in all their beautifully varied moods, life cycle stages, and classes. Some days the cattle will work with you (and you’ll feel very proud of yourself) and other days the cattle will defy you (and you’ll likely be cursing yourself).

Trails of cattle headed across the prairie. Photo by Matt Delorme.

Some days you’ll get to the back of the pasture just a few minutes too late, when the sun is rising, after the cows have already bedded their calves down and left them to graze for the day, and you’ll have to fight an uphill battle as the mispaired cows and calves run back to the last place they saw each other. Some days a cycling cow with a harem of yearling bulls chasing her will run circles up and down the herd in an attempt to escape their unwanted courtship, leaving the rest of the herd to follow in her erratic path. Some days the bulls will decide to convene a brawl in the middle of a gate, stalling the path of the rest of the herd. Other days, the cattle will string themselves out in a perfect line and march, requiring no pressure at all.


Cattle do not move in a vacuum, however. They are very much alive to the environment around them, and how that environment is structured in turn shapes the way they move about and interact with those surroundings. This is the second key determinant of how cattle move: the landscape and its features, including topography, location and character of watering points, plants available in that area, as well as the weather.

For example, cattle that are trailing well might get stuck as they come across a spring or bog with water and tall grasses that attract and slow them down. Some days, you end up saving yourself trouble by taking the cattle an extra ways further to go down into the creek where the bank is less steep, as they may be reluctant to take on a hill without a fight. Some days the cattle will come across a dense patch of prickly pear and grind their movement to a halt, reluctant to walk where there is more cactus than grass. You may cross a certain yucca-dotted meadow with ease in the winter, but return again in the late spring when the yucca flowers have bloomed and your best bet may be to just stop and wait for the cattle to bite off every flower in sight before trying to press on. Some days it will be hot, and the cattle will be reluctant to leave water. Some days you will be trying to bring the cattle west when a strong easterly wind picks up and the lead will turn around.

Horseback riders alternatively apply pressure and give cattle space in the ongoing dance of stockmanship. Photos by Anna Elledge and Matt Delorme.

Gathering uphill, away from water, into the wind–these are all features of the natural landscape that make a day moving cattle a little bit more challenging. While these facts of geography and weather lie beyond our control, we can understand them, anticipate them, and learn to work through our encounters with them. Just as how much grass we grow and how many cattle our land can support is subject to the unpredictable swings of climate and precipitation, how our cattle move across the land is shaped too by earthly forces much bigger than human and horse. The third element, then, intermixing with those bovine and landscape features to determine how our collaborative moves with these animals go is, of course, the human element.


Though they are domesticated, cattle are still prey animals. Just like wild prey animals, cattle have an innate desire to stay close together in herds for the safety that lies in numbers and the benefit of having another’s eyes to watch what approaches from behind. The flight instinct resides strongly within a cow, though we have all learned it is easily overcome by the urge to fight when a tiny calf lays hidden at her feet in the spring. It is these instincts–to flee from predators, to stay together as a herd, and to drift across the land as they graze–that we harness to move cattle intentionally and efficiently across big landscapes, in accordance with our planned grazing.

As we approach with our horses or motorcycles, the human presence creates an increasing pressure that triggers the not-so-dramatic flight instinct to turn around and walk away. But herding cattle is much more complex and nuanced than simply “pushing” a group of cows where you want them to go. Not all pressure applied to a herd is the same, and where and how that pressure is applied matters.

A view from the “drag” at the back of a group of trailing cattle. Photo by Lucy Ellis.

Probably the best metaphor I know for trailing cattle efficiently is what the foreman Jake Meldon told me when I first started as an intern at the Chico and had never worked cattle before. “It’s like pulling a string,” he explained. If you grab the string at the top and pull forward from the front, the rest of the string will follow in a smooth line. If you try pushing the string from the back to move it the same direction, it will just get bunched up and fold in on itself, but the front will not move forward. The same is true for a herd of cattle.

The easiest way to move cattle is always to make it something they are willing to cooperate with, rather than something you have to force upon them. The best way that I know to make cattle willful collaborators is to mimic the way they move naturally, when they choose to do so themselves. Go sit up on top of a hill out in the pasture within sight of a water tank, and as the morning grows older you will see the cattle trickling in from all reaches, not in bunches but in neat single file lines (sometimes with many different intersecting and diverging lines), all marching confidently, heads down, following the lead animal. This is, of course, how physical cattle trails are worn into a pasture.

An intern on a motorcycle approaches a group of cattle in the pasture, where single file trails have been worn into the snow. Photo by Wes Walker.

The best way to move cattle, then, is the same way they move naturally across the land: in thin lines, just like a string. Apply too much pressure to the back of the herd (what many people assume “pushing” cattle is), and the string will bunch up and collapse on itself. The herd will grow wider instead of narrower. Pressure that is carefully applied along the sides and the front of a herd of trailing cattle will encourage them to keep moving forward, and to stay in a neat, tidy, continuous string, each animal following the one in front of her without question. The concept of pulling the string of cattle rather than pushing it from behind can be a tricky one to grasp; what it requires is to step back and not see individual animals moving or not moving, but rather to look at the herd a a single whole, moving as one organism across the prairie.

Sickel working along the side of a group of cattle at the Chico Basin Ranch. Photo by Avery Clark.

Many of the same laws of physics we find in nature also apply to a herd of cattle, moving as a whole. The herd is subject to gravity, running down hills with increasing momentum, and perhaps more difficult to encourage to walk uphill. Momentum matters and is hard to recover once lost. The inertia of the whole carries the herd onward pasture to pasture. Watering locations, patches of palatable green forage or flowers, and other cattle may all act as points of attraction, magnets drawing the cattle in towards them, reluctant to let them go. The herd moves through the prairie as a planet moving through spacetime, pulled this way and that by these magnets with criss-crossing fields of gravity and attraction: a water tank in a corner here, an ungrazed creek bottom there, a breeze blowing west away from another group of cattle.

Observing the herd as a single body can then inform decisions about where to apply pressure. After struggling through many challenging cattle moves, I have learned that the highest-priority part of the herd is the lead, be it a single animal or a group of animals in the front. The priority then decreases as you move from the front of the herd to the drag. If you are by yourself and the lead is taking off in the wrong direction but the back is also at a dead stop and drifting away, you always go to the lead and direct pressure there first. Once the lead is under control and heading the right direction, it is easy to go back and encourage the rest to follow.

Interestingly, while the priority location to focus pressure is highest in the front of the herd and lowest in the back, the opposite is true of the intensity of pressure required: working the lead requires the most delicate, trained touch of pressure, while working the tail often requires brute force, which a dog or hard trotting can provide. If you apply pressure to the lead that is too strong, too abrupt, too far forward, or without enough release, you risk either turning them too far to the opposite side and off course, or even stopping their momentum altogether and turning them around.

From afar, the light, subtle pressure required to work the lead of a large herd of cattle might look like the easiest job, at times requiring nothing more than a few steps closer from 50 yards away, but it is truly the most difficult, and has the highest stakes. While it is easy to apply pressure to cattle drifting out and grazing at the back of the trailing herd and remind them to follow the lead, it is much more difficult to get the whole herd moving again if the lead is inadvertently stopped or turned in the wrong direction.

Just as with leg and rein cues to a horse, the best pressure is always the lightest; the more a cattle move emulates the way cattle instinctually move without human presence, the more elegant the move will be. The stockmen and women around me who I watch and try to study the most are not the loudest, who everyone notices whooping and hollering at the cattle in the back. It’s the ones you don’t notice. It’s those quietly working the lead or the side from a quarter mile off the herd, those applying pressure so light the cattle barely know they are there. It’s just one of those things, at once confusingly simple but amazingly complex. Something that you can clearly observe and understand but never fully predict.


Fencing on the Medano

Fencing on the Medano, the pendulum swings. Most days, the rhythm of fencing makes for peaceful days of fixing and moving on.


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