Ranch Diaries: Why we manage our cattle horseback

Rough terrain and big country make horses an ideal way to manage for gentle cattle.


Ranch Diaries is a fresh hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, a member of a new generation of cattle ranchers. In this series, Schneider gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments appear every second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.    

Last week, the remaining patches of ice melted on Fence Canyon Road, the main entrance to the ranch, enabling cattle trucks to get to the corrals at headquarters. Our neighbors helped us drive 180 steers seven miles to pasture, where they joined 500 others. The new steers would have trotted all the way if we’d let them, but for us, a successful cattle drive happens at a walk, with the animals strung out as close to single file as possible and riders positioned on both sides of the cattle, rather than having everyone ride in the drag. As our friend Kit explains, “you can’t push a chain from behind.” With a good lead animal in the front, cattle are happy to follow one another.

Our experience in big country like this has shown the benefits of keeping cattle gentle and working horseback. We use horses instead of ATV’s or pickups for several reasons. In much of this landscape they’re the only way to access the herd and our lease boundary fences. Also, many horses respond intuitively to bovine body language. It’s important to be able to think like a cow. Our stock dogs understand this instinctively. The key is paying attention and developing a feel. Sometimes you have to back off; sometimes you need to apply more pressure. We don’t always get it right, but we’re always learning.

Keeping cattle calm and content doesn’t just make them easier to handle, it boosts their reproductive performance and weight gain while reducing operational management expenses. One of us and a dog or two might gather and move 100 head or more, but if an animal has been on its own for a while, it can get flighty and nervous, or “spoiled.” This past cold and sleeting Wednesday, Sam found a heifer outside of our lease. She ran off as soon as she saw him. He roped her—since she refused to drive home—and led her two miles back to the other heifers at a walk. It’s hard to justify spending most of a day with one animal when we have hundreds more to look after. 

In addition to creating well-adjusted cattle, daily management horseback seems a good way to prevent potential problems. We make sure fences are up and gates are closed. We can easily get to and monitor water sources and check the mineral supplement we place nearby. It’s a good way to see what plants the cattle are grazing and browsing. Right now, we’re making sure they aren’t eating too much oak brush. Its tannins are toxic when ingested in large quantities. Every day is an opportunity to use our horsemanship and stockmanship skills and develop our eye for herd health and behavior, learning our cattle’s individual personalities while connecting with the land we’re working on. 


Photographs by the author, of Sam Ryerson settling heifers, working on cattle pens, and the author checking fences horseback. 

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