Reading Cow Body Language

Reading Cow Body Language

Reading cattle often falls into the category of elusive. It’s like, “How the heck can you tell what that cow’s going to do?”

The truth is – you can’t! (That’s not a good answer- ha!) You never know for sure what a cow is going to do until they do it. But you can predict their behavior with increasing percentages of accuracy. Predictors do exist that give you information that strongly suggests what a cow most likely will do next.

And that’s what this video is all about. It’s super casual, and I talk about indicators of what the cattle might do like I was sitting around watching cattle with you.

Reading cattle takes practice. I encourage you to take time and study cattle during open cutting and herd work classes, just as we did here. You will expedite your progress by putting in the extra mile.


Identifying Common Breeds and Color

Identifying Common Breeds and Color

In this video, a Lesson from Barb’s CowSmart Course, she walks you through identifying the colors and characteristics of some of the most common breeds of cattle (and crossbreds) often seen in cattle classes. Barb also suggests the following exercise to help you consistently practice identifying typical breeds and crossbreds. 


Exercise: Identify That Breed

To keep familiarizing yourself with the breeds, combinations of colors, and types of crossbreds, whenever you see a cow, take a stab at identifying it by color and breed.

Click Here to receive updates on the upcoming COW SMART Workshop Series on Reading & Working Cattle.

You will also receive the Cow Skills Self-Assessment PDF.


Seven Cow Behavior Facts Every Rider Should Know

Seven Cow Behavior Facts Every Rider Should Know

Those pesky cattle! When you think you understand them, they surprise you! 

Here are seven facts about cattle behavior to help you de-mystify understanding their behavior and to help you predict how they will act when separated from the herd (in cutting and herdwork) – or – when turned into the arena by themselves (for boxing or fence runs).

The seventh point is perhaps the most important for those passionate about showing in cattle events.

    1. Because cattle are herd animals, they seek to return to the herd for comfort and safety. While that may be an obvious fact, always strive to know the location of the herd environment. It could be a cattle holding pen behind the arena or cattle together on the back fence in the arena.
    2. When a herd is put in a new environment (think arena) for the first time, they are unsure of where the ‘herd body’ naturally is. That is why ‘fresh cattle’ are ‘settled,’ which means a rider trains the herd on horseback to find a ‘safe’ place at the back fence of the arena.
    3. Riders who draw early in a cutting or herd work set of cattle find that early in the draw, cattle are not as familiar with the herd environment and tend to stay ‘out in front’ of a rider more readily. As more riders work in the group, cattle become conditioned to going away from the back fence and then returning to it. It’s not unusual for cattle late in the set to be aggressive in their attempts to return to the herd.
    4. Cattle have different temperaments. Some, by nature, are more naturally aggressive (usually the wilder cattle). In contrast, others tend to be ‘quiet’ and happy to remain away from the herd environment (usually the more laid-back temperaments).
    5. Riders can best evaluate a cow’s temperament when near a horse. The wilder cattle want to get away from a horse as quickly as possible, while a more ‘friendly’ cow will demonstrate an interest in a horse and appear comfortable.
    6. Controlling a cow is a game of angles and positioning the horse to prevent a cow from going where we don’t want it to go or actively turning or moving it.
    7. For cow events, you can set yourself apart from your competitors by becoming a student of cow behavior, angles, positions, and speed of approaching a cow as fervently as you work on your horse riding skills.


5 Tips for Making Cuts in Tough Cattle

5 Tips for Making Cuts in Tough Cattle

Rerun cattle or groups of wild or strongly herd-bound cattle are always a challenge because they know the “game.” They know where they came into the arena. They know where their buddies are standing when they get separated from the herd, and they intend to get back to the herd.  

Here are five tips to help you navigate tough cattle: 

1. Ask your trainer and helpers to help you understand what to do in the specific herd of cattle you are about to enter. Every situation is always different. Get a plan ahead of time. Ideally, the best time to do this is before your class begins, when you can talk with them in a relaxed way. 

2. Make sure you know where you will enter the cattle. Often the strategy is to walk to the back fence and bring out a large group of cattle and then walk aggressively to the middle of the arena with your herd holders… and then let cattle peel off and cut what wants to be cut. I think that is an excellent strategy.

An additional idea is to ride straight down the middle of the cattle from the front instead of approaching them from the back fence. In some groups of cattle, this can serve to “loosen them up” and get them walking out to the middle of the arena less packed together. 

4. As you walk out with your cattle, talk to yourself. Tell yourself which cow will truly be the last cow or the quietest cow to cut. Often in those last moments, nerves take over, and the cutter darts away with a cow that moves to make sure they “gets a cow.” Look to the end of the flow and the cattle on the far outside. These are the most likely candidates to cut. 

5. Talk to yourself. Make sure you keep reminding yourself to breathe and keep your eyes up.


Reading Cattle as They’re Brushed Off

Reading Cattle as They’re Brushed Off

All who show in cow classes (no matter how much experience we have) want to get better at reading cattle.

One way is to watch cattle being settled for fresh cattle herd classes. You watch as they’re settled, and then predict how they will act when they’re cut during the class.

At the end of the settling time, the settler “brushes them off”. It’s not like getting brushed off by a friend (ha!). The rider goes back and forth in front of the cattle to make sure they are as comfortable as possible against the back fence before that set of horses begins to show.

There’s a lot of information about individual cattle that can be learned during this time.

That’s what this video is all about – showing you how to watch this process.

You will learn:

    • To observe the behaviors of cattle at the front of the herd and near the settler’s horse
    • “Good” cow characteristics
    • “Bad” cow characteristics
    • “To be determined” cow desirability observed as the class unfolds


Speaking Cow Lingo

Speaking Cow Lingo

I clipped a piece of video for you from my “Cow Characteristics” video in my Cow Class II Program. In this segment, I talk about ‘speaking cow lingo’.


How do you learn to read a cow?

How do you learn to read a cow?

I clipped a piece of video for you from one of my “Cow Classes” in my Core Confidence class. In this segment, I talk about how to ‘read’ a cow. I also included a clip about where do you approach a cow to turn it.


The Rhythm of Working a Cow

The Rhythm of Working a Cow

One challenge in working a cow, is to get all of the pieces of accuracy, form and rhythm to stay correct … no matter the speed of the cow.

This video is a great example of the pretty form and rhythm we all aspire to achieve as we work a cow. Below the video, I explain the component parts of working a cow.

Identify those pieces as you watch Lloyd Cox and Blackish work a cow.

Let’s start from the place where you and your horse are traveling across the arena, on a straight line, and in position with a cow.

You: Good position as you travel … slightly ahead of the cow … your leg in the cow’s shoulder.

Cow: Begins to slow down.

You: Because you’re reading the cow as you travel … and you and your horse are in position to stop the cow … when you see the cow begin to even think about slowing down, your seat drops to help your horse rate the cow and get ready to stop.

Cow: Stops.

You: Collapse your back and drop your seat softly down “into” your saddle as you see the cow stop. Continue to exhale and imagine your core dropping into your horse. 

Cow: Still stopped.

You: Stay low. Stay down. All the while, read the cow. Sink lower.

Your Horse: His weight remains on his hindquarters as he feels you stay quiet, still and low in the saddle. He reads the cow.

Cow: Turns and goes the opposite direction.

You: When the cow first begins to turn, you stay still. Your eyes remain on the cow. There’s a momentary “wait”. You stay low as the horse pivots 180 degrees on the “line” and comes out of the turn slightly behind the cow.

You: When you get to the 180 point, you are behind the cow … again, just for a moment.

You: Now, proactively, but accurately, you accelerate your horse on the line to get into position to stop the cow.

You: Now you’re back traveling with the cow. The cycle begins again as noted beginning at the top of this list..

NOTE: The natural tendency is to do the opposite re: rush the turn when you need to wait … and not travel in position or with authority once you are traveling on the line.


’Reading’ a ‘Good’ Cow vs a ‘Challenging’ Cow

’Reading’ a ‘Good’ Cow vs a ‘Challenging’ Cow

One challenge a rider has in cattle events is being able to predict what a cow will do as he or she approaches it on a horse. That ability to interpret current cow behavior as well as predict future cow behavior is called “reading” a cow. It’s a skill that takes experience, patience and time.

A productive way to learn to read cattle is by observing them whenever possible, in all kinds of situations.

This could be at a trainer’s barn or at a show when cattle enter the arena for a herd work class.

At a show, you could also walk back to the cattle pens and just observe them.

As you consistently take the time to observe cattle in different scenarios whenever possible, you will expedite your learning curve for reading cow behavior.

What follows are two categories of cattle behavior, both “good” and “challenging”. You’ll also see eight characteristics under each category.

“Good” Cow Behaviors:

1. Watching a horse (or a person) with curiosity and steady interest

2. Takes a step back when curious, and then walks off with ease

3. The head and neck stay level

4. Chews their cud

5. Walks or trots at slow to medium speeds, and then reduces speed to a slower gait quickly

6. Licks their shoulders

7. At ease standing apart from the herd

8. Consistent in stance and reactions

“Challenging” Cow Behaviors:

1. Head way up or down … eyes wide … ears perked

2. Moves around quickly and erratically

3. Pushes aggressively through the rest of the herd

4. Sees a horse; turns around quickly; darts away

5. Flinches/reacts to sudden movements around him or her

6. Butts or pushes other cattle in the herd

7. Glares at other cattle or a horse

8. Tail up … head up … steps high


Describing Cattle, Part 1: Faces

Describing Cattle, Part 1: Faces

Herd work in cutting, reined cow horse, ranch cutting, etc., always involves describing cattle. 

There you are, walking your horse up through the cattle. You see cattle moving all around you. You’re trying to make sense of it all in the heat of the moment. Of course, you want to make the best decision possible. 

Often times your helpers are talking to you about which cow to cut “if it works out” and which cow to avoid. 

And then, when you combine your excited state of wanting to do the right thing (and not being sure) with listening to your helpers speak in what sounds like a foreign language, things can get a little hairy. 

This is the first in a series of articles about describing cattle. My intention is to provide you with ways to decipher the lingo of your herd help. 

In this article, I start by describing a cow’s head using these possible parameters: color, head shape, poll, ears, eyes, and distinguishing characteristics. I’m going to walk you through three different cow face examples. I’ll use whichever of our parameters most apply (as would your helpers). 

Please know, too, that the language of cattle description is far from universal. Each helper describes cattle in their own way. Typically, however, most helpers begin by noting the breed and/or color of the cow they’re describing.

“Black baldy” … the face is all white except for the black marking under the left eye (as contrasted to multiple colors at other parts of the face, which is called “mott” or “brockle face”).

Half white/half black … half and half “fluffy swirl” 

“Small-eared” … white in the ears (highlights) … turquoise ear tag with #1

Black “teardrop” (as contrasted to “rings” that encircle the entire eye) … white eyelashes … rub mark above and under the right eye

“Black mott” … medium star (referring to the size of a white shape in the forehead) or maybe heart head … also, “brown beard”

Head shape:
Small, “baby faced”

“Airplane ears” (extend to the side) … yellow #30 tag in the left ear 

Distinguishing Characteristics:


Head shape: 
Classic Limousin breed head shape … wide forehead … box-like


Rounded with “bangs”




Light around the eyes (if you had a group of all Limousins, the rather obscure pink skin “rectangle” under the left eye might be noted to distinguish him from the others)

Distinguishing Characteristics: 

Huge cow-lick/swirl in the middle of the forehead … light nose

Final Thoughts:

Describing cattle takes practice, and again, it’s not a perfect science.

I suggest that you get an order to the sequence as you describe their characteristics as noted above (breed and color first, for example) and go from there. 

Have fun with this! Gather a group of friends. During the open class, for example, begin to describe cattle physically as they are being settled. Make it a learning game. 

Then, if you can hear the herd helpers in the bleachers as the open riders show, listen to their descriptions, too. The more you observe and practice, the more comfortable you will become.