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


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