Low stress livestock handling, part 2

We should start training our livestock by getting them to respond calmly and consistently to three cues:

  1. Responding to pressure from a handler approach that is nearly perpendicular to the sides of the animal
  2. Responding to pressure from a handler approach that is coming more from the rear
  3. Going by or past us

Once the herd does these three things calmly and consistently, we'll have a great start on developing real control.

Start training with (1). As we discussed last time, it is easier and less stressful for stock to move away straight from pressure coming from a nearly perpendicular direction to the way the animal is facing. At this angle, they can see us better before and after they move off.

When they are doing (1) well, move on to pressuring them at an angle of approach from nearly behind and moving in toward the shoulder (2). Train them to take pressure from the rear the same basic way as you did from the side. Don't get too far behind, and make sure they can still see you. If you can see the eye, the animal can see you. Work them this way until they respond consistently by walking calmly, straight away, with good movement. If they jump out or curve away, or go off with a high head or bug-eyed look, keep practicing until they do it right. Make your next approach a little slower, not so close, and perhaps at a different angle. As soon as they even start to move, back off the pressure. Let them relax a bit, then move in again, perhaps a bit closer this time, and ask for a step or two. Continue this until they will keep going.

When all the animals in a herd are responding to pressure from the side and more toward the rear, train the stock to get comfortable with going by us or us going by them, in a direction parallel but opposite to the way they are facing or moving (3). This is important because we will be going by them to slow them down, to start movement and to speed it up, and to direct them through gates, into trailers, and when we are sorting. When we approach them off to one side and go straight on by them within their flight zone, livestock will naturally want to speed up and go by us.

Pick some animals or a group and just walk past them within their flight zone. The majority of them should pick up movement if they are stopped, or speed up if they are moving. We want them to do this calmly. Some may run past us, or spin around and go the other way. Keep practicing with these. Go out a little farther with the next pass if you need to. Have the stock moving before you go past them. If you are in a corral and they are anxious about going by you at this distance, take them into a larger area to practice. Working a few animals together helps too. It may take a few times until they all understand we won't jump in front of them or jam them.

Do a few things well and avoid doing the wrong things

We are working toward keeping a herd together and to eventually place stock and have them stay where we want them. By teaching them to take pressure well from the sides and to go by us comfortably and responsively, we have made substantial progress. Just as with training horses, where 90 percent of it is not doing the wrong things, we also have to stop doing the things that are stressful to stock. These are things NOT to do:

  • pressuring stock from directly behind for any length of time
  • pressuring too hard or from the wrong angle so that they are bumped or crowded
  • jumping in front of them to slow them down
  • moving stock from too far away (get as close as you can)
  • continued pressure when they are going well (such as sending the dog or chasing them to "make sure" they keep going)
  • moving a herd of pairs that are separated from calves or lambs (they don't need to be side by side but they should not be worried about where their babies are)
  • forcing stock in a particular direction, instead of allowing them to choose the direction they want and making the right direction easier with training and with positioning ourselves correctly
  • making noises louder than ordinary conversation
  • curving and weaving when walking or riding near the stock

So, keep the noise level down. Anticipate what the stock will do so you can react sooner and slower rather than later and quicker. Walk in straight lines around stock. This helps them know what we want. Pressure stock, and when they do the right thing, release it for a time. Allow them to choose the direction, and make sure they have at least two ways out. Above all, watch them constantly so you can see what effect your position and movements are having on them.

Remember to "end the lesson" after you release pressure to allow the stock time to associate the right thing they just did with the reward they just received. Ending the lesson could mean letting the stock take a few steps forward before pressuring again or it could mean leaving them for the rest of the day after you place them.

The reason a herd of cattle may not stay as a herd is because we often make the herd an uncomfortable place to be.

Almost all larger herds have animals that are more sensitive or almost wild. We may not even be able to get them to start responding to side pressure or to go by us. Working wild stock requires going to lower-pressure techniques such as just approaching a herd and standing quietly, letting them know you are just going to get that close.

If they take off, let them go, just follow behind after they have gone away about 40 or 50 yards. Follow slower than they are going, letting them know you're not chasing them, but that taking off will not relieve the pressure. You should be able to stand closer and closer to them when they stop each time. When they relax a bit, you can graduate to walking up closer until you see heads up and both eyes on you, then you turn away before they leave. This technique really defuses their anxiety in a short time.

When you can get close to them, you can go back and forth a bit to get them to move. Sometimes only a slight weave on your part is needed. Training wild or real sensitive stock requires patience, but you may find these wild ones become some of the nicer stock in the herd to work. We'll discuss this in detail next time.