The Cowboy Way

I was talking to my friends husband after church last week. He is a cowboy through and through, and a good one. Some people like to trail ride, some like to go to shows, his hobby is roping at brandings. He loves to rope. I’ve never seen him rope, but I bet he’s good. He was telling about a lady from a prominent local family, she shows pretty big time. She was at a branding getting the fall calves done. This is generally the wrong time of year for branding, most people calve in the spring so it’s usually a spring thing.

He was shaking his head in disgust as he told how she was getting after her poor horse, whipping and beating it. Finally another man there walked over to her and very publicly told her to knock it off. Hopefully that was a strong does of positive punishment there in the form of humiliation. These are not people who are going to be doing any clicker training, probably 😉  That doesn’t somehow mean that they don’t care about their horses.

It got me thinking about ranching and working cattle in general. Cattle are not smart and you can not train each one individually when you’re working with herds that number in the hundreds. Everything is easier to work when trained though. So how do you quickly and efficiently train hundreds of nearly wild animals? With food!

Farmers and ranchers have been using positive reinforcement to train their herds long before it became a thing. It’s so obvious and works so well it is amazing that it hasn’t caught on long ago for all training purposes. This same man also mentioned that the reason they had been late for church was because he had been out training a herd of yearling cattle. Yearlings are basically cow teenagers. Like any teenager they are… occasionally difficult. They want to do things their way. They’ll take off one way and if you ease them back the way you want they’ll charge off the completely opposite direction. These yearlings had just been turned out to graze the cornstalks, clean up ears of corn that fall off while combining. They’ll go out and feed some supplement to them. The cattle don’t automatically know to come in and eat. Again they are not smart animals and like anything aren’t born knowing these things, they need to learn.

With older cattle who know what’s going on you can park in the middle of the pasture and honk. The cattle will hear the horn and come running. For their food. Positive reinforcement on a very large scale. Teaching yearlings to do that is a little more difficult. He parked the feed truck and rode out around them pushing them to the food. They learn not only how to move and be worked by a horse, and get rewarded with food afterwards! But also to come to the sound of the horn.

Once cattle have learned this very handy cue it can be used for all sorts of things. When moving cattle from pasture to pasture it is very common to have a pickup in front honking and calling. In miserable weather I’ve moved cattle for miles this way. You stop once in awhile and wait for the slow ones to catch up. While waiting the pets and good followers get fed. If you wait too long between reinforcing you will start to loose them and they’ll look for other, easier, things to do. Like with any fed based training, high rate of reinforcement. If the lead are with you the followers want to be with the herd and will generally keep following. Once you get where you’re going everybody gets a nice jackpot.

In blizzards you can’t just tell cattle to stay in a sheltered place. They will drift, blowing along with the wind, until they get to a corner of the fence. Then they will stand and freeze. Once again, food is the perfect cure and training device. Sometimes calling them will be enough. If you are getting them bedded down good before the storm comes in or if it isn’t too bad. They will come running to the shelter. Other times you combine + and – reinforcement. Calling with the horn and pushing them with horses. Often you do have to resort to pure -R because it’s impossible to get out with a vehicle. Horses can get through almost no matter how bad the storm. Once to shelter lots of food will hold them there and get them settled down enough to stay. More bales as time passes will keep them even better and also help them stay warm.

When we start to feel all superior with our modern humane training methods I think we need to remember that there is nothing new under the sun. We may be doing it more, more refined, more purposefully, with more intent to be doing just that. That doesn’t mean that we are the first or the only. Next time you work with your horse remember that you are doing it the cowboy way 😉
This video seemed fitting to go with my little rant. Coyote learned this trick years ago, before I had ever heard of any such thing as positive reinforcement. We were trying to move pairs, mama and baby calves, out of the small confines of the calving lot, where it is easier to keep an eye on them and help if any of the cows have trouble calving, to the pasture where they would have more room and green grass to graze on as spring arrived. You would think they would want to go. That after years of doing this the cows would have some idea what was going on and just pick up their calves and move. Back to the whole cows not being smart thing. The cow wanted to eat me, I could not get off and move the calf myself. Nothing I could do from the saddle could convince cow or calf to move. Coyote sighed and rolled his eyes, I swear he did and does it often, he is a master of contempt. Then he picked up his hoof, placed it on the calf who refused to stand and shook him gently. The calf jumped up and followed its mother. I scratched and petted and praised Coyote until I was sure he got the idea that I liked what he had done. Then we tried it again and finally were able to put it on cue. Then transfer the cue and basic movement to pushing calves along as well as getting them to stand up. He’s a very smart horse who knows his job well.

The calf in this video was born late in the summer, much younger than all the others. His mama ran off and left him as soon as we started moving them. Cows are not smart and don’t care a whole lot about their calved unless their bags start to get full and hurt, then they remember and start to look for them. Those couple of miles were a long walk for the little guy. He didn’t want to go that last little bit into the corrals. It probably would have been easier for the guys to grab him and move him themselves, but it sure was fun to get to see Coyote working instead of riding him while he did it for once.

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