Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Good Stockmen Understand What an Animal is “Saying”

We're working our way up the pyramid of skills you need to become a good low-stress livestock handler. With mindset and attitude you're starting with a strong foundation.
On our way up the pyramid of building the foundation for becoming good animal handlers we’ve arrived at the “Reading Animals” level.

In the last two articles I reviewed the first two of five requisite elements of low-stress livestock handling (LSLH), mindset and attitude. In this article we will look at the third element—“reading” animals.

Low-stress livestock handling is based on a mutual understanding and communication between bovine and human. That is, when our animals understand what we are telling them to do and we understand what they are telling us in response, and we communicate effectively with them (which is done through proper technique), they will willingly do what we want. To do this, however, we must be willing to “read” our animals. In fact, according to Bud Williams, “Everything is reading the animals. Every step you take and every step the animal takes you’re communicating, so you have to learn to read the animals.”

Understanding and communication are based on one thing—proper position. Through years of keen observation and experimentation, Bud figured out that proper position at a walk is all the pressure we ever need to move cattle wherever they are physically capable of going. And, here’s the crux of the matter, the only way to know what that position needs to be is to read the animals. According to Bud, “They will tell you where to be and what to do.” And, alas, that makes working livestock easy.

To reiterate, proper position at a walk is all we ever need to effectively work cattle, and the way to know what that proper position is, is to read our animals: That is, how they’re responding to our position and whether we’re getting the response we want will tell us if our position is correct or not. If we’re out of position we won’t get the response we want, but if we adjust and put ourselves in the proper position we will get the desired response. As Bud describes it: “Cows will position you where you should be. If you watch ‘em they’ll take you right to the spot where you need to be to move ‘em properly. If you’d read what your animals are saying they will tell you right where you need to be.”

Here are some examples:

If you’re moving cows and one turns its head to look at you, it’s telling you that you are getting too far in behind it and it doesn’t like it as in this photo:

Following a Cow

So, this rider should move more out to the side until the animal’s head straightens out and it lines out. If the rider ignores what the cow is telling him and he persists in following directly behind it, it may slow down or even stop and face the rider, or worse, break back.

When moving cows (or a single cow) and they stop, their behavior is telling you that you are too far away and can move closer.

If a cow takes off faster than you’d like, it’s told you that you got too close too fast (i.e. too  much pressure).

Conversely, if a cow doesn’t move as fast as you’d like, it’s telling you that you haven’t put on enough pressure by getting close enough or you’re at the wrong position or coming in at the wrong angle.

If cows balk in a crowd pen or going up a chute, they’re telling you that you’re out of position.

Conventionally, a lot of stockmen think that cattle are difficult to work because that’s been their experience so, consequently, they rely on coercion. Bud pointed out, however, that “Cattle are actually really easy to work; the problem is that we won’t read them and listen to what they’re telling us.” As a result, we try to coerce them do what we want. Also, what people generally do is what they want to do because they have a predetermined idea or plan of how things should go, but the problem is that the cattle weren’t part of the planning process. If we would simply learn to read our animals and respond accordingly (i.e., position ourselves properly so they understand what we want), coercion becomes unnecessary.

Low-stress handling is a little like dancing. By paying attention to who is where and what they’re saying with their movements, we can avoid stepping on each other’s toes.

In conventional livestock handling, when things don’t go right, we tend to do one of two things. First, we tend to force the issue (which we often succeed at because we have more firepower). Rather, when things don’t go right we should stop, back up, and read our animals to determine what they’re telling us. If our animals aren’t responding how we’d like, we have to assume responsibility for the fact that it’s because of something that we are not doing correctly (i.e., improper position). In other words, there’s a breakdown in communication. The way to find out what we need to do to correct the situation and get our animals responding how we’d like, is to read them and adjust our position.

Second, we tend to fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over when working livestock, more or less as a memorized routine. Working with livestock is too fluid and dynamic of a process that precludes doing it by rote. Instead, we have to read the animals to see what to do and if what we are doing is correct. Sure, we have a bag of techniques which we can draw on—which I’ll be getting into in future articles—but choosing the correct technique and applying it properly for any particular situation will be determined totally by reading the cattle. As Bud put it, “We have to work with what we have, not what we think we have, or should have, or want to have. Don’t copy what you’ve done before; rather, read the animals.”

I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of reading animals until I worked at Big Bend National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park rounding up trespass and wild stock. If I went in with a predetermined plan it was doomed to fail. Also, if I misread the animals they may not give me a second chance because they were gone! So, I had to watch them very carefully to determine how they were feeling and reacting to my presence and adjust accordingly. I had to read them to determine how much pressure they could take, how to approach and start them so they didn’t bolt, and how to drive them in a controlled way and into captivity. If done properly it worked, every time.

What do you think?

Share how this works or might work in situations you’ve encountered. More heads are better than one when it comes to learning how to “read” and “talk” to our animals!

Here are the other articles in this series:

Stockmanship: An Essential Component of Sustainability

The Case for Low-Stress Livestock Handling

Low-Stress Livestock Handling: It’s All In Your Head

Good Animal Handlers Have the Right Attitude

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Whit Hibbard
Whit Hibbard
Whit is a fourth generation Montana rancher who spent aobut 38 years handling cattle conventionally before making the paradigm shift to low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as taught by Bud Williams. For the past 10 years he has studied and practice LSLH, and shares his knowledge in clinics, onsite consultations, and articles. He began publishing the Stockmanship Journal in 2012. It is the definitive source for quality information on stockmanship. Though the importance of stockmanship is becoming well recognized, until this Journal, there was no professional publication addressing the subject. Hibbard began publishing the Journal in January of 2012 to provide a consistent and efficient way to share information on stockmanship, and to serve as a forum for open, intelligent and informed dialogue. The Journal is a means for improving the level of discourse and the discipline of stockmanship. It is published twice a year in electronic form and includes articles written by experts in the field.


  1. Thanks to LSLH, I can now work my sheep in less time then 2 of us were able to just a few years ago. Now I’m trying to figure out how to retrain my milk cow, who’s goal seems to be to get her foot inside the milk pail. Any Ideas?

  2. This is true of all animals; they are smarter than we give them credit for, because we just don’t read them very well. They read us much better.

  3. One problem in confined spaces is if the cattle have been handled many times the wrong way in this confined space they have learned to bolt

    • Instead of being a problem look at it as being an opportunity to retrain the cattle to so that they are calm in the corral. That will take practice for both you and them, which will make both of you better off in the long run.
      Cattle can learn to trust your leadership, though it will take longer for some than for others.

  4. This article was quite explicit, giving ways animals communicate with their herders through reading them. Although the author focused on cattle, this may apply to small ruminants (sheep and goats). As a researcher of goats, I observed that goats just as cattle, communicate very well and if read properly, less stress is being posted on them. Goats are very happy animals if the herder understands them. When they look at you continuously, they are saying something to you. Get closer to see what is happening and you will see that something went wrong or there is need for something. When they make sound, it means something is needed or something gone wrong. Reading animals constantly and checking on them can help reduce stress and improve the herd health and development. Less stress animals grow faster and healthier.

    • My daughter had a small dairy herd of Nubians that ran free around the farm; her ‘herd queen’ came to the house on 2 separate occasions to get help when one of the does had caught up her collar. This involved leaving the herd, not a ‘normal’ behavior. She appeared in the garage, calling loudly, and when my daughter went out, she turned & led her to the problem. Who needs Lassie? Goats can be scary smart.

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