Thanks to Dawn Hnatow for co-authoring this piece!
A lot of ranchers have trouble gathering their cattle; that is, it takes a lot of riders multiple days and they still end up short. If done properly, however, one or two people can gather even large pastures in one day and miss none.
In conventional gathering riders make several mistakes that impede the process:
First, they ride into the pasture to be gathered and approach the cattle head on. At worst, the animals turn and walk away, so the riders follow which makes the animals go faster, so the riders go faster until all are running to the back of the pasture.
Second, once the riders are at the back of the pasture—either by racing the cattle there or taking a wide berth to get to the back—they start pushing whatever they find towards the gate without approaching or starting the animals properly so they don’t get good movement.
Third, riders get too much movement too soon, often with the “help” of a lot of noise, without realizing that they’d save time by starting and moving them properly, not by bunching them up and moving quickly.
Fourth, they drive the cattle too hard and fast which keeps the pressure on. It’s not rewarding the cattle for doing the right thing, and it will get them cranky and uncooperative, and it will get the animals so they want to go back or go hide.
Fifth, the riders hinder the movement they create by doing one of two things:
(a) Once a critter moves, they follow it or give it an extra little shove. This tends to slow down or stop the movement, especially if done from directly behind.
(b) Riders get ahead of other animals being brought in. This tends to slow or stop that movement.
Low-stress Gathering Principles
To gather a pasture properly, we need to do several things:
First, approach the animals properly so we’re not a threat. We do that by approaching with straight lines at oblique angles (i.e., zigzag) until we find their pressure zone (and this might be just one pass).
Second, start them slowly by continuing to zigzag in. This gives the animals time to decide to move off, which gets the all-important mind change. The worst thing to do is force them to move off which will immediately get them in an uncooperative mood that we’ll pay for all day.
Third, don’t drive them too fast. They need to move at a pace that’s comfortable for them, and not at a trot like some cowboys believe.
Fourth, don’t do anything to stop movement like riding up the sides or following directly behind within their pressure zone.
Choose a Technique:
From the Front
A very effective way to gather it is to start a lead for the gate, then feed animals to that movement. Here, Dawn Hnatow gathers a pasture from the front by starting a lead through the gate.
From the Back
A second way to gather a pasture is from the back. For example, Bud and Eunice Williams worked on a large mountain ranch that always took five riders two weeks to gather one particular pasture and they never got them all. In contrast, by zigzagging in the rear in a “T” to the gate, it took Bud and Eunice 1 1/2 days and they didn’t miss anything.
From Both the Front and Rear
If we have additional help, a very viable way to gather a pasture is to combine the first two methods (i.e., simultaneously from the front and back). As one person is starting a lead another can zigzag in the rear.
From the Front and Sides
A fourth method is for one person to start a lead while others ride to the back feeding animals to that movement as they go.
How Do You Know Which to Choose?
How might we decide whether to gather from the front or the back? If it’s a fairly small and open paddock or pasture and everything can see you, and they know where they’re going, or we’re just changing paddocks, we might best work from the front and start a lead. If it’s a larger pasture, more varied terrain, and we’re trailing out a long ways and don’t want the lead to get too far ahead, or get bogged down grazing once through the gate, we might best start from the back.
Regardless of the method used, the objective is to create what’s known as “good movement.” Good movement is when animals are contentedly trailing out at their own pace and their minds are going forward. In other words, they want to go where we want them to go.
Power of the Draw
Good gathering relies heavily on the “power of the draw” which is created by good movement. If we approach and start animals properly, that creates good movement which then draws other animals to it. On the other hand, if we create bad movement—which is caused by not approaching, starting and driving our animals properly—they want to get away from us and either go hide or go back to where they last felt comfortable. Here, the cattle in the foreground are trailing out with good movement which literally draws the cattle in the background out of the brush.
The essence of gathering effectively and easily is to get good movement going which draws others to it, or we can feed others to that movement, then not doing anything to interfere with it, like (a) riding forward-parallel, (b) pushing from directly behind, (c) getting ahead of movement, (d) yelling and whistling, and racing around, and (e) dogs chasing animals and barking, all of which creates bad movement.
The Moral of the Story
If we’ll just approach and start our animals properly to create good movement, and then not do anything to interfere with that, gathering is easy. But if we do it improperly, like going in lobbing grenades and creating bad movement, then it can be very difficult.