Practical Techniques to Driving Cattle

by Whit Hibbard

Just about everything we do with our cattle comes down to driving them somewhere, whether to summer pasture and back, into or out of the corral, up the alley, onto the scale, through the crowd pen and into the chute. It’s important to understand that if we don’t drive our animals properly we are going to have problems, such as resistance and runbacks. But if we drive them properly, we should avoid creating unnecessary problems and old problems will often disappear.

When done conventionally, driving can be very high stress. It often entails a lot of help, relentless pressure, noise, aggressive or barking dogs, stock whips and racing around. Basically, we just out-gun ‘em and make ‘em go where we want with fear and force. And that’s exactly what I did for 38 years. In reality, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but try and tell me that at the time and I wouldn’t have listened because, of course, I knew there was only one way to work a cow. But now I’ve learned there’s a better way.

From the low-stress livestock handling perspective developed by Bud Williams, all the hoopla of conventional driving is unnecessary and counter-productive. Effective driving is based on communicating with animals through proper technique so they understand what we want and do it willing—no fear or force necessary. Here are two effective ways to drive cattle:

     Driving from behind

The way to drive animals from behind is to apply pressure into their sides at a forward angle with the straight-lined zig-zag technique—described in detail in the November 2015 issue of Drovers.

There are two important points to keep in mind:

  1. Every animal you pass must move ahead in response to your pressure. If any do not, you need to momentarily interrupt your zigzag pattern and pressure that animal directly until it moves. If you don’t do this you are teaching that animal it does not have to move—which results in dull, unresponsive cattle.
  2. Focus on driving from the middle of the herd. Don’t try to go from one side of the herd to the other, just work back and forth in the middle third or half—which might only be four or five steps each way—until you get some straight movement going away. Then you can widen out the area you are working to feed other cattle into this movement. If you start good movement up the center, it will draw the sides and corners. Also, if you go too far across, it tends to turn the lead.

     Driving from the sides

     Another technique is driving from the sides. As with driving from the rear, there’s a correct way and incorrect way. What people normally do is ride up the sides and poke at little groups, without realizing this slows or stops everything behind them.

To drive cattle effectively from the side you need to go against their direction of travel (front to rear or head to tail) within their pressure zone, which causes them to speed up to get past you. We call this technique “reverse-parallel” (described in the February 2016 issue of Drovers).

One very important point is how to return to where you started so you can repeat this technique. What conventional handlers do is turn around and retrace their steps, but this is a forward-parallel movement that slows or stops animals. So, the way to return is to go wide to the side to get out of the animals’ pressure zone and use the all-important straight lines.

This can be done as a technique in itself and letting the rear take care of itself or in conjunction with someone driving from the rear.

Once cattle are moving, a few methods can speed up or slow down the herd.

          Conventionally, people up the pressure behind the herd, believing the more pressure they apply the faster the cattle will go. Often the reverse is true; it can slow cattle down because animals under excess pressure become uncooperative and want to go back where they came from.

So, from the rear we can speed up a herd in three ways: (a) sharpening the angle of our zigzag, (b) increasing our speed or (c) increasing our presence, all of which apply more pressure.

From the side, ride reverse-parallel at a faster pace and closer in, both of which apply more pressure on the animals to move past you.

Understanding how to temper herd movement is just as important. Riding up the side of animals in the same direction they are traveling (forward-parallel) within their pressure zone will slow the herd.

Common Mistakes

I’ve found learning is as much about finding what not to do as what to do, so take look at a few common driving mistakes.

  1. Too much help: The conventional belief is the more help the better. From the low-stress perspective, less help is better (to a point).
  1. Making noise: In the words of low-stress handling expert Bus Williams, “Yelling is probably the most detrimental thing we can do while working livestock.” Why? Because it takes their mind off where we want them to go and it puts more stress on animals.
  1. Going parallel with movement: This tends to slow and stop movement, which is very detrimental when trying to drive animals somewhere.
  1. Following directly behind: This forward-parallel movement slows movement. It draws the animals’ attention back to us, instead of on the animals they should be following and where we want them to go.
  1. Pushing from directly behind: This is problematic because we’re in the animal’s blind spot, so it wants to turn around and face us or even go back.
  1. Encircling animals: This is very predatorial and prey animals don’t like it.
  1. Not releasing pressure: Conventional cowboys often relentlessly push on cattle and never give them a release. Releasing pressure gives animals a reward for doing the right thing.

Source: Drovers March 2017

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