Cow Behavior

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

Much has been written about the importance of studying horse behavior and knowing why a horse reacts a certain way in different situations. Horsemen pay attention to whether their mount’s ears are pointed forward or flattened backward. They know that a cocked hind leg can mean the animal is relaxing…or about to kick. Clinicians and horsemanship instructors make a living by knowing what a horse is going to do before he does it and teaching other people to read these signs as well.

But did you know that understanding and reading a cow’s behavior is just as important as horsemanship to a cowboy? There is a whole realm of body language and unspoken communication going on in the bovine world, too. Just like horses, they are animals with instincts, patterns and reactions to various outside factors.

Cow herds often develop “babysitter” cows that stay with several calves while the other mama cows are grazing, watering, shopping or getting their nails done.

Cows in field

Just kidding about that last part! Like a cow would go shopping.

If I were a cow, I would totally be the babysitter cow. I have issues with leaving my kids. I mean, I don’t leave my kids. I work from home and am six months overdue for a haircut. I basically arrange my life so I don’t have to leave my kids.

But anyway… In addition to knowing his horse, a good cowboy knows what a cow is going to do before she does it. A raised tail can mean a bovine is going to run, and dropping her head down can mean she is going to stop.

Or sometimes those signals don’t mean those things. A person needs to spend a little time watching the cattle to know how each one is going to react. They are all individuals, just like horses or people.

See that horned cow on the right? She was easy to keep track of, because she was the only one in the branding trap that day that had horns. She reminds me of a brindle horned cow that ran through my flag once when I was loading cows into a chute to be processed at a ranch in Spring Valley. Once that cow ran past me once, she learned she could do it and then she ran past me again and again and again, taking some of her friends with her each time.

Cows in corral

Dang cow. They learn what they can get away with, and they develop that behavior into a pattern. Every time we work cows, we are actually training them.

Whoa. That was deep.

On a lighter note, hi, Cole! Doesn’t he look so happy to be branding calves on ol’ Gray at the Spanish Ranch? Always in a good mood, that Cole.

This mama cow just found her baby at the branding and is taking her back to the herd. That’s what mama cows do at brandings: they look for their babies. Sometimes, they give the ground crew a friendly shove in the behind to check to see if their baby is in their back pockets. There’s a strong bond between a mama cow and her baby (or there should be, anyway) and it’s a force not to be trifled with.

Cow and calf

Next time you’re around a group of cows, see if you can spot some specific behavior patterns emerging. Just check out what’s going on. There’s a whole bunch of important details taking place, and they are things a good cowboy or stockman would take notice of.

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

About Jolyn Young

Jolyn Young lives near Montello, NV with her cowboy husband and 3 small kids. For more, visit

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