Cowboy Skills: Reading Tracks

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

Reading tracks is an important skill for a working cowboy, right up there with doctoring calves and learning how to avoid driving a tractor. When a cowboy is checking his cattle and finds an open gate, he needs to be able to tell if any cattle passed through it. Chances are, he won’t see any of the stray critters, so he’ll have to read sign to determine what happened.

Are there tracks in the gate? Are they fresh? Approximately how many are there? Which direction were they headed? Were there calves in the bunch? What color was the cow in the middle? Did the lead cow have horns?

Ha! A cowboy couldn’t really determine a cow’s color or horn status by her track. And if he could, we should all listen very, very carefully to what he has to say, because he obviously possesses supernatural powers.

Here’s what a cow track graphic looks like:

Here’s what fresh cow tracks on a sandy road look like:

reading tracks

Looks a little different, doesn’t it? The narrower part of the hoof is in the front, so that will tell a person which direction the animal was headed. It takes practice and experience to find and accurately evaluate tracks in nature. Finding animal tracks on a dirt road is fairly simple, but finding sign out in the brush and rocks can be trickier.

Sometimes, a working cowboy will need to determine where the horses went, in the case of a gate mistakenly left open or if he’s trying to figure out where another cowboy is while working. Here’s a graphic depiction of horse tracks:

reading tracks

Note: If at any time you find horse tracks actually going across the front of your shirt, you need to immediately stop and reevaluate your horsemanship techniques. This is a major red flag that something went wrong.

Here’s what horse tracks in sand look like:

reading tracks

Horse tracks are easier to find and determine the animal’s direction than cow tracks. They point the way! If the track is fresh, you can even clearly see each nail head imprint. If the track is old, the sides will be fallen in and rounded, producing a kind of “blurry” overall appearance.

But, fresh tracks can also be blurry, too. Here’s a picture of our dog’s track taken immediately after she made it. Loose sand quickly crumbles in on a track, which can make it look deceptively older than it is.

reading tracks

Can you guess what made these tracks? A three-wheeled all-terrain Jeep stroller piloted by a woman whose strength is obviously not walking a straight line. I’m amazed my toddler doesn’t get car sick when I take him for a walk.

reading tracks

Tracks are fun! And they’re everywhere, except on the pavement. Reading tracks isn’t only useful for cowboys, though – next time you’re out in the dirt, look down and see what you find. You’ll be able to read a story of what happened before you showed up, even if you don’t see another living soul.

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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