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Mastering stockmanship: Pate offers hints into sound animal handling

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As the horse and rider connect, cattle move easily toward a holding pen. Using some simple moves, the rider sorts off some of the steers into a separate pen.

In this cattle demonstration, there is no yelling, no running or jumping at the cattle and no biting dogs. It is just simple stockmanship between a man and his horse moving some cattle where he wants them to go.

Stockmanship and stewardship master Curt Pate was on hand at the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory Open House to teach ranchers how to better handle their cattle.

“Ever since the old days, ranchers have taken care of their livestock and their grass,” Pate told a crowd of nearly 300 people. “Stockmanship has worked for thousands of years. Stewardship is what has changed.”

Adding science

Pate considers stewardship a combination of animal husbandry and science. Pate questions how stress on the animal impacts scientific research.

“Everything I talk about is cowboy science,” he said. “I have found that everything my grandfather told me way back when is being proven today by science.”

“Stockmanship is a progression and mindset,” Pate said. “Everyone has a different idea of what is good stockmanship. My style is getting it done, which I call effective stockmanship for the job we are doing. My goal is to leave things after I have finished better than when I started.”


He also sees stockmanship as progressive. He believes to become a good stockman, he and his horse have to improve everyday.

“This year, I have been working on getting animals more comfortable with me,” he said. “I want my horse to understand that when I take the pressure off, it can be comfortable with me. I try and find ways to draw the horse to me, mentally. I think we could do the same thing with cattle.”

“Pressure is a good thing if it is done in a positive way. That’s what differentiates good stockmanship,” he explained.

When working with the horse or cattle, Pate said it’s crucial to end the day on a positive note.

“We want to see results and a little improvement everyday,” he explained. “By learning to be a good horseman, we will also become better stockmen.”

Continue to develop

Pate has read a lot of books about stockmanship and finds many of them recommend working cattle slowly.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that statement,” he said. “I think it’s more likely that the only way to work cattle quickly is slowly. We have to change the amount of pressure we are putting on the cattle to fit them.”

“A lot of times, we think they can change the pressure to fit us,” he explained.

Stressful times

Branding can be one of the most stressful times for cattle, but Pate believes it’s the sorting and not the actual branding that is the most stressful.

“I try to sort the cattle before my help actually shows up,” he said, “or, I will take the bottom out of the panels so the calves can get through.”

Pate finds range cows and rancher cattle don’t know how to stop, and farmer cattle don’t know how to go.

“We need to find someplace in the middle,” he said. “If we get out in front of the cow, it will slow them down. Then we have to get them to turn around. Finding their balance point is the number one thing in stockmanship.”

Changing strategies

Everything is always changing in stockmanship, so the producer needs to constantly be on the rebound, he added.

“Wild cattle want to be way out in front of us. If we get out of line with gentle cattle, they want to stop. I like to be beside cattle, where they can see me. I can put pressure forward from right behind the ear to where I give a shot,” he said.

Small moves make the biggest results.

“All of our western horsemanship came from working cattle,” he said. “But when people started competitions, putting time and money into something changes it. I am not sure it does much for good stockmanship.”

“The better our skills are, the better chance we have at winning in the pasture or at a ranch rodeo. But now, competition determines what type of horses we ride, and those may not necessarily be the best ones for stockmanship,” Pate added.


Pate finds that, if stockmen can get their horse’s mind in sync with their mind, they can do a better job working cattle than the guy on foot.

“Try to read the horse and the cattle,” he said. “It is important to get a horse to walk straight and stop straight. The main thing that is important is to have a horse that will settle and relax. Work on mental balance and responsiveness.”

With cattle, how they are approached is important.

“The flatter the angle when we approach them, the less pressure we put on,” he said. “Don’t go directly at the cattle at first. We should hook the cattle by getting them to look at us.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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