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Training Cattle, Fenton suggests training cattle for easier handling

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cattle are smart and adaptable, learning from their mothers and the environment around them. They respond to good handling by becoming easy to manage. Mishandled, they react with suspicion or fear when they see people and can become “wild” and difficult to handle.

Many ranchers are learning the value of low-stress handling and how easy it is to manage cattle that trust people, due to consistent, non-confrontational methods. Their cattle are comfortable with being gathered and sorted, rather than reacting with fear.

Al Fenton of Fenton Herefords at Irma, Alberta has raised thousands of heifers. His cattle have good dispositions and are easy to handle, partly from genetic selection but largely due to the way they are handled.

Training cattle

Fenton says cattle can be trained to do the right thing when sorting them, if you use the same patient techniques as when training a horse.

“We handle all our cattle on horses. When we’re sorting large groups, we gather and hold them in a group and teach them to be held,” he explains. 

Fenton continues, “When heifer calves are with their mothers, they are held that way, for sorting. When we handle them as yearlings, they are held that way. When we trail to pasture several miles away, they line out and know what to do.”

He notes that when they hold a group of cattle, they make them stay in one spot, and when one wants to take off, the cow isn’t chased, but rather, a rider circles around after it, slowly bringing it back to the herd.

“We just let her stand a minute, and then a rider can ease around to put her back in the bunch and continue to hold until all of them are settled,” he says.

Slow and steady

Fenton emphasizes the process is easier on cattle, and they are calmer and more cooperative when moved as a result.

“We use very little noise. Just the body language of our horse can teach our cattle,” explains Fenton, noting that if they’ve taught their horses properly and by working calmly, it transfers to the cattle. “By working slowly, everything works better, and we save time.”

He continues, “If we make sure cattle understand what we want, giving them time to figure it out, it teaches them to think, wait and look for our instruction rather than seeking the first way out.” 

Cattle look to the rancher for guidance rather than explosively reacting as if they were a predator, Fenton explains.

He also notes cattle prefer to stay in familiar groups, and he suggests holding groups of cattle in an area while other riders bring the rest of the herd to the first bunch. 

“When gathering, we have two or three riders hold the group while other riders bring more out of the bush. Most of those cattle will head for the group that’s being held. If we do it right, cattle will do a lot of the gathering and sorting for us,” says Fenton.


When sorting cattle, Fenton says they begin by holding a group with horses, then sorting the pairs out. One or two riders move through the herd quietly, and the herd doesn’t scatter because they’ve been taught to remain in their group.

“When we pull a pair out, we just quietly bump that pair to the outside edge,” explains Fenton. 

As a result, cattle aren’t alarmed or upset and pairs or individuals can be easily sorted out. 

However, the key to the process is to pick a calm, dependable cow on the first sort. 

“I always choose a cow or heifer I think will stay calm and take her about 200 yards away and stop her. I let her sit there, and a rider stays there and holds her,” he says, noting cattle become easier to hold the larger the group gets.  “We work them this way as pairs, as heifer calves, then yearlings and then bred heifers. We keep the same concept of handling as they grow up, and they sort quietly and easily with no shrink.”

After training cattle in this manner, Fenton says they require fewer cowboys, and working cattle becomes safer for everyone involved.

Comparable to horses

Training cattle is like training horses, according to Fenton. 

“If we handle them correctly from the time they are young and are patient with them as they learn, they are comfortable with what we do, stay calm and trust us,” he explains. “They know what we want them to do.” 

Fenton also emphasizes that good cattle handling doesn’t require extensive, fancy facilities, but rather, handling requires good planning on how to work with what’s available. 

Training cattle is like training a horse, Fenton adds, saying, “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing harder.”

“The yelling and screaming that happens in many corrals puts a lot of stress on the cattle, the work crew and families. That stress all goes away if we put enough thought into how were going to sort those cattle and if we do some training ahead of time,” says Fenton.

He concludes, “The more we can let them think for themselves and have them flow the right direction, the more we will win – with a lot less stress on everybody.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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