Working cowhorses in feedlots

It is quite surprising to see horses on a modern feedlot – in between the mechanised feeders and computerised feed mixers and tractors with radio-controlled trailers.
Issue date: 23 May 2008

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It is quite surprising to see horses on a modern feedlot – in between the mechanised feeders and computerised feed mixers and tractors with radio-controlled trailers. The managers commute from one end to the other on quad bikes – but the cattle are more relaxed in the presence of horses.

Horses were first used in SA feedlots in the 1980s, copying US feedlots, where the traditional cowboy and working cow-horse of the prairies had been rapidly assimilated into more intensive fattening operations from the beginning of the 20th century.

The western style of riding and tack are designed for working cattle at a slow pace. The horn on the saddle isn’t just decorative, but an anchor for the rope used to catch an errant steer. In SA we were used to herding cattle on foot, pushing them into kraals and crushes when we wanted to catch them. Without the cowboy tradition and tack, we’ve had to modify what’s available in SA.

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One major hurdle has been to train riders and horses to move slowly when working with cattle. Ideally, riders should work mainly at a walk with an occasional jog-trot or slow trippel. They work on loose reins, often one-handed, as they move between the cattle.
In the yards and pens the main function of the riders is to identify and cut out sick animals.
he horse’s height makes it easier for the stockperson to look down on the cows and pick up laboured breathing, lameness, bloat or a lack of rumination. Cows also allow riders to get a lot closer to them than herders on foot.
More recently, as preconditioning on planted pasture has increased, horses have proved very efficient at moving from one large fenced camp to the next, with sufficient speed to cover several different herds, watching for problems with the fencing as well as any diseased animals.

The ratio of horses to cows is slightly more that one horse per 1 000 cattle.
A medium-size, stocky horse with sound legs and feet and a steady temperament is required. They have to carry an adult rider all day. Most seem to be Boerperd x Arabian crosses and look not unlike the American Quarter horse in conformation.
Sound horses and sound riders
he horses work hard, albeit at a slow pace, and are well-muscled and fit. They are generally unshod so they require strong hooves. Lameness can’t be tolerated and those with poor legs are sold. An unsound horse is a financial liability in a feedlot, where profit margins are very narrow.

ake care selecting tack as horses with sore backs and saddle sores have to be taken out of work. Resting horses eat just as much as working horses! Modified McClellan saddles on a thick numnah appear to be the most practical solution. The grey Liversedge numnah seems to be the most popular. Simple leather bridles with snaffles are used, as the quiet riding style doesn’t require a harsh bit with accentuated stopping power.

Feeding isn’t usually a problem. Horses are fed either a purchased ration or one mixed from ingredients available in the feedlot. The hay is generally the same as that fed to the cattle. After work the horses are turned loose in a herd to interact with each other.

Riders are specially trained and aren’t usually used for general feedlot work. should have good balance and a feeling for cattle behaviour. According to feedlot managers, training is extremely difficult as the most of the workforce aren’t used to riding horses and tend either to move them about at quad-bike speed, or lose their balance easily and use the reins for support.

It also takes time to train horses to move slowly and steadily and not rush off at a trot or canter if a Brahman steer becomes unruly.
he good use to which horses are put in feedlots raises the possibility of more extensive beef cattle ranchers using them too. Quad bikes’ popularity is growing, but rising fuel prices and their short working life might make cowboys on horseback a more attractive proposition. – Dr Mac
Veterinarian, breeder, rider and animal behaviourist Dr Mac has been involved with horses for 30-odd years. Contact her c/o [email protected] |fw