There are probably as many and varied ideas on breaking in cattle as there are on raising children. This article is a collection of our thoughts on a gentle, positive method of doing this that we have evolved into. Even the most magical techniques can not overcome animals with bad temperaments in their genes. When selecting animals, select heavily on temperament and you will reap the rewards in the long term.
TRUST is the most important factor here to end up with a quiet, well trained animal. Most cattle have the temperament for achieving this, but some are just too scatty, and probably shouldn't be bred with, let alone broken in.
Trust means having them not afraid of you - ideally being able to touch them all over in the paddock, prior to getting them in the yards. We will often use a small amount of hard feed or lucerne hay for this after they have been weaned, to minimise the setback of weaning as well as getting them to run to you when they see you coming. Standing by the feed bucket initially for a few days, then leaning across and trying to scratch them on the neck will take another few days. By 2-4 weeks, you will be scratching most animals over most of their body.
You may want to swap your hand for a comb at some time, as this will be used later, but most of the time you will scratch them. Once you are at this stage, you can get them in the yards and continue the process.
1) In the crush - Get them in the crush and spend some time with them scratching them all over again. This may be five minutes for some animals or may be as much as a couple of 2-3 hour sessions over a few days. (Read about yard & crush design for Highland cattle.)
2) Handling the head - A bit of time spent here will make your life so much easier down the track with getting halters on and off and nose dogs in and out. Start by scratching them around the head - around the base of the horns and ears is a good place to start and then down the head from there. As they move their head away or down, it is extremely important to follow their head and keep your hand on it. Once they have stopped moving their head, you can then take your hand away. You need to instigate the removal of your hand so that you are always in control. If at any stage they feel they can throw their head around and you take your hand away, this will simply reinforce this behaviour in future.
The next step here is to touch them over the muzzle and nostrils. Getting them used to handling here will help when it comes time to get nose dogs in. Then we introduce the halter. Use a nylon one that slips easily, rather than rope. We let them sniff the halter and then we let it hang over their head in a similar way to the way our hand was and follow their head with it and pull it away once their head is still.
Once they are used to the halter itself, place it on their head and take it off again after a minute. Do this a few times to get them used to this process and further handling around the head.
3) Tying them up - We then have to take the plunge and let them out of the crush with the halter on. Initially aim to get them to the nearest secure post to tie them up. In general at this early stage, you won't be able to pull them around (a recently weaned animal will be at least 200kg - much bigger than you) so let them take themselves to a post and then secure them.
The first few times they are tied up they will do anything from a few pulls and then stand there and sulk, to full on thrashing around. Remember to always tie them up low (knee hight or below) on the post in case they throw themselves on the ground. Animals have choked/broken their own necks and died when thrashing around while tied up too high. Don't bother trying to feed them or comb/scratch them until they are more settled - this may take five minutes to a few days.
The benefit of having a nylon or low friction halter is at this particular stage - when they pull back, the halter tightens and it is uncomfortable. When they stop pulling, the halter loosens and they are rewarded for relaxing. Once they appear more settled we start to comb them & scratch them all over so that they start to associate this pleasurable experience with being tied up. We then feed them something special - a small amount of grain or some clover hay for example.
4) The nose
dogs - The next stage is to place the
dreaded nose dogs in. These
be used on bull calves prior to them getting a nose ring put in, but
a nose ring is much easier. Initially this should only be done in
the crush, once you have their halter on and some control of their
head. Remember that you have already handled them around the head
and muzzle and so this shouldn't be too much of a shock. Initially
leave them in without a lead attached - some use light weight
aluminium nose dogs and later progress to the heavier brass.
Remember to never fight an animal to get something done - like putting nose dogs in. Always set the situation up so that you have a very good chance of achieving your goal, otherwise, don't even try. The reason being if you fail, it will simply reinforce to the animal that they can overpower you if they muck up, and that behaviour will escalate.
Start to get them used to attaching a lead and detaching a lead to the nose dog prior to leading them around. Let them eat with the nose dog (plus or minus the lead) still in.
5) Walking them on lead - Now you will be ready for the big adventure - walking them on a lead. Some say to never do this without nose dogs in and therefore nose control, but in the early stages of leading, we prefer to do it without nose dogs. By this stage they are used to stopping when they meet resistance when pulling back, and they love being scratched in all those favourite areas. These two factors allow you to get control .
Our technique is to untie the halter from the post and walk away from the animal to the full extent of the lead. Then give a tug on the lead - as soon as they start to take a step, relax on the lead. When they stop, give another tug. Once they have walked the 5-6 steps to you, gather the lead and stand at their left shoulder facing the same direction as them (this is the position you will eventually lead from) and give them a scratch. These first 5-6 steps may take a minute or so but eventually they get an idea of what is expected - stopping and starting. This is really all they need to know.
Start in as small a yard as possible (5 metres square ideally). If they go silly, don't try to pull against them from in front (you are not as strong as a post), simply get to their left hand side or behind them and put some backward pressure on the lead - this seems to stop them. Some respond very quickly to sideways pressure on the lead in emergency situations so try tugging them towards you (they turn left) and in a circle until they stop, then relax on the lead. If all else fails, let them take themselves to the nearest post and secure them again, have a break, and start again later.
An alternative, gradual, method here is to untie them and lead them from one side of a small yard to the other (3-4 meters) with a bucket of feed, water or hay waiting for them. This can be done several times over until they are in control in this restricted environment before walking them greater distances – but still to/for feed or water.
After a few tries, you then place the nose dogs in with lead attached and walk them around with this in. You usually do not need any pressure on this lead but now and then it helps to remind them that it is their - say to bring their head up if they keep pulling it down. The nose dogs will be your emergency hand break down the track - so best not to overuse it and desensitise there nose to it.
6) Walking them out and about - Once they are walking around in circles in your little yard with precision, you need to take them out. Maybe into a larger yard or small paddock initially and eventually all around the place. If you are getting ready to show them you will need to desensitise them against all matter of sights and noises and at home in the house paddock is the best place to start. While you are doing this you are still training them. Surprisingly out here they seem to walk better and have more overt trust in you because they are out of their comfort zone and you are the only familiar thing.
You need to get them used to a show cane, white coats and ribbons (go on, be confident) specifically. Get other people with cattle experience to approach them and put their hands on them - scratching and pleasuring them so that when the judge tries to do the same he/she is not rejected with a kick.
Try tying them up high a few times with their head high, once
they are not pulling back. This trains them not to pull their head
down while you are leading them. When their head is down they are in
control. When their head is up, you are in control. Tie the head in
a high but still natural position, for 5-10 minutes initially and
work up to 30-40 minutes.
♦ Some use feed as rewards while breaking in or leading animals around. We find it simpler to just scratch them and use food as a reward after a session of leading when you have tied them up.
♦ Nothing replaces experience - get in and have a go. You will goof up a few times initially and probably get a few bruises to boot, but you will certainly learn quickly. Attend handlers days or handlers camps - this will be a rapid learning experience.
They are always better the next time you tie them up. If all
else fails, give up for the day, and have a cup of tea or shot of
whisky, and we will guarantee that they will be a bit better the
next time you get them in. Amazingly this is true, and it also means
that you will be fresh and not so frustrated.
♦ Other techniques - What we have described here is how we break animals in, but there are numerous other techniques that are variations of this theme. Remember that the basics of going slow and rewarding them for good behaviour allows for a lot of variation in methods. Eventually you will develop a method that works best for you.
If you have any questions on
breaking them in, we are more than happy to help.
email us and we will
attempt to assist in whatever way we can.