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Low-stress handling part 2: Applying low-stress handling principles and techniques

Building on a low-stress foundation

Applying low-stress handling principles and techniques

Low-stress livestock handling is complex, and can take a lifetime to master. It involves some science, some art, and a lot of practice. The method benefits the livestock and requires some alterations to the handler's thinking, behaviors and expectations.

Clinician and scholar of the practice, Whit Hibbard, says, "It is important to acknowledge that low-stress livestock handling, although actually quite simple, is, as Bud [Williams] states, 'Very difficult for people to learn because it often goes against human behavior. Remember, as a stockman, you are supposed to be the smart one. It is up to you to change to accommodate the animal.' In conventional livestock handling it is typical to make the animal change to accommodate us."

In the previous article on low-stress livestock handling we addressed the five foundations upon which clinician Whit Hibbard builds all his work. The foundations include: Mindset, Attitude, Reading Animals, Working Animals, and Preparing Animals.

Hibbard uses the pyramid approach (see diagram) to explain the progression of building a low-stress livestock handling thought process – start with the foundations, understand the principles, then utilize both to apply techniques and later applications. In this article we'll discuss the principles and some techniques.

The Big 12

The 12 principles Hibbard teaches in his presentations and writings are all based on the practices of the founder of low-stress livestock handling, Bud Williams. They are:

1. Keep animals in a normal frame of mind.

Ever had a wild heifer crawl over your brand new Powder River gate? Cattle do not do this in a natural setting. That heifer is not in a normal state of mind (and neither are you when your gate gets ruined). Low-stress livestock handling is based on preventing fear and panic, which incite a survival instinct, in the animals. Instead the handler should utilize the natural tendencies of cattle to accomplish a desired result.

2. Animals should not be forced to do anything they do not want to do or are not ready to do.

When cattle are not ready to go through a chute or load on a trailer, the natural response of conventional handling is to use fear and force. By using the foundations of working with animals and preparing animals, we are able to make our idea their idea.

3. Set up every situation so our idea becomes their idea.

Perhaps we don't give animals enough credit for their intelligence. Often we approach working with cattle – no matter how calmly or effectively we do it – as if the only positive result will be when we get the cattle to do something they inherently don't want to do. By utilizing the five foundations, we can make the chosen destination become the cattle's idea.

4. Animals want to avoid pressure, and they need to experience release from pressure.

We utilize this principle when training horses or teaching a 4-H steer to lead – pressure and release, pressure and release. It only makes sense that it would work on cattle as well. Too often we apply pressure and once we get the desired result, such as movement, we apply more of that same pressure in an attempt to get it done faster, rather than releasing it as a reward.

5. They want to be in a herd.

Cattle are naturally herd animals, and like sheep, will flock together. "Quitters" that do not exhibit herd instinct have likely been handled incorrectly and have learned that being in the herd will result in being pushed and prodded.

6. They want to move in the direction they are headed.

Cattle have a set inertia in their movement – they want to continue the way they are going. This is important in understanding how to place yourself to request movement.

7. They want to follow other animals.

Even handlers who may not use correct low-stress techniques to load a cattle pot are still relying on this principle. Cattle like to follow each other. This can be a positive aspect – if you're able to first determine the direction you want them to go.

8. Good movement attracts good movement.

Has "your neighbor" ever missed a few pairs in the hills, and as the herd was trailing down the creek, the skipped pairs ran from behind to join up? This principle is based again on herd mentality and cattle's desire to follow each other.

9. Animals want to see what's pressuring them.

Think of how a cow reacts when you are riding or walking right behind her; her head is usually tilted to one side. She wants to see who her predator is. It's a natural instinct – you would do the same thing if you felt someone was stalking you from behind.

10. They want to see where you want them to go.

At times, although it may at first feel counterintuitive, we may need to place ourselves between the cattle and where we want them to go in order to bring it to their attention and lead them to it. This is why riding up to the gate can be an effective handling technique.

11. They want to go by you or around you.

Have you ever noticed a cow at a decision point hesitantly step past you, and then break into a run? Opposite to the natural desire for humans to "drive" from behind, this principle is the basis behind techniques such as the reverse parallel (discussed later) and facilities such as the Bud Box.

12. Under excess pressure they want to go back where they came from.

Ever spilled a herd of cattle at the gate? When stressed, the instinct of cattle is to return to where they last felt comfortable. That's why it's important to recognize when too much pressure is being applied.

These principles are key to understanding how cattle intuitively function, and how to work them in a low-stress manner.

"If low-stress livestock handling doesn't work it's because we aren't doing it right," says Hibbard. "The tendency for people who are trying to adopt low-stress handling is to give it a try – often half-hearted – but when things start to unravel they resort to what they used to do, which is conventional livestock handling.

"What we should do is stop, assume responsibility for what just happened and recognize that we caused it, analyze the situation to discover what principle was violated – because one most certainly was – and what we were doing incorrectly as far as technique."

The techniques

The techniques Hibbard teaches are based on positioning and movement of ourselves in order to get a desired response from animals.

"The purpose of the techniques is to put you in the proper position," Hibbard quotes Williams. "Proper position on your part is all the pressure you ever need to move animals, and if you're in the proper position, animals will want to move in the direction you want."

1. Straight lines

According to Williams, no matter the movement, when we're working with animals they like us to move in straight lines. Hibbard gives the example: "Imagine being in a big parking lot and a car is coming at you at a high rate of speed, weaving back and forth in a curving motion. If it is coming at you in a straight line, you can predict the trajectory and feel safer, because it's not the car you're afraid of – it's the intent. When we move in a straight line animals feel more comfortable in predicting our intent.

2. Zigzag

We can learn a lot by watching a good Border collie dog. They zig zag back and forth but in a forward angle, getting closer with each pass. They are utilizing straight lines, but forward motion.

3. The T

"We can actually steer cattle by the determining the direction of our zig zag," says Hibbard. Zig zagging in a "T" formation toward the direction we want our animals to go accomplishes several things: 1) communicates to the animals what we want, 2) creates effective pressure, 3) drives them to our target, and 4) keeps us from being in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing. The "T" obeys the first four principles.

4. Reverse parallel

A reverse parallel is moving past the cattle, opposite the direction of their motion, to initiate movement or speed up movement. This is an effective technique based on principle #11. Conversely, riding in a forward parallel, the same direction of their movement, will actually have a slowing effect.

5. Flight zones and pressure zones

Picture a circle with a smaller circle inside it. The center circle is the flight zone – the point where we frighten cattle. The outside ring is the pressure zone, where cattle respond. Beyond the outside circle is the point of no effect. Hibbard advises always staying in the pressure zone. "If we're working in the flight zone, we're just scaring them."

6. In and out

If we want animals to speed up, we can step in toward them and, if we're behind their point of balance, they will move forward to avoid the pressure. We then step backward to release the pressure, and draw the next animal forward.

7. Backing up

If an animal turns around in an alleyway or tries to escape a herd, stepping toward it actually increases the pressure to try and escape. Taking a step backward relieves the pressure and ceases to further drive the animal past the handler.

8. Stepping aside

Just as backing up is used to stop animals from going by you, stepping aside will draw animals past you. This movement is effective in sorting cattle in an alleyway.

9. The 45 – Using the concept of straight lines, approach the cattle at a 45 degree angle. This can be used to effectively get cattle out of a corner, or to drive and guide cattle, for instance, along a fence. The concept is to approach the herd at a 45 degree angle, then angle back out at a 45 degree angle to release the pressure and to position yourself to return.

Hibbard says it's critical to understand the essential principles and techniques and learn to apply them when and where needed. However, the when and the where are the art, and can take a lifetime to master.

"Don't try to do it all at once," Hibbard says. "As Bud counseled, think of it as something to work toward. The more I learn the more I realize there is to know, and that there will be no point at which I can say, 'I've arrived.'

"However, when done correctly, low-stress livestock handling is fast and efficient and works every time."

This article is the second in a series on low-stress livestock handling.