by: Jason Duggin
UGA Northwest Georgia Beef Extension Specialist

There are a large number of sports and projects for youth and adults alike to focus their attention toward. Whichever activities people choose, it is eventually understood that there are some proven methods for success. For example, if you dream of being part of a successful baseball team you must practice and be coached by someone "who knows the game." This means you don't just pick a coach at random who has no concept of the game and then expect to have success. The players must be well trained, and they must have a skilled coach to help them find success. This article is about how to be a good "coach" during the halter training process for cattle show projects. If you or someone you know is planning to halter train beef cattle, remember the calf must be coached. It will not instinctively know what to do. Good coaching equals better results.

I grew up calling it "halter breaking," but we will refer to it as "training" in this article because the word "training" better describes the entire process. As a young, novice 4-H beef showman, I listened to everyone's opinion on how to train a heifer. I heard and tried most all of them. When I became older, I had the fortunate opportunity to work for some of the best show barn managers in the country. At the direction of the boss, my fellow coworkers and I attempted to train cattle using various methods known by most all cattlemen, including the following list: tie to a donkey; let the halter drag; hold on to the halter as you release them from the chute. The latter one is good for a small version of a rodeo-like adrenaline rush and that's about all, in my opinion, although it can eventually work if you don't end up with any broken bones. The donkey maybe works for those extremely tough cases, but those cattle hopefully aren't destined for youth shows. The halter dragging option is popular for some folks, but it seems to delay the inevitable and tends to create as many bad habits as it does good ones. Again, this is my humble opinion based on my own outcomes and experiences. There are numerous methods for halter training cattle and most eventually work. But it's likely that it could be done better, faster (in the long run) and more appropriately when working with the animal's behavioral instincts with a knowledgeable coach.

The option that works for many professionals begins by bringing the calf into a secure 12x12 pen, approximately. It is understandably easier to train lighter weight/younger calves that are approximately 6 to 7 months of age. Larger, older cattle can be trained, but this typically calls for more strength and safety risk on behalf of the coach. You ideally want to bring the calf in the pen during the day for one or two days without doing more than feeding and occasionally cleaning the stall (three-four times in a day). On the third day, or when it seems the calf you're training is settling down, enter the stall with a show stick. Rub the show stick along the calf's top line while trying to see if it will stand still. Here you will need to understand point of balance. You will likely want to be just beside the shoulder along the side of the heifer or steer. You will need a long show stick! Spending 5 to 10 minutes a day for two days rubbing the topline, the underneath side of the neck; even scratching the belly in some cases will help improve the calf's acceptance of you in close proximity (safety first). And as importantly as anything, you, the coach, will begin to understand the personality of the calf. Not all cattle respond the same. Some calves will respond positively in just a few minutes and others may take several days to open up to the idea. It is up to the coach to know if the calf is ready to move on to the halter and which calf would benefit from an extra day or so without introducing a halter. Remember, it can be done faster at first, but we want the best end result. This approach should make for a better show animal in the long run. The whole point of this initial contact with no halter is to desensitize the calf to people in their flight zone before introducing the additional stress of the halter. This method done properly should be safer for both the coach and the calf. However, please note the following points:

If a youth showman seems to be too young to be in the pen with a loose calf, they probably are.

Do not introduce a novice showman to a loose calf that is in a stressful situation.

Refrain from petting the head of your calf until you have a very good understanding of the animal's overall temperament. This is particularly true with young exhibitors. Avoid petting the head and it will at least reduce head-butting habits.

Now it's time to put on the halter. Make sure you already have in mind a secure place to tie before applying the halter. The trainee should trust you more than it did the first one or two days. You can use your show stick as an extension of your arm by putting the top of the halter over the hook portion of the stick. Here you can hold the halter in front of the trainee's head using the show stick. Remember to hold the end of the lead with your other hand. Guide the halter over the ears of the calf while maintaining the halter on the show stick. Use the stick to secure the halter behind both ears. At this point you should have slack available in the jawline portion of the halter that can be pulled underneath the chin. Pull the lead while keeping the halter underneath the jaw with the show stick hook. Why go to all this worry? If you are successful getting the halter on the calf, the calf will hopefully understand that the handler is in control. The process so far should have been as "uneventful" as possible. In my opinion, the calves do better with this type of halter method because they have more say in the event although you ultimately have control in the end. You are simply guiding them as the coach in this training process. The coach or coaches should be persistent and calm.

At this point, you will want to tie the calf approximately three feet above the ground with approximately three feet of slack. The following are some do's and don'ts of tying a calf the first time:


Have others nearby to observe and assist if needed.

Be safe and plan ahead.

The panel or gate you tie to must be completely secured. A well-built steel panel secured and well-grounded is ideal. Panels sitting on top of the ground are a dangerously poor option.

Watch them intently from a safe distance to check the safety of the calf. The time you will need to monitor the calf is dependent on the calf's reaction to tying.


Do not tie the calf up high.

Do not allow enough slack that they can jump over the top of the panel. This could cause choking and lead to death. Do not tie the rope to a direct point. Loop it around a panel bar or another solid object before securing with a slip knot. This is important if your calf needs to be untied quickly. A direct tie to a single point could be overly tight and extremely difficult to untie. Make sure if possible that the calf can be untied quickly in case of an emergency.

Most importantly, be safe and get out of harm's way once the calf is completely tied. Once you have successfully completed two or three haltering sessions and subsequent tying periods, tie them higher so that you can begin to work the calf's hair with a brush or blower. Don't forget that the show stick is one of your best tools. Continue scratching and rubbing with the show stick until they are feeling more comfortable with you and you with them.

Your next objective as a coach will be to get them to the designated wash area. This area will also need secure tying structures and you will want to loop the halter around other structures before tying. The introduction of water could cause them to pull significantly on the halter. Brushing and blowing prior to wash day will help significantly. You will want their first leading and wash rack experience to be as good as possible. Leading a novice heifer can be a tricky situation. The person leading should have the ability to turn the calf, should they try to run past the leader.

It's best to make their opportunity to run as limited as possible. Set up the barn or pens thinking of your safety and the temperament of the calf. Giving advice during this step is almost pointless as each calf and situation is different. However, make sure that the area that you want to lead to is free of debris and equipment that could cause the leader of the calf to stumble. Also, try to remove items that could scare novice calves. This requires removing pretty much anything from the potential walking area of the calf. Prepare for the worst and expect the best.

When it's time to pull the calf with the halter, remember to give slack to the halter each time the calf steps in the correct direction. If the leader constantly pulls the entire time, the calf will not learn that moving toward the handler is beneficial. Take your time in this process. If the calf isn't running wildly, consider it a small success.

As you feel more comfortable with the training process, you will see that cattle will train more quickly as you gain more confidence, and many of these processes that are mentioned in this article can have shortened time frames. Conceivably, the experienced trainer can get one to the wash rack and blown out on day two or three with decent success. Here are a few last points to remember:

Plan ahead and do not get in a rush. If you are in a rush, the calf will be stressed and excited.

Work with the calf and not against it. Use the calf's point of balance and flight zone instincts.

Be safe. Have someone close by to monitor in case one or both of you stumbles.

Yelling and loud talking is a novice mistake. Calm, even-tempered coaches will get better results.

Each time you leave the calf with a positive experience the better.

This is not the holy grail of calf training. Tailor the training process to your personal taste and environment.

Reading about training cattle may be difficult to visualize. Still, if you apply the concepts you will undoubtedly learn a great deal about your calf and animal behavior. If I can ever be of help, feel free to email me at [email protected] Best of luck to you on your project.

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