The job is time-consuming and usually uneventful, but ranchers understand that checking cattle on horseback is necessary. It also has its hidden benefits.

Mark Gardiner rides a young horse while checking cows on his ranch in Kansas.

As a boy, John Lacey often saddled his horse early in the morning and rode through the desert on his family’s ranch in California. Checking on the cattle, sometimes called “prowling,” was typically an all-day, uneventful job, and he loved it.

“I always liked doing it,” says Lacey of Lacey Livestock Company. “It has to do with having a love for the great outdoors, looking for game, seeing ducks and birds. It was big desert country, and I may not see more than 25 cows all day. But riding the cattle is an important job. You’ve got to be out there with them. The art of cowboying is knowing your cattle.”

While logging miles horseback through cow pastures, a cowboy looks for disease, injuries, strays, calving problems and other complications. It’s also a chance to check water sources, fencelines and the abundance of grass. Identifying issues in their early stages usually means saving time and money.

Curt Pate, a longtime Montana rancher and well-known clinician, agrees that prowling is best done from the saddle.

“You cannot tell how your forage is doing from a pickup truck,” Pate says. “What makes a good rancher is the things he does while prowling. A lot of times we may not think we have time to go prowl, but it’s really important.” Pate and Lacey add that prowling offers additional benefits.

“It’s the best thing in the world for colts,” Lacey says. “I would ride one until noon, then get on another one until 4 or 5 o’clock, whenever the job was done.”

Pate adds, “You can go whatever speed you want. When you’re doing other kinds of work, sometimes you have to go too fast for a young horse. When you’re prowling, you can go a slow pace. And if you want to work a cow a little or track one, it never hurts. If it gets to be too much for your colt, you can just back off.

“A lot of the work you do when you’re prowling is what you would do in the round pen—getting him to slow down, stop, turn.”

A young horse is likely to learn basic maneuvers more quickly when it understands the reasoning behind them. For example, bending and turning makes more sense when stepping around a rock ledge or weaving through a stand of cactus.

Pate also views the job as an opportunity to train the cows in a low-stress situation. While prowling, he may trail them a short distance, hold them in a fence corner, sort or simply ride past them.

“I think it’s our responsibility as cattlemen to train cattle,” he says. “Calves eventually get to an auction barn or feedyard. If they’ve never been worked before, they fall to pieces, and that’s when some people get abusive with them. By prowling, cattle see humans and learn to respond to them. So it can be a great training ground.

“Most young guys might think this is a boring job,” Pate continues. “The older you get, the more you appreciate prowling.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to either be roping or riding something that bucked. As I’ve changed and learned so many things, I’m really glad that I like to prowl.”


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