The pressures of shipping day help develop well-broke, good-minded ranch horses.

Intensity hits a peak during shipping days at Sandhill Cattle Company. There is a swirl of activity, with trucks arriving at the Earth, Texas, feedyard early in the morning, yearling calves darting through pens and alleyways, and cowboys hollering and waving their arms to drive the cattle toward the loading chute.

Although it’s hectic, the crew tries to minimize the stress on the livestock.

“We want to be as efficient as possible,” says Sandhill cowboy Riley Smith. “Not only do we want to keep the truckers happy and make their day run smooth, but we want to get a good weigh on the cattle. A lot of times when we’re loading trucks, we’re selling cattle. If it’s not going smoothly, those cattle are shrinking, and we don’t like that. And the customers don’t like that.”

There is a lot at stake for the crew, and it’s an equally intense day for their horses.

Sandhill Cattle Company cowboy shipping cattle
On shipping day, horses help cowboys open and close countless gates, and often work in crowded pens.

“When you’re shipping cattle, the buyer might be there on the ground with a flag or a stick,” Smith says. “There are truck drivers and slamming gates. There is a lot going on. That can be very stressful on a horse. So shipping is one of the times I don’t want to be on a colt.”

The day involves sorting cattle, driving them down alleys, pushing them into a loading chute, and opening and closing countless gates from horseback. There are times a horse needs to stand still against a fence and let cattle pass by while its rider counts.There are other times when it has to move quickly to prevent calves from going somewhere they aren’t supposed to go. A horse that fidgets can disrupt the  flow of cattle, and a sluggish horse might open the door for a great escape.

“You want that horse to be able to read a cow, but he doesn’t always know which one you’re trying to sort off when you’ve got an alley full of cattle coming at you,” Smith says. “So you’ve got to be able to put him where you want him when you want him there. He’s got to be broke to your rein and your leg. That’s the key.”

Smith wants to have control of the horse’s head, shoulders and hips. He says there are times when half a step is the difference between calves moving or stagnating.

“There are times you need to move his hips over, or maybe his shoulders, in order to get him flatter against the fence and give those cattle an opportunity to come by and load up,” he says.

horseback rider cuts off cow while shipping cattle at the Sandhill Cattle Company
Riley Smith cuts off a cow trying to sneak by in the alley. One minute his horse needs to stand calmly, and the next it needs to make a quick move.

Although Smith doesn’t want to ride a green horse during shipping day, he doesn’t always ride a seasoned, totally broke gelding.

“You don’t have to ride a finished horse on days you’re shipping,” he says. “That’s a good place to get one broke. But he’s got to have the basics down. And he’s got to have the right mentality for it. I have one horse right now that I’m pretty sure is not going to work out. He’s gentle, but he’s too boogery with the surroundings.”

The Sandhill Cattle crew spends most days during the spring and fall shipping cattle. On days that they are simply riding pens and checking for sick cattle, Smith saddles his young horses.

“I’m going to ride the pens on a colt quite a lot before I ship on him,” he says. “I want to get him comfortable opening and closing gates, sorting cattle and pushing them down the alley. All of that is the process building up to shipping day.”

Not only does the job help develop solid feedyard horses, it also helps Smith train for team ropings and ranch horse competitions.

“I don’t get to work my horses on a cow in the round pen very often at all,” he says. “The majority of our cow work training is in the feedyard, just doing our job. So it definitely helps [prepare them for the show pen]. Horses need some pressure put on them from time to time so they can learn how to handle that. Shipping is great for that because it’s loud and there is a lot of activity. If they can’t handle that, they’re probably not going to handle going to town, seeing a crowd, and performing in a show pen.”

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Western Horseman.


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