No matter how much horsemanship experience a feedyard cowboy has, working cattle in that environment is far different from working them on the range.
Identifying pen rider safety principles is one of the aims of Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH). This University of Nebraska Medical Center group (https://www.unmc.edu/publichealth/feedyard/) is conducting two research projects (funded by National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health) that are designed to make a positive impact on the sustainability of cattle feedyards through increased safety and health efforts.
Both cattle and horses react differently in a feedyard setting than most people expect. There are also unique hazards in a feedyard that all cowboys need to keep in mind.
When cattle are confined in an area, some react differently than in more open spaces. Flightier cattle tend to become agitated in a confined space. Since they have nowhere else to go, they may fight. Other cattle, if they become bored, may attempt to play with the cowboy or the horse. Both situations can set the stage for accidents. To help alleviate these hazards, take time to know the cattle you’re working with.
Practicing low-stress cattle handling principles can greatly reduce the chance that an animal will fight. Low-stress handling also makes a group of cattle easier to manage. Use cattle’s natural herding instinct and their flight zones to make feedyard work easier for you and your horse.
One significant hazard in a feedyard is the hard surface often created in pens by lack of vegetation and mud and dust control. When a small amount of moisture is added to the pen area, either by rainfall or the cattle, the hard surface can quickly become very slick.
Keeping adequate shoes on your horse and allowing them enough time to slow down when working in the pen helps reduce potential for accident or injury. Shoeing preferences differ by rider, however adequate shoes will cause a horse to be more confident in their footing and less apt to be nervous or panic. Also, adding borium to shoes allows a horse to gain sure footing on some fairly slick surfaces where they would otherwise be uncomfortable.
Other feedyard hazards include weather, mud, snow, rain, cold, heat, and dust. Broken concrete, debris in a pen or work alley, leaking water tanks, and gates that don’t function properly are other common everyday hazards. Any hazard that can be resolved should be reported to the appropriate person and handled as soon as possible.
Whether a cowboy selects a horse or a mule to work with, the animal must be fitted with appropriate shoes and properly prepared for the work they’re expected to do. In addition to completing many hours of riding, each feedyard horse or mule must be exposed to varying levels of pressure when working around cattle and in confined spaces. A young animal may be adequately prepared for significant time under the saddle, but unprepared for a charging calf, or cattle that turn back in a working alley.
Horses and mules also need adequate rest between workdays so they don’t experience mental fatigue and burn out.
Feedyard policy requires approval of a horse prior to using it in the yard. The process should include ensuring it approaches a gate properly, works its way through a pen full of cattle, and is easily kept under control by the rider.
Even though a horse meets these requirements, riders must constantly be on the lookout for signs that a horse is having a bad day or is responding poorly to a given situation.
While pride in a job well done is admirable, feedyard workers should be careful not to let pride get in the way of safety. Veteran feedyard cowboys are often paired with new riders because they are more adept at recognizing hazardous situations than a less experienced colleague. Younger workers can greatly benefit from the mentoring veteran cowboys can offer.
It only takes a second to change a life forever. Take those few seconds to make sure your work is safe and always think before you act.
Funding for this educational article comes from the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.