Working Cattle With a Horse or ATV, Which is Better..?

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August 29, 2020

Is It Better To Use Horses or ATV's When Working Cattle..?

Working Cattle with a Horse or ATV, Which is Better?

Since the early days of developing American ranches, horses have been used as the preferred resource by cowboys and ranchers to work their cattle. History shows us that in the 1800’s and early 1900’s the relationship between the cowboy and his horse was a very special one built on long hard daily work routines and a level of mutual understanding and trust that is becoming rare in today’s world. The American Stock Horse often referred to as a “ranch horse” is an important part of this countries ranching history and heritage, and the source of many philosophical debates over which is better, the horse or ATV.

We now understand the relationship between the cowboy and the working stock horse, but did you know that over the past 40+ years there has been a trend taking shape where the horse is being replaced by the All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). There are multiple types of ATV’s which range from 3-wheelers, 4-wheelers and the Utility-Terrain Vehicle (UTV) that encompasses vehicles such as the Polaris Ranger, Can-Am Defender, John Deere Gator, and numerous others. As we will discuss, there are both strengths and weaknesses with this shift in ranching operations that go far beyond a cowboy’s passion to keep the American ranching heritage untouched.  Who knows, maybe we can find some common ground where both have their place in ranching today and can be used to the best advantage of the ranches operations.

Clearly there are ranchers and cowboys who feel very strongly that cattle should only be moved, sorted and worked from the back of a horse. First and foremost the key advantages of utilizing a horse over an ATV is the amount of noise and exhaust from an ATV may cause undue excitement and stress on the cattle. Secondly, once you have the livestock into a position where you need to sort (or cut) them out from the group, a horse is dramatically more agile than an ATV, see Cutting Horses for an example of this practice. Sorting and doctoring horses in a pen or even on the open prairie often works better with a quiet, subtle approach that a good ranch horse can provide. That’s not to say that you cannot get cattle excited and nervous from a horses back, but a seasoned cowboy is trained on having a cool and collected demeanor.

ATV’s on the other hand have their advantages in a cattle ranch operation and they can also help managed a tighter operational budget, which has become a major consideration for many ranchers over the past decade. Unlike a string of working horses which have to be feed every day and those costs can add up, ATV’s only eat (need fuel) while being utilized. The primary benefit of an ATV over a horse can be the ability to cover a lot of pasture land and move long distances in a shorter amount of time. Other benefits are when there is equipment to be moved in the process, like a mineral or cake feeder, the rancher can load it on the ATV and carry it with them. Most ranchers that utilize ATV’s will express their appreciation for the ability to move with speed and ease, which increases productivity in a day’s work.

As far as purchase cost, believe it or not the cost of a new ATV can be comparable to purchasing a seasoned ranch horse.  The price of a new 4 wheeler or side-by-side can range between $8,000 to $16,000. It is not uncommon for a seasoned ranch working horse to be in this same range of value. Keeping in mind that when you own either one of them, they both require maintenance and upkeep.  If the ATV is broken, normally it can be repaired, however if the horse becomes disabled it will depend on the extent of the injury whether or not it can be healed and to full capacity. Needless to say, there is more risk of owning a horse than an ATV because it is a live animal that requires constant care.

So many things are changing in the world and the modern ranch is not exempt from all of the new trends, technologies and advancements. Sometimes we long for a time in history that may be perceived to have been a simpler time. I am curious if we would have had the mechanical advancements of an ATV in the 1850’s how many ranchers would have jumped at the chance to incorporate them into their cattle ranches? We will never know the answer to that question but rest assured as the world continues to advance, it will become harder and harder to operate like our ancestors did in the 1800’s.

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