How to Properly Gather Cattle, And How Not To

Dawn Hnatow gathering a pasture from the front by starting a lead through the gate. ( Whit Hibbard )

A lot of ranchers have trouble gathering their cattle; that is, it takes a lot of riders multiple days and they still end up short. If done properly, however, one or two people can gather even large pastures in one day and miss none.

Conventional Gathering

In conventional gathering riders make several mistakes that impede the process:

First, they ride into the pasture to be gathered and approach the cattle head on. At worst, the animals turn and walk away, so the riders follow which makes the animals go faster, so the riders go faster until all are running to the back of the pasture.

Second, once the riders are at the back of the pasture—either by racing the cattle there or taking a wide berth to get to the back—they start pushing whatever they find towards the gate without approaching or starting the animals properly so they don’t get good movement. 

Third, riders get too much movement too soon, often with the “help” of a lot of noise, without realizing that they’d save time by starting and moving them properly, not by bunching them up and moving quickly.


Fourth, they drive the cattle too hard and fast, which keeps the pressure on. It’s not rewarding the cattle for doing the right thing, and it can get them cranky and uncooperative, and cause them to want to go back or hide.

Then the riders hinder any movement they create by doing one of three things:

  • They pressure the animals improperly to initiate movement. Consequently, the animals stop as soon as the rider leaves to pressure other animals, so the rider has to keep coming back to keep the herd moving.
  • Once a critter moves they follow it, but this is a forward-parallel movement that tends to slow or stop movement. Or, they give it an extra little shove just for good measure, which is counterproductive because it punishes, instead of rewards, the animal for doing the right thing.
  • Riders get ahead of other animals being brought in. This tends to slow or stop subsequent movement.

Low-Stress Gathering

To gather a pasture properly, we need to do several things:  

First, approach the animals properly so we’re not a threat. We do that by approaching with straight lines at oblique angles (i.e., zigzag) until we find their pressure zone (and this might be just one pass).

Second, when gathering from the rear, start the animals slowly by zigzagging behind them. This gives the animals time to decide to move, which is the all-important mind change. The worst thing to do is force them to move off, which will immediately get them in an uncooperative mood.

Third, don’t drive them too fast. They need to move at a pace that’s comfortable for them.

Fourth, don’t do anything to stop movement like riding up the sides or following directly behind within their pressure zone.