Defining “Stockmanship”

Defining terms is essential to quality discourse. Without first defining terms people may assume that they are talking about the same thing when, in fact, they are not. This leads to miscommunications and misunderstandings, all easily avoided if terms had been defined beforehand.

The term stockmanship 1 means different things to different people. Therefore, in order for stockmen to understand one another, it is paramount that they define the term in the same way. So, to reduce ambiguity and confusion, it is essential that the editor clarify exactly how stockmanship will be defined in the Journal. To do so, however, it will be illustrative to relate the idea behind the definition.

1. Key terms will be highlighted and linked to the Glossary.

Photo Credit: Samantha Schroeder

The Idea

While working as a seasonal national park ranger and contractor at Big Bend National Park (BBNP) in Texas, I directed a demonstration project (to be reported in detail in a future issue) to test low-stress livestock handling principles and techniques in gathering trespass livestock from Mexico which threatened park resources. For decades, traditional roundups that used cowboys from area ranches were standard operating procedure. These roundups, however, proved to be labor intensive hence expensive, inefficient, ineffective, high stress, dangerous, and often subjected trespass animals to inhumane and unethical treatment. According to the park's trespass livestock coordinator, roundup crew members and their horses have suffered serious injuries; panicked captured animals have broken down portable corrals and climbed over the hoods of pickups in desperate attempts to escape; captured animals have been routinely forced, hotshotted, and dragged into trailers with at least one animal being killed in the process; and others injured, terrorized, and brutalized.

The demonstration project, for which low-stress livestock handling experts Bud and Eunice Williams provided pro bono consulting for three days, proved profoundly more effective, cost-efficient, safe, ethical and humane than the traditional roundups. In brief, all trespass animals along 60 miles of Rio Grande River corridor were captured. The roundups were 100% successful in capturing the target animals on the first attempt. Trespass animals were treated gently, humanely and ethically. All animals willingly loaded in trailers. With one exception, riders never got their horses out of a walk. There were no injuries to horses, riders, or captured stock and no equipment was damaged. All of this was done with less than half the personnel.

The extraordinary success of the project was a paradigm-shifting event. What was considered impossible—gathering skittish trespass animals off the banks of the Rio Grande River and walking them to portable pens and into trailers—was made possible by using the principles and techniques of low-stress livestock handling.

However, as I was writing the final report and operations manual for the park, it dawned on me that the project's unanticipated success was due not just to low-stress livestock handling, but to a combination of that along with natural horsemanship, ranch roping, and proper facility design, all of which I was teaching, to a lesser extent, as part of the project. It was the synergistic effect of the four elements used in combination that resulted in program success and not any particular element. In other words, to be effective with trespass livestock in BBNP, I realized that one needed to be adequate in all four skill areas. This was an eureka experience for me and led to coining the term "low-stress livestock management," the title of the 88-page final report and operations manual. Being rather cumbersome, however, I later condensed it to the conventional term "stockmanship," which would suffice if appropriately defined.

“Stockmanship” Defined

In looking back at traditional roundups that I participated in at BBNP before the demonstration project, I realized that different cowboys hired by the park exhibited one or more aspects of stockmanship but not all, and therein lay their weakness. For instance, one area rancher, who was an accomplished natural horseman with a fair grasp of low-stress livestock handling, successfully walked a group of skittish burros into a portable holding pen, only to drag them into a trailer with his saddle horse and rope! Other cowboys also were versed in natural horsemanship but only knew how to team rope, so they relentlessly and recklessly chased horses, burros and cows across the park, with one of their horses dying from heat stroke. Others wanted to work the livestock slowly and calmly but they really didn't know how. Also, no one understood proper facility design or how to get animals to walk willingly into trailers. Yet they all were blind to their own shortcomings.

The Journal's working definition of "stockmanship" is: The knowledgeable and skillful handling of livestock in a safe, efficient, effective, and low-stress manner. Primary aspects of stockmanship include: low-stress livestock handling (LSLH), natural horsemanship, ranch roping, dog handling and facilities design. The Journal's focus will be on these five primary aspects. (Other aspects, to be treated to a lesser extent, include such things as environmental factors and veterinary care.) Many stockmen are interested in and practice various aspects of stockmanship, such as LSLH, but few are knowledgeable about and practice all aspects. It is the position of the Journal that to be a good stockman, one needs to be knowledgeable about and practice all relevant aspects of stockmanship. To do otherwise is incongruous and not good stockmanship (e.g., to practice LSLH but still team rope rodeo-style while pasture doctoring, or practice natural horsemanship but still ram and jam livestock, or, conversely, practice LSLH but jerk and spur ones horse). "Stockmanship" denotes a low-stress, integrated, comprehensive, holistic approach to livestock handling. (The relationship between stockmanship and animal rights and animal welfare is addressed briefly in the Glossary and will be discussed in detail in a future issue.)

In general, the editor will avoid speaking of good and bad stockmanship. By definition, stockmanship is good stockmanship. Therefore, to speak of "good stockmanship" is redundant, and bad stockmanship is not stockmanship. (This isn't to say that there are not different skill levels of stockmanship. There are, and they might be described qualitatively or quantitatively. This will be addressed in a future issue.)

Natural Horsemanship
True horsemanship
Ranch horsemanship
Authentic horsemanship
Alternative horsemanship
Honest horsemanship
Scientific horsemanship
Heart-centered horsemanship
Intelligent horsemanship
Unique horsemanship
Intuitive horsemanship
Downunder horsemanship
Common sense horsemanship
Core balance horsemanship
Universal horsemanship
Quality horsemanship
Cowboy horsemanship
Complete horsemanship
Invisible horsemanship
Spiritual horsemanship
Practical horsemanship
Willfully Guided horsemanship

The same argument applies equally to all other adjectives used to modify "stockmanship." For example, "effective stockmanship," "low-stress stockmanship," and "stress-free stockmanship" are being promoted by various clinicians. Just like "good stockmanship," however, effective, low-stress, and stress-free stockmanship are redundant because, by definition, stockmanship is effective, low-stress, and possibly stress-free, at least some of the time. (I say "possibly" because stress-free stockmanship is arguably not only an improbable goal, but an undesirable one as well, as will be discussed in a future article on stress.) If it's not effective and at least consistently low stress, it's not stockmanship; it's something less. If this trend continues, other stockmanship clinicians will coin yet other catchy titles (as some already have 2 ) for their particular spin on stockmanship, and the field could end up where natural horsemanship 3 is today, with at least 22 different names for essentially the same thing (see Sidebar). Unfortunately, this belies more than it clarifies. It unnecessarily confuses the public and only serves the interests of the clinicians. Commenting on this state of affairs, the editor of Eclectic Horseman magazine (Issue 47, p. 4) concluded: "The truth does not involve a new marketing strategy." It's old wine in new bottles. Some natural horsemanship clinicians, however, would have us believe that it is indeed new wine, perhaps with a little of this (e.g., intuition) or a little of that (e.g., cowboy emphasis) thrown in, whereas it's essentially a repackaging and commodification of a product that did not originate with them but for which they aim to profit by selling it to a naive consumer. Unfortunately, stockmanship has already begun the slide down this slippery slope. So the position of the editor is that such terms (e.g., effective stockmanship, low-stress stockmanship, and stress-free stockmanship) are unnecessary, confusing, strictly self-promoting, and should be avoided.

2. E.g., Natural Stockmanship, Reduced Stress Cattle Handling, Low Stress Cowman-ship

3. The term "natural horsemanship," for better or worse, has become institutionalized and is here to stay. It describes a form of horsemanship that is natural for the horse and is distinguished from conventional horsemanship.

"Stockmanship" Diagrammed

In diagrammatic form, the relationship between the different aspects of stockmanship can be depicted as a pie chart in which the various slices compose the larger whole. The size of the slice represents its relative importance. The most important slice, hence its larger size, is low-stress livestock handling because it is fundamental, indeed indispensable, to all the other slices. It also subsumes and permeates the others, therefore it is positioned above them. Arguably, without an understanding of LSLH, one cannot work livestock in a low stress way no matter how good of a horseman or roper or dog handler one is, or how well designed ones facilities are. In other words, if you do not understand LSLH you will never be a high-skill-level practitioner of stockmanship regardless of how good your horsemanship, roping, or dog handling skills may be, or how good your corrals are. Conversely, one can be a high-skill-level low-stress livestock handler, but have no need to ride a horse or rope or use a dog. LSLH is the only essential slice of the stockmanship pie: You can take away the horse, the dog, the rope, even the corral, and still have a high-skill level of stockmanship if you excel at LSLH, but if you take away the LSLH your stockmanship will be conventional. So, natural horsemanship, ranch roping, dog handling, and facilities design are strictly adjunctive and ancillary, and will be treated as such in the Journal.

Because it is the most important and fundamental slice, the Journal's focus will be on LSLH. To a lesser extent, it will treat the other slices and how they contribute to the whole—stockmanship. The purpose is not to teach, for instance, natural horsemanship or ranch roping per se, which cannot realistically be done by means of printed or digital media anyway, and are adequately covered through a plethora of quality instructional materials and clinicians. Rather, it is to explore and illustrate how they relate to stockmanship.

The purpose of the adjacent diagram is not to present a definitive scheme. It is simply to encourage stockmen to think of stockmanship in a more comprehensive and inclusive manner than is usually done (e.g., see Cote, 2004, p. 147), and that it's more than just handling livestock in a low-stress manner. In common usage, low-stress livestock handling and stockmanship are synonymous in some peoples' minds (e.g., Smith, 1998, p. 27). They are not. Low-stress livestock handling is only a part of stockmanship, albeit the indispensable part. The position of the Journal is that to be a stockman one needs to be versed in all relevant slices. I say "relevant" because all slices may not pertain to a particular stockman. For instance, not all stockmen ride horses or rope; that is, they may have no need for it in their particular operation so they are no less of a stockman for not being versed in them. In other words, their stockmanship is not diminished if they do not practice a skill that to them is unnecessary but to another stockman may be essential.

Conceiving of stockmanship in this way not only enlarges one's conception of it as the multifaceted discipline that it is, but also introduces a method to evaluate one's ability as a stockman (to be introduced in a later issue).

Cote, S. 2004. Stockmanship: A powerful tool for grazing lands management. Boise, Idaho: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Smith, B. 1998. Moving 'em: A guide to low stress animal handling. Kamuela, HI: The Graziers Hui.