6 Steps to Successfully Break Your Calves

Summer is winding down, and the busy fall and winter show season is just around the corner. As older calves’ show careers come to a close, a new project is just beginning. Though you may want to jump right in and head to a show, your road to success starts at home.

The manner in which you halter break your show calf will determine how it will act throughout the entire show season. It may seem like a basic process, but without attention to detail, you could set yourself up for a long show season. It’s important to take a step-by-step approach to getting your calf broke, because we all know a well broke calf is the first step to becoming a champion.

Here are six halter breaking tips to make sure it will be a successful year with as little stress as possible when it comes to exhibiting:

Step 1: Build a Relationship

All relationships start with love, but they last because of trust. You have to build a trusting relationship between you and your animal.

What to do: Try getting your calf or calves into a small pen, so they are relatively contained and can’t run away from you. Once they are locked up, begin scratching on them with a show stick to calm them down. Chances are it will feel a little funny the first time, so be prepared for you calf to run or even kick a little upon the first stroke. When you are able to scratch them with the stick consistently, start rubbing and scratching around their tailheads and down their tops with your hands. You can even use a rice root or scrub brush on them as they begin to get more comfortable with you. Additionally, as they become more used to the scratching and brushing down their top, try scratching them with your hand closer and closer to their head and neck. This will get them used to someone being around their head and will make it easier to get the halter on when it comes time.

How long to do it: It’s good to do this more than once a day, to really settle down your calf. A good time frame would be a couple of hours for 2-3 days. The amount of days spent scratching can also be varied depending on how many hours you put in each day and the natural temperament of your calf.

Purpose of doing it: While it might take longer and a few extra days of working, taking the time to get your calf settled down and comfortable with you can make the halter breaking process a lot easier and less stressful on both you and the calf. By scratching on them a few hours, you are providing something to the calf that feels good and they will trust you a little more as opposed to if you were to walk up and put an unknown halter on them and try leading the calf around. Sometimes a successful show career for your calf starts with a little TLC.

Step 2: Haltering

You can scratch all over your calf without it moving and it loves it. Now it is time to momentarily break its trust by haltering.

What to do: Grab a rope halter and hold it in one hand. For halter breaking, it might be a good idea to use a halter with a ring at the cinch point. This make it easier to catch and release your calf, and it’s also not as hard on their head if they pull and fight… which they will. When you have the halter in hand, go back to scratching on your calf and inch closer to their head with the halter. Slowly begin to put the halter on their head, placing it over the ears first and then over the nose. It’s easier to go over the ears first on their first catch, because it won’t feel as weird or frightening as catching then under their chin the first time. Once the halter is mostly on their head, grab the end of the lead and cinch it tight on their head so you have them caught. This will be a new feeling for your calf and it will not like the loss of freedom, so make sure you have plenty of lead in your hand to prepare for pulling back and trying to run.

How long to do it: This method of catching will likely only take place once, the first time you do it. Every time afterwards, when your calf is used to being caught every day, it should be easier just to catch them under the chin first, before sliding the upper loop of the halter behind their ears.

Purpose of doing it: By being slow and methodical about catching your calf for the first time, the experience isn’t nearly as shocking and it should help reduce some of the shock your calf feels during this new experience.

Step 3: Time to Tie

Your calf is caught, but what do you do with it now? While this is sometimes the part your calf struggles with the most, tying your calf up is where it can learn lots.

What to do: With lead rope in hand, find the closest place to tie your animal to the fence. Depending on your facilities, make sure this is a sturdy fence or post on a fence, as your calf will pull back lots, and you don’t want an equipment breakdown in the process. When you find a spot, plan to start with tying your calf down lower on the fence. You should give them a fair amount of lead rope when you tie, and you should also use a simple pull through loop that is easy to untie and release. It is important to start with a low tie first because your calf is likely to pull back, fight the halter and potentially flip over. By tying it low and with an easy pull knot, you can quickly untie your calf to relieve it if it does flip over.

While your calf is tied low, you can once again scratch and brush on it to get used to being worked on while tied. After a couple hours or a day of tying it down low, try with a higher tie. Be sure to use the same approach for tying and the same kind of knot when you tie your calf’s head higher up. It’s pertinent that when you tie its head high for the first time, you stay close by to scratch or watch them to make sure they don’t go down or get hurt while fighting the halter.

How long to do it: A good time frame is to tie your calf lower on the fence rail for 2-3 hours on the first day. If your calf fights it a lot, it might be a good decision to tie it on a lower rung for 2-3 hours for a second day. By the third day you should be able to tie its head higher for another 2-3 hours and it’s a good idea to do this for at least two days before moving on to the next step.

Purpose of doing it: The purpose of tying them low at the start is to protect the safety of your calf and yourself as it gets used to being tied to the fence. In general, it is good to tie your calf for a few days and continue scratching and brushing on it so it will get acquainted with being worked on while being tied in one position. This will make washing and blowing MUCH easier when the time comes.

Step 4: Leading to the finish line

Your arms and muscles better be ready for the next step, because often times it involves a lot of pulling.

What to do: When your calf is standing relaxed and doing well with tying with minimal fighting, it’s time to start leading. Before trying to lead it out of the pen and straight to your washing or blowing area, you should plan to lead it around the pen some, so it gets used to leading (if your pen space allows). Start by untying your calf and trying to pull it a few steps. Each time your calf takes 3-5 steps forward reach out and loosen up the halter some and rub on its head. This acts as a reward system for taking steps forward. Be prepared for your calf to potentially jump forward when you pull or even run past you. Do your best to hold on to the lead, as letting go teaches your calf that it can do that every time and get away. When you feel like it is coming forward well, you can think about getting it out of the pen to wash.

How long to do it: Every calf is different and therefore will lead differently. You could lead it around the pen for a few hours one day or for a couple of days if it makes you more comfortable.

Purpose of doing it: By moving slow and leading your calf around the pen first, you have more control and practice before going out in the wide open. In a larger space your calf is more likely to want to run past you and this increases the chances of your calf getting away, which in turn, teaches bad habits.

Step 5: Time to be a Show Cow

Your calf is getting so close to falling in love with the show life, and this next step is sure to solidify its luxurious lifestyle.

What to do: The last few days have been a lot of training and fighting for your calf, but it is about to learn all about the pampered show life. Once your calf is out of the pen and ready to be washed, be sure to blow it out first. Since this is its first time, it is likely to have lots of built-in dirt in its hide and hair, and blowing that out will make the washing process easier. While blowing, be sure to start slow and at the back-end of your calf, gradually working closer to its head, so you don’t startle it at the beginning. Be sure to pay attention to where your blower hose is, so it doesn’t bump it in the leg and cause it to kick. When you start to wash, start with water on your calf’s legs and belly and gradually work up to the rest of the body. After it is washed, it’s time to blow it out again and see your new and improved calf!

How long to do it: It will take a few days of washing and drying before your calf acts well-behaved. Expect to wash it 2-3 days in a row to get it really used to the process.

Step 6: Be consistent EVERY. DAY.

Once you have gone through the first five steps, your calf is basically halter broke. However, to ensure it acts great and is ready for the show ring, it’s important to keep it on a consistent regimen every day. Here’s a few extra tips and tricks you can try:

  1. Catch and tie each day to feed – This teaches your calf to be caught every single day in order to eat, and soon catching your calf will be very easy.
  2. Tie your calf up for a few hours after washing – Instead of turning it loose right after you are finished drying, let it stand for a little while to teach some endurance.
  3. Practice showmanship for 20-30 minutes each night – Before you turn your calf out in the evening, try practicing walking it and setting it up with the show stick for at least 20 minutes each night. This will get it used to the show stick being used on its feet and will make its first time in the ring much better!

Halter breaking is never easy and often it’s not always a fun chore. Not all cattle will break the same. You may have to take it slower or speed up the process. Or if you have more than one calf to break, you may have to modify the steps. But the thing to always remember is, consistency in what you do and paying attention to the little things along the way are key when you #preptowin.

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