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What Do Cows With Big Horns Have to Prove?

July 18, 2020

Highland cattle, with massive horns, may look dangerous but can be quite gentle. Here Duncan Coles rides Curious Bleu, an 8-year-old steer who was the protagonist in the children's book "The Curious Little Calf Named Bleu."

At Miles Smith Farm, we have two kinds of cattle: Scottish Highlanders and Angus/Hereford cross-breeds. There are many differences between these breeds, but one is particularly striking. The Highlanders, both males, and females have enormous horns, and the others do not. In ancient times all cattle had horns, but as a result of selective breeding, many breeds of cattle lost their horns. Highlanders, Texas Long Horns, and Watussi are a few breeds that still grow horns.

It's easy to think that horned cattle are more dangerous than those without. The annual "Running of the Bulls" in Spain features horned animals chasing and sometimes goring daring young people in the streets. I have only been charged by a horned cow once, and it was my fault. I was trying to move a newborn calf into the barn. The new mom decided I was interfering and tossed me with her head, then backed off, her point made. Never mess with a protective mom.

My theory is that cows with horns might be less dangerous than those without. A cow with horns doesn't have to prove anything. She'll think: I have enormous horns, so I already know I'm superior to you. Oh, by the way, could you brush my back?

I have owned a few aggressive Highlanders, but I didn't keep them around long. One cow would swing her horns like the blades in a blender whenever I approached. That particular cow went into the freezer.

Some of my Highlanders are so gentle and accepting that I've trained them to be ridden or to work in a yoke as a team. These cattle are careful with their horns around humans. When I'm standing next to Stash, one of my oxen, he'll twist his neck to swing his massive horns over my head rather than hit me. (Maybe he heard about that particular horn-shaking cow.)

Our non-horned Angus/Hereford cattle are not as tame as the Highlanders. My Highlanders will stand still when I approach them, while the wary non-Highlanders move away. These untrusting cattle are not candidates for the saddle.

Because of their horns, Highlanders look dangerous, but statistics say otherwise. Every year in the U.S., about 20 people are killed by cattle. A 1,000-pound cow or 1,500-pound bull is a powerful opponent if they decide to attack. But the deaths are mostly by non-horned cows using their heads to bludgeon or trampling with hooves– not by goring with horns. 

So for now, I'll trust my gentle Highlanders with their majestic horns and gentle natures.

Carole Soule

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