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Horses Will Flee; Cattle Can Fight

September 18, 2021

Scottish Highlander steer Joe and Moose the horse share a moment with the author, Carole. Which do you think is more intelligent? A bovine or an equine?

Have you ever wondered which is smarter: cows or horses? I think their intelligence is about equal, but their behavior is different. Here's what I mean:

Horses' primary protection from predators is flight. In the wild, when a pack of coyotes approaches, horses will flee. Foals are born with long legs and, within hours of birth, can keep up with the horse herd – for a short distance anyway. Snap, a foal born on our farm, ran stride for stride with his mother just a day after birth. Racehorses are bred for speed, but even a slow horse is pretty fast.

Of course, horses aren't complete pacifists. A mare will fight to protect her foal from coyotes, and stallions will fight over a herd of mares. But against humans, horses mostly run away. 

Cattle can run, but no bovine will ever win the Kentucky Derby. Cattle use their limited athletic ability to escape from predators. But cattle, with or without horns, sometimes attack when they feel threatened. A cow or bull that turns sideways and paws the ground is preparing to attack. I don't put up with that behavior with my cattle. I'll swing my arms, wave a stick, and sometimes smack the ground to remind them that I'm the head cow, and they better back down. What works with my herd doesn't always work with other cows. I once was tossed to the ground by a cow who didn't realize who she was messing with. So I'm cautious around unknown bovines.

At the Rodeo

This difference in the species' behavior becomes obvious in the rodeo arena. After a cowboy has ridden a bull or a bucking horse, the animal is herded toward an open gate. In his bold and nimble youth, friend and editor Rick was the gateman at a rodeo in Fort St. John, British Columbia. 

He recalled, "The bulls were not scared, they were angry. Sometimes they would go after me, and I'd have to scramble up the fence to escape. But the bucking horses weren't angry; they were crazy with fear. They'd rear up and kick on their way to the exit. Although they weren't murderous, their panic made them dangerous. More than once I heard a hoof zip past my ear.”

My cattle and horses are not wild, but it's good to know whether they're likely to prefer flight or fight. Flight is OK; but a fighting bovine will get an early appointment with the butcher. I'm running a farm here, not a rodeo.


Carole Soule

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