Getting Trial Cattle Ready for a Trial

This is a first in a series of articles about hosting a trial.  The first one in the series deals with the cattle, 2nd one with the course/obstacles and the 3rd one with running the trial.  These are only general suggestions as each trial has its own set of circumstances to deal with.

The cattle part of a trial is the most difficult to figure out.  When you add weather changes (even sunny to cloudy, weather moving in, etc.) that can make a difference on how the cattle work, it’s all the more challenging.  What will work for one group of cattle might not work for another, what will work one day may not work another day.  We don’t know what experiences the cattle have had throughout their life that could affect their attitude to dogs and humans.  We don’t have cattle that are clones of each other & have had the same experiences but we can do things that make for a better trial.  The goal with the cattle is to have the cattle as even throughout the herd as you can.  ‘Even’ as in their attitude and how they react to dogs and humans & even to each other.

Herd Selection

  • Always work the cattle calmly and quietly, whether it be getting the cattle ready before a trial, loading & unloading them or at the trial.
  • It would be nice to have fresh cattle for all classes plus a few extra, but most times that isn’t possible or are not available. If you can get enough cattle to run your biggest class without rerunning them, then that would be 2nd  But even that isn’t always possible.
  • If you do need to rerun cattle, try to avoid rerunning the cattle more than 3 times per day. So the very minimum number of cattle would be number of runs times 3 (if you are using 3 head per run) plus a few more as you would like to have a few left in the pen when you are done with runs.  (More on that later.)
  • Once you figure out how many you need or have to work with, expect to cull 15%-20% out of the herd, more if cattle aren’t use to being handled or wild (having cattle that have experiences with coyotes isn’t a good idea). Having ear tags helps with identifying the cattle but also may impede their line of vision. Keep in mind that the goal is to have the herd as even as possible as far as attitude to being worked and reacting to dogs and humans.
  • It’s better to have the cattle together as a herd for some length of time. Avoid putting different groups of cattle together right before the trial.  Give them time socialize with each other for a while, a month at least, ideally longer.  You are trying to avoid having cattle that don’t want to be with each other and that is more likely to happen when they haven’t had enough time to socialize.  When you are running 3 head, the incentive to stay with the other 2 may not be as strong as it is when it is in a herd where their buddies are.
  • Cull out the ones with bad eyes, evil eye, lameness, high headed/spooky and any that are wanting to pick a fight, either with humans or dogs. If it doesn’t fit in attitude-wise with the rest of the herd, then it needs to go.
  • Also, safety of the dogs and handlers needs to be top and foremost concern when culling cattle. Accidents do happen but don’t let it happen because a rouge cattle should have been culled and wasn’t.  Even if it means culling it at the trial, it needs to be done.

Cattle Preparation

  • One way to prepare the cattle is to put the group in a pen and just let the dogs naturally keep them herded, such as keeping them in a corner. If one comes out after the dogs, especially if it happens several times, then it needs to get culled.  This teaches the cattle to keep together, that safety is with the rest.  If they don’t learn that early, then cull them.
  • Later work the herd in smaller groups, up to 5-7 head at a time, moving the cattle around this time. Again, cull out any that are challenging the dog or humans.  As you are able to work the cattle more times, make the run group smaller each time you work them, to as few as 3 head.  The smaller the group, the harder it is for the bad ones to hide.
  • As you are working them in smaller groups, put them through some obstacles, such as wide fetch panels or even an open-ended pen. Keep the obstacles with wide openings so they go through them easily.  This will weed out any that have had a bad experience and balk at going into a pen or through gates.  The more you work them, the narrower the openings and spacing can be.  This will also give you an idea of how to adjust the obstacles to the cattle when it comes time for the trial.
  • Expose the cattle to both strong nose biter dogs and strong heal biter dogs. This gives them experience with both types of dogs they will see at the trial. The cattle need to respect the dog and these lessons should be given before the trial, not during the runs.  If the cattle are being broke by a weaker dog, they will not respect the dog and thus want to challenge or ignore dogs during the trial.  When that happens, the cattle are being taught a lesson during the run rather than before the trial.  This eats up time during the run and may become more of a luck of the draw for the dog and handler.
  • Also use dogs that will respect the cattle. If you use dogs that want to bite all the time or get into a fight with the cattle, eventually the cattle will just get fed up and want to fight, and fight every dog they come into contact with.  If we want trials to see how well the dog fight with cattle, then we wouldn’t bother with setting up obstacles (& driving in those darn fence post).
  • One sign of cattle needing more work is when the cattle are spooky or flighty (high headed) when walking around them.
  • A sign of overworked cattle is when they don’t move off of you. If that is the case, give them a break from being worked.
  • Broke cattle are when the cattle will react to the dog and/or handler presence, by moving & yielding to the dog/handler and can be kept under control. In other words, when they respect the dog & handler.  There still may be some fighting but when there is a valid reason, such as an overly aggressive dog.

At the Trial

  • At the trial, be sure they have water and, if an all-day trial, feed them hay (ask the owner of the cattle what kind of hay to feed them). Content cattle will make better cattle.  We are asking a lot of these cattle so don’t give the cattle reasons to get into a bad mood.
  • If the cattle aren’t used to the trial area, then let them into the area, allowing them to walk around and get comfortable. Also, take them through the obstacles, if possible, as a whole herd.  Do this with the help and handlers or, if using dogs, ones that aren’t entered in the trial.  One could argue that if using a trialing dog, it might give it an advantage when it comes to its run.
  • Unless you have enough cattle to do the next class, bring in the worked cattle before each class and put all the cattle together, co-mingling the worked and unworked cattle. This could be done during the handler’s meeting (if you have enough help) to speed up the trial.
  • If you need to bring in worked cattle during a class, then bring in the worked cattle after you have enough worked cattle plus the other cattle to finish the class including a few extra. Don’t bring in the cattle that have just run or even the last 2 runs, give them time to recover.  (This can be done either at the set-out area if there are enough pens to keep the next 1 or 2 groups from the rest, or in the exhaust area.)  Bring in the cattle & co-mingle both groups.  It is hopeful that each run after that will have a mix of worked and unworked cattle.
  • You do not want to finish the class with no cattle left to run. Cattle are more comfortable with other cattle and if there are just a few left in the set-out pens, then they may get nervous and flighty before their time to run.  3 head by themselves without distractions are more likely to get nervous than the 3 on the course, as they have a 4-legged intelligent animal to keep them occupied!

Again, each trial has its own circumstances, work with what you have.  Try to keep everything you do fair and even for each run.  It’s not always possible but work to make it as fair as possible.

Next article will focus on the course, including the obstacles, setting out the cattle and how to adjust the course to the cattle.

Preparing the Trial Course

This is the second of three articles on putting on a trial.  This article will focus on the preparation of the course and obstacles.  A few of the suggestions were mentioned in the last article but also apply to this part of the trial.  Remember, the goal is to have consistency from run to run.  We want trials that the best work wins, with either tough cattle or easy cattle, not from the pure luck of the 3 head of cattle used during a run.

(A draw is an area where the cattle tend to be drawn to, such as other cattle, exhaust, etc.)


Start setting up the course early enough that you will be done before the scheduled handler’s meeting, whether than means the day/evening before or earlier that day.  There are plenty of handlers that will gladly help if needed.

When setting up the obstacles, be aware of where the scoring table will be and their ability to clearly see the obstacle.  Also keep in mind the ability of the handler seeing the obstacles when behind the handler’s line, be sure they can clearly see the opening to the obstacle.

Completely cover up any place, top to bottom, that the cattle in the course can see other cattle, mainly those in the set-out or exhaust pens.  If you can see any part of the cattle while you are on the course, so can the cattle that are being run.  This will be a major draw and one that should be avoided.

When outdoors and using tarps, plastic, signs, etc. to block the view, be sure to secure them tightly so the wind doesn’t catch it and spook the cattle or the dog.  If this does happen, be aware that both cattle and the dog may be leery about going close to that area again during the current run and for the next runs they are on the course.

Keep the audience at least 5 feet away from the fence (preferably more).  Dogs should be kept even further away as to not affect the cattle.  Elevated seating, such as in an indoor arena, may help with limiting the audience’s influence but that is more of a matter of the site rather than anything the trial organizer can do.

Be aware of having obstacles near a fence where the audience is sitting or can walk by.   If you want an obstacle along a fence where people may walk by at ground level, then block the view of the cattle so the cattle cannot see the movement.  Or keep people further away from the fence in that area by some kind of physical barrier (tape, etc.). 

Try to have a separate set-out pen from the holding pen.  This helps with getting the next group of cattle ready for the next handler in a timely manner.

If using a pen/sort obstacle or long alleys, use panels that the dogs are able to go under.  This gives them the ability to be in the right position to move the cattle.  The dogs are more vulnerable when going under the panels, let it be easy for them to do it quickly, for all sizes of dogs.

Set up the obstacles so the cattle flow through the course.  That means the cattle will move through the course without constantly having sharp turns or U-turns.  For most of the obstacles, the exit out of one obstacle will aim the cattle somewhat towards the general direction of the next obstacle.  You will have U-turns but avoid having one at every obstacle and avoid having the cattle go back and forth many times across the course area.  The cattle will realize they were just on that side of the arena and were moved away from that side, it doesn’t make sense to them to go back to the same side….only to get moved out again.

Look at the obstacles through the cattle’s eyes.  Will the background (including audience) interfere with the cattle being able to see the opening in or out of an obstacle?   You may need to tarp the course fence in the cattle’s line of sight as they are coming into and through the obstacle if there will be a lot of audience movement in that line of sight.  This is more important in an arena setting where the obstacles are closer to the course fence and audience.

Also looking through the cattle’s eyes, be aware of how shadows (or sunlight) may affect how the path looks through the obstacle.   If an outdoor trial, the morning and evening sun will cast longer shadows, more so on obstacles that have panels in a north/south direction.  Once the sun moves up in the sky the shadows are shorter and will shade a much smaller portion of the path.  This condition may not last long but it does have an effect.  Keep in mind we want consistency from run to run and we need to be aware of this.  For indoor arenas this usually isn’t as much of a concern even though there have been times cattle have been a little spooked by sunbeam shining through a window or roof vents on the ground.

On the same note, be careful when you open overhead doors to let cattle in or out.  This could create a draw or distraction for the cattle being run. 

You can make the end of the run & time at the last obstacle rather than the exhaust gate.  The thinking is that the cattle go back to the exhaust gate in a more relaxed manner and aren’t wanting to go through the exhaust gate as an escape from the dog.  This might be less of a problem when the last obstacle is a short distance to the exhaust.

Before the trial starts have the cattle walk through the course as a herd and with handlers, if using dogs, use dogs that aren’t entered in the trial.  If possible, avoid taking the cattle out of the course through the exhaust gate.  They will learn where that gate is quick enough.

If you think there will be a major draw, consider letting the handler help in that area.

If a multi-day trial, move the exhaust if possible.  Or if it becomes a major draw, have an obstacle in front and part of the exhaust so it looks different to the cattle.

If you are needing to rerun cattle during a class, move the run cattle when you have enough of them to finish out the class, minus the 3 or 6 head that were just run or will be run (give them some time to rest). 


When moving previously run cattle back, either during a class or between classes, co-mingle them all together.  You are trying to avoid getting a run with all fresh cattle and then the next run getting all worked cattle. 

Work the cattle calmly, take it slow and easy when sorting the next set off.  Depending on the holding pen size & shape, you may need more than just one person doing this.

When getting the next group of cattle for the set-out pen, you can pick the easiest 3 to get.  If you do that be sure to gently mix the cattle up, it doesn’t have to be every time but every so often (provided there is enough room in the pen to calmly do this).  The cattle that don’t want to be handled will be the ones hanging out in the back (kind of like kids at school, the ornery ones tend to want to sit in the back!), these are the ones that need to be mixed & get comfortable with you.   Also, you can change how you pick the next group for the set-out pen, for instance, get them from the left side of the herd, the next time the right side.

However, when setting out cattle, have the same routine every time.  If you are opening the gate outward into the course area, then do that every time and keep the gate opening distance consistent every time, if in an arena, you should be able to see your foot tracks.  If you are walking around the cattle clockwise to push them out of the pen, then do that every time.  A change in either one will affect how the cattle come out of the pen and what direction they go.  There should be a well-worn path made by the set-out crew.

Have the next set of cattle sorted and ready to set out before the next handler is ready.   How long you should have them in the set-out pen is up to debate.  Some like for the cattle to settle in the set-out pen for a longer time than others.  Find out what you prefer and what works best for the cattle you have.  Try to be consistent throughout the class.

Tough Cattle:

The less experienced the cattle are, the wider the openings & exits of the obstacles should be. You may need to have open, see-thro obstacles and not  enclosed pens.  As the cattle get comfortable with the obstacles and course, the openings can become smaller and you can use pens for the 2nd day’s course.

You may need to use 4-5 head, rather than the typical 3 as cattle tend to move easier when there are more than 3 head (likewise, they get tougher to handler the smaller the group).  That may mean you will use the cattle more than the recommended 3 times/trial but the cattle, handlers and dogs will be less stressed at the end of the day.  If it is a two-day trial, the second day you will likely be able to use 3 head per run.

Next article will be on having an organized trial.

Organizing and Running a Trial

This is a the third & last of the articles in dealing with the different aspects of putting on a trial.  This one deals with the organization and operation of a smoothly run trial.  These are only suggestions; each trial has its own set of circumstances to adjust to.


Preparing for the trial

There is a lot of work that goes into a trial and it’s a heavy load for just one person.  It helps if you can split some of the workload.  For instance, have one person in charge of the course, cattle, etc. and another for the paperwork, judging and organizing the trial.

On the online entry form, give a list of hotels or towns to stay at.  Also include the address and/or directions to the course area.

Submit the entry form and sanctioning form to the NCA (  That info in needed in order for the trial to be sanctioned, promoted and put on the NCA Calendar.

Be organized!  Do as many things as you can beforehand, this will help to make the trial run smoothly and make your trial day a lot less hectic.  Make up your time sheet, get the stopwatches (making sure they work), have extra entry forms, pens, paper, etc.

Line up your help ahead of time or, if you are having the handlers help, be sure you have enough to do each class.  You should have at least 2 run a stopwatch, sometimes 3. The head judge may or may not be willing to run a stopwatch.  The set-out crew will likely need 2.  Depending how you do the exhaust, you might not need anyone for that.  Have backups to give the help a break. 

Try to make up the running order beforehand.  You can leave blanks to fill in with people that come that day.  For the people running multiple dogs, have 3 or more runs between their runs.  That  also includes the end of one class and the start on the next class.

Make up the scoring sheet ahead of time, spreadsheets work great and also can be used to send the results to the NCA.  Using a spreadsheet will help get the points processed quicker and posted online.

Figure out what the course will be and be sure to have set up before the scheduled start of the handler’s meeting.  If you need help, whether it be the day before or that day, there are plenty of handlers willing to help.

Think the course through and try to anticipate any questions there may be during the handler’s meeting.  Know where the handler’s line will be, time line and decide how long the run time will be.

Figure out how far a run gets out of hand before you call the run.  If the cattle are not yours, the cattle owner should have the right to have a say when a run should get pulled due to mishandling or abuse of the cattle.  Several people can be given that right to call a run, including the organizer, head judge and cattle owner.  Hopefully it never happens.

Also think of what situations you would allow a rerun.  Generally, reruns are given when something happens that wasn’t the fault of the dog and/or handler.  Some instances would be rouge cattle, change in course during a class, cattle not coming out of the set-out pen as a group or another dog or any disruption that happens to just one or a few runs, etc.  You can put the reruns 4-5 runs later or at the end of the class.  Be fair to the dog, the longer the dog was working, the longer they should be given time to recover.

Day of the trial

START ON TIME.  Chances are the traveling time of most of the handlers is many times longer than the time it takes up to set up a course.  If they are making that kind of effort to come to your trial & to be there on time, then return that effort and show your appreciation by starting on time. 

Display the running order as soon as possible so the 1st couple of handers in the first class have enough time to get ready before the handler’s meeting.

Display the running order in an obvious place, maybe several places or make copies to be available to the handlers.

Be sure that the cattle will have access to drinkable water throughout the day.  This is a must.  1st thing your dog does after a run is to get to water, so don’t neglect the cattle.  Whether the water be in the exhaust pen, holding pen or both, they need the water throughout the day.  If it is a long day, consider keeping hay in front of them.  Remember, content cattle tend to make better trial cattle, don’t get them in a bad mood.  Hungry & thirsty humans tend not to be the most pleasant people to be around, I’m guessing it’s the same with cattle!

Go through the course with the head judge and timers so they know the course just as well as you do.  If this means a meeting with them before the handler’s meeting, that’s great.   They will also need to be at the handler’s meeting in case there are changes to the course and hear the same thing the handlers are hearing.

Inform the handlers at the handler’s meeting of any changes to the running order, such as withdraws or change in dogs, etc.  The handlers use the list to know when to get their dog, any unknown changes and they may miss their cue.

If possible, announce the dog & handler running as well as the next 2 scheduled to run (up, on deck, in the hole).

When being held at a site with audience, such as a fair, announce the handler and dog as well as where they came from, if possible.  Try to do things to get the audience involved, explain the course & commands, give some background, energize the audience.  (That’s the easy part, finding an announcer to do that is the hard part!)   The handler-audience interaction will help with the popularity of the sport. 

If you need to bring in the worked cattle during a class, announce that several runs before.  That way the handler and dog can stay in a more relaxed setting while the move is being made.  Don’t make the handler and dog wait on the course or entrance while the cattle are being moved.

Thank all the ones that helped with the trial & the handlers that came.   May of the handlers likely travels many hours to come and let them know you appreciate that time and effort.  Also publicly announce any businesses, organizations, etc. that contributed to the trial as well as thank them in person.

If keeping the cattle overnight be sure they have access to water overnight and are well feed.

After the trial

Don’t forget to submit the results (spreadsheet preferred,) & sanctioning fees ( or mail a check) in a timely manner to all the sanctioning organizations and to get the prize money to the handlers, either at the trial or soon after the trial.


Be prepared and be organized.  Feel free to ask other trial host, NCA board members or other handlers with any questions you may have concerning putting on a trial.  The three things that make a great trial are the cattle, the course and the atmosphere of the event.