Cows are Smarter than You Think
I heard it said once that “a lot of dumb cows have outsmarted a lot of smart men”. That’s a mouthful. And I can also say the longer a cow lives in the wild, in the mountains and hills, the smarter they get. I can say, along with the last two statements “don’t ever under-estimate a cows’ intelligence, you’re bound to be taught a thing or six if you do”.
I’ll illustrate with one small example. My partner, Kevin, and I were punchin’ for the quarter circle J6 the summer of ’76 in the country of the upper reaches of the Madison River in Montana. We had a cow that somehow strayed off during the long cattle drive from McAlister to Antelope Basin, a distance of about 60 miles or more. We did know that she was hangin’ out in the country north, and east of our summer range, along the Madison River about six miles from our cow camp. We’d spotted her a few times.
One day we were haulin’ our horses comin’ back to camp from the north as we were cruising along the road on the east side of the river, we spotted her grazing near the Madison, about a quarter mile off. We quickly pulled off the road into the grass and sage, un-loaded our ponies, they were still saddled, and soon we were on a lope, punchin’ holes in our ropes as we went, we were gonna catch ourselves a cow, and take her back with us to Antelope Springs and camp. We couldn’t believe our good luck, it was just a matter of minutes and we’d have her loaded in the front end of my trusty four horse trailer, WW type made in Oklahoma, a sure enough good stock trailer that I’d hauled a heap o’ horses and cattle in for many years. We’d rope her and drag her in no sweat, well some sweat, mostly the horses then we’d slam the divider gate shut, load the ponies and be on our way. We knew that Max would be proud of us, and glad to get his missing cow back safe and sound. So as we were lopin’ the horses through the sage, we kept lookin’ for the rusty red brown color of the Hereford short horn cross. Getting close to the river, ropes all ready, lookin’ up and down river, ready to spot said beef and then on to the chase and twirl our loops and snare us our quarry.
One problem! No quarry! We reached the river bank looking in every direction and no sign of her. We sat our ponies a minute, doin’ a full 360 nice and easy makin’ sure we covered every inch of the flat with our searching eyes. No cow.
Can’t be, I thought, she was just here, there were no willows to hide in, just grass and sage brush-no rocks or trees-it was wide open country, but that cow had plum disappeared. Again- we did the 360 turn movin’ our ponies real slow. Nothin’. We could see a lot further than that cow could run in that amount of time. No dust cloud showing us the way of escape. Mighty quiet. I was startin’ to feel quite foolish, and I think Kevin was too. We did see that cow - didn’t we? Absolutely no mistaken that, YES we DID!! What the heck then? What happened to her?
We sat in our saddles talkin’ to each other, and some to ourselves too! This was a real-life mystery. It was hard to admit that she had given us the slip, but how? You could see a cow for probably two or three miles in a north, south, and east direction. To the west, across the river was timber, but there’s no way she crossed the river without us seein’ her, no way.
One more time, the 360. Slow, slow, searching every inch. NOPE! Nothin’ there. Well I’ll be, I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t understand it. How does a big fat red colored cow disappear in gray green sage brush that was only about 2 or 2½ feet tall at most? Well—I’ll tell you how! She laid down with her front legs stretched out in front of her and her hind legs stretched behind her and her neck stretched out and her head lying flat on the ground chin down. She made the absolute lowest, flattest profile she could, and she lay perfectly still in that position all the time, from the time we were unloading our horse’s out of the trailer till the time we had made our three 360 ‘s and all our talkin’ which I guess was about 15 to 20 minutes.
How did we discover her?
We started riding in zig zags through the brush me going’ north, Kevin south, hoping against hope we’d somehow see her. I never thought that she was lying flat down like that, never knew a cow did that or would think to do it. But….she did and I spotted her on my final sweep, still hugging the ground tight. She was off to the right about maybe 50 feet, I saw a little red brown color, then could make out her head and parts of her body under the sage. I yelled at Kevin, as soon as she knew she’d been spotted, she jumped to her feet and ran straight to the river as fast as she could go. We spurred our horses, I was riding Ranger- the chase was on. She plowed into the water full throttle makin’ for the far shore, we dove in right behind her, I was trying’ to get around her, to head her back to the bank, but she was far enough ahead and I was worried about the rocks and boulders under the water and didn’t want to hurt Ranger or have a crash with some unforgiving big rock, so I reined up and let the cow keep going, she wasn’t about to stop. Soon she was at the far shore and heading into the dark timber. We turned our ponies around and made the near bank again, not much worse for the ware, that I could tell any way, but those rocks under foot were plenty slick. There was no way we would catch that cow that day and frankly I didn’t want to anymore. We rode slowly back toward the road and the truck and trailer, the horses dripping wet, and us, part wet, and pretty darned humble. There would be no victory tale to tell the boss, no hideout cow joinin’ the herd, no exciting adventure told of fast horses and good loops thrown and tight dallies holding well.
That “dumb” cow had made me and Kevin look pretty stupid, but like I said at the start, she had taught us a thing or six, that was for sure. She had tipped the scales in her favor. Now ain’t that somethin’ for a dumb-old cow to do?