People often spread words in the same way they might paint a barn, with broad strokes. For example, we often hear or read declarations of the slow but sure decline in the use of saddle horses on modern ranching operations. Such statements generally include some mention of how the ranch horse is being replaced by the all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Some go so far as to claim it’s only a matter of time until performing ranch work on horseback becomes so rare it is considered an eccentricity.
On the other hand, there are plenty of ranch folk willing to argue the point. More than one equine-inclined rancher has said, “A four-wheeler can never replace a good horse, especially when working cattle.”
The ATV advocate can present a fair argument that the motorized rigs are well-suited for many ranch chores. Let’s agree that an ATV can be mighty handy for checking cattle watering sites, fixing fence and monitoring forage utilization by grazing cattle. The operator can carry along an assortment of tools and other supplies and even pack salt and mineral.
An ATV allows the operator to get around a pasture with some speed, to locate and look at cattle. Its headlights are useful for night-checking the heifers during calving season. Equipped with one of those cage-like contraptions, an ATV can be used to corral and tag a new calf, while affording the operator a measure of protection from an anxious mamma.
Often broadly stated is how an ATV allows the operator to save time when gathering and moving cattle. Some ATV aficionados claim they can have the cattle bunched and on the trail in the time it would take to catch and saddle a horse. This writer has seen that done, when the cattle were accustomed to that kind of handling and the ATV operator was experienced in stockmanship.
Generally, a preference for the ATV is based on its convenience. The machine runs on gas and oil. When not in use, it doesn’t have to be fed. Assuming an ATV is well maintained, it starts with the turn of a key and performs the same way every time. It doesn’t get tired, balk or throw a fit. And the ATV offers speed. All of these factors contribute to convenience and that, when broadly stated, offers greater efficiency. Greater efficiency should then provide an economic advantage.
Let’s look at the economics, while also presenting the horseman’s point of view. Starting with direct costs for an ATV versus a ranch horse, let’s consider a ride-astride utility ATV which is more maneuverable than the side-by-side style. A new model, equipped with four-wheel-drive and power steering will likely cost about $7,000. A bigger motor plus more bells and whistles can drive the price upward toward $12,000.
The buyer of an experienced ranch horse can spend almost as much as he or she wants. A perusal of blog posts reveals claims that a gentle, well-broke ranch horse costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. However, a good many useful ranch mounts trade for $3,000 or less. It depends on local availability and the individual horse. The savvy buyer looks for a horse whose disposition, training and experience matches the rider’s own horsemanship skill, as well as the kind of work to be done. The rancher who never intends to rope and doctor cattle in the pasture probably doesn’t require a horse capable of carrying a champion roper to the pay window. But if a high level of performance is desired, the cost will reflect the time and specialized training devoted to making that kind of horse.
Maintenance costs are difficult to compare. Horses do eat every day. Feed isn’t cheap, but costs associated with pasture and hay are highly variable. Prices for grain and other supplements also vary considerably, according to locality. Then there are the costs of health care, such as deworming and vaccinations, which also vary according to chosen health program. Saddles, bridles and other tack cost money too. How much depends on whether the rider is focused primarily on function, or wants some bling to go with it.
An ATV can be tricked out fancy too, but basic operation and maintenance costs include fuel and lubrication, plus the occasional replacement of tires, battery and other parts suffering from wear and tear. The total is highly variable, depending on the level of use and abuse. The same can be said for a horse and tack.
What about depreciation cost? Generally, an ATV starts depreciating as soon as it leaves the dealer. A horse loses value too, if it becomes spoiled or unsound due to injury or age. However, a relatively young ranch horse that continues to gain on-the-job experience can actually increase in value. Resold years later, to another rancher a family seeking a gentle kid’s horse, there is potential for a horse to fetch more than the original purchase price.
As mentioned previously, an ATV can be an efficient tool for a variety of tasks. Whether it is most efficient for handling cattle depends upon the circumstances. Despite the name, it won’t traverse ALL types of terrain. When the going is really rough, a horse often has an advantage in more nearly covering a course “as the crow flies.” The rider also has the benefit of another set of eyes, as the horse will also spot deep holes or other dangers in the path ahead. At the same time, Ol’ Dobbin may first spot that elusive stray cow. The direction of his gaze or the working of his ears can be a clue to the rider.
There also are efficiencies associated with the higher vantage point of a rider on horseback. Able to see farther and view more cattle at one time, a rider may more readily spot individuals with health problems and read brands or ear tags more easily. A handler on horseback is more visible to more cattle too. The combined height of horse and rider is often more intimidating to cattle and that can be an advantage. The higher vantage point, along with the increased maneuverability of a horse causes many low-stress stockmanship advocates to favor handling cattle from horseback. Capable and well-mounted cattle handlers can also use their superior vantage point and ability to maneuver in close quarters to efficiently sort cattle in a pen or alley.
Of course, working cattle from the back of a horse is not suited to everyone. Even people that like it may have physical limitations that make it impractical. For others, practicality is hindered because of their time-starved working environment. They also may lack the fondness for horseflesh that probably is required. Those producers probably are better off with an ATV. If they want to be good stockmen, practice low-stress handling methods and avoid over-doing the speed an ATV affords, they can accomplish great things.
When things don’t go well, it is not because of the ATV and neither is it the fault of the horse. The cause is operator error. Regardless of the handling tools and technology used, a stockman’s goal should be to keep getting better. Toward that end, I suspect many people will continue to favor the horse, for many years to come.
If this writer’s bias is not yet evident, a borrowed quote should clarify. It comes from Texas cattleman and low-stress cattle handling advocate Todd McCartney, who says, “A horse can teach you things that make you a better person. You don’t have to exercise patience with a four-wheeler; you don’t have to exercise courtesy or husbandry. All of those things are required for a horse, and all of those are good for the inside of a man.”