If Bison Chased Horses & Cattle Chased Rabbits

By Bob Kinford on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at The Bovine Blog 

English: Bison herd grazing at the National Bi...

Bison herd grazing at the National Bison Range

Why are equines the only grazing animal which seemingly enjoys chasing and dominating other grazing animals? This is a question which has baffled me for years (actually decades) yet it is an important aspect of animal behavior that people seem to miss. I bring this up because of a recent discussion on bison.

I know there are a lot of people out there who are going to counter with “My bison charge anyone on horseback,” but the simple fact is, they aren’t. If they were, cutting horse trainers would not risk using bison to tune up show horses worth tens, if not hundreds of thousand of dollars. So why does a herd of bison “charge” people who are horseback? Curiosity. 

When confronted with something new, grazing animals are generally either afraid or curious. If they are afraid, they will watch cautiously or flee. If they are curious they will go see what it is. If one or two of a group of grazing animals get curious about something and start running towards it, the whole herd will follow.

In the case of a horseman being “charged” by a bison herd, it is a case of a few of the animals being curious enough about something to run over to check it. The rest of the herd follows. The first thing that pops into the rider’s mind is panic, which transfers immediately to the horse. Horse and rider vacate the premises with the bison following trying to see what the heck that strange thing is.

 Cattle will do the same thing. A person walking across a field full of yearling heifers who are not used to seeing a person afoot, will come stampeding right up to the person and if the person runs, they will keep following. If the person stops, so do the heifers, but they may come close enough to them to sniff them.

Once I had a steer in a little group of five hundred that was insanely curious about rabbits. One morning all five hundred were running around the pivot, as a herd. I could see noting they were chasing so I rode to that pivot to check it out. When I got there they were all stopped in a big circle. When I got to the middle, the one steer was standing on a jack rabbit’s leg while he was licking it. Other than standing on a leg to pin it down the steer was not doing anything aggressive towards the rabbit. On the contrary, he was grooming it!

This was not a one time affair with this steer. In the several months I had this group of cattle, I had to move them back and forth across some desert ground to some remote pivots. This steer was naturally in the lead, and whenever a rabbit jumped up in front of him, he’d take off chasing the rabbit.

 There is a similarity between the rabbits being chased by that steer, and riders being chased by bison. Instead of thinking about what was really going on, they both ran like heck to get out of the way. All the bison are wanting to do is check you out, and all that steer was wanting to do was give the rabbit a bath.

The point to all of this is that bison can be worked horseback. You have to put some thought into it and acclimate them first. After all, if bison choused horses, Indians would have ridden bison and lived in horse hide teepee. 

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12 Responses to If Bison Chased Horses & Cattle Chased Rabbits

  1. paul says:

    Hope you can answer this, why are bison the only wildlife, not allowed to free range. We allow wolves and grizzly bears.


  2. Ken Klemm says:

    Perhaps you misspoke here. I am a 25 yr veteran bison rancher and the owner of more than one horse with the scars to prove that bison will chase and gore a horse. I’ve loaded thousands of bison calves and yearlings on trucks via horseback with little to no problem. Adult animals are a whole other story. Bison have an immense dislike for horses and will go out of their way to damage one. Trust me. I’ve heard them roar like a lion as they tried to catch me horseback. Perhpas they were just curious what we’d look like ground into the earth!


  3. Bob Mahoney says:

    Ken I’ve been chasrd by a herd of bison cows on a quad anytime I speed up so would they If I stopped they stopped didn’t come an closer than they were during the run when I left their pasture they went about their business I’d say that was just courosity . I agree if you are herding on horse back I’d say you have to give the bison room and be very watchful


  4. bobkinford says:

    Mr, Klemm,
    If what you say is true, then the plains tribes would not have been able to her bison over cliffs unless the braves were sacrificing themselves by riding over it in front of them. They also would not have been able to ride along with the herd shooting individuals with their bows and arrows. Perhaps, rather than me “mis-speaking”, you have spent thirty five years training this behavior into your bison.

    In the forty plus years I’ve spent working on various ranches (50+ if you want to include my childhood) I have been amazed at the lack of relationship that people have between their actions and their animal’s reactions. They always want to blame the animal’s actions on the animal without a thought to the fact that the animal is only reacting to what the human is doing OR to the fact that they may have been training the animal to act like this for years. I’ve been around cattle that have much the same behavior, and it always stems from how the cattle are handled. There are ranches now which use four wheelers because “Horses make cattle wild.”

    All of my life I’ve been handling other people’s “problem” horses, and one thing I have discovered is that nine times out of ten, the problem is the person not the horse. Every time you handle livestock you are training them. They are not only reacting to what you are dong, but also to their past experience and in some cases physical pain.

    This same attitude of it is the fault of the animal is prevalent in horses, While it was written for horse people, the philosophy of “From The Horse’s Mouth (Walking a mile in your horse’s shoes”) applies to handling other classes of livestock as well. Rather than telling what I did, the stories in this book are written as if the horses are telling their own stories, and give background on each one to show WHY they had been reacting the way they were. It is available in both paperback and kindle at http://www.2lazy4u.us


    • Ken Klemm says:

      We drive bison regularly. In the past, some groups have been as large as 3500 and were driven 40 miles. We move our current herd (much smaller) about 40 times per year. I can usually do it myself or with one helper. Even the big herd only took 3 of us (on motorcycles) but 15 of us when we were on horseback. I’ve been in the middle of a stampeding herd on horseback. When they are one the run it is possible to slide right up into them. It’s not without its dangers but so long as you stay behind the point of balance of the nearest animal they will not normally turn on you, but will continue to run at full throttle. Your premise that bison won’t charge a horse is simply not true and it’s not because I don’t know what I’m doing. I full well know the difference between curiosity, a fake charge and a full-on charge. I submit that a rider venturing into a bison herd with the thought that the only aggression the bison may show is simply curiosity will one day be very surprised to find his horse opened up wide. And yes, there are plenty of native accounts of bison goring horses. It is irresponsible to submit false and potentially dangerous information.


  5. bobkinford says:

    There are herds of cattle which do the same exact thing as your bison do. Those ranches also blame it on the animals.Am I submitting false and dangerous information or are you allowing your ego to close your mind to the fact that you have trained this behavior into your own animals?


    • Ken Klemm says:

      I’ve worked dozens of buffalo ranches as a hand and a consultant. I’ve worked bison sales where bison from dozens of ranches are brought into a common situation. The bison are largly the same everywhere – save the back-yard pets of some small herds – which are the most dangerous of all. I invite you to come to our ranch, with your own horse and show me how it’s done. I’d like to plan this well in advance so I can organize the ticket sales. Or, you could show me your bison handling skills at the National Western Stock Show in Denver this weekend where I’ll be judging a couple of hundred animals from all over the US and Canada.


      • bobkinford says:

        Mr. Klemm,
        One thing I will agree with you on, is that those back yard “pets” are more dangerous because they lack both fear and respect.

        Bud Williams spent several months with the crew on Ted Turner’s New Mexico ranch, teaching the crew to handle bison. Things went well for years, until the original crew was gone and people went back to industry standards for stockmanship. Now he has problems with his bison not only being wild, but in going through “bison proof” fences and onto the neighbors (who shoot them and drag them back to the fence).

        Once you have animals trained to be aggressive, you may be able to change their behavior, but there will always be individuals which may get a “flashback” moment which would be dangerous. If I were to go into the bison business, I would start with nothing older than a yearling, and spend a lot of time handling them in a low stress manner. If one keeps going on with them using the right techniques they won’t become aggressive. Go back to the normal way of doing things and (just like any other animal) they will start eating you for lunch.


  6. bobkinford says:

    One other thing on this that is directly related…Several years ago I had the “opportunity” to take care of a bunch of older King Ranch cattle. These Santa Gertrudis came off the truck hunting anything that moved. They had been mishandled in every way possible since birth and were so adept as escape that if helicopters doing deer counts flew overhead they all dropped on their sides as if they had been shot. When we shipped out that spring, three of us brought them in like a bunch of dairy cows, sorted the calves off and loaded the truck. The King Ranch rep told us he did not know it was possible to handle their cattle so easily. Other people in the area who had dealt with cattle off of this ranch also told us the same thing, that the “King Ranch cows are impossible to handle.”
    When our experience show us how bad something can be, we tend to take that at its face value without putting any further thought into it which may bruise our ego (no matter how much easier it would make things for us).


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