Horses and ATV''s Face Off on the Ranch

December 9, 2009 06:00 PM

Many ranchers still choose to work cattle on horseback because of ground terrain, facility design, personal preference or the cattle's response to horses.
The image of cattle ranches from the early days involved a cowboy and his trusty horse riding off into the sunset. Today, however, some ranches are moving their saddles from the four-legged to the four-wheeler—or a combination of the two. Horses are making room in the barn for another mode of transportation.

"We all love the old way of doing things,” says Lorrie Sumpter, office manager for Turley Ranch in Durham, Okla. "But we can get so much more done with four-wheelers.”

For Turley Ranch, ATVs are time-efficient. The size of the ranch—20,000 acres—calls for a quick way to train employees to get around, Sumpter says. Plus, she says, ATVs can go farther without getting tired. With the economy the way it is, Turley Ranch finds ATVs to be more cost-efficient as well.

But even for this ranch, there is a time for horses. "Once in a while, a cow won't corral with the ATV, and the horse comes out of the barn for another ride,” Sumpter says.

While Turley Ranch's horses are on an extended holiday with occasional work, not much has changed for the horses of R.A. Brown Ranch of Throckmorton, Texas. The ranch's 33,000 acres of West Texas terrain is still better suited for surefooted horses than for ATVs.

Tools for different jobs.
"We use horses on a daily basis,” says Donnell Brown, seedstock manager and co-owner of R.A. Brown Ranch. "With the terrain of our ranch, horses are a necessity, and we use them to check, gather, sort and doctor cattle.

"We use our ATV mostly for building, checking and repairing fences on this ranch,” Brown says. "Our ATV doesn't get used as much as horses, though, because of the wear of the terrain on the tires. Just as the ATV is a piece of equipment to the ranch, the horse is also a vital piece of the equipment force.”

Horses and ATVs both have drawbacks, such as the risk of injury and cost of maintenance and use, but each has its place on the ranch, Brown adds.

"A horse's agility and cow sense allow us to sort cattle much more effectively and safely than on ATVs. We rope and weigh every calf at birth, and at times rope and doctor cattle in the pasture, both of which are better accomplished on horseback,” he says.
"Horses don't run out of gas,” Brown adds. "And they can go places I can't get to with the ATV.”

Horses aren't falling out of style for R.A. Brown Ranch, but ultimately, the choice to use horses or ATVs on ranches is determined by personal preference and Mother Nature. At Turley Ranch, the terrain accepts wheels, making it easy and accessible for ATV work. For R.A. Brown Ranch, horses have retained their importance because of the rugged terrain.

Find what works. There are days that the R.A. Brown Ranch crew uses horses only a little, and there are days they are on horseback all day, Brown says. There are also days they go in the pickup to check cattle and carry a horse in the trailer in case the cattle need to be handled on horseback.

An example is when they're checking cattle and they see a calf that needs to be doctored. If they are on horseback, they can rope and doctor the calf right there in the pasture. There is less stress on the calf and it has a more rapid recovery time, Brown says, than if it is driven several miles to a set of corrals on an ATV.

"Horses will always be vital to the ranching business,” Brown says. "The decision is going to be [based] partly on personal preference and partly on what the ranch needs to get the job done.

"One thing is for sure. It's hard to replace the joy and satisfaction a cowboy gets from working in harmony with a good horse to get the day's work done.” BT

Pros and Cons of Horses and ATVs

  • Cost. The minimum yearly cost to care for a horse, not including vet and farrier bills, is only $1,825, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
  • Tradition.
  • Cattle are used to horses.
  • No gas is needed, other than horse feed.
  • It's easier to rope off of a horse.
  • Animals need rest.
  • Risk of injury and unforeseen vet or doctor bills to rider and animal.
  • You can't haul or tow equipment on horseback.

  • Doesn't get fed if not in use.
  • Can haul or tow equipment.
  • Time-efficient.
  • Less time needed for employees to learn to drive.
  • Cost:
  • The initial cost for a 500cc class Sportsman 500 HO, for example, is $6,000.
  • An oil change is needed in the first 50 hours and every 100 hours after. The cost of the first maintenance is $150.
  • Tires and brakes, replaced yearly, will cost about $400 for a set of four.
  • Average total yearly cost is $10,750, not including gas. (Figure fuel cost at 18 miles per gallon.)
  • Must replace tires, especially on rough terrain.
  • Must gradually teach cattle how to respond to ATVs.
  • Risk of injury or damage to the driver and machine.

To contact Rachel Duff, e-mail

Back to news



Spell Check

No comments have been posted to this News Article

Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer