This past summer, my boys and I stumbled across the easiest way EVER to halter break a calf!  Not that we haven’t always had good luck with halter breaking, but this method cut the time down to half.  Our goal was to reduce the time from when I first halter a calf until I turn it over to one of the boys to lead.  My 8-year-old always want to get involved with the training process, but he’s small and these calves are 10 times his weight.  We needed to find a way to gentle them faster so that I could allow him to safely get involved.

Feona is much more relaxed with the halter breaking process when tied beside her mom, FeFe.

The solution:

Halter break the calf while tying her up beside her halter-broke momma!

Boy, did this work like a charm!  Granted, we were lucky enough to be working with calves out of last year’s show heifers, so the mommas were already broke and really gentle.

But, we also have been breaking calves that did not have a halter-broke momma, and getting similar results.  I’ll tell you more about that in a future story, but it’s basically using the “buddy system” of working a halter broke calf alongside their buddy that’s not yet broke to the halter.

So here’s a breakdown of our easy halter breaking technique:

Step 1:  Put momma and baby in an alleyway pen, so that there isn’t as much room to move around.

Step 2:  Halter momma with her regular rope halter and tie her to a rail, near a corner, so she could stand around and calmly chew her cud.

Baby Nellie stands quietly by Momma Blaze and gets used to being handled.

Step 3:  Allow baby to stand in the corner, “protected” by momma, but keep momma in a position that the calf can’t run by her.  Essentially, you want momma to block the escape hole if the calf gets nervous.

Step 4:  Slowly move in towards momma first, visiting with her and scratching her on the back.  (The “visiting” is a MUST, you want the calf to get used to your presence, and eventually feel like you are their “go-to-buddy” when their momma is not around.)

Step 5:  Slowly start scratching the calf on the back, too.  Be easy and move slow, don’t rush this part.  Keep talking in a gentle voice.  Scratch the cow and calf at the same time, so they cow realizes that everything is cool.

Step 6:  Keep scratching and talking to momma and baby.  This is where patience comes in to play.  Let the calf get used to you and realize you won’t hurt her.  If baby starts to panic and tries to get away from momma, step back a bit to give her some space.  Then, start scratching again.  If baby happens to bolt away from momma, step completely back out of the way and give baby a chance to go back to the corner and stand with momma, so that she doesn’t panic.

Step 7:  When baby is comfortable with you scratching her back and her shoulders, and no longer acts like she wants to bolt away, it’s time to slip on the breaking halter.  Have your helper (my 8-year-old) hand you the halter.

The breaking halter releases pressure immediately when the calf steps forward.

Step 8:  Hold the breaking halter all in one hand with a fairly good size loop to drop over the ears.  You want to be able to drop it over the ears and hang there, and let the “under chin” part of the rope drop down under the chin and almost into place.  You will need to slowly pull on the end of the lead rope to get it to come up snug under the chin.  Go slow and easy.  You may have to use your free hand to adjust the halter on the opposite side of the face so that it fits correctly across their nose and under their chin.  Ideally, you want the nose strap to be fairly high up on the nose, just below the eyes.

Step 9:  Don’t try to lead the calf anywhere at this point.  Just calmly and quietly, while you are still “visiting”, tie the calf up near momma.  It’s ok if they are even touching, this will help the baby to feel safer.  Just be sure to use a slip knot that you can quickly and easily untie if baby gets itself tangled up!

Step 10:  Go through this same routine on Day 2, but this time, have your helper untie momma and lead her a few feet away.  Now you can untie baby and lead her to momma.  Tie them both up and do the “visiting” and “scratching” routine.  Repeat your short little walks 4-5 times, each time increasing the distance by just a bit.  Thirty to forty minutes of this will be enough.  Your calf is catching on by now, but don’t push her too far in one day!

My oldest son, TJ, with his baby heifer, Feona, on the third day of halter breaking!

Step 11:  On the third day of halter-breaking, repeat steps 1-9 to get baby caught.  Now it’s time to lead her while leaving momma tied up to simply watch.  Remember she will be very resistant at first, so give her a bit of slack each time she takes a step with you. (This is another reason why the the breaking halter is so awesome–it immediately releases pressure when the calf steps forward!)This shows her that she will be rewarded if she will come along with you.  After she takes a few steps, tell her what a good girl she is and gently scratch her on her shoulder.  Be prepared for her to take a step back as you move towards her to scratch.  Just hold her lead rope tight enough that she won’t run away.  And since you are still in a very small pen with momma, she really can’t back away more than just a few steps before she backs into her mom.  Once you are scratching on her and she has quit pulling away, give her a bit more slack.  Now, take a few more steps and do it all again!

You’re leading her on Day 3!  Isn’t that awesome!

Yes, her walk will still be choppy, and yes, she might try to pout and throw herself on the ground, but she is catching on!  As long as you are patient and persistent, she will soon be in the hands of your helper!

Your kids need to spend some time scratching the calf while it’s tied up.

Step 12:  Before you unhalter your calf on Day 3, let your helper scratch on her, too.  If your helper is small, like mine, keep safety in mind.  Push the baby up against momma so she will feel safe.  Start scratching on baby, then let your helper slowly move in to scratch too, while they talk in a gentle voice. The calf will be a little jumpy with a new person in her space, so be sure that your helper is standing toward the rear of the calf so they can move out of the way quickly if baby gets nervous and jumps.  Just a few minutes of this kind of handling every day is the magic sauce necessary before turning your helper and the calf loose on their own!

Step 13:  You’ll have to use your best judgment as to when baby is ready for your helper to take over.  My 11-year-old son has a bit more experience around cattle and has a much quieter demeanor than my 8-year-old, so I can usually turn the lead rope over to him by day 4.  But for my younger helper, it’s usually at least day 5, maybe even day 7.  It just depends on the calf’s personality and whether or not my helper has put in their “visiting” and “scratching” time each day of training.

Halter-breaking is my favorite time of the year, especially when it’s this easy to train the calves!

Day 5 of halter breaking. My 8-year-old, Emery, is doing well with Duchess!

I’ve always loved halter-breaking our newest round of calves.  It’s challenging, and sometimes tests my physical strength, but I always feel so accomplished when I’ve made friends with a calf and they are happily leading along behind me.  Each calf has their own little personality and will soon develop their own little quirky ways about them.  Some will love to lick you and rub all over you, and others will start calling for you the minute you step out the back door, hoping to talk you into bringing them the feed bucket.  But the best part of it all is when you watch your kid walk into the show ring with a 1300 pound critter and see the confidence in their eyes….because they’re comfortable with their calf!

Have any halter-breaking tips or advice you’d like to share?  Success stories, or “learning the hard way” stories?  We’d love to have you share with us in the comments below!  If you only have a minute, but would just drop us a “hi” to let us know you’ve enjoyed this post, we’d really be grateful!

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