Tips for Riding in Cow Country

This article was originally published on the Colorado State University Range Management website

Slow down to speed up.

We mountain bike because we like speed.
But, cows do not.

In cattle, speed is a direct indicator of stress. If a cow is running away from you, you have stressed it (Smith 1998).

Stress and fear may provoke a cow to defend itself and it’s calf by behaving aggressively towards you.

If you encounter cows, slowing down, giving the cows some space, and having a calm demeanor, will give the cows a chance to move along with no conflict.


In this photo, the cow on the right is experiencing stress in response to a perceived threat – probably posed by the photographer. Notice, the other cow is not running. Different cows experience the level of threat differently

More on stress impacts in cattle

Pay attention to what the cattle are telling you.

Lifted heads and ears signal awareness. The cows are evaluating, “is this person a threat?”
Slowing down and stopping can help signal that you are not a threat, thus preventing a fear-based reaction by the cows.

Get out of the line of sight of cows
and communicate with the rancher on where to stand.
(Cows won’t move forward towards you.)

If you are standing in a gate, and a cow or herd is facing you, you are signaling to the cow/ herd to stop forward motion. In order for cows to move past you, you need to step to the side, and maybe get out of sight of the cows.

If you come up behind a bunch of cows, it is critical to communicate with the rancher on where to go, and how long they think they’ll be on the road.

More on what your body signals to cows

Most range cattle don’t like you, either.
They would prefer to be away from you. So give them time to do that.

More on learning to speak cow

Have your dog under control.
Cows perceive your dog as a predator.

Leave gates open that are open,
… and close gates behind you if you find them closed.

If you close gates that should be open, you might be cutting off access to water for livestock. If you open up gates that should be closed, you are probably creating hours of work for a rancher.

You also might be impacting the resource. Grazing on the National Forest and BLM lands is managed for specific goals with regards to the vegetation. If cattle have already moved off a pasture, and you leave a gate open, you may risk them going back into that pasture, leading to possible overgrazing.

Share the trail.
Public lands are multiple use.

Without the ability to graze on public lands, many ranches would cease to exist – leaving privately held lands open for development. Ranchers also benefit wildlife by maintaining infrastructure (like water tanks) that improve wildlife habitat. Range management has greatly improved in the last 30 years, minimizing negative impacts to the ecology of public lands.