One of the key concepts that will help you work your cattle more efficiently is a better understanding of the flight zone. The flight zone is another way to describe an animal's personal space.

Correct position for livestock handler to work the flight zone

Livestock Flight Zone


In the image above, the flight zone is approximated by the dashed red line. When a livestock handler enters the animal’s flight-zone, the animal will begin to feel uncomfortable. To ease the stress the animal will respond by moving away from the handler until the handler is once again outside of the animal’s flight zone.

With this understanding, a handler can use their knowledge of the flight zone to encourage their livestock to move where the handler wants their cattle to go (this discussion is relevant for all herding livestock such as bison and sheep).

Flight zones vary in size.

The size and shape of the flight zone is determined by the individual animal’s comfort with the handler, as well as the animal’s current level of excitement or stress.

If your cattle are worked calmly and quietly by a familiar handler, the flight zone will be smaller and easier to work. If your cattle are worked aggressively by loud handlers who are unfamiliar to your livestock, the flight zone will be larger and your livestock will be more difficult to work.

To work the flight zone with a minimum of stress the handler needs to build a relationship of trust with their livestock, not fear. If you are using big sticks, cattle prods, yelling, quick movements, or dogs, you are using fear to move your livestock.

If your handling techniques are based on fear then you are contributing to your livestock stress and are likely diminishing your potential return.  

Low stress stockmanship begins with building trust with your livestock. 

The Point of Balance 

The point of balance is an imaginary line that runs perpendicular to the animal; somewhere around the animal’s shoulders. This is not because of your relationship to their shoulder but rather your relationship to their field of view; what they can see.

Begin by building trust with your animal. They want to keep their eyes on you. If you slowly approach the animal head on you can watch their response. If they raise there head, or begin to move, you have entered into their flight zone. Back off and let them settle. They will keep their eyes on you. They will be watching you to see what you want them to do. You can now use small simple movements to encourage your animal to voluntarily go where you want them to go. 

Your movement is important. Cattle don't see perspective very well so it is important that you don't stand perfectly still. With that said all you need to do to have presence is to slowly rock your body. Pay close attention to the eyes, head, ears and tail of your animal. The more you practice this, the better your connection will be between yourself and your animals.  

Working the point of balance in an open area:

  • If the handler enters the animal’s flight zone and crosses the point of balance the animal will change directions
  • If the handler enters the flight zone in front of the point of balance (on the head side) the animal will stop or back-up
  • If the handler deeply penetrates the flight zone the animal may become agitated and run. This should be avoided
  • If the handler stands directly behind the animal in the animal’s blind spot the animal will turn to face you
  • If the handler enters the flight zone behind the point of balance the animal will want to move forward

When your animal begins to move forward the handler should step back and out of the animal’s flight zone. This relieves the pressure on your animal and rewards the animal for moving the way you wanted. If the animal stops, the handler should move forward into the flight zone again to motivate movement to begin again. The handler should be positioned between 45º and 60º behind the animal’s point of balance.

Working the point of balance in a confined alley:

Counter Movement - Moving cattle in a working alley

Counter movement describes the tendency of contained livestock to move in the opposite direction of the handler. As the livestock handler walks from the head of the animal towards the tail of the animal they will cross the animals point of balance and the animal will move forward.

Contained livestock move in the opposite direction of the handler

Livestock in a working alley will move in the opposite direction to the handler

Working livestock in a handling system with a better understanding of the flight zone.

Applying your understanding of counter movement, you can adapt your movement in relation to your handling system to benefit from this behavior. Start where you want your livestock to end up (such as at the squeeze chute). As you walk from the squeeze chute along the side of your working alley you will pass by the point of balance of each of your animals in the alley. As you pass each animal they will move forward towards the squeeze chute (and away from you). When you reach the beginning of the alley you loop back, out of the flight zone, and start again at the squeeze.

Counter movement on a Hi-Hog S-Alley

How to work a Hi-Hog S-Alley efficiently

Counter movement on a sample S-Alley

Counter movement on a Hi-Hog U-Alley

How to efficiently work your Hi-Hog U-Alley

Counter movement on a sample U-Alley

Counter Movement - Circle behind - Working livestock in a pen

When a handler enters a pen holding livestock, the  livestock will first move away from the handler. As the handler continues to move into the pen the animals will turn and travel in the opposite direction past the handler and finish by trying to turn in behind the handler.

You can use this behavior to move your livestock more easily out of your pen. This is the basic principle used for working a Bud box and it works well for sorting livestock as well.

The handler should enter the pen on the side of the pen where they want the animals to exit. The handler continues slowly into the pen along the exit side of the pen. This gives the animals lots of room to move past the handler and turn in behind them; where they will continue through the exit. 

Sample Sorting Pen

How to efficiently sort livestock out of a pen

Livestock circle around handler to exit

Sample Bud Box


How to efficiently move livestock in a Bud Box

Handler movement in a Bud Box

Learn more about working a Bud Box


With a bit of practice you can work your livestock very efficiently simply by changing your position compared to the animal you are trying to move.  Understanding the flight zone will help you move stock with less effort and lower stress for all involved.


NOTE: Be aware that some livestock may become catatonic (unresponsive) if they are over stressed. If this occurs, the handler should remove themselves from the animals flight zone. If your animal remains unresponsive continue removing stressors until your animal is feeling comfortable to move on its own. For more information on the types of things that stress your cattle read Hi-Hog's description of cattle behavior.


More cattle handling resources:

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