They are known as “fitters” and their unique work involves getting a young bull or heifer trained, presentable, and properly suited to be judged in the show ring. Sounds pretty simple, you might say? All you gotta do is get a halter on 'em and take 'em to a show, right? Not in the least. The weeks of preparation leading up to show season demand a rare blend of patience, skill, and love needed to bring out the best in a top show prospect. Let's take a closer look at the planning and wide range of hard work that is woven into getting that young Longhorn “fit to show.”
Picking the Best Prospect
Just because you raised her mama from a baby and her new little heifer is now the darling of your pasture, doesn't mean she will ever have the right stuff to win in the show ring. Some breeders work for years to perfect the right combination of traits that will generate the outstanding conformation, top looks, excellent size, and the special personality that all add up to make a top pick for a show baby. Some bloodlines tend to produce these nice qualities readily, so it's always best to start with proven performers. Ever noticed how so many of the animals you see in the show ring today are first and second generation offspring of winners from several years ago? Top breeding plays an essential role in getting the judges to notice what's walking around at the end of that lead.
Fitters work with show cattle everyday and are the best resource to help you make an educated selection. Ask one to come to your ranch and look over several of your calves that might have possibilities. They will be able to tell you (in a very candid fashion) if there is anything there worth showing. Their evaluation is based on years of experience (some even serve as show judges themselves) and they know first hand what type of animal might do well in the ring—and which ones won't ever fit the bill.
If you are interested in showing an animal, or you have a youngster wanting to get into the show scene, follow the advice of a fitter before you spend hundreds of dollars getting a calf ready and hauling them out to various shows. If you don't have anything in your pasture that has potential, then make a shopping trip and visit several of those ranchers who consistently show (and win at shows) to see what they have in their pasture. More than likely, they will point you to a good candidate. When evaluating an animal, fitters look for a well-framed calf with a straight back, sound feet and legs, attractive coloring, size appropriate for day of age, smooth shoulders, good depth in the hind-quarters, a nice tail set, not “cut up” in the flank area, and the heifers should look feminine and the young bulls should have a masculine appearance. The other major criterion is a good disposition. Is the calf curious and easy-going (and not “flighty”) when you observe it in the pasture? Will it accept training?
Halter Breaking is Just the First Course
In a slow and methodical process, the fitter will start the work of training. The calf will first have a halter placed on it's head and for a few days will be allowed to get used to the new head gear. Then a long lead is attached to the halter and the calf is allowed to drag that rope around for a few more days to get accustomed to having this as a part of their anatomy. Bulls will also have a nose ring inserted in their nostrils. An extra lead is attached to the ring as an additional precaution to help make the bulls behave properly in the show venue. Using the long lead, the calf is then tied to a very stable object (a tree, corral fence) for an hour or so each day to get them adjusted to not fighting the lead.
The calf must also become comfortable with having a human being around them. Depending on the temperament of the animal, this may take a few minutes — or sometimes, several days. This is usually accomplished by the fitter placing themselves in a small pen with the calf while the calf is tied to the railing. One trainer explains, “I get a chair and sit there in the pen with them. Sometimes it takes all morning. All the while I’m talking and talking, or even reading, to that calf. When the heifer gets more relaxed with my being there and has quit pulling back on the lead, I slowly approach her and start the process of getting her accustomed to my touching her all over. You start at the shoulders, then slowly (very slowly) move to stroking the back and hips, flanks, along the legs... moving your hands to the head area at last. You never quit talking to the animal. When the calf has accepted your bare-handed touch, then you can use a brush or a curry comb.”
Walking the Walk
After the calf has decided it’s better not to strain against the lead, you can untie it and begin to train to “walk.” Bob Dube notes, “you should pull the calf forward for several steps, after it comes to you, stop for a bit and rub it’s head and poll; then pull a few more steps, then repeat the petting. Eventually the calf will start to relax and walk with you.” Patience, patience, patience! Some calves will be very stubborn, some will follow like a little puppy dog, and some will want to drag you across the pen. Dube trains on lead for a couple of short periods each day; he also uses the end of the day for a last bit of work. One by one, each of the show calves is untied and must walk on lead with him to get to the pasture where they will spend the night. He says, “they learn pretty quickly that they are going over to the grass when we go on that last walk each day...they do really good.” The next day brings another round of practice.
After the animal is walking tolerably, the fitter starts to work with the show stick. Stroking along the calf’s belly creates a calming effect on a calf. Always begin with stroking before ever attempting to use the stick to “poke” at the feet. A light tough with the show stick “between the toes” will easily cause the animal to reposition it’s feet when needed.
Most fitters will conduct training sessions twice a day and some will keep a radio going in the pen (at a normal volume) to help the animals adjust to ongoing noise. Once a day, while tied, the calves are also brushed and groomed. Preparation for show season also means the calves learn what it means to get a bubble bath.
Fitters are considered top-notch hairdressers and can “slick up” those show babies in a short time. Grooming regulations vary between TLBAA and ITLA shows, so it’s important to know what’s allowed in what show. The animals are normally bathed, blow dried, brushed, hair clipped and trimmed, and all polished up before ever setting a pretty little hoof in the ring.
Feeding to Build on What Nature Delivers
Each fitter will have his/her own special feeding regimen and most have a special recipe of ingredients that has be concocted and tested over the years. The goal of the extra feeding is to enhance all of the great things that top breeding and Mother Nature have already bestowed on the young animal. At weaning time, most calves will receive a good creep feed, not to exceed 14-15% protein,” notes John Randolph. “As they mature, they are given (at free choice) a high-quality show feed not to exceed 18% protein. It's important not to overload them with corn products as this will fatten them in areas where you don't want to see a lot of fat — tail head, brisket, etc. As the calf starts to look “fit” for show, the feedings are usually changed to a morning and afternoon routine. The calves are also provided with a liquid protein supplement, loose mineral, and plenty of fresh water.”
Professional fitters charge a daily rate while they are weaning, halter-breaking, feeding, and/or training. When show season starts, there is a daily charge for care of the animal while at a show and usually a hauling fee. The owner is responsible for all show entry fees, needed veterinary checks prior to shows, and any other veterinary treatment necessary while the animal is in the care of the fitter.
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The “fitting out” process brings together some unique skills and long years of experience. Take advantage of the knowledge that is available within our organization. If you’re looking for someone to help you with selection of a show calf, to learn more about various aspects of fitting, or need someone to custom fit one of your animals for showing, please refer to this list of STLA members who offer this background and expertise.
George & Cindy Dennis
HD Cattle Company
Vida Nueva Ranch
1945 CR 473
Somerville, TX 77879
Bill & Anita Wappler
Lucy Creek Ranch