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Exposed: The Tanbark Trail Escort Service

If you have ever been involved in showing dairy cattle, you know it’s the secret that everyone knows but no one wants to talk about.  Yes, that’s it! “Does who’s on the halter matter as much as the animal itself when it comes to dairy cattle show results?” From the local county show to  World Dairy Expo, it’s an issue that rears its ugly head every time someone gets beat by a heifer that they felt was not as good as their animal.  To get to the bottom of this, the Bullvine has done an in-depth analysis to prove that, “Yes it’s true.  It does matter who is on the halter when it comes to show results.” I know that for many show enthusiasts it is hard to admit that the purity of the tanbark trail can be affected by who is strapping the heifer.  Now before you get all, “Here goes the Bullvine again….” on me.  Hear me out.

They are Not Running for Mayor of Toronto

Now let’s get one thing clear.  Politics are often the last factor that affects the placings.  Well at least at the national shows.  You see, if the Judge is going to be swayed by the “Politics” of it all, they wouldn`t continue   judging for long.  In today’s day and age of smart phones and the Internet it wouldn`t take long for a judge’s error to be seen by thousands.  Furthermore you have to consider that most major shows have multiple publications right there covering the show and quite often there is a live video stream as well.  If judges are willing to tarnish their reputation, it’s going to go viral and could quite easily do so even before the cows have left the ring.  I can still remember the tanbark legend, David Brown, of Browndale Holsteins, saying “All you have is your name,” lose that and your screwed.  There is no doubt that having a “big name” lead person will get you noticed.  It may even get you a second look but, if the heifer doesn’t have the goods, she isn’t going to get the job done.

Gene Henderson leading the 2013 Milking Shorthorn Grand Champion – Lands-Brook Christina

Presence – Less is more

One thing that many of the “big name” show people do have is a presence about them. Maybe it’s because most of them are very self-confident people. So much so, that when they are at the halter of a good one, they seem to bring an added presence. They stand with good posture and are relaxed. . But what separates the good ones from the great ones, is their assurance and confidence. Even as they recognize that it’s not all about them on the lead. The greatest at this is Gene “Bambi” Henderson.  (Read more: ..with Gene “Bambi” Henderson on the Halter) When Bambi leads an animal into the ring, you know great things are going to happen.  He is confident, yet understated.  He is there to make this lady look her absolute best, and that is exactly what he does.  You don’t see Bambi fidgeting with the heifer all the time and “working it”.  He knows when he has the lead looking her best, and is confident enough to say, “Here is this amazing lady.  Look at how fantastic she is!”  No wonder he has been on the lead of so many great ones.

See the prize…

One thing I think many people underestimate is the importance of being a good cattle judge in order to be a great show person.  Now I am not saying that they need to be able to judge Expo or The Royal.  But it sure wouldn’t hurt.  That is because how can you make an animal look her best, if you don’t really know what her best is?

2013 World Dairy Expo Fall Yearling Class

Being a strong cattle evaluator helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the animal you are about to show, and be able to maximize, or minimize as needed.  It’s also key to know the strengths and weaknesses of the other animals in the class.  One of the best examples I saw of this was at last year’s World Dairy Expo in the Senior Yearling class.  Two names very well known on the Tanbark Trail, David Dyment and Pat “Cowboy” Conroy where going  head to head in a greatly anticipated battle between MD-Dunloafin Lauth Ellie, led by Dyment, and Fanico Reginald Marty, led by Cowboy.  Here you had a very interesting scenario.  Ellie had won everything she could in 2012, except Expo, since her owners were judging Expo in 2012.  Reginald Marty had been on a tear early in the 2013 tanbark trail.  These two yearlings were also very different in their styles.  Ellie was an extremely correct dairy heifer but not as large as the extremely powerful Reginald Marty.  During the show, I had the pleasure of watching the cat and mouse game between these two animals and their leads people.  During the class it was very clear that Dyment, an accomplished judge in his own right, knew that he wanted to keep Ellie as far away from Reginald Marty in the line-up as possible so that Judge Burdette would not as easily see the distinct advantage Reginald Marty had, when it came to height.  In doing so Dyment was also then able to greater display the femininity and dairyness throughout that Ellie had.  That is the mark of a great leads person.  Know the strengths and flaws of all the animals in the class and utilize it.

Decrausaz Iron O’Kalibra *RC EX-96-SW

This picture of Decrausaz Iron O’Kalibra *RC EX-96-SW went viral after her big win at the European Championship show in 2013 (Pat “Cowboy” Conroy was the show person)

Another great showman I have seen do this many times is the 2014 Royal Winter Fair judge Donald Dubois.  As someone who has had the opportunity to picture many top cattle shows, I have had the pleasure of seeing Donald use this technique to advantage.  The average observer may not catch it, but when you are trying to get “the shot” you notice little things.  For instance in some classes, when Donald is leading a winner, he seems to go very fast and yet other times, he moves much much slower.  That is because, if he has a heifer that he knows tracks on sound feet and legs and the heifer that is challenging him for second is not as strong, he wants to accentuate that.  This is a skill that many of the top showmen know.  It’s also important to know when to do the opposite.  You see you are taught that if you are in first and the judge sends you out to walk that you need to “get on your horse and go”.  The challenge is, what if you heifer is just that “a horse” and does not track well.  I have seen it happen many times.  The judge sends out the top animals.  The showmen “get going” and then the judge tells them to slow up as he bumps the second animal into first.  Knowing your strengths and the weaknesses of the animals in the class is very important.

Donald Dubios showing Eastside Goldwyn Missy

The Cow Whisperer

Often underestimated, but certainly key to success on the tanbark trail, is how well the show person can make a connection with the lead.  A great example of this is Marianne Janssen.  Marianne has a magic touch with heifers.  Maybe it’s her motherly instinct, maybe it’s just pure talent, but she sure does develop a connection with the heifers.  One thing I have noticed is that she is always working to perk the heifers up.  From tickling the heifer’s ears to getting them to “stroll” along Marianne is one of the best at this.  I have seen many times where a heifer seemed to be a “challenge” to lead, and then certain leads people like, Marianne or David Dyment, get on the halter and they just seem to stroll.  It might be magic, but it certainly makes a difference, when it comes to the appearance and ultimately to the final placing.


Marianne Janssen has mastered the art of Cow Whispering

You can never underestimate the power of a good connection.  I have seen some typically average leads people make the odd animal look amazing.  They have a connection that brings out the best in both of them.  I have also seen where some very talented leads people have not had a good “tour” with a heifer and seemed to struggle the whole way around the ring, because they and the lead just didn’t connect.  Often I find that is what separates the good ones from the greats.  Donald Dubois, Barclay Phoenix and David Dyment are three of the best at being able to find a connection with most animals.

At NY Spring Show in 2013 RF Goldwyn Hailey EX-97 looked as close to perfection as any cow I have ever seen in my life.


Do you ever wonder why you see so many photographs of certain show people and very few of others?  Well  It’s not because they are big names.  Actually it’s because they know the value that a good picture has in the marketability of the animal they are leading.  As someone who is on the other side of the lens, I know the power a great shot can have on the value of an animal.  A classic example of this is Valleyville Rae Lynn.  While there is no doubt that Rae Lynn is an amazing cow and I am sure has many great things to come in the near future, before she had really won anything she already had a cult following.  That is because Ari Ekstein and the Quality Holsteins team understand the power of getting a great shot published on the Internet.  Rae Lynn has becoming one of the three most viral cows in the world today, the other two by Decrausaz Iron O’Kalibra *RC EX-96-SW and RF Goldwyn Hailey (Read more: DECRAUSAZ IRON O’KALIBRA: Simply the Best, and RF Goldwyn Hailey Unbeatable?)  As of yet, her list of accomplishments pales in comparison to these other two.  What she did have is consistent great ring shots that many dairy enthusiasts love.

This mammary system photo of Valleyville Rae Lynn went viral, and launched Rae Lynn into intentional stardom.

Don’t get me wrong. A great show person’s first responsibility is to make sure the lead looks great for the judge.  But there are many times, when the judge is off looking at other animals, where many show people seem to “let it all go” and take break.  But I know two show people who do the exact opposite.  They are Mario and Marc Comtois.  Both understand the power of a great viral picture, and when the judge is off evaluating other animals you will find these two doing everything they can to help the show ring photographers get that great shot.

Marc Comtois showing Calbrett Goldwyn Layla

In an interview with the Australian All Breed Dairy Journal, Crazy Cow run by Dean and Dianna Malcolm (Read more: Dean and Dianna Malcolm: Gobsmacked in Australia – Landing Right Side Up Down Under!, Dean and Dianna Malcolm: Forward in Five Gears! That’s Aussie D.I.Y. ,  and DAIRY YOUTH WILL GO FAR: Exchange Is Good!) David Dyment comments, “One thing I don’t understand is why people race out of the ring when the reasons are finished, because they’re not just showing the judge their cow: there are potential customers, other judges, people who have a vote for All-Canadian or All-American.  You’re not just leading for the guy in the middle.  You are leading for the people that are there and that’s the way you’ve got to do it.  And with live streaming now, you are leading for potentially thousands of people who may buy a daughter or embryos or text their best friends their opinions.”

David Dyment leading the great KHW Regiment Apple

David Dyment leading the great KHW Regiment Apple-Red-ET EX-96 DOM

That is why it’s no surprise David has been on the halter for many iconic show ring shots.  David and his family have been on the forefront of dairy genetics marketing for many years.  (Read more: Marketing Lessons from Glen Drummond Aero Flower) As someone who is tasked with trying to develop these iconic shots, I want to share a little insight into this matter.  You see getting great pictures in the show is one of the most difficult tasks there is for a photographer.  You are asked to take a great shot in a low light and with moving subjects.  Not only does this typically require great skill, but also requires very expensive equipment.  This is especially true in many North American show rings, where you have many different colored light sources and an environment that does not offer great backgrounds. That is why for the most part you typically just see your standard shot. “Here are all the cows in a line and here is a rough side shot of the winner.”  All other shots take a great deal of work and equipment to land that crisp clear shot that captures the moment.  Great showmen make a huge difference in this.  A great showman knows, to get the animal set up quickly, but then just step back and let the photographer do their job.  There are certain showmen, David Dyment, Marc and Mario Comtois are three that instantly come to mind because they know that less is more.  They get the animal set up and then let us do our job.  So it’s not surprising when you see proportionally more photographs where these three leads people are at the halter.

Mario Comtios showing Charwill Attic Marcy

This is also very true for shots of judges.  Michael Heath is a great one for this.  Not only is Michael very colorful with his reasons, but his “Air Jordan” tactics when naming his champions are legendary. They also make for great photo moments.  While these moments make for great pictures, it’s also a subject area for great debate.  Many breeders love the capturing of these special moments.  Those outside the tanbark fraternity, don’t always understand what is happening, and have concerns about the welfare of the animal involved.  As someone who has captured many of these moments, I certainly see the pros and cons of both.  Though I have also found that when sharing these viral pictures, we can also help educate the general public about what is actually happening and help them understand the passion and care that is involved.

IMG_8671 IMG_7759 IMG_1702

Get Him a Puppy….

In the article with Crazy Cow, Mike Deaver, another great show person made some very interesting comments. “I bought a nice cow for a friend and he insisted that his son lead her at WDE.  She finished 12th or 18th that year and I told my friend after the show that it was a lot of work and money to get to WDE for that result, when she was capable of more.”  He said he knew that, but he wanted his son to lead, and I said “Well, get him a puppy next time.”  The next year I led her and she was third and high Honorable Mention All-American.” As someone who is a strong supporter of youth, mixed thoughts come into my head when I read that.  There is the one side of me that thinks, well how are they going to learn to be the next great one?  But on the other side, when you get to this level we are talking about big money and this is a business.  So for me, if you have a “contender” make sure she is in the best hands possible.  Use the local and county show to help develop the next great show person.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

A great show person can make all the difference in the world.  But it’s not because of what name they have, but rather, how well they can get the best out of the animal they lead.  Winning at Expo or the Royal has become big business and you don’t invest significant amounts of time and money year round getting these animals to the ring, only to have them fall flat on their face when they get there.  You need to have the right person on the halter to get the job done.  Whether they are a big name or not, you need someone who can make a connection with the animal and knows what it takes to get the best out of her on that day.  The great ones know that their job is to escort that lady around the ring and make her look great, not only for the judge in the middle of the ring, but also for the thousands watching around the world.


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