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'Cow Olympics' Test Bovine-Handler Bond

As summer winds to an end, state fair season heats up. Each year, the competition is intense to win the award for best cake, cow or carrot. And in one unusual sporting event at the Oregon State Fair, the athletes could end up on your dinner table.

Right before the "Cow Olympics" start, the cattle are restless. Before them is a six-part obstacle course. As a crowd watches, these animals will have to negotiate hazards that are clearly out of their comfort zone.

Nothing that's going to hurt them or put their health at risk: Just things like walking over a sheet of plywood meant to resemble a bridge. Or across a blue tarp that looks like a puddle of water.

And of course, there's the slalom.

"If your cow touches any of the blue barrels, every time you touch a blue barrel you get a five second penalty," explains Cow Olympics organizer Cynthia DuVal as she goes over the rules – more for the benefit of the human handlers who guide the cows.

DuVal says while this course may look easy to a human, for a cow "It's not natural." She says show cows like these rarely have to negotiate things like wooden bridges or farm streams.

And when the competition kicked off, it was clear that some of the cattle just weren't interested.

Hayden Williams of Sequim, Washington is in the Junior Division. He's finally managed to coax his cow through the course.

"Definitely not first place but maybe around second," he says.

Hayden's cow is a seven-month old miniature Hereford named Reece. He describes Reece as "Nice, friendly, calm, lazy, hungry."

And what would it mean to Reece to win the Cow Olympics?

"I don't know if it would really mean anything to him, but getting him to get a workout," Hayden says.

Brianna Hafner of Silverton, Oregon competed in the youth division. She rushed through the course with her yearling bull.

She says, "He's got the cutest face." But Hafner isn't just here to show off her young bovine. She's here to win.

"I actually won last year," she says. "It felt pretty good."

In the end, Hafner came in third in her age group this year. But compared to some of the more serious competitions here, the stakes — no pun intended — are pretty low in the Cow Olympics. You get a ribbon, and, that's pretty much it.

"This is just one of the more fun things to get the stress off people's shoulders because these shows can be really stressful," explains high schooler Jake Johnson, a veteran of Oregon State Fair livestock competitions. "So fun things like this keep your mind off it for a little while."

But according to Cynthia DuVal, the event's organizer, the Cow Olympics do have a point to them. "With any of the animals, you need to have a bond, a trust between the animal and their handler. This kind of encourages it and bonds them together even more."

And DuVal says that bond can make a difference when it's time for the marquee livestock events, where serious bragging rights are on the line.

On the Web:

Oregon State Fair - official site