April 04, 1977 12:00 PM

The moment Z. C. (“Slim”) Smith saw the life-size plastic cow blow down off the steakhouse that day in Kansas City, he knew it was love at first sight. “Dagnabbit!” he yelled, slapping his thigh with excitement. “That’s just the bugger I been looking for!”

The bugger, it turned out, was the prototype of Smith’s mechanical cow—a beast that gives neither milk nor beef, but may do more for cutting-horse training than anything since the invention of the cowboy.

For the uninitiated, ranchers use cutting horses to separate a cow from the herd. It takes up to 18 months, at $300 a month, to properly train a cutting horse. And the only way they can learn is with cows.

Thus arose the necessity that mothered Smith’s invention. Real cows get so accustomed to untrained cutting horses that they ignore them. To keep the training process going, ranchers have to bring in new cows at considerable cost. So they are happy to pay $3,395 for one of Smith’s motorized substitutes. More than 100 of the cows have been sold by Mechanical Animated Animals Inc. of Elgin, Ill. since the firm started turning them out last year.

Once a mere plastic shell that cowboys could manipulate with cables, Smith’s cow now has developed into a handsome fiberglass Hereford mounted on a three-wheeled electric-powered chassis. When the inventor, a 60-year-old rodeo veteran from Rosharon, Texas, climbs through a hole in the cow’s back and curls up inside, like some cowboy Jonah, he controls the rear wheels with a pair of handles. But since even a mechanical cow can be skittish, Smith is careful when he climbs in the cockpit. “The dang thing starts up so quick,” he warns, “it’ll really pop you one if you ain’t smart about it.”

Though cutting horses take Smith’s strange cow in stride, some bulls show considerable signs of agitation. A 1,400-pound Brahma with a gleam in its eye recently ran Smith right out of its pasture. “I really had to shoot the juice to it to get away from him,” Smith recalls. “Barely made it, too. Had’er all the way up to 25 miles an hour going across that field with that bull breathin’ heavy down my back.”

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