A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there really such a thing as cow tipping?

January 16, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Is there such a thing as cow tipping? I have two friends, both sons of farmers. One says it can be done and is great sport. The other says no way.

Do cows sleep standing up? Can they be tipped? I suppose this will take some late night research.

Cecil replies:

Don't look at me, pal. Fortunately for the cause of science, not all researchers are handicapped by an instinct for survival.

It appears there really is a rural pastime called cow tipping, which is favored by likkered-up country kiddies with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. (One presumes the sheep were busy.) The cow is easy prey for pranksters since it's one of a number of critters (the horse is another) that sleeps standing up with its knees locked.

I recently discussed the fine points of cow tipping with a reformed ex-tipper named Robin, who had done it (once) as a student. Robin had attended Albion College in Michigan, a school so snooty it's said the students read The Preppie Handbook without realizing it was satirical. Despite their pretensions, however, Albionians were mad for cow tipping.

The usual modus operandi, Robin told me, was to get tanked at some frat party and then drive out with a half dozen of your most brainless friends to some nearby farmer's field. While the rest of the group watched from a safe distance, the two most daring lunatics took off their shoes, climbed over the fence, snuck up on a dozing cow, pushed, and then ran like hell.

Watching a cow tip over apparently is the sort of Zen experience that only those with higher consciousness or a couple six-packs can properly appreciate. Remember that film snippet from the TV show Laugh-In where the guy riding the tiny tricycle suddenly falls over? Same deal. Once down, the cow woke up, got pissed, scrambled up, and rousted out the rest of the herd, resulting in pandemonium. Sounds like a hoot.

Farmers, of course, aren't crazy about cow tipping because the cow might get hurt. There's also a chance one of the idiot students might get killed, so it's not like it's all bad. Happily for the cows, tipping is the sort of thing even the most desperate only feel compelled to do once, and most people never feel compelled to do at all. Obviously the dairy industry's public education program ("Please, No Tipping") has finally paid off.

A contrary view: Cows are lousy tippers

Dear Cecil:

Regarding cow tipping, your friend Robin tells lies.  If a sleeping cow could be tipped over by some tanked-up frat rat, she could be tipped over by the wind. Mother Nature is not so easily outsmarted.

Cows weigh from less than a thousand pounds to around two thousand pounds, and they have a low center of gravity. Tipping a cow would be like toppling a low-built piece of concrete statuary.  It would not be a tip-and-run situation. It would be a challenge, and old Bossy is not going to just stand there and cooperate. Methinks Robin make up the whole story so you wouldn't know he and his fellow frat rats really were looking for the sheep.

Dear Cecil:

You have been misinformed about the fabled practice of cow tipping. I spent a year working on a dairy farm where I participated in countless 3:30 AM milkings and observed over 300 sleeping cows a day. Cows sleep lying down, not standing up.

Dear Cecil:

Despite popular belief, horses do not go into a deep sleep standing up like cows. Horses go into something of a catnap in which they lock their knees, bow their heads, and leave their eyes open. In order to really sleep, they must do so lying down. For this reason and the fact that they have exceptional hearing, it is almost impossible to sneak up on a horse. It is also dangerous because some will turn and kick before they run. So please tell your readers not to try "horse tipping."

Dear folks:

When you're out on the front lines of science like myself, you learn to expect days like this. On the one hand we have various profound theoretical and philosophical reasons cow tipping is impossible; on the other, somebody who claims to have seen it done.

I checked back with Robin (who is female, incidentally). She sticks with her story. To review: One night after a boozy party at Albion College in Michigan in either the fall of 1980 or the spring of 1981, Robin drove with a carload of other kids out to a field where a bunch of sleeping cows were standing. Whilst she and the others watched from behind a fence (guesstimated distance: the width of a football field), two freshman boys crept up on a likely cow and gave it a shove, as a consequence whereof the cow tipped over. Kind of limited entertainment value, but I guess at Albion it's either that or watch the milk curdle.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, knowledgeable people I checked with (a couple farmers, an animal science expert) claim cow tipping can't happen. Apart from their sheer size (1200 pounds is typical), cows do not fall into a deep sleep while standing the way horses do (more on this below). Rather, they simply doze while chewing their cud. They are easily startled, making it difficult to sneak up on them.

Robin believes the two freshman boys were reasonably stealthy in sneaking up on the cow in question, which may not have been full grown. She admits that given the darkness and the distance, it's conceivable there was some furtive funny business — tripping the cow with a rope or some such thing. But she can recall no definite evidence that this occurred and has no doubt that the cow did fall over.

Robin has forgotten who her fellow tippers were, making her story impossible to corroborate, but she gives every sign of sincerity. Either she hallucinated the whole thing or cow tipping is possible under some conditions.

Subsequent reports from others — for example, on alt.folklore.urban on the Usenet, which is always a 100% reliable source of information — persuade me that while cow tipping ain't necessarily easy, it's definitely possible.

Given the inconclusive state of the cow tipping debate, I am pleased to make the following definite statement regarding Ms. Hernandez's claim about horses' sleeping habits: it's wrong, lady, WRONG WRONG WRONG! (Sorry, but it's been a rough week.) Horses routinely fall into deep sleep while standing up (which is not to say they can't be startled awake). Some can go for many days without lying down, though most recline for at least a short time each day. One researcher (Winchester, 1943) has claimed that horses use less energy while standing than lying down — for one thing, it's easier to breathe. Sounds good to me, brother. Next case.

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