Elk NetworkWhat’s the difference between sparring and fighting?

Conservation | November 2, 2017

Sparring is merely a chance for bulls to test their strength against peers in a casual setting, like a couple of amiable neighborhood dogs engaged in a lighthearted tussle. Ungulate expert, author, and professor emeritus Dr. Valerius Geist refers to sparring as a “sporting engagement,” which can resemble the atmosphere of a slow, drawn-out dance. And, much like dancing, sparring is a mutually-agreed upon encounter between two friendly participants. Sparring partners are often unequal—a mature 7×7 will readily spar with a raghorn—and there are no winners and losers. Bulls spar with one another from the time they shed their velvet in August until they shed their antlers in March, with a crucial hiatus in September and October.

That’s when testosterone spikes and true fighting takes over. Compared to the playful quality of a sparring match, the speed and violence of these encounters can be striking. Rutting bulls fight for the most basic evolutionary imperative: the right to mate with cows and pass on their genes. Opponents are usually of similar body size and stature. Fighting takes a heavy toll, leaving bulls exhausted and with an average of 30-50 puncture wounds after the rut. So bulls do all they can to intimidate each other with dominance displays—shredding trees, ripping up grass and making bluff charges—to avoid a costly physical encounter.