I help out with seasonal chores on my parents’ ranch, but I don’t think of myself as a “real” rancher. However, I think I’ve learned a few life lessons from working with animals.
I’m not a stockmanship expert, but working cattle is basically about working their flight zones. You need to figure out where to stand or ride in relation to the cattle to get them to move in the direction you want. Some cattle are flightier than others, so the amount of pressure you need to apply varies. Sounds simple, right?
But while people talk about low-stress cattle handling, there is no such thing as no-stress cattle handling.
Herding young calves is like herding jackrabbits. You can cut out a pair or two and have them nicely moving towards the gate. Then — bam! — the calf is bounding away, for no reason other than it wants to try out its new, spring-loaded legs.
The cows often remember seasonal patterns. “Oh, they’re moving us to the summer pasture. Let’s go!” They’re also used to being worked, so as long as they’ve been handled well, they’re not likely to freak out.
But they may decide they don’t like the looks of your plan, and lose you by diving into the willows or a poplar stand. Or they might all want to move to new pasture when you only want to take 20 that day. The whole herd might rush the gate, mooing indignantly when you close it, like a bunch of teenagers crying for Bieber.
All this is quite funny, to a point. Then it’s not.
The sensitive side
I suspect one of the biggest differences between low- and high-stress cattle handling is the amount of yelling. At some point you have to acknowledge that yelling at the cows, or your horse, or at the people helping, does zero good.
I admit, I once was a cow-yeller. It was my current horse, Foxtrot, who showed me the error of my ways.
Foxtrot happens to be a very good cow horse. When she was three, she once jumped into the corral and started chasing the yearlings around. That horse lives to work cattle, and she’s better at it than I am.
But she is also very sensitive. If you’re in a hurry when you go to catch her, she will run circles around you, even with oats. She can tell when I’m getting frustrated or angry with the cattle, even if I don’t say a word. She was never much of a bucker, but if she’s worried she tries to flee. When I was starting her, she would go sideways or even try to rear at the drop of a hat.
The last thing I wanted was a panicky Foxtrot. Yelling at disobedient cows was completely out of the question. In fact, I learned to not bother getting angry at all. Foxtrot calmed down, and is now a reliable ranch horse with just enough attitude to make her fun.
I am much more Zen around cattle. I often feel a little detached, in a way, from what’s happening. Sometimes I do ask the cows rhetorical questions about their behaviour, but that’s about it.
That lesson is one I try to apply to other stressful situations, with varying degrees of success. For example, I had to testify in court a while back. The prosecutor doesn’t prep witnesses. So before the trial, I met with a Victim’s Services worker to find out what was in store for me. She told me that crying on the stand is fine, which is good because some very traumatized people have to testify in court.
But public crying isn’t my style at all. Unfortunately for me, any displays of anger or sarcasm are not encouraged. In fact, she told me that such things would damage my credibility.
It makes little sense to me that one emotion is fine in court, but another, closely related, emotion is not. But I decided that if I can stay calm while moving uncooperative cows, I can be cool under cross-examination.
I couldn’t resist a sharp response to one question from the defense, but I refrained from sarcasm or rolling eyes or yelling. And the process worked the way it’s supposed to.
Please don’t think that I always handle terrible situations with perfect poise. I don’t.
But I’ve come to realize that although I can’t control what’s happening around me, I can choose how to respond.