Saturday, August 27, 2011

Moovin' Cows

Last weekend, my girls and I took our horses to a nearby cow clinic.  If you’re wondering what that means, it’s where a small group of horses and riders learn how to do one of the most basic things that horses were meant to do, and that’s moving cows.  Most of us who own horses for pleasure never get to experience the task that a rancher and a ranch horse do every day, and often the inner cowboy or cowgirl in us just wants to come out and give it a try!

So, we signed up to take Chummie, Amigo and even good old Belle to work some cows.  Along with six other cowgirl wannabes (interesting that it was all women), we spent 3 ½ hours moving a group of 7 cows up and down and all around a two- acre patch of pasture. 

Now I can imagine the image that comes to mind for you is a bunch of whoopin’ and hollerin’ and rope throwin’, but quite the contrary.  You see, the art of moving a group of cows that are going to be marketed for beef is to stress them as little as possible.  That means that to get them from point A to point B, you want them to move as slowly as possible so that they don’t lose any weight in the process.  If you’re going to take a cow to market and sell its meat by the pound, you don’t want it to be running around losing weight before it goes!

The other factor to consider is that not all horses are familiar or comfortable with being around cows.  Most of the horses at a clinic like this are being used for lessons, trail rides or even showing, but none of them lives and works with cows on a regular basis.  So by taking it slowly and cautiously, we’re able to give our horses a chance to get up close and personal with an animal they may have never seen before, or at best, only from a distance.

To start out, the cows were in a little huddle in the middle of the pasture, and we fanned out in a big circle around them with each horse facing the cows.  Then we turned and circled the group at a walk and a trot before stopping, reversing and doing the same thing in the other direction.  This gave each horse a chance to see the cows from a distance and out of each eye, an important thing to do when introducing a horse to a new thing due to how their brain is wired.

Next, we each took turns riding right up to the little huddle and circling them closer before picking a spot to ride through the group.  By doing this, we got a chance to see how our horse would react to seeing a cow up close and out of each eye simultaneously.  Most horses take to this pretty naturally, but for some, it can be a little scary and intimidating.  Our three horses seemed to love it, arching their necks and pricking their ears forward as they sized up the cows.  I couldn’t help but think they looked like kids in a candy store!  It was especially gratifying to me to see my big old retired dressage horse, Chummie, acting like this was the most fun he’d had in years.  A nice change for him after his years of intense schooling and showing.  Equally fun was seeing my two girls and their trusty mounts taking to it so naturally.

Once each horse had a chance to move through the group, we each had to go back and cut one cow out of the herd, move it outside the circle of horses, go half way around the circle and then move it back in to the center.  Again, the idea is to do it slowly and with as little stress to the cow as possible.

Eventually, after we each had a successful turn at moving one cow, we started to work together in groups of 4 or 5 horses and riders, and then groups of 2 or 3, to move the whole herd of cows wherever we wanted them to go.  We moved them from one end of the pasture to the other, to a watering trough, through a row of barrels, over a small wooden bridge, and through a round pen with gates at each end. 

The final task of the day was to load the cows into a big stock trailer so the rancher who brought them to the clinic could take them back to his ranch.  Our instructor opened the door to the trailer and gave us a few basic tips and reminders, and then we all slowly moved the cows up toward the trailer, being conscious of what our individual role within the group was.  When we got the cows to the opening of the trailer, it was important to keep just enough pressure on them so they’d take the first step up into the trailer, without putting so much pressure on that they’d get scared and break from the group.  We never moved more than at a slow walk and there was no wild whoopin’ or hollerin’, so to the casual observer it probably didn’t look like much.  But by working as a team and taking our time, we had all those cows loaded up and ready to go home within five minutes.

It’s hard to describe the sense of satisfaction and just pure fun that came from our morning of moving cows.  From the feeling of teamwork to the companionship with our horses and the enjoyment of being outdoors in a beautiful location, it was an awesome mother-daughter outing!

Life Lesson:  Sometimes taking it slowly gets you there the fastest.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Fair

When you have kids involved in 4-H, you find that the whole world seems to revolve around the week of the county fair, which for us is the first week of August.  It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work and lots of practicing and preparing their projects to be judged.  Our local county fair also provides a chance for my kids to hang out with other kids who are interested in similar things, eat more sweets and junk food than I normally allow, and show off their critters and creations to the general public.  To say our family loves fair week would be an understatement! 

This year, in addition to bringing their goats and chickens to the fair, they also entered artwork, jams, cheeses, flowers and an artistic gardener creation.  I can’t participate in the youth shows, of course, but I do enter some of the open shows for baked goods, jams, cheeses and gardening, so I get to have some fun competing that week, too.

This was our third year of showing at the fair, and by now I’ve learned to clear the entire week prior to the actual fair to adequately prepare and get all the last minute things done.  We spend the week clipping and bathing goats, bathing and dusting chickens, baking, making jams and cheeses, and doing last-minute practices for showing the animals.  It’s amazing how much goes into getting ready for our week-long virtual live-in at the fairgrounds.

All the preparations were going along smoothly this summer and the anticipation and excitement were building as we got toward the end of the week before the big event.  Our 4-H club did a volunteer shift at the 4-H snack bar (aka the Dairy Bar) during a pre-fair event, we marched with our goats in the County Fair Parade, and we even managed to host a final poultry showmanship clinic at our farm to help prepare the kids and their birds.  It was the night before we were to start taking the first set of animals over to the fairgrounds and we were almost ready.

Then I got a phone call that threw a wrench in my careful planning and organization.  It was from the mother of a large family in our 4-H club calling with shocking, terrifying news.  Her 15 year old son, who we’d just spent much of the day before with, had had a freak, unexpected health crisis and was in a coma at the Denver Children’s hospital.  Understandably she was in a panic about her child’s physical condition and prognosis, but she was also concerned for her other children who were planning to enter their chickens at the fair for the first time and were in a tizzy about how they would be able to proceed.  As I helplessly listened to her tearful explanations about her son’s condition and tried to offer whatever support I could, I realized that the one thing I could do to help would be to make sure the other kids were able to participate in the fair as much as possible.  And even though her son was not going to be able to be at the fair, there was no reason why his hen and rooster couldn’t be there.   I assured her that we’d get the chickens ready and checked-in at the fairgrounds, and if needed we’d transport the other kids to and from the fair on show day.

So, the next morning my 4-H co-leader and I drove over to their farm, rounded up their 5 hens and the rooster, put them in cages and drove them back to my place.  My daughter and I then gave each of the chickens a bath and got them ready for check-in, before turning our attention to our own 12 hens that also needed to be prepped.  While I was matching the leg band numbers for their chickens to the paperwork showing which chickens had been entered, I realized that the boy’s rooster had not been properly registered.  I knew he had really been looking forward to showing off this fine bird, so I had to figure out a way to get him to the fair!  I called the poultry superintendent and after explaining the situation and the oversight, we finagled a “late entry” and the rooster was good to go.  Two trips to the fairgrounds with cages loaded with poultry, and all of our chickens as well as theirs were checked in.

Every day that week while we enjoyed our fair experience, showed our goats, and ate our ice cream and cotton candy, there was a part of each of us that felt the heaviness of the situation with our fellow 4-H family and their son.  Fortunately, we got a little more good news on the boy’s condition every day, and we were able to help his sisters get to the fairgrounds as much as possible so they could participate in the shows and fun.

My kids had many wins and got plenty of ribbons and awards that week, from Reserve Champion Senior Doe for Skittles, to Champion Dwarf Doe for Milky Way and Reserve Champion Best of Show for one of our hens.  We also got blue ribbons in jams, cheeses and even flowers.  But the happiest moment for all of us – the one that caused the most cheers of celebration - was when we watched the poultry judge award a Champion ribbon and trophy to our 4-H friend’s prized rooster!  Hooray!

This was topped only by the news a few days later that the boy was home from the hospital and recovering well.

Life Lesson:  Celebrate what matters most