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.

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