Cattle Practice with Madonna *
The Big K was getting frustrated.
I was definitely frustrated.
Sonita was grinding her snaffle, shaking her head, growling, and covered in sweat. It trickled down her legs, dripped into her eyes and foam was starting to appear under her saddle pad. I was guessing she was the most frustrated of all.
"She's attacking the cattle because she doesn't know what else to do," he told me.
"If she would listen instead of attacking we would be able to get somewhere," I said, hoping that wasn't a snivel I heard in the back of my whine.
"She's taking over because you're not telling her what to do. You're reacting to her instead of directing her, so she takes charge."
I sat in silence, chewing on this one.
"Pretend she's a tool you are using to separate your cow from the herd. Just the same as if you were on foot, but had a stick to help you direct the cattle," he tried.
"A tool with fangs and an urge to kill," I replied.
Madonna worked her way through the herd, her eyes big and her ears out to the sides, willing to work, but boogered by the stiff, resistant bodies of the tightly packed cattle.
Nothing like sour cattle to freak out my horse, I was thinking, feeling as sour and resistant as the overworked group of heifers. They stood, jammed together like a can of sardines, their faces tight against the fence and their butts pointed resolutely towards us.
Madonna finally chiseled one off the group, and we drove it a few strides away before it broke right and she began to work it. We got in a few decent turns before the heifer beat us back to the herd. I backed Madonna off, rubbed her neck and turned away. She walked away from the cattle, her relief obvious as we gave my boss and her horse their turn.
Her stud, nervy, aggressive and barely under control, walked quickly into the herd, with his ears flat, and his teeth bared. The heifers parted like the Red Sea, then turned to face them. The whites of their eyes showed and the herd began to separate. My boss pushed a cow out and it bolted halfway up the arena before the fear of being alone overcame the fear of the horse and rider. It turned and faced the angry stud and the boss worked the cow back and forth across the arena. The heifer's panic grew with each turn and it fled wildly from side to side, turned back by horse and rider just before it reached the fence. Finally, exhausted, it gave up and quit.
My boss turned and smiled at me, looking more than a little savage in her knowledge that they had succeeded where Madonna and I had not.
Odin and I approached the donkey. Our goal was a simple one. Circle the donkey and hold his position in the center of our circle. Eventually we would have enough control to move in, make the donkey move in a tight circle and then move out, leaving him standing still in the center of our large circle again.
The wily donkey ducked and evaded, ran back to the fence time and time again. Finally, Odin and I managed to keep him in the center of our circle. I ended there, it was enough for my young horse to understand the first goal.
I switched horses.
Madonna walked smoothly towards the donkey. Her ears were forward and her manner so calm and quiet, to the uninitiated she would seem gentle and almost dull.
The donkey froze and looked back at us, at full attention.
Madonna stopped. Her focus hadn't wavered. I could feel wall of air between her and the donkey.
I turned, loped off along our wall of air, and we circled the donkey, which moved only enough to keep facing my mare. To all appearances she was paying no attention to him at all, her head and neck level, her lope was even and smooth and her nose followed our path. Only the one ear, pointed directly at the donkey, gave her away.
The wall became a bubble, a mass we could push against and Madonna and I moved in. Her gliding lope didn't change, her calm remained unruffled, the obedient donkey turned and spun under our direction. He tried to bolt forward, one step, two, but Madonna quickened her pace, leaped forward and looked him in the eye. He fell back into place and went back into the spin.
We faded off, and went back to loping our large circle around the donkey. He stood in the center, moving only enough to face us. Madonna and I were as quiet and boring to watch as when we started. The little donkey seemed the same. A lot like watching paint dry.
Odin worked his way through the herd, his eyes big and his ears back, willing to work, but boogered by the stiff, resistant bodies of the tightly packed cattle.
Nothing like sour cattle to freak out my horse, I was thinking, feeling as sour and resistant as the overworked group of heifers. They stood, jammed together like a can of sardines, their faces tight against the fence and their butts pointed resolutely towards us. In his frustration, he leaned in to bite. I let him run into the bit instead, wanting him to use his body to separate the cattle.
Odin finally chiseled one off the group and we drove it a few strides before it broke and he began to work it. We got in a few decent turns before the heifer beat us back to the herd. I backed him off, rubbed his neck and turned away. He wanted more, so we walked a large circle and headed back in. My boy was eager, the cattle moved grudgingly out of his way and the next few cuts were smoother, he drove each cow out a little farther, and got a little more done each time. When we walked away from the cattle, his satisfaction was obvious as we headed to the tie rail. I bridled Madonna and warmed her up.
She walked, slow and calm, to the bunched cattle. They felt her coming and spun as one to watch our approach. She slid into the herd and they let us through, oil and water, flowing ahead and around us. We pushed our bubble, Madonna's head began to drop as she centered herself in the slow moving whirlpool. She crept forward in a cat-like half pass, easing the four cattle on the top out and away from their mates. Two stopped to watch us and I picked the one most focused on my horse.
We guided the heifer farther out in the pen, isolating her, our slow creep tricked her into moving out without making her try to bolt around us. Finally, the cow made her move and feinted left. I dropped my hand, Madonna's head dropped farther, seeking eye contact with the heifer -- cobra and mouse -- and they began to dance. The heifer couldn't completely break the hold we had on her, Madonna only broke from trot to lope once, and with each turn we tightened our grip until horse and cow rocked in unison, from one front foot to the other, hind legs barely moving, eyes and mind locked.
Our cow finally looked away, I backed Madonna off and we turned to the herd for another go.
Our heart beats were as slow and steady as when we had begun.
* It only took me 12 years, a bunch of horses and some dog training videos to sort this out. Manana amigos!