Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sometimes Things Can Go Very Right

I love it when the peaches resting in their boxes on the kitchen floor reach perfect ripeness on the evening I have time to can. Or when the dogs lie down in the exact spot that keeps two renegade pairs from quitting the Bunchgrass Beef herd. Or maybe when the number of cucumbers from one picking just equal the amount needed for the pickle recipe. Or when the lead cow looks at the open gate, looks at me on my horse, feels the herd milling behind her and decides to walk into the corral.

That’s what happened on Saturday when I was riding Mestizo, and it felt especially good. A lot of animal experts, Temple Grandin, Tom Dorrance, etc. tell us how as predators, we can interact with prey animals without either them or us freaking out. In theory, it seems clear. In practice, I often fall short of my intent.

Mestizo is our tall red horse, who, after ten years of thinking he was a pack animal, is learning that he will be carrying me around on his back the rest of his life. The Peruvian Paso of his mother gives him a long smooth gait and the thoroughbred of his father makes him high-headed and nervous. Mestizo does an excellent job in the comfort of the pack string and he enjoyed his place on the ranch until we ran short on horses this year.

I needed to ride him again, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. When we were given Mestizo as a colt he was already terrified of a few things, like being tied up and sprayed with liquid. His flight instinct had kicked in, but he couldn’t run away so he had learned to rear violently in response to stress. A bucking horse can make me nervous, but a rearing horse unleashes a flood of icy fear in my brain. Adrenalin explodes throughout my body and I’m incapable of sensibly communicating with the animal between my legs. Combine Mestizo’s fear with mine and it’s not a pretty picture.

This June when Bryan decided to ride Mestizo on the cattle drive to the summer range, I watched how Bryan pushed Mestizo through his anxiety with forward motion, instead of working against it. Mestizo danced around and turned a lot of circles, but he didn’t rear. This time when we gathered the herd I was ready to try again.

Yes, Mestizo humped up a few times as we rode through the dark grove of wind-whipped Ponderosa pines. Yes, he whinnied and danced when Mike and Zip got too far away from us on the other side of the herd. But when we reached the corrals, there was no more worrying about us. The cattle were either going in the corral or we were going to be chasing them all over the prairie.

I stopped thinking and let my body guide the movement I knew would help the cattle decide that entering the corral was easier than running away from it. Mestizo flowed beneath me, yielding to pressure, turning, striding, turning, scooting in front of the red cow, then back to head off the brindle. The first cow finally chose the open gate and the rest of the herd followed. A stiff breeze chased the dust north into the timber. Mestizo blew softly as my hand reached under his mane to scratch his supple neck. We had done a good job. Together.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef