Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
October 14, 2011
We were in “foreplay” before the start of a commissioner’s public hearing, everyone sizing up the crowd and looking for a good place to sit. Bob Child, popular Pitkin County commissioner and Capitol Creek cattle rancher, was sitting in the front row, making himself available for “pre-show” questions when some mustachioed lackey from God-knows-where, in an ambiguous attempt to ingratiate himself with Child, said, “Man, aren’t cows the dumbest creatures on the face of the earth? They have nothing going on.”
Child, ever the gentleman, was clearly taken aback by such a rude observation, the ignorance of which deserved no answer, but he smiled and offered a quick defense of the bovine personality.
Cows, or cattle if you prefer, are hard-wired with everything they need to get through their world with dignity, and an inadequate assessment of their intelligence by an unknowing outsider isn’t something they’re going to worry about. Naturally, any creature that doesn’t genuflect, in some way, to our superiority, is easy to call stupid, but if you know cows, it soon becomes clear that most of them are quite confident they occupy the top rung of the food chain.
On the open range, we make an auspicious quartet: cows, dogs, and horses that interact in a most remarkable way. Throw in some humans and the problems start, but then again, the group wouldn’t be very cohesive without human intervention.
There isn’t much that scares us, being the individuals we are, for most of the mammal kingdom shies away when they catch our smell, but cattle and other cloven-hoofed animals face a dilemma of a different sort. They spend the night in thousands of acres of wildness, without protection other than their own wits. Their immature calves are bait for any number of wilderness predators and protecting their young is of paramount importance. We seldom see the manner of creature that sneaks up on them in the night, but sometimes we find the remains of unsuccessful defenses.
A Black Angus, with a black calf, is hard to see, but when a band of coyotes, or an angry, starving bear, or whatever other night monster you might imagine, makes its stealthy attack in the darkness, it must be difficult for the cow to fend off the fast moving intruder(s) and keep track of her young in the lightning fast attack. Does a cow feel panic? Does adrenaline keep her focused?
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Normally, cows see the dogs jogging alongside our horses and instinctively know it’s time to move on up the path. But this fall, the livestock are particularly sensitized to the cow dogs, and one wonders what may have prompted such behavior. Cows that normally trail along without complaint are prone to turn on the dogs and chase them with bawling, hoof-flailing, vicious candor.
It’s a dance of life-and-death, for if the dog misses his step, there won’t be a second chance, not with these cows. My dog, Topper, goes for the left hock, the cow turns on him that direction, and then in a move that is blindingly fast, Topper goes for the right hock, but the cow is already threatening that way, taking away Topper’s remaining opportunity for success. It’s a frustrating job for a dog, and he has to be ready to turn and run for his life the split-second the cow decides to pursue him down the steep mountainside.
One day, my buddy Dan brought his dog Sam over to help, but these are what we call “three dog” cows, and we only had two. Inexplicably, in a reversal of lingo, three cows took after Topper at once, their bellering attack a tad frightening, for we were not more than inches from the dog. If a cow, as has happened, decides to take out your horse, it can be deadly for the rider or the horse.
Topper and Sam refused to quit, my horse Drifter did his best to keep the angry beasts off Topper, and we got the herd where we wanted them. Call these cows what you want, but they aren’t dumb.