Vagneur: No horsing around
If spring fever has been tugging at your psyche and the valley seems to be closing in, maybe you should get out of town for a change of scenery. The Chaparral Ranch is blossoming with baby calves, and Billy Grange’s outfit is the showplace of spring calving along Killer 82. Getting those little cloven hooves on the ground healthy is a rancher’s dance of dedication that takes place mostly at night and in the worst kinds of late-winter weather.
Calving happens on sunny days, as well, but seems less consistent. As my friend Brad Day says, “Right now, I’m happy with the way everything is going, but my outlook could all go to hell in a matter of minutes.” No matter how tough the job or how fast the calves come, it all kindles a sense of renewal, both for the humans and for the cattle.
All this information isn’t to inform you about how “cute” the baby calves look, running and playing in a world they’ve just discovered. That much is easy to see. The question is this: How much thought do folks give to the process? When you see 300 or 400 head of cows and calves in pastures along the roadsides, or the mares and foals along Highway 82 in Gerbazdale, do you wonder how a rancher takes care of that many animals or what kind of relationship he has with those creatures?
In today’s world, most people have very little contact with livestock, let alone a herd of cattle or horses. They don’t give much thought to the relationship between man and beast, and clearly they don’t participate in a system that gets food to the table with steady consistency. We hear reference made to the differences between “pets” and “working animals,” but no one takes the time to explain what those differences are or how they’re viewed psychologically. Certainly, a cowboy or rancher doesn’t think about animals in the same way that most people think about the dog or cat lying next to them on the couch.
Cowboys and ranchers generally don’t anthropomorphize the distinctions between people and animals, a human inclination that tends to deprive the animal of its dignity and function and cheapens it into a parody of its original, proud personality. This robs both the man and the animal of their distinct and separate identities in the natural world. If you think about it over a beer, it’s not so much “love” that men of the West show to their animals — it’s more along the lines of devotion and respect.
Try as we might, other than fences and range riders, men cannot “micromanage” the animals in their care, at least not those of us who try to raise cattle and horses in a natural way, by generally letting them rely on their instinct and intuition to get through the day. In my view, cattle tolerate us, horses work with us, and dogs generally call the shots. All animals are hardwired with what they need for survival — we need to work with them to achieve that end, not stand in their way.
Respect is a concept that goes both ways between men and animals. Treat a horse well on his level of understanding, and he will do the same to you. Give a cow only the direction she needs, and she will do your bidding, at least most of the time. The biggest problems to work with are the dogs: They are so good at what they do, by sheer instinct and infinite vitality, that we are continually asking them to ease up a little and to save some energy for later. They don’t expect treats or pats on the head — their reward is being allowed to work.
Before you can unlatch the gate to walk into a corral full of horses, they will have you sized up according to your ability and attitude. A cow’s eye will never leave you as she patiently waits for a chance to feel comfortable ignoring you. And good luck trying to tell another man’s dog what to do.
As it has for centuries, the relationship between a successful rancher and his animals brings both of them together in a common purpose — a symbiosis of cooperation that results in well-being and survival for the both of them. It’s not the same kind of association you might have with your pets at home; in today’s world, it’s hard for many people to understand such a relationship.
In an increasingly hungry world, those who understand and nurture domestic animals will find their jobs more and more secure, particularly those who raise and respect healthy, free-ranging beasts. And so this year, the cycle of life continues on, through a spring of rebirth.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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