This past year, Knockout and I have checked cows together fairly regularly. Although we are both far from expert, I have begun to think of Knockout as well on his way to becoming a good cow horse. He is calm checking the herd. He has good instincts for how to behave around cows. He absolutely loves working with me to move cows from one pasture to another. He has the breeding, the athleticism, and the instincts needed to become a good cow horse. He just needs a little more experience.
The spring calving season has provided more experience than anticipated, however.
Initially, Knockout was curious and friendly toward the young calves. He would approach to sniff and touch noses. However, when a couple of calves responded by bawling loudly and running to their very protective mother cows, Knockout learned to be a bit more cautious in his approach.
As calving season progressed, I added ear tagging tools to the fencing tools I already carried in my cantle bag. While checking cattle, if we find a new baby calf, I dismount, drop the rein to ground-tie Knockout, retrieve a tag and tools from the cantle bag, and tag the calf. Then I enter the tag number, date, sex, color, etc. in my i-phone spreadsheet, before remounting and continuing.
It’s a pretty good system that lets me enjoy working from horseback while exposing Knockout to more things.
Most of the time, the calf is fairly recently born and I’m able to do all this without much fuss. Once in a while, we find a calf that’s a couple of days old, a lot faster on its feet, and more cautious of humans. When that happens, there may be more fuss and the calf is likely to start bawling. If the calf gets bothered and noisy, so does the mama cow. Knockout responds, accordingly, by also getting pretty bothered.
As the season has progressed, I’ve noticed Knockout becoming more and more evasive of young calves…and downright jittery if a calf starts bawling. In other words, my promising young cow horse has begun developing a fear of noisy calves…not a good thing in a cow horse.
Two weeks ago, this negative trend reached a new valley of concern. I ground-tied Knockout to tag another calf…one I knew was a couple of days old and whose mother was very skittish and protective…but we had a job to do. So, I grabbed the ear tag tools and started toward the calf. The calf stood still until I tried to grab it. Then he bawled loudly, escaped my grasp, and ran straight toward Knockout…followed by his mama cow. Knockout completely panicked, fled the scene, and has acted downright paranoid of calves ever since.
So, the last week or so I have begun intentionally working with Knockout to overcome his fear and learn, once again, to relax walking around the cattle.
One of the ways I have addressed this is by trying to make the cattle herd a place of comfort and rest. For example, a couple of days ago we rode out to check cattle. We approached three cows with their calves and I cued a whoa to look the cows over and check their ear tag numbers off my list. Knockout promptly stopped on cue…but then immediately started moving again. I checked his movement and he responded correctly…then started to move again with more energy. Since he was obviously too tense to feel confident standing still, I went ahead and let him move the direction he wanted to go…then promptly put him into a turn. We spent about two minutes doing vigorous turns and figure-eights before ending with a right spin. I walked Knockout back to the same spot and cued another stop. He stood calmly while I checked the cows and logged them in my spreadsheet. Then we moved to the next group of cows.
This process was repeated several times throughout the ride. Sometimes Knockout would stop and stand calm just fine. However, if a calf bawled, or a bull acted bullish, or a cow approached from his hindquarters, Knockout would get antsy and start moving. So, we would go right back to circles, figure-eights, and spins before returning to the same spot to cue another whoa and stand relaxed.
All this movement is intended to accomplish several things. First it addressed Knockout’s felt need to move while keeping him from fleeing the scene. Second, it gave him a chance to think. While we were calmly circling and spinning, he was able to see the cattle calmly continuing to eat and see they were no real threat. Third, he was learning that moving off without a cue was a whole lot more work than standing calmly like I asked. In other words, standing still in the middle of the cattle herd was a whole lot calmer and more comfortable than moving off.
And this is the fundamental goal…to help Knockout see the cattle herd as a place of comfort rather than a place of fear.
Once we had checked the whole herd, I rode Knockout into the middle of the herd, cued a stop and dismounted. I dropped the rein to ground-tie him and loosened his cinch so he could relax. Then I opened the cantle bag where I retrieved his halter and a zip-lock bag of feed. I haltered Knockout, gave him a handful of feed to nibble, then poured the rest of the feed on the ground for him to eat.
As I was retrieving the halter and grain from the cantle bag, something struck me as very familiar…almost a deja vu moment. The feeling of familiarity nagged at my subconscious as I haltered and fed Knockout. Knockout calmly ate as we watched a storm approaching, and I continued to turn it over in my mind.
Then I realized. I had just reenacted a portion of Psalm 23 with Knockout. By guiding Knockout’s path during his distress, then providing comfort and food in the middle of the scary cattle herd, I was doing the same thing King David described God doing with us.
A while back, I wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 23, from the perspective of a horseman rather than a shepherd. Below is my paraphrase of David’s psalm:
The Lord is My Horseman
The Lord is my Horseman;
I have everything I need.
He provides me with safe, lush, green pastures.
He directs my steps to places with plenty of fresh water.
He restores my sense of peace, safety and comfort.
He leads and directs my steps in the paths of His choice
To accomplish His purpose in my life.
Yes, even if I walk through a dark, narrow, gloomy valley full of dreaded spooks,
I will not be afraid, because You are with me.
Your seat in the saddle and Your grip on the reins comfort me and give me confidence.
You feed me fresh grain and nutritious hay in the middle of scary environments.
You groom me, caring for my coat, mane, tail, and hooves.
My water trough stays full to overflowing.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will live in the pastures of The Lord, forever.
Isn’t God good to us?