TRUE TRAINING 71 - Sorting the Ninja Cows
Twice so far I have shared True’s experiences with cows. In Post 27, he produced a spectacular display of equine fear upon the approach of three enormous black Angus beasts who had escaped from a neighbor’s pasture. In Post 68, perhaps a year later, we had acquired a group of smaller steers under our control. I’ve been leading True near them, riding past them, and getting him acquainted with the idea that cows do not murder horses.
Now, you all know that True is not a cow pony; he’s born and bred to be a jumper. His sire and grand-sire are famous Olympic jumper stallions, one of whom has more than ten offspring competing currently in international Grand Prix events. But it seems to me that a horse ought to know enough about cattle to at least walk past one. And True’s Cow 101 course is helping him a lot.
True has progressed enough that we recently audited a sorting clinic. We watched as ten small steers entered a round pen and milled around. One of the steel panels forming the round pen was missing, to create an entry and exit spot. Attached to that was a second round pen. All together, viewed from above, the setup would look like a rounded figure 8.
When I first led True to the arena where the clinic was held, his head raised gradually as he caught a whiff of bovine scent. By now, he was less afraid of it and willing to investigate. But one look inside proved that there were cows inside “his” arena! True morphed into a giraffe, head straight up, neck tensed like concrete, eyes the size of salad plates, and blew as hard as he could. Riders startled in their saddles, and all the cow ponies turned their heads toward us, as if to say “What’s the problem, big boy?” So much for a silent entrance.
We watched from the arena gate for a while, then entered after True had calmed down. His fear of cows has turned largely to curiosity. For example, when I first led him to see the cows in their outdoor pens, he began very gingerly in cautious stops and starts. Now he practically drags me over there! He has a special friend in Cow #206, a little cutie who approaches the fence to get near True. They’ve even sniffed noses.
True and I entered the arena and gradually approached the two connected round pens. Each horse works the cows independently. Upon entering the round pen gate, horse and rider walk into the area where all ten steers have congregated. Cows bunch up in a big clump and do not like to be separated.
The horse and rider approach one cow and move to separate it from its friends. The object is to get that cow into the adjacent round pen, herding it through the opening between pens. Horse and rider then select their next cow, and so on one by one until each cow has been moved into the second pen. When that’s done, all ten cows are moved back into the original pen in a herd, and the next horse and rider begin the sorting process. This procedure is done for practice and for a timed competition, in which the winner moves the ten cows, one by one, into the adjacent pen in the shortest period of time.
True’s attention was fully captured by the sorting process for about two hours. He didn’t move his eyes from the cows or the horse working inside the pens except for the few moments when I led him around to take a rest. I was afraid his eyes were gonna break!
Gradually, he began to approach the round pen on his own, moving close enough to touch the fence with his nose. To avoid interfering with the clinic, I didn’t allow him to do that. But I did encourage him to get as close as he wanted without touching anything. There were perhaps 30 other horses and riders in the arena, waiting their turn or trotting and loping around. True never even glanced in their direction.
These kinds of gradual, calm experiences are exactly what a young horse’s brain needs. He is not pushed to approach any closer or progress any faster than he wishes. He decides on the location of his comfort zone, and I merely accompany him on as loose a lead as I can maintain. I stroke and praise him when he watches quietly. I remain neutral when he gets worried or upset. I correct without punishment if he misbehaves, perhaps bumping his halter very gently. Soon he is motivated to investigate on his own, with no pressure from me.
Our experience with the sorting clinic went well. Are we going to try it ourselves? Maybe. But for now, watching is fine. And it’s helping True get more accustomed to unusual creatures. I’ll ride him around the arena during the next sorting, and work up from there.