Sunday, October 28, 2007

Many Perils

Well. That was an interesting afternoon! A classic example of the many perils of living the farming life.

First, as I was feeding the fillies tonight, Torchsong---who now thinks she is queen of the paddock---had her head buried in the hay feeder I'd just filled and mistook me for one of the other fillies crowding behind her. She let fly with one hind hoof, and before I knew what hit me, I was sprawled in the mud behind her.

Sorry girl, but that "Whoops, I didn't know it was you," kick-first-and-ask-questions-later excuse is not good enough! I spanked her with the hay strings I was carrying and did the dominant-mare thing of driving her away from the herd and away from the feed until she had time to think about her crime.

In horse-herd dynamics, it is the less-dominant horse's responsibility to be aware of the lead horse at all times, and to show respect by yielding position when the lead horse approaches. Kicking the boss mare, even accidentally, is likely to earn the offender a serious trouncing.

As it was, I drove her away from the feed two more times, until she stood still submissively, out in the pasture. Then I went out, spoke to her kindly, and made a point of leading her back to the feed. When we were almost there, I made her stop and wait until I gave her permission to continue.

Lesson learned: I am the boss mare. I say who eats and when. When I want you to move, you move, and you don't just kick at random when I'm in the vicinity.

By nature, I'm not a very domineering person. But working with all these animals as I do, I've had to come to terms with the importance of establishing a clear leadership role at all times, for my safety as well as the animals.

For example, shortly after we bought our stallion, Senter, Ken was helping me do some chores, and he tied Senter to a post for me, but---not knowing any better---he used too long a rope. With nobody there attending him at the moment, Senter got one of his forelegs over the rope, jerked his head up, and ended up tripping himself. His feet slipped out from under him, and he ended up lying on his back with one foreleg wrapped in his rope and one hind hoof tangled in the fence beside him.

This was a recipe for a HUGE disaster. If he panicked, he could easily have done permanent, possibly fatal damage to himself.

From three paddocks away, I heard him go down. As I rushed through the intervening gates, trying to get to him as quickly as possible without panicking him more, I put on my Voice of Authority: "Whoa, Senter. WHOA!"

Miraculously, he heard me, and even though we hadn't had very long to bond yet, he obeyed the Voice. Still trapped upside down, he froze exactly in place and didn't move until I got there. He held still while I released the rope from his halter and unwrapped his leg. He continued to hold still while I (quite dangerously... but what choice did I have?) leaned over him and worked his hind hoof free from where it was caught in the mesh fence panel.

He didn't move until I pushed his feet down, rolled him onto his side, and told him, "Okay." When he got up, he was shaken, but uninjured except for a minor scratch on his leg.

Such is the power---and importance---of maintaining a clear chain of command among the animals. It keeps you safer, and it allows you to keep them safer.

Along those same lines... the second thing that happened this afternoon was that Ken and I put up an additional sheep pen in one corner of the back pasture. This is because we have only two permanent sheep paddocks, and we'll have three breeding groups this year, so we needed a third paddock.

When the paddock was finished, we released the two new rams from their little quarantine pen into the new paddock. They had been treated very kindly at the farm where they grew up, so they have friendly temperaments, which in a ram is both good and bad. It makes them easy to catch and handle, but when rutting season comes along, it can also encourage them to be aggressive towards you.

Ram attacks are no joking matter. At their worse, rams are 200+ lbs. of testosterone-driven muscle and horn. One good hit could very easily put you in the hospital or worse.

Almost universally, the advice experienced shepherds will give you is: Don't tame your rams. They must stay a little bit afraid of you. If they have no fear at all, they have no respect. Under the influence of heightened testosterone during breeding season, a lack of respect can lead to attacks.

My philosophy with my rams is not quite so absolute. I'm friendly with them. I speak kindly to them and will give them a quick scratch under the chin from time to time. But as with the horses, I insist that they show respect and be willing to promptly back off at any moment that I make myself "look big" and stomp in their direction.

If a ram does not back off promptly, I get big and loud and chase him until he thinks twice about hanging around. As soon as he scampers away, I let him go. With repetition, all my rams usually stay quite respectful. They know the rules.

But as soon as these two friendly new boys were released into their larger paddock, they started feeling all manly and butting each other, with a big crashing of horns. Very typical of this time of year, nearly breeding season.

They also crowded around my legs with absolutely no regard for my "back off" signals. Time for a little training session.

I made myself big and roared ferociously. The rams didn't care at all. I bonked one of them in the nose with the flexible rubber feed dish I was holding. Still no retreat. Yikes! Rams that unafraid could very easily become quite dangerous in the future!

ROOOOAAARRRR! Bonk, bonk, BONK, BONK! I chased the poor, bewildered rams around, bopping them with the rubber dish, until they scampered away. Then I released the pressure on them and walked away.

Did they learn? As one approached me again, I stomped in his direction, and he quickly backed off. Good boy! Quick learner.

I'll have to keep testing that we have an understanding now, but with repetition, I think they will remember their manners. That way I can avoid broken bones, and they can avoid becoming lamb chops!

Sheesh. It's been a hard transition learning that the dominance/respect issue is absolutely crucial in dealing with my animals. I would rather just be sweet and loving towards them all. But that's not how it works in real life, so I've really had to work on my leadership role, which is not one that has come natural to me.

I think I'm doing okay though. That's one thing about animals, they'll always give you honest feedback about how you're doing. And for the most part, my animals love and respect me, and are not afraid of me. So I guess I'm managing to keep the interactions between us balanced and fair, which is all the animals ever really ask of us.

Anyhow, the third peril of the afternoon came when I was moving the water trough into place in the new sheep paddock. As I lifted one edge of it, my fingers curled under the lip at the edge and encountered the unmistakable fuzzy texture of a spider's nest.

Since I've already encountered several black widow spiders in that same part of the property this summer, I immediately dropped the trough, then lifted it from a different place and peeked underneath.

Sure enough, I'd stuck my finger directly into a black widow nest, and there was the widow herself, right where my finger had been! Luckily for me, she was already dead.

I don't know much about spiders, but don't they die after they've laid their eggs? At least, that's what happened in Charlotte's Web, wasn't it? So, I lucked out and didn't get bitten today, but it looks like I'm going to have to be on the lookout for her many descendants in the future.

Just more of the many perils of farm life!

Now I think I'll go lie down on the couch and watch TV. I didn't think I was hurt when Torchsong kicked me into the mud, but now my back is stiffening up, so I guess I took more of a jarring than I realized.

A few stretches and a good night's sleep, and I'll be fine. Ready for tomorrow's perils, whatever they may be!

1 comment:

Meggie said...

Nancy: I'm so impressed with your philosophy and leadership style. The closest I've ever gotten to any of it is with my dog and she only weighs 45 lbs. I understand your approach and agree with it enitirely but can't imagine trying to implement it with horses and sheep. Hope you're sleeping well tonight.