After 14 years, my horse earned her keep.
Like so many people, I spoiled Spirit as a foal, leading to a lifetime of less than desirable behavior. I was thrilled to play with a beautiful filly even though the timing of her birth wasn’t conducive to a lot of training. My son, Will, was almost 2 and life got chaotic for a few years after that. Then my daughter, Abby, came into this world, once again limiting my energy and time to spend disciplining a horse that needed a lot of miles under the saddle. Even when both kids were in school, it was far easier to catch a well-trained horse that I could depend on to get the job done than guide a head-tossing, foot-stamping, cow-scared, hard-headed, earthquake-instigating equine through the intricacies of cow work.
Finally, this spring was my turn to check the calving cows every day. Even though I was pretty sure Spirit would make my job far more difficult, this was her singular chance. Every morning, we rode quietly through the pregnant cows, no head-tossing allowed. Each time I stepped out of the saddle to tag a newborn calf, Spirit needed to stand quietly nearby. Horse treats convinced her that this was a fine way to spend mornings.
Spirit learned a lot this spring. I felt the light bulb go off in her mind when she finally performed a flying lead change as we loped across the pasture. At long last, she could turn right with her right front foot leading and then switch to her left foot lead when I asked her to turn left. She was so proud of herself that I wondered if she next wanted to try the hokey-pokey.
Still, Spirit was not the quickest cutting horse in the corral. She was no longer afraid of the cows, but when I asked her to cut between two calves, often she was a step too slow. Separating cattle requires subtle head movements, too, and Spirit was apt to nervously swing her head at the most inopportune moment.
It’s easy to reward improvement most of the time, but every once in a while the situation demands no less than perfection.
Last weekend was that situation.
We had separated cow-calf pairs and hauled them to some rented pasture about five miles from the ranch. By dusk, my husband, Steve, was gone and not scheduled to return for two days when I heard cows and calves bawling. Cows and calves do not bawl when they contentedly settle in together for the night. We had paired cows with the wrong calves.
I had commitments at the farmers market the next morning. As I pulled out, I spotted three cows that had crawled through the fence to look for their calves in the corral. I locked them in.
By the time I got home about 3 p.m., two phone messages confirmed cows trying to make their way back from the rented pasture, the friend who owns the rented pasture had spotted a calf in another neighbor’s field and two cow-calf pairs were lounging in one of our pastures that had not had cattle there when I left.
I saddled Spirit. It was show time.
Cows and calves are quicker and stronger than humans so our only tools for management come from our brains, finesse and horse. I hoped I had enough of each.
Will helped me load the cows from the corral in the front of our old horsetrailer. Spirit jumped in the back. The floors of this trailer were slick from the recent rain plus manure from hauling cattle the day before, but its redeeming factor was the divider gate. The gate between the front and back had bars instead of a solid panel so the cows in the front could see to the back. The design of this trailer would prove to be both a benefit and detriment in this situation.
Sure enough, one of our heifer calves paced back and forth along a neighbor’s fence. I parked the trailer in the driveway and made my way through their beautiful hay field, feebly attempting to not knock down much alfalfa. Spirit missed a couple of turns while pushing the heifer toward the trailer, but after a few tries, we had her in the yard, near the trailer.
The neighbor helped haze the calf a couple of times and stood ready to close the trailer door while I encouraged the calf to investigate the cows in the trailer, hoping I had her mama in there.
I did, luckily. The calf and mama reunited instantly.
One more cow in the trailer belonged to a calf that was still at the rented pasture.
That left one cow with a tight bag and no calf to be seen. It was late and ranch chores, along with kid duty, called. I would look for the calf in the morning.
At 6:30 a.m., our friend called to say his wife had spotted a lone calf on her way to work at 4:15. He had not wanted to wake me up, but if I hurried, the calf might still be there.
Spirit saddled and cow loaded, we went calf hunting.
Silhouetted by the dawn’s sun, a calf stood in a pivot field about a half mile from the road. I could not drive closer, through the soft cropland, so I parked along the gravel road.
I opened the trailer door to a river of blood running down Spirit’s head. She had slipped on the slick floorboards and peeled the skin from her forehead and upper eye.
No time for coddling now. I needed her to work to perfection if I had any chance at all to single-handedly bring a panicky calf out of the field and into the horsetrailer.
Blood flew as she tossed her head a few times on our way out to the calf, but she settled down as we approached the calf, communicating security vibes as we gently encouraged the calf to stroll toward the trailer. A single foot-stomp, head-toss or misstep now would mean the calf might panic, bolt and never even come near the far-off trailer.
The conversation in my head went something like:
“Thank you, thank you…”
The calf approached the trailer. The cow needed to bawl right now.
The calf’s ears perked up. Spirit stood stock still, blood trickling down her nose.
The calf circled the trailer while I parked my horse to graze the tall roadside grass and shut the wide farm gate. Shutting the gate took a while so everyone took a deep breath and relaxed.
Spirit and I helped the calf discover just where her mother resided and then waited for the calf to step into the trailer.
One jump later I shut the trailer door on the calf. I opened the divider gate and the calf was nursing before I could get it closed again.
Spirit got the rest of the day off. She earned it.