Thursday, January 27, 2011

Animal Instincts

Two years ago I didn't know the first thing about pigs— no concept of how to handle them, what to feed them, what sorts of structures they required to keep them safe [and out of trouble, hopefully]... nothing!  After the first week of work at Spannocchia, I was writing in my journal about things that quickly became the most mundane and obvious parts of my job.  Checking fences and milling grain became second nature. I remember reading over the entry after I came home and laughing at myself, thinking how little I knew.

One thing I really enjoy about working with animals of any kind is that you're constantly learning.  I grew up with a dog who was already a "god dog" by the time I was born.  After Bogie died I wanted another one so badly that I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a puppy training book to prove to them that I could handle the responsibility of one.  I read it cover to cover many times.  That coupled with a fantastic dog trainer/behaviorist taught me about the body language of dogs, i.e., how to communicate with them in a language they understand.  Hobbes and then Oscar both turned into the best dogs anyone could ever ask for.

I also grew up horse-obsessed, of course.  I remember one day seeing a book on my mom's bedside table whose cover showed a picture of a man with a horse standing directly behind him, without a halter or leadline anywhere in sight, his great head just over the man's shoulder.  If you've read the book you know the man of whom I speak, Monty Roberts.  The book is called The Man Who Listens to Horses and that, too, I read over and over again until I had parts of it memorized.  In it he explains how he came to know and "speak" the language of horses and how it enables him to "join up" with them to form a team.  He did it by observing them in the wild— and soon realized that they expressed clear signals to one another, and he could elicit those same behaviors from them.

People who are mostly around horses in movie theaters may think that horses are constantly rearing up and neighing and snorting but it's just not true.  Hollywood for some reason finds those sound effects necessary [I think they're really awkward and distracting!].  Horses are prey animals.  It wouldn't make any sense for a horse to go through life constantly alerting every wolf, mountain lion, coyote, bear, etc., to their presence.  So instead they have a strong body language, and as you learn to listen, or read it, you can also learn to use it.

I'm no expert but I've tried various methods of Mr. Roberts', as well as seen him in workshops a few times, and I have seen how it works.  It's truly an incredible thing.

When I was in Italy my closest companion came to be a horse, Nera.  A beautiful mare, smart as a whip, well-trained but then left out in the pasture to rot for a year before I arrived.  It was immediately obvious to me that at some point someone[s], most likely the ever-rotating interns with no idea how to handle horses and impatient, had mistreated her.  She was shy but in an aggressive way, always at the ready with a kick aimed in my direction, always watching me.  I started taking her treats and spending my free time down at the stable each day, and after a few weeks managed to get a halter on her and slowly begin grooming her.

Another evidence of past mistreatment reared its head a few times when she was haltered and tied to a post.  I would leave her side briefly, usually to grab a different brush or something, and suddenly she would be rearing back in a white-eyed panic, thrashing until she broke the halter.  She did that to me 3 or 4 times, for no apparent reason.  Something awful happened to her once under similar circumstances and she won't ever forget it.

I took my time with her, happy just to have a horse in my life.  The riding wasn't important and I had been there a month before I attempted it.  Jay and I had been saddling her up and taking her for walks, not wanting to do anything to damage her already fragile trust.  One evening we walked her to the front of the villa and it just felt like the right time.  He gave me a leg up into the saddle and we just walked and walked more.  Each day we went a little farther.  At first she was anxious to leave her pasturemate behind, but gradually she became, I think, just as enthralled with our long rides through the woods and meadows as I was.  It was spring and everything was blooming.  On my free days we would disappear for hours and hours, exploring in every direction the 1200 acres of nature preserve that surrounds the farm.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Used to Throw Like A Girl...

My hat, modeled by Oscar
... then I starting working on a farm and now I throw like a MAN.

OK, probably not so much but it's been suggested.  I amuse most of the good ol' boys around here just by virtue of being me, but in the months since I started working the amusement seems to have turned from "haha, you're a sissy girl" to something more along the lines of, "She's a pretty good worker... for a woman!"  I'm fairly certain that Paul meant that as equal parts joke and hearty compliment, and it's something I hold close and carry proudly with me out here.

Jim has been working on the house near to where most of the pigs are kept.  Apparently on his smoke breaks he watches us work from the windows.  One day we got done around the same time, and I walked over to say hello.  "How's it going Kate?" he asked. "Out there workin' like a man?"

His favorite joke now seems to revolve around me arm-wrestling the other guy working on the house, Ray— and winning, of course.  Yesterday as I was filling buckets of water, Jim stuck his head out the window and hollered to Ray, who was carrying sheets of drywall or something, "Well lookatchu Ray, carrying two at once!  If you keep that up you'll be as strong as Kate!"

Amidst the blood [literal], sweat [literal], and tears [figurative] of the day, that just struck me as so incredibly funny that I was grinning about it all evening.  On some days it feels as if my body's going to break if I try to lift or throw or hoist or... anything else!  Other days, however, the combination of icy wind and a gently warming sun and pig problems makes me feel so very much alive that each breath feels like a renewal.  This must be what the French mean when they talk about joie de vivre.

This morning I was out in a field perched on the tractor bucket 8 feet above the frozen ground, tipping bags of grain into a big feeder.  Chew [his name is either Jimmy or Johnny but no one can ever remember so he just goes by Chew... wah not?]... anyway Chew walked up and we talked about this n' that... as he bid good day he paused, turned to me [by that time climbing back onto the tractor] and said "You know, I'm gon' brag on you a bit now but, for a woman... you amaze me."

Seems I really earned the soft pink Carhartt hat that keeps me warm when I'm out working with the pigs.  Many thanks to Chuck and Nadine for the badge of honor.