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.

She was a "green" horse, young and inexperienced, and as flight animals horses tend to run away from things they don't understand.  One day we were flying across a lush meadow when two pheasants thundered out of the grass just to our left.  She ducked sideways just so slightly and I sat back deep in the saddle bracing myself for bucking or running.  We must have been 4 hours from the villa and I would have been in some real trouble if she'd thrown me off.  Instead I talked to her, Easy, mare, it's ok, just look at it, and she took a deep breath and... was totally fine.  Another day we encountered a huge excavator out in the middle of the forest— no idea what the operator was doing there, but she took a look at it and I nudged her forward and we walked right by.  I was so proud of her!
Nera in the cow pasture

What best exemplifies the bond, the trusting partnership we had, occurred one day out in an enormous cow pasture.  She was really antsy that day for some reason but I had been riding her during chores for a while, and the cows had completely obliterated a fence, and it was almost lunchtime and I was hot and hungry and ready to be done with it.  I don't know what I was thinking [well, ok, I obviously was NOT thinking], but I quickly tied her to a fence post to make one small repair so that both hands were free.  I knew better, and what a stupid thing to do!  I should have known that she would pick that particular post for one of her sudden panic attacks, and when she reared back, instead of catching the halter's resistance she was pulling against a bridle, with a bit across her tongue.  The leather split into a dozen pieces, and her eyes were rolling as she backed up at a furious pace.  My first thought was that she was going to turn and run and we've never find her again.  Once again though, I started talking to her in a soft voice, and somehow that triggered the switch.  You could see her entire body relax and her head dropped to a normal height, and she walked right up to me and put her head against my chest.

Two months earlier, when I first arrived, she was described to me by all who knew her as "the devil horse" or "that crazy horse" or some other permutation of "You gon' die!"  And yet here she was, afraid and surrounded by hundreds of acres of freedom and grass, coming to me just as sweetly as you could ever imagine.

I have always been told that bad horses are made, not born.

A "Crazy 8" in the woods
This is starting to get a little long-winded but originally my intent was to make this about pigs, not Nera! The same principles apply to some degree with pigs.  We just loaded a group that we call The Crazy 8s.  They all had wild razorbacks, a tendency to bark and charge at people, and a complete disregard of the electric fence.  A few months ago they had to be loaded onto a trailer from the large wooded pasture where they'd been living, and to date that is the closest I've come to being mauled by a pig.  They were 200 pounds of snarling teeth coming at you like the Tasmanian Devil.  Since then they've been in a smaller pen with hog panel fencing— in other words, daily contact with me, bearer of tasty foodstuffs, whether they liked it or not, and no escape.  So the other day a guy came to buy them, 14 in all, and I was very unsure of how they would behave when we tried to get them back on a trailer.  I knew they had mellowed out considerably, but... you just never know.

As it turns out, all I had to do was call them, and they pretty much walked in an orderly fashion behind me from their pen to another, into a loading lane, onto a trailer, and then into his larger trailer.  Because they knew me as a mostly peaceful emissary, the girl with the buckets of grain, they were willing to follow me to see where I was headed.  If I had been in there shouting and using electric prods on them, or even just throwing grain over the fence, for the past 2 months, there's no way they would have followed me.  In establishing a relationship with them I reduced the stress for everyone involved.  It was actually one of the easiest things I did all week.

I'm learning as I go.  I still make mistakes, and usually it's just due to carelessness.  But each day that I can see the rewards of my work, those things I'm doing correctly are reinforced.  They're teaching me every single day.

After all, Nera only ever kicked me once.  She could have probably taken off one of my legs if that had been her aim, but it was just a warning kick.  She wanted me to know that I was being impatient with her.  I never did it again.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Your an amazing writer young lady! I remember the Crazy 8 & the first loading we were just in time for the last few! Never a boring moment in the Holler!