Bud Williams, who taught many people how to use low-stress stockmanship, said that this approach to working livestock requires “belief and the will to do it.” In other words, low-stress stock handling requires a commitment to learning through experience. As I’ve written before, learning to work livestock with low-stress techniques is a learning process for me. The key, for me, is that I believe in it. When something doesn’t work, I don’t abandon my belief in the approach; rather, I think about what I could have done differently. Recently, however, I’ve come to believe that time is a critical component of this approach. Part of this is the recognition that sometimes I need to “move slowly to work quickly” – working cattle or sheep calmly and deliberately makes the overall effort go more quickly. I’ve also realized that my efforts to work effectively with my dogs, horses and mule require me to take time, while we’re working, to improve our partnership.
Don’t get me wrong – I think training and schooling activities are important for horses and dogs. This work establishes a foundation from which our stock-working partnership can proceed. A dog, for example, must understand that he must go around stock without “contact” until I ask him to come in. A horse (or mule) must understand leg and rein cues. Once this foundation – really a system of interspecies communication – is established, though, progress can only be made (I think) through “real” work.
In my experience, this is where time comes into play. Once Ernie, our youngest border collie, had a basic grasp of our communication system, I made several mistakes. First, I’d try to use him for real work – for moving sheep over long distances. I’d expect him to make good decisions, and I’d get frustrated when he didn’t. Rather than take the time to help him understand what I was asking, I’d give up and use a more experienced dog. Unsurprisingly (at least looking back), Ernie failed to progress. Second, I’d continue to try to school him small groups of sheep, which just made him bored (and which led to more of the behavior I was trying to correct).
I’ve come to realize that I’ve taken a similar approach to riding my mule, Frisbee. Frisbee was started under saddle by a trainer-friend of ours, JoDe Collins. We also started working her in harness, but never progressed beyond dragging things (logs, sleds, farm implements) to wheeled vehicles. In the intervening years, I didn’t ride much (being busy with sheep-raising, mostly). Frisbee also had shown some fear of cattle (mostly at mule shows). Earlier this year, I needed another saddle-animal at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (one of our SFREC horses has been lame since May). Frisbee was my only option. I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about using her to work cattle, but she was the only choice.
The turning point in both examples, was my realization that I needed to take time to build trust and communication while we were working! With Ernie, I started using him for real work (mostly moving sheep and helping me put sheep through our corrals). Instead of getting frustrated with him, I started taking the time to work on problems as they occurred. Ernie’s learning really accelerated when I started using him at SFREC to help me with cattle work. He’s become a moderately talented dog with enormous heart and stamina – a wonderful partner.
Frisbee has progressed similarly. Rather than get frustrated by her “mule moments” (if you’ve ever worked with mules, you know what these are!), I started taking the time to help her get through them. If she balked at being ridden through the brush, I’d get off and lead her until she regained her confidence. Rather than worry too much about her being afraid of cattle, I simply started exposing her to cattle work in small doses. As her comfort level with the work and the place increased, I began asking her to do more and more. This last week, we gathered cows, herded them several miles up the road, and searched the brush for missing cattle. She handled everything I asked her to do.
Obviously, a strong foundation was critical in both cases. We had a system of communicating; what we lacked was experience and confidence (myself included). As Steve Cote, the author of Stockmanship writes, “Experience is knowledge, so this takes time.” Both animals made huge strides when I stopped worrying about accomplishing a task by a certain time – as did I! When I finally accepted the fact that I truly was working on the animals’ time – that the job couldn’t be rushed (and that it usually went faster when I took my time) – we all gained knowledge and confidence.
The animals we are tending - sheep and cows - benefit from this approach as well. Which brings me to my final point about time. At least for me, working with animals rarely goes perfectly - the problems, when I'm in the right frame of mind, are learning opportunities. Time for reflection is also important. Increasingly, I find myself seeking time to think about what worked and what didn't - and about what I would do differently. I also find myself taking time to ask others how they would handle similar situations. Learning, for all of us (humans and animals), it seems, takes time!