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Soule: My Favorite Bovines are ‘People Cattle’

“Do your cattle mind that?” is often asked as I put a halter with a red nose on Topper to disguise him as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-Steer or toss a saddle on Curious Bleu, a 2,000-pound Scottish Highland steer with ginormous horns. If Topper or Bleu weren’t willing partners, they’d run off, swinging their horns, kicking their heels. But they don’t. They like working with humans.

Not all bovines are “people cattle.” Some want to associate only with other cattle. As long as those cattle don’t try to kill me or their colleagues, we leave them be. Those cows, like Sergeant Pepperoni, will live in the herd, have babies, and eat hay in winter and grass in summer.

Other cattle thrive on human attention. Topper and Finn, my 3,500-pound oxen pair, wait at the gate for me to take them out for training sessions. They both stand together as I hoist a 50-pound yoke onto their shoulders and wait as I secure the bows to hold it in place, which is not easy for a 72-year-old woman. They’ll walk forward when given a voice command and stop when told. They respond to my orders because I’m a cow coach. And guess what? I’m now a people coach, too.

Just like humans, my oxen thrive on attention and respect. One important rule is never to ask them to do the impossible; each command is a small, understandable piece of the larger task. Each animal gets hours of individual training with many rewards, not food, but praise. When a bovine receives praise, it makes all the difference. Look at how I’m coaching these bovines; I also help humans achieve impossible tasks by taking small steps.

One of my rules is: Never punish cattle for wrong behavior. If a steer does something wrong, it’s usually because he doesn’t understand the command or is tired or distracted. When a steer makes a mistake, I ignore it and ask for a different behavior.

For example, if Topper backs up instead of moving forward, I’ll keep asking him to back up. He’ll think backing was my idea and forget he started it on his own, and he thinks I’m the boss, which is vital to our relationship. If, for safety reasons, he must stop going backward (maybe there is a cliff behind him), I’ll get him to turn or sidestep anything to redirect his energy while avoiding a head-on clash of wills. When I coach you, you’ll learn how to keep moving forward. If I can teach an 800-pound steer to do the right thing. I can help you.

I’m always delighted when a steer does precisely what I ask; the right animal, trained with compassion and respect, will follow orders. So, when someone asks, “Does he mind that?” I smile because if the steer could talk, he’d say, “Hey, I aim to please!”

During a season for counting blessings, sharing a farm with cattle who accept me as part of their herd is near the top of my list.

Here’s a simple human tip from the cow coach. Don’t let Uncle Henry’s political rants send you screaming away from the table this holiday season. He can think what he wants, and so can you.

Source: Patch