With a very small number of animals on a homestead, the whole tenor of livestock management differs from that of the commercial farm. You get to know your few animals well as individuals, and you become almost friends with them. Chore time becomes pleasurable. If you have hostile animals, you can get rid of them and buy others. And, if after a while you cannot find gentle animals, nature is telling you something. I have always believed that a good dairyman would be successful in any working relationship with humans because if you can get along well with a bunch of cows, you can get along well with anyone.
Animals are creatures of habit, too. Domesticated, they will tolerate being trained to a routine somewhat foreign to their instincts, but once that routine is established, they do not look kindly upon an abrupt change. Change only confuses and alarms them. You must be patient, or suffer the consequences.
A totally gentled cow — the only animal I can talk about with conviction — is a pleasure to be around, more relaxing companionship than most people. She will not kick you when you are milking, if she considers you her friend, although she may fidget and raise her foot if she has a sore teat. Don’t yell at her for that. She will let you trim her hooves when she is lying down — a job that otherwise you need a special (expensive) tool for, since a cow will not generally let you lift its foot up in your lap as a horse will.
Animals can talk to you and they can understand most of what you need to communicate to them, so long as you do not get into anything as abstruse as the philosophy of Spinoza. Mostly they understand your tone of voice and will respond amazingly. I have a tone that they know is angry; another they know is happy; another that means please go out the door, ma’am; and another that means Go! They know by my movement and my voice whether I’m just walking by or whether it is time to get up. If they don’t want to get up, my cows lay their heads low to the floor and shake them in a very plain No! When they want to show me how pleased they are, they come up and lick me. When the horse is angry at me, she turns her rear end to my face.
Animals have many different sounds for communicating with each other. Knowing them can help you. Even if I couldn’t see, I’d know when a ewe is going to accept her lamb — by the gurgling, almost inaudible sound she makes to it.
Animals communicate with each other either by body language I can’t always pick up or sounds I can’t hear. The cow, for example, knows when the horse is going to chase her away from the water hole at the creek, and when the horse is going to sidle up in a friendly fashion — long before I can denote any flattening of the ears or baring of the teeth. If I could learn this language, I could communicate with them better. They in turn can occasionally sense my anger even before I think I have revealed it to them. They distinguish my different facial expressions. The horse and dog especially sense the slightest frown or smile and react accordingly.
This kind of intimacy makes work in the barn much more pleasant and easy. Hoof trimming is one example. Another is heat detection. On a homestead where there is only one cow, the novice homesteader has a difficult time knowing when his cow is ready to breed. (Cows will ride each other when in heat.) But if you are very familiar with your cow’s character, you will know immediately when she is in heat, even before the telltale physical sign of excessive mucus issuing from the vagina. The cow will be noticeably belligerent, nervous, pushy, flighty — anything but her normal languidness.
Our horse taps gently on her stall gate when she wants out. If she gets no reaction from me, she taps louder. And louder. Finally I yell — to save the gate — and she stops. She knows at least that I’ve gotten the message. In the field she has a cunning way of continually walking in front of me and stopping. I finally realized she was trying to discourage me from leaving her.
Being gentle does not mean that you must be wishy-washy. I will whack, firmly, but not too hard, a balky cow that decides she just will not go out of the barn right now, thank you. Once whacked, she invariably moves with alacrity if I just wave the stick. The big calf will occasionally decide to keep on nursing after I tell it to go back to its pen. A prick with the fork changes its mind. But don’t whack your animals until you have won them over completely with kindness. Until then, too much physical discipline will make them wary of you forever.
To gentle an animal to easy handling, I think you should start from birth. When I have bought an adult animal, I have never been able to instill in it the trust and understanding of home-raised stock. I started our flock of sheep with ewes raised elsewhere. They were wild beyond gentling, and they have passed their distrust of humans on to their young. Some day I will get rid of them and start over with bottle-raised lambs.[Update 5/15/11: Truth be known, the wildness that my first four sheep were infected with continued to infect their offspring to this very day in 2011, although only in a much milder form. I never had the heart to get rid of them and start from scratch. For example, no matter how gently and slowly I enter the barn, they still will rush out as if the devil were after them. Then they stand outside, stare at me sheepishly, and realize that they are acting stupid. They then come back inside again, even though I am standing there, and brush right by me. So all my patience over the years is not lost.]
Stop to pet your animals as you pass their pens. Take a choice tidbit out to the field to feed them. I’ve never had any trouble catching the horse for work or riding, as seems to be the case on so many homesteads. The horse always comes up to me, associating my presence with something enjoyable. I always feed her a bit of oats when I first put her in the barn, for the same reason.
Nevertheless, there will probably be times when you do lose your temper with animals. Be ashamed, but not discouraged. We all do, and always to disadvantage. It is sort of like smoking. Once you really resolve to stop it, you can. And like stopping smoking, the rewards are great. Around the barn, calmness pays in every way.