Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA

Old Horse, New Tricks

Yesterday was a busy day here.  We needed to move around some of the livestock as the trailer from our processor, Hirsch's Meats, was coming to pick up a cow, a couple of pigs, and the first of our spring lambs.  Dan and I had already moved the pigs from their tractor to a pen in the barn, but it was my job to get the sheep and Louie, the cow into the barn.  Louie wasn't hard as he eagerly followed the sound of a scoop full of feed into the barn. Emotionally it was harder than anything else though.  Louie has been here since early January of 2009, when he was just a weanling calf.  He was a character and I'll really miss seeing him, but that is the nature of raising beef.  I try to content myself with knowing I gave him a good and happy life while he was here, and that it was the complete opposite of the lives led by most cows destined for beef who must endure feedlot conditions.

Physically, rounding up the sheep was the most difficult part of the process.  Our sheep have been roaming 20+ acres of pasture all summer.  Being completely self-sufficient makes them much less tame than during the winter when they look to us for food.  They are also usually up in the far reaches of the pasture, so I don't have the daily interaction of feeding them treats.  I figured if I could just get the whole flock into the little paddock by the barn, Dan and I could pick out which lambs we would send.  So I walk off to find my sheep, armed with a small white bucket filled with feed and cookies.  This wasn't part of the usual routine, so the sheep started to run away.  Except Rosa.  She is one of the oldest ewes in the flock and is so tame she is somewhat of a pest at times.  But I was grateful she accepted my offer of snacks and as we began to walk towards the barn, the other sheep began to follow. I got Rosa and one of her twin lambs into the paddock, but the rest of the flock just wouldn't follow.  The more I tried to herd them through the gates, the more agitated they became until all of them ran back into the pasture, including Rosa.  I figured I would let them calm down and try again a bit later.  Later even Rosa ran and wanted no part of my cookies.  I needed to move them, I needed to do it in the next couple of hours, and at that time I was really wishing for a well-trained Border Collie or something that could help me.

I went back to the barn, where the horses were.  In addition to the work horses, Dan and I also have a miniature named Ponyboy (bought as a pet soon after our wedding)  and I have a Morgan mare named Sara.  Sara has been a part of my life for many years now.  She was 6 when I adopted her from a humane society and she is celebrating her 25th birthday tomorrow.  (Yes, that's correct-25 people years!)  Although 25 is retirement age for most horses, Sara hasn't slowed down much at all.  We've only started to train her to work in harness the past few years. She's descended from government-bred calvary horses, some of whom lived well into their 40's and I hope I am that lucky with her.  Giving her new tasks to do or new trails to ride truly seems to keep her young.  So I threw a saddle on my pony, tied a lasso to the horn and headed outside.  I left the barn door open because at this point I didn't care if I caught the sheep in the barn or the paddock.

Now I am no cowboy and Sara is no roping horse.  I didn't really think I would rope a sheep, the lasso was more to wave in the air to scare them in the direction I wanted them to go.  I tied it to the horn because it was raining and I didn't want to have to stop and get off if I dropped it!  Sara hasn't been ridden much at all this year, and like most horses she'd rather not go off by herself leaving her herdmates in the barn.  Plus I'd never herded anything on horseback so she had no idea what we were doing riding around in the rain in the pasture.  I tried to get her to trot, but she wanted to buck every time I got her out of her foot-dragging walk.  Once I got around behind the sheep, we were pointed back towards the barn and she was much happier to get up.  Things were going really well and I was quite proud of our work.  The sheep were thinking about going into the barn, and I figured this would be easy until Ponyboy, who had gotten himself loose, came blasting out of the barn, whinnying and chasing the sheep back into the pasture with glee.  I was so mad!!  I rode into the barn, shut the door and tied Ponyboy up very short. Now the sheep are back out in the pasture (for the 3rd time of the day) and are pretty spooked by all this action.  Sara, by this point, seemed to have grasped the work at hand and was eager to move quickly for me.  We got behind the flock again and pushed them into the barnyard.  They were even down by the gate to the paddock, but this was the tricky part.  Not only were the sheep scattered between a few pieces of machinery, the gates are located near the corner of our workshop building.  As the sheep headed back towards the hog house, Sara and I raced around the backside of the building to cut them off.  They turned, but I couldn't let them get up past the barn either, so back around the shop we would go at nearly full speed.  This happened multiple times.  At this point Sara was really seeming to have fun; she would get impatient when we had to stand for more than a minute or two.  It's like we were playing a game and she had just figured out the rules.  (If this sounds like too much credit to give to a horse's brain power, all I have to say is that you've never met Sara!)  At what seemed like long last, Rosa moved through the gate into the paddock.  She may have remembered the feed I had dumped on the grass earlier as sheep-bait when I was still working on foot.  One by one, then two by two, the rest of the flock followed.  Sara and I ran up to shut the gate and finish the job.  By now, both of us were soaked from the past hour's intermittent rain showers, so we went into the barn where I unsaddled her and gave her a few cookies as a thanks for her cooperation.


 Who says you can't teach an old horse new tricks?!?

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Cute story--thanks for sharing! I enjoy reading about the trials, triumphs, and tribulations of fellow farmers.

Posted by Terry Brooks on August 20, 2010 at 11:50 AM EDT #

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