Why do we use voice commands like “sit” and “stay” to teach dogs? Because we are humans, and we like to communicate with words. So, we think our pets and livestock should learn our language. Some do, but they are never fluent. Theirs is the language of “energy.” Cows, dogs, donkeys, and goats know what we think by reading our energy. By that, I mean our state of mind.
Our energy is revealed in actions big and small — a tight jaw indicates tension, slumping shoulders show weakness, and of course, there are smiles and frowns, shouts and whispers, blows and caresses. Even better than emojis, these actions telegraph our feelings to our pets and each other.
Remember handshakes? Some were firm; others were limp. A handshake provided a glimpse of a person’s energy. Since cows don’t shake hands, they read energy in other ways. Take the 8-year-old cow named Alice. She will not shy away from a calm person. But recently, I walked into the pasture with three other farmers. Maybe it was how these men opened the gate or how they strode toward her. Whatever it was, she stared at them, poised to run. I asked them to stop and back up slightly, and Alice immediately calmed.
Another example: Last week, when we opened a gate to deliver hay to a pasture, two heifers escaped. Free of the confines of the pasture, Brandy and Grace ran off, burning energy as I followed them with the ATV (all-terrain vehicle). After four minutes of running, they got tired and returned to the pasture gate. Still a little worked-up and unsure, they stood there, unwilling to enter. Husband Bruce swung his arms and waved a stick with excited energy, thinking this would push them into the pasture. Brandy picked up on his energy, and rather than go calmly forward; she got ready to run away again.
When Bruce stopped waving his arms, stepped back, and stood quietly, Brandy also quieted down. Within minutes she was back to her natural state of calmness. She looked around, sniffed the open gate, and eventually, she and Grace walked back into the pasture.
Cows, dogs, donkeys, even people all feel better when calm. We have to find ways to help our animals get there, and the best way to teach calmness is to express it ourselves.
Long ago, when studying for my BA in Education at Keene State College, I learned it is only possible to teach when you have the student’s attention; they have to be listening. As a farmer, I use that knowledge to work with cattle.
An excited or frustrated cow will not pay attention to what you want. The only option most consider is to run away. When I replace my frustration or anger with calmness, the animal reflects the same, and teaching can resume. In Brandy’s case, the message I wanted her to receive was that the pasture is a safe place.
I invite you to test your cow-communication skills here at the farm on Feb. 12 and 13 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You’ll get to talk to the animals, cuddle a cow, visit with the pigs, feed a horse, or pet a bunny. Reservations are required; please book your time at https://www.learningnetworksfoundation.com/book-now. All proceeds go to completing the Learning Networks Foundation Learning Barn.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (www.milessmithfarm.com), where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs, and other local products.