Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When the Cows Come Home

The horses got their first glimpse of the neighbour's cows earlier this spring. It was about mid-May when the black and white "ladies" of milk were turned loose into the pastures at the bottom of the hill.

Maggie was the first to make their acquaintance. We were riding down the hill one day when she spotted them grazing in a lush pasture on the right hand side of the road. She stopped in her tracks and stared. Then, unprompted, she started trotting toward them. I like that Maggie is generally more curious than frightened, so I let her have her way and she barrelled on.

Unfortunately, the cows were less curious and more frightened. When they saw this lumbering black beast heading toward their pasture, the whole herd turned tail and ran, udders swaying awkwardly between hobbling hind legs. Maggie, utterly dejected, stared after them until they all disappeared behind the barn's sloping green walls.

The roles were reversed during Murray's first encounter. His ever-searching, high-alert eyes spotted the mottled coats of the cows through the trees when we were still several hundred metres away. He tried to turn around. I gently guided him forward. He warily continued, and skittered sideways when a cow rounded a corner and seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Again, Murray swung his gumbi-like neck around in an attempt to go home.

The cows, however, were divided in their response to him. Several leaped up from their mid-morning slumbers and cantered awkwardly toward the barn. Others merely turned their heads, flicked their tails, and kept right on chewing their cud. Two or three of the animals even ambled bravely toward us.

Murray wanted none of their friendly advances. His nostrils flared, his knees trembled and I decided this was enough bovine exposure for one day. I made him walk a few more steps forward then purposefully turned him toward home, leaving the cows to feel the sting of rejection this time.

After a few similar encounters, the horses and cows stopped paying as much attention to one another. But today the animals took each other by surprise once again.

I'm currying the loose hair and dirt from Maggie's coat when I notice Murray outside, staring across the road. I suspect a deer might be passing through, but when I pop my head out, I don't see anything. Moments later, Murray barges into his stall, turns around and cranes his neck cautiously out the open door. He reminds me of a nervous child, peeking from behind his mother's skirts. As I scrape the dirt from Maggie's hooves, Murray darts back out through his door, and stares, statue-like again across the road. I take another look myself, but again see nothing. This routine, with Murray flitting in and out anxiously continues the entire time I have Maggie on the cross-ties. His pacing drives me nuts, but I leave him to it as I lead Maggie out of the barn for our morning ride.

The instant Maggie crosses the threshold, she freezes and her head snaps up. Now that we're outside, I can see what was out of my view before. It's the cows. They've been let loose in the field directly across the street from the house. Maggie lets out a loud snort, forgets that I'm holding her, and makes a beeline for the herd.

I give her a tug on the reins, and a shove on the chest to remind her that she's not to use her 1250 pound self as a battering ram against her owner. I turn her away from the cows, and march her toward the ring for our workout. Every few feet, she swings her head around to try and catch another glimpse of the grazing cattle.

After an unproductive 20 minutes, I decide to let Maggie have her way and we head back up to the road. As we stroll by the barn, I see that Murray is still doing his in-out routine, though his intervals outside seem to be lasting longer and longer.

Maggie's eyes are glued to the herd of 35 cows grazing oh-so-close to our house. She's anxious to get closer, but this time I make sure she takes it slow. The "ladies" seem to interpret her more leisurely advances positively this time. No one takes off in the opposite direction and three boldly make their way toward us. As they reach the fence, they lift their heads and sniff the air with their wet noses.

All that separates the species now is a water-filled, grassy ditch and a few strands of barbed-wire fencing. Maggie pulls on the reins in an attempt to get even closer, but I'd rather not negotiate the ditch today. Instead, I let her stand there watching in awe. Several minutes pass. The calm gawking continues, but I've got work to do, so I turn a reluctant Maggie back toward the barn.

I briefly consider taking Murray out for a closer look too, in hopes that it might ease his anxiety. But I know Murray too well. He's not one to mingle. So I leave him to his peek-a-boo routine, which will likely continue until he's satisfied they're not a threat.

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