I have a neighbor, a couple of properties to the north, who brings his cattle home to calve each spring. The pasture is empty the rest of the year but then in one day, twenty-five head materialize, casually grazing. They’re hard to miss. The prairie grass is still a monochromatic tan color in all directions and his cattle are Angus–as black as those silhouette cutouts of howling coyotes or leaning cowboys. The contrast is dramatic. So is Clara.
My mare stands at the fence line hour after hour, simultaneously attracted and repelled. It’s her commitment that alarms me. She actually loses a fair amount of weight. Apparently it’s hard to eat with them lurking. This is the eighth year she’s held her position.
The job gets significantly more difficult about April. By then the calves are on the ground frolicking around like little pepper explosions. Sometimes the cows stroll off toward the rise and the calves dawdle long enough to scare themselves into a tiny stampede to catch up. Surely you can see Clara’s problem.
(Maybe some animals have species pride, or are born into predestined gangs, or just have karma to work out. Like dogs and cats. Like horses and cattle.)
In the early years, she could convince our entire equine herd to be concerned and form a line beside her. There was even one Saturday a few years back where all the horses in the group lesson out in the arena participated in some sort of contagious spooking incident, even though they had no idea why. She’s like that grade-school boy in the library peering up at the ceiling. I fell for it too many times, only to hear the taunt, “Made you look!”
The old joke isn’t funny to Clara; her childhood anxiety is real. I don’t know if she loves them or hates them, but she still sounds the alarm; a loud, sharp snort as she stretches a few inches taller. Her tail begins to float up and this time her snort trembles through her whole body. She’s universally ignored by the herd as she lifts the front half of her body up into the air and takes a circle so elegant and so sweet, that her hooves can barely touch the ground. In the split-second hang time of each stride, her ears point to the intruders. And their horrible, unruly children.
At the late night walk-thru, she’s still facing away, standing guard. She looks thin in moonlight so I try to coax her to eat her hay with an added flake of alfalfa. The only thing worst than fear is feeling punished for it, so after a few moments, I carry her meal to her work station on the fence line and give her a scratch.
Now her worry has become mine as well. It’s contagious. Fear is the most diabolical villain because we hold it close inside of us. From that vantage point, rational thought makes no difference at all.
It occurs to me that I finally understand why people bully fearful horses. It’s a defense. A line of demarcation to appear separate from the frightened one. Bullies are ironically afraid of being seen as afraid. It would be laughable if it didn’t do damage. At the same time, it’s probably why fear is such a worthy adversary.
Right about here you want to tell me to give that mare a chance to work stock; that chasing cows will make it all okay. And I hear you. I wasn’t born in a dressage saddle, you know.
But there’s time. You see, I’m just like Clara; I think too much. Sometimes I get worried about things beyond my fence line, too. All the common sense and rational thought in the world doesn’t break my stare. Fear, or the act of denying fear, are equally exhausting. Days like this, we could use a truce for the sake of our hearts. We’d do better to take time to rest awhile with our uncomfortable notions, and find some peace within the boundaries of our little lives.
After all, we don’t have to chase every silly cow we see.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.