Lessons From A Cowgirl
“Gary, you should come by on your way back from Utah and play with horses and dogs.”
“You mean to Montana?” Alex could hear the ‘are you crazy’ in my voice.
“It’s like, 5 hrs from where you are,” she said.
“Oh! Are you serious? “Shut up!” I replied.
Embarrassed for me, she responds - “Yeah.”
I’m geographically challenged. Guilty as charged. This was the first of many lessons I learned from Alex that week.
Who is Alex? She is my super-talented friend who works to bring harmony to people and their horses. I met her in Utah a few years ago at a dog training seminar. Her and her husband, who is the closest thing to a real man I have ever met, lived on a 10 square mile farm in Three Forks, Montana. No, that wasn't a typo. It’s like a small town. Nature everywhere as far as the eyes could see: horses, dogs, deer, moose, coyotes, elk, open space, trees, mountains galore, long blue skies, and crystal clear water were abundant.
Fun Fact: Three Forks is fly fishing heaven. It flows through the culture there. Pun intended.
Still chatting, Alex asked: “While you are in Utah can you grab a rescue Heeler/Cattle dog from the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter?” Alex’s vice besides horses is saving dogs’ lives. She’s a terrible person. :) Like a good farm boss, Alex gave me a farm task before I even got there.
It was early. I said - YES to her of course, so I grabbed the lucky little convict from doggy jail and hit the road from Utah to Three Forks.
The miles to get there were a pleasure to accumulate. I won’t bore you with more environmental details, but if you haven’t gone before…GO!! It’s an awesome place to see nature.
Siri steered me up the mile long jaw dropping gravel and dirt driveway. This place was like nothing I’ve experienced before.
I jump out of my Sprinter van, “Allleeeexxxx!!”
I gave her a big hug. She points to her enormous red wooden barn, and tells me a little about the place. We catch up a bit and then she hit me with my second dose of farm life. My Montana trip was just beginning, and Alex was about to throw me right into her reality.
“Let all the dogs out,” Alex said. I’d been there all of five minutes.
Dog Inventory Check:
1 Australian Shepard
The new foster guy
“Uh, ok.” I paused, trying to hide my fear and insecurities. “You mean liiiike right now?” I questioned back.
“Well yeah,” said with a “like DUH” tone of an LA Valley girl.
“Yeah, yeah, right. Let’s do it.“ I sheepishly conformed. I realized fast Alex’s reality was completely different than the one I brought.
I walked around to my van’s sliding door.
Inside I was thinking:
“Horses everywhere, critters galore to chase and be naughty with, whatever else was creeping around watching us as we go about our day clueless, and oh yeah the 8 farm dogs wondering around with great purpose - this is a little crazy.”
I faked confidence, reached for the door handle and let them all out. Would I have done it a little differently now, YES! Did I learn a lot from doing it like a - free for all? You betcha!!
The dogs faces were full of emotion! If I could only interview each one of the dogs to get their exact perspective. Wow, what I could learn.
“Jake (black dog above), how did you feel when you jumped out of the van in a completely new place covered with many things you haven’t experienced before in your 8 yrs of life?”
Well dad, ”At first I was like WTF is happening, wasn’t Utah enough for my brain hole, but THEN I was like what’s that smell? Dead shit and horse manure to roll in. Nice!!! Score!!!”
Yeah literally Jake’s the smelly kid in class. He loves it. We hate it.
When the door slid open they all jumped out including the new foster dog, who - as a reminder - I met 5 hrs ago. They were overwhelmed about where, who, and what to investigate first. So many smelly smells. They ran here sniffed there, diffusing their overstimulated canine stress. Curiosity and experimentation were all their little minds could take in.
Was there a scuffle, a disagreement? Sure.
Was there a “hey don’t do that SHIT you bad dog” - of course. They are animals trying to understand their rank, the rules, and experience new things with only the skills they had to cope.
After the dust settled - no blood, nothing died, and some even became friends. Night fall had occurred.
The next morning I awoke to Alex working on her plan for the day with the horses, and her husband was already out doing man stuff. It was daylight for 10 minutes already so he was probably running a tractor bigger than my home or replacing miles of fence. What I would give to be a real man like him. :)
Quick coffee and off we were to the barn. I don’t have a picture, wish I did, but Alex has all her dogs ride in the back of the truck. So that’s what mine did, too. It was a great experience for them to have to share space and cooperate with a bunch of strangers and have to figure it all out by themselves. (It wasn't far and we were only going 15 mph maybe before anyone gets all heated)
Watching Alex work horses that week was eye opening to say the least.
A phrase Alex used a lot during her lessons that had a great impact on me was:
Keep the horses feelings on the surface. Don’t you hide from me she would say. Sounds better when she says it with the boots and hat!!
It took some time for that nugget of wisdom to seep in. I thought about it a lot and what it meant to me.
What does it mean to you?
I interpreted it as: show me who you are, the real you. Don’t run, don’t hide inside, I truly want to understand you - so I can help you. She made the conscious effort to understand the animal's reality, their world and who they are. Where was their stress coming from?
It was humbling to watch her create understanding and, most importantly, a safe environment for the horses to participate in the work - not just be robots who are void of feelings and capable of their own responses.
On the second day, I realized something. Alex doesn’t have to put her horses in pens. She does sometimes. It was crazy, though. Her horses follow her around the barn when they aren't doing their own thing. If she needs them they know to stay and wait for her to come to them, or they come to her if she calls to them. It’s so natural for her to control her environment and all that’s in it. Her animals believe that. There isn't much choice in the country. You have to be a bad ass lady, clear and moving with purpose. Her dogs didn’t know how sit, down, or stay (that I know of), but boy did they know the difference between right and wrong without the fear to free think, explore, and learn from their own experiences and their corresponding consequences.
Those 3 days with Alex blew my brains open like the first time someone saw electric! Seriously a like “say what?!” moment.
What did I walk away with after that week on the farm?
: To gain control, sometimes you have to be willing to give it up. There is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the quote goes.
A lot of trainers address symptoms of problems without wanting to understand the systemic cause of the undesirable behavior. “Just do what I say and make me look good in front of your owners” is what I have personally witnessed with a lot of trainers and friends, unfortunately. If you ask the animal to hide their feelings without understanding their cause you are going to have a huge problem somewhere eventually. Have you ever been in a relationship where the person just explodes one day? Each day they were pushing feelings down and down until one day the perfect storm happens and you have a bigger problem than you orgianlly thought.
How would you and your dog handle the freedom of farm life? Here is a short video clip of mine.
Head Rubs and Belly Scratches