A matter of control


Sometimes we try very hard to control things and it only makes matters worse. This is particularly true when working with beings who have a streak of wildness running through them, like myself for example.

This has recently been drawn more tightly into focus with three wild souls I am working with — Zip, Jimi and my son Harrison.

Zip is an Australian Cattle Dog. These dogs are descendant from wild dingos from Down Under that were bred with English herding dogs to become what we know today as “heelers.” We typically keep Zip on a leash because he tends to run wild when off it. However, the more we keep him leashed, the more he wants to run free.

Then there’s Jimi, a burro foaled in captivity from a wild Bureau of Land Management jenny. He’s larger than most burros and spent a lot of his early existence in the open at a mustang sanctuary, and was initially “handied” in a round pen. Now he views any open range as an opportunity to bolt.

And then there is my son Harrison, The Blur. He’s my son, so the wildness is built-in. But since he’s neurodiverse — he has autism — we’ve had to keep a very close eye on him since he was very young. Since his behaviors can be quite random and range wildly, and it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen next in any given situation, we tend to hover over him, and also help him maybe too much with simple tasks.

With all three we’ve set up situations in which we’ve taught them what they can do by showing them what they can’t do. In our minds, it’s all about safety, but it’s also about control, which is really an illusion — we really don’t have as much control over things as we think we do, if any at all, and eventually the dog is going to get loose, you need the burro to be dependable out in the open, the Blur is going to be in social situations on his own, or need to complete his school work.

Here are some tips that I’ve learned from others and from my own experiences. They may be helpful in working with dogs, burros and people:

  • You need to have more time than they do. Get yourself in a hurry or a frantic rush and you are setting yourself up for disastrous results. Plan ahead and start early if you absolutely have to be somewhere on time (I’ve been known to start the night before). Or be prepared to be late — I often stop, take a deep breath, and drive Harrison in to school late if I feel his getting ready on his own is more important than being there on time. Is that time on the clock just another illusion
  • Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing. For example, in the video above you can see Jimi trotting along a road with no fenceline on the right. The rope is clipped to the halter not the bridle and he’s traveling in a straight line. However, to get this to happen, he is pointed toward home, it’s on an uphill where he can’t easily get away, and there is a very steep sidehill on the right. It’s easier for him to just run home in a straight line at my pace than it is to turn and bolt up that hill.
  • Find some way to make them think the correct behavior was their own idea. It’s difficult to get Harrison to do his school work, but he is very much fascinated with clocks these days. The other night he came home with a writing assignment about clocks, a stroke of genius on behalf of the staff at school. He did this work without any encouragement — even his handwriting was neat.
  • Positive reinforcement goes a long way. I’ve been “rewiring” Zip to run off-leash. For this, I take him over on the trails on nearby Bear Basin Ranch which is a safe environment.When I let him off the leash, I keep him in “referencing distance by sometimes whistling. Occasionally, I stop and call him. When he returns I pat his head and scratch behind the ears and praise him. This way he gets the idea that coming when called does not mean he is automatically back on the leash. He’s still a long way from running off-leash out on the county road but this goes back to the long-term version of our first point about having more time than they do. I’ve also been experimenting with taking him along with one of the burros. Having a burro along appeals to his stock dog instinct and makes him want to stay close. 

In fact, yesterday when returning from the ranch I removed the lead rope from another donkey I’m training, Teddy, and used it as a leash for Zip. Then I let Teddy run free back here while Zip herded him along on the line. Advanced animal training — they both seemed to think it was their idea.

For more insights about the parallels between helping animals and autistic people achieve triumph in life, check out my book, Full Tilt Boogie.


Cows, calves and cold

When I started out with cattle, everything I knew about them was written on a check for $11,400 that I wrote for nine cows and five calves. That was in 2005 and I guess I’ve learned a few things about bovines since then.

One of these things is how tough and resilient they are to foul weather. Take, for instance, the surprise calf that was born the night before last when it was about 14 degrees below zero.

Yeah, -14.

I wouldn’t normally plan for our cows to calve this early, and this one actually arrived a bit early — I was expecting a February calf. Many ranchers do start calving in January and I’ve seen other early calves in pastures in recent days.

I spoke with a veterinarian about this and he said they can handle extremely cold temperatures just fine so long as there’s no wind or blowing snow. The mother cow licks the calf dry and gets it to nurse warm milk quickly.

But the real question is, why do cows often seem to wait for bad weather conditions — like extreme cold or a snowstorm — to have a calf? Some say it has to do with barometer changes. That may be the case. But why? I’ve begun to wonder if there’s some evolutionary component to this. Perhaps over time cows became genetically programmed to have calves during foul weather because predators move around less in these conditions. Or perhaps there’s some other reason we can’t fathom.

In the past years we’ve had a few calves born in bad conditions — actually a wet snowstorm in March or April scares me more than dry cold in January — and they all seem to do just fine. Perhaps we humans apply too much of our own sensibilities to these situations when in fact Mother Nature has it all under control.

When I checked on the cattle at dusk this evening the new calf was running in circles around the big cows. It was a balmy 18 degrees.

Glimpses of an unordinary life

There are times for me when writing — anything — has all the appeal of smashing my thumb repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer. And so during these times I don’t. Write. Anything. Unless someone is paying for it, but then that’s another story.

The best remedy for this is usually outside work, and I’ve had plenty of that to do lately. At the ranch I manage I’ve moved the cattle to summer pasture, an act of wishful thinking. And I’ve built a new fence with the help of my friend Kevin Madler.

The other day when I walked into the barn tack room over there I found the old chest freezer we use to store feed tipped over, and the entire tack room in disarray. Not too hard to figure out a bear had gotten in there overnight.

I picked things up and turned the freezer back over. Mostly the bear had eaten cat food. I called Justin Krall, our local Division of Wildlife officer, and we discussed what to do.

I bolted the door shut that night and the next morning found the bear had unlocked the bolt and ransacked the tack room once again. Now this is a room with a door inside a barn. And the cat food is in a freezer. Pretty brazen stuff, not too far a reach, say, from breaking into a house.

Today Justin came by with an “unwelcome mat” to place in front of the door. Essentially it’s a piece of plywood with screws sticking up through it to make it uncomfortable for the bear to step in front of the door. I also removed all cat food from the premises, and improved the seat for the door bolt. If the mat doesn’t work the next step is a contraption that shoots pepper spray.

In addition to bear repellents, Justin, also had in his truck a young golden eagle that had been hit by a car on Highway 69 near Westcliffe. He was transporting it to the Pueblo Raptor Center where it was to be treated by a vet. The prognosis seemed good, as there was a lot of life in that eagle’s eyes. This explains the accompanying photo.

I suppose the purpose of a blog such as mine is to share some parts of my unordinary life, though sometimes I feel like bears running amok and wounded eagles up close and personal are just part of the daily scene around here. When I’m lucky it inspires me to write something or take a photo. Thanks for “bearing” with me.

Time sure does fly

My son Harrison’s 6th birthday is today. It’s amazing to think back over these past years. Time sure does fly. Oddly, this morning when I went to check on the animals I found a fresh-born calf standing next to its mother.

I also recalled today something I had written shortly after Harrison’s birth. It seems so long ago, yet just like yesterday. Check it out and Happy Birthday, Harrison: The Arrival of Harrison Jake.

A different kind of barn cat

It pays to be “in the now” in my line of work, but often I find my mind somewhere else and running on overdrive as I go about my ranch chores.

We keep a number of half-wild barn cats over at the ranch I manage. They usually scatter when I show up to take care of the horses and cattle. Today in the barn I was headed for the tack room to get feed for the horses when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a cat slinking behind the tractor about 10 feet away.

I had already scooped about three servings into the bucket when it finally registered that the cat by the tractor sure seemed a might bit larger than our barn cats.

And, come to think of it, it had black spots, too.

I walked back out the tack room door with the bucket in hand and a strange low growl emanated from behind the tractor. I headed for the front door in a hurry.

There’s a gate on the far east end of the building so I headed around there for a safer vantage. Sure enough, from about 30 feet away I could see that our newest barn cat was apparently a bobcat, though its ears looked smaller, its build was more slender and it was whiter than most bobcats I’ve seen. Perhaps it was a youngster.

It paced back and forth behind the tractor. Then it slipped into the workshop across from the tack room, turned around and stood with its neck out staring back at me.

I badly wanted my camera but it was at home. I thought about this for a minute then decided to drive to the house and get it. When I returned I first checked the perimeter of the barn for tracks in the fresh snow. There were no bobcat prints to be found, so I figured it was still inside.

With my camera in hand I carefully searched out the barn for the suspected bobcat, all the while being mindful not to corner it in some hiding spot. I never located the the creature, though there are a few potential hiding spots that I could not safely search out.

Sadly, what I did find were the half-eaten remains of one of our barn cats just behind the tractor. It was probably killed last night or this morning and had been covered with hay, in the style of wild felines (see accompanying photo). I left the dead cat there for now so I can tell if the bobcat returns.

No surprisingly I didn’t see any of the other barn cats around.

Colder than cold

It’s been cold this winter for sure — minus 1 this morning. But there seems to be something else going on below the mercury line on the thermometer, with things freezing up that people have never seen freeze before.

Steller’s jay (quailius westcliffius)

Sure we’ve had a few spells of below-zero weather. But the coldest I can remember seeing is 8 below zero. This is not unusual — we usually see a couple nights of double-digit minus temperatures during a winter.

However, the freezing point seems different.

Gary Ziegler reported a frozen spring at Bear Basin Ranch that he’s never seen freeze since he bought the place in 1972.

My friend Vanessa Taft, who has lived in the area for many years, reported her septic tank frozen. I later learned of a local business that has steam-defrosted 65 septic tanks in the area this winter, surely a record of some sort.

My friend Peter Hedberg had the water line to his barn freeze. Another first.

Many area roads display effects of severe frost-heaving, and a literal glacier several feet thick has form on a nearby creekbed.

Meanwhile, I’ve been breaking ice on two stock tanks with electric de-icers in them. Never seen this happen before.

So, why is all this stuff freezing when it’s not even been, relatively speaking, that cold? Are the thermometers wrong? Is there some other factor beside temperature at work?

Perhaps hell has frozen over and climate change is not something we can quantify with our little glass tubes full of liquid or our fancy digital devices.

Feeding livestock the smart way

In weather this nasty it helps to be at least as smart as the animals that depend on you. This winter I’ve devised a system to feed both cattle and horses that is working out really well so far.

I have our hay supplier, Clint Seiling, deliver 1,100-pound round bales and drop them off inside a pen made of steel corral panels. Clint has a 35-foot dump trailer that can offload eight of these big bales sideways right into the hay pen. In the above photo you can see one bale in the feeder in the foreground and seven waiting for use in the hay-holding pen in the background.

When it’s time, I move aside a panel and can usually get these bales rolling by myself. This can be a bit of a workout — it gives the term “bucking bales” an entirely new meaning — but when I’ve wrestled the hay to where I want it, then I tip it over on a flat end. Then I pull the feeder around it. A word of caution: You don’t want to tip one of these things over on top of yourself.

This year Clint bound these bales with netting rather than twine. The netting makes it much easier, especially when the outer layer is frozen. There’s no cutting and I just have to upwrap the netting about three times from each bale.

Workout notwithstanding, I find this entire process easier and much quicker than starting a tractor in cold weather to pick up a bale, and then opening and shutting barn doors and gates to drive in and out of the paddocks, dealing with animals trying to escape, etc.

In one paddock I feed five horses this way, and I’m feeding five pregnant cows and a bull this way in another.  One of these big bales lasts each group of animals several days, so I can plan ahead for storms or variations in my schedule and know they are well-fed.

Lady luck in a water trough

As I shut off the standpipe to the horse trough at the ranch this cold, gray, snowy morning, I spotted something small and red floating on the water. I was about to walk away when curiosity got the best of me.

A closer look revealed a lady bug. I scooped the beetle out of the water with my hand and could see tiny legs moving.

Now, it’s been pretty cold at night recently — two nights ago we had frost you could measure with a ruler — and today is even more frigid with no sun and wind chill surely somewhere in the single digits.

Perplexed at how this insect could have survived the weather, not to mention the swim, I traipsed off to my vehicle with the ladybug riding on my palm, where it remained except for a brief venture up my wrist, until I arrived home and released it on the house plants.

In many cultures ladybugs are associated with good luck, and beetles in general are said to be a sign of resurrection and metamorphosis — all of which are welcome notions on a gloomy day like today.