Shepherding is a craft that often has all of its complexities underestimated. Although our farm is not run by first generation farmers, we are first generation shepherds. In the beginning, we needed all of the advice we could get from any source willing to provide it. This aid ranged anywhere from our neighbors down the road to any book we managed to get our hands on. Our greatest and most patient teacher was our sheep’s guard llama Hot Rod, or more fondly known as, Hottie.
Teachers come and go in life and serve many purposes - they can show you a path to success and divert you from ones of disappointment. A truly talented teacher knows what role to fill for each individual he or she interacts with. Where Hottie was talented was showing humans that the utmost and often overlooked virtue of any shepherd, is one of patience.
In high-pressure scenarios, sheep are naturally inclined to flight as opposed to fight. This is likely the first thing any shepherd realizes about their flock. So, what to do when the sheep escape from the pen and are running down the road in an attempt to make a fresh pasture out of the neighbor’s lawn? The obvious answer is, of course, panic and run after them. However, although Hottie likely led the initial escape, his awareness to the situation was undeniable.
With the intention of herding them back, we approached Hottie and the flock with a tense and rushed energy. Feeling our presence, Hottie would immediately perk up, giving his full attention: eyes, ears, shoulders all pointing in the direction of the approaching humans as he attempted to predict their intentions. His presence was so strong that any energy projected from us as shepherds bounced back, forcing us to face and interpret any actions and movement through Hottie and the sheep’s eyes. To them a human is not a friend, they are a predator.
A patient, slow, and respectful approach was all that was needed to acquire our desired outcome of returning our flock to the farm. Reading the subtleties of our body language as we proceeded to approach calmly, Hottie took initiative and led the flock back to their pen, his head held high with the reassurance that his humans had learned that not all beings respond to varying levels of energy as we do. From this moment of extreme tension and many more throughout the years, we as shepherds learned, if you take the time it takes - it will take less time.
Hottie’s time has now passed. There’s a hole in the barn where he held his position – an empty spot where his presence is still felt. He’s walked from the earth into the land of memories and he only stands in our consciousness now. But his piercing and discerning look still penetrates. And his quiet attention is still the rule of law in the barn.
One of the things I respect most about farming is the discipline required every day to ensure the health and well being of the animals. Daily activities range depending on the breeds you keep and the terrain you inhabit, but at the least you have to ensure they have feed, water and safe shelter.
On our farm, these tasks go hand in hand with the movement of the sun. Morning and evening, the rays of dawn and dusk are like connective tissue that quietly remind you there’s an infinite, rhythmic universe orbiting all around. That’s a gift. Some days the work is small and other days exhausting – but regardless someone has to rise and shine in the morning and loop back again with the setting sun to ensure everyone’s safely down for the night. It’s conscious awareness in action – a daily meditation.
Last Saturday afternoon following a walk in the woods, I wandered up to the barn for evening chores. The horses come out to greet me and tell me stories about how they need more affection, food and games to play. Sky, a pretty mare was hanging back, not unusual, but as the light was diminishing in the west, I happened to notice that she had just a bit of a limp. It was subtle and could have been easily missed, but one of the gifts that comes from years of daily trudging to the barn and back is that even in the twilight you notice that little something that’s off. Our neighbors who have been farming their whole lives and who watch our farm when we’re gone are Jedi’s in this maneuver. After 15 years, I consider myself adept.
An hour later, after gently coaxing her across the icy path, through the dark into the barn, I had examined her pastern for cuts, heat, pain and any other signs that might unravel the dark mystery. Luckily, she only exhibited swelling and after putting on a pressure wrap, was returned to her herd and the midnight sky with Jupiter ascending.
The next two days included a call to the vet, as well as on-going treatments of sweat wraps and ‘bute’ but she improved each day. The key was catching it right away – a core part of animal husbandry and another reason why the daily ‘routine’ of chores is so important. I can only imagine that she was ‘horsing around’ that afternoon and lost her footing on an icy patch. But she was a good and willing patient. And the dialogue between man and horse is one to cherish. I ask to be trusted and try to earn it. Ten times my weight, she shows me her vulnerability and gratitude.