Halter Breaking season….

Be calm. Be quick. Be conniving. Be quiet. Push. Pull. Go close so when you get kicked it won’t hurt as badly. Watch out for “leaping lizards”. Be ready for rope-burn blisters and possibly an aching back or worse, from pulling. Be ready to get your toes stepped on; or pounced on. And be ready to get shit-covered. All in a day’s work!

Across Canada, a lot of purebred breeders, like us, are halter-breaking calves for the show ring and the sale ring.  We separate them from their mothers for a couple hours, then for half a day and then for most of the day, as they get older and as the summer moves along.

We bring them in out of the heat of mid-day and turn them out again mid-afternoon to join their mothers and “frolic” on pastures in the cool of the evening and night in British Columbia’s southern interior. Inside the barn, during the day, they are under fans to keep them cool and are in spaceous pens with clean wood mulch under foot.  We start washing them and drying them and clipping them and teaching them etiquette on the other side of the rope – how to be kind and responsive to their handlers – ideally – and how to not embarrass us in public! While in the barn, they get a bit of grain ration at chore time….. once they’re broke……

The practice of halter breaking is an exercise of instinct and patience.  Every cattle person has their own way of handling the situation. But it’s about showing calves (read “prey animal”) that you really aren’t there to kill them.  The exercise is one of earning trust and depending on any given calf’s temperament, it can get really interesting. Temper tantrums aren’t advised (from handlers), unless you want to fail in the trust earning exercise. But tantrums are expected from the calves, as we launch into this clashing of worlds (human & animal). We always wonder why we didn’t start sooner – when the calves were smaller. But there was the calving season to wrap up, followed by breeding season, vaccinations, branding, castrating, barn clean-out and getting cows out to grass. And then all the embryo transplant work and cattle moves on grass. And the water legislation and the breed association business, and the farm safety program administration and  the every day ranch administration and the event planning that we’ve gotten ourselves into. And my writing gigs……

There are no two calves alike, in body conformation or in attitude. There are the sulkers, the learning-impaired ones, the mean ones, the kickers, the very resourceful ones (i.e. too smart for their own good!), the bellowers, the brave ones and the scared-to-death ones. After day three, the lot of them begin to settle into routines and be slightly more cooperative. They stop pulling as they stand, tied up. Some eventually lie down (relaxed) and some chew their cuds (relaxed). And we start to scratch them and groom them with combs and brushes, to further gain their trust. If we’re lucky, and most of the time we are, they actually enjoy the routine.  And then they are taught to follow our lead. It’s that time of year again.  The deadline for entries for our first show is this week and show season will be soon upon us. It’s one of our many seasons on the ranch. (…as our main guys are stressing over hay season which is also upon us.)

After our third day of exercises of tying calves up, we lie in bed talking to one another with our aching 50ish-year-old bodies saying we really should get more help for this exercise. (Our daughter was already helping us in a big way!) But then, who would we trust to do it “right”???  The next question is “how long will be able to do this?”  There is no answer.

No question as to which creature is the most stubborn.



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Cate Brown

I have been a cattle woman my entire life. I am currently a cattle rancher in British Columbia Canada with my husband Phil. As part of my job here, I am also fortunate to work with - do the dance of life with - cattle and horses. I am a philosopher and a meditator in my quiet time and I love to write. I'm a prolific reader and a bit of a podcast junkie. I have earned my living in the cattle industry in both commercial and purebred sectors and have also been an agricultural and livestock journalist for publications across Canada for at least 35+ years. I am passionate about the cattle culture in which I currently work and live. I regularly contemplate our way of life and the ways we can improve our sustainability, relative to our relationship with our nature - Mother Nature. I champion low-stress livestock handling and women's increasing input on this landscape. This blog embodies one of my efforts to better connect with family, friends and colleagues in the cattle business. Beyond that, I hope to make our way of living and cattle production practices more transparent and to better connect our producers and consumers. It is also a joy to share my observations of animal psychology to help everyone better understand what motivates us and them. [ig: catebrown66 ]

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