Take Annie to a clinic full of cows having never seen a cow before when I've ridden her 5 times in the month of January and once in the month of February? Sure, what could go wrong?
First I started off with some visual aids in an effort to explain to Annie what a "cow" was and what "cutting a cow" was. I hoped that this was enough to not give her a stroke when she saw her first cow.
Then we actually had to get there. We were supposed to go Friday afternoon but our "light dusting" turned into 5 inches of snow and the trip was postponed. Driving up Saturday morning at o dark thirty we were very glad we hadn't tried to head up Friday night. No way in heck would we have made it.
When we got there I had to hitch Annie up on the rail next to her first mules. Notice how concerned she is and my total lack of any sort of cow appropriate western tack. Oh well. Her biggest bother is that gosh darned slow feed hay "prison" that is keeping her from getting to all the hay as fast as possible.
Here's a view of the entire arena from the clinician's website. At the far end is an extra set of panels that fences off about 60 feet across and inside of that is another little pen to contain the cows. The arena is heated by a wood burning stove outside so it was toasty warm.
The clinician made sure everybody knew that Annie had never even SEEN a cow and we were the scheduled entertainment for the day. Awesome.
First they bring the cows in from the pasture into a fenced off area and then put them in a little tiny pen inside that fenced in area. Annie stared and stared and stared but at least she didn't try to run away. Then we got to into the bigger pens with the entire group and sniff the cows through the fence up close. Annie had to get a lead from a buddy horse to get within ten feet of the safely contained cows. Then they let one cow loose at a time into the fenced in area and a horse goes into that area to "track" the cow. They wanted the horse to keep his eye on the cow the entire time and to follow it closely around the arena. I let Annie watch for a LONG time. She was mesmerized and I had no idea her neck was that flexible as she refused to let the loose cow out of her sight. I also hoped that having her watch the other horses not get eaten would bolster her confidence.
Eventually it was Annie's turn and she had to face her demons/cows. We had to get a lead into the fenced in area and a lead up to the loose cow. The clinician used us as a demo of building confidence in our horses around cows. Using his horse to block the fenced in herd and push the cow out to us so we could move it around. He noticed that she ok facing the one cow on her own from a safe distance but the herd of cows was too much to handle. Annie grew braver and braver and was quickly trotting after the cow trying to sniff it. Then she put her teeth on it to find out what happened. That cow RAN. After that the clinician had us back off the cow because he wants to leave the horse at the height of his confidence and wanting more.
After everyone would work a cow the cow had to be herded out of the big pen, across the open arena, and into a roundpen at the other end. The waiting horses formed a corridor and tried to keep that cow from getting loose and helped herd it into the roundpen. I let Annie follow the cow a bit as it passed each time to build her confidence. After we'd worked all the cows and moved them to the roundpen we had to move all the cows back out of the roundpen, across the arena, and into the big pen. I let Annie follow as close as she wanted as the other horses helped push the entire herd back where they came from.
Next the cows were let out of their little pen into the big pen and we were supposed to go into the pen and with a partner move the cows around the pen in a figure eight.
Annie entered the pen willingly with her friend but stopped dead 20 feet from the cows. The clinician said that she was now ok pushing around one cow but pushing 15 cows was a bit much and reminded everyone that she had never seen cows before. Then Annie snorted and the whole herd moved. Then she snorted again and the whole herd moved again. Then Annie snorted a third time and it was like something clicked in her furry little brain. THE COWS ARE AFRAID OF ME. Then she advanced on the entire herd with her ears pinned.
The cows moved out of the way.
She got even bolder and was soon pushing the entire herd of cows around the pen while the clincian told everyone how much her confidence had increased and how she now realized she could make the cows move at once.
We didn't exactly make our figure 8. Moving cows around is a lot harder than it looks!!!
After that the cows were let loose into the entire arena and we were supposed to cut one cow from the herd and move them down the arena and through a set of barrels and back. First, cows don't like to leave their cow friends, second, cows move FAST!
Here is Annie's second time facing the herd of cows. She marched right into the herd and when they didn't move she started biting the cows. Not exactly what I'm supposed to be doing but Annie's change in confidence was amazing. It was really difficult trying to cut one cow out of the herd. They stay glued together and Annie kept trying eat all of them whenever they got within eating distance. We did eventually cut one cow out and then we had to fly down the arena after it to try and turn it back through the barrels in time. I had a few seconds to admire the amazing trot she was giving me with her rounded back and arched neck fixed on the cows.
In between turns we were supposed to keep the cut cow out of the herd and keep the herd in line. Annie took this job a little too seriously. She didn't want to turn her back to the entire herd and she got a little worked up and kept stepping out of her spot and going after cows that she thought got too close. A few times a cow came running right toward us at top speed and Annie not only stood her ground but advanced toward the cow with her ears back and her teeth clacking shut.
Here's a picture of everyone at the end of the clinic. You can see we're the only two horses there in english tack although at least my friend has her trail saddle!
On a side note I found it amazing that every single participant was wearing a helmet by their own choice and several were wearing air vests that they said they trail rode in on a regular basis. Great to see other disciplines making the choice to be safe with their heads.
I'm really glad I got talked into going to the clinic and it was a welcome respite from the grind of this winter.