Everything about this book sings – the cover photography and layout by Robert Overholtzer, its authors, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, and cleverly named too: Animals Make Us Human. The prose is sharp, spare, to the point and a joy to this animal-language obsessive here. By 3:00 a.m. I’m nodding my head as Grandin’s describing new forays making life-somehow-more-agreeable, working with zoo animals in captivity situations and behaviours. For some odd reason, I re-read the anecdotal evidence of her ground-breaking work with highly reactive captive antelope panicking for reasons no one could quite work out before, finally, conceding, darn, getting a few hours sleep might be a cool idea!
Saturday had been grimly foggy down-to-the-kneecaps, but the following spring morning was spectacular, even better by afternoon where it was one mere sweater and a down vest overtop, oh, what joy! So, over to the wintering grazing ground to wait for the very last perfect round bale delivery, and closing off gates so the tractor could slide straight in.
In that process, I moved the five shallow rubberized feed buckets into one sloppy sort of pile, topped up the water trough levels, heaved in a new salt mineral lick. The hay arrived, up and over the fence line and its driver away. The Best was sharp down the hill to see if the Human had come up with her oat cuisine (sorry, very bad pun!), the others cascading behind her in a raggletaggle kind of order.
She came through the open gate on a sharp high-headed bouncingly short trot stride, her eyes fixated on those five buckets. I had, you see, moved them from their scattering over the home feeding field ground and, to boot, sunshine was glinting on moisture from where they’d been overturned. Those ears were sharp forward, her eyes glued (just as Temple’s antelopes had been on a sometimes overturned yellow sign in the access chutes). Her followers mimicked the action, before simultaneously wheeling to another gate still open into the summer gardening beds – a small enclosed sort of area – which had the new bale.
The thing was, I’d dragged blue tarpaulins from where they’d been stacked to shake ‘em out, fold them afresh and take homewards and they were lying right across the gateway.
The four ‘domestics’ trotted straight over, straight past the brand new opened up bale and straight onto where the last of the finished hay bales had stood, heads straight down and nosing with blissful concentration all those lovely juicy seed heads. Mops, meanwhile, who is absolutely hay-fixated, had worked out if that lot wanted to menace each other over their own cramped turf of grass seeds, life was way easier; he was going to stay on the other side of the fence-line where five independent piles of hay were waiting, just for him, no sharing!
All of this herd, had, as Grandin had done habituating antelopes for veterinary injections, ‘done’ blue tarpaulins on the ground, dragging them, draping them, in every single kind of situation. Same deal; neat, eh?!
This ‘Home Herd’ have been together years now, and on the vast sweeps of native grasses where they crowd, jostle, eye each other up. This is behaviour Grandin remarks on, herd versus isolationist confinement, with many species she’s worked with, studied. She, you see, puts herself into the animal’s headspace, thinking akin to them. Her closing chapter is a simple rejoinder answering the question how she can justify designing better and more humane stockyards and slaughterhouses – and they’re compelling arguments.
The previous Saturday, I’d stayed awhile at an enchanting little clinic I’d like to write about sometime soon for many good things it covered. One question asked was about whether you could de-spook a really, really spooky horse and the answer was thoughtful, sound. My mind wandered, just a bit, on the opinions being voiced. I thought back to early days with The Best, probably one of the most dangerous horses I’ve ever re-started. High-headed was her specialty, adrenalin and cortisol on permanent release and absolutely no trust in anyone, let alone any stupid human daring to tell her what to do.
I remember one day when in a fury of she laid down at a crossroads further up Horse Creek Road where, with horrendous timing, two ranchers approached in ancient farm trucks from opposite directions. Older gentleman, wonderful manners, they dismounted their own horsepower to politely ask if I needed some assistance. The white mare, meanwhile, jaws agape, was trying to bite my ankle.
“Oh no, I’m fine,” I replied airily, thinking oh-dear-God-in-Heaven. They drove away, she stood up, I got back on. I did groundwork and schooling work at home, in safe environments where no-horse-eating evils lurked. We found a bit she finally respected (I will respect your mouth if you respect my hand) and after two years of slog, bloody-mindedness, things began to improve.
It was, though, having a ‘real’ job, being a ‘mountain horse’ for the guidebook’s research that turned her mind completely 100 per cent around. The powerhouse prepared to go all day over and through anything, standing perfectly while I fiddled endlessly with pockets that crackled with notebooks, clicking away with cameras, pulling out multiple maps, being admired by many (this was definitely OK!) at trailheads and workshops. My opinion: yes, you can create backcountry mountain horses, or bold horses in competitive disciplines (say cross-country ridden or driving, who will give you everything, but be prepared to do your homework. And go into horse-time when schooling, lots and lots of thinking time on horse-think, horse-language and biomechanics too (a high-headed horse will produce adrenalin that takes, on average, 20 long minutes to begin dissipating and you get brain cells back again).
And books like Animals Make Us Human are eye-openers into animal thinking, vision perception. Equitation Science (Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean) also sits on the bedside table too right now (talk about being sleep deprived!). The photographs fit descriptions – and yes, I like how they’ve studied behaviour, and patterns of hundreds, thousands of horses and been a bit scientific working out fear, learning, response variations, pain stimuli, fear and flight differences.
For high performance biomechanics (understanding what does what under hide and hair), it’s Gillian Higgins (with her own www.horsesinsideout.com), with books, DVDs and YouTube videos who has enlightened my poor overtired brain many times indeed. Once you’ve seen her horse and human painted-on skeletons it’s perception changed all over again; a wonderful idea that explains movement so well, so simply.