Of Mice and Sheep

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They moved the sheep into the valley this week.

It’s not done the way you imagine it, slowly, on foot, sheep and man and dogs invisible within the lazy cloud of dust rising and drifting until the winds start, a ritual that was ancient a thousand years before the Old Testament. Now the sheep are brought in by enormous stock trailers pulled by big rigs, aluminum cargo containers riddled with holes, animals clattering down the ramp and stopping almost at the base to graze until jostled on by the flock crowding behind, spreading out leisurely, a diaspora dictated by the stomach, which is probably the cause of almost all the diasporas the world has ever known.

Most of our valley is still open land, but it’s a peculiar patchwork of agriculture and unused land, frequently side by side. Why is this eighty acre parcel plowed and planted and fertilized and irrigated and manicured, while the eighty acres next to it has never been touched in the twenty years we’ve lived here? Different soil? Different owner? I don’t know. But because there are still so many patches left unused, the valley and the surrounding hills are prime sheep country in the spring when the grasses first appear.

We know the sheep are coming when they bring the water truck and the shepherd’s trailer in a day or two before. The trailer is as unromantic as the big rigs, a tacky, tiny, bumper-hitch aluminum camper in need of repair and washing. When we see these things, we know our lives, our equestrian lives, are about to become disrupted.

Horses don’t like sheep. Horses don’t like anything that makes them nervous, and anything they’re unfamiliar with makes them nervous, but sheep seem to have a special effect on horses. If they’re around sheep long enough, most horses will eventually get used to them; familiarity breeds boredom. If they’re around anything enough, most horses will get used to whatever it is, but there are always the exceptions.

We rescued a horse about ten years ago, a willful, foul-tempered, misanthropic beast who felt he should always be the Officer in Charge of Everything. Darleen did a great job with him, but he never got used to sheep. No matter how much he was around them (a week or so annually), or how close (once, at the vet’s, I deliberately put him in a turnout next to a pen with eight or ten, all bleating at each other), whenever we tried to ride him past a flock he would break into a sweat, start to tap dance, move on into an interpretative modern jazz routine, and finally descend into hip-hop and break dancing. It made Darleen’s ride somewhat less than magical.

I don’t know why sheep seem to bother horses so much. Perhaps it’s the smell. And it’s hard to say how horses see them. A horse’s vision is extraordinarily acute for any kind of movement, even at great distances, but it’s not terribly clear, so perhaps they see sheep not as individual animals with an aggregate I.Q. considerably smaller than a pet rock, but as an enormous and amorphous slow-moving cloud of ectoplasm. A bad-smelling, strange-sounding cloud of ectoplasm.

The two horses we have now (we sold the Officer in Charge of Everything, at a loss, to a retired movie horse trainer who wanted a project, and when I tell you we sold a rescue at a loss, you know all you need to know about the Parkers’ cunning and wily business savvy; buy high and sell low, that’s our motto) are far more easy going and good natured than the rescue, but when the sheep were unloaded, both of them became stark staring lunatics. They made it clear with every movement that this was the end of civilization as they knew it, heads up, tails up, blowing through their nostrils, galloping as far away in the pastures as they could get, and then galloping back to stare and blow some more.

Two days after they arrived, the sheep began to drift over closer to our property. When I went down that afternoon to bring the horses in for grooming and saddling, the sheep had grazed to within fifteen or twenty yards of my fence, and the horses were behaving like congenital idiots, fleeing in terror from the deadly horse-eating lambs, and then racing back to see what had scared them. As the flock got closer and closer I decided that instead of trying to ride (ha!) I would try to use the time to get the horses’ minds right. I leaned up against the fence and watched the sheep while I talked to the horses. I had much to say about their I.Q.s, their commonsense, their usefulness as cowponies or even for basic transportation, their ancestry, their disgraceful lack of dignity, and their even greater lack of courage, but I said it all in sweet and loving tones. They didn’t exactly go back to grazing, but at least they stopped running back to the barn. They satisfied themselves with snorting and staring.

In the October/November issue of Ranch & Reatahttps://www.rangeradio.com/ranch-and-reata-magazine

there is an article about a young lady wrangler whose clients, city slickers all, were charged by a seven hundred pound grizzly bear during a trail ride in the Flathead National Forest in Montana. As the horses bolted, an eight year old boy fell off his mount. The wrangler, Erin Bolster, was able to turn her own horse and charge the bear three times, saving the boy’s life. I may sit in the barn this evening and read that article out loud to my pampered hothouse flowers. Maybe it’ll shame them into some semblance of courage.

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