by Bruce Patterson, November 16, 2016
(Author’s note: Having recently sat down to a game of Chess with Death — should I take, or leave, that dangling Brussel sprout smothered in cheez whiz? — makes me want to return to some of my favorite themes. To squeeze in another word edgewise, so to speak. Maybe add some gleam or cast a new light on an old idea. Then I’ve always been heavily invested in the international humanitarian struggle for Animal Rights.)
Want to have some fun with a horse?
Find a retired old potbellied stud that’s been put on a strict diet. Meet him at the fence and, when nobody’s looking, give him a big old palm-full of rolled oats and molasses. While he’s happily munching, his ears swatting flies, and before he reaches down to pick up what he’s spilled, give him another big old palm-full. Now that you’ve got him grooving in equine nirvana, slip him a quarter-slice of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and watch what happens.
Ever wonder why cows on hillsides never stand with their heads downhill? It’s because it makes them feel dizzy on the front end and constipated on the back one.
“I spent all my money on women and liquor. The rest I just wasted.”
— broke down old rodeo cowboy’s court testimony during his sentencing hearing for being drunk, loud, obnoxious and vagrant. Delta, Utah. June 6th, 1956.
I once lived for a spell on a farm in the bullseye of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Three years out the army, alone, broke and chased by war demons, I wound up on the farm by accident. Or since, scientifically speaking, there are no such things as accidents—or luck, or fate—I should say I wound up on the farm the way one thing leads to another, and that to the next, and so on until you finally arrive at something else entirely with another thing coming.
Working in an onion field on land as smooth and level as a lake (it actually was lake bottom not too long ago and ocean bottom way back when), the sky a dusty dome and the Sierra Nevada, the Tehachapis and Diablos hidden behind a wall of industrial haze, with distant tractors lowing like lonesome cows, at least I was about as far away as I could get from root-bound, vine-choked slippery mountainsides. “Anti-jungle,” the bottomlands were, and I liked that. Out in the middle of an onion field surrounded by chalk line horizons, nobody can sneak up on you or hide in the bushes. Now I just needed to figure out where—it wasn’t here—I might belong.
That’s how that farm’s milking cow helped me out. I milked her a few times, my cheek and ear to her side listening to her stomachs gurgling, my hands pulling and squeezing her teats, her steaming jets of milk rhythmically squirting into my frosty milk pail, and one morning I realized why she was letting me to get away with it. The reasons were obvious, of course, as any old-timey farm boy or girl knows as well as a rooster’s crow. But the implications struck little ex-GI me as profound. Then and there I resolved that, no matter what, I wasn’t going to become somebody’s two-legged milking cow.
According to the Tao of the Cow, the entire universe is divided into just two elements: Food and Unfood. A cow’s ethical code begins and ends with: When in Unfood, go to Food. When in Food, stay.
When I was a little boy, my dad warned me never to become conceited because conceited people are always the easiest marks. For one thing, since they’re convinced that they as uniquely talented individuals are entitled to all they can get their hands on, like fish they always rise to the bait. Even better, because they assume they already know everything they need to know, they never learn anything. Whether it’s to a pool hall, a card table, the stock market, a voting booth or a milking stall, they always come back for more.
Am I saying milking cows are conceited? They sure enough are in a bovine kind of way. She lets you milk her in exchange for a feed bucket full of cow candy. Alfalfa and molasses, rolled oats and molasses, corn and molasses or any other kind of Large Animal candy will do. So long as her mouth is full and she’s grooving on munching, she won’t lift her nose out of her feed bucket or worry over what you’re doing to her ass end.
But woe to you if she runs out of candy before she runs out of milk (to keep her at max production, you hafta milk her dry twice a day). The instant she realizes she’s run out of candy, she’ll lift up her head, look over her shoulder, see what you’re doing and, feeling cheated, her pride wounded, she’ll kick over your milk pail. If she’s hot-blooded and you give her the chance, she’ll kick you. If her head wasn’t tied and she wasn’t stalled, she might buttonhook around and snort a pint of snot on you. Worse, she might drop her head and try’n run right over the top of you. And, if she succeeds, you’d best hope the ground is good and squishy.
To avoid such humiliations, when it comes to handling any kind of Large Animal, the First Commandment is: Thou shall not get thyself runned over. Unless you’re a rodeo cowboy. Then it’s amended to read: When thou art throwed by thy equine or, lo, verily, thy bovine, thou shall not get thyself runned over.
Of course, not many rodeo cowboys are temperamentally fit to be following most any kind of Commandment. Leastwise not all the time. They’re bound to stray a little bit and during their illustrious careers the most sinful of them have broken so many bones their ribs tinkle while they hobble, one hip rolling counter-clockwise while the other one creaks up and down like a worn out piston.
In recent times there’s been some Animal Rights activists denouncing professional rodeo “organized cruelty to animals.” This while conveniently forgetting to acknowledge that a broke down old bronc buster is precisely that. Precisely that except of a kind special in all the ways we’re supposedly so intimately familiar with.
A while back on TV I watched this media network personality grill an old retired Grand National Champion cowboy about the extent of the animal cruelty he’s witnessed during his long decades rambling with the circuit. The old cowboy he’s sporting a sideways horseshoe tattoo across his face, his nose is lying over like a broke bale of hay and one of his shoulders is hanging low down like the tail of a guilty dog. “All’n all,” he softly ventures, “I reckon the livestock gets treated pretty well.”
Having spent fifteen years working on the production end of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Association, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about all the cruelty to animals my compadres and me have supposedly either engaged in or been complicit with. I mean, now that we, as a national culture, have finally realized that even chickens experience pain, and even rabbits sometimes feel bored and depressed, lonely and blue, you know it’s gotta be true with racehorses, show horses, cavalry horses and what all. While racing is dangerous for both horse and rider, the pro-horse partisans assert that there’s a huge difference because the “human being” has a choice and poor dumb animals don’t.
And this is why we as a nation have outlawed dog fights and cock fights but not two-legged, pert-near naked human female cockfights or dog fights between two-legged, pert-near naked human male gladiators with spiked leather collars and bare feet with sharpened toenails? You see the mischief being played by that wimpy little jive-assed word “human being?” Pick up a rock—there’s a “being” for you. Come on, do we really believe that human blood sport presented as Militaristic Patriotic Public Spectacle is good but putting some of your pocket money on a fighting cock is bad?
The simple fact is that roosters like fighting roosters—or, at least, they enjoy winning cock fights—and racehorses love running and getting to the front. Coming out the gate, broncs and bulls delight in jumping, bucking, kicking and throwing people off their backs and making them fly all flailing and goofy-looking before landing with a thump and a crumple. While I can’t prove that last assertion is true, it stands to reason.
What I can predict with certainty is that if you abolish, or take all the fun out of, rodeo and horseracing, thousands of head of livestock will never get born. And you can say it’s better never to be born than getting abused your whole life, and it’s true so long as you’re speaking for yourself. But, gee, if everybody that ever got used and abused jumped off bridges, dove into the ocean or took some equivalent kind of unilateral and decisive action, who’d be left to turn out the lights? Who’d milk the cow or bring in the bacon? Who’d let out the dog and bring in the cat?
Now if you think I’m demeaning professional horses, milking cows and prized, fire-breathing bulls by calling them “livestock,” think again. In some form both rodeo and horseracing are as old as horsemanship, and that came out of Central Asia at least 10,000 years ago. Like domesticated dogs and cats, horses come in all kinds of breeds that have been bred by us humans for all kinds of reasons. The Thoroughbred breed is only a couple of centuries old, but its lineage is very ancient: the wedding of Asian Steppes to Arabian Desert, hot and cold blood, the swift and powerful, the tall and agile. Thoroughbreds are born to run and no horse can stay ahead of the best of them for much more than a quarter mile. Thoroughbreds can jump higher than other horses, and usually they (mostly Thoroughbred, Morgan, Quarter Horse mixes) can outlast other breeds in cross country races, though Arabians will beat them if they’re racing through the sand and heat and they keep going long enough. While Thoroughbreds are too big and tall to make good mountain horses, as general, all-around saddle horses they are excellent so long as you are an expert rider and you love speed.
During my brood ranch foreman career, well over 100 fouls were born and we usually kept them for at least two calendar years. We generally ran between ten and fourteen brood mares and, the first decade or so, we also cared for a handful of retirees. The oldest was a dappled grey gelding called “Caballo” who, including the old Fair Circuit, had raced for maybe five or six seasons before getting put to pasture and dying at the age thirty-two if I recall right. We also boarded “layups” from the racetracks and helped with their rehabs. The colts and fillies that wouldn’t make racers were either sold or found good homes.
Although I know at least a little bit about horses and have made my acquaintance with cows, I can’t say I’ve ever met any of either species that acted like they regretted being born. Then again, while on the job, never once did I see either one getting abused.
I think it’s way past time we as well-rounded 21st Century individuals admit we’re animals and so entitled to Animal Rights. We should start taking some pride in our animal nature, too, and stop trying to hide it like monkeys hiding from mirrors. If “human animal” sounds too degrading and “Mankind” too in-your-face Sexist, how about we start calling ourselves the human species? How about us starting to see ourselves as the members of a clearly threatened species instead of the members of some uber-nationalist “race,” cult, creed, movement or demographic? “Humankind” somebody once called us tassel-headed bipeds, and I like it. I think it captures some of our animal essence while expanding our human souls: ethics, intellect, imagination and curiosity stirred, not shaken. I sure can’t see how it hurts anybody to admit there’s real live living dirt underfoot.
Finally, regarding horses, they like to run and some of them enjoy it so much you can’t hold them back. For animals their size, they’re very agile and they can run circles around cows and bulls. Not only can horses smell their way to water, or to a mate, they can virtually always find their own ways home. But that doesn’t mean that, whether while bolting in panic or out of sheer animal elation, they can’t run themselves into fences or stumble and fall and, obviously, you don’t want to be astride one when it does.
Ain’t many occupations more dangerous than riding rodeo broncs or bulls or being a rodeo clown. But racing, jumping or barrel racing horses can’t be called prudent activities. As the old saw goes: “Ain’t ever been a horse that couldn’t be rode, or a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.”
By the way, you remember the one about the retired old rodeo cowboy who showed up at the Pearly Gates? When St. Peter asked him what was the noblest thing he’d ever done in his life, the cowboy told how one time he was enjoying a quiet beer in his friendly little hometown watering hole when in barges six loud, crude and nasty outlaw bikers. Immediately they start in at harassing one of the local girls and the cowboy he can’t have that. So he steps into the middle of them fellahs and he tells them they can either behave themselves or he’ll knock them out and drag them outside one-by-one.
“Hmmm,” St. Peter says, impressed. “How long ago was that?
The old boy glances at his wristwatch. “That’d be about ten seconds ago.”