I was first introduced to the concept of “focus” by my USA Swimming coach when I was in 8th grade. Coach Andersen believed in holistic fitness for his athletes, and was determined to teach us all mental toughness and focus in addition to making our bodies strong. Coach was my earliest mentor, and had a tremendous lasting influence on the person that I have become. He made me tough, gave me a tremendous work ethic, and challenged me to always strive for greatness.
That being said, my teammates and I thought that he had lost his mind when he had us all lie down on the floor to practice relaxation and focus techniques….Amidst a room of quiet snickers, I found a tremendous life skill.
I called on this life skill ten years later as I began to study cattle and horses and learned to interact with them.
I remember vividly the first time that I shipped cattle to harvest.
The feeling that I have today when I ship cattle to harvest is much different…
Moving amidst a large number of animals that are 13X bigger than you are can be intimidating. That first day, I was shaking with fright as Archie and I counted off cattle to be moved up to the waiting semi-trucks. In spite of my fear, (thanks to Coach Andersen) I was able regain my focus and concentrate on the task at hand. I lacked confidence that first day, but I realized that it was imperative that I stay in control.
So what exactly is focus?
Webster defines focus as a point of concentration. When you are handling prey animals, this focus has an added element that Natural Horseman Bill Dorrance describes as “feel”. In this instance, the concentration requires a detailed element of perception necessary to enable an effective two way communication system. When you are handling animals that weigh 1350#, there is little room for error. Effective communication is the difference between skillful cattle handling and safety, and chaotic and dangerous mayhem.
When I first began at the feed yard, shipping cattle required four crew members and a lot of tension and pressure. Today, my cowboy and I sort and ship cattle by ourselves and there is an element of effective communication that reduces the tension and makes it a more organized effort.
A focus on feel, training and prey animal psychology that begins when cattle are received at the feed yard and continues throughout the feeding period. When I acclimate cattle into the feed yard, I teach them to walk calmly past the handler and sort easily. I also consistently rely on the “Ask, Tell, Promise” communication system that I described in an earlier post as I train my animals. This not only allows them to feel more comfortable in their surroundings, but it also makes “shipment day” much easier.
Does “shipment day” always go as smoothly as I want it to? No. Animals (cattle) are unpredictable, and no two days are the same. When we handle and ship cattle, we focus on Dr. Dee Griffin’s 4 S’s of Safety:
Safety of the animal handler
Safety of the animal
Safety of the food supply
Safety of everyone that comes in contact with the animal
In the fifteen years that I have been learning how cattle think and act, I have discovered that the single most important skill to have is perception of the surrounding environment and focus on the animal and the task at hand. Communication is a two way street—even with an animal. If you are not focused, then you will miss half the conversation. If the conversation is with a 1350# animal, then missing half of the conversation may mean the difference between effectively loading the animal and literally being trampled to death.
Calf #718 weighed 1394# when I loaded him on the truck and shipped him to harvest. My measly 105# of body weight looks pretty scrawny next to a powerful animal of that size. I must rely on my focus, feel, and communication to safely and effectively load him (and his herd mates) on the semi-truck destined for harvest…
That takes me back to the early days when Coach Andersen taught me that brawn was victorious only when it was combined with brains!