Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lessons from the Working Pens

In the midst of all the crazy that marks the everyday life of a vet student, one subject that has come up repeatedly is livestock handling, specifically horses and cattle.  Though I admit that handling skills will make the treatment of any animal easier, from a simple logistical standpoint, it is easier to force a 20-lb dog to cooperate than a 1200-lb horse.  Even a six weight Brahman heifer can effectively shut down an entire operation simply by sulling up and laying down in an alley.  Short of strapping her to a tractor, there isn't anything you can do to force her to go along with the process, and that is usually a low-yield procedure for all involved.

A number of factors make it difficult for veterinary students to gain good livestock handling skills.  First, more students are from an urban background, and even if they have experience with large livestock, this experience is usually limited.  Second, the sheer amount of information we are expected to absorb in four years makes it impossible to include an in-depth study and practice of livestock handling.  The few lab experiences that school does provide, in my view, do more to make the situation worse on some levels.  Handling school-owned teaching animals is a whole different game than handling "real" livestock, and can impart a false confidence that will lead students into dangerous situations that they do not have the skills to handle.  Thirdly, the confidence that is required to be an effective veterinarian also lends itself to a somewhat grudging ego.  I've encountered many vets and vet students who get offended when a producer challenges their authority.  True, most producers don't have the medical knowledge we do, but most of them have been handling their livestock a lot longer than we have. 

I see our role as one of a teacher, medically, but often more as student, when it comes to handling.  Coming in with a chip on your shoulder because a rancher won't let you run his chute isn't going to make him more inclined to listen to your medical advice.  I've heard many of my female cohorts in large animal medicine complain that they aren't given the same respect that a male student would receive, and I'll grant, guys probably don't have to hear comments about how surprising it is to find a "pretty little girl" in the middle of a muddy working pen.  My question is, how is getting pissy going to make the situation better?  In my experience, if you suck it up, do your job, and display a basic level of competence, the respect will soon follow.  I love working cattle with grumpy old men, because they usually know a lot more about handling than I do, and I can learn something from watching.  Part of this is a culture difference.  I had the good fortune of growing up around a lot of grumpy old cattlemen, so I know the basics. (Don't stand in the gate like a bad dog, keep your mouth shut when the work is being done, don't chouse someone else's cattle any more than you need to to get the job done, and keep a cooler of cold beer in the truck.)  Keeping your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open is the first step to being treated like a hand.  Even if you think that asking non-stop questions will show that you are eager to learn, observation usually goes further with the ranch set.  Questions can come later, over the afore-mentioned cold beer, once the cattle are back out on grass.  If you can help, do, if you can't, stay the hell out of the way!

The final tool in the quest for livestock handling competence is being smart enough not to get killed, while being dumb enough to keep trying until you get the job done.  Working with large animals, or any animals, requires feel and timing.  You can study every word written on the topic, but until you get out into the working pens and move too quickly or in the wrong direction, you won't be able to get it right.  When I was a teenager, my first paying job was halter-breaking yearling colts for a neighbor.  I'd been around horses my whole life, but I learned a lot from being turned loose with a bunch of big ranch yearlings.  The boss and his sons fitted them with halters and long drag ropes, then they were all turned loose in a pipe trap and I was left to my own devices.  I learned patience, after losing yards of skin to rope burns, getting kicked, struck at, and drug around the pen.  I learned horse psychology, body language, and basic physics. 

A while back, a classmate and I headed into one of the school barns where two mares waited in stalls for us.  We had been told that one of them was prone to kicking.  As we walked in the door both mares lifted their heads and looked at us, I pointed to one stall and told my classmate, "That's the crazy one."  Granted, I had a 50:50 shot, but I turned out to be right.  The classmate, who had mostly small animal and exotic experience, asked me how I knew.  I'm afraid I did a poor job explaining, but I could tell from that first look which one was likely to be the kicker.  I tried to explain how her expression, the way she held her ears and the look in her eyes, suggested that she was defensive, even when we first walked in.  The other mare was just hoping for some feed.  Things like this are the things that can't be learned in the classroom.  I know there isn't time for it, but I wish there was a way for every aspiring large animal veterinarian to spend a few years working ranch horses and cattle.  Even if your practice is going to be more backyard pets, if you can get a Brahman range cow to cooperate, a pet Angus will be a cinch.  I think it would decrease the number of my classmates who will practice large or mixed animal medicine for a few years before getting injured or burned out and moving to small animal exclusive practice.

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