Why won’t my animals listen to me?

A horse, a cow, and a steer all share the same attitude toward shelter and warmth.

Sue Wunder
Buck (foreground) and Indy on their Indiana Farm.

“Can you spell ‘barn’?”

I’m asking Buck, a lovely old Belgian draft horse who stands stoically in a cold rain on the back pasture, his coat wet and matted, his big hooves planting mud holes with each step. Occasionally he pauses to pull up a mouthful of limp, brown winter grass between puddles. Grazing is abundant on the acreage supporting the very last three animals still under my care on the farm that once supported 30 or more. Nearby, my big, gentle steer Indy and Brown Swiss cow Nellie are similarly occupied, oblivious to the weather. They are an odd trio, close companions in retirement despite gender, species, and size disparities. They are just growing old together.

“The barn is dry,” I say. “It’s bedded with straw. There’s fresh hay in the racks.” I beseech the animals to get out of the weather as my dog trots up the tree line, looking for a stray deer bone or other pastoral delicacy. “You don’t need to stand out here on a day like this. You’re getting up there, you know.” I’ve talked to them like this for as long as I can remember.

The little barn in the southwest corner of the 80 acres offers a fine winter shelter. Aside from the main area lined with hay racks and harness posts, where they could stand or even lie down on thick, dry bedding, there is a separate area for hay storage. (My son built a sturdy interior fence to separate the two spaces, so that feeding is controlled, not free-for-all.)

It’s a marvelous shelter and a wonderful system. The only glitch is that the three largely ignore the place except to dispatch the hay I spread before they head back out to wallow in the elements, even on the worst days. Only deep snow stymies their grazing, but there has been precious little snow this year. And when it has fallen, I can see where Buck has hoofed it away to get to the grass. He’s slightly rotund as is.

“But there’s plenty of good hay, right in there,” I intone, pointing toward the barn as he fixates on my carrot-filled pockets. 

The snow begins to melt on his muzzle as he studiously ignores my prompt.

*      *      *

It eludes me why perfectly decent shelter is not a draw for these creatures. It’s almost always wide-open and available. And dry.

I do sometimes put up the entrance bar in fine weather, when the animals surely don’t need shelter. That is just when they suddenly become interested. When I check on their welfare, I often find them (during a mild spell) hanging their heads over the barrier as if desperate to escape the 60-degree sunshine glancing off their backs.

“Why are we banned?” Their heads swing in confusion. I draw back the bar, and they stride in, as if finally they are being heard.

After caring for these animals for the past 25 years I still find myself bewildered by their preferences and routines. I remember that in his younger days, Buck loved to roll in the snow, leaving behind wildly sprawling equine angels. Nellie’s mother rarely entered an enclosure, except for milking, and I suppose her preference for being out under open sky comes honestly. As for Indy, who knows? He’s close to 2,500 pounds and in many ways a softy, always enjoying a vigorous scratch on that broad forehead between his massive curved horns. 

They all tolerate my babbling to them about the shelter of the barn. And for the most part they continue to avoid it in all but the best of weather. Go figure.

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