A few pieces of leather and a small metal chain. Not a lot makes up a show halter that can control a thousand pounds of animal, but those pieces seem to intertwine with heartstrings – and carry a lifetime of lessons. If you’ve shown cattle (or any species), you likely remember your first calf, the most stubborn animal you’ve ever worked with and the heartbreak that comes with owning animals.
This summer, I had the the privilege of being in the front row seat as my daughter started her 4-H career. She selected a little black calf to buy this spring – and immediately fell in love with “Ving” – and the idea that this calf was all hers. Lesson number one: she who gets to make the decision has immediate ownership.
The calf was very good at “taking care of herself” – diplomatically put by our friends who made this journey possible. Every morning before school and all summer long, my daughter lectured me about not feeding the calf too much while she was doling out grain. In other words, Ving is a pig and eats at any opportunity, regardless of man or beast in her way. Lesson number two: it’s up to the owner to understand the different needs of animals, but they all require daily attention even when it’s field day at school or your friends are waiting.
Likely as a result of her interest in eating, the calf was very strong. After she jumped through my arms as a 6-week old, I knew it would be an interesting journey. As my daughter haltered Ving for the first time, she quickly discovered that strong, smart and stubborn are not a good combination in an animal. The girl and calf are an even match – and it turned into a battle of wills. My daughter has been on the end of a halter since she before she was two years-old and has a lot of innate cow sense. However, Ving ranks amongst the most stubborn and smartest animals I’ve worked with over decades of showing cattle. As the days rolled into weeks, the battle of wills continued. Lesson number three: your toughest opponent often shares characteristics you either desire or possess.
My front row seat included wiping tears of defeat when the calf figured out how to sprint away and soothing frustrated nerves when she planted her feet regardless of how hard my daughter pulled. It also provided me with one of the most beautiful views in the world; that of a little girl and her calf creating memories to last a lifetime. Ving was dressed in bows, sunglasses, banners and ear rings by a tribe of friends – and stood chewing her cud every time she was put in costume. She lights up whenever my daughter appears and snuggles up with her at any chance. Lesson number four: sometimes those that challenge you the most also love you the most.
Clipping the calf (a very stylish haircut designed to blend body parts together) was done while the calf listened to my daughter chatter. She managed to do most of it herself, but refused to clip Ving’s legs. Let’s just say Ving is very good at placing her feet – her score against me is a nearly broken foot and sore shin (she’s quite accomplished at only 4 months old). Washing the calf was an opportunity for a little girl to have fun drawing hearts in the soap as she scrubbed manure away. Putting the show halter on created another tug-of-war. A week before the fair, the calf was still planting her feet and refusing to move. It nearly put both of us in tears, but I explained to my frustrated little girl that she had to figure it out because it was her job – and I wouldn’t be in the ring with them. Older 4-Hers also helped her and she walked Ving 4x a couple of days. At last, five days before the fair, Ving suddenly started walking properly. Lesson number five: learn to leverage your own skills and willpower when the obstacle seemingly outweighs you.
The day that a little girl who has watched the 4-H dairy project her entire life finally arrived – she took her own calf to the county fair. As she carefully unloaded Ving from the trailer, the calf fell down and cut both knees and one hock, so we had another animal care lesson. She then settled in nicely, but managed to escape from an older 4-Her later in the week. Her switch was braided, ears cleaned, hair shined and primped for the big show day. She practiced in the show ring at high speed. And at long last, with a lot of friends watching, my daughter excitedly walked her calf into the ring and watched closely as the judge evaluated Ving. Then showmanship came at 9 p.m. and one of the most valuable lessons of 4-H became obvious – which is lesson number six: always do your best. Whether you win or lose, do so graciously.
My daughter left the ring crying, saying she didn’t do her best. So we used it as a learning opportunity as she prepared Ving for the State Fair. One of the hardest things for a parent to watch is their children not put their best food forward – but it’s incredibly important to let kids win or lose on their own – see lesson number one. We went to the State Fair with two of my daughter’s role models, tried to make the display pretty with deep bedding, fancy show boxes and fuscia ribbon. We spent the weekend in the barn, with the 4-Hers discovering how fun it is to talk about cows, the dairy business and why we do what we do on dairy farms. In one 4-Hers words “these people act like they’ve never seen a cow before” to which I replied “Well, yes, they haven’t and your work may be their only opportunity to ever learn about cattle.” Lesson number seven: your own experiences in agriculture translate into an opportunity to help teach others, whether you’re nine or ninety.
State Fair show day came. Rushing to the showmanship ring, our daughter promised to do her best and we talked about the importance of a great first impression. That she made, with a big smile, straight posture and words of encouragement to Ving. The longer the class went on (and the more nervous I became watching from the side), the harder my daughter worked. Feet switched, questions answered, head up, feet switched again while the judge put them through their paces. Circle and smile. As she was pulled out in the final group, I was in tears – not because of the fourth place ribbon, but because I saw a little girl who was so very proud of her work. She literally glowed, even though Ving had again decided she was tired of walking and was back to planting her feet. When they finally came out of the ring, my daughter was dripping in sweat – but all I could see was the beautiful smile of pride in a job well done. Lesson number eight: hard work and perseverance always pay off. If they don’t today, they will tomorrow. And children who learn that on a show halter will never forget the pride in a job well done.
When I watch my daughter play with Ving and the other heifers in the pasture, I wonder what she’ll take forward in life from these memories. What’s in a show halter? More lessons than can be counted in one blog post. If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of showing an animal, who have you told about it? There’s a whole world out there who has no idea - and won’t if we don’t share. Have you shared your story?