When we look at it from our livestock’s point of view we can realize that we have thousands of years of evolutionarily instinct that can either work for us or against us. The earliest archaeological and biological evidence suggests that the earliest domestication of cattle took place some 10,500 years ago. Even before that the ancestors of what we now know as the modern cow were prey animals, and we were predators. Those instincts are still in both of us, and understanding a little more about both can help us prevent the triggering of the deeply ingrained “fight or flight” mechanism that results in a number of unwanted results for both parties.
Because livestock has a deep, hard-wired instinct as a prey animal to much stress will tend to bring to surface behaviors that are primarily motivated by self-preservation and survival. Therefore, it is important that we handlers learn how to behave in a nonpredatory fashion so that we are nonthreatening. Unfortunately we humans descended from our pack hunting caveman ancestors and those instincts are still right under the surface too, and it is often apparent in many of the conventional cattle handling methods most of us grew up with.
Our job as low-stress livestock handlers is to convince our animals that we are not a threat to their immediate wellbeing, but rather a leader that they can respect and trust which allows us to work with them in a controlled way. This is done in a number of ways, some of which include, our body language, our approach angle and our speed (among others.) Lets start with body language.
If we were to think of the most primal predator vs. prey scenario we could imagine, it might be a herd of zebra on the savannah living amongst predators such as lions or hyenas. Although we can imagine the brutal chase and capture of the zebras that happens on a fairly regular basis, one might be surprised to learn that there sometimes scenes in which the two species coexist in close proximity where content lions lounge around in plain view of their pray who graze in an alert yet calm state nearby. We as humans can use logic to determine that once the lions rest through the heat of the day and begin to notice their hunger is returning they will again be a threat and therefore the zebras would obviously be much better off to find a place to graze without their future antagonist in the vicinity. Yet because animals do not share our level of reasoning capabilities, because the body language of the lions does not convey a current threat level, they remain alert and observant but they do not flee.
The alternative to this can also be observed in a domesticated horse that is breed with a tendency to be pretty watchy, or that may have had some bad experiences with humans early on. Even though an unsuspecting rider intends no harm to them if they move in a way that he doesn’t completely understand or comprehend it might bring the fight or flight instinct out in force. It is also important to note that an animal’s first impression is crucially important and research has shown that in humans it takes 7-8 good meetings to undo a first bad impression (as reported in Moving ‘em: A guide to low stress animal handling. Smith, B. 1998. p. 215).
Although our body language is a critical element, it is only part of the equation. Even with calm, seemingly unthreading (to us) body language we can still convey our predatory instincts to livestock. An example of this is our human tendency to encircle our prey. This will be discussed in further depth within the strait lines section of the techniques of LSLH, but for now it can suffice to just imagine how a pack of wolves or lions have a tendency to surround their prey. Therefore when we unknowingly do this as handlers we are still sending them a message that they are prey and we are predators.
As the principals and techniques become more familiar we will better understand how to keep an animal in a normal (non-panic/ self preservation) state of mind.