The smartest cow I ever saw was a Jersey heifer named “Sweetness”. Cows aren’t stupid, but they are pretty amenable to being handled if all that entails is moving from one pasture to the next, or being milked. Because I know even less about dairy cows than I do beef cattle (and that’s not a lot.) I was, like other spectators, amazed at the mental capacity that Sweetness exhibited.
Sweetness was the bovine equivalent of a Michael Jordan or a Wayne Gretzky.
Let me back up. There’s a horse sport/game called team penning. While I’ve never played it, it is one heck of a lot of fun to watch.
The game is this: A standard arena is used. A trio of horsemen attempt to cut three designated calves out of a herd of thirty. Those calves are herded by the horsemen into a three-sided pen on the other side of the arena. The teams are given 90, 75, and 60 seconds in which to herd three cows (usually long yearlings) into the pen.
The command to go is given by dropping a flag, or ringing a buzzer, bell, etc. At the same time, the announcer tells the horsemen what calves they must pen. Trios of calves are designated by the same number (i.e three 1’s, three 2’s, etc) or colored ear tags or plastic neck chains (blue, green, etc).
This is a sport where the cutting Quarter Horse excels. They have the speed, the hindquarters for the quick turns, and most have enough “cow” that they know what to do: separate a specific cow out of the herd and run it into the pen.
Sounds easy, right? Dumb cows in an enclosed arena. Three expert horsemen, riding three cow-ey Quarter Horses. Easy squeezy, right?
Cows may look stupid, but any domesticated animal that won’t allow itself to be saddled and ridden isn’t as dumb as it looks. They can read human and equine body language. They know when Something Is Up.
The Flying “M” ranch hosted team penning every Saturday night for years. They provided the yearling calves and the arena. The calves are usually beef calves. However, one year, they had a long yearling Jersey calf in with the beeves. She was named “Sweetness”. Sweetness was the smartest cow I’ve ever seen.
When the herd of thirty bovines was herded into the arena, Sweetness would keep the entire herd in front of her. Rather than milling about with the rest of the cows, she would stand, head up, eyes riveted on the horses at the other end of the arena. She knew she stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the white-faced, (I believe a cross between Herefords and Angus), Angus,Hereford, Charolais beef calves.
The Flying M usually painted numbers on the sides of the calves. Sweetness could read numbers. When other calves numbers were called, Sweetness would stand on the edge of the herd, calmly observing the tactics of the horsemen.
But when HER number was called, Sweetness was in the middle of the herd, hiding, crouching, making sure there were always four or five other calves in between her and the cutting horses. Sweetness would duck down so that no one could see her number. But a horseman is taller than a cow, can read better than a cow, and besides…there’s only Jersey in the bunch.
At the buzzer, the horsemen would charge down the arena. Two would move into the herd, quickly cutting the targeted calves out. Sweetness would allow herself to be cut out. A horseman who didn’t know Sweetness would chase her towards the pen, and then turn back to get another calf. Sweetness would stop and turn around, watching the game. If a horseman saw her standing there, he or she would charge the Jersey, this time putting the skedaddle on her, making sure that this time, Sweetness was definitely heading for the pen.
Sweetness would move along in a slow, dignified trot, go around the pen and continue on the other side of the arena. Ignoring the commotion in the middle of the arena, humming softly to herself, she would quietly make her way back to the herd. If a horseman saw her he’d charge her, whereupon, she’d swiftly turn around and head back to the pen. Good little Jersey calf. Good girl.
Meanwhile, the rest of the herd is boiling in place, the horsemen are trying to cut out the other two calves and head them to the pen. They were only allowed their three. If a fourth calf entered the pen, the team lost. The second ‘her’ horsemen released her and took their attention elsewhere, Sweetness would turn back, trying to rejoin the herd.
Woe be to the team that, either through inattention or distraction, allowed Sweetness to rejoin the herd! She would plunge into the middle of the already frantic cattle, kicking and shoving. This would incite panic, and the entire bunch would burst out like a covey of quail into the arena. That was certain defeat, for many of the calves would race to enter the pen (they quickly learned that being in the pen meant you weren’t being harassed by the horsemen).
If the team had penned two of the calves, they could then turn their attention to Sweetness. She would willingly canter to the pen, and then run as fast as she could past the opening. She would run alongside the horse, matching it stride for stride, which meant the horse couldn’t stop and turn her. At the last second, she’d duck under the horse’s tail, thus putting her on the outside of the horse, shielding her from the pen opening and other horsemen. Or she would swerve to the pen opening, flip her tail and suck any calves already in it out as efficiently as a vacuum cleaner.
By this time, time had usually run out, the buzzer would blow, and Sweetness would immediately slow down to a relaxed walk, fully aware that her turn was over.
I never saw a cow so easily make a fool of three horsemen and their experienced horses. Two would team up on her, and she’d literally squirt out from under a horse’s neck. Once she ran out under a tall horse’s belly, almost taking the cinch with her. She would allow a horse to almost run her down, making him slow up, sometimes literally running between his forelegs. Once she managed to make two horses collide, nose to nose, in their efforts to pen her. If another calf was near her, she kept that one on the inside and hugged the arena wall as if she was glued to it. Or she would leap over another calf to avoid the horseman.
On one memorable night, a team managed to get her into the pen, and stood side by side by side, using the horses to block the opening, and waiting for the buzzer to blow. Sweetness went to her knees and crawled out under the horse’s nose, escaping the pen. The buzzer went off and the team began to cheer for their victory. They didn’t realize they’d been beaten AGAIN until they saw her all too familiar back end, tail raised high, heading for the herd.
You could not help but root for Sweetness. She made you laugh so hard, and you, a spectator, were NOT allowed to yell a warning to the team that Slippery Sweetness had escaped again! Even if you did, the roaring of the audience was too loud to be heard over it.
Sweetness’s antics made her famous. She was written up in the newspapers. She went over a year without ever entering the pen. Many teams, when they learned they were drawing Sweetness, refused to compete, because they knew they didn’t have a chance at penning her and winning the evening’s jackpot.
Roger Musgrove, Flying “M”s manager and owner, put up a jackpot of a thousand dollars and a buckle for the first team to pen Sweetness. It was the only way he could entice teams to come to the team penning. Would you race your horse against Secretariat, knowing the result would be merely the number of lengths your horse ended up behind Big Red? His offer drew a lot of teams, all vying to pen the Her Highness, Sweetness Who Would Not Be Penned.
Alas, as with all reigns, the Queen’s finally came to an end.
Perhaps it was her age: she was a year older than her herdmates. She was a cow, now, not a calf. Perhaps she was getting tired. I prefer to think that rather than think she’d met her match.
No matter. One night, she went into the pen with two other calves, and stayed there. The buzzer went off. They’d won! They’d penned Sweetness!
The team rejoiced. They’d made a lot of money in that 90 seconds.
But the audience went silent. The defeat of Sweetness was bittersweet. They’d outwitted Sweetness-or had they? They’d penned The Queen of Team Penning-but was it through their teamwork and expertise? Or had she merely lost interest in the game and allowed them to pen her?
Somehow, the game had lost a bit of its thrill. The Team that penned Sweetness would be famous for an evening.
The Queen would never be forgotten.
Roger Musgrove retired Sweetness that night. For a few years after her dethronement, you could see her enjoying her retirement, a single Jersey cow amidst White-faced and Herefords. I used to stop and look at her on my way past the Flying “M”. I would salute her, Sweetness, Jersey Queen of the Flying “M”. Sweetness, the smartest cow I ever saw.