i spent a couple of years as a milker on small-scale industrial dairy farms. milking on a modern dairy is all about rhythm, the kind of rhythm that’s all about muscle memory and the kind of subconscious hyper-focus that you see on films of ladies picking bad coffee beans off a constantly moving conveyor belt. it’s been fourteen years since i stood ready for work in a milking parlor, but my body still remembers most of it. i could walk into a parlor today and milk a string of cows from memory. like touch-typing or bicycle riding, it’s not something that you forget. i promise i’d be rusty and if i had to do all 300, i’d probably be sore the next day, but i could do it. sometimes my hands crave that firm, complicated squeeze and pull that strips the first stream of milk from a teat, my fingers cramping around thin air with the sure memory of 1200 strips per night, 6 nights per week, 52 weeks per year.
contrast that with the feebleness of the brain that forgets every damn thing about a job when you stop doing it. i used to run the switchboard for my current employer. i knew every phone number in the place. within a year or two of getting a promotion, i could barely remember my own phone number there. brains are dumb; muscles are smart.
there are behaviors, though, that are movement-related, but not so sticky.
many years ago, before we lived on this mountain, we came up here to buy a christmas tree from reg, who would eventually be my neighbor. he was a nice man, grew acres of balsams for christmas trees. you’d go out in his stand of trees, pick one, and he’d hack it down and drag it back for you, then visit over hot chocolate and raised doughnuts in his garage, the woodstove running hot.
at the time, i was working on a horse farm with 40 or so arabians, most of them young. it was a tough place to work. there was never enough help, the owner insisted on a level of care that exceeded neurotic, the farm was spread widely over the side of a steep hill, there were a half dozen intact stallions, and many of the horses had little or no ground training. we were often reinforcing bad horse behaviors because we just didn’t have time to work with them. we had chores to do, horses to move, no time for patient training or positive reinforcement. we were reactive, so the horses were reactive. the horses were reactive, so we were reactive. it was a vicious circle. in all that chaos, a funny thing happened: we became highly tuned to the moods of the horses. we learned horse body language on the fly- or else. if all of your senses weren’t on at all times, you were going to end up in the ER. or you were going to end up letting a stallion go and having an unauthorized breeding. or any number of other disastrous outcomes. we learned to move quietly, efficiently, with maximum attitude and a hair trigger for danger.
as we stood visiting in reg’s garage that december, our christmas tree cut, one of my 3 year old daughters was getting dangerously close to the woodstove. without looking directly at her or pausing in our conversation, i moved between her and the stove and redirected her back to safety. it took a fraction of a second for me to react and my reaction was incredibly smooth. reg’s eyes widened and he laughed out loud. “i can tell that you work with horses!” he said. “you think and move just like one!”
i have my own horses, so there has never been a time between when i worked on that farm and now when i’ve been away from horses. except for a couple vacations and some bouts of illness, i interact with them at least once a day, every day. they’re quiet horses, more phlegmatic than those arabians, and i let them be generally feral. they don’t have jobs to do, but they don’t get pampered, either. i don’t have to handle them much beyond making sure they’re healthy and sound. they get blanketed in the worst winter weather and fly-sprayed in the summer. they get groomed as needed. and i can feel that i’ve lost that preternatural horsiness that i used to have.
i can still read a horse, still handle them competently, but i’m not one of them anymore. the same way that my hands were so well trained to milk a cow that they grasp at nothing at times, my mind tries to grasp that faded intuition and can’t.