A couple of weeks ago, four of my friends and I went to a barn sale. The owner was selling everything — down to the blanket bars on the stall doors — and moving to Florida.
While we were there, we came across a barn cat with no name. To say she was affectionate was an understatement. In turn, she jumped into the arms of each one of us, purred, and fell serenely to sleep. As we gathered the things we were going to purchase, we amassed them into a heap in the aisle. And the cat promptly climbed atop the pile, as if to say, “I’m your ‘gift with purchase’.”
So we asked about the cat with no name, only to find out that her former owner had been a trainer at the barn who kept her as a house pet. But when his child developed allergies, she became a barn cat. But the trainer had himself moved some time back. And now the barn owner was moving. She admitted she didn’t know what she was going to do with the cat.
Well… between the five of us, there were a myriad of possible solutions to this problem of the nameless and soon to be homeless cat. One possibility was to have her become a barn cat at our barn. Another was for her to stay with one of us. Yet another possibility was for us to adopt her out, and we already knew of several candidate homes. So she came home with the five us in a frantically purchased cat carrier. But that didn’t last long because we let her out and she spent the trip sitting on various laps, purring, and sleeping. In the end, the cat, now called Pepper, came to my house.
To say she is an alpha cat is an immense understatement. She’s big — about 15 pounds — which dwarfs the other four cats in the house who range from about seven to ten pounds each. And then there are two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels who think everyone (animal or human) is their absolute best friend, and that best friends always chase each other around for fun.
Well, Pepper did not share this opinion. She’s very stately, quiet, almost zen. She also has a very definite sense of boundaries. For instance, you can come as close as you like, but don’t ask her to move, and don’t insult her by hissing or growling. If you do, she will remind you that this is unacceptable. It is communicated by either looking at you or standing up and facing you (it’s amazing what animals can say without verbalizing). And if you don’t correct your behavior, she will remind you a bit more forcefully with a big whap up the side of your head.
So Pepper wanders the house, doing her thing. She doesn’t pick fights with anyone, but as the Marine say, she finishes them. She lays down where she wants to. She eats first (which drives Michelle — our fat cat crazy). She sleeps in the bed with her head on my pillow. She goes where she wants. And she doesn’t much care what everyone else does. She doesn’t take the first swing, but she will defend herself. And oddly enough, she has become the protector to our shy cat, Pickles. As you can imagine, the other cats aren’t quite sure what to make of this.
But I figured if anybody knew how to handle themselves around a 1,000 pound animal, it was a barn cat. So I took notes. And here’s what I’ve come up with…
Be soft — I don’t have to be harsh with my horse, even when he has messed up for the millionth time (I know, like I haven’t done the same thing). Just come and do your work, and give the horse a chance to do his thing in return. If he makes a mistake, just give the command again, like it was the first time.
- Give first, then ask for something — I get morning snuggles on my pillow with lots of purring before Pepper starts reminding me that her food bowl is empty. So I try to be more gentle with my horse first before I start asking him to do any work, like giving him a good long warm-up in this cold, raw weather.
- Reward by doing nothing — Pepper rewards the other animals in the house by doing nothing. Just hanging out with them is its own reward. So I try to reward my horse by not constantly asking for something.
- Hold the outside rein firm — Pepper knows where the boundaries are. Don’t ask her to move them. That’s not her job. But she will enforce them.
- Correct swiftly and then forget about it — When Pepper “corrects” with a whack of her paw, it’s quick and hard. There’s no confusion about what she’s objecting to. It’s quite clear. And now, so is my stick. In my best George Morris technique, the crop goes back behind my leg in a single, sharp statement immediately after the undesired behavior. Then it’s over, my horse knows what I mean, and we move on to the next thing.
Yes, there’s still some adjusting going on around the house. With seven animals, it’s to be expected. But we all know Pepper’s rules of engagement. And they’re pretty handy — both at the barn and elsewhere.
Sue van der Linden