Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

RANCH MUSINGS: Replacing ranch horses with robots, no thanks

Please, a real person for my needs.

Some ranchers love ranching because they love horses, some in spite of horses, and others keep horses if necessary. Some operations tried to use quads and trail bikes (many quite successfully depending on the terrain) instead of horses to tend and work cattle.

Then, aging ranchers who were risk-averse, would improve their handling facilities (corral system) so handling cattle became more secure and less dangerous for both the cowboys and the cows. Admirable, since one doesn’t need a horse or even get in the pens and alleys with the cows.

More of this handling might even be roboticized if ranchers and ranch hands keep getting harder to find!

You can think of your horse or dog more as a partner in the business. It will be hard to think of a robot (which is coming in farming and in care of the aging population) as a partner no matter how emotionally intelligent they come to be.

I read this morning about research and development of robots that care for the elderly, since they can be programmed to sense one’s emotions and other needs. No thanks, says this old cowboy! Please, a real person for my needs.

For now the work of horses remain mostly “unroboticized”. I do however, have a tale to tell about a Belgian stallion who was so well trained to take one step forward or back on command—no reins or lines needed— that he helped raise logs slowly up the ramp poles when we were building the addition to our log cabin.

Once hitched to the ropes that would roll the log up the ramp to the top of the wall under construction, the builders could go up on the building and receive the log as it approached the top of the ramp, giving voice commands to the horse: “up and step, back a step, whoa” and so on.

The horse had to stop or advance a step on command. There are witnesses alive to verify my story.

The same horse, as many log fence builders will attest, could be quite capable of “counting to five” or whatever distance the horse needed to go for another block to be cut from a log being skidded.

I carried the saw and the horse stopped exactly where we needed the next block to be put under where the logs joined (snake fence) without any voice command from me. The panels were 16 feet and even with the “snake” in the fence (necessary to hold up the logs) the distance covered by the panel was about 15 feet, hence 5 steps.

Ranchers and ranch hands have built thousands of miles of zig zag snake fence in years gone by and still may occasionally if there are any good pine logs left. I think I will teach the grandchildren how to build log fences and corrals just in case they need to build new corrals or holding pens.

I am not sure we will have a horse that can count when we do build.

“Aragon” was the horse’s name. He belonged to my brother.

We all have stories about remarkable achievements of our horse and dog partners. If only they could talk!

My stories will not involve anything that could ever be replicated by a robot, however emotionally intelligent they become. I am sure I will be spared the day.

Having said all this, a “cutting horse” which can cut a cow out of a herd and keep it separated without reining comes close to the notion of robotics, but will never be replaced by a robot.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.

READ MORE: Reconciling life on the land

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