You know the old saying, "You can't teach an old goat new tricks"? Well that's what Margaret Shackles is doing, except that her goats aren't old.
Margaret, who is in her seventies, lives on a smallholding in rural mid-Wales. She began breeding British Toggenburgs in 1971 and started a changeover to Boer goats twelve years ago (she sometimes enters a goat or two in the Online Show). Without a BT male to do the necessary, the final BT, Parcmawr Eldorado, is put to one of the Boer males each year. In 2005, Eldorado produced triplets, a girl and two boys; the girl was sold and the boys, who had been castrated at birth, were kept.
They were such nice kids and so well matched that it didn't seem right to eat them; instead Margaret conceived the idea of trying to break them in to harness, having previously broken two Welsh ponies (one at a time) to harness. This was going to be a bit different, however, because in addition to the change of species she had to get them to work as a pair.
Bottle-fed, they always lined up for their milk one on the right and one on the left. Inevitably, they became known as Port and Starb'd and they wear red and green collars, to show which way round they go. In the autumn of their first year they learned to be led one in each hand and words of command.
In the spring, training started again, first with a refresher course about commands. They started to be taken further afield, as they rapidly became bored with doing the same thing every day or doing aimless manoeuvres. The difference between horses and goats in training is that horses take life seriously and soon obey your every whim. They are also quite willing to go on in front of you. Goats, on the other hand, tend to fool about and are less good about 'boldly going'. If you don't keep them well occupied, they tend to sit down. They also have a habit of trying to eat anything new you want them to wear!
During the winter, Margaret sewed harness for them made from nylon webbing (red for Port, green for Starb'd) and a refurbishment job was done on an old hand trolley which had been lying around for years - new wheelbarrow wheels and a pole made from an old TV mast to replace the handle. While husband Derek and son Austin fashioned the metalwork Margaret, being the woodworking person of the household, made the sides from planed 2" x 2", with verticals made from sections of lightweight broomstick. The farm shop was somewhat amazed when she went in to buy six broomsticks!
March 24th was the big day when the boys were attached to a couple of motor cycle tyres, which they proceeded to pull round as though they'd done it all their lives! They were so good, in fact, that their next outing a week later saw them pulling a heavy log with big eye-bolts through it to hitch to the traces. Again, they took it all in their stride, so the next step was to hitch them to the trolley in 'skeleton' form with just the chassis and no bodywork. Panic was beginning to set in as there was still some finishing to do on the woodwork and they had rashly agreed to attend a (horse) Driving Show on 6th May, but the varnish was dry by the time the trolley was loaded into the trailer the day before the show.
There was some apprehension that the first public appearance was to be at such a prestigious event, but a team of helpers was on hand. The boys had never been in the trailer or traveled anywhere away from home and had never appeared at a public occasion of any sort. The only 'crime' they committed was that Port jumped out of their pen and followed Margaret the first time she walked away from them, so he had to be tied up. When it was their turn to go in the ring they behaved beautifully.
In mid May a further challenge awaited. They were booked to attend the Smallholder Festival and make an exhibition of themselves. This time, Port and Starb'd had a double-sized pen as they would be staying for two nights. Port only jumped out once. They proved an enormous attraction, as did the two baby Boer kids who went too.
The next task was to bring in hay from the field. The boys are very intelligent and soon worked out that they were actually DOING SOMETHING USEFUL; their efforts were rewarded by being able to do a bit of quality control while the trolley was being loaded. After that, things ground to a halt due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak which prevented all movements off-farm. By the time that was over it was winter and things were on hold again.
All last winter, Derek has been constructing what has become known as the Poncey Show Wagon. It has bicycle wheels, the rear ones with drum brakes linked and connected to a Sherpa handbrake; the front spring is from a Reliant three-wheeler, the rear one from a Land Rover; the pole was another TV aerial, the front rail bits from a seriously gale-damaged gazebo of Austin's; the whip holder is a length of plastic tube which came with welding rods in it; the base of seat is two seat-frames from an ex-bus of A's and the bodywork is the outside skin of a dead washing machine! Only the aluminum treadplate floor and the steering turntable are new materials, acquired from the local forge - oh, and the seat cushions and vinyl covers were sourced from a couple of firms on the internet.
As a refresher course, the boys were harnessed up in the spring and taken for a walk along the road without anything behind them. It was a bit of a battle as the road isn't all that wide and there are lovely edible hedges on both sides! "What's the point of walking along this boring road when there's all that lovely breakfast over there?"
Training mostly happens on the quarter mile straight (Sarn Helen, a Roman Road) so that they can see the traffic coming and the traffic can see them. They are very good with traffic really - what really caused a stir on that first boring outing of the year was one of the locals with about six Welsh Mountain ponies on fairly long leads. The goats were fascinated, but the ponies tried to climb into the hedge, nearly knocking Dewi over in the process!
Eventually the PSW was rolled out. Yet again, the harness had to be adjusted (alterations had to be made to it during the winter as it had become patently obvious that the boys were out-growing it) because they'd grown again since last year. They were put to and set off with a couple of handlers, one each side. About quarter of a mile out, they were turned round and Margaret gingerly climbed aboard. The handlers 'cast off' and she was on her own. It took a few moments for it to dawn on the boys what they were supposed to do and then they set off home quite briskly. Sometimes the direction of progress was a bit wavering, but as a first attempt, Margaret was well satisfied and looks forward to going out on her own without handlers - if it ever stops raining.
The only problem is Starb'd. He sees no reason to have to work so long as Port is doing it for him; he is constantly hanging back in the traces. Margaret judges that this is probably because it is not a natural action for two goats to be side-by-side; they are always following the herd leader.
Cindy Haskin wrote: I am overjoyed that you are reaching out to the son to make a post, thank you.
Exactly what I wanted !
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy, because I'm easy come, easy go, little high, little low, little ad
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