The Cow Halter
(Something to lead a cow along with)
One of the things we did when we were 'young farmers' was to enter a young farmer's competition. It was a big event that happened once a year, and there were loads of small competition categories.
I was a super excited 10-year-old; I wanted to enter anything that involved drawing or painting.
So, on this occasion, I selected the Christmas card competition and the art of making a cow halter.
Now the Christmas card was easy. I had my love of mice, so I painted a bed full of little mice with lots of little stockings hanging on the bedpost. My dad showed me how to draw and illustrate a curtain pelmet around the top of the four-poster bed. I must admit that the curtain was better than the mice because I followed the instructions precisely.
Making a cow halter was handed to me as an option; I wanted to do something in the craft section but didn't have a craft. Someone at the young farmers knew somebody that traditionally made halters and arranged for me to go and have a one-to-one lesson. I had no idea who the old farmer was that was going to teach me; all I knew was that one day a sports car turned up at my house, and I went off alone with a young man (who I didn't know) at high speed. I am confident my mum must have known these people. Still, I was mildly terrified and yet, true to my nature, I said nothing to anyone the whole day, perhaps the odd 'yes' and hopefully a 'thank you'.
I was delivered to a farm, which appeared to me to be miles away from home and was introduced to the old farmer (he probably wasn't that old, but he undoubtedly looked like a farmer). We then sat on a hay bale together, and he showed me how to make a cow halter out of some solid, well-made golden-coloured rope.
I loved needlework and have one of those minds that weirdly remembers how to make things almost immediately. I only needed to be shown a couple of times before making a rose-ended knot, creating loops, and weaving the ends back into the existing rope tether. It was tough on my little fingers. The rope was rough to handle but fascinating to work with.
I was determined and suitably intrigued and delighted with the result. Back then, my siblings and I were always busy little people, always making and drawing. Our delight in our active little ways was always our parent's delight.
The class concluded, and thankfully, I was returned home safely in the sports car and was considered readily trained for the competition.
Traditionally, ropes are made from natural fibre; the fibre bundles are twisted or braided together to increase overall length and tensile strength.
Examples of Egyptian rope made from water reeds date to 4000 - 3500 B.C. By about 2800 B.C., rope made of hemp fibres was in use in China. Hemp remained the popular choice for centuries.
Twine or cord of about 1-1.3 cm diameter is not considered true rope.
1.3-3.8 cm diameter is proper rope. Over 3.8 cm in diameter is generally called a hawser and is used for mooring large ships.
Natural fibres include hemp, sisal, cotton, flax, and jute. Another raw material is manila hemp, the fibres from a banana plant.
Hemp, or industrial hemp, is a botanical class of Cannabis sativa cultivars grown specifically for industrial or medicinal use. It can be used to make a wide range of products. Along with bamboo, hemp is among the fastest-growing plants on Earth. Hemp can also be refined into various commercial items, including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food and animal feed.
Rope making was and still is a vast industry.
My in-laws used to exhibit their art at a gallery called the rope walk. The gallery building was once a rope-making shed, and it's one of the longest sheds I have ever seen close up. They used to cycle the length of the sheds to get around it quickly. The rope shed in Chatham is a 1/4 mile long! I have added a link at the end to take you to a website about its history.
This time of year always reminds me of being a young farmer, seeing the hay-bales scattered in the landscape and the harvesters cutting the patterns in the
surrounding hills. It has been a drought this year for so many worldwide. I guess that is why 1976 is brought to mind. That, too, was a drought year for the U.K., and
the time our family moved to the countryside.
I recall the heat and the panic. As a child, it seemed the best and longest summer ever; how I wish I had that innocent view of the world today.
Back to the competition
The competition day arrived, and we found all the places to go to enter our exhibits.
As I recall, my sister had made an open sandwich for her competition. We were so curious about a sandwich with no top! To be honest, I still am.
I think the event was on some sort of training farm or college premises because the cow halter-making competition, which had to be done live and on the spot, was held in what looked like an autopsy room! It was pretty unsettling sitting in this clinical room with a massive steal, draining table in the centre of it. The adjudicator pressed the stopwatch and told us to begin.
I had brought my massive piece of rope, heavy enough to pull even the most giant bull, and began to weave my fancy ends.
I began worrying because everyone else had brought a lightweight, coloured cord.
Of course, being extremely self-conscious, I felt my cheeks turn scarlet. I cut off the spare bits of rope and, not wishing to make a mess, surreptitiously stuffed them in my pocket and down the inside of my wellington boots. Bits of rope scattered and floated beneath my stool. I desperately tried to cover them by carefully concealing them underfoot.
I was confident I had it all wrong; I was the only one with this massive piece of golden rope and the only one weaving, twisting, and cutting off the ends. I was in a halter, making sweat and butterflies tormented my tummy. Finally, it was over. The whistle went, and my harness was only just completed in time. I felt the eyes on my competitors upon me; I misread the stares as incredulity at the size of my halter offering. I was convinced mine was a disaster.
We left our rope creations to be judged and headed off to enjoy the rest of the day.
I had forgotten this story for years. I recalled the memory when I stumbled across the photo of the prize table. It shows my first prize certificate next to my rope halter and second place for my Christmas card. I think this was the only time I won a first place.
When I returned to the prize table, the adults around me were chatting with exclamations of amazement at the professionalism of my cow halter. It was surprising and overwhelming.
I stood there quietly playing with the rope ends in my pockets, and painfully aware of how uncomfortable my feet were with the rope ends slipping about in my boots.
I look back and I feel lucky that I had been taught that beautiful craft, and I think that the farmer was a truly gifted teacher. I have, of course, lost the art as there has not been much need for cow halters in my life, seriously.
The lesson's thrill and the achievement's delight have stayed within me. It has coloured how I approach my teaching to this day, slowly and carefully explaining the processes and repeating the pretty bits. One day I will be like the old Farmer with bits of know how to pass on and I hope I will always find the time to share what I know in such a timeless and patient way.
With thanks to the young farmers institute all those years ago
and the fascinating information squirrelled from