Lessons From the Paddock

What Shoveling Manure Can Teach You About Management

One of our jobs at the horse farm in eastern France where we’re working is to take a wheelbarrow and a couple of pitchforks into one of the fields each morning and clean up the manure deposited by the two horses who live there. Such cleaning is necessary (unless you have a very big field) because if horses should happen to nibble any of their droppings while they graze, they could get intestinal worms. Also, grass that grows in horse manure apparently tastes more acidic than regular grass, and horses dislike eating it. So if too much of a field gets covered with manure, the horses will have fewer areas of good grazing available.

Spending an hour or so shoveling (well, pitchforking) manure every day has taught us several lessons. If we were more entrepreneurial, we’d package those lessons into a slim volume that would be the next mega-bestseller about how to manage your business. (Of course, if we were entrepreneurial types, we probably wouldn’t have become vagabonds.)

We made lots of trips to the manure pile

Since our bestseller is unlikely to see the light of day, here are some of the pearls of wisdom it would have contained. (Apologies to our parents for the earthy language that follows, but this is an earthy subject.)

Lesson 1: Don’t miss the shit at your feet. As you walk along with your wheelbarrow looking for manure piles, don’t get so focused on scanning the ground around you that you forget to look down. Otherwise, you’re sure to walk into a big pile of poop.

Lesson 2: Don’t try to fit too much on your pitchfork. Like shoveling snow off the sidewalk, bending over your pitchfork and then lifting a load into the wheelbarrow is tiring work. So you’re tempted to hurry. You think, “If I slide my pitchfork into this pile once more before straightening up to empty it, I can get a little more on here.” But invariably, if you do, some of what’s already on your fork will fall off, and you’ll have to go back and get it. Trying to cut corners just creates more work in the long run.

Lesson 3: There’s never just one pile of shit. As you scan the horizon, you spot a big shiny pile of manure, and you head off to deal with it. But when you get there, you see another and another around it. The problem is rarely as little as it looks at first.

Lesson 4: It’s not the size of the horse that matters, it’s the size of the field. Most horses excrete about the same amount. But two horses in a small field can make a much bigger mess than 10 horses in a big field.

Lesson 5: Get to know your horses’ shit. At first glance, all horse manure looks pretty much alike. But with a bit of observation, you soon see that each horse’s droppings are a little different—in color, size, consistency, placement—depending on that animal’s diet, living conditions, habits, and so on. Being able to tell manure apart lets you keep track of where your horses have been and notice any changes that might indicate if something is wrong. So don’t forget to pay attention to the poop.

Lesson 6: You’ll never clean it all up in one day. If you try, you’ll overstrain your muscles, and you won’t have time or energy to do anything else. Allot so much time to shoveling shit each day and when you’ve done that, leave the rest for the next day.

And here’s a bonus lesson, which I just saw illustrated as I sat on the terrace typing this: A kitten cannot both climb out onto a small branch and try to bat at its own tail. It has to concentrate on one or the other or it will fall out of the tree. No matter how energetic you feel, don’t try to take on too many projects at the same time.

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