A horseman’s dying dream | AspenTimes.com

A horseman’s dying dream

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

One look out the passenger’s window and you could tell something wasn’t right. Sitting stiffly on the covered porch, posture straight and stern, with lightless eyes staring straight ahead, the man gave off a feeling that we were about as welcome as insurance salesmen, or worse, vultures.

At the pinnacle of a wide and verdant valley, with a name that only those directly descended from Mother Spain could properly pronounce, we found the hidden jewel of the southeastern Colorado mountains. More than 1,000 acres of rugged, well-tended ranch land, reached by a dirt road no wider than the truck we drove, it should have been a cow-producing haven, but served instead as home to a small herd of approximately 10 horses. They were of many descriptions, but generally had good conformation and were pleasing to the eye ” all mares and unweaned foals with the exception of one dorsal-striped buckskin gelding.

We focused on the horses and, soon enough, the sick old man from the porch wandered down to share his knowledge of the herd, dragging his lifeline ” an oxygen bottle ” with him. Such talk put a sparkle in his eyes, and you could tell right off that he loved these horses more than most anything else around. “You boys would do yourselves proud to take a couple of those colts home. Make good workin’ horses, you know. I’d a caught ’em up for you, but this damned lung cancer keeps me from doing anything but packin’ this friggin’ oxygen around.”

He wanted a decent price for them ” $300 to $500 on the colts ” and, although you could tell it would kill him to turn loose of any of the mares, he figured they were worth about $2,500 apiece. Busy trying to stay alive just so he could die honorably, he could be excused for not grooming the burdock and hound’s tongue seeds out of their manes and tails. Burdock, in particular, leaves horse’s tails reminiscent of wooden clubs and makes manes and foretops totally useless.

Maybe the old man hadn’t heard, but the ban on horse slaughter has taken all “speculation” out of the grade horse market, leaving foals such as his worth from $20 to $50 and the aging mares worth around $200 to $500. How are you going to tell a dying man that the value of his herd has been decimated by strangers ” mostly mindless zealots suckling at the hind teat of conformity, incognizant of the repercussions their anthropomorphic and misguided actions will have?

As we left, I couldn’t shake wondering how perplexing it must be to face slow death, long day after long night, and how difficult it must be to see what you once believed a small legacy for your widow become an almost worthless liability. The tragic realizations of the incurably stricken man and the thundering hoof beats of the unusual herd echoed in my mind, leaving an unsettled feeling deep inside.

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The sale barn manager will refuse the horses, saying there are too many “weeds” stuck to their tails, and “We don’t want horses like that going through here, no way. They just won’t sell.” There was a time the dying horseman could have fixed it, but that day has passed.

No sooner will the old man be laid out in an inappropriate coffin, beige silk framing his shrunken body and awkwardly wearing the only suit he ever owned, than his son-in-law or best friend will be pushing the gentle horse herd down into a sunken ravine, holding them there with hay and oats while the crack of a 30.06 rifle resounds over the quiet cold of an early winter morning, dropping them one by one.

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