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Horse sense?

Tony Vagneur

There was an autumn, once upon a time, when I put my Aspen life in a box and indulged in life-threatening activities on a race horse farm in the fair state of Maryland. My first wife, Caroline, and I anticipated going into the horse racing business with Buck Deane, and headed back East to get some firsthand education about it all. Caroline, a native of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and a true horseman with the proper connections, found us a great place to work.It’s a vastly different world from that of a Woody Creek cowboy, and my education started almost immediately. I had cleaned one stall (the horses stay in), a learning experience in itself, when the manager caught up with me and told me to be careful mucking out the next cubicle, home to a thoroughbred mare named Rimark. She’d kicked the daylights out of the last inexperienced farm hand and killed him. “OK.” What else could you say, first day on the job?By the time I’d cleaned three or four stalls, Charlie, the manager was back, telling me they needed someone to ride a recently gelded three-year-old who had been caged for the past few days, healing up, and was ready to jump his skin, he was so riled up from lack of exercise. The manager allowed they’d saddled the horse with the largest English saddle they could find (a courtesy to the Colorado cowboy), and as he explained about the horse, gave me a look similar to the kind your uncle might give you as you board a ship bound for war. “OK.”For a warm-up, I climbed aboard in a small, round pen used for breaking colts and was relieved to find the horse halfway calm, although the steam blasting from his nostrils could just as easily have been the fiery breath of a precocious dragon. As this well-bred, sorrel dynamo danced the perimeter a few times, I noticed that people from all over the farm were setting themselves up on the white fence surrounding a five-acre paddock, the site chosen for my maiden voyage on an Eastern race horse. Someone had brought a cooler and it was starting to look like the typical Saturday at a down home Western rodeo.Once in the paddock, what might have been a nightmare turned out to be a good show. The horse tried his best to unload me, but although it wasn’t pretty, I managed to stay on and give him his exercise. Apparently, a little skill, some luck and a bit of class got me a promotion and I was allowed, starting the next day, to exercise the hunting horses kept on another part of the farm (whew!), although I still had to clean stalls.First thing every morning, we took the breeding stallions from their stalls and out to their personal paddocks, a death-defying walk if there ever was one. Handling a stallion is much like trying to tame a wild lion inside a cage. For a hundred yards or so, the lifeblood, the foundation, the reputation of the farm was on the end of the lead opposite me, often reared up, teeth occasionally bared – and had I ever weakened and lost control, a myriad of things may have happened to a runaway horse, none of them good. I felt fear on occasion, but had I ever shown it, a stud horse, full of astounding energy and quick to spot opportunity, could have pounded my skull with hooves quick enough to cause mortal injury. The challenge was soon irresistible and I volunteered to bring them in at night as well.It wasn’t all danger, and we laughed and learned a lot, much of it after hours over stout drinks poured by the owner. But the longer I worked there, the more obvious it became that farm hands such as myself were totally expendable, and the horses king. Just as it should be, I guess. Tony Vagneur found out that English horsemen are tough. Read him here on Saturdays and send comments to ajv@sopris.net.


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