On getting old
Kiowa was a buckskin appaloosa gelding, foaled at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch many years ago, with a heart as big as the sky. A cutting horse of superb ability back in the ’60s, he would have been rated a top-10 cutting horse in North America, I’m told, had he been a quarter horse instead of an appaloosa. Through the combination of a severe accident on the Maroon Creek road later in his life and a meshing of our souls hours thereafter, Kiowa and I became inextricably bound for the duration of his life. He recovered from the accident in excellent shape and was soon my everyday horse, either doing a little roping with me, or more frequently, carrying me all over McClain Flats as I changed the irrigation water on the Moore Ranch. Occasionally, when no one was looking, I’d put the roping steers in the arena and Kiowa and I would cut steers until he’d had enough. For years, Kiowa held his own in a constantly evolving group of about 80 horses out at the T-Lazy-7 and was always near the top of the herd pecking order. Later, he lived quite well in my small herd of 4 to 5 horses and was, without doubt, the herd boss, even with mares of strong personality in the group. The years rolled by and as the insidious process of aging took its exacting toll on Kiowa, he became my young daughter’s horse. More than 30 by then, he was still capable of participating in trail rides and “riding herd” on my small band of horses.One afternoon, on my daily check of the horse pasture, Kiowa was nowhere to be found. The other horses were readily apparent, grazing peacefully in the afternoon sun, and a red flag went up in my mind. I found him soon enough in the Gambel oak forest at the top of the field, in an almost unrecognizable state. My heart hurt as I looked at what was a shell of his former self, a once strong, vibrant horse. His head was now hanging low, the shine gone from his coat and the dullness of his eyes averted my gaze. Imagine a time in your life when you were so thoroughly beaten up by someone or something that most of the fire was extinguished from your being. Your psyche was totally humiliated, too stunned to further deal with the issue. That was Kiowa, at that moment. Horses occasionally shun an individual that gets too old or sick; they just drive them out of the herd and make them live alone. Sometimes they inadvertently kill them. It seems cruel to us, but how can we argue with a phenomenon that appears to occur naturally? On that day, it was unclear whether the process had taken only a few minutes, or had evolved over the course of a longer period of time. From the bite and kick marks on Kiowa, there had been a recent skirmish and it appeared he had fought vigorously to hold his position. But the result was inescapable – Kiowa never saw another winter.Once in a while, as humans, some of us do the stupidest things, trying to do the proper, well-intended one. Uninvited, we start to think for our elderly loved ones. We ask our “old” parents if maybe the family house doesn’t seem a little big for them now; we tell our dad that maybe he should think about taking shorter hikes or bike rides; we beseech our mother to start skiing with a companion, now that she’s older. We sometimes let them know that their memories seem to be failing, by our reckoning. Other times we don’t fully listen to them as they talk to us, thinking the importance of what they say is somehow not as forceful as it once was. We ask these questions and do these things to people we love, not realizing that each well-meaning (but hurtful) question or remark is another kick, another savage bite from the force that seeks to drive out our weakening loved ones. Each time we behave in such an unthinking way, we become one of the herd. It’s inevitable. Tony Vagneur will fight back, too, if the time ever comes. Read him here on Saturdays and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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