Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It was daylight, but before the sun had risen, we bobbed along, my horse Drifter and me, following Topper up the trail. The climb was steep, the air a delicious September cold, and somewhere deep inside, a smile was keeping me warm.
Topper reached the top of the pitch before we did, jumping high in the air to clear a sagebrush bush, just in time to catch the brilliant flash of the sun topping the ridge. Until then, he appeared to be just another dog, slogging up a seldom used cow path, but in that instant, he was transformed into a dial of beauty, sun glistening off his wet chest, droplets of dew reflected in the halo of sunlight surrounding him, his red tongue out to one side, eyes focused with intent.
Drifter picked his head up for a moment as if to say, “Yeah,” and that one instance cemented the three of us together like we hadn’t been earlier.
It’s an undeniable thing about good working dogs or horses; they’ll give you all they have, with total honesty, and if you ask for more, you’ll get it. It comes naturally, from their hearts, an irrefutable thread of instinct that lets us humans in just long enough to offer a bit of coaching here and there.
Topper and I talk to each other most of the day without verbalizing very much of it. He watches me closer than a virgin’s chaperone after midnight and knows, from experience and almost before I do, what his next move is going to be. It’s a curious thing but Drifter, who doesn’t let me in for much unless we’re in the heat of battle with the cows, keeps a sharp eye on Topper.
Animals have a way of communicating that those of us with linguistic capabilities have mostly forgotten but could sorely use. Only in our world of words can we see the husband, frozen in angst as he watches his marriage self-destruct, waiting for the door to slam on everything in the world he loves, including his only child. A thousand thoughts race through his head as he struggles desperately to open his heart, but he can’t think of the words. Stoically, he seals his fate.
Clearly, I remember the names; Stardust, Spades, Snicker, Thunderbird, Wishy, Kiowa, Willie, Donald, Billy and Drifter, and a slew more; horses who have carried me all over these mountains with little complaint, galloping after cows across hillsides so steep a fall might mean serious injury or death, giving it their all without miscue.
Growling, ankle-biting monsters to a herd of cattle, good dogs make life much more enjoyable for cowboys trailing a herd through the mountains and save a horse and cowboy a lot of work. Names like Wolf, Tag, Freckles, Blue, Calvin, Tipper and Topper roll off my tongue, all border collies or Aussie heelers, dogs all gone but Topper, dogs to always be remembered for their contributions to the cause.
In the early-morning chill before a big spring cattle drive or fall roundup, the horses snort and stomp with anticipation, the dogs run back-and-forth sniffing and wagging while the riders, fingering their reins, laugh too easily and anxiously await the cue to move out.
The boss “clucks” his mount out the gate and suddenly it’s all business. The horses walk easy and with purpose; the dogs line out behind their human partners, knowing which horse and which rider they need to listen to, and from any perspective, it’s an interrelated group who enjoys what they do, a page taken straight out of history books worn thin by centuries of loving use.
There are those who say that dogs and horses don’t have souls, that they’re just animals, and if that’s really true, then I’d like to volunteer mine to those creatures I have experienced life with, for God knows, they truly deserve it.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.