Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Sally was a coal-black Percheron beauty whose silky, slick coat stood out in any herd. She knew she was talented and had an impervious attitude not unlike that of a celebrated opera diva. Graceful and athletic, she loved to work, and had little patience for timid handlers. Dilly-dally or be unsure of yourself harnessing her and she’d soon be taking a bite out of your hide or threatening you with a knee-destroying cow kick.
Unfortunately, her unfriendly nature and aloof posture toward people kept her from getting the accolades that were her due. It didn’t help that her first partner, Charlie, was a handsome, reddish bay Clydesdale who naturally stole the hearts of all who saw him. “Wow, where’d you get that horse?” I still have a lock of his impressive black mane, cut the night he died, tucked away in a personal effects drawer. You can’t just let go of a horse like that.
Afterward, I’d picked Ted up almost by accident, when an Amish farmer in Iowa insisted that to get the team of well-matched Belgians I wanted, I also had to take a misfit, dark-brown Clydesdale gelding, whose partner had recently died. My hope was that he and Sally would hit it off, and they did, almost too well.
Ted and Sally were hot together, so well-oiled and in sync that it seemed they had always been a pair. Well-matched at over a ton each, you might have thought them to move with the deliberation of very large land animals, but their quickness of movement and responsiveness was reminiscent of a team of light, chariot-pulling steeds.
And so it was, one October evening, as my buddy Dave and I took Ted and Sally out for an evening “training” drive on the wagon, that we discovered the consequences such powerful and contagious energy could have.
We’d topped the hill in the upper pasture of the T Lazy 7, like we’d done several times before, and were hitting a good pace along the tree line. Just as I turned the team down the hill, which was rather steep, there was a split second of bad premonition, but it was too late.
At almost that same instant, Naomi, a nurse from Aspen Valley Hospital, laid her brand-new motorcycle over on the Maroon Creek Road down below. Undoubtedly, it was coincidence, but as if on cue, the moment the bike went down, the horses ran away at a full gallop, straight down the hill.
This was dangerous business (men have died from such), as there were a couple of irrigation ditches to negotiate and a myriad of other considerations, and things were happening at a high rate of speed. Pulling as hard as I could on the lines, I had no influence over the horses whatsoever, so I handed a line off to Dave, who was strong as a bull, hoping the two of us together might avert tragedy.
We had our feet high up on the front of the wagon, above our heads, pulling back as hard as we could. To no avail. We gave each other a look, not of fear, but of wondering what the hell else we might do to end the nightmare. It’s a rocky pasture and, coupled with the irrigation ditches, we got tossed around pretty good. From the tracks, we later determined we got about thirty feet of air off of one ditch bank.
The horses finally gave it up on the flat, when the yoke came loose from the tongue, and we all survived without further trauma. With ingenuity, we overcame the “runaway” problem, and thought we had one of the finest teams anywhere.
In early December, on the way back to the barn after a sleigh ride through a foot of fluffy, light powder, Sally stumbled and was gone. I performed cardiac compressions; Lou, the vet who was already on scene, administered drugs, but nothing worked. On a beautiful, pitch black winter’s night, impossible to forget, Sally went out like she’d lived, unobtrusively and quick.
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