Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
A few days ago, there was mention in the national news about a 9-year-old girl caught driving her mother’s car, with the mother in the car. It made me wonder how badly I would have been chastised by the politically correct of the world for letting my 5-year-old daughter drive my truck while I fed the horses. With the pickup in its lowest four-wheel drive gear, she’d stand on the seat and steer whichever direction I pointed. By the time she was 10, she could put a five-speed manual transmission through its paces, up or down, with flawless precision. She could also take a 16-hand horse over a 3-foot jump without blinking.
So it was no big deal the other day when, just before we began the monstrous job of separating 750 bovine animals into pre-arranged groups, the big boss looked at me with a bit of a grin and said, “Do you think you and Josie can keep the cutting alleyway in the corrals loaded with cattle?” Without being demonstrative, I said something like, “Hell, yes,” realizing too late that my reply might have been a little salty for a 7-year-old girl.
It was our job, Josie’s and mine, to separate 30 or 40 cows and calves off of the main bunch (in a huge enclosure) and push them through an ever-narrowing corral passage and hold them there until men on the other end had properly sorted them into various pens. This is the kind of job you do over and over again until finally, the entire herd gets through the corrals and separated.
Josie rides a small, well-proportioned dark brown horse named Glenn, the two of them ideally suited to each other. Glenn responds with the quickness and alertness of a pony who is enthusiastic about his job and is, in the words of some sun-creased, leather-faced old-timers, a seasoned cow horse.
Taking turns, one of us would hold our cows in the corral without help while the other rode back into the main herd and cut out 30 or 40 more. With that teamwork, we kept a smooth and continuous flow of cattle going through the corrals, keeping everyone busy, without a wait for more cattle.
You might think it impossible or immaterial to know individual cows in the midst of a bunch that size, but that’s not how it works. In particular, I was concerned about a big, crossbred Angus-Brahma cow with low, wide-flung ears, a dedicated momma with red tag number M-209 stuck in her ear. She has been known to charge horses, sometimes without warning, so I advised Josie to keep a careful eye on her.
Now Josie is, like many girls her age, shy and soft-spoken, so about the most I had gotten out of her was the name of her horse. But after the second warning on M-209, she pushed her wide-brimmed black hat back and said something through the swirling dust I couldn’t quite understand, except for, “off our horses.”
M-209, 1400-1500 pounds of vibrant beef on the hoof who has no fear of a 1,200- to 1,400-pound horse, can be kowtowed by a two-legged person on foot, something Josie was trying to tell me.
Almost done, I left Josie to watch the corral cows while I went back to gather up M-209 and the few cows remaining with her. I hopped off my horse, had a short stare-down with the old broad and whistled the big beasts into action.
Here came Josie at a lope, back out of the corral, unwilling to leave me on my own. She went to the opposite side, dismounted and quickly tied Glenn to a rail. She was on foot next to me, arms stretched wide, feet moving quickly to prevent any cows from turning back. Just as if we’d been working together for years, we covered each other’s backs and before long, M-209 and the others were corralled.
We gave each other a big smile, not wanting to spoil the moment with words, or even a high-five. We mounted up and rode off together towards the chuck wagon.
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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.