Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
If you have to think about it much, you might not be one, but even so, those who have the affliction recognize it with a certain sense of pride. “Goddamn right, I’m a cowboy, till I die.” At least that’s what an old boy in the historic Fryingpan Inn told me a few years back. He was right.
If you live in this country, being a cowboy also means being a farmer, and unlike some of the flatland boys, we never took umbrage at doing a few farm chores, like plowing, sowing oats (wild ones, too), harrowing fields or spreading fertilizer. It all goes with ranching territory, and around this valley there was never what one would call a specialist, a guy who was only a “cowboy.” But the cowboying is what keeps most of us in the game.
When we were kids, riding rough stock was the draw – the meaner the better, although most of ’em weren’t too bad. Riding out the string in early spring was a good warm-up for summer, throwing saddles on broncs that didn’t much cotton to the idea of going back to work after a long winter off.
There’s something about the smell of a horse that is relaxing but mystifying. If you look long enough into a horse’s eye, you can see eternity, and if you take the time to hug a horse’s neck and inhale his smell, you can be one with him, at least for a little while. Tough old cowhands facing rambunctious colts use this as a survival tool – a brute thinking about unloading you has a different aroma.
It’s one of those things I maybe never got over, riding the rough bunch, and I might never have been that good at it, but I learned that I seldom mind an honest SOB that flat-out likes to raise hell, but a dishonest horse, one that’ll fall over on you or rear over backward and try to hurt you, has no future in my herd. Another thing I learned is that it’s much easier to communicate with a horse than argue with one. An ounce of anticipation usually prevents a pound of craziness. Such personal predilections have brought some unusual horses my way, some damned good horses actually, those that respectable horsemen just couldn’t trust but wanted to give one more chance before they shot ’em or sent them to the killers.
My buddy Bob, who spent a summer or two breaking colts, calls my corral “Dysfunction Junction,” saying there isn’t a horse in there that “hasn’t killed or maimed other people.” No one in the know wants any part of my equine collection. At one of last spring’s brandings, I offered my paint, Billy, to a damned good horsewoman as a rope horse because hers had turned up lame. “Now, why would I want to do that?” she asked with a smile just before Billy decided to buck his way through the branding fires and show his stuff. He caught me shooting the bull instead of paying attention. So, yeah, Billy’s a little excitable, but there isn’t a bovine alive that can outmaneuver him when he’s on his game.
Horses have a sixth sense that we humans don’t always grasp. They know when we’re vulnerable, they know when we don’t “get it,” and in the interest of fairness, they almost always give us a clue as to what they’re thinking. They’re pretty honest, really, but I’ve known a couple that seemed to get genuine pleasure out of making life downright miserable for their riders. I sold one of them to a rodeo string, and the last I heard, no one had been able to get a qualified ride on it. Kind of makes me like it a little better.
It’s hard to talk about cowboys without getting lost in the world of horses, and if you’re still with me, that’s apparently what happened here. Besides, I know a lot more about horses than I do cowboys.
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