Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
The horses were waiting for me just outside the corral gate, eager to come in from the back pasture, and as they walked up to the waiting grain buckets, I had to smile at the willingness of animals to go along with our schedules, even at 5 a.m.
I quickly saddled my big horse Drifter, a Hancock-bred blue roan, and we headed for whatever the day might bring. Dawn was just cracking over the valley as we pulled up to the McCabe Ranch corrals, and Drifter’s attention was immediately focused on the sounds of 400 head of lowing Angus, already suspicious that something was up.
The story goes, and it’s true, that there aren’t many cowboys left in the world, but just as profoundly, I reckon, there aren’t many good cow horses left, either. Most cattle, just by the circumstance of being exposed to different horses, know equines well, and it takes a good, experienced ranch horse to keep from being disadvantaged by the cows. Nowadays, some people use motor vehicles, but when I work cows, I always use a horse.
There is something about the interaction between two living creatures, such as a cow and a horse, which creates an intimacy that can never, not in your wildest imagination, be replaced by mechanized means. There exists a natural reciprocation, almost an understanding, that allows these animals to comprehend one another on a plane foreign to those of us belonging to the reasoning species. Horses get the job done with a modicum of disruption. Motorized vehicles usually get the job done in spite of the disruption they create.
Drifter is the consummate professional, the kind who needs to be left alone to do his job and who can concentrate extremely well in chaotic, fast-moving situations. Just point him to the job and he will, with minimal help from me, get it done. The other day, we were cutting five calves at a time out of a herd of around 200, using a corral alleyway as an aid. Drifter doesn’t count, and he sure can’t multiply or divide, but he fairly well knows when five calves have gone by him in the alley and, with unerring accuracy, recognizes when to cut the sixth calf off from the others. When it works smoothly, as it does 99 percent of the time, he keeps his ears half-cocked, thoroughly enjoying his work. If I cue him too soon or ask something unrelated of him, his ears lay down flat and the feeling of his body changes under me. It’s as if he’s scolding me for getting in his way.
The remarkable thing about this exercise is that the calves pick up on the procedure fairly quickly, as well, and after a few runs, they know to sneak by the horse in the alley until, unceremoniously, they are cut off from the five “escapees.” They quickly learn to work with the horse, although they can’t count nearly as well as Drifter.
Just lately, I picked up one of those slick-paged books about great American family ranches, or some such thing, and as I thumbed through it, was absolutely appalled to see a photo of a multi-generational family lined up on 10 all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), or four-wheelers. In the narrative, these people proudly proclaimed they had very little need for horses, as their large cattle spread was mechanized. There was no shame, no embarrassment, not even a sliver of recognition that using motorized vehicles to work cattle was anathema to the very premise of their business. Keep in mind, we’re talking animal husbandry here.
At the end of the day, Drifter neatly clomped into the trailer, satisfied he’d done his job and we headed for home. I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I am to have a horse like him in my string. I’m no anthropomorphic sap, but it’s not a stretch to say I love that horse.
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