Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” goes the old saying, one that slides glibly off the tongue as though anyone could possibly know the depth of its meaning. Sure, we know that one should accept a gift at face value and not try to determine its worth or value beyond the intention. But really, what does a gift horse cost us in the long run?
Chief, we called him, a brown-and-white paint, or if you’re into horse lingo, a chestnut tobiano with a narrow blaze. He was registered with the American Paint Horse Association, christened Pepsis Rebel Prince, out of Mr. Rebellion and Pepsi Estate. His fine looks, accented by four white socks, were overshadowed by the fact that he was also a killer.
For the trade of a bottle of Stranahan’s best, Chief was mine, a horse totally out of favor with his previous owner and carrying the promise of a bright future at the Vagneur spread. I’d been looking for a packhorse and figured, “How could a guy go wrong at that price?” And a great packhorse he was, too, all things considered, including the 200 pounds of block salt he could carry with little effort.
Our first time out, he refused to cross small rivulets posturing as mountain streams, a quirk I found somewhat infuriating, and would have shot him then and there had I a gun in my possession. With patience and a lot of work, he came around, although occasionally he would forget himself and jump small arroyos as though they represented the Grand Canyon, nearly landing in my lap several times.
Sometime later, in an unfortunate turn of events, and while out in the pasture with my dog Topper and my daughter’s dog, Earl, Chief pulled a back-door attack on Earl, coming up on him from behind and striking him down with a well-aimed front hoof. All’s fair in the animal world, I reckon, but Chief was operating outside well-established protocols, like carrying out an unprovoked attack on a small mutt who was in the middle of exploratory, nose-sniffing ground work.
Chief, although not exonerated of the cold-blooded killing, remained on the payroll, but there was a general chill toward him after that. Otherwise, he was working well, holding up his end of the bargain, so it was somewhat of a letdown when he kicked Topper in the face, just below the eye. It wasn’t too serious, but it was a second offense and did require veterinary care. That’s not to say Topper didn’t have a hand in the matter, but there was a suspicion that Chief might be tougher on dogs than was tolerable. To keep peace and our dogs safe from harm, I pastured Chief out, leaving an untroubled winter corral at my place.
A couple of weeks ago, Chief came home and it was with some trepidation on both our parts that he and I resumed where we had left off last fall. However, Chief and Topper avoided each other, although I had absolutely no trust in either one of them about the matter. The general consensus of my thoughts was that Chief had to go, the sooner the better.
So, what’s a gift horse worth, really? For Earl, whose absence has left us with heartache, no price could be too high. There was Topper’s visit to the vet, Chief’s winter pasture in a balmy climate, brand inspection, and fuel to haul him to, and commission on the sale. Although this isn’t about dollars, I’m not sure how to measure the intangible sense of disappointment.
He was unsure of himself when we unloaded him at the sale barn, not certain of what was expected, but he showed an innate intelligence I hadn’t noticed before. He stood in the corner of his pen, eyes bright with curiosity, a slight arch in his neck, observing every change in the alleyway. A gentle breeze ruffled his handsome mane, and he nickered softly at me as I walked away. You and I are done, Chief; the auctioneer’s gavel is irreversible once struck, but on some level, I feel like I let you down.
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