Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
As I carefully laid the specially designed, thick saddle pad along his back, I asked blindly and rhetorically, “How many more seasons, old friend, will we share these times?”
We never expect the good days to end, although the way some of us charge at life, we won’t be surprised if our horses outlive us. Truthfully, maybe only once in a lifetime does a horse come around who makes us hope we die first so we don’t have to go through the heartache of watching his demise.
A tall, dark bay, he had none of the brutishness that big horses sometimes hold; his features and lines were as finely tuned as his good breeding would allow. Well built, incredibly quick and powerful, with a black, tousled mane flowing over a perfectly arched neck, there was no doubt who was in charge of the herd.
He came my way in a trade, one I was reluctant to make at first, but as the conversation continued, I remembered this big, beautiful horse, one I had “broke” a couple of years before. He was smart, a pleasure to work with, but I had only ridden him a month or so, and he’d been mostly turned out ever since. Oh, a couple of people had bought him for his looks or his quickness and then soon returned him, professing that he had the potential to kill someone. Louie Burtard had kept him at the Yank Creek cow camp the previous summer, so I figured he might be capable of mayhem but not murder. I wanted that horse and made the trade without ever looking back.
Shiny, blood-red with a black mane and tail, his mother gave him that aliveness and the strong look in his eye, although where her glance was distrustful, his was one of kindness. She was too much fire for anyone to tame and eventually ended up with the wild horse herds in the Piceance Creek basin, northwest of Rifle. Other wild horses were rounded up regularly and brought in for examination or sale, but that wild, free-roaming mare, occasionally spotted from the distance, knew too much of humans to ever be touched by their hand again.
The foal doesn’t fall far from the mare, but unlike his dam, my horse was manageable. He didn’t like being tied up and was a genius at untying knots, but he never ran off and always hung around, as though standing watch. His enthusiasm for the trail ahead was contagious, and many times, his joy of life talked me out of the doldrums.
Horses are horses, generally speaking, particularly to those who use them regularly, although the exceptional ones stand out after a while. A couple of old boys who watched me grow up would occasionally witness my arrival at the corrals and say, with a touch of admiration, “I’d like to ride that horse before I die.”
One late, winter afternoon, I watched a woman coming up my driveway, pushing a baby carriage through several inches of wind-hardened snow. It was difficult traveling for her and the young boy who walked beside, holding her arm. Thinking she might need assistance, I walked down to meet her.
“No, we just want to get a closer look at that gorgeous, young horse you have.” I showed her a couple of youngsters, but that’s not what she meant. “Oh, my,” she said as she gasped at the fieriness, still, of the aging, now older-than-30 gelding, retired but still in charge of the pasture. He knew his worth and snorted just for her, I’m certain.
Yes, old friend, our seasons together are over, been that way for 12 or 13 years now, and the day we put you down, the only humane thing left to do, tore my heart up. Every once in a while, I find a photo of us from the past, and it makes me smile, the memory of our adventures together. But don’t ask me to read a poem about a cowboy’s dying horse out loud – it just can’t be done, not yet.
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