Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
It was a hot, lazy June day when I brought him home. My two regular boys, Telby and Donald, stood in the loafing shed, side by side, faces out, taking all the shade they could. I had a big and gracefully built Hancock horse on the end of the lead and wasn’t confident about turning him in with the regulars. Horses can be brutal, and sometimes the introduction of a stranger leads to vicious kicking, biting or, at the very least, wild running around. Getting cornered in a three-sided loafing shed by a squealing, kicking horse could have severe consequences for some unlucky equine.
I turned my charge loose with a bit of trepidation and stayed by the gate, horse sitter at the ready, if need be. The newcomer, a well-bred blue roan, had been loaned to me by a friend, a guy who’d been bucked off a couple of times and no longer trusted the horse.
“Try him out for a while, if you want” the rancher had said. “Maybe you can get along with the son of a bitch.”
Nonchalantly, and with the confidence of most big men, the horse walked over to the loafing shed, backed quietly in between the other two, who watched passively, and all three of them stood together, taking all the shade they could without a ripple of discontent. I hadn’t yet ridden the outlaw and had no idea how he’d perform, but by virtue of that one, credulous act of not harassing the other horses and their full and immediate acceptance of him, I swore to myself that I would do whatever it took to give the “new guy” a permanent home. He’s still here.
It’s about trust – with the animal world as well as ours. We write multipage contracts, not so much because we don’t trust the other party, but because our lives are so complicated we don’t want to forget any small detail. Once a contract is broken, the trust is gone, and there’s nothing left to enforce except the penalties. There are no winners.
All these thoughts went tumbling through my mind this fall as I watched the black bears in the West End. Theirs is a tragic existence, somewhat akin to zoo animals, only because they’ve chosen to hang out in civilization. I can’t remember the count. Maybe it’s two strikes, and you’re dead, but maybe they get three, all for creating distress in our lives. Aspen bears are not very hard to find, if you know where to look, and we found them every day/night in approximately the same places, scrounging for food.
One afternoon, we watched a large sow and two much smaller cubs, following momma’s nose to a frontyard crabapple tree. With a little coaching, the cubs were up the tree and happily munching away, lying across the branches. The sow supervised for a few minutes and then wandered to the back fence on the property, climbed over with one giant step and sauntered down to Hallam Lake for a morsel she might have remembered – or just some peace and quiet. My friend Margaret and I worried about the cubs and all the things that can go wrong when overzealous people and animals mix it up.
The usual parade of cars hummed by, and several folks walked within five or six feet of the tree, all without noticing the cubs. The sow, uncollared and with impressive ignorance of the dangers to be found in a human neighborhood, was firmly attached to the umbilical thread of natural life governing such things. She had detected no immediate threat to her family and eventually returned to gather up her young’uns and stroll down the street, seemingly without care.
To intervene would have been a violation of natural trust, a desecration of a sacred bond between living things, a bond we humans sometimes don’t embrace with much clarity or dignity. It’s a contract woefully written in our favor but still one that animals accept without complaint. Like the horses in my corral, trust is based on experience. When called upon, let’s begin to trust ourselves to do the right thing.