Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Like phantoms through the early-morning light they came, jogging toward the corrals from a mile or more away, mooing and looking for the calves we’d weaned from them a couple of days previous. My riding partner, Niki, and I casually rode out to roundup the stragglers, those cows who had already settled into the new routine and were working on some good fall grass, and before long, they were all in the corral.
Team work – that’s what it’s all about: dog, horse and human. We’ve got 400 head of cows bunched up in one corral, and it’s the job of my team to move them through the alleyways, up to the main cattle-chute alley, where they’ll be tested for pregnancy. We take 20 or 30 cows at a time and push them along, utilizing every move a well-trained horse can put on these pervicacious bovines. The last thing they want to do is cooperate, but my big horse Drifter is usually a step quicker.
Off to my right is the other member of our “team,” my border collie Topper. Wait, he’s off to my left. No wait, he’s back to the right again. Ah, the magnificence of a good working dog is impossible to overstate.
The one that seems to be having trouble is the man in the saddle. Hampered by a perennially stiff neck, I can’t look around as fast as my horse or dog, so I have to rely to some degree on a “sense” of the action. Fortunately for me, Drifter and Topper work together extremely well, after years of practice, so the horse always keeps a close eye on the dog and vice-versa. Many times, Drifter is on top of the action a split second before I figure it out, which means I have to relax a bit and let the horse make his move when he thinks it’s necessary.
When the cows push back and refuse to go into the alleyway, Topper sees it coming and becomes incredibly swift in keeping them all pointing the proper direction. Drifter is dancing back and forth, bouncing off his front legs and swiveling on his hind as he turns quickly to cut one off and then another. I look off to the side and see Topper take off to turn back an escaping cow, nipping at her nose for the turnaround. The beauty of the horse and dog being long on experience means I don’t always have to be giving them their cues – they know what they’re doing without a lot of interference from me.
Cows can weigh around 1,400 pounds, which makes them just a little lighter than my horse, but they’re built much closer to the ground, more like a fireplug, and when they decide to change direction in a tight alleyway, they don’t always have respect for the horse. Drifter, valiant corral man that he is, refuses to be intimidated by such cows, and it can sometimes be tough on both of us. A good hit from a cow can knock a horse over, but Drifter still ducks in front of them, sometimes taking shots that push him back, jar my body or slam my leg up between cow and horse, and we spin and cuss and get the dirty sumbitch back in line with the rest of them. Drifter must have a sore chest and legs at the end of the day; I know my body gets beat up.
We’re near the end of our mission. The afternoon sun beats down, my eyelids grow heavy, and as I look down toward the ground, the absolute basics of life stare me down. All is quiet in the alleyway, and I’ve let Drifter zone out. A big brute of a black cow stands next to us, the immensity of her cloven hooves majestic in the job they do holding her weight up, and my dog, flopped on his belly and near up to his eyeballs in mud and cow shit, keeps his eye on everything, content inside but still panting like a steam locomotive headed up Hagerman Pass. The three of us – we live for these days.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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