Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
The key is rhythm, steady rhythm, like the beating of your heart or the advance of tectonic plates across the earth’s surface; the tide along the banks of the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore ebbs and flows with a rhythm millions of years old, and the horses feel it somewhere deep inside.
We stepped into a late October, early-morning dense fog, lightheaded at the scarcity of landmarks. Carefully walking across the damp earth and trying to look around, it was as though floating through a dream, a Colorado horseman lost in the murkiness, unsure of his role.
Horses, unseen but snorting through the mist, gave us a sense of home, and from within my breast, an eagerness sprang to meet these new friends, to touch the familiarity of equine reality with my thoughts and feelings. Horse barns are built by men, but horses own them through the sheer force of their personalities. A barn without horses is one without romance, without purpose. The clomping of a horse’s hooves as it walks the alleyway is, well, unforgettable.
A mountain boy from Woody Creek, plunked down in the middle of a thoroughbred race horse farm back East without his Western saddle, helping to break yearlings and handle stud horses, makes for an interesting scenario in survival. Nerve and naivete help, but a sense of deep curiosity serves to keep one in the game. That and a good boss who always tried to make things interesting for that scrawny kid and his young wife.
Charlie Moloney, the manager, already had our horses saddled, and they were snuffling and pawing, eager to begin their exercise routine. As we mounted up, the fog began to lift, giving us the perception that something magical was in the works. We left the barn area, four abreast, with me wondering where the adventure would lead – the others wondering if I’d measure up.
The stout gelding underneath me, one of the fox-hunting stable, was steady enough and immediately gained my trust. After a bit, we kicked up into a slow canter (lope), and the immense energy of the beast began to tire my arms as I attempted to keep him in the pack.
“Put an iron cross on him,” hollered Eddie Houghton, the farm owner, from the outside.
Hell, I didn’t know an iron cross from a wooden peg at that point, but by watching Eddie, I learned how to cross the reins over the big horse’s neck, letting him pull against himself.
Harold Hall and I broke a lot of horses in Woody Creek Canyon, and we rode some rank ones into damned good ranch mounts, but those mornings spent exercising the fox hunters back East are still powerful in my mind. Charging down wide, well-kept, sandy trails through forests of red oak, beech, maple and dogwood, standing up in the stirrups of an English saddle at a gallop, my face within inches of the light sorrel mane and experiencing every nuance of the powerful horse under me was a rush I cannot forget.
And I became aware of something I knew but hadn’t acknowledged before. To be a good rider, you need a lot of practice, but even more important, you have to develop the ability to merge with the rhythm of the animal you’re riding. Horses react naturally from the heart without giving their actions a lot of cerebral consideration, a gift we humans have denigrated in ourselves, believing brainpower to be superlative.
It’s been almost 40 years since I traveled those Maryland trails, and in the incessant rhythm of life we can’t control, some of the riders have left our midst, but my memories of them will never die. Eddie, the high-energy owner, is gone, along with his farm manager, Charlie. Long ago, the horses we rode stopped clunking through the barn and galloping after foxhounds. Somewhere there’s a photo, taken by my friend Buck Deane, documenting my life as an English exercise rider in the secluded woods of Maryland. I’d like to find that photo for just one more glimpse.
Tony Vagneur salutes Buckingham Farm, still raising winners. Tony writes here every Saturday and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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For the past five-plus years I have sat in a big chair in a small office on Hyman Avenue watching life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley play out in front of me.