Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

By the time we get the herd sorted through the serpentine of alleyways and corrals, the dew’s been burned off the grass and Randall, connoisseur that he is, has the branding area organized and the irons hot as fire. Jobs are handed out with as few words as possible. “Johnny, you’ll need two syringes,” means Johnny has just been given the job of vaccinating the young calves, and so it goes, until all the procedures are covered. Usually the owner sizzles the hides himself, thus eliminating any argument if a brand happens to look like hell instead of the Mill-Iron Slash or Lazy-V C it’s supposed to be. Explain it to a hanging judge as the rustler spits a wad at the wall and says “ain’t nobody could read that caricature of a brand.”

The horse’s ears are up in anticipation of the day’s activities and before we’ve even started there’s a lot of action taking place in the midst of the swirling dust, bawling calves, and riders and horses, true professionals both, waiting for the call. We spin a loop or two to warm up when suddenly, the boss hollers, “Bring some calves in, dammit.”

It’s a methodical game we play, time after time, urging our horses up near the backside of a calf, usually at an awkwardly slow pace. The challenge is to get the timing just right, to pitch that coiled and twisted twine with the accuracy of a pirate sniper’s bullet and send it true, lassoing up the hind legs of a suspecting calf. When you can do that without thinking about it, time after time, odds are you’ll get invited back.

But you’re not there yet, cowboy. Quickly, pull the slack out of the rope and dally it around your saddle horn, giving it a wrap or two, depending on your preference, and head your horse for the gate, pulling the calf behind you. After you’ve done this a couple of times, your horse knows more about getting to the fire than you do, so you’ve mostly just got to pay attention to your squirming little dogie, making sure he doesn’t get hurt in the process.

Timing is critical here, for you can’t place your cargo at the branding area until the one in front of you is done, and you can’t stop your forward movement, or the calf, without a taut rope, will kick that string off his legs faster than a banker calls in a bad loan.

It’s about cadence and skill and the boys doing the branding work on the ground are a jovial bunch, but make them walk too far to throw your calf or run them over with your horse, and you’ll find out just how fast you can become a marked man. Mostly, they’re young and tough and have arms as big around as thighs on a guy like me. If you’re good, you and your horse can make life much easier for these guys, but if you’re not very good, the boss will soon be asking you to go close a gate or something at the far end of the ranch, just to get you out of the way.

It’s a dead serious game, doing everything you can to protect these little bovines from theft and disease, and even though a lot of banter gets tossed around, there is no room for error. Miss a vaccination and a calf may die. Screw up a brand and you’ll either look like a damned fool or spend the rest of your life trying to live it down.

With an obtuse remark about how your girlfriend might look better in the shirt you’re wearing than you do, the boys on the ground let the calf up and it’s up to you to bring ’em another one. Time after time. It gets in your blood, like fresh powder.

There may be more efficient methods to get the job done, and we use them most of the time, but every once in a while, the old, original ways make more sense and soothe the soul the best.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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