Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 18, 2009
The midafternoon sun was attacking without reprieve and getting hotter all the time. We weren’t on a trail, but riding straight up a ridge that drove into the face of the mountain like the bow of a ship into a huge wave. We ducked around gnarled jack-oaks and serviceberry bushes, our horses’ legs kicking up the wonderful smell of never-ending sage that dotted the tall, succulent grass. Fighting brush is OK in the heat of battle, but we seemed to be on an aimless mission, even though Gramps had said something about “looking for horses.”
Before long, we popped into a clearing and stopped just long enough for this 9-year-old boy to see some dust rising up on the next ridge over. By the time I got that much accomplished, Granddad and his mount were off at a fast lope, chasing the dust. “By God, maybe there are some wild horses up here, after all!” I thought.
My horse, Spades, who was as black as the night, had his ears cocked forward and in the excitement, began doing a little dance as he tried to pass my granddad and ol’ Slim. I was enjoying this increased energy, and my eyes, swollen with hay fever, became less bothersome, even though the oak brush was coming a lot faster and harder now.
There were cattle trails running through the terrain, but we weren’t using them much, and I was mostly at the mercy of my horse, who was increasingly getting more excited by the anticipation of a possible meeting with some kindred spirits. When I did get a chance to look up, all I saw was that same dust cloud, about a quarter-mile ahead, moving across the ridges and draws as a small whirlwind might, down toward Woody Creek and our ranch below.
The ridge flared out into a wide mesa, and as we reached it, Gramps and me were hitting a fairly hard gallop down the sage- and brush-covered terrain. Granddad was hollering at me to “stay back,” Spades was jumping and diving around imaginary shadows, and I was trying hard not to laugh with the pure joy of the chase. Jackrabbits on either side of us scurried about, upset by the sudden intrusion into their lives, and we knew we were closing in on the untamed equines.
Hoof-stirred dust was now all around us, and the remarkable smell of horses was in the air. As we passed an old homestead cabin, I looked up just in time to see a dusky mare, about 50 yards in front of us, stopped on the edge of the hill as though covering the backs of the wild bunch. Her nostrils were flared, showing the soft, pink lining; her eyes brilliant with a piercing look of contempt, ears laid back against her head, and every muscle taut and filled with adrenaline. Our eyes locked for an instant, quickening my pulse, and then she headed down the steep bank leading off the mesa, her mane and tail flowing out behind her from the speed with which she moved. She had materialized from the powdery air, almost as an apparition, and I was totally captivated.
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Our corrals had been designed to allow cattle to move in a fashion natural to them, and it seemed to work for horses, as well. Also, the wisdom of rounding these horses up occasionally was making itself apparent as the lead mares knew where to go once you convinced them it was roundup time. We reached the corral gate a split-second before the horses circled around to escape, and as Gramps latched the large, wooden gate, he threw a couple of extra hooeys around the gate post, leaving nothing to chance.
It was my first encounter with the legendary band of 20 or so wild horses that ranged high on Vagneur Mountain. But not the last.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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