Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 1, 2009
There was a certain amount of trepidation in my step as I looked for the remains, and it always seems like curiosity immediately turns to sadness the moment the body shows itself. The arrival of the sun’s first rays gave off the dry, golden clarity of a splendid day ahead, and slow-moving cool air gave respite to the natural and rapid decomposition of the corpse.
He lay in a shallow ditch, much like we’d do it on purpose; feet down toward the center, back higher on the bank, and his head facing uphill. Old horses don’t seem to lie down very often, most likely because they know the odds of getting up again, but there comes a time when the choice no longer remains and the stoic animal must at last ease the weariness in his bones.
He didn’t go out in a hurry, like a candle before the breeze, but had time to contemplate his predicament. I could see the scuffed earth beneath his hooves, where he had made tortured protest, one last vain attempt to defy death and its numbing stillness.
He had died alone, which horses generally do unless assisted by a veterinarian, and now I was, in the most literal sense, his pall bearer, his spokesman, his last connection between those who cared for him and his final resting place. I had never before seen this horse, but as I read the story before me, I was compelled to sit down in the ditch beside him, stroke his neck and mane, and shed a tear for the magnificent beast he once was.
Many people love their horses like they love their dogs, or sometimes even their children, and the death of a horse is a very personal and exhausting event. Grown men sometimes sob, some women crouch and beat the earth with their fists, decrying the loss of a good friend. Others call someone like me to remove the carcass and then disappear, wanting nothing to do with the trauma such removal may create in their lives.
It was a business of mine, removing deceased horses from the premises, one I had started at the urging of Dr. Randi Bolton around 2000. A new Colorado law stating that all euthanized horses must be disposed of in an acceptable manner within hours of death coincided with the closing of the rendering plant in Grand Junction. Not everyone can bury a horse on his/her property, and moving a large animal like that is very difficult unless you have specialized equipment. There was a need.
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It never gets easier, looking death in the face, and I couldn’t get around a client’s horse without leaving a few tears. I didn’t particularly like the job and wanted out, but I was the one veterinarians and horse owners called. There wasn’t much money in it, but there was an obligation, obliquely pointed out by Tim Cooney when he said that in every Tibetan monastery, there is one designated monk responsible for carrying his deceased brothers up the mountain to a satisfactory decomposition site. I kept doing it to represent the horses, to ensure that their final ride was as good as it could be, given the circumstances.
And then last year, the calls from veterinarians abruptly ceased. I knew there must be a reason, but in my relief at not having to perform the service, I let it slide. The monetary difference was negligible, and I figured that whatever had caused such a decline, it must be my friend.
And in disguise, it was. In a confluence of circumstances beyond the usual, I learned that a couple of contemptible people had maliciously and inaccurately spread the rumor that I had ceased business operations.
There’s an almost somnambulant desire to get even with them for what some might consider a cruel injustice, and when I confront reality, it’s clear they truly did me a favor. For which I can only say, “thank you very much.”