Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

He just turned 2 at the end of July, so you could say he’s still a pup. Naturally, he doesn’t know that, and basically thinks the world turns around him, unless he gets around other dogs. A shy boy that Topper, until we get on the trail, then all his instincts kick in and he becomes what God intended, an incredible vision of athleticism and grace.

Just as in pro sports, or even high school athletics, where a player can become well-known for one spectacular play, or one truly bone-headed flub, dogs and horses take their place in local folklore based on the same demonstrations of excellence or mediocrity.

You might think a 2-year-old border collie too young to make history, and I agree, but for now, he’s riding a swell of admiration and respect that is almost impossible to elicit from a jaded, curmudgeonly cowboy of many a dog/cow skirmish.

We’d already spent a couple of long days moving cows up the mountain, arriving home a little after dark each day, with only the briefest of respites for lunch. Early the third morning, Topper moved slowly, like a wise old dog, keeping a close eye on me and appearing to hope that maybe we’d go a different direction that day.

It was a bit tedious, cutting a neighbor’s cows from ours in an expanse of many acres and no corrals, but at last we got on the trail. To us, the word “trail” connotes an established way to travel, whereas cows generally view trails as impediments to their direction of locomotion. And so it was on this particular day.

My horse, Billy, and I were off the path, doing our best to chase cattle through an area of immense, fallen, aspen trees and it was a close contest, keeping the cows gathered. My riding buddy, Niki Day (with dogs Chief and Rex), was off on the right, dealing with problems of her own, and I had kind of forgotten about my dog, trying to navigate Billy through a dangerous logjam.

Then, just as I happened to look around, Topper ripped into view, in mid-flight, traveling at what seemed to be a hundred miles an hour. We were on a steep hillside, and this first sighting was of a dog at my eye level, crossing directly in front of me and briefly touching the top tree on a twisted, tortured wind-blown pile of downed aspens for the briefest of a millisecond. When he first launched, it would have been impossible for him to know what was on the other side of the tangled mess, but that was a consideration he obviously decided to make in mid-air.

Without leaving a bit of his stride behind, Topper was already on his way to negotiating the next fallen tree, a drop of considerable distance, eyes narrowed to the target looming large ahead. He sucked up that next tree like a good skier breathes in a mogul field, and hit the ground in mid-turn, his move so quick that his butt swung wide from the centrifugal force. An obstreperous, black cow who erroneously thought she might have a chance of outmaneuvering a horse in devastating terrain, had no time to see the black-and-white streak of a dog headed her way.

The application of sharp, shiny white teeth to a relatively huge back fetlock of the wayward cow led her to believe her line of travel was in error, and with a bellow, she immediately made a course correction.

And there was no time to say, “Good dog,” ’cause before you could even blink, Topper was quickly moving across the terrain, looking to see where he was needed next.

Sometimes I hug the dog and tell him I love him, and it makes him uncomfortable. He’s a professional and doesn’t have time for such anthropomorphic pap. But still.

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