Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
November 6, 2009
It’s not really wind, but more like a steady breeze or a stiff drink, right in your face. Three days of unending snowfall and it might total 8 inches, up here near timberline so desolate that the odds of seeing another person are nonexistent.
My business, as a Forest Service volunteer, is sparse; actually, there isn’t any work at all of the kind I was expecting. The three-degree weather must have scared everyone off, and there’s no need to be in such a location, but it’s the aloneness, the quiet, that draws me higher, farther away from the usual trails
Billy, the black-and-white paint pack horse, is staying right with us, and in conditions like these, he’s about the best friend I have, carrying enough to get me through an emergency stay in the wilderness – tent, sleeping bag, survival kit, axe and fuel. Little food, but how long would it take to be found, or to die hurt?
There’s a responsibility riding on this, one that the horses are seemingly oblivious to, but being the joker that dragged them up here for such an adventure, it’s up to me to get them safely out. It leans on me for a couple of miles, but then, there are other things to wonder about; where is that shortcut we found last fall, what’s the temperature, when should we turn back to reach camp before dark?
Mounting up the next morning for another look around, my big horse Drifter has a surprise for me. As soon as my butt hits the saddle, he shifts into another gear, one relegated to his past, I thought, and his ears go straight out to the side, helicopter ears, Willie Fender always called them. Recognizing this, it’s like sitting on a box of lit dynamite, for in a second, maybe two, Drifter is going to go totally berserk. I can feel him gathering his muscles under him, a totally awesome sensation, and that’s my clue to push my feet out, hunker down, and be ready for the explosion.
There’s no disappointment on this day. One huge leap into the air and he tries to duck his head on the way down, but I’m ready for that, so he rears up, dancing backward on his rear legs, until he slips into a deep rut and almost goes over backwards. “You SOB, don’t mess with me like that,” I’m thinking, but then he whips around to the right, still tensed tighter than a just-wound gyroscope, and I spy a shallow depression in the earth along the trail, pointing his head in that direction. Bucking down into the hole, he has a real fit, spinning both directions, and I stay right with him, for in the cold, the snow, and being all alone, I can’t afford to get bucked off.
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Suddenly he stops, 1,400 pounds of quivering outlaw under me, and I quietly soothe him down. But for the first five or six miles, he’s a total handful. Sure, you readers may have a lot of theories about this or that – a cold-backed horse that was jumped too soon, etc. Keep ’em, for I know how useless they would have been in this case.
Drifter’s never come unglued except in that particular area, and it’s not related to the weather. Sometimes, when I lie in my camp bunk at night, the almost inaudible hum of a vibration, way off in the forest or in an underground hideaway, keeps me half-awake. Maybe Drifter’s inner self is somehow shaken by that unknown tremor.
Or, the ghost of a long-deceased Ute Indian chief’s pony, shot dead by a rival for one of the chief’s wives, gallops across the undulating landscape, visible only through the eyes of a horse. A soft breeze drifts through the spruce branches, carrying the nicker of a pony who’ll never get home for the bad medicine that’s trapped him, and Drifter takes up the cause.
You can’t say otherwise unless you’re a horse.
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