Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 9, 2010
We were standing in the middle of a quiet Iowa farmyard, overcast sky, sandy soil damp from recent rain, waiting for Joe Borntrager, the sole proprietor, to turn loose of the draft horses I’d just bought. He clearly liked those big boys and wasn’t eager to see them shipped to Colorado, but he had his reasons, I reckon.
I’d bought an almost identically matched pair of blonde Belgian geldings, Pete and Pat, who weighed about a ton apiece, and Ted, an enthusiastic, dark brown Clydesdale, weighing in at a little more. It’s tough fitting three horses that size into a trailer designed for four regular-sized animals. Leading them out of the barn, Joe said, “These horses haven’t been in a trailer before. Hope we don’t have trouble.” But Borntrager knew his charges well and leading with a pitchfork full of hay the size of a VW Bug over his shoulder, he coaxed the team directly into the trailer. I eased the door shut, capturing them before they could back out.
My wife, Caroline, fired up the truck, my buddy, L.E. Wheeler (a mentor), pulled out a generic, “fill in the blanks” bill of sale, and I hurriedly wrote a check. We were conscious of getting on the road before the horses got anxious and started acting up, causing problems.
In a heartbeat, we were out of there, twisting and turning down a labyrinth of back roads, lined on both sides by the quiet, well-tended Amish farms we’d been visiting for the past week in our quest for draft horses. Aspen, here we come!
We were traveling on the edge, as usual, but if everything was perfect it wouldn’t be much of a trip. Our conversation was flushed with success, the accomplishment of a mission we’d thought impossible a week earlier. It was about canceled horse sales, a friendly librarian who’d put us on to the Amish, a fellow named Andy Mast, crippled harness maker in the center of the Amish community who both helped and sabotaged our efforts. And Joe Borntrager, who finally decided we were worthy of owning his horses.
About 20 miles into our journey home, I had to hitchhike into town to buy a jack big enough to lift the trailer and horses so we could change a flat. It being Sunday, there was no way to get the horses certified by a veterinarian and to travel without such papers was foolhardy and the jack was a bad omen. But, L.E. had a brother near Hutchinson, Kansas, and we figured we’d get there sometime Sunday night and weigh our options then.
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The horses were well-behaved, almost motionless, and the trip droned on. Among the three of us in front, we had enough equine stories to last a long time, but not long enough. My wife, unfamiliar with the trailer and its cumbersome load, didn’t want to drive, and L.E., who’d somehow found a quart of I.W. Harper whiskey during my hitchhike to town, was nipping at it every 10 miles or so.
It was about 600 miles from our starting point to Hutchinson, the speed limit was 55, and about 16 hours after leaving the Borntrager farm, we turned into a pitch-black rural abyss off the interstate, totally trusting L.E., who with thick tongue and selective memory was relatively certain we’d found the correct road. Don’t get me wrong, I loved L.E. like a father (he was about 75 at the time), but our banter was no longer friendly.
And before we knew it, we were lost. It was pushing midnight with not a sign of civilization anywhere. The roads were endless and we turned here and there, hoping L.E. would see something familiar. Wait, is that a light over there? Ten miles away on the prairie or more, but we zigged and zagged and finally pulled up in a driveway, desperate for directions. L.E. says flatly, “This is my brother’s place.”
“Oh, bullshit,” I cried, even as L.E. and his brother were shaking hands in the yard. We unloaded the horses and called it a day.
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