Willie: A horse with strong will | AspenTimes.com

Willie: A horse with strong will

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

The memory of my ol’ horse, Willie, is stronger lately, and I’m not sure why. My new mount, Billy, sometimes gets called Willie by mistake, and that’s understandable, but every once in a while I call other horses “Willie,” and then cuss myself.

We had an inauspicious beginning, Willie and me, as he caught my eye in a herd of other horses I actually had some use for. “Who’s the big horse?” I asked Buck, learning he was a 4-year-­old, unbroke gelding that was just kind of taking up space. He was a good-looking bay with what appeared to be a kind eye, and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. It took a couple of years, but I finally managed to work him into the schedule and rode him (then a 6-year-old) for about 30 days, putting a good spin and stop on him, and then he was back out to pasture.

The whole story after that is unusual, but briefly, he put a woman in the hospital by coming down the longe line for her; someone else bought him for a saddle bronc practice horse and soon turned him back to Buck, saying the horse was gonna kill somebody before he was through.

Louie Burtard and Bill Rector rode him a summer on the Thompson Creek range, getting him rea­sonably broke and then, through happenstance and good fortune, Buck and I made a trade that landed Willie in my permanent care.

He had a long, thick, black mane that on lively Willie seemed continually tousled, forever giving him the look of being in a windstorm, or in a gal­lop. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me, and did the hardest work as though he truly enjoyed it. Standing next to him, he could be the quietest mount around, but as soon as your foot hit the stirrup, you’d better be ready to ride, or Willie’d leave your sorry butt in a plume of dust.

At a walk, he could outpace many joggers, and at almost 17 hands, could outrun any natural thing I ever came across around here.

He wasn’t perfect and certainly had his foibles. Most horses spook occasionally, but Willie could, without warning, do a 180 faster than a fly can blink, but he did it smoother than any horse I ever rode. He cottoned mostly to men, and very few of those, simply because there were few who actual­ly felt they could stay with him. More than one experienced horseman watched a tethered Willie spook at the breeze or stomp at the sky, and asked, incredulously, if I actually rode “that horse.” Damned right, I did. Compared to other horses, he was the difference between driving your grandfather’s sedan or getting behind the wheel of a well-tuned Porsche.

It wasn’t unusual for Willie and me to take a hundred head of cows up the trail on any given day, a task that usually took three or four good horses and riders to accomplish. And we could do it day after day, just because of the immense power and motivation of Willie.

The thing that hurts the most, I guess, is that he really liked me. He could be across the pasture and up the mountain past the creek, about a mile a way, and as soon as he heard my whistle, he would crash down through the brush and over the rocks, running up to the fence where I stood, grain bucket in hand. Traces of Willie’s trail are still there, eight years later. If I called him before daylight, I’d hear him snort and then look for the sparks generated by his shoes on the rocks to gauge his progress.

I’d like to say that he lived past 33, that he did­n’t break his femur and spend a lonely, scared and miserable night in the pasture. That’s what I’d like to say, but I can’t. I feel like I let him down by not being there right away to end his pain, but I wasn’t. And I’ll never get over that.