Memories bring whimsy to reality of the day |

Memories bring whimsy to reality of the day

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Sticking my shovel in the wet ground, I picked up the reins from my horse, put my foot in the stirrup, pulled myself up and in one smooth motion was horseback. Grabbed the shovel handle on the way by with my left hand, swished the mud off it in the irrigation ditch and flung it over my shoulder.

As the ice-cold water found its way down the shovel handle and through my shirt, coursing its way down my back, the shock of it brought me back from whatever thoughts I may have been having to the reality of my situation. “Damn, don’t be in such a hurry — let the water run off the shovel before you throw it over your shoulder.”

The reality of my situation today is a bit different — I no longer get on my horse in one smooth motion, and even though I hurry like hell, it takes a little groaning and cussing and I have to lean forward a degree or two, just so my right leg clears the horse’s butt. Yoga is what’s needed, I tell my friends. I watch it on television every once in a while.

Oh yeah, in the absence of a mounting block, hillsides or big rocks are a friend to guys like me who’ll never see 70 again. So are gentle horses, but I’ve never been prone to ride something like that, and my new horse, Easy, although an understanding, tolerant friend, has sent me looking through the grass more than once after he’s gone a bit coltish and bounced my cellphone out of my shirt pocket during an exhibition of how good he feels. But I digress.

Just as an actor waits in the wings, anticipating his entrance cue, no matter how quiet or small, so too do our memories lurk, hiding under the surface, awaiting the perfect nudge to surface and bring whimsy to the reality of the day.

Seventy-five degrees out and just last week, I was once again reminded of how invigorating that cold rivulet of water feels when it unexpectedly runs off your shovel and inches its way down your back. First time of the season, and somehow it compels me to put all this down on paper.

During my teen years, I was generally out the door by 7:30, headed to the corral to catch my horse, Thunderbird, who had been put in the corral earlier by my dad on his way to work around 6. Thunderbird, a young horse previously ridden only 30 days by a downvalley horse trainer, wasn’t our horse — she’d been left with us by a friend to finish her schooling. She was my responsibility and through fortunate happenstance, we kept her for several years.

That little mare, steel-gray in color and full of almost unending energy, quickly became my favorite. Every day, we’d make our rounds, changing the water in various hayfields, down in the valley and on various mesas. We rode the main ditches, the Hamilton, Salvation, Sunnyside and the Paradise, checking for leaks and we packed enough block salt for cattle that, had it been crushed down, would have kept Western Slope kitchen shakers full for generations.

We pushed hundreds of head of cattle up Collins, Red Canyon, Dry Woody, Hannon, Casady and Wilbur Creeks, helped herd the group drive from Woody Creek up the Fryingpan to the Cap K and beyond. And without doubt, I talked her ears off with my pubescent philosophical meanderings of the meaning of life. Near the end, her left eye got a small, cloudy spot, almost unnoticeable, and although whatever the vet tried didn’t cure the problem, she could still see out of it and we kept moving on.

That ranch got sold, I went to college and didn’t need to ride horses for several years and I never really thought too much about that good mare, Thunderbird. But she wasn’t done with me.

After college, Don Stapleton and I shared a cabin on the Stapleton Ranch along Owl Creek Road. One night, just by luck, our cousin Sandra Stapleton Davis mentioned that she’d bought Thunderbird when my dad sold the ranch and I’d be welcome to ride her if I liked. You bet. Her only word of warning: Thunderbird was blind in one eye — it was totally clouded over. She had another horse for Don, and suddenly we were having the time of our lives.

Almost every night after work, I’d ride that great horse in the hills behind the ranch, remembering how much I loved horseback riding and being out in the forest. She gave me the impetus to change my life around, to quit working in a gravel pit and get back into the world of horses and ranching.

Thankfully, I haven’t been without a horse since.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at