Saddle Sore: Farewell to Billy |

Saddle Sore: Farewell to Billy

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It came so quickly, so fast, we didn’t have time to react. My daughter and I were headed to the mountain to pack some salt for the cattle and renew our good times in the hills. It was a long time coming, but we’d finally managed to put it together under the first clear blue sky for a while, and it looked to be a good day. Her Uncle Dan was coming with us, so it was a family affair.

We’d loaded our saddle horses already and as I began leading the pack horse to the trailer, I caught a glimpse of Billy quietly pacing the fence, occasionally taking off at a gallop toward the open space of the pasture and then returning to the fence, concerned that we were going to leave him alone. He wasn’t lame, wasn’t anything but fit, beautiful Billy, and I wished we had room to take him along.

I loaded the packhorse, came out and secured the door, all in the space of about 10 seconds and heard my daughter ask, “Dad, what’s wrong with Billy’s leg?” The sound of her voice told me more than I wanted to know. Some things you see and don’t want to believe — he was holding his left hind leg up, couldn’t put any weight on it, and it took a few minutes for it to truly sink in — his leg was broken.

It meant death for the handsome beast, and there was that moment of hesitation, waiting for the situation to gel, hoping against hope that he might put some weight on the leg and limp off, a sign it might not be quite so serious, but that moment never came. Once called there would be no turning back, and Dr. Chuck Maker, the vet, answered on the first ring. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” His assistant Becky had sold me the horse years ago, and there was a round of disbelief and sadness cloaking the situation for all of us.

How it happened, we don’t know. It doesn’t make obvious sense, although there was a small cut on the inside of his hock from the day or night before, making us conjecture that perhaps he’d incurred a hairline fracture then and finished the job as he made a turn along the fence.

My partner Margaret may have described Billy the best: “Spunky, athletic, curious and animated. He was so full of life.” He was all of those things and more, like the most athletic horse I’ve ever had, quick as lightning, always an honest, all-giving horse and he had a heart that wouldn’t quit, no matter what. There wasn’t a calf born that could get around him, and if he hadn’t been a cow horse, he’d have made one hell of a good cutting horse.

And in spite of all that, he was an enigma. A big, black and white paint, with solid Hancock breeding behind him, he should have been in the quarter horse registry but was a registered paint instead. He never let that bother him, and I’ve used him in three documentaries, including a CNN special last winter, extolling the fact that Aspen was not all glitz and glamour, but had some down-to-earth roots. Billy liked to perform and was a natural, even if it once meant bucking through the branding fires and scattering the ground help, just to let folks know he could do it.

After some unsettled early years, I had come to really enjoy Billy and always looked forward to riding him. You may recall that he’s been the subject of a couple columns. He had come into his own as the horse he was meant to be; his gait had smoothed out into a consistent, fast walk and I could put him into a canter without wondering if he was going to try to explode. His temperament was solid and about the only thing that could spook him to a complete stop from a full-on gallop was a garden hose across his path. The boy had some peccadilloes.

The next morning, with some trepidation, I went back to the pasture to move the irrigation water. My two other horses were there, grazing in the midst of the cottonwoods along the creek. I gave them a cookie and a hug and went about my business. And it struck me how remarkably empty the pasture seemed to be. Oh, Billy, how I miss you.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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