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Tony Vagneur: A horse and a tractor keep me young at heart

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s spring, so the saying goes, and the conflictions of stories past and future dreams collide on a warm, sunny day. At least for those thinking about it.

The calving is almost over — a few stalwart late-calvers always seem to be hanging back, but the sleepless nights, the stress, the worry over the health and survival of the newborns are nearing the end of their run. What joy it is to see them fuzzed up, practiced coordination propelling them through the greening grass, bucking and dodging, showing off the pure joy of being alive.

Over in the horse corral, the frustration of eating hay every day, all winter, is beginning to show on the herd, and heads are leaning over, through, and under fences, just for a nip of tempting green grass on the other side. The long hair of winter’s cold is now dead, and if not diligently combed off, falls off in irregular, ugly clumps. How good it makes one feel to shine those beasts up in the spring. They let you know it’s appreciated. And they look at you with that one eye cocked just a bit, as in “So you think you’re going to ride me, eh?”



One year school let out early in the spring, maybe the middle of May or so, just in time for me to help my dad plow up one of our fields. It’s one of those times I’d like to have over, just because I enjoyed it so much. Dad was putting the Little Hollow, as we called it, an area about 15 or 20 acres in size with steep walls on either side, into the crop rotation. At 12-years-old, yours truly was very eager to help.

Dad would plow several strips, then disk it, and finally it would be my turn to fire up the Farmall M tractor and harrow the newly disturbed ground. The roar of that big engine as it torqued up, the smell of the freshly upended earth was magical. The steep walls on the side of the hollow didn’t seem to bother me, and the work took us a couple of days, maybe more, but all I really remember is that we accomplished it too fast. Today when I cut the hay in that field with the swather, those same steep sides do bother me — a screw-up could cause an unfortunate accident.



That was the first spring my mother was in the hospital in Grand Junction, a stay of interminable weeks in those days, attended by an incompetent staff that only seemed to compound her troubles rather than help. Out of every year thereafter, it seemed, until she died, she’d spend a month or two in the hospital for the same continuing reason. My dad and I stayed on the ranch, “batching it” as the colloquial saying went, while my brother and sister stayed with relatives in town. My mother’s beautiful flower gardens, ringed by her sweet pea favorites, would have a very late start that year. During that time, my dad and I developed a closeness that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The plowing done, I was off to “drag” the fields, pulling a makeshift harrow behind the tractor, breaking up vole and field mice mounds, scattering animal manure, especially on the ground that was used for winter feeding. Imagine, a 12-year-old kid who loved driving and working, getting to do that all day, every day. Yeah, after a few hours, I’d be tired of it, but I was going to show the old man I wasn’t a quitter. Besides, I think I did some of my best thinking while riding a Farmall C around and around those hay fields.

And near the end, we’d interrupt it all with cattle work; gather them up out of the Woody Creek bottomland or off the Big Mesa, where we had substantial pasture and cut them out for various ranges on which we had grazing permits.

Nothing was as exciting as that, and we’d sometimes keep at it for days at a time; the insides of my thighs would be rubbed red from all the various gaits we’d go through umpteen times a day, “Cut that calf off,” or “Turn that cow back this way,” and on and on it’d go. I didn’t care, and didn’t complain about the saddle sores, ‘cause I knew they’d soon get worn in and I’d be ready for a summer of long days riding tractors and horses, both. It makes me smile as I remember it.

That’s spring around here, and just by good fortune, I was born into it. It captured me and I’ve never seemed to get very far away. Right now, I’m signing off to go brush my horses down and get the tractor going. I might never outgrow it.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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