Tony Vagneur: When it comes to love, there’s no horsing around
Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.
And so it was, while shuffling through old email files dating back to the past, in an effort to find information regarding an appeal about an Aspen murder, I came upon a link from my first wife, Caroline, attached to a request that I forward it to a mutual friend of ours.
The link was entitled “Man O’ War’s Ghost,” by Barbara Livingston, famed photographer of thoroughbred racehorses. If you don’t know Man O’ War, he was/is a famous horse, foaled in 1917. Big Red, as he was sometimes called, intrigued Livingston and her 2018 video followed Man O’ War’s life through the various farms and tracks that he blessed until his death in 1947.
It was a heartfelt photographic narrative about one horse and the trails he had traveled, but it got me to thinking about the horses I’ve had in my life, great beasts that are never far from my memory. Like chasing rainbows through the curves of life.
It should be said, before beginning, that Caroline had a thoroughbred gelding, foaled by Diamond Arrow Farm (Buck Deane), that was a direct descendant of War Admiral, going back to Man O’ War. How’s that for bringing it home?
My first horse was named Stardust. Wouldn’t you like to know how that name came about? So would yours truly. Honestly, stuck with a naïve, very young kid, he did things a mature, normal horse would know better than to try, but a goading kid in the saddle likely convinced him to try to educate rather than thrill me. Jumping and clearing the corral gate was one of them which didn’t end well for me. My family was right to start me off on him. At age 6, my heart was broken one winter afternoon when I got off the school bus and didn’t see him in the corral. My dad had taken him to the sale barn.
Personality is what draws us to the horses we love, or convinces us we’re not compatible, and the thing about it, like people (but not in the anthropomorphic sense), their memories live on with us long after they’ve gone to the Elysian Fields.
As you might remember from a few months ago, my big bay horse, Willie, still talks to me in my dreams, and I awake with bittersweet memories, those of the time we spent together, and of his death.
Willie left us over 20 years ago, but I remember the big smile and warm feeling he always gave me in my breast as we headed out from cow camp on an early morning jaunt, striding down the path with the smoothest, fastest walk I ever experienced, his ears almost continually cocked forward, so excited to meet the day as we traveled through it. He was energy exemplified, and when your foot hit the stirrup, you’d better be ready to ride for he wasn’t going to wait for any unprepared nonsense on your part.
The first summer we spent together, I wasn’t totally trusting of his rambunctious energy, but we were getting along reasonably well. That fall, chasing some yearlings out of the high country in 6 or 7 inches of new snow, they missed the switchback going down a precipitous, heavily forested slope and I left Willie standing on the path while I hoofed it through the dense trees to turn the creatures around.
Having gotten them back on the trail, I went back to get my horse, and as I approached him to get on from the steep uphill side, my foot slipped on the slick snow and I fell underneath him. “I’m dead,” was my first thought, but Willie stood tolerably quiet while I slithered out from under his belly and put myself back together.
Still vivid in my memory is watching through the window as a woman leading a young boy struggled as she pushed a baby carriage up my unplowed winter driveway. Curious about her journey, I hurried to see if I could help. “Oh, I just wanted to show my son the beautiful horse you have in your pasture. He is magnificent.” Willie, then over 30 and in with three other much younger horses, one a beautiful paint, was the one she thought to be stunning.
As one fellow said as Willie and I waited on the side of the track as he passed by in a Jeep, “That horse loves you.” I’ve carried that with me ever since, but the truth of the matter is I loved him more than can be told. I hope he felt some of it, for his big heart deserved it all.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.