Vagneur: An ode to Drifter
He first caught my attention in ’02 or ’03, a big, beautiful blue roan who always came up to us out of curiosity when we were gathering cows from a common pasture they shared with the horses.
“How come nobody rides that roan?” I asked. “He sure is friendly.”
“You can’t trust that horse — he’d just as soon buck you off as look at you. I’m gonna send him back to Nebraska, where he came from, before somebody gets hurt.”
I’d been helping Willie Fender gather cows that spring and kept bugging him about the roan, even offering to deliver him back to Nebraska.
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“Hell,” Fender finally said. “Why don’t you take him over to your place? Maybe you can get along with him.”
Hanging out in the loafing shed were my two main horses at the time, Donald and Telby, two sorrel half-brothers, and I turned Drifter in with them with a bit of trepidation. A new horse can stir up some reckless socialization, and I didn’t want anybody to get hurt. Drifter walked into the shed, turned around and stood between the two, looking out, without a fuss on anyone’s part. At that moment, I knew I was going to keep the big boy.
Despite the best of claims that had been given to Fender when he acquired him, Drifter was not a fully broke horse. My God, the horse was green and tried my patience with regularity. Apparently, I tried his as well, for he tried to kill me on several occasions, but only managed to buck me off once. Through it all, we gained respect for each other and we had the makings of a good team.
It took a couple of months, but toward the end of the summer, I struck a deal with Fender. The American Quarter Horse Association papers said his name was Easy Money Driftwood, going back to Joe Hancock and a Driftwood mare. A finer pedigree could not be found, at least not in my book.
Drifter was a worker in the corrals, never tiring of the routine and always intent in getting the cows where they needed to be. He had that sense — “cowy,” ranch people call it — the ability to know what a cow is thinking before she does. His big size (he weighed around 1,450 pounds when in shape, with excellent conformation and height to match) allowed him to move through the herd without argument, no matter how tight those bovines might be crowded into a pen. And if they didn’t move fast enough, he’d nip them on the butt just to make his point.
It would be impossible to detail all we did, such as spending weeks at cow camp, packing salt to the cows, pushing them up mountainsides they wanted no part of and many times just enjoying our routine of riding herd. He could pull a cow out of a bog without looking back.
At 18, he was having a great summer — he was healthy, really walking out, just alive with energy, making me wish he was younger so I’d have him longer. I rode him almost every day. His behavior was good, and my daughter remarked last month while we were stopped for lunch, “If people didn’t know his history, they’d think he’s always been a steady, calm horse.” And that’s what he mostly was.
He was the leader of the herd, keeping order and maintaining equanimity no matter the situation. They’re still waiting for him to come home.
Last Friday I awoke to find Drifter suffering from colic, a generic term for a horse’s stomachache. He was in a lot of pain, trying to roll every few seconds and looking at me with that horse sense that says, “Help me.” I kept him walking, kept him up while Margaret called Doc Canning, the vet, and waited on the road for his arrival. We knew it was serious.
After much testing and attention to detail, Canning said, “Drifter has a ruptured stomach.” He laid out other limited, high-risk options, but watching powerful Drifter trembling in pain, I knew what had to be done.
“Let’s put him down.” I couldn’t talk anymore.
My son-in-law Ty buried him here on the ranch, and it rained all that day — a cold, drizzly rain that added to the depression of the mood. Late that evening, a beautiful double rainbow came out, landing on Drifter’s grave, a fitting send-off for a great horse, a legend in his own right.
By Sunday, the reality, the suddenness of it began to burrow deep into me, and I found Drifter’s hoof prints in the ground where I’d been walking him, faint and nearly wiped out by Friday’s rain. That afternoon, the wind came up, stirring the vestiges of Drifter’s last earthly imprints skyward, gone forever, and only memories remained.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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