Vagneur: Donald’s decline
There were two of them in my life, an almost inseparable pair that helped me through some rough spots and who also gave me immeasurable joy; Donald and Telby, a couple of Vagneur-raised sorrel geldings, a year apart in age but different in attitude. Telby died a couple of years ago, and the remaining partner, the diminutive one, stayed on for the duration.
Donald was born the twin of Daisy and somehow inherited an attitude that surely must permeate the minds of wild horses everywhere. He was small, not reaching 15 hands, but tougher than the toe of a drill sergeant’s boot. Perhaps his size contributed to such a steely attitude, for he learned at an early age to be dependent on no one; his birth mate, Daisy, went away early in Donald’s life. After her departure, Donald became almost amorphous in the herd, not really participating in the pecking order but staying on the fringes, impossible to catch without the aid of a lariat, no matter how small the corral.
It looked like it might be hopeless to find a horse trainer up to Donald’s toughness. A local guy said the horse was too quick — nobody could stay on him when he ducked his head — another in Moab took my money before telling me he’d been unable to ride him for more than a minute or two at a time. Jeff Burtard took the little sorrel for a summer and finally got him broke but not before Donald had scattered Jeff’s pack equipment and saddles all over the North Thompson Creek range.
“Broke” is a term generically used but not all-encompassing. Donald never got over the buck, and it was with dismay that every time he and I lunged over a jump while riding with my daughter’s Pony Club group, Donald would put his head down and come uncorked, distracting everyone around us. I quit taking him. Even in his later years, after I’d retired him from the main string, he was unsafe for anyone but the best riders. He loved to fight back against the rules, and I loved him for it.
Putting in more than 20 years on the range, moving cows and leading more salt-laden packhorses through the wilderness than it’s possible to remember, Donald earned his retirement. Several years ago, he came up with a debilitating pulled tendon, which I hoped would eventually heal. I promised readers I’d get him back in shape and we’d show up in the next Fourth of July parade. But arthritis overtook him during the hiatus, and his days as a saddle horse were over.
Last summer, Traveler, another member of the old-boy’s club, came to live with Donald, and they made quite a pair, two proud steeds who’d served with honor and distinction. Unfortunately, Traveler didn’t make the summer, and it began to weigh on me, wondering when and how Donald’s trail was going to end.
He went into the winter skinny, relying on worn, chipped and brittle teeth to get his feed down. I gave him an extra ration of grain every morning, closing him off from the other horses so they couldn’t bother him. It took him a long time to eat, and he spilled a lot, but he’d clean it up with patience. When he finished, I’d put him back in the pasture with his own pile of hay, well away from the other horses.
Just last week, it was apparent that he had wintered well. He’d put on weight, was curious about the world and seemed to be enjoying life. He appreciated the spring shoots coming up in the pasture and I began turning him out on good grass close to the house.
One more good summer, I thought, but almost overnight, his teeth betrayed him. He could no longer eat the grain, didn’t seem to care and began to lose weight rapidly. Grass became an unwieldy ball in his mouth, impossible to chew, and it was time to call the vet.
Donald went down like he lived, tough and proud. His eyes stayed open, and his ears cocked forward, as though in looking over the succulent prairie of the other side, he caught sight of his herd — Telby, Traveler and Daisy. A big heart, free at last.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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