Vagneur: Drifting away
It was our last ride together, only we didn’t know it. I’d bought some new tapaderos for my stirrups and was eager to try them out, although I didn’t want rain — not really. On some days, I’d leave Drifter and the pack horse in the trailer while we waited out the rain — sometimes I’d eat a midmorning lunch in the truck, listening to the unmistakable sound of raindrops on steel, hoping for a little break, just long enough to get us on the trail.
Tapadero, a Spanish word meaning “stopper,” is a hood that goes over the front of a stirrup, mostly on a western saddle and seldom seen anymore, except on parade saddles. They keep brush and branches out, keep one’s feet from going clear through the stirrups, and most essentially, at least in my case, they keep wet bushes and sagebrush from getting your boots wet.
For two or three days it had been raining intermittently, we couldn’t put up hay, and we really needed to get some salt up to the high country for the cattle. No time for midmorning lunch, and we took off in a slow drizzle, Drifter, Django, Topper the dog and me, loaded down and ready for whatever the gods may throw at us.
There’s a great trail, a long abandoned, overgrown wagon road that is seldom used by anyone, other than an occasional dude outfit, and I use it quite a bit. Often, it can cut some travel time off, but more than that, it winds upward through a lot of dark timber at a fairly consistent grade, so it’s reasonably easy on the horses. It’s good on a rainy day, for the enclosing pines keep the incoming rain down to a lesser degree.
At the top of the only steep pitch, there’s an opening off to the right, a hole in the trees where four or five years ago some adventuresome cows ditched the main herd and tried to elude my daughter and me. Between her mare, Babe, and good ol’ Drifter, we managed to cut them off and get them back where they belonged.
About the time we hit that memorable spot, the rain let up and it seemed like a good get-down for lunch. I turned the horses loose behind some large, downed trees, letting them graze a bit while I did the same. And naturally, no sooner did we all get comfortable than the rain came back. I mounted up and we took off.
It started getting brutal and we finally ducked into a thick stand of pines, just off the main trail, and stopped in what seemed the least exposed spot. Even under the thick branches of the pines, the rain came down hard, doing its best to drown us. Those Aussie oilskin slickers, the ones with the shoulder cape and the umpteen snaps, keep a person dry, but the water still trickles down your neck when your hat soaks through.
And there we were, caught by Mother Nature, secure under a canopy of tall pines, the horses unwilling to move and the dog, with canine sense, inched under Drifter’s belly and lay down for the duration. None of us moved, not even a shudder so miserable were we, and if I looked off to my right, I could see down a wide, unprotected opening, about 150 yards long. At first I could see to the end of it, but then the rain came down harder, and I could only see about halfway that far. I told Drifter that when the end of the opening was visible again, we were heading out. Hell, we couldn’t sit there all day, could we?
Getting moving again was a little tough — the horses had stiffened up, the dog thought we were crazy and yours truly was shivering from the cold and damp. A couple of minutes into it and we were back to our routine and we eventually got our work done. The tapaderos kept my feet dry.
That day earned the horses a couple of days off, something they seemed to appreciate. I took my other horse, Billy, out solo to check on some cows we’d been looking for and by then, the hay had dried out and I got back to riding a tractor.
Within a few days of that wet ride, Drifter came down with a severe case of unrelated colic. It’s terrible to see a big, proud horse like that suffer so intensely, and within the hour and no chance for recovery, we had to put him down.
Some folks look at working animals in a utilitarian way, creatures to use, but to me, we’re all in it together, doing jobs we’re good at. We communicate among ourselves and the respect is there. It hurts like hell when one of us goes down, and the last ride is always memorable.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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