Vagneur: The hobbling horse |

Vagneur: The hobbling horse

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

After a long morning of trailing 300 cows up the red dirt of a dusty, brush-covered mountainside, and after a mile or two of tall, thinly spaced lodgepole pine, we were suddenly dumped into a great expanse of lush, open meadow split by a slow-moving brook of cold mountain water and stopped for lunch.

The cows drank briefly and then began to shade up under the edge of the sprawling pine forest. Most of the riders, tired and happy to have a break, just dropped their reins on the ground, trusting their horses to nose around through the tall grass and appreciate the rest, enjoying lunch as much as the rest of us. One cowboy hobbled his horse and laid out a picnic for his wife and himself while six or eight of us spread out on a small rise a few yards from the horses, listening to the munching litany of pure joy that only grazing horses can create.

It was a peaceful scene, folks getting acquainted or reacquainted with one another and reliving some of the better moments of the drive, tales of intractable cows or horses galloping through the nicely spaced pines and wondering just where the hell we were, exactly.

My gaze wandered to the hobbled horse — just in time, perhaps — and a look in his eyes spelled trouble. He’d tried to walk in a certain direction for better grass and for the first time felt the effects of the hobbles confining his front legs. His demeanor said he wasn’t ready to panic, not yet, but he knew something was wrong, and before he tried again to move, he wanted to think about it for a moment or two. It was clear the horse had never been hobbled before, and with the large group of people sitting that close, the smell of danger overtook the peaceful picnic, particularly given the direction the horse was facing.

Quietly, but with all deliberate haste, I mentioned to my lunch mates that it would be a good idea to move right now before disaster struck. “What?” I was already up and moving, which seemed to cinch the deal — they all grabbed their stuff and were backing off when the explosion hit. A horse fighting back against restraint is not a pretty sight to the inexperienced, so large is the animal and so seemingly exaggerated his desperate attempts to escape that which binds him without explanation.

Not having been restricted in that manner before, the horse did the only thing he knew, get away from it, but with his front legs relatively immobile, he could not flee in the usual sense; his lightning-quick movements were greatly hampered, and after rearing up and frustratingly shaking his hobbled legs while lunging directly toward our cherished lunch position, he attempted to turn away from us in a grotesque sideways motion and fell to his right, directly on the spot where we all had been sitting.

One woman, just rising up from her neatly placed blanket, was hit in the back as the horse went down, the angle being fortuitously such that the horse sent her reeling across the ground rather than underneath himself. As she careened into a rock and stopped, a hush fell over the gathered wranglers wondering her fate.

To the uninitiated, it must be said that hobbling a horse is not cruel or unusual and does not hurt the horse, although the first time can create a little excitement, as evidenced above. Most people accomplish this training on their own, away from crowds, in an area of soft dirt where the horse can’t be injured. Horses quickly learn to travel hobbled with the same sense of enthusiasm we have when we are forced to walk several blocks in a pair of ski boots. All the way around, horses and humans both, it generally keeps us from running or jumping.

No one admonished the young cowboy who created the mini-rodeo for his lack of forethought and knowledge, as that is not the way it’s done, but it was clear from his skulking demeanor as he led his horse away that he was a bit taken aback by the whole thing. Meanwhile, the woman in question rose from the ground with the usual resolve of a mountain-tough cowgirl, wondering how she’d managed to keep from getting killed. “Damn,” was her short refrain as she dusted herself off.

Later, around the evening campfire, as the night air silently cloaked us, a certain depth of camaraderie enveloped our group, and smiles and closeness and understanding made the tales around the fire more meaningful while events of the day were put to rest.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at