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Vagneur: They just don’t get it

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

He was a big, stout horse, light brown, the kind that could pack big people or bigger loads all day long. And like a lot of big guys, he minded his own business, didn’t cause trouble in the corral and lined up for his grain without getting pushy. Semiretired, he was saved mostly for kids or fearful people who needed a trustworthy steed to take care of them; a horse that wasn’t barn-sour or balky.

It was a busy 1970s day at the T-Lazy-7 stables, and we’d rented out every horse we had, save one, the big guy we called Ringo. A man in his 20s, about my age, ambled in, saying he just wanted to take a short ride to clear his head, maybe an hour at the most.

“Well, we have only one horse left, and he’s reliable but old, so don’t be running him or pushing him too hard,” I explained. “He’ll give you a good, calm ride.”

It was against my better judgment, but the man said he understood, and we turned him and Ringo out the gate.

About half an hour later, Ringo and the man returned. The horse was breathing so hard I thought he might die of oxygen deprivation, and the sweat poured off him, even from his ears. Seldom have I felt so bad for a horse. The young man, not too bright, hung around long enough to make a smart-assed remark about how Ringo really wasn’t much of a horse to tire so easily and that he wasn’t going to pay.

I kept a bullwhip behind the tack room door, used to call the horses down from the back side of Buttermilk early in the morning. They’d hear the crack of the whip and know their ration of oats wouldn’t be far behind. It’s quite impressive to see 80 or 90 head of enthusiastic caballos boiling down a mountainside just before sunrise.

We had a sign posted about it being against the law to abuse animals, a $300 fine for such, but signs don’t generally impress shortsighted people. I grabbed the bullwhip and caught the man by the arm, escorting him to an empty corral. His eyes were wide with curiosity, starting to show a little fear, but his attitude was still one of arrogance. “Run,” I said. “Eff you,” came the reply and I stepped back and began circling the whip above his head. “Run.”

Maybe it wasn’t right, but I kept cracking the bullwhip at him, time and time again, never hitting him, until he was winded and couldn’t go anymore in the soft dirt.

“Now maybe you know how Ringo feels,” I said as I let him go. Oh, sure — the weasel called the cops, but they seemed to understand the situation, and the whining complainant made a hasty retreat.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. My daughter had pointed out a fox den, complete with three developing kits, nestled under a fence above the Rio Grande Trail. Each time I passed by, I couldn’t help but look that way for a glimpse of the family and was rewarded every time.

It’s hard to believe, but one day there were four bikes dumped in the middle of the Rio Grande trail, directly below the den. Maybe there was something wrong, I thought, but then the reason became obvious. Climbing up the incredibly steep hill, a family of four humans had invaded the sanctity of the fox’s home. Driving slowly, I witnessed the human father reach into the den and pull a baby kit out, just as one might do with a puppy, proudly showing it to his kids. Imagine the stress to the wild family contained therein.

A flash of anger washed over me, and I started to pull over to strongly voice my objection to the unwitting behavior of the human family. But then, from somewhere deep inside came the memory of Ringo, the bullwhip and the arrogant animal abuser, and I thought, “Oh, hell, this scene is ugly enough already.”

After that, the foxes wised up and moved their den well onto my daughter’s place and are growing and thriving every day. Ringo has remained unforgettable, and more and more I’m reminded that the West lives mostly in the imaginations of those who don’t quite understand it.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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