Vagneur: True companions |

Vagneur: True companions

Just the other day I was lamenting how I never see Tom Yoder, of Kemo Sabe fame, or anyone else riding their horse down the path through Emma anymore, and it left me with a touch of melancholy. Tom used to be out in the early-morning coolness, about 6:30 or 7 a.m., galloping one and leading another. It gave a classic and earthy feel to that once-great stage stop and general store against the backdrop of a vociferous and deadly Killer 82. Sure, the other day I saw a guy riding a horse down Emma Road without a shirt and wearing flip-flops for shoes, but that doesn’t compute.

Out in Woody Creek, the first thing I do every summer morning is saddle my good horse, Drifter, and then I’m ready for the day. Used to be that was the initial thing every rancher did in the valley, whether or not he actually needed the horse right then. You couldn’t stop at a ranch for breakfast or lunch without seeing three or four horses standing in the corral or tied to the hitching rail, saddled and ready to go. In his later years, John McNulty, a lifelong Cattle Creek rancher, used a Navy peacoat for a saddle blanket, immediately identifying McNulty’s horse to anyone who knew the code.

Just like the ranchers did over a hundred years ago, Drifter and I take off for the pastures and hayfields, the unmistakable mixed aroma of water and succulent sweet grass filling the air. For a million reasons, or maybe more, horses are excellent irrigating companions. They can walk through a set of water in a flood-irrigated field, allowing the rider to know if the ground all got wet, as intended, saving him either walking through it himself or making four-wheeler tracks through good hay to do the same. Horse tracks disappear after a couple of days, which is a bonus. A horse remembers where you last set the water, knows where the ditch head gate is located and generally will wait long enough for you to get the water moved with a modicum of efficiency while he nibbles on grass or watches you work.

Back in my younger years, there would be two or three people out every day on most of the ranches, shovels over their shoulders, using horses to get around while irrigating the hayfields. Today, Drifter and I might be the only two left doing such a thing, and that’s OK with us — we know what we’re doing.

Many ranches these days are enamored with sprinkler irrigation, a less efficient but easier-to-understand methodology, and besides, it doesn’t take much expertise to move a sprinkler. Admittedly, some land is not suited to flood irrigation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Plus, there are a few folks who either don’t get along with horses or could care less about them, ranchers who still have a lot of land to irrigate who either walk or use motorized means to get around. As a confession, my dad used a 1937 Ford pickup to make his late-afternoon rounds on our northern mesas, but that was strictly secondary to his horse transportation.

That said, a horse is at its best, at least in the ranching world, when it’s working cattle. Horses understand the ways of cows, and cattle understand the thoughts of horses, but one has to give the edge to a good horse, primarily because it’s just a tad more agile and a bit faster. And maybe it’s smarter, but that’s not necessarily a given. It’s a dance of sheer athleticism, watching the two compete head-to-head, and a thrill to be riding a horse when it’s really on its game, cutting a cow out of the herd.

The relationship between a horse and rider is a personal one, each continually focusing on the nuances of the other, and it generally takes a considerable amount of work before it all comes together in a smoothly working team. Men and women are proud of their mounts and their ability to perform their tasks well, and there’s a lot of truth to the saying that a good horse can make a mediocre rider look better than he or she really is.

That’s why it can be distressing when someone asks, “Can I borrow one of your horses?” In the scheme of things it makes sense, I reckon, as many of us have more than one, but my horses are a rather cherished and personal piece of my everyday existence. My usual reply, gleaned after years of trying to be delicate about the issue, is saying, “Sure, if you don’t mind me borrowing your wife/girlfriend.” That’s usually the end of it. Happy trails.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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