Vagneur: When fate makes us say farewell |

Vagneur: When fate makes us say farewell

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The promise of a beautiful fall day hung in the early morning light, and the rustle of golden leaves added excitement to the whispering of the small creek. That’s where I found him, lying in the corral alongside the flowing water, seemingly dead except for the occasional blink of an eye. The hand he’d drawn was clear, in that way all living creatures seem to understand, and without complaint, he was ready to accept his fate.

As I made the call and waited for his family to arrive, there was time to ruminate over the majestic beast who lay helpless on the ground and what his life may have meant to those who knew him. Watching an animal of that grandeur face the inevitable is never pleasant, but every time I am captivated by the unwavering stoicism that accompanies such an event.

He was named by one of those old horsemen who come through every once in a while, grizzled and worn-out men without much family, with soft hands and a gentle way with horses, men whom the uninitiated might call horse whisperers. Like ghosts they appear, those old sods who’ll soon be riding the endless skies after the devil’s herd, a fate they cherish somewhere deep in their subconscious minds. How could such a man know that the coal-black colt before him would eventually turn iron gray and dance and walk with the intensity of another famous horse, the cavalry mount of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee?

At 23, Traveler was still young enough to be on top of someone’s list, but a freak chest injury from pulling back at a hitching post years before had ended his working life early. Doubly a tragedy, for pulling back was a foreign behavior to the horse, but things happen we cannot always explain.

Ty Burtard, then a kid, rode that stout, smooth-traveling son of a gun to many Bareback Bonanza championships in Carbondale and acutely remembers the easygoing attributes of the incredibly well-trained horse sired by Mario Tarin’s famous parade stallion, Smokey. As soon as he was old enough, Traveler went to the Yank Creek Cow Camp with the Burtard family and spent the majority of his working summers there, moving cows, checking the range and being a No. 1 horse in the string.

He’d come into my life earlier in the summer when my old horse Donald and he shared a Woody Creek pasture, a safe and unhurried retreat for a couple of retired ol’ boys with local roots who’d earned every bit of green grass and lazy shade they could find. When the easy feed ran out, we brought them down to my big Emma pasture and put them in with my other horses. That’s when their remarkable friendship became clear.

Donald was a small horse who, at one time, had maintained a high pecking order within my herd. He and his half-brother, another sorrel gelding, had been the best of companions, staying to themselves safely within the band, but now an older Donald was on his own, an easy mark for those who liked to show their dominance.

At the Emma pasture, in with the rest of the herd, Traveler took up the slack, protecting Donald in an inexplicable way that horses seldom exhibit. Traveler stood between Donald and those who would bite and kick at him. Traveler wasn’t looking to rule the bunch; he was making it clear, sometimes with force, that he and Donald would not tolerate bullying from the others. After a time, Donald and Traveler were left alone.

In fact, impressed enough was I that the offer was made to keep Traveler for the upcoming winter. So well-matched, at least temperament-wise, were the two horses that it would have been a shame to separate them after the deep bond they had made over the summer.

Alas, good intentions don’t fuel the natural world, and despite the best of veterinary care, Traveler went on to the great pasture in the sky, but not without leaving his indelible mark on a well-seasoned group of horses and horsemen. I nursed and cajoled Donald through the upcoming winter, but his heart was no longer in it. When he quit eating in the early spring, we turned his spirit loose, to buck, run and shade up with Traveler in an afterworld that only horses truly understand.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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