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Photo of an older horse and rider

Viejos – In Praise of Older Horses

A little age on a horse shouldn't
be considered a disadvantage.

By William C. Reynolds      
The sorrel gelding stood in the middle of the pasture. Looking through the fence rails, it was hard for her to get a good look at him. As she passed through the gate and walked towards him, it was evident he carried some years on him. When she arrived at his side, he stood soldier-still. She reached up and hugged his neck as he dropped his head so she could slip the halter on him. As she started back for the gate, he led right out with her at a good walk, staying at her side - not pulling ahead or dragging behind her. Minutes later, she had saddled him and crawled on. Together, they stood in the circle with the other riders, ready to move out for the morning's gather. Some of the other horses were much younger and were having some difficulty standing still - what with all the people and horses and the excitement they were starting to feel. Her gelding stood rock still, ears forward and ready for the day, while she re-coiled her rope and tied it on. This branding season would mark the gelding's 24th year and while he was older than most of the horses present, he wasn't old, just a little more seasoned. For the little girl riding him - she wouldn't want any other horse under her. Neither would her father sitting two horses away. That gelding had been through three of his kids - one boy had shown him in local 4H & FFA competitions, hauling him all over the West - while his other son had taken him through four years of high-school rodeo and an endless number of weekend team ropings - not to mention the countless gatherings and brandings on their ranch and on neighbors' places.  Today, this little twenty-four-year-young gelding - a sorrel, grade horse with no papers or fancy registration to his name - carried a ten year-old girl - a third youngster in the family - into a new chapter of western adventures for both of them. "I wish I had a barn-full of horses like him," the father said. "That's a horse I could put anybody on and never worry." He smiled, looking over at her, "Now I can't get her off of him. He doesn't seem to mind though. Just hope he lasts."

That's not an unusual story really, even though for many, older horses can be looked on sometimes like an older car - after three, four, or five years - sell it and get a new one. For years, young horses have been raced and been in competitions where three-year olds are considered experienced, in many cases finished with "showing" careers. To their credit many of these young horses are capable of taking all that fast training and use in those early formative years and go on to other lives as great competitive, pleasure or family horses. Many make it, many don't.

Today, we see more horses being used and even celebrated for their skills and "life experience" late into their teens and even into their twenties. Maybe this new found "respect for one's elders" is coming from the recent growth of organized and sanctioned ranch ropings and similar ranch-oriented contests. These are competitions that feature ranch horses - not show horses - doing ranch-oriented tasks such as sortings and doctoring, among other more common rodeo and stock horse show-type events as calf roping and team roping. Doctoring is an event where one or two or three riders may be involved. A calf, a steer or a bull is roped with the intent of gently laying the animal down to the ground enabling the riders to dismount and administer some kind of medical treatment, mimicking tasks one would find in daily ranch life. It is an event that allows quiet and seasoned skills to be shown. Where slow, is fast, competency outweighing everything else.

Another reason the aged horse may be coming into his own could be the resurgence of interest in the West today of the ways of vaquero horsemanship - that of taking a horse through the multiple steps of training from snaffle bit to "straight-up" in the bridle. A training method that "takes the time it takes" - in many cases up to ten years or more. When trained properly, the horse that has received this level of time investment by the rider is something to behold - and valued. By its nature this kind of training must be done slowly with great attention given to the learning abilities of the individual horse. It is a stepped process - one that requires respect be shared between horse and rider. It is time intensive, a process that may be filled with too many subtleties for many in today's fast passed world. But for those horseman and women who appreciate and understand, the end result is worth it. The "finished" bridle horse is anything but finished - in the "used-up" sense of the term. At the grand old ages of ten, twelve or fourteen, these horses' useful lives are just beginning with a bond created between the horse and rider that time has strengthened. They have shared in a process that has brought respect to both. Each realizing the roll each plays in getting the job done. And in the union of that work, the work becomes a dance making the two are barely separable - as writer Thomas McGuane wrote, "...some enchanted transformation through which the horse and rider become a third much greater thing." If it had to be put into one word, it would be trust - a relationship that only comes with time.

Historically, we value the stories handed down by the viejos - the old ones - in the West. It would seem only natural then, to also value those who have served within those stories. Those skilled, aged horses that served the cowboys and stockmen so willingly, so skillfully, for so many years. Many are valued, many aren't. The lucky ones are treasured. Like the little sorrel gelding trotting off with a precious cargo, showing a little ten-year cowgirl the wonders of the West. Riding another circle, starting another story.

Photo by the author.

Bill Reynolds is publisher of renowned Ranch & Reata magazine.

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