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Fulfilling a promise to an old friend

Essay by Chris Frasier

Rural Life – September 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

TODAY I TOOK my first horse for his last walk, and marked the end of a 24-year partnership with the animal who taught me the most.

Bo was a sorrel ranch gelding with an ordinary pedigree and extraordinary spirit. Twenty-four years ago, he was three and I was a green thirteen.

Our first few rides were careless jaunts through the milk cow pasture. Bo couldn’t keep away from the old Brown Swiss cow, and if I obliged him, we would move her somewhere, anywhere, just for the thrill of turning a cow.

Above all else, Bo was a cow horse.

But cattle were the only creatures that feared Bo. Among horses, he was always at the bottom of the pecking order. He was the last to come in from pasture, the last to get his grain, and the first to be bumped out by another horse. Even new, younger horses quickly learned his gentle nature, and would show him no respect. If it’s true that “The meek shall inherit the earth,” Bo was counting on having a place of his own.

I had ridden older ranch horses since about five years of age, but this horse was all mine. Being young and adventurous, we found many secluded places to ride. Sometimes we had outlaw chases, other times slow nature walks, but we always rode. Never did he buck, kick, or throw a fit. I thought I could do anything on horseback, but in reality it was my horse who could do anything.

Over the years, Bo earned a unique place as ranch ambassador. At one count, he had carried guests from over 10 foreign countries, as well as countless other first-time riders. Even though capable of running hard and turning fast, he was safe with little kids. He seemed to sense their light weight and, with the reins tied fast around the saddle horn, Bo would accommodate their inexperience with a plodding gait.

Last night I drove up to check on him — and our other aged horse — grazing a lush meadow. My eyes told me what my heart had denied. The short, Doc Bar ears lifted at my greeting, but his eyes were glassy. Because he was unable to reach his sides, early-summer flies were tormenting him. His tattered, rust-colored coat couldn’t hide the bony frame. His gait had lost its bounce, and each step had become painful. It was time.

Tonight, we walked to a sandy cut just below the caprock in my favorite pasture to ride. We went slowly, stopping to nibble at clover, or just to talk. There was plenty of daylight left, with the solstice just two days away. At the top of a deep coulee, a pan of oats and pile of cottonwood branches were waiting. Bo ate as I injected the sedative and groomed him. The task brought a flood of memories: Washington County show champion, our 50-mile cross-country trek one weekend, carrying newborn calves slung across the saddle, and hundreds of wet saddle blankets. Quiet, faithful, steady, sympathetic — his mind hadn’t lost anything, but it was trapped within a worn out shell that had given up its likeness of the horse he once was.

So many times I feared that we had lost him: snake-bit as a colt, when his head swelled like a basketball; his knee giving way when sorting heifers in a sandy pen; a tornado chasing him through a fence two years ago. From the last ordeal, Bo never completely recovered. I’d found him standing in shock, breathing fast and frozen in place. Slowly his wounds healed and his strength returned, but he had lost his spark. We would never take another ride together.

OF OUR DREAMS, some were never fulfilled. Bo was never a “finished” horse, what with a kid riding him during his formative years, and with so many inexperienced riders having their turn on him. Stiff shoulders in his teens limited us to one or two rides a week. And, I felt regret that I had no children of my own to learn from this gentle veteran.

Looking out at the green hills rolling north, I wondered about the spirit of a horse. Does death set it free, to run at a gallop again, as horseback cultures of the past believed? Would Bo be reunited with Red, Dinger, Hawk, and so many other horses from his past? If so, would they still push him around? Or, are the lives of horses and other domestic creatures part of a greater truth, their affection a type of divine comfort to help the weak human during life on earth?

Bo’s chewing had stopped, his head hung, and the big eyes were placid. A Plains Indian burial pyre waited in the coulee below. I sat down my hat and picked up the old Winchester. Our 24-year ride, and lifetime friendship, was over.

There’s an agreement between a rancher and his horse. The horse works for as long as he is able, then is cared for on the ranch until the end. Bo had always kept his end of our partnership. Tonight, I kept mine.

Goodbye, friend.

Chris Frasier is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado . He lives on the family ranch in Limon, Colorado.