Rhinestone cowboys

I awoke Saturday morning to the sound of a crashing metal door and a loud whinnie. At first, I thought it was just the fading remnants of a bizarre dream, seeing as how I live within the urban confines of downtown Durango, where barnyard animals are extremely rare. But then the unmistakably equine sound once again pierced my slumber, and I knew this could only mean one thing: It was a parade morning.

I wandered to the window and peered through the slats in the blinds to see what was transpiring. Living less than two blocks from the traditional starting point for Main Avenue parades, I had seen all manner of things over the years, from flammable floats to dancing girls and grown men in funny hats crammed into tiny cars. I had found that oftentimes, the pre-parade rituals were more entertaining than the procession itself.

As I sized up the activity unfolding outside my window, I thought there was promise. It was a well-heeled couple, bedecked in high-fashion Western wear: he in pressed jeans tucked into mid-calf cowboy boots and doe-colored suede jacket with fringe, and she in coordinating bolero jacket and hat. They were busily grooming their two horses while the animals partook of some high-grade, Southside bindweed.

I decided to continue my viewing from downstairs, where I could give my year and a half old son an up-close look at the farm animals of storybook fame. I picked him up and stood him on a table in front of our large picture window so he could get a better look. Delighted, he watched intently as saddles were cinched tight, coats were given a final once-over and the local vegetation worked its magic.

However, it appeared that the man was experiencing some frustration with his horse, who seemed more interested in food than hoof maintenance. After a few attempts at getting the horse to cooperate, the frustration turned to fury. He yanked the horse's head up, and held the reins tight. Then, taking a handled metal tool (which I would later learn was likely a brush), fringe flew as he wound up and struck the horse repeatedly in the face. The sharp blows reverberated across the yard and through the windows, to where we were standing. All cooing and laughter was suddenly silenced, replaced by the undecipherable ranting and cursing of the fringed man.

I watched stunned, wondering if this was proper horsemanship. See, I'm afraid to say my girlhood love affair with horses was cut short after an ill-fated and terrifying trail ride at a Kiwanis picnic in northern Wisconsin in '76. I have returned to the saddle only a few times since, usually on the broken back of some old mare named Buttermilk or Mr. Bojangles. My most recent experience took place about 10 years back, when I agreed to ride horses with my roommate if she would go on her first and last mountain bike ride with me. She escaped with a bad case of road rash whereas I fared a little better. Although petrified for the most part, I did manage to remain upright and injury free. Sure, three-toed sloths move faster than I did that day, but what I lacked in speed I made up for in mental aptitude. I learned that handling a horse requires strength and confidence, and a good stiff kick in the sides or a whip on the hind were perfectly acceptable means of coercion. But I'm pretty sure that, in my limited experience, I never saw any horsehandlers haul off on their animals like a punching bag. Sure, maybe it was acceptable in the old days, when weathered wranglers had to break wild mustangs out on the range, but Fringe and his horse didn't seem to fall into that category. Whatever happened to horse whispering, for god's sake?

I turned for guidance to my husband, who also was witnessing the events.

"Are they supposed to hit them like that, in the face?" I asked.

Being a suburban kid from California whose childhood consisted of skateboarding and punk rock, he was of little help and just shrugged.

Despite my husband's lack of guidance, something told me this was not proper etiquette nor something I wanted my small child, who had recently entered the monkey-see-monkey-do phase, to witness. My first reaction was to fling open the window and tell Fringe where to stick his brush. But I refrained, mostly because the windows were painted shut, but also because I didn't want to upset Fringe any more, for the horse's sake.

Despite my son's protests, I removed him from his perch and tried to divert his attention to something else. Of course this only remedied part of the situation. Although we could no longer see what was happening, the occasional sickening slap of metal on hide refreshed our memories.

Eventually, the Fringes finished up their business (as did the horses) and went on their way. Shortly thereafter we, too, made our way downtown, not to see the Fringes but to watch the parade. We had accidentally stumbled upon the Cowboy Parade a few years back and had been making it an unofficial outing ever since. What we liked most about it was its decidedly "unparade" feel: there were no cars, no blaring horns, no pyrotechnics, no drunks. Just a lot of real people, doing what they do. OK, so maybe this doesn't sound overly exciting. But in an era where the Western cowboy is slowly being relegated to reruns of "Bonanza," it's nice to see the real, live, dust-kicking, grit-bearing thing: rodeo queens, little boys who actually wear their Ropers to rope; and Stetsons that had been weathered by years of rain, sun and wind.

But I couldn't help but feel a little jaded, knowing that apparently anyone with enough money for a cutting horse, a suede wardrobe and a gigantic new pickup truck to pull it all with also could be considered a cowboy. See, after viewing the parade over the years, it seemed to me that cowboy was more than a way of dressing, it was a way of life. It wasn't something that could be forced, with a metal brush or any other show of brutal force. After all, any real cowboy knows that doesn't make you a man. And it certainly doesn't make you a cowboy.

Missy Votel




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