Levi, a vet for the rodeo, is there to check out the horses and he enjoys doing the same to the cowboys. When Reese catches his eye, it’s an instant connection, but will it last longer than one night?
The barn smelled of leather, horses, and hay. Those familiar smells made me feel like I was home, and not a thousand miles away on the barrel racing circuit. I loved my job, though sometimes I had to tell myself that a few times a day, and this was just one of the many perks of it. On the one hand, I got to be around horses all day. That was a total win for a farm boy like me. But on the other hand I traveled a third of the year, my dog was being boarded at my sister's house and probably forgetting all about me while she spoiled him, and I had to deal with cowboys all the damn time.
Now, don't get me wrong. Some of them weren't so bad. And I loved what the jeans did to their butts. But I was a vet hired by the National Barrel Horse Association to assess their horses if I happened to see anything wrong with them either before or after they ran. Because of my job, and the responsibility of it, I could shut down one of their horses if I felt like it would be dangerous for the horse to go through the barrels again.
Some of the guys did have back-up horses just in case they needed to do a substitution. Those cowboys had sponsors who paid for everything for them, and they stayed in the nice hotel about a mile from the fairgrounds where the stock show was being held. There was a motel a few miles away where most of the cowboys stayed. The guys lowest on the pole, those barely making it in the circuit, slept in their trailers and depended on their horses to be in the best shape they could be in because this was their life.
I really hoped the guy I had to go talk to didn't fall into category number three. I couldn't handle that, and I really didn't enjoy disappointing people, even when it was for the good of their horse.
Stall 211 was at the end of the aisle, in a relatively quiet section of the barn. No one was allowed to enter the stalls, but I had on my badge, and that gave me access to go anywhere I wanted to as long as my business was with the horses and not me just getting nosy. I wouldn't have anyway. They were cowboys and I was definitely not one. I'd grown up around horses. I loved them. But I loved quiet trail rides and lazy afternoons spent in the barn. I couldn't imagine the fast-paced life these men led, and I would have never put any horse of mine under the kind of strain they did.
The horse I was here to see was named Mercutio's Golden Light—at least according to the AQHA registration, which I had on the clipboard in front of me. He was a six-year-old bay gelding, owned and bred by the Dalton family out of Austin, Texas.
"You're a long way from home, love," I said to the gelding. We were in Idaho. I wondered how many months he'd been out on the circuit without a break. I crouched down near him but made sure to keep my distance as well, just in case he chose to act up at all. I didn't know this horse. Quarter horses were generally calm and easy to be around, but he was also a performance horse, and they sometimes ran a little hotter than the breed standard. Plus, I couldn't get a good look at his legs if I was right up against him.
"What are you doing in my horse's stall? You can't be in there!"
I turned my head to look up at the man in the dirty frayed cowboy hat standing over me. He was coming into the stall with us, and I stood up to give him some more room before he knocked me over with the stall door.
"I'm Levi. I'm one of the vets for the circuit," I said, offering him my hand and pushing my chest a bit more toward him so that he could see my badge. It had my name and my picture on it. There was no mistaking me for anyone other than exactly who I was, and I had every right to be with his horse at that moment.
The guy calmed down instantly. "Reese Dalton," he said, offering me his hand, which I took once I'd moved my clipboard to my left hand. "Sorry I got upset at you being here."
I shrugged and went back to being crouched down and eye level with the horse's legs. "It's fine. Happens a lot, actually." Most times it didn't just stop at yelling, either. I wasn't a big guy, and some of the cowboys outweighed me by around fifty pounds or more, so grabbing me by my arm and pulling me out the stall had happened before when I hadn't been able to explain who I was fast enough. People were protective of their horses, especially when those horses were capable of bringing them thousands of dollars in a single weekend.
"Has he had any lameness issues? Any stumbling? Slow to get moving? Acting like he's in pain at all?" For this, I gave my attention to Reese. It was easier for me to tell when people were lying to me if I was actually looking at them.
Reese looked me square in the eyes and shook his head. I knew he was telling me the truth. “He’s been fine. Really good this whole trip.”
While that was nice to hear, I still needed to see him moving around a bit. “I’d like you to take him out and put him on a lunge line for me in the round pen. I need him at a walk, and a trot, from both directions, before I can sign off on him being sound still.”