Thursday, February 13, 2003
In search of the Wild West
The setting was the same. It even smelled the same. But it was as different as a Rolex watch and a Timex. As far apart as fresh white paint on a four-rail wood fence and a rusty iron gate.
The last time I sat in the bleachers of Cooper Arena in Columbus, I watched riders in sequined shirts and tailored jackets put athletic horses through their paces. The beautifully bred horses were braided and polished and trained. So, too, were their riders.
Along with the customary aroma of horses at the Annual All American Quarter Horse Congress last October was a distinct whiff of commerce. In the adjacent buildings, merchants were selling the trappings - everything from $300 cowboy hats to "minimal bounce" sports bras. A woman was consulting on the proper colors. "Your horse is chestnut?" she said. "Well, I wouldn't wear red."
Pricey leather seat
Horses are a pricey habit. If you think the leather seats on your upgraded Ford Taurus were expensive, you should check out the cost of that little leather seat on a horse. A new Hermes saddle can cost more than a year's tuition at a good college. But last weekend, the arena at the Ohio Expo Center was filled with possibilities instead of well-oiled and hand-stitched leather. The crowd was buying horses, not merchandise.
Under a constant haze of dust, roiled by the hooves of shaggy bays and buckskins and the occasional flashy pinto, an auctioneer sang. The horses came from government land in Nevada and California, where the Wild West now is less wild, not counting the casinos and the Oscar parties. The people came from Bellefontaine and Coshocton and West Liberty and Marysville and other towns mostly within a couple hours' drive.
Saturday and Sunday, the Interior Bureau of Land Management fulfilled Public Law 92-195, enacted in 1971:
"Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; (and) that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people..."
So these animals, whose ancestors escaped from Spanish explorers and ranchers and miners and Native Americans, were herded, mostly by helicopter, and brought to Ohio for adoption. Otherwise, they would starve.
Penny Gooley, a school custodian from suburban Columbus, bought two yearlings. She paid $325 for one and $160 for the other. The average price is about $185.
Dan "Don't use my last name, I called in sick" - drove his rusty Ford pickup down from Bowling Green, where he is a part-time student and part-time bartender. "It's hard to buy a horse for under a thousand dollars." But he found a 2-year-old chestnut filly for $145.
"It will be awhile before I can ride her," he says. "She'll probably be finished with her schooling around the time I am." He has a simple nylon halter.
"Doesn't she look gorgeous?" he asks.
She does. Tossing her head a little. A symbol of riches not available in a gift shop.
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