Last week, I was sitting at my kitchen table working on the first-ever issue of our new magazine, The Team Roping Journal, trying to get my feverish 10-month-old daughter to eat some raspberries to go with her Tylenol, when my phone rang and the familiar name Aaron Tsinigine flashed across the screen.
No surprise—with cowboys crisscrossing the Western states right now, our place in Colorado is a frequent and central stop, and I’m always available when they need something. Usually, it’s a ride to or from Denver International, a pen for a backup horse or five or a place to run a few.
This request was a bit different. In Aaron’s usual soft and elusive style, he said, “Do you have a place I can turn this horse out?”
“What horse, Smudge?” I asked, holding my breath.
Yes, Smudge, he told me. I knew from his Facebook post last month that Aaron planned to turn Smudge out after the Fourth-of-July run, but I had hoped against hope that Smudge would make some miraculous comeback from that old injury that’s plagued the 15-year-old bay gelding, registered as Lees Smart Bombay, who quite literally made Aaron’s career.
Of course Smudge, and any of Aaron’s horses, are always welcome at our house, I told him, for as long as they need.
Aaron pulled in late the next night after an unsuccessful trip to Estes Park’s Rooftop Rodeo, so we threw Smudge and Aaron’s other horses in some runs when he got there. We stayed up and played some cornhole in the barn, told old war stories from celebrations and heartaches we’ve shared, and the next morning Aaron walked Smudge out to our pasture to turn him out with some of my husband’s head horses and some of our colts.
Aaron stopped and looked at the horse before he took his halter off. At the time, I didn’t ask him what exactly was going through his mind, but I didn’t have to. Aaron’s thoughts probably flashed back to that day in Oklahoma City with the Champ, when he won his first major at the Cinch National Finals of Team Roping. And then probably that first trip to the Finals, again with Champ, and then not too long after, those rounds he and Ryan Motes won in the Thomas & Mack that led to the gold buckle that Aaron rarely wears these days. The Strait, the Wildfire, those wins both came aboard Smudge, too.
Aaron slipped the rope halter off over his ears, and took a few steps back, clicking to Smudge as he trotted a few steps, sniffed the drying rye grass that sprung up out of the sand and dropped down for a roll. Aaron videoed him with his phone (probably snapchatted, if you know Aaron very well) and then walked back to the gate without saying a word. He loaded up and headed for Casper, and Smudge knew.
A few days later, Aaron text me this:
The hardest part for me was watching him knicker at me and watch me drive off with his rig, that he owned and paid for, knowing that he’ll never rodeo hard with me again a full season. He is very competitive and he wanted to go to Casper. He didn’t want to be left. It was like leaving your own kid behind. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my career.
The bay bearing the Adams’ Western States Ranches brand paced our fence line, between our house and our neighbors’, and whinnied as Aaron’s rig pulled out the driveway. Over the next few days, the neighbors’ young girls gave him treats and loved on him, you know, like all great horses deserve. But he kept his eye on the entrance to our place, hoping that rig would pull back in and take him on to Sheridan or send him to California to test that long score at Salinas.
He eventually made great pals with our buckskin 2-year-old and chestnut yearling, and we’d take drives on our Ranger every few hours just to make sure he was settling in.
Friday night, Smudge’s ride came for him so he could return home to Arizona’s deserts. Fitting of course that his chariot was one he earned himself—the George Strait truck and trailer, complete with The King’s signature on the dash. The neighbor girls, 12 and 13, had grown very attached to the gelding over the few days he was crashing at our place, so they went out to catch him with treats and gave him a big hug before he loaded into his trailer. They took pictures—lots of them—to remember the greatest horse that’s ever eaten our grass.
Hopefully we’ll see Smudge again the next time Aaron makes the Finals, and he’s surely in great hands in Fort McDowell. In the meantime, I’m rooting for that kid from Tuba City doing battle on the road figuring out a new horse in rodeo’s most brutal season.