Tuesday, April 26, 2011

To live life backwards

“When written in Chinese the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” - John F. Kennedy

It was an ordinary day, apart from the fact that I was in a hurry; I was leaving for a trip the next morning and still had a lot of packing to do. When I arrived at the barn in the late afternoon, I did my usual chores. The horses had been outside all day enjoying the sunshine, but as I was finishing up with the evening feed, they showed up. I looked at my watch; it was only 5 pm. I had done the chores faster than usual. Should I take the horses out for a quick ride or should I go home and pack? I chose to ride.

I tacked up my friends gelding. His owner was gone on a business trip and as usual had asked me to ride. Since I was leaving for a few days myself, this was my last chance of doing this. I slipped a halter on my mare and climbed on the gelding while my mare waited patiently next to him; she knew the drill already.

We crossed the busy road without incident and headed through the field to take our normal “short loop”. When we made it to the other side I hesitated for a moment, but then took a left instead of the usual right. Going to the left meant a longer ride, but less cars, less commotion and a safer ride – or so I thought.

When we entered the forest, I took a sharp right up the hill, planning to cut through the trees to the other side, pass the single farm on the left, descend the hill and return home through the field. Perhaps there would be a chance to get some trot in on the long rise through the forest.

We passed a lonely car parked on the side of the road. I peered into the old Fiat and saw a young man leaned back in his seat resting his bare feet on the dashboard while smoking a cigarette. I’d never seen a car on this particular road and neither had the horses, but they didn’t seem to care.

I directed the gelding onto the soft part of the otherwise paved road and my mare followed in hand. We started trotting up hill. I could smell the pine trees as the sun rays beamed through the branches. Both horses made relaxed snorts and I could feel the geldings relaxed muscles working under the saddle.

I don’t know where the cow came from, but it seemed to materialize from thin air. It stood on top of the hill and looked like it had been waiting for us to come out of the forest. It was white and stood majestically on the side of the road in a solid frame.

The gelding stopped in his tracks. My mare followed suit. Neither horse was in particular afraid of cows as the gelding had lived most of his life on a dairy farm and my mare in the close vicinity of one. But despite this history with the bovine, I could feel the gelding’s heart pounding in his chest and between my legs. I glanced at my mare on my left. She was alert, but not fearful.

Previously, when I had taken the two horses out together, I had encountered much scarier things than this white cow. The gelding was a relatively brave soul, but when in doubt, he froze in place, refusing to move until he felt the coast was clear. I respected his choice and never tried to force him forward as that merely resulted in vigorous resistance.

When the situation calls for it, I always dismount and walk the frightened horse past the scary object. My mare, who is not the bravest soul under saddle, seems to have unquestionable trust in me when I’m on the ground. This, when we are out all together, in turn helps the gelding, who snaps out of his frozen position and follows my mare.

So, short of any other ideas, I dismounted.

The very second my feet touched the ground, something happened. Perhaps the cow moved or made a noise. I don’t know, because I was busy coming off the horse. Whatever it was, it made the gelding do something very unusual to him, but not unusual to horses; he turned around and ran.

He rammed into me, toppling me over. My mare was only a fraction of a second behind his movement. I held on to the reins only long enough to realize that holding on was not going to help. I could only watch, helplessly, as the two horses gained speed on the downhill slope.

What went through my mind? I saw my mare slip and fall; she went almost completely down, skidding across the pavement while she was scrambling back to her feet. How she managed to get up within just fractions of a second I could not fathom. I watched in disbelief as the two horses disappeared around the bend. Instinctively I ran after them, thinking about the busy road between that moment and the barn. I have never felt so powerless, so utterly incapable of controlling the future as I did then.

Next thing, I saw the young man we had passed earlier racing up the hill towards me in his beat up red Fiat. He stopped on my side, his windows rolled down.

“Hey,” he shouted over the noise of the engine, “are you alright? I saw the horses.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “Can you help me?”

He nodded and pushed the door open. I was barely in the seat when he was already peeling down the road, following the horses.

We all know the brilliant wisdom of hindsight; knowing exactly what we should have done, but didn’t. Should have could have would have. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone through the events of that particular day in my head. Why did I ride the gelding that day? Why did I take my mare with us? Would it have made a difference had I been alone with the gelding? Did I come off because I genuinely thought I could get the two horses past the cow or did I come down because my instinct told me this was the safe thing to do? If I had stayed in the saddle, could I have stopped the panic fed frenzy of this large animal? Or, would I have gotten seriously hurt in the process?

There are so many questions to which I will never know the answers. Oh, how I wish I could turn back time.

But unfortunately time does not work backwards. There are many things you can redo in life; a math test, your kitchen paint job or even the nose you inherited from your father. But, no matter how hard you try, you cannot turn around time. So, when mistakes are made, the only option is to deal with the situation and hopefully later learn from it.

So many things went wrong that day. However, on the same token, so many things went right, as well.

The young man drove to the bottom of the hill where I had entered the forest. There was not a sign of the horses and I prayed they had taken the sharp left towards home instead of going straight where the big road loomed in the distance. I held onto the dashboard as we took the turn in the little car, my heart racing in my chest.

We drove down the road on the side of the field and immediately saw the horses in front of us. They had slowed down to a trot, but were still moving at a brisk pace. How could we stop them before they took the last leg through the field towards home and the big road? I didn’t know.

The man slowed his car down, obviously fearful of further upsetting the horses. I told him to hurry, as I knew what would happen next. And I was right. Suddenly the gelding took a sharp right down a tractor path that led directly to the horse pasture on the other side of the busy road. I looked up and saw cars whizzing by at high speeds. No, I thought. No. Anything but the road where drivers coming around the blind turn would not have time to stop. Horses would get hurt. And not just horses, people, too.

The man looked at me frantically. I watched the horses a good 30 yards away trot towards the traffic with their heads high, their step determined; they wanted to go home. I wanted to scream at them, I wanted to beg them to stop. I also wanted to take back the past hour of my life and start all over again, with the right choices.

Short of better ideas, I did the one thing I could think of; I stuck my head out of the car window and called my horse.

“Little Love!”

Even to my own surprise, my voice didn’t sound desperate, nor did it sound panicky. It sounded just as calm and hopeful as it did when I called her in from the field to eat dinner.

“Little Love!”

And that is when it happened. My black mare, who had been trotting beside the gelding, stopped in her tracks and turned to look at me. The gelding stopped, too. And against all odds, time seemed to stop, too. I hung out of the car window and the horses stood still in the middle of the field. For a very long second the three of us merely stared at each other. Then the horses blew air out of their noses and lowered their heads to eat grass, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

And just like that, the situation was over.

The young man stopped his car on the side of the road and I got out, my whole body shaking from both adrenaline rush and relief. I walked down the field to the horses and both touched me with their noses, visibly relieved to see me.

Neither horse was seriously hurt. Little Love had some scrapes down her side from the fall and the gelding was stiff at the shoulder, but both horses healed miraculously within a week. The traffic on the road went on uninterrupted. The man, who helped me, drove off to continue his day and undoubtedly tell his friends about his adventure catching two runaway horses. And I… I was in one piece, unharmed physically. Yes, my rider’s ego was crushed and the embarrassment I felt over the episode was colossal, but I had also lived to tell the tale.

When I look back at the events of that day, my primary feeling is failure. As someone who has been involved with horses for over 30 years, it is hard to accept that with all the knowledge and experience I possess, I still managed to get myself in a dangerous situation involving two horses. What did I learn? That I was starting to be overconfident in my dealings with horses? Perhaps I needed to be reminded that really, there is no such thing as control, when it comes down to it. Perhaps it was time for me to learn to be humble. And more cautious. Is this how people become afraid of horses? Will I ever be able to relax on a trail ride again?

I have been out since, walking my mare in hand and have to say that the first time we passed a herd of cows I was more on edge than usual. And so was she. But maybe she was nervous only because I was nervous. I can already feel the ramifications of history taking hold of the future. I remind myself that horses live in the here and now; if it is not happening now, it’s not happening. But despite my efforts, my human brain keeps returning to the events of that day. Was the ultimate lesson of all this merely to show me how vulnerable I am in the face of these big animals? Or was the lesson something even more profound; that no matter what happens, I must learn to trust, over and over again?

Perhaps with time thinking back can help me see what really is important; the relationship I have with this particular horse, with Little Love. Sometimes bad things happen and illusions of perfect harmony are broken. But, in the meanwhile, if we can see the good from the bad, hope is also restored.

I have a feeling that years and years from now, I will still recall how it felt to watch the two horses canter away at full speed. But, I know for sure that I will never forget the moment when I called the name of my beautiful black mare and - after all that had happened - she stopped in her tracks to look at me.



“Nobody gets to live life backward. Look ahead, that is where your future lies.” - Ann Landers

“Having harvested all the knowledge and wisdom we can from our mistakes and failures, we should put them behind us and go ahead.” - Edith Johnson


  1. Things happen - sounds like a save to me. Don't worry, the horses don't hold grudges and will (already have) forgiven you - you just need to forgive yourself. Be glad she heard your voice and listened to you, and for the unexpected helper.

  2. I think we become complacent knowing our own skills and feeling that we can handle most situations, but horses always, always, can humble us.
    Building a deep relationship, like you have with your horse, is what keeps us going, past fear and our own feelings of inadequacy; it's what keeps us wanting to learn and improve. If we didn't love them and connect with them, the desire to be a horseman would wither up and die, starved out by fear and ego.

  3. My heart was in my throat reading this. You really kept your head and averted disaster. It may have felt like a big bad to you, but it looks like a save to me.

  4. This was nerve-wracking to read, even though I already knew you & Lilo had to be ok since we've spoken after this. Horrible!

  5. Things like this can go wrong at any time and with any one. It is not your fault the horses spooked. It is an instinct of theirs to run. You should, however, be so very proud of your relationship with Lilo for that is why she stopped.

    A few years ago, when I had my TB in full work eventing, he spooked and bolted in the arena. I pointed him at two fences but to him, they were nothing and he jumped them both. Bless having a horse that has jumped tray back utes! We ended up in a similar situation, heading for a busy road and me not having a hope in hell of stopping my freaked out gelding. As we neared the intersection with a sharp left bend, I decided he would have a better chance of making the corner without me. The last thing I remember was hanging of the edge of my saddle thinking how much this was going to hurt, and praying to God that my gelding would be ok. When I woke up on the side of the road, I looked to my left and saw some neighboring horses running the fence and I remembered what had happened. Then, I looked to my right and there, right next to my head, I saw the familiar legs of my gelding. Freaked out as he was, he stopped and came back to me. Thank God he did because I has ruptured all the ligaments in my knee and couldn't walk!
    So my day went very wrong too! And so very right as well! So be proud of what you and Lilo have, for things do go wrong, but it's the trust and bond to be able to come out the other end together that is truly special and you and you mare certainly have that!

  6. I guess it's part of human nature to be hard on ourselves, or at least it's part of MY nature. Thank you for your enocouraging words, they are much appreciated!

    I have always been a fairly confident person. Even when faced with a new situation, I take bold tries, often appearing more confident than I really am. This has often put me in a position where I am perceived as the "invinsible one". And sometimes, when you are in that position for long periods of time, you start to believe in it even yourself...

    When I wrote this post, I kept asking myself why I had such a need to write about this incident. Wouldn't it have been much easier to pretend it never happened? What could my readers possibly get out of reading this?

    I'm still not sure I know the answers. I hope, first and foremost, that this post illustrates the importance of having a good relationship with your horse. When going gets tough, it is that relationship that can make a difference in the outcome of the events, as Kamila's story, too, demonstrates. And I agree with Shirley "If we didn't love them and connect with them, the desire to be a horseman would wither up and die, starved out by fear and ego". This is so true. Horses definitely keep our ego in check :-)

    Being also a recovering control freak, this incident has taught me (yet again) that I cannot control everything that happens. This lesson has been a slow and painful revelation years in the making, and I feel that this accident took me yet another step further in that respect. I certainly feel more vulnerable than ever, but I have decided that that is a good thing. I want to embrace that vulnerability (hence the reason I wrote this post), instead of trying to cover it up like I would have done before.

  7. I like what Shirley said -- and couldn't agree more.

    For me, writing (when I have time) is often a way to think things through and get them off my chest. Sometimes writing about something that happened or a problem you are dealing with helps. After my brother died, I wrote A LOT in my journal....a journal I still have. Writing and getting it out was my way of coping. It's always fun to write about things that make you happy or things you are excited about -- but it's also a great way to work out problematic thoughts too.

    I understand fear with horses very well. When I was younger, I had a horse fall with me at the canter. He was being very good and we were just cantering around an arena. We took a corner a little too sharp -- or too quickly -- or both and he tripped and went down with me. The poor guy skinned his knees a little, but was otherwise ok. As for me -- I landed on my face in the sand. My eye swelled shut for over a week and I had abrasions all over me. It was a month before I got back on a horse....and now, about 17 years later I still get nervous cantering a horse. In fact, I don't enjoy going fast at all. I'm perfectly content to just walk and trot/pace with Griffin. Occasionally, I find myself wondering if I will ever have the courage to really canter on a regular basis again.
    The funny thing is: I'm not bothered by spooks, little bucks, or even a rear (things that scare a lot of other riders)...it's just going fast the bothers me. My brain just seems to remember the time I fell and was hurt. Every time I even think about trying a canter, that incident boils up in my mind ...and I get nervous.

    As I was reading your post, my hands started to sweat when you talked about the horses getting loose and heading towards the road. I was scared for you in reading that - but then when you said that you decided to call out to Little Love, I thought WAY TO GO...you have a beautiful, trusting bond with Lilo. It will work for sure! I then found myself cheering inside..because that's the kind of bond I work on every day with my boy Grif :-)

  8. I felt all my own fear coming back as I read about your recent adventure!!! I was in a similar situation a few years back and yes, there were a lot of things wrong that day but the bottom line is that the emotional turmoil of the aftermath, my search for answers, and my self introspection have led me down a path I would never have chosen or seen unless I'd had that afternoon of panic!
    Things will be OK! Take a deep breath..........
    As for the guy in the car.....we never know just how or when angels will appear, do we??

  9. I know, that man was an angel. Without him this would have all ended differently. I don't even know his name, yet he was there for me in one of the most stressful situations a horse owner can imagine. I will never forget him!

  10. Oh my goodness - I was holding my breath til the end of the story!!

    Repercussions suck. The train wreck trail ride I had very early on with my gelding still deeply affects my confidence. And I still think - if only I had paid attention to how strung out he was. If only I had realized that nearby hunters would flip him out. If only I had acknowledged the limitations of my skills, and canceled out on the ride, instead of letting my ego (don't want to look like a chicken) make the fateful decision. Because now, instead of just looking like a chicken, I am one lol.

    I recognize the work we've both had to do to restore our faith in each other has been very beneficial. But what a way to learn a lesson. There really is no place for ego in horsemanship.

    So glad your story has a happy ending K.