My right leg was dangling out into thin air, and my rear was losing precious centimeters of real estate on the stack of hay at each lunge forward. A quick glance down the hill confirmed that bailing off would be an ill-advised move. I wasn’t confident I could land on my feet to stay clear of the wagon that was drifting down the hill.
Rocky terrain flashed by at an ever-increasing pace as the horses jerked the loaded hay wagon down the side of the canyon. Whoas echoed in the crisp morning air, muffled by the thunder of 16 hooves the size of crock-pots tearing into the earth. It was a bleak line of sight between those four sets of ears.
And then we were all on the lines. I didn’t have anything else to hang on to so I made a grab for the two closest to me and wrapped my little mittens around them so tight you’d have thought they were attached to the Dalai Lama himself instead of runaway horses.
With all of us hauling back on the lines, we came to a choppy halt. There couldn’t have been more than 15-20 seconds between when the horses bolted out of that sharp turn to when they stopped, but it had felt like an entire afternoon of listening to Paul Harvey on speed.
We got everything untangled and unhitched the lead mares – who had jumped into a run when the wheelers had rammed the wagon tongue up their hind ends – so the two knuckleheads could cool their jets and feed the load by themselves.
As I waited with the mares, I had time to think. It’s funny what you remember. I have mental snapshots of the Belgian colt in mid-lunge, full-tilt into his collar, front feet off the ground. I can see it so vividly. Why do I remember that?
I certainly wasn’t thinking about what the horses looked like while they were spooking. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how to get the horses stopped. And that I really didn’t want to fall off the wagon and break my tailbone.
Now that I’ve sat on this for awhile, I’ve realized that I never thought I was actually at the end of my line. I recognized that we were in a hairpin mess. I recognized that I might break something, that the horses might break something, that the wagon might splinter. But death never entered my mind.
I don’t think it can in those moments. If you want to survive those moments, then you can’t be ponderin’ if this is the time you’ll go boots up. Later? If you survived? Then yes.
I won’t lie. When I hopped off the wagon after we got stopped, my legs were a little wobbly. When I stood at the head of those horses to calm them down, I eyed their massive size and strength with an intensified respect.
When you work with animals, things will happen. Will. Not could. Not maybe. Things will go wrong. Sometimes human error. Sometimes animal instinct. Sometimes all the stars line up, the rocks form into an arrow and things take a turn for the worse.
I grew up in this world, so I rarely question the dangers that come with this profession. But that day I was reminded how close to the edge we walk, and it’s a sobering thought.
Got any animal stories to ‘fess up? Brushes with the edge? General shenanigans with our four-legged furry compadres? Share ‘em!