The adrenaline rush has worn off; the shakes are about gone; the heart rate is back to near-normal, here at home, safe, unharmed. But I’ve just gone through the scariest time in my horsekeeping life.
I’m back now from the barn, from bringing four horses in out of the run-in, into their stalls for the night. The wind’s blowing well over 20 mph, with gusts up to 40. All four geldings – my two; the farm owners’ two – were freaking out from the roar and rush and banging when I got there, even before I started leading them in one by one. At least the ground was bare, the ice all melted, or there’d have been a wreck for sure; at least floodlights illuminated the path we’d have to take; the distance from turnout to shelter was only a couple of dozen yards; but oh! what a vast and daunting distance it was, and worse with each traverse.
The first one out was Counterpoint, the Lipizzaner, herd king, likely to have a meltdown if others came in before him. He dithered at the gate but let me buckle his halter on, slithered through an opening brief enough to get him out without his companion Cholla jamming through on his heels, and snorted his way in, body bunched, head tossing, swinging sideways several times but yielding to my making him circle. Released in his stall, he rushed to the window to see what was happening with his herd.
That was the easy one.
Second: Ben, my normally quiet, laidback, biddable Thoroughbred, now strung out, wild-eyed, nostrils flared to fit a fist in, swinging between head-flinging bouncing whirls around me and brief bouts of frozen staring into the goblin-howling dark before his front feet left the ground again for another plunging eruption. There’s nothing like a half-ton of terrified Thoroughbred to focus the mind, eh? I managed to keep my deathgrip on the lead rope, tight to his head (let him get any slack and he’d have broken free or gone skyward), as we crabwised and spun our way up the drive, around the snowbank at the top, and into the barn. He stayed wired all the way down the aisle and into his stall.
Third: Cholla, the Quarter Horse. Usually in a four-horse take-in I’d leave him for last because he can handle it, but by now he was running and whinnying. I had to bark at him to hold still to get his halter on; almost got body-slammed going through the gate; and could barely hold him back from bolting up the drive, never mind I was spinning him every few steps, my elbow jammed into his shoulder to keep him from trampling over me. He dragged me down the aisle and was still quivering when I got his halter off and slid home the stall door.
Three down, three trips of barely contained terror, and only Commander left. Commander, the smallest of the four, but a Morgan has power to spare and he wasn’t sparing any. By now he was yelling and running and agitated almost out of his skin. When calm, he’ll shove his nose into an outstretched halter and walk quietly on a loose rope. Now? Head-flinging, dithering around the gate, barely holding still long enough to be haltered; slamming past me out the gate; fighting me all the way up the drive as wildly as Ben and Cholla. By the time I got him into his stall I was done for – arm and shoulder aching, hands shaking, legs weak.
I slid his door shut and went back out into the wind, to secure the gates from slamming and to set up breakfast hay in the run-in. Returning to the barn, I found all four had calmed down enough to dive into their hay, and to accept as their due the horse cookies I offered. I dragged the barn door shut, staggered against the gale to my car, and came home.
I should note here my undying gratitude to the persons who put basic ground manners on these horses. True, they were horrible to handle tonight; were on the edge of losing control; but they never went over that edge, despite their freaked-out craziness they listened just enough for me to get us all safely through the ordeal. Badly trained horses would have lost it completely and gotten us into a wreck. Whoever halter-trained the boys deserves credit for that.
Yes, I did have a cellphone in my pocket, and there was a person in the house had I needed to scream for help (he knows bupkis about horse-handling, but I’m sure could cope with ambulance-calling if need be). But it was something I never want to go through again.
Unless, of course, I have to. You do what you have to do.
Update the following morning:
With time to digest the events of last night, to reflect on what happened and what could have happened, I’ve drawn some conclusions, learned some useful lessons, the most important of which is:
Don’t ever do that again. It was dangerous, foolhardy, and needn’t have been done in the first place, had I exercised reasonable forethought.
I was handling the farm owners’ two horses because they’re away on vacation, and another boarder, Donna, is sharing the horse care. She’d been there at 5:00 to do early supper and, had I thought to ask it of her, would happily have brought all four horses in then, in the light, when they were not as worked up as I found them.
But I didn’t think to ask. It wasn’t my only failure to think, either.
I didn’t think to double-check the forecast, to understand just how violent the winds had been and were then.
I didn’t think, when I headed to the barn, that the horses would be as frantic as they were; after all, I’ve brought them in before on windy nights and, while they’d bounced and snorted, they’d stayed sane. But I’d never done so when the gusts were as brutal, the wind-roar, the thrashing in the bushes and trees were so intense.
I didn’t think through just how hard and dangerous it would be trying to bring them in alone, with no horse-capable help at hand, in conditions where every step in the gale-battered semi-dark would spook them even more.
I didn’t think to give up my plans entirely, stuff mass quantities of hay deep in their run-in stalls, and leave them out for the night. It wouldn’t be comfortable for them, true, but they’d lasted out a day of gusty cold and could have made it through the remaining hours of darkness without much difficulty. No great harm would come to them, and we’d all have been a helluva lot safer. Not only did I risk getting seriously hurt by them, but if they’d broken free and bolted, they could have run into the road just dozens of yards from the barn; a road lightly travelled on a Saturday night, true, but the traffic that does fly by flies by at 50 mph or more.
I didn’t think. And that lack of thought put all of us at risk. It’s a failure I won’t repeat.