Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Carnivorous Mouse Incident

or The Definition Of Courage

Every horseman or women knows that horses are flight animals. We all know they can overcome that flight instinct to a remarkable degree given a supportive environment and practice. I have always taken my horses hacking at night and after the initial adjustment period each fall, they were quite comfortable going out in the dim light at night. Some nights I literally could not see my horse’s ears, but I could see the trees silhouetted against the sky and I knew the trails we walked well enough to know where we were. I trusted my horses to see better than I could and enjoyed our night hacks immensely.

On a windy night early one November I took my boy out for a hack. It was getting cool but was surprisingly warm for November. We headed out across the road into the fields on the other side as usual. I couldn’t see his ears, but there was enough light to see the fence lines and landmarks I used to guide us. He was calm and walking forward on a long rein. I was relaxing and feeling my worries drop away, drinking in the comfort of my friend’s presence.

In a split second that peace was shattered and his world caved in. A small animal rustled the grass ahead of us at the edge of the field and he spooked, swapped ends and bolted back towards the barn. I came off and landed on my hip and felt the reins slip out of my hand as if I wasn’t even trying to hang on to them, and my horse was gone, the thunder of his hooves fading into the darkness. Heart in my throat and heedless of any injury to myself, I leaped to my feet and started walking quickly after him calling in a soothing voice. I wanted to run, but feared that if he had stopped or slowed I would scare him into further flight before I realized he was there. I fixed my gaze on the lights by the barn hoping to see him run through that patch of light, mentally calculating where he would be given his speed, and hoping desperately that no vehicle would barrel along the road at the wrong moment.

Sure enough, just about the time I figured he would be reaching the road a car came over the hill. It braked suddenly, and though I strained to see, I didn’t catch a glimpse of Tommy. I was afraid the car would have frightened him away from the barn, and running blind he could have ended up anywhere. My mind raced and I listened intently for the sound of bare hooves on the road.

The driver turned out to be one of the lesson student’s parents and he told one of the other boarders in the barn that the horse had gone “that way”, pointing down the road. When I heard that, my heart sank to my boots. The highway was “that way” and my horse had gotten himself lost once before after spooking and dropping his rider (in daylight that time) and running fear blinded. Within minutes we had three vehicles and several people out combing the area. He was wearing his splint boots with the reflective strips on them and would have been easily spotted if he were on the road.

After what felt like a hundred years of looking and calling while fighting an increasing panic level, one of the drivers came to find me. My horse had been found in his field. He hadn’t bolted down the road, but had gone through an open gate into the field next to his own and jumped the fence to get back to the pasture herd. By some miracle he had sustained nothing more than some lost skin and a couple of tiny nicks. One boot had a hole almost completely through the neoprene, but none of his other tack was so much as scratched. His worst physical injury was the loss of a patch skin over his right stifle the size of my spread hand.

Mentally was a completely different story.

The running joke with my horse had long been that he’s one quarter horse, three quarters chicken. His brain is hardwired for flight and he has managed to overcome it to an incredible degree in the time we have been together. After escaping the carnivorous mouse that had rustled the grass, he was starting back from square one again. For the next two days simply taking him into the wash stall to tend his injuries was enough to send his heart racing at least double time, his pulse clearly visible through the winter hair at the base of his neck.

The first time I took him out of the barn for a ride two weeks later, that pulse pounding was clearly visible from six feet away, and his body shook with the effort of not bolting as he tried to look in every direction at once. His fear was thick enough to taste, but he went where I asked, when I asked, and tried very hard not to spook. By early January I was beginning to wonder if he would ever recover. Riding him was like sitting on a ticking time bomb and being unable to see the clock counting down. I seriously considered leaving him in the field until spring.

But he was making progress, no matter how painfully slowly. We started in one fenced in field in daylight and gradually pushed out, walking the far side of the fence, then halfway into the next field, and finally all the way around it. He had good and bad days, and some days were so cold it was all I could do to take him out for fifteen minutes.

On February 17th we managed to walk twice round the mare’s field at night under a waxing moon – our first night hack since the incident. In April I was over the moon when he walked quietly and calmly on a long rein for SIX steps on a daytime solo hack! In June his triumph was a trot on a long rein on a solo hack, and my heart sang all the way back to the barn. He still had his bad days, days where he couldn’t help spooking at things I couldn’t see. But he was spooking in place, stopping his flight within the first six inches, and those bad days were becoming fewer. It took about nine months before I could say he was back to normal; it took about seven of those for me to realize what he was teaching me.

If courage is being afraid, knowing the dangers and then going ahead and doing it anyway then my horse was Courage incarnate. He knew the world was a dangerous place. He had been hurt by nothing more than a rustle in the grass. He was afraid. But he went ahead and did what I asked, went where I pointed him, and tried his best not to be ruled by his fear. His bravery, his courage and trust inspired me to face my own fears and I am more self assured and confident because of the lesson he taught me.

Horse, thy name is Courage.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed when I saw the title to this post. I guess, because this story was bound to be one of the ones that emerged first. Reading your post, I realized that I never fully appreciated the weight of that incident or your patience in 'bringing him back'...though that didn't surprise me, given what I know about your dedication to your horse(s).
    And, I can vouch for his bravery...I always felt like he took good care of me when we were that time a deer ran right across the track in front of us, and he whirled right around, but didn't take a step, which meant I stayed on.
    What you have said about his heart and his courage, it is so true. I am glad you have continued to blog, so I have reason to think about him and remember the gifts he gave me...he was special and I miss him.