Friday, August 21, 2009

A Fall, A Fractured Foot and a Helicopter Ride

Each horse is built just a little bit differently, just like humans. The horses who are built like barrels with legs take a little more balance than others; there’s just nothing to keep the saddle from rotating around the horse’s body with each step. A barrel-shaped horse can be a bit of a challenge for a wrangler. Since wranglers spend a great deal of their time turned around to face their guests, shifting his or her weight the wrong way can lead to a pretty embarrassing dismount from the lead horse. Trust me, been there, done that.

I took Clementine, who was one such horse, out for a four-hour ride one day with five or six guests. The Barn Boss I worked for at the time encouraged the wranglers to “explore” the trails; we didn’t have set routes to follow. My guests were pretty good riders and were excited about the idea of exploring the trails; at each junction I’d ask them “right or left?” and let them decide where we were going. We were making good time and I wasn’t paying too terribly much attention to where we were headed; I was confident that I knew every inch of the trail system and could get us home. Until it was time to head home.

I looked around and realized that I had absolutely no idea where we were. Oops. Bad wrangler. Not a good thing to do, get the ride lost. We weren’t call-Larimer-County-Search-and-Rescue lost, but we were pretty far from home and I wasn’t sure which trail to take back. I did know that in order to get back, I had to keep Mount Meeker on my right and keep moving.

Eventually, I found a trail that appeared to head us in the right direction, despite being a trail I’d never been on. We definitely were on an adventure ride. The guests were loving it, but I was getting stressed. They’d been scheduled for a four-hour ride and we didn’t find a trail that headed us in the right direction until we’d been out four hours and I had no idea how long it would take us to get back to the livery.

The trail I found was fairly steep, but do-able and I was so relieved to be headed the right way. I turned back to my guests, to check on them, forgetting for a moment that I was riding Clem, the barrel with four legs. When I turned to look behind me, I straightened my left leg, shifting my weight to my left stirrup, and slipped my right foot out of my stirrup. Catastrophic mistake. I had forgotten about Clem’s pesky habit of dropping her shoulder to “help” her rider off her back. I felt her shoulder dip and the saddle shift. Oh, crap. I was going off and there was nothing I could do about it. I desperately tried throwing my weight back to my right, but without my foot in the stirrup I had no leverage.

Crap…crap…crap…crash! I landed on my back in a bush. Great. I had a line of horses on the incline above me and the incline was such that every single one of my guest saw my graceful exit from the horse. My saddle was underneath Clementine and I had to strip it off to re-saddle her, all while standing in the bush that broke my fall. Thank God the bush was strong because it was the only thing keeping me from rolling down the hill. The good thing about having to saddle a million horses each morning is that I can throw a saddle in no time flat. I managed to muscle the saddle back up on to Clem and get remounted without too much heckling from the guests; guess they were as tired as I was. Thankfully, the rest of the ride back to the livery was completely uneventful, despite the fact that our four-hour ride turned into a six-hour ride when all was said and done.

Back in the yard, I dismounted to tie Clem to the wrangler rail and the brat stepped on me. I was tired and didn’t pay any attention to my foot placement when I dismounted. She turned and that left front hoof crushed the outside of my right foot. Dang. Like it wasn’t bad enough that I fell off in front of my guests, my guide horse had just fractured my foot and I still had to unload my guests. Could it get any worse?

I “Cowgirl upped”, gritted my teeth, and bid my guests goodbye. No sooner had I gotten them on their way and their horses tied to the dude rail, when I looked up to see Kevin, one of our wranglers, running at break-neck speed down the switchback. But he didn’t have his guests with him. That is never a good sign; wrangler running his horse back to the livery in a panic and no guests with him. Bad, bad things had to have happened.

The Barn Boss and I were waiting for him when he skidded into the yard, hollering to call 9-1-1. Boss got Kevin calmed down enough to tell us what had happened. His ride was trotting in one of the few “safe” areas and his guest had fallen off and was laying unconscious at the west side of the meadow.

Since I was an EMT, I immediately got ready to head out to the guest while we waited on the fire department. Using Clementine was out of the question, she was absolutely pooped after our ride, so I grabbed our “chase” horse. A chase horse is a wrangler horse that is tacked up and left on the wrangler rail for cases just like this – to chase down rides if they get lost – ahem – or to go render aid if needed. Not all liveries have chase horses, but I was lucky that day; our Barn Boss firmly believed in them.

I quickly got directions from Kevin and left the yard as quickly as he had entered it, my fractured foot forgotten. The chase horse gave it all he had until we were about halfway to the meadow, then he just stopped dead in his tracks. He was done with this running B.S. and the most I could get out of him was a fast walk. No matter, we were still going to get to the guest before the fire department. It wasn’t hard to find the guest, he was still out cold on the edge of the meadow and his daughters were standing over him, holding their horses.

I handed off my horse and shooed them away so I could do my thing. Within minutes after I started my evaluation and treatment of the guest, Kevin returned to report that 9-1-1 had been called and the fire department was on the way. There wasn’t much I could do other than make sure he didn’t move – duh, he was unconscious – and keep an eye on his vital signs. I noticed that his breath had a fruity smell and asked his daughters if he was diabetic, since fruity smelling breath can be a sign of Diabetic Ketoacidosis – very bad. The answer was that he wasn’t diabetic – whew – but that he’d had a “couple” of beers at lunch in Boulder. Wow. Alcohol and altitude don’t mix at all.

The fire department finally showed up; they had to drive up the fire access road to get to the meadow and only one of the rigs could make it to the meadow. By the time the guys with the red and blue lights showed up, the guest had been unconscious for twenty minutes or so. The decision was made to call in the helicopter, which was our clue to skedaddle. The horses were not going to be happy with the whirly-bird coming to land in their meadow.

Kevin and I tied up the horses’ reins and lead ropes, slapped them on the butts and sent them home. The guest’s daughters chose to stay with their dad until the helicopter got there and would catch a ride back with the firefighters. That meant that we had to walk back. I didn’t really think the walking back part through, though. It was a long, long, long, long walk back. Long and painful walk back.

We found out later that day that the guest was going to be physically fine, but he was going to be charged with animal cruelty. It’s apparently illegal to ride a horse in Colorado while under the influence of alcohol. My day wasn’t nearly as bad as his. Yes, I fell off my horse and fractured my foot, but that was it. He got drunk, passed out, fell off, got a ride to the hospital in a helicopter AND got charged with animal cruelty. Nope, my day wasn’t so bad after all.

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