Very early in my career as a wrangler – long before I realized that despite all of my hours in a saddle I knew nothing about horses – I had an experience that will stick with me the rest of my life…
I had just returned from a ride and was riding my horse toward the wrangler rail, intending to tie up there. Magic, the little black mare I was on, had other ideas. It was late. She was tired. And cranky. And hungry. And she was going to go to the pen to eat and sleep with or without me.
I tried turning her away from the barn toward the rail, but she was having none of it. I had made the potentially fatal mistake of thinking I was home and I “quit” riding, meaning that my focus was already elsewhere, not on the horse. Magic, who was much smarter than me, took advantage of my lapse and took control. She bolted toward the breezeway through the barn and was well underway by the time I gathered up the reins to try to get her back under control, or at least turned away from the barn. I snatched at the reins and pulled with all the strength my hundred and thirty pound body had; it was like trying to stop a freight train.
Each stride took me closer to certain decapitation. All I could see was the corrugated tin roof of the barn at throat level getting closer and closer. It dawned on me that I’d need to lean forward over her neck to avoid becoming the headless horsewoman. I’d just given up on trying to stop her and leaned over the saddle horn, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
The barn boss stepped out of the office doorway with a 2x4 and took a mighty swing just as we entered the breezeway. He caught Magic right across the chest, shattering the 2x4 in the process. Magic immediately reared up, spun around and dove toward the rail. It didn’t matter to her that the dude rail, where the entire string of guest horses were tied, was full. She just needed to get away from the crazy, 2x4-wielding man. She pushed her way between two horses tied to the rail and reared up again when she realized that she was trapped – there was literally no where for her to go with the chest-high metal rail blocking her escape. She was so close to the rail when she reared up that she didn’t have room to come back down, so she improvised and balanced on her back legs with one foreleg on the rail. Miraculously, I was still on her back; not really a good place to be. If one of the horses to either side decided to kick out at her, I would end up on the ground, under all of those hooves and I did not want that. I sat, frozen, in the saddle afraid to move a muscle, afraid to unbalance her.
From behind me, I heard a completely calm voice, “just stay there, she’ll come down on her own.” Yeah, right, like I was going to move; I couldn’t even bring myself to nod my head.
It seemed like an eternity that Magic and I stayed there, until her breathing calmed down and her panic abated. And then the shaking started. The adrenaline that had given her the strength to stay rock steady on the rail subsided with her panic and she started shaking with the effort of maintaining such an awkward pose. I knew at that point that she was going to collapse and I’d be under all those shuffling hooves.
She managed to pull herself together and with a powerful heave, pushed herself up off the rail. We landed with a thump, all four legs in their proper place on the ground and me still in my proper place in the saddle.
The very next day, the barn boss installed a gate across the breezeway to avoid any similar situations from happening. The gate was a pain in the rear end to deal with, especially at the end of the day when we were all tired and cranky, but I never once complained about it. Unfortunately, a few years ago, another barn boss took over the livery and soon thereafter removed the gate. Within a short period of time, there was another incident in which a horse was tired, cranky, hungry and headed for the pen. The wrangler on that horse got lucky in that she only spent one night in the hospital after being knocked unconscious and dragged through the barn.