Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Panicked

by Laura Crum

First of all, happy holidays to all on this winter solstice. From now on, the days get longer. Yippee!

And second, I am posting this from my ancient computer (thirteen years old, uses Windows 95), as the new one gave up and is in the shop. For some reason, I can’t seem to comment on posts, so if I don’t reply to something you say, its because I can’t (and on my previous post, too—I would like to thank all of you who gave me such insightful comments—and White Horse Pilgrim, I really appreciate your thoughts and your blog). I do read and very much enjoy all comments, and hopefully will get myself back in working order here soon. And really, such minor setbacks as computer woes are a small thing when you think about it. My family and critters are thriving, and I’m very grateful for this. My 12th mystery novel comes out in the spring, allowing me to achieve the goal I set for myself many years ago—to write a dozen published books in my series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. I’m actually pretty amazed that I did it. And I recently accepted a job teaching at our local community college, so overall, things are going just great. I can handle a few computer woes.

I had in mind to do a sort of year end wrap up post with lots of photos, but this computer would pass out if asked to post a photo, so instead I thought I’d tell you about my latest equine adventure. I’m hoping this small story may help someone else avoid a similar problem.

So, anyway, we’ve been riding two or three days a week and all has gone very smoothly. My son has been teaching Henry to pop over (very) small jumps. Big fun. But most of my energy lately has been going into fixing-up-the-place type projects. I’ve been living here--and keeping horses here—for twenty years, and some things are starting to wear out or get overgrown. I replaced some feeders that were falling apart last week and decided to cut down a euchalyptus tree that was in the wrong place on the ridge above the corrals and barn. Euchalyptus are an invasive, non-native species here and they grow very fast. If I had left this one in place it would soon be towering over my barn in a threatening manner (they come down very easily in storms). So I asked my neighbor, who is a tree trimmer by trade, if he would cut it down for me.

Well, he was glad to, and refused to take my money; he said he’d “drop by some day; it will only take ten minutes.” Okey-dokey. I bet some of you can see where this is going already.

Sure enough, my neighbor came by with his chainsaw one afternoon last week. I pointed out the tree on the ridge above the corrals. Not being a complete idiot, I said, “Let me catch the horse that’s closest to the tree before you start.” And I headed down to the barn to catch Twister, my boarder, whose corral is nearest the tree. And my neighbor headed up the ridge toward the euchalyptus.

By the time I got to the barn it was already too late. Twister, who can be a very flighty horse, was already in full panic mode, just from hearing my neighbor crashing through the brush above the barn. He couldn’t actually see what was making the noise, which was intensifying his fear. All the other horses had their ears up but were calm. Twister was bouncing off the fence panels like a pinball, and I could tell from his demeanor that he was going to try to jump the fence pretty soon.

Instantly my mind flashed back to the last time I had seen a horse do this particular thing. Fifteen or twenty years ago we had four two-year-olds in a round corral on a hot June day. Not a breeze was stirring. One of the horses began to act the way Twister was acting now. We all stared at this gelding in consternation, not understanding what could be wrong. The other three two-year-olds stared at him. This went on for a minute or two. And then, simultaneously, two separate things happened. The wacked out young horse tried to jump the fence and essentially went right through a pipe panel, destroying it in the process, and a big oak tree that overhung the corral went crashing to the ground.

The other two-year-olds followed the first one through the wreckage of the panel in a panic and we all stared at the oak tree that had suddenly given up the ghost in amazement. Shaking our heads, we agreed that the one colt must have heard tiny noises that warned him the tree was about to fall. And we all desperately hoped that none of the young horses was badly injured. Eventually we got the colts caught and found that scrapes were the worst of it, which was incredibly lucky. It would have been very easy for the broken pipes to have done some serious damage to the horses. And I knew I was looking at the same possibility here with Twister.

I can’t tell you how fast my heart went to the pit of my stomach when I saw the blind panic in that horse’s eyes. I hollered at my neighbor to freeze, even as I tried to get Twister’s attention, just get him to acknowledge my presence. No go on either front. My neighbor, not a horseman, shouted cheerfully back that he wouldn’t start the chainsaw until he heard from me…and kept on crashing through the brush toward the tree. Twister kept bouncing madly off the fences, his eyes bugging out in panic, his nostrils as wide as they could get. Great. Just great.

I stepped into the corral, thinking to myself that I was going to be seriously pissed off if this horse ran me down and hurt me. I don’t have time to be hurt. I’ve organized my horse life for many years such that it is very low risk. And here I was, about to catch (or try to catch) a horse that was out of his mind with fear.

Once again, I yelled at my neighbor to please freeze, hold absolutely still. This time he heard me, thank God. “Oh,” he said, “You want me to hold still.”

When the crashing in the brush stopped, Twister eventually paused in his frantic charging about. For the first time, he looked at me. He was still mighty scared, shaking all over, but he was looking at me.

OK then. I talked to him and moved steadily toward him. He stayed where he was, looking at me. I could tell he was taking some reassurance from me. I got my hand on his neck and patted him, told him what a silly critter he was, and reached up to get the halter over his nose. This was not a pleasant moment. Twister is high headed at the best of times (and this was not the best of times), and I am short. I had to stand right under him to get the halter on him. I felt like I was catching a wild giraffe. I crossed my fingers he would not choose this moment to panic again and charge over the top of me—and that my neighbor would keep on holding still.

I got the halter fastened. Now I just had to lead the beast away from here. It was a lot like leading a kite on a string on a windy day. Twister bounced around on the end of the leadrope, as skittish as a barely halter broke colt. But he knew enough not to try to drag me, and I got him over to a place where he could see what was going on, but wasn’t too close to it. He could also see the other four horses—who were not panicked. It wasn’t going to get any better than this. Tying Twister up was not an option—he’s known to pull back--hard. I just needed to hang on to him. I told my neighbor to go ahead.

One thing I can tell you for sure. Horses do not like the sound of trees crashing to the ground. Something deep in their DNA warns them that this is a danger. Not one of my horses, including Twister, batted an eye at the sound of the chainsaw. But the sound of the tree crashing down (and it was a multi-trunked tree, so this happened maybe a dozen times) did not go over well. My calm horses ran about a little, not panicked, just alarmed. Twister’s eyes bugged out again and he thought hard about leaving. I talked to him and kept a hand on him, while I watched to be sure no other horse looked like freaking out. I successfully kept Twister from departing the scene. He was scared but held it together. We did OK. Eventually the tree was down. We all heaved a huge sigh of relief. No harm done.

But…if I ever have more trees dropped, I am darn sure going to be prepared and have all the horses where they are not too close to the action (and by the way, they were all perfectly safe in reality—the felled tree came nowhere near the fence or barn, as I had known it would not), and I am going to make sure Wally is there to supervise his spooky gray gelding. The main thought that went through my head the whole time is “I am never going to forgive myself if this horse gets hurt on my watch” (and because of my dumb decision). Fortunately it didn’t happen. But I’ll remember to take felling trees a little more thoughtfully in the future. Always something new to learn.

Hope you all are having a happy holiday season. Cheers--Laura

15 comments:

Linda said...

Ah, one more for the mental file named "Horse Accidents", subfiled under "Horse Fears". I've been there too, so I especially appreciated your description of leading a frightened horse to holding onto the string of a kite on a windy day. ;)

Laura Crum said...

Linda--I'm still feeling grateful (and lucky) that I didn't have a wreck with that horse. Since he's not my horse I don't handle him a lot, and his level of trust in me is nowhere near his level of trust in his owner. I just squeaked through that one by the skin of my teeth. Will attempt to do better (and plan better) next time.

And hey--my computer just came back from the shop and it works! I can post comments again. What a deal.

Leslie said...

We've been dropping trees around here to clear off our pasture hill and trees have been dropped by weather conditions ever since we put up the fence back in '04. However, no matter how many times my two guys have heard the cracking and crashing of a tree, well, like you stated they're still scared by the sounds, especially my more skittish one. My husband can be out there with a chainsaw, no problem.

The year we had a severe ice storm trees, tree tops and limbs were crashing all around throughout the night. Sounded like gunshots. I ended up sliding my way out the the horse shelter(ice everywhere)around 3am to calm the horses and give them some hay to munch to calm their nerves. I'm almost thinking that particular winter was the one that really spooked them. It spooked me. We had trees falling by our house as well.

I was holding my breath at your description of getting Twister. Glad it worked out. Wondering if you were taking deep breaths yourself by then.

Laura Crum said...

Leslie--My inner dialogue was pretty funny. I was looking at the horse thinking "Sh.., I am going to be so mad if I get hurt catching him." Then came, "Come on, you can't chicken out here, you need to catch him before he hurts himself." And finally, "You have the skills for this, just read him accurately and you can catch him." Its amusing in retrospect. At the time I was kicking myself for not predicting how he'd react.

AareneX said...

Ummmmm. Maybe it's just a Team Sensible thing...or a Swampland Horse thing...or a Trailmaster thing? Falling trees are NOT a problem for my horse!

Evidence (including video):
http://bit.ly/u0EQDg

It never occurred to me to worry about my horse when we were watching the logging operation...I was too busy operating the camera (you can see the picture "panting" in the second video because we had just trotted up a hill and she was breathing hard, so I used both hands to steady the lens.)

Familiarity is a powerful tool. I'm not happy to share the trails with logging operations, but since they're there, it's good that my mare doesn't fear all the weird things that happen in a logging camp!

kel said...

I had a dear young friend crushed to death by a falling tree. Your description of how the tree "went crashing to the ground" out of the blue is exactly what happened to him. He was working on a Jeep and a old enormous cottonwood tree just fell over. No wind, no warning, no noise, no nothing. Penned him between the tree and the jeep and crushed his pelvis. No wonder horses are spooky about falling trees. It does just happen.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--Kudos to Fiddle. Sunny and Henry are pretty calm with the tree tipping over thing, but they don't love it. Twister was the only one who freaked out. But in my experience its a rare thing for a horse to be completely unbothered by a tree falling, so Fiddle gets high marks for that. My Sunny is about as unflappable as they come and he darn sure gets his head up and his ears forward and shows me he's ready to scoot out of there if that tree looks like it might land near/on him. You can't blame him, really. I feel the same.

kel--What a sad story. Yes, we (the humans) had no warning that tree was going to fall. Neither, apparently, did the other three horses. The one horse clearly sensed it ahead of time, but I don't really know how.

AareneX said...

As I say, I think "familiarity" has a lot to do with Fee's calmness in the face of timber falling--we ride through tree-felling and -processing camps regularly. I expect any horse who experiences it a lot can get accustomed...but unless you live (or train) near a working tree farm, there just isn't opportunity for most horses to have the experience enough to realize that falling tree does not needfully equal horrible death.

For us, teaching horses calmness around timber camps is as necessary as teaching a city horse to walk on pavement (something that Fiddle regards with deep distrust).

I'm glad that everybody at Laura's place (including the people!) were safe.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I just looked at the video of Fee and the logging truck (going by on the road). So, my horses will stand calmly while busses, logging trucks, trucks with flapping tarps, road bikes, Harleys...etc whiz by their noses (maybe two feet away) at 45 miles an hour (as we wait to cross the road). But...falling trees still bug them. Go figure.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I'm glad nothing worse happened with Twister. It is scary working with panicked horses. My Annie goes into panic mode very easily. Your description of the kite strings is very true for many Arabian horses.

PS- 13 year old computer is amazing! I'm glad you got it working again.

Laura Crum said...

Voyager--I'm back on my "new" computer, which got repaired. It isn't really new--its a several year old Apple my brother-in-law gave me when he upgraded--he thought it was ridiculous that I refused to get a new computer. And I have to admit, this one can do a whole lot more than the old one.

Grey Horse Matters said...

We've had trees taken down on the property in the paddocks. Guess our horses don't have that "save yourself, danger" button. We actually had to go in and move them because they were so nosy they wouldn't let the guy work. But it's always good to be on the alert for what they could be fearful of.

Hope you had a great Christmas. Have a Happy Healthy New Year too!

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Grey Horse. A happy, healthy new year to you and yours, as well. Its funny, every horse I've ever had has disliked (at best) the sound of trees falling. And yet several of you have written to say your horses could care less. Maybe I'm doing something wrong?

Shanster said...

Yikes, what a story! Glad it all worked out and it is pretty interesting the conversations we can have in our minds with ourselves isn't it? grin.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Yes, my mental conversation strikes me as hilarious now. At the time I was quite worried. But all's well that ends well.