by Laura Crum
We had a sort of near wreck on our last beach ride, and though no people or horses were hurt (thankfully), it still got me thinking hard over what went wrong and how such things can be prevented. So today I’m going to share the story and see what you think.
First off, it was an awesome day for a ride. Sunny, sixty-five degrees, a little breeze. The horses all seemed to be feeling good, but showing no signs of acting up, as we headed off down the beach. The photo below shows Wally on Twister and my son on Henry and Sunny’s ears. Monterey Bay is on our right, the town of Monterey is in the distance.
We rode along for a couple of miles, our usual ride. Sunny and I waded in the water briefly—only ankle deep. I don’t like to go deeper because I have had the not-so-fun experience of a horse getting dizzy in the surf and almost falling down (this is very common, by the way), so I am cautious. Below you see Sunny starting in—I couldn’t take pictures after this cause I had to steer.
Wally rode Twister in deeper. Wally is much braver and more confident than I am, but this does not always work out in his favor, as the post will show. Twister has several times staggered and almost fallen in the waves, but Wally persists in making him go there. So below you see Wally and Twister.
My son has ridden Henry in the shallows before, but today was content to watch. It was a lovely day, bright and clear and warm. There was no one else on the beach. Many birds and sea lions to watch, and the light on the surf was just spectacular.
Anyway, all went smoothly and after a couple of miles we turned inland to take the path through the dunes back to the trailer. This is our usual “loop” and we do it partly because slogging through the dunes (for a short distance) is good for the horses and builds condition. Below you see Sunny following Twister down the trail. In the distance is the town of Santa Cruz and the mountain called Loma Prieta. (The local Native American name for it was Uminum, which means hummingbird.) This is the last picture I took, because after that things got a bit exciting.
Well…all of a sudden Twister stopped and stood still for a minute. No big deal. Wally and I both assumed he needed to poop or pee. But he did neither. My son and I caught up and were standing right behind him. Wally said, “Come on, Twister,” in a relaxed way, confident and unworried, as always. I wasn’t paying much attention, really, just waiting for him to go on, when I noticed Twister’s front knees buckling. He started to go down in front.
This caught both me and Wally entirely by surprise (as we discussed later). I wasn’t sure what was happening; Wally didn’t react much except to look puzzled. And Twister lay down on his side in a sand dune. Not good.
In another second Wally was coming off the horse and Twister was scrambling to his feet, and running off, obviously scared. My son’s horse and my horse were both spooked by these scary events and jumped sideways, away from the action. Fortunately both my kid and I were able to pull our always-reliable horses up quickly.
About a hundred thoughts ran through my mind as Wally landed in the sand with the horse on his leg. Would Wally be hurt, would he get hung up as the horse scrambled up, would the horse get hung up on the cable that bordered the trail, would the horse run off and …etc. Instinctively I did the only thing I could do. Pulling Sunny up, I said calmly (I hoped) to my son, “Just pull Henry up and hold still.”
This was easier said than done, as Twister was scrambling down the dune and running away as I spoke and our horses found this upsetting. But like the good horses they are, they held it together. Their eyes were big, their heads were high, and they snorted. But they stood still.
Our stillness was eventually observed by Twister, who coasted to a stop about sixty feet from us and looked back. “I guess I really don’t want to leave you guys,” was written plain on his face.
At this point I looked at Wally, who was still lying in the sand. “Are you OK?” I asked him, again, I hoped, calmly. Wally is 78 years old. The horse had gone down on his leg; I was afraid it might be broken.
“I’m fine,” he said, and got up and walked toward Twister.
“What about your leg?”
“He lay down right on my foot, but the sand’s so deep and soft it didn’t even hurt.”
Well, OK then. Wally caught Twister with no trouble, re-mounted and off we went. We had one minor setback when he realized he had lost his glasses in the fall and we had to go back and look for them. But we found the glasses and all was well. Glasses were undamaged and there was not a scratch or a pulled muscle on either horse or person.
But….obviously we were lucky. Both Wally and Twister could have been hurt. So I’ve done a little thinking about what happened and today I’d like to see if anyone else has any thoughts to offer.
First off, the biggest thing we were guilty of is complacency. Yes, we ride solid horses, yes, we’ve done this ride many times, yes, the horses were relaxed and quiet that day. But that still doesn’t mean we should go to sleep at the switch. Both Wally and I have seen horses try to lie down in loose sand before (they’ll also do this crossing water). We both know enough to get after a horse pretty smartly if he shows any sign of wanting to go down. But instead Wally simply sat there, doing not much at all, until Twister was already on the ground.
Now Twister has never done this before, or I’m sure Wally would have reacted quickly and firmly. But neither Wally nor I had any clue that Twister was thinking of this (he did no pawing), and when he actually started to lie down we both had the sudden fear (as we discussed later) that he was having a heart attack or some such thing. Wally simply didn’t think to give the horse a good hard boot and a loud “Here now!”, as he felt Twister’s withers start to drop. In hindsight, had Wally done this, Twister would no doubt have popped up and kept going and our near-wreck would have been completely averted.
In retrospect, hindsight being twenty/twenty, it seems obvious that Twister was itchy and wanted to roll. He is by far the hairiest of our horses and always gets very hot and sweaty on winter rides, while Henry and Sunny are just a little damp. In any case he showed no signs of a problem either before or after his little “lying down incident”, so he wasn’t colicked or in any sort of distress.
The ironic thing about all this is the fact that it happened the day I made a huge step forward in rider safety and being prepared for the unexpected. Yes, I’m talking helmet. Those of you who have followed this blog (and chided me) will be pleased to hear that your advice has had an effect. Several months ago I went shopping for a helmet and (when none of them fit) finally ordered one. After much delay (when the order was lost and then the helmet had to come from Europe) the helmet arrived last week—and it fit. This does not mean that I was thrilled with it—I am someone who never wears hats because they give me a headache. But I was determined to give it a try. Courtney King Dye’s story really hit home to me. Any horse can fall—I can’t prevent that. And I was beginning to have this niggling uncomfortableness with my bareheaded state on the horse. Perhaps because I am so careful that my son always wears a helmet. Who knows? But I actually felt a bit naked, though I have never worn a helmet while riding since I was a teenager jumping horses (and then it was one of those velvet hardhats). Still, it was this “feeling” more than logic, which convinced me I should get a helmet.
So for our beach ride last week, I strapped the helmet on (after whining that I didn’t need it with all the soft sand) and wore it the entire ride. And you know what? It felt good—like it belonged there. I think I’m going to be able to stick to it. However, one of my thoughts when Twister went down on Wally’s leg was “helmet wouldn’t have helped here.” Until I thought more about it and realized that if Wally had gotten hung up when Twister scrambled to his feet, a very real danger would be getting struck in the head by one of Twister’s hooves. A helmet would have helped with that, maybe. However, Wally is not going to be wearing a helmet any time soon. But I’m glad that I am.
Twister lying down unexpectedly like that illustrates the basic truth that even a solid horse can go down. Though Twister did not fall, any horse CAN fall. And though a helmet will certainly not prevent all serious/fatal injuries, it can prevent some. And the downside of wearing one is pretty small.
I did have a very tense moment when I worried that Wally’s leg might be broken. Twister was loose, and I still had my son and our two horses to take care of. How was I going to deal with all these things? As you can tell from the photos, there was no one else around. But I was carrying my cell phone and it gets a good signal at the beach. Though we were a couple of miles from our rig, we were actually not that far from another parking lot, and my husband’s workplace is not that far from the beach we were riding on. Here’s what I think I could have done. Called my husband and given him directions, let my son hold Sunny from Henry while I caught Twister, and then waited with all three horses by Wally until help arrived. Makes me realize how smart it is to carry a cell phone.
So how about you guys? Have you had a similar experience? Any one else’s horse ever try to lie down with them? How did you cope with it? Any other safety-on-the-trail tips you’d like to share?