Runaway Horse: a True Story

There’s an old expression that goes something like this; “A green horse with a green rider is a disaster waiting to happen.” Now that’s just as true today as it was a hundred years ago! In case you’re not familiar with the term ‘green’, its western slang for ‘little to no experience’.

The ‘green’ horse in this story was named Babe. Babe was a 5 year old Arabian/Quarter horse cross. She was just a little thing at 14.2 hands tall, but she had a nice build on her. She had a rather unattractive face and one front leg that turned in at the knee. Her prettiest feature by far was her markings. She had a beautiful dark dapple gray coat with black points and black mane and tail.

Babe was broke to ride. She knew all her basic commands….go, stop, turn and backup. But she was young yet and rather spooky. Spooky, that’s another western slang term for horses that are afraid of things. Babe was afraid of most everything. She never walked, but rather jiggity jogged along all tense and nervous like. Faults aside, the little mare had a good disposition and a willing attitude.

The ‘green’ rider in this story was named Stanley. Stanley was a family friend. He was a little guy standing just over 5 feet tall. He had never owned a horse before. He had never ridden horses before. As a matter of fact, before he bought Babe, he had only ridden a couple of times in his whole life on one of our horses (who were not green).

Shortly after purchasing Babe, Stanley took a job out of the area and left the little mare in our care. Now we all liked Stanley and didn’t want to see anything happen to him. So we decided that with our friend out of town, this would be the perfect opportunity to put some ‘time’ on Babe. It’s the hours under saddle that turn green horses into seasoned horses. Hours, hours and more hours.

That’s where I come into the story. I was 16 years old. I had the time to put some hours on this little green broke horse. So that’s just what I did. Every day after school and on weekends I would saddle Babe and take her out for a ride in our busy neighborhood.

We lived on a long dirt road lined with houses. There was always something going on in our neighborhood. There were kids on bikes, barking dogs, lawn mowers and virtually a million things for a spooky little horse to worry about. With access to the beach and trails nearby, it was the perfect training grounds for a young horse.

If you’ve been around horses much you learn the power of your voice. How often have you heard a horsemen growl “KNOCK THAT OFF!” in a menacing tone to correct a horse that’s about to do something naughty? Plenty I’m sure! And if you’ve been around horses even longer you learn the power of a soft voice. That soft easy voice, the one you save for nervous colts and worried mares, it sooths the savage beast.

It was just a habit with me, that soft slow voice, just loud enough for the horse to hear. After all, it was only meant for her. Every time Babe started to get all worked up, with ears twitching nervously this way and that, I’d start in. “Easy Babe…. You’re alright. You’re not afraid of those pesky dogs…. easy Babe. You just let me handle it. Good girl.….easy Babe.”

Pretty soon she’d calm down and I’d continue my perpetual battle to get her to walk. With each ride I’d get Babe to walk more and jiggity jog less. Things were looking promising. One day we were nearly to the house when one of our neighbors fired up his dirt bike. Babe’s eyes got huge and her whole body tensed up. When he pulled out of his driveway and onto the dirt road, that did it, Babe panicked. She took off at a dead run.

We ran past my house so fast I don’t think anybody at home even saw me! Darn it, but I tried to stop that horse. Only she wasn’t having any of it. The problem was that we were rather rapidly coming to the end of our dirt road.

At the very end of our road was a great big metal gate. On the left side of the road was a solid eight foot privacy fence. On the right side of the road was a ditch and hog wire fence lined with a thick patch of blackberry bushes. You know, the big thick kind with vines that refuse to break and thorns aplenty.

Well, I was seconds away from decision time. I choose the hog wire and berry bushes. Don’t ask me why. With not a moment to spare I turned Babe hard to the right. She attempted to clear that fence with all the grace of a hedgehog. She tripped over it and landed flat on her face, sending me flying ass-over-tea-kettle out into the muddy cow pasture.

When I finally came to a stop it took a moment to realize that I wasn’t hurt. There was Babe standing twenty feet away with a dazed look on her face. I checked my favorite jeans for any sign of damage. Other than being covered in mud, all was well. “Stupid horse.” Amazingly Babe hadn’t so much as a scratch on her. I looked back at the smashed fence and thanked my lucky stars.

Runaway Horse Gets a Lesson

That night conversation around the dinner table revolved around horse training. We decided to do what we should have done sooner. We were going to sack Babe out. What’s that you say? Sack out? That’s another slang term for desensitizing a horse. That means, teaching a horse not to be so sensitive about every little thing. In other words, Babe was going to learn how not to be afraid of things.

My Dad had built and installed a holding stock in our corral next to the stalls. The same kind the Vets use at the large animal hospitals. It was an awesome devise. A horse in a holding stock is perfectly contained. And thus the training began.

With Babe safely contained, we introduced her to a scary object. Namely a white plastic grocery bag. Babe flipped out at the mere sight of it. Lots of soft words and several handfuls of treats later, Babe decided that the bag wasn’t so scary after all.  Soon we were rubbing her all over with it.

And so it went. Over the course of several days we introduced Babe to every scary thing we could think of; garbage bags full of aluminum cans, the neighbor’s goat, Dad’s chainsaw and my nieces on bicycles. We even shot a .22 pistol near Babe and put my cat on her back. One by one, Babe learned to care less about what was going on around her and more about getting another carrot!

And last, we enlisted our neighbor to come on over with his dirt bike and spin brodies in the corral. She was nervous at first, but soon relaxed. Babe had passed the test with flying colors.

Over the next weeks Babe was like a dream. I rode her all over the place. She just went along like she’d been doing it all her life. I even rode her over the Highway 101 overpass and into town. She had finally stopped that annoying jiggity jog and just stepped out at a nice comfortable pace. I was so proud of her!

A Test of Nerve

My best friend agreed to meet me for a ride in our favorite woods. It was cold and overcast that day but after several days of rain we wanted to take advantage of the break in the weather. We knew the trail would be wet and muddy, but we were going anyway. That’s what you do when you’re tired of riding on the beach. We had to ride across the highway and past town just to get to the trail head. This was exactly the kind of good long ride that Babe needed.

We have a lot of clay in our area. When clay gets wet, it gets slippery. Or as we were so fond of saying, “Slicker than snot!” And what a slick trail it was. We rode along laughing and chatting away with our horse’s feet sliding out every now and then. Cloudy sky and all, it was good to be out. The trail narrowed with thick brush on either side. We had to ride single file. That’s when we both heard it.

Dirt bikes. And they were coming fast. Quickly we pushed the horses foreword. Somewhere up ahead there was a fork in the trail that would allow a spot wide enough for us to get off the trail. The only question was, could we get to it in time? We had no choice but to push the horses straight toward the bikes if we were to have a prayer of avoiding a collision.

We beat the boys to the wide spot in the trail by mere seconds. They came careening around the corner and nearly spilled their bikes trying to stop in time. Babe stood steadfast. We nodded to one another and the boys politely waited for us to ride by with their motors idling.

We weren’t ten feet past when one of them revved up his motor to take off. Babe tensed up. Then he gunned it and sped off down the trail. That’s when Babe lost it. She took off running at breakneck speed down the slippery narrow muddy trail.

Great. Here we go again, back to square one. A runaway on a dry trail was one thing, but a runaway on this mess was insane! I tried to rein Babe in. I tried everything. I pulled on the rein. I see-sawed the bit back and forth. I pumped on the reins. I leaned back in the saddle. I gave verbal commands. I pulled on the reins until the top of Babe’s head was over my saddle horn and her chin plastered to the front of her chest.

Babe ran faster. The trail was so slick I feared any sudden changes would slip her feet right out from under the both us. My mind was racing. The one thing I hadn’t tried was the ‘one rein stop’. The one rein stop is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a stop at all, but a method to allow you to stop a runaway.

The idea is to turn your horse in a tight circle until you come to a stop. This circle was going to have to be more like a hairpin turn, ‘cuz this trail was narrow! I must have been crazy to attempt such a maneuver under the circumstances, but I was running out of options. Crud.

I reached down low on the left rein and turned Babe’s head. She thundered down the trail. I pulled harder. The brush and trees were a blur as we flew by. Soon I had Babe’s nose pinned to my left boot, her neck in a perfect U-turn. She was a flexible little thing! From where I was sitting it looked ridiculous. How in the heck was she managing to run full steam ahead down that windy trail with her nose aimed at her tail?

I released the rein and Babe thundered on. I forced myself to relax. Now what? I couldn’t just sit there, so I tried it again. This time to the right.  It looked just as stupid on that side. You’ve got to be kidding. I knew this trail like the back of my hand. We were coming up on the fork that we had planned on riding that day.

It was a much more dangerous a trail. No way could I stick to our original plan. I stuck to the main trail. This trail went on for miles. Eventually it would pop out onto Essex Lane. From there it was only a short hop to the small town of Blue Lake. I thought about my friend who we’d left far behind. She’d figure it out. All she had to do was follow the frantic tracks we were leaving in our wake.

Now how is it that Babe would let me guide her around the worst parts of the trail and yet she refused to turn around? Try and figure that one out! I knew one thing. The longer we ran, the higher the odds of a bad slip and fall. I had to find a way to end this madness.

My mind was racing to come up with a solution. What if I ran her into the bushes? Maybe she’d see that wall of brambles and choose to stop on her own. We were coming up on a bank topped with thick brush. I decided to go for it. I steered her up the bank and right at the impenetrable brush. Babe showed absolutely no sign of slowing down at all. Nada. Zilch.

Last minute I chickened out and turned her back to the trail. She took a mighty leap off the three foot bank. My God. Surely this was going to be it. I cringed and braced myself for the inevitable ugly sliding crash, but to my amazement it didn’t come. By the sheer grace of God she hit that slick track without falling.

Babe thundered on completely unfazed by the detour. I let out a huge sigh. Look on the bright side I thought. At least there were no fences to run into! Now what? I struggled to fight off panic.

I guess I could just jump off. That way I could choose my exit point. Trees and brush went whizzing past. I wondered what it would feel like to hit a tree trunk at high speed. The thought made me sick. Nope. I wasn’t going to bale. I decided then and there we were in this together. We go down, we go down together.

Let Go and Let God

I had made a decision; let go and let God. And in that moment, an unexpected wave of peace washed over me. I knew exactly what to do. Relax and stay centered. I relaxed my hands and let my whole body get comfortable in the saddle. I rode loose with the balls of my feet lightly in the stirrups.

I had it all worked out in my mind. When Babe goes down I was going to roll off. I’d go off on the right hand side. I’d tuck my head and shoulders and just let myself roll off. My Mother used to tell me stories of her brothers falling off their horses on purpose and doing stunt tricks. She used to tell me, “Never try to break a fall with your arms and hands. Tuck and roll.”  Her words of wisdom rang true. On and on Babe raced at break neck speed.

I had plenty of time to think. I thought about my family. How would my Mom cope if I got killed? I hoped she wouldn’t blame herself. At least I would have gone out doing the thing that I love most. I thanked God for all the blessings I’d had in my life. For the horses. For my family. Jiminy Cricket, how long could this little horse run anyway?  

Babe thundered on. For a moment panic started to creep in. When was she just going to fall and get it over with? The anticipation of our deadly crash was getting to be too much. And then, for the second time, that amazing and strange overwhelming feeling of peace washed over my body. All fear melted away and I stayed loose in the saddle. In my minds eye I could see every twist and turn in the trail ahead. I gently guided Babe this way and that to avoid the most treacherous mud holes.

By now we had come far. Babe had been running for miles and I had lost all track of time. The trail begin to climb steadily. We were nearing the long steep grade heading toward Essex Lane. Once atop that ridge, it wouldn’t be long before we ran out of trail and hit the paved road.

We had reached the long incline. Was my mind deceiving me or was Babe beginning to slow down? The incline got steeper. No question now, I could feel Babe slowing rapidly. She was quickly loosing steam. After all that she had put me through, for the first time, I got mad at her.

“Oh so that’s it, eh? You wanna run dammit, you run!” I gave her a swift hard kick in the ribs and pushed her forward. She slowed down. I pushed her harder, but to no avail. She wound down to a rasping halt unable to take even one more step up that hill.

The saddle was heaving up and down violently as Babe fought for air. She was nearly choking to get enough oxygen down her spent lungs. Her legs where weak and shaking. She was wet with sweat from head to toe. The base of her ears were covered in sweaty foam. It lined the cheek pieces of her bridle, her neck and butt cheeks. Foam ran down her legs. Barely able to stand, she was desperately gasping for air.

And so there I sat on this mindless wreck of a horse. We were stopped at last. “Was it worth it?” I demanded. I scolded her, “You did this to yourself you know!” Babe was heaving. She looked pathetic. As mad as I was, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. There was nothing left to do but go home. I turned her around and she headed down the hill on wobbly legs.

Her whole body felt like a weak mass of jello. I took pity on her and stopped at the base of the hill. I got off and stroked her wet neck. “Easy Babe. Take a breather.” She looked at me with the most inquisitive expression in her eyes, as if to ask, “What happened?”

“I don’t know Babe. I just don’t know.”  I had my own questions. How could I be standing here unscathed? How was it possible to run all those miles, on that impossibly slick trail, without falling? It made no sense. I must have had an Angel on my shoulder. All the hair on my arms stood up. The reality of the miracle that had taken place gave me goosebumps… I was kissed by an Angel.

I don’t know what a spiritual experience is supposed to look like. I suppose most people have them in church, but I had mine out on the trail. Do you know what an Angel’s breath feels like? I do. It’s an overwhelming sense of peace and calm. It feels like love. I was almost giddy with the wonder of it all.

I suppose I should have been upset, but I wasn’t. I felt my eyes well up with tears of joy. Laughing and crying at the same time, I buried my head in Babe’s neck and gave her a heartfelt hug. I was grateful for everything. My life. This horse. This experience. All of it. We must have looked strange out there at the base of that hill; Babe all sweaty and me laughing with tears running down my face. I wiped the tears away and climbed back in the saddle with a silly sort of grin. “C’mon Babe, let’s go home.”

I guess Angels love horses too, because Babe was never the same after that ride. Any nonsense that she had left in her, she lay behind on that trail and never looked back. That was the end of it, she never spooked again. Babe was good as gold.

It wasn’t long before we got a phone call from our friend Stanley. Work opportunities were good and he wasn’t coming back. He asked us if we would sell his horse for him. We agreed.  I felt confident in her training. She was a solid little horse. We sold her to a man that eventually sold her again.

Babe ended up in the hands of a wonderful woman named Teresa. Teresa belonged to Northern California Horsemen Association and enjoyed years of riding the trails with Babe. And that turned in leg of hers…it turns out she never stepped a lame day in her life. Straight legs or no, I can tell you, Babe was a sure-footed little thing!

Written by Cathy Cleveland © 2013

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