An open letter to whomever would like to read it:
Today featured a certain amount of excitement, but sharing it in its full glory requires a bit of background.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I forget which exactly, I was shipped from the big city off to my relatives in the Texas Hill Country in order to learn manly arts for a summer. I was in the saddle every day, as well as feeding the goats and pigs, and helping with whatever chores were required, thanks to the generous spirit of Uncle Victor Lehmberg, husband to my Mother's cousin Gloria. At riding, round-ups, and shooting I excelled, but roping and dipping (sheep, not snuff) were never great strengths. That doesn't figure prominently in our story, but it seems worth mentioning, perhaps to give the reader the impression that I am more or less capable of judging my own capacity and not overly attached to being seen as proficient in everything I attempt. Beginning not long ago, I happily seized an opportunity to end my almost thirty year hiatus from the saddle.
My most excellent mother-in-law, Heidi Martens, is a horsewoman, and boards her animals at the J & P Ranch out Dry Creek Road in Eagle Point (Oregon). It is our great good fortune that both Lisa and I have the opportunity to ride when we visit. Everyone at the J & P is most agreeable -- good folks to be sure. Yesterday happened to be their annual round-up for vaccinations and, as Lisa, Rosie, and I are visiting, Heidi and I took part as volunteers. The cattle were in an upper pasture and needed pushing down and across the land into the chute/corral area created for the purpose down by a large barn. The main group went up to flush the cattle and it was thought that they would head more or less for the preferred destination without much more encouragement. A teenage girl who is a regular at the ranch, Heidi, and myself were dispatched to make sure the cattle didn't make a break for the ford across the chest-deep creek and escape into an entirely different area. To be honest, it is very likely the trail boss who sent us to stand in reserve was getting us out of the way because we are an uncertain element in the planning. It is a fair enough assessment that I might have made myself, had our positions been reversed. The cattle, of course, came straight for us and the ford we were guarding. We wove back and forth, increased and decreased our pace to match theirs, and drove them toward the pins and succeeded marvelously in our quest. They were sequestered as directed and ready to inoculate, but not all were accounted for. All but Heidi and myself went loping up the hills in search of the remaining few, while Heidi and I returned to our post.
Predictably, in retrospect, the hardy few who were sufficiently willy to evade earlier capture came thundering (Ok, maybe not thundering exactly) down upon us. All but a mother and calf were handled as were the first bunch, but the determined cow goaded her calf into a nonchalant trot, and then picked up speed to head downstream toward another crossing opportunity into the great Way More Trouble to Go Get 'Em beyond. To counter her stratagem, the trail boss nearest me hollered "cut 'em off!" and so I did.
Now, it need to be said that the horse given me, O.J., is 20 years old, usually deployed for children to ride, is unaccustomed to getting firm direction from an adult rider, and has ideas of his own about direction, pace, and the general concept of being asked to work. We had continually come to an understanding about all of the above in earlier visits when it had been my pleasure to make his extended acquaintance. Earlier in this day, he had moved away while I was dismounting sufficient to catch my toe in the stirrup and dump me on my butt, and had later started into a sudden gallop such that I had to reign him in with considerable force. We had been working as a team in a most gratifying manner since then, increasing to a lope and decreasing to a trot and walk, turning as necessary to turn an oncoming cow. He likes cows. The idea of herding them apparently gives him a certain thrill. Now I had need of his energy and signalled him to gallop in order to outpace the accelerating escapees. We drew alongside at a full gallop, my body leaning forward a bit into the wind. I was about to give the tug to the right that would draw us across their path and drive them around and back, when O.J. cut suddenly left into a tree with a low hanging branch.
In the next several milliseconds, a sequence something like this went through my mind:
- NOW we have them!
- What the hell?!!
- TREE! (which was when the 13 year old me would have laid out forward without thinking and clutched O.J.'s neck, I realized)
- Too late to drop all the way forward, and seeing the crotch of the branch that would take off my head, I used my martially trained core muscles to hurl my body backward while clutching with my knees so as not to be knocked out of the saddle.
The forked branch hit me in the mouth and both eyes, instead of across the throat, because my head was shooting backwards as my body was being galloped forward. Other branches cut across my throat, face, and into the lids and around the sockets of my closed eyes. Dazed, but still in the saddle, I brought myself back upright coming out the other side by pulling on the reigns, dragging us across the path of the incoming cow and calf, sending them back in the desired direction. I caught my breath while I hung my head forward so I wouldn't get any of the blood that was pouring out of my nose and from my face on one of my favorite shirts. Then I went to tell Heidi that I'd need a chance to clean myself up at some point. She reacted as anyone would, with horror and dismay to see that in the last 30 seconds her son-in-law had been subjected to extreme rendition by a horse, and then apparently badly beaten for an extended period by a "third-world paramilitary" (CIA) hiding in a nearby tree.
We turned the cattle into the enclosure, I cleaned my face a bit with water from my canteen and a paper towel I found in my back pocket from cleaning Rosie's face earlier. The ranch owner checked to see if I needed a pick-up trip to the hospital. I allowed as how I probably didn't and that there was no need to make a fuss. The group took turns exclaiming about my new look, and then set about getting calves separated from the cows and bull, as I stood at the business end of the vaccination chute with a length of PVC in hand, making sure no stuck critters ran back into the main herd. The second one got past me, kicking me under the right ribs in passing to make her point, but the others moved on out back into the pasture with occasionally menacing gestures from me. The kick muddied up my shirt front but left narry a bruise because my body is used to turning when it feels a blow.
A few thoughts, both existential and mechanical, have occurred to me since:
I am not a teenager.
There is no substitute for time in the saddle and a good horse who knows and likes you.
Did O.J. do it on purpose, or was there something he might have been avoiding that I didn't see? No single mind an know all the variables.
It must be weird to be around somebody doing their utmost to avoid any facial expression because any movement hurts a bunch. I usually smile my way, on and off, through social interactions. It must seem as though I am deranged or constantly upset, or who knows what.
Oh, yeah, THIS is what it feels like to get good and beat up. I'd forgotten.
An abnormally high pain threshold is not necessarily a good thing.
Too bad there are no costume parties to which I might go dressed as a zombie.
Wait a minute. I could have received an involuntary tracheotomy, been knocked backward off the horse to land on my head or neck on the rocks, or had teeth knocked out &/or an eye put out. As it is I have a split lip on the outside and inside, abrasions all over my face, super sore cheek and jaw and deep cuts under my beard, BUT no permanent damage! I don't even bruise much, usually, and so avoided a shiner which should have been inevitable.
I kept my saddle even while getting the shit beat out of me, secured the cattle, didn't pass out when I got seriously nailed, and worked the rest of the day. I was kind to but firm with O.J. all the rest of the day. I returned the next day with Lisa (our anniversary present from Heidi) to ride O.J. again just to make a point, shoot a video of the tree, and think things through. I had to negotiate firmly with O.J. several more times, but there was no bolting or sudden changes of direction. There was also nothing in the path I chose that he might have been cannily avoiding. He did it on purpose, but it was my fault to trust him and not saw his head vigorously to the side when he altered our course, even at the risk of upsetting us. When I took him back to the ranch after the ride with Lisa I took him round and round the arena at a trot and a lope, taking turns and backing up whenever I felt like it. He didn't like it, but I didn't ask for his opinion.
There is something about getting beat down but not broken up that can cast a whole different light on life. Lately, I've been getting more and more risk averse, afraid of what is coming (no long-term job prospects, lapsing health insurance, etc.), and playing as small as possible. Seems to me I'm pretty good at working hard and coming through the normal beatings that life is guaranteed to dish out with most of my parts intact. What else did I expect?! It feels like time to take a few more chances (in the categories of things I know something about and can estimate risk with some level of competence), and then not whine when I get through with just a few cuts and bruises. I do love to ride, and the days here have been quite lovely.
A bit the worse for wear yet brighter in spirit,
(if you sign-in, your comment gets auto-tagged with your name :-)
Thanks for sharing your story. I was waiting for it and you have not disappointed. Not what I expected but a good yarn to be sure. Brings many memories of my horse trials to the forefront of my mind. You, son, are a lucky man who's quick no-nonsence approach to conflict (whether it be Mother Nature or the human type) reigned supreme. I am sorry for the damage but glad to hear that you will be your normal smilely self shortly. Cheers!
--Gaby T (Not signed in).....Thu Jun 28 17:40:59 +0000 2012
Glad you and OJ survived. Redirecting your own force while on a horse is impossible of course!
--Rick Stovall (Not signed in).....Fri Jun 29 19:11:44 +0000 2012
archetype Horse, archetype Bro, archetype Victor, archetype blog.....the Lord had mercy. Grateful, grateful, grateful.
--mom (Not signed in).....Sat Jun 30 13:27:41 +0000 2012