Cheating Death

Duke and I are walking down the road. Birds chirping, sun shining. It's one of those great summer days. The distant wildfires have put a light haze in the air, so we're not doing heavy work today, just an easy ride. The traffic noise from the highway is behind us, cars whizzing by this quiet country road. One motor begins to stand out more than the others and is getting louder, but it must be an auditory illusion-- it can't be headed our way, it isn't slowing down. That's one of the big benefits of living in a rural community. Drivers are savvy and used to navigating around slow farming equipment, horseback riders, touring cyclists, wildlife. I turn to look. A pick-up truck is less than 10 feet away, speeding directly towards us, not braking, not swerving, not planning to miss us at all. No time to react, no time to move.


Then the sickening crunch of metal.

Being flung unwillingly through the air has a very specific feeling. Like a you're stuck inside a lurching brutal gyroscope, with flashes of light and color, but no image you can process. As much as I enjoy the physical sensation of speedy driving, fast elevators, and carnival rides, I've never enjoyed that uncontrolled-careening-through-space feeling. Probably because it never seems to end very well. The highway-speed head-on car crash with that guy trying to pass in the fog. The broken bones and ripped cartilage after the rude finale of my first night-skiing adventure. Biffing it behind a fast motor boat with a fat lip from the board strapped my feet. The jaw-jamming head plant in the Australian surf when I almost successfully rode the big wave in to shore. The time I mistook the concept of 2-point as being "to stay forward" going over our first jumps-- and then went *really* forward, right over Duke's shoulder when he had to collect for an extra stride. Careening through space. I don't like it.


Hard landing. I'm fetal and face down like a poorly organized Child's Pose executed with great force. Gritty surface beneath me. Darkness. Vibrating. As I come to my senses I realize three things:

  1.  I'm alive.
  2.  Duke can't possibly be.
  3. I appear to be in the back of a pick-up truck, still in motion.

I'm horror stricken, sobbing, then desperately searching the surroundings for Duke. Nothing. He's nowhere. He vanished. The truck stops. A bewildered face appears at the wheel well beside me.  "I'm sorry. I didn't see you." As I'm trying to focus on the face and process how somebody doesn't see a 16-hand Bay gelding with rider in the middle of the lane on a arrow-straight road on a bright sunny day I spot Duke over the man's shoulder, no saddle, reins dragging, trotting across the field for home. He's a mirage. Blink. He's limping, but he's alive!

"My horse! I have to get my horse!" I crawl out of the truck bed and start sprinting across the field. I catch up to Duke just as he's entering the back gate, incredibly grateful we had spent all that time goofing off in the arena practicing having him resist his instincts to flee and stand quietly as I rushed at him. My trainer had assured me it would be useful someday, which at the time I thought was pretty unlikely. Just goes to show.

Duke's flesh is torn, bloody tire treads across his withers, road rash on every side, limping, muscles in spasm, cuts on his poll from bridle silver that had crushed and bent, and blood in his mouth. His breathing is shallow and rapid, but he's staying with me, walking slowly in circles. We trade his bloody bit for a halter.

My friend appears, and she's great in a crisis. A special kind of calm and steady that I think they must cultivate specially on remote Canadian ranches. "He's going into shock, let's keep him walking." "Do you want me to take him? No? O.K. I'll call the vet." "I have some medicine that will help him with the pain and the shock, do you want me to give it to him?" Question by question, point by point, help is called, decisions are made, tack recovered.

Duke and I are still walking slow big circles in a jittery adrenaline stoked stupor when the ambulance arrives. I don't want to leave him, but am eventually convinced to go to the hospital. We pass the pick-up on the way out and the front is crushed. By the time I make it back to the barn, the vet is finishing up. Vitals are strong, no internal injury, lots of scrapes and lumps, and his right hock is especially swollen and sore, possibly chipped, time will tell. We need to watch for respiratory issues and cut feed to half while his system normalizes, but overall, he's a walking miracle.

Piecing it all together later, I come to understand that while I had been thrown into the windshield,carved a path over the cab of the truck and fell into the bed, Duke had been struck squarely from behind, pushed down, and was fighting his way out from under the truck for 75 feet before he scrambled free. When I survey the scene that night before I go home, I find skid marks of made of hair, blood, and metal horseshoes that streak a long path down the pavement. I pick up handfuls of his tail hair and the saddle's broken cinch strap and shake my head. How?

Three days later, it's evening, and we're standing together looking out across the pasture and down the road. Duke looks far away, and I wonder if he has the same nightmares and flashbacks. We're both stiff and sore, walking gingerly and missing some skin, but standing on our own six legs. The heat and inflammation have finally cooled for all but his swollen hock and Duke's eyes soften as I start lightly working on his strained muscles with my good hand, carefully navigating around the cuts and sores. Recovery is going to be a long process. We're already tired of the medication and cold-hosing and confinement. Areas of edema have drained to leave stiff leathery hide and muscles are tight like cords, with knots that will take time and work to loosen and forget. Luckily, that's what I trained for.

I shudder, thinking about how close we came to a sudden end, to losing each other. Gratitude for everything I have wells up, spilling down my face. Duke wraps his neck around my torso, and I hold his giant head in my arms, rubbing his forehead. We still have rides to ride and adventures to live.

So here we are. Cheating death.