That winter was a cold one. We had several snows more than two feet deep and for a least a couple of months there were parts of our trails that never did thaw out. At best, the parts in the full sun would melt and turn into slushy bogs just to refreeze in the night. The worst parts, though, were in the deep shade of the pines. During the warmest part of the day, the very top layer of ice would melt and then quickly refreeze slick and smooth. Each time the horses made a pass over the trail they would churn it up a bit, making any snow melt and form another layer of ice.
Still, we marched. Not all day, but at least a couple of times a day. We knew the most dangerous parts of the trails and tried to avoid them. Most riders were understanding if we brought them in a few minutes early for their own safety. Heck, a few even appreciated it!
One particularly cold and snowy day I was in the office with another employee. We heard a vehicle pull up and looked at each other in disbelief.
I stepped outside and watched what looked like a perfectly pleasant family step out of their SUV. From the looks of their small son I expected that they would want a pony ride around the yard and then be on their way.
They shook the snow off of their hats while I greeted them on the covered porch. I told them I’d be more than happy to put the boy up on our pony and lead him around.
“I am going to go on a trail ride!” the little boy declared.
I asked the boy’s age. His father piped up. “He’s six!”
Now, I know diddly squat about kids. But by this point I did know the average size of a six year old and that boy wasn’t even close.
I looked at the other employee and she shrugged. Six was the age limit to go out on the trail and we had been directed to always go with what the parents said. I felt like I had no choice. (Learn from my mistake. You ALWAYS have a choice.)
With doubt in my mind, I pulled out four horses. After I got the mom and dad mounted I loaded the boy on a good, solid buckskin paint gelding named Tex. Tex was a no nonsense kind of guy who would keep his place and march no matter what. Unlike our pony, Socks, who took great joy when an extra small rider could not offer him direction. Had I taken the very rotund pony I would have had to lead him and would have ended up playing a constant tug of war that was sure to roll the small child right out of the saddle. Tex at least was narrow, and the boy’s legs didn’t stick out straight to the sides.
We slowly and carefully headed out, the little boy behind me, then the mother, then the father. We wound through the one hour trail amazingly uneventfully. Snow fell on us the entire time. Luckily the horses knew where the slick patches of ice were. Whenever we came to a section of ice the horses would slow to a tiptoe. Tex would put his head down and single-foot ever so delicately, trying desperately to stay underneath the child.
Somehow, even as slow as we moved we managed to run just a little ahead of schedule. About five minutes from the barn I realized we were running fifteen minutes early. About the time I realized it, so did the father.
“Hey, we’re not back already are we? We still have fifteen minutes to go!”
“I know sir, but the rest of the trail is very iced over and there is a hill I’m afraid your son may not be safe going down.”
“He’ll be fine…(insert arrogant berating here).”
Now, this is where I should have said, “I understand your concern sir and it is your prerogative if you feel it is necessary to complain about me. However, that does not change the fact that the rest of the trail is too dangerous to take a child your son’s size on.”
That, or some form of that is what I would say if faced with the same situation today. And you know what? A formal complaint would have been totally worth it if it would have avoided what was about to happen.
I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I slapped a smile on my face and said, “Whatever you say sir!”
The mother puffed up with pride at her husband’s assertiveness. The babbling boy had no idea whether we were early, late, or right on time. He was just happy.
I turned my horse away from the direct route home and to a short extension trail. As the minutes ticked by I told myself it would probably be okay. The child had been grasping tightly to Tex’s saddle horn the entire time. As long as he held on that tightly going down the little, icy hill, he should be fine.
We were quickly at the top of the dreaded hill.
My horse put his front feet on the ice, then tucked his butt and slid down in one smooth motion. As I said, it wasn’t huge, maybe one whole stride, it was just solid ice. And, no matter how good a horse was, the angle of the hill, coupled with the ice made it impossible not to slide at least a little bit.
I turned to tell the boy to hold on tight and lean back.
Tex put his right front foot on the ice, and lifted his left front, ready to do the same smooth movement my horse had just done. Somewhere, somehow, while Tex’s left front was in the air, the boy slid off of Tex’s left side and underneath his neck. He ended up on the ground right as Tex put his left foot down. It landed squarely on the little boy’s chest.
Extremely surprised by what had just happened, the horse leaned back. Unfortunately, his hind feet were already on the edge of the ice so he began to slip. He slipped all the way down the little hill with his foot on the child’s chest. The child slid underneath him like a gruesome ski.
As soon as the horse found purchase he took his foot off of the boy. He stood to the side, shaking, with wide eyes.
The parents’ horses had no choice but to slide down the hill just like the two others had. By the time they got there I was off my horse and with the little boy. I had tied my reins to my horn and sent my horse in to signal for help.
Both parents were off of their horses in a heartbeat. The mother had her little boy in her arms. He was screaming bloody murder which I took to be a good thing. She was ghastly white. The other employee showed up almost immediately and we all walked back, the mother carrying her son. The father was silent.
We were only two or three minutes from the yard. There, we pleaded with the parents to let us call an ambulance. They didn’t want any part of it. It was incredible, but the boy seemed to be alright. They said they were going to take him directly to the hospital and have him checked out.
After they left it dawned on me they had never acted the least bit angry with me. I retold the story to my coworker, including the part where the father had demanded a longer ride. I wondered aloud that they hadn’t acted mad, and what’s more they had acted almost sheepish.
“Chris , that kid couldn’t have been more than four years old. They lied, then they pushed. You can feel guilty if you want, but you’ll never feel as guilty as they do.”
And it was left at that. We heard the next day that the parents had taken the boy to the hospital and other than a hoof print shaped bruise on his chest he was perfectly fine.
I’ve replayed that day in my head at least a million times over the years. I’ve had nightmares about it, I’ve picked it apart consciously and subconsciously. I’ve done everything I can to understand it.
This is what I’ve come up with:
The horse really didn’t make a “new” or sudden movement to unseat the child. The fall actually happened about two steps before I figured it would. There was no real reason for that child to fall off at that moment. Shit might just really happen.
That small child had the entire weight of a horse localized on his chest and sliding on him for around five feet. I don’t know how long it was time-wise but it’s safe to say it was long enough to cause some broken ribs, a collapsed lung, SOMETHING! Miracles might just happen too.
I’ll never forget the look on Tex’s face after he lifted his foot off of that boy. I don’t care what anyone says, that horse was scared and worried.
I might eventually let the guilt I feel toward that little boy go. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over the guilt I have deep inside myself for giving that good, solid horse that experience.
After that day I tried to avoid using Tex on my rides. It wasn’t long before he went away and another horse took his place. I don’t know if he is still around, but if he is, I hope he knows I’m sorry.