Horses - A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

The Open Gate

By Mike Davenport

It was the fall of 1962 and I was in Shilo, Manitoba having just completed my Canadian army recruit basic training, and was once again allowed to wear civilian clothes and had the freedom to leave the base. 

I had enlisted in the field artillery (Royal Canadian Horse Artillery) that had a long history of using horses, and somehow it seemed appropriate to go riding especially since horses had been a minor part of my life since I was a kid spending summers on an uncle’s farm. I saw them earning a living, pulling hay wagons, ploughing the garden, and in general, being a useful part of the farm structure. Horses were influential in teaching me how to swear. You see, Uncle Willy (now long deceased so he can neither deny or confirm this), would go into each box stall and harness both the mare and the gelding where they were secure and had limited room to move. The mare was no problem and allowed the harnessing to proceed without fuss. Not so the gelding. He would lean on my uncle pinning him to the wall, and this generated the flow of curses followed by a thump as he attempted to move some 1900 pounds of equine intractability. Perversely, after all this performance at each and every harnessing, the gelding would show up ready to work while the mare, who was docile during the harnessing would refuse to pull her weight.

Back at Shilo, a small group of like-minded individuals — how could any group of army recruits be anything but like-minded after six months of mind-altering military training - headed out for an evening at a nearby riding stable. There we arranged to go out for a couple of hours of trail riding on horses of our choice.

We were asked about our riding ability, and on the basis of a summer job at a similar stable in Ontario and having been around the previously mentioned horses on my uncle’s farm, I claimed a significantly superior skill and knowledge to that which actually existed, and thus was allowed to pick my own horse. I unwisely chose a particularly active gelding of about 16 hands and off we went.

My horse seemed a little hyper and it appeared that he wanted to be the leader, but I wasn’t up for that as I had no idea where we might be going. However, the longer I held him back the antsier he became, dancing and snorting, shaking his head, clearly wanting to run.

In a moment of complete over-confidence, I gave him his head. Predictably he bolted and as he had the bit in his teeth, I was just along for the ride. At least for a while. He ran, immediately forcing his way between the two riders ahead and in the process, knocked my feet clear from both stirrups and along with that went any semblance of control.

Photo: iStock/ArtPuppy

Somehow in the confusion, I bounced out of the Western saddle and ahead of the horn with its predictable assault upon my backside. His next couple of strides put me completely ahead of the saddle and now I found myself with both arms and legs wrapped around his neck, hanging on in total fear for my life.  As this epic progressed, I slid around his neck, now hanging upside down while being repeatedly kicked in the butt by his knees. Hanging on, desperately afraid of being trampled if I let go, we took the lead. To add to the spectacle, my wallet — a “trucker’s wallet” that I carried in a back pocket and connected to my belt by a chain — came out of my pocket and was swinging wildly back and forth, beating me repeatedly on both sides of my head.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, my entire weight dangling around his neck finally got to him and he slowed enough so that I could risk dropping off without getting trampled in the process.

Mercifully, I don’t recall the ride back to the stables but I’m certain that I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Clearly this was not a worthy demonstration of my self-declared equestrian skills, but one that has become more amusing with the passage of time.

Years went by and I got married and had children. If you have had girl children you understand that girls have an affinity for horses and daughters have a tendency of getting their way. One such daughter expressed a desire for a horse and in a moment of complete lunacy, I agreed and purchased a little Quarter Horse mare. She (the mare, not my daughter) was well trained and knew much more about what she was to do than either of us. One day I was exercising the mare in the ring and encouraged her to run, which she readily did. However, I made one small mistake as we approached the fence. I stood in the stirrups and leaned back — unknowingly giving her a command to stop. She did, dropping her butt, bracing her forelegs, and stopping on a dime. My butt then impacted the saddle and I swear that I heard as well as felt all the discs in my back collapse and the vertebrae crash together. It was a week before I again felt some semblance of normality. 

Some years later, in the dark of a Halloween night, horses came back into my life. I was awakened by a ruckus out front of our house in suburban Langley, BC. Expecting who-knows-what mayhem, I got dressed and went outside to see what was going on.

Not one but five horses were grazing on my front yard with the predictable negative impact on my lawn from their steel-shod hooves. They had been running loose on the main street until a couple of Good Samaritans driving by pushed them into our cul-de-sac to get them out of the traffic.

Several of my somewhat bemused neighbours were also milling around wondering what to do after having exhausted their abilities by calling 911. How did the horses get there in the first place? Well, it being Halloween, some idiot had thrown fire crackers into the herd’s pasture, causing them to stampede through a fence and down a busy road several miles to our house. Fortunately, none were injured by the fence or the traffic on the road.

While waiting for the cops to arrive, I decided that I would try and get this mob under some semblance of control and with enlightened self-interest (in order to minimise the damage to my lawn) I gathered up some scraps of rope from the garage and fashioned halters for all of these four-footed lawn wreckers. I had them gathered together and back on the street by the time a young constable showed up, and I offered control of them to her. But she was having none of it as her supervisor was enroute and well, let him look after them. 

He eventually arrived, a large-bearded sergeant wearing a blue turban and he was even less excited by the thoughts of being an urban cowboy than the constable. It seems that his south Asian ancestry gave him little affinity for horse wrangling. However, as some time had gone by since all of this began, I was getting tired and starting to lose patience with all involved, including myself. I reminded him of his forces’ heritage and the fact that his shoulder flash said – Royal Canadian Mounted Police — handed him the halter lines and went back to bed. My good deed for the day: done.

Now as most of you know, no good deed goes unpunished. 

My wife and I were out walking later one summer evening by a pasture containing two mares, each with a foal. We knew that they were there and my wife had prepared for this encounter with some carrots to offer over the fence. This type of offering apparently happened with some regularity, as all four quickly came to the fence-line for the treats. Each mare got one or two carrots from my wife while I watched from the sidelines. One of them, realizing that the treats were done, walked away. The other, clearly a “type A” beast, approached me as if demanding to know where my contribution was. When none was forthcoming, without warning she reached over the fence and bit my arm. This caused me to react, but she was too quick and I missed. I was wearing a light jacket and while it gave some protection, she still drew blood. The broken skin and bruising took over a week to heal.

There must be a greater lesson buried in all of these events that I apparently keep missing. I think that I’ve finally figured it out — by using “good old horse sense,” which is telling me to stop “horsing around,” I now can confirm the truth of Ian Fleming’s quote: “A horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.”

Main Photo: Shutterstock/Rita Kochmarjova