What Would You Have Done?
The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner and each year, I look at my life and think back on the events in it. Whatever memory pops randomly into my head I replay and relive the experiences. Sometimes I did sensible things and had a good outcome. Of course, other times, I did brash, stupid things that left me wondering what the hell I had been thinking - pretty much like a normal person. The events of this day that resurfaced from my memory has me wondering which category it falls into. Both?
During the mid 1970s, I had finished high school and embarked on my college career at Kentucky Wesleyan College, in Owensboro, Kentucky. My family was still in northwest Ohio so driving home was not a big deal. I’d head north, toward Cincinnati, and cross the Ohio River there.
Just before getting to the bridge, I had to drive down this very long, steep, hillside section of the freeway that took me right past Fort Knox, Kentucky. Knowing that a massive amount of gold was sitting in vaults down a side road from the freeway was always a kick for me.
Heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday, in my little red Gremlin, I started down that long, steep drop towards the river and immediately felt wind buffeting me about as I drove over the rise. Up ahead, large trucks were slowing down to a crawl and inched over to the far right lane in order to maximize their safety.
DIrectly in front of me, about halfway down the hill, a pickup truck towing a large horse trailer started to weave badly. I could see the brake lights come on as the driver fought to control the vehicle, but it was too late. It fishtailed one more time then, flipped over.
I could not believe what I was seeing. The trailer, securely hitched to the truck, flipped it as well. It was happening right in front of me, no other cars were between us. I jammed my foot hard on the brake pedal trying to avoid a collision with this whirling cudgel that could easily smash my little car to bits.
The trailer and truck rolled over several times, but I don’t know how many because I became transfixed at the sight of a huge red and white cow flying out of the deteriorating trailer. The animal, a Hereford, was full grown and must have weighed easily over 1000 pounds. It hit the pavement hard, bounced up then rolled over and over across the highway, bellowing loudly.
People were slamming on their brakes, skidding right and left on the steep grade, trying to avoid hitting that cow, then another cow and then a horse that were also ejected at this high rate of speed.. The truck and trailer, now on its side, had finally stopped spinning and skidded down the road, with sparks flying madly, thrown about by the harsh winds buffeting us.
I slammed my brakes on and bolted out of my car as soon as we both had stopped. People were stopping their vehicles all over the highway, helping to gather up the animals that had been sent spinning across the road. This was years before the miracle of cell phones, so, a few people sprinted back to their cars and drove to the nearest exit, looking for a phone to call the Highway Patrol for help.
The truck had been driven by a husband and wife who were on their way home from a demonstration they had done earlier in the day, showing off their cutting horses. These horses were trained to separate one cow from a herd and were able to move it wherever the rider wanted it to be. They are extremely nimble creatures and pop rapidly back and forth, keeping the cow away from the herd all the while driving it in the direction needed.
When I got to these people the husband was hurt. It looked like a broken arm and maybe some ribs. Other drivers also on the scene helped pull him from the smashed truck. His wife was in better shape, but not by much. Her right eye was already swelling shut and a large bruise and lump were forming across her forehead. She was extremely pale and shaking badly.
I asked her how she was doing and she mumbled something like “I think I’m OK”. When people are not sure at first if they have been hurt or not, it can often mean that they are. Unsteady on her feet, she walked up the hill, past the now ruined trailer, towards the animals that people were holding at the side of the road. The cows had rope halters on and the horse was still wearing its saddle and bridle, so it was not too difficult holding on to them.
I was grateful when I saw them there, that none of them had broken a leg. That would have been really bad. There were some cuts that dripped blood, and, clearly, they were banged up some, but for as violent as their ejection from the trailer had been, they did not seem to be hurt too badly.
“Oh no,” the woman moaned.
I tried to reassure her that their animals were not hurt more badly.
“You don’t understand,” she continued, “one is still in the trailer.”
A few people standing nearby heard her as well and we all looked toward the smashed wreck. The trailer had been big enough to hold 4 horses. It had a metal frame and bottom to it, so it was safe for highway travel, but the sides were just wood. Having flipped over so many times and now laying on its side, it was almost completely flat. The people near us and I looked at each other, sadly shaking our heads and murmuring about how this horse had died such a horrible death. None of us could make eye contact with the woman.
She moved toward the trailer and looked inside through the narrow gap created at the back end.
“He’s there, he’s right in there!”
We went over to her and sure enough, we could see a large shape inside but it was too dark to make out whether the animal was ok and what its orientation was. She called out his name. We were stunned when the trailer shuddered a bit as the large horse tried to get up, but it was seriously stuck.
“Oh my God!” one of the people said as they pointed to the side of the trailer.
This horse had been wearing its saddle and bridle like the other one which went flying across the highway. We could clearly see the saddle horn had been punched through the wooden side of the trailer. If this horse was OK, it was badly trapped and making its situation worse by pushing hard against the wall of the trailer that had him pinned, making sure the saddle horn was fixed tightly
The woman, still calling to the horse, using a soothing tone to keep him calm, ducked down and tried to crawl through the narrow gap to enter the flattened trailer. One of the people standing with us pulled her back, advising her to wait for the Highway Patrol because she was too hurt to try to inch her way in there. I moved up beside her and crouched down to peer inside.
I could see the horse, looking back at us. He was actually down on his knees, trying to push himself up with his back legs. He looked at the woman talking to him, who was doing her best to keep him calm. He was clearly confused and possibly fearful from what was happening to him.
The Highway Patrol had not arrived yet, and the trailer shuddered again. He wasn’t in a panic and remarkably enough was staying pretty calm, but, I had been around horses enough all my life to know that if they did start to panic, their movements could become wild and erratic. This horse would probably kill itself or at the very least, break its front legs and need to be put down if it tried to fight its way out of there.
Looking back on what was happening, even after all of these years, I still don’t know what prompted me to do what I did. Maybe my instincts were telling me time was running out for this trapped horse.
I got down on my hands and knees then quickly scrambled inside next to the horse. He was all of the way to the front of the trailer, tied to an eyebolt. A halter with a lead rope had been slipped on over his bridle.
When I got up next to him I spoke as calmly as I could, trying to keep him from panicking. Hopefully, just seeing that someone had come in there to help him might keep him quiet. He nickered when I approached, which was a good sign, but I could see white ringing his eyes. He was afraid, but not enough yet, to start thrashing about.
The first thing I did was release him from that eyebolt and held the lead firmly in my hand. He tried to turn to come towards me but was held fast by the saddle horn. I freed his head first because I had seen too many horses tied up that panicked and fought violently to get loose and usually broke the lead, or halter, or even smash apart whatever they were tied too. These are large, powerful animals and when they let loose with all of that muscle and fear, kicking and screaming, anyone or anything near them bears the brunt of all that force.
Seeing that I had the lead I was hoping he would trust me while I did the next maneuver which was much trickier. His right side was facing me, and, the saddle was cinched up on his left side. I moved slowly towards him and stroked his neck while I pushed my way between the wooden side of the collapsed trailer and his saddle.
I could feel him moving beneath me, trying to push himself upright again. This squashed me against the wooden slats and I felt a brief bolt of fright rush through my own body. For a moment I wondered who would panic first, myself or this horse. The woman outside spoke up more loudly, doing her best to keep his focus on her, and to remain calm. I had to act quickly.
I found the stirrup and side of the saddle which I lifted up to feel for the cinch. Thankfully it was not twisted and although a bit tight because of the awkward position the horse was in, I felt like I could loosen it enough to undo. Because the trailer was flattened so much, even more so at the entrance, very little light could get in. I had to do all of this by touch.
The cinch on a Western-style saddle, which this was, is fastened to a metal ring by a flat length of leather. The strap is slipped through the ring then snaked around itself and the loose end pulled securely through the loop much like someone would tie a tie.
Still balancing myself on his back I worked the strap until it was loose then pulled the knot apart. The back cinch was easier to find with my fingers because it does not have pieces of the saddle overlapping it.
As soon as both cinches fell away, I started to back out of the trailer with the lead rope still in my hand. The horse, sensing it was free, turned slightly and started to follow me. I didn’t want to waste any time at all. Gotta get going!
"Come on buddy. Let's go. Your fans are waiting for you."
People outside gathered together and helped to push up the wooden side of the trailer widening the entrance a bit more. I was backing out so I could keep my eye on the horse, talking to him the whole time to keep him steady and quiet. Unbelievably, he stayed down on his knees and kept his back legs bent as he crawled out much like a puppy dog. I’ve never seen a horse do anything like that before, and still, when I remember seeing that in my mind’s eye, I am still so astounded that he didn’t try to stand and fight to get out. He just crawled along after me, a few inches at a time.
Collectively, we exhaled deeply as he slid out then got to his feet. We were all holding our breath, terrified this was going to go south really fast, but it didn’t. He shook himself and looked calmly about as if this sort of thing happened all of the time and was no big deal.
Shortly after that, the Highway Patrol arrived along with an ambulance to take the people to the hospital. The animals were quickly whisked away in a trailer borrowed from a nearby farmer who made arrangements to care for them and get a vet out to see about their injuries. For as bad as this accident started out to be, it ended incredibly well.
Driving away from the accident, the seriousness of what had happened caught up with me when I was about halfway through Cincinnati so I exited at the next ramp and found a quiet place to park until the shakes stopped. We were all so lucky to have escaped serious injury or death. I don’t know why I crawled into that smashed trailer to free the horse but felt certain that if I had stopped to think about it and weigh the possible consequences I probably wouldn’t have done it. Sometimes when we see a person or animal in a bad situation we just react and do so quickly without thinking about it. Just go...do...and consider the ramifications later.
I am very thankful everyone came away from that horrible accident in relatively good shape and as I replay the events of that day through my thoughts again, I do believe, I would certainly do it again or...hope someone would do that for me if I was in a similar situation..
I have to believe they would.