[Christine] Brave horses, quick thinking riders, and a storm for the ages—this episode of Barn Stories has it all. If you’ve ever set out for a relaxing trail ride that turned out to be anything but, you’ll be able to relate.
[Laurie] Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I’m Laurie Prinz, editor EQUUS magazine.
[Christine] And I’m managing editor, Christine Barakat.
[Laurie] This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.
[Christine] We’ve searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you’re new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share.
[Laurie] This episode of Barn Stories is a wild ride…literally. A group of friends sets out for what is supposed to be relaxing ride, only to have a sudden storm throw challenge after challenge in their path. Even though I already knew the ending to the story—having edited it for our print magazine years ago—I found myself on the edge of my seat while listening.
[Christine] I love how this story highlights the horses’ contribution to the effort. A saavy trail rider can come up with a plan to get out of a sticky situation, but it’s a horse who ultimately has to make it happen. The equine hero in this story is a Percheron named Charlie who rose to the occasion. I think we’ve all known a horse like Charlie and appreciate their skills more than the skills of any fancy show horse
[Laurie] Let’s hear it for Charlie, and all the other brave horses and riders featured in this story, “Skirting Disaster,” written by Shelby Weeks and read by Taylor Autumn.
[Taylor Autumn, story reader] On a lovely spring day not long ago, my friends and I prepared for a special trail outing. We would be traveling a seven-mile path adjacent to an abandoned railroad bed that had once linked two small towns. For this one day, the trail was open to horses by special permission. “Bring a friend,” I was told, so I stretched my invitation to include foxhunting friends Sunny and Rachel and Rachel’s 9-year-old daughter, Lucy.
Rain had been predicted, but when we pulled into the meeting place, the clouds had thinned and the sun was shining. Most of the riders took their trailers to the other end of the trail and carpooled back to the start. My friends and I decided to ride the trail both ways, so while the others were moving their trailers, we got a head start on the ride.
Rachel and Lucy rode Arabian geldings. Sunny’s mount was Joe, a young Appaloosa gelding. I brought my snow white Percheron, Charlie. At 2,100 pounds and 18.2 hands, Charlie is hard to miss. He is also a safe, reliable campaigner.
The deputy sheriff occasionally borrows him for crowd control. He pulls a carriage for tourists and has earned ribbons in local shows. I even use him for foxhunting.
Today Charlie would serve as the reassuring lead horse. And sure enough, he performed his magic when we came to a wooden bridge over the stream at the edge of town. The sound of rushing water below gave the other horses pause, but as Charlie plodded ahead unperturbed, all followed. Soon the trail swept through newly seeded fields. Nothing more than an occasional low branch blocked our way, and all was well.
Engrossed in conversation, we meandered along, enjoying the woods and the views of the countryside. When we reached the three-mile mark, we set off at a brisk trot, Charlie still leading. The Percheron’s experience in harness has taught him to keep exactly to the middle of any trail or track, and he trots so steadily that his rider can enjoy the scenery knowing he won’t swerve or miss a step.
So it came as a shock that nearly sent me out of my saddle when Charlie abruptly stopped. With less than a mile to go, a huge fallen tree blocked the trail. We could go around-a narrow path led down a steep hill, off the rail bed, into a creek, then back up-but it would be difficult for a draft horse to negotiate. Also, as Rachel pointed out, our trailers were back at the start so wouldn’t it make more sense to just turn back now?
It did, and we turned around.
After a few miles, we encountered the main group of riders, most of whom were wearing slickers. “You’re riding into the rain,” they told us. We explained that we had little choice but to continue in that direction. Once we’d passed the other riders, Sunny suggested that we trot. At that gait, it would take us only 45 minutes to get back. We picked up the pace.
As with all storms, it began with a drop. Then another. A bit of thunder rumbled in the distance. “It will go south of us,” Sunny predicted. “We’ll get back before the worst of it,” Rachel said. Lucy had the good sense to just look worried as her Arabian delicately picked his way around muddy spots that were quickly becoming puddles.
The rain became heavy. Lightning cracked overhead. Thunder boomed, echoing around us. Undaunted, we sang every rain-song we knew-Singin’ in the Rain, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, Riders on the Storm.
Our situation became less amusing when the rain began to fall so heavily that I couldn’t see Charlie’s ears. After a crash of thunder, the rain started to blow sideways. The drops became needles, buffeting us as if trying to force us off the trail. Branches broke overhead, crashing into the woods nearby.
As a former Master of Foxhounds, I’d had ample experience with problems on the hunt field, but I’d never seen weather like this. I tried to think of everything I could do. We had cell phones, but who would we call that could get to us? There were no farm buildings or other structures that offered shelter anywhere in sight. We were in a wooded area-would we be safer in the fields? An answer to that question came when a bolt of lightning struck the plowed ground nearby.
The best plan seemed to be to get back to the trailers as quickly as possible. But I knew Charlie couldn’t canter that far. I called over my shoulder for Sunny, Rachel and Lucy to pass me and canter back to the parking lot as quickly as they could.
“We can’t cross the bridge without Charlie!” Rachel shouted back over the din. She was right. So we trotted on together through the downpour.
The wind truly began to howl and the cracking of the branches became more frequent. Then, very slowly, a tree blew over right in front of us. It didn’t crash; it just fell with a sigh. The broken stump rested at the edge of the trail. It was the lowest part of the tree, maybe 18 inches high. The branches held the rest of the trunk up, so that at the other side of the trail, it was a solid three feet off the ground.
The horses halted. Charlie and I led the way, popping over the lower end of the downed trunk. Rachel and Lucy dismounted and led their geldings across. Although it was a big step, neither horse hesitated. However, Joe would not follow. Again and again, he lifted his foot, touched the trunk and stopped and backed up.
Sunny dismounted and tried to lead Joe across, but still he refused. She kept trying different approaches and techniques but the young gelding would not budge. We were less than a mile from the trailers, but now that seemed like an impossible distance.
For a moment we just looked at each other as the rain fell around us. Then I remembered something from the hunt field: Every now and then during the chase, a horse will see a shadow and think it is a ditch or log and jump it. Horses nearby will do the same thing-they jump for no reason other than that’s what their companion did. Perhaps Joe would follow suit.
Lucy walked the other horses away from the tree, while Sunny took Joe back down the trail. I led Charlie back over the log and rode to where Sunny waited. I took her horse’s reins over his head, and Sunny moved off to wait with Rachel near the log.
“We’re only going to get one chance at this,” I told the others. I asked Charlie to walk, then to trot. Joe immediately fell into step with us. Briskly we trotted toward the tree.
Charlie broke into a canter. I looked straight ahead over the log and felt Charlie collect and lift. “Now!” I said. Rachel and Sunny clapped their hands and shouted. Joe jumped cleanly right beside Charlie, who took the three-foot-high log dead-on with inches to spare.
The soaked reins slipped from my grasp, but Lucy neatly scooped them up as the Appaloosa stopped beside the Arabians. Then we suddenly realized that the rain had all but stopped.
The rest of our ride went uneventfully. We sat very straight and, in our best riding-school form, rode into the sparkling, sun-drenched parking lot, exhausted but relieved.
It wasn’t until the following day that we learned the whole story of our adventure: While we were out on the trail a tornado had flattened a barn less than a mile south of where we had been trapped by the fallen tree.
Then the winds had blown an SUV into the path of a semi on the highway two miles to the north. Three people had been killed. The tornado had touched down, lifted, passed right over us, then touched down again. We were very, very lucky indeed.
[Christine] Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you’d like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at [email protected]
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The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network.