On the loose

Throughout both summers I’ve been at camp, the cry of, “loose horse” has gone up countless times. Sometimes, it’s said in an offhand manner, as the culprit is plodding along nosing around for food. On a few occasions, it’s been screamed in genuine fear, as said equine canters away, stirrups flying with the horse in a serious panic. Once, I’ve even sent it in a desperate Facebook message, and on another occasion, I’ve whispered it to myself at 6:45AM when en route to the bathroom for a shower. Those two stories are worth telling.

The Facebook message
I had to go back to the barn. I’d ignored my bladder all afternoon as I was incredibly busy, and I was sitting pretty uncomfortably in the dining hall at dinner with my close friend/colleague/roommate as a result. The toilets in the dining hall were, predictably, out of order.

We were due to go back to work after dinner to take some of our new horses out on a trail anyway, so I left a few minutes early and walked up to the barn alone. I glanced up the road at the barn as I walked and was a little surprised to see a horse out in the yard, but I assumed our boss was ahead of us and had taken a horse out of a stable to get it ready. When I rounded the bend and got to the track which leads to the barn, a horse trotted away from me up the trail. That’s when I paused for a split second, still just about within reach of the wifi signal to message my friend: “Loose horse. Come quick!”

And then I ran. As I pelted up the hill, eyes still on the disappearing horse, I made a very quick decision. I sprinted to the tack room and shoved my wellies back on (I almost always change into flip flops when leaving the barn, to give my feet a break), grabbed a lead rope and resumed running in pursuit of the horse.

I could see which one it was, and was even more worried – of the newcomers, he was easily the flightiest, and we’d had trouble catching him every time he went out in the field. He disappeared from view at one point, and I mentally crossed every available appendage that it was just because there’s a bend in the trail. It wasn’t. He’d headed up the trail as it cuts between the fields in which the horses spend their days. When he’d reached the corner of the night-time field, he’d cut through the dense wood to continue following the fence, rather than carrying on up the trail.

My heart was pounding, and rather than cut through the wood, I decided to run back to the barn and get our Gator, so that I could drive the short distance up to the road which borders the other side of the field. The horse was heading rapidly for the nearest Highway. At this point, I could see my friend on the trail behind me, and screamed at her to fill her in, “It’s Doc!”

Then I heard something I hadn’t listened to in a long time: the sound of panicked horseshoes on tarmac, followed by a truck horn blasting. I’d only heard the latter in movies and wanted to throw up, at the same time holding my breath as I waited for the surely-inevitable equine screams as the horse was hit by the vehicle.

Eva took a different course of action, leaping through the electric fence and running full tilt through the field to get to the horse. At this point, it all gets a bit blurry, as I missed the action. Our boss showed up and had no idea what was happening – we were all too far apart to talk about it.

I later found out that Eva had reached the escapee through the fence, only for him to stand on some barbed wire, scare himself, then get a shock to his neck from all three lines of electric fencing, which terrified him further. Shortly afterwards, we turned the electricity off and pulled the horse through. He was shaken but, incredibly, seemed to not be suffering from any serious injury. He’d sustained a small cut to his off hind thanks to the barbed wire, but it was only superficial. He was also sporting some very singed hair on his yellow dun neck thanks to the fence. We left him in the field, caught another horse who needed to go out and went on a very sombre trail ride. I spent a long time thanking my tiny bladder that evening.

The whisper to myself
Three weeks later, we received another delivery of horses. Among them were eight returnees and two first-timers, who were duly kept inside for a couple of nights as they got used to their new temporary home.

Eva, our boss and I take it in turns to feed the horses breakfast with the help of three other staff on a rota. We feed the horses at 7AM and, as I live within sight of the barn, my 6:30AM alarm allows me plenty of time to shower, dress and arrive on time. Eva was already out when I woke up – she and our boss have decided 6:15AM fitness classes are a fun idea – and I picked up my towel and began trudging the 20 steps to the bathroom. As I headed through the living room – without glasses or contacts – I glanced through the window to the barn, and that’s when I saw him.

“Loose horse,” I half-whispered, half-groaned to myself. Even with my glasses, I wouldn’t have figured out which of the two it was – they’re different heights and slightly different builds, but they’re the same colour and he was facing the wrong way for me to identify him based on the shape of his head.

As the horse was grazing happily, I contemplated for half a second the idea of showering and strolling over 15 minutes later at my usual time. Then I panicked. What if it wasn’t one of the newbies, but one of our many other chestnut horses, and that it’s because the fence has broken? I dropped my towel, threw the front door open and began to run.

Wearing pyjama shorts and flip flops, I legged it up the small hill and around the barn, until the horse saw me and I slowed down. I’ve never been so nervous catching a horse as I was that morning with my hair standing on end, and without the support of a bra or proper footwear. I also didn’t have a lead rope.

I decided to try and herd or follow the horse, slowly chasing him around the barn towards the yard. There, we played a short game of chicken around our tying up posts before I managed to usher him into the barn. The match wasn’t won, as our barn is open at both ends. He could’ve run straight through it, but he penned himself in by the gate of our indoor arena. I paused, letting him get comfortable, knowing I probably only had one chance to lean in and grab his headcollar if I wanted to return to the UK with all 10 of my toes.

I timed it right, getting hold of the headcollar – thankfully, all of our horses are turned out or stabled with them on. But it still wasn’t over: when he’d arrived, this horse had refused to enter the stable – I’d yet to see him walk happily into the small box without a lead rope around his hindquarters. I had to do it, though. The gate of the stable he’d previously occupied was off its hinges, so I made the quick decision to put him in the neighbouring double-sized box (which had been knocked through four years before when one of the mares we used to have dropped a surprise foal overnight). Using the enormous stable would hopefully save my toes.

It worked – I herded the horse in, made sure the gates were secure and dashed back to my bunk to shower, cursing our gates for failing us yet again. I may not be able to read a car’s number plate without my glasses, but it’s a good job I can spot a horse several hundred metres away having just woken up.

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