Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Armadillo Incident - Tamsen Valoir

Armadillo Incident, by Tamsen Valoir

This year's Armadillo ride on October 22 was blessed with gorgeous weather - intensely blue skies and crisp cool autumn air. I was riding DJB Silver Sam - the new Arab I had purchased from Daroyln Butler last October. We were already 10 miles into the first loop and the pace was incredible! I had never ridden him so fast, even in training. I bought Sam because he was a lazy Arab. He was always happy to walk and I had never seen him hurry anywhere, including the 5 or 6 prior rides I had ridden on him. But at Armadillo he was pulling and pretty much setting his own pace, right up there with the front runners. He didn't seem to be working too hard though, and although I wasn't sure the rider could keep it up, I had no doubt that the horse could.

Finally, a group of women pulled over to continue at a slightly slower pace, and I gratefully pulled in behind them. We were nearing the end of the 16 mile loop and stopped to water at Snake Pond. Our first location had a very shallow bank, but on the edge there was little water, only mud, so I suggested that we might have better luck around the side of the pond, where the bank was steeper, but there was water all the way to the edge.

I urged Sam towards the water and he put his front feet in, sniffed the water, but refused to drink. Instead of backing out, he surged forward, and immediately sunk deep into mud and began thrashing and flailing to get free. I fell off onto the shore, quickly set my glasses to the side and went back into the pond to pull him out.

His rein had gotten trapped under one leg, but I snapped the quick-release and pulled it free and then urged him to come out of the pond. He struggled, but was unable to get free and remained quietly stuck, shoulder deep. Another rider, John Ticer, jumped into the pond to drive him out. Sam tried again, but was unable to get any support, and again subsided back into the mud. Yet another rider, Robert Merris, took the reins and the two of them tried to push and pull him out, but although Sam was right on the edge, he couldn't get any support or balance, and to my horror he rolled right over Robert!

Robert insisted he wasn't hurt, but that could have been the adrenalin talking. John told me to get the halter off his horse Toby. It was a sturdy leather halter and he planned to use it to help pull Sam out. As I took off the halter, Jennifer Funk said "it will take a helicopter to get him out!" I looked at her askance, horrified by the thought. Then Jennifer offered John her rope reins. She took off her bridle, using Toby's rein around her horse's neck to hold him, passed her horse to me and took the rope to Robert. While they were arranging the rope and halter, John held Sam's head out of the water - Sam was rapidly tiring of the struggle and would have drowned without John's help.

Meanwhile, Toby began surging down the trail away from camp! I tried desperately to hold the two horses, but with just the rein around Dante's neck, I couldn't succeed, and Toby and Dante eventually pulled free and ran down the trail. Events were rapidly spiraling out of control...

John and Robert tried again and with the added leverage were able to get Sam's front feet on the shore. After another brief rest, they tried again - John driving Sam from the back, and Robert pulling from a safe distance on the rope. Finally Sam broke free and climbed the two foot embankment to solid ground, while Robert fell off the berm on the other side, laughing.

John hugged me - I was clearly traumatized, and told me "Sam is stressed. Take him back to camp." Meanwhile, John and Jennifer headed out to look for their horses.

I tried walking slowly back to camp, but Sam was still keen on racing and was dragging me along the trail, so I climbed back on and made him walk or slow trot the rest of the way. I was teary, and cried anew every time I thought of those two lost horses. It was all my fault!

When I got back to camp, my friend Cindy Kovalchuk was there to greet me, but she should have been on trail! She said her horse Rhett just didn't feel right, so she had pulled out at 5 miles. She asked how I had done, and I immediately burst into sobs, unable to catch my breath even tell her what had happened. As I choked out the story, she shepherded Sam and I through the vet check and Sam got straight A's!

The vet, Denise Easterling, grabbed me by the shoulder and said "Look at me! Take a deep breath." I shuddered some air into my lungs, and she said "Not like that. Breathe deep!" I did a few deep breathes and it helped to calm me. I was still pretty shook up though, and determined to pull from the ride, but everyone said I could certainly do another 10, and not to decide until after my 50 minute hold, and I reluctantly agreed.

I changed my clothes while Cindy got Sam fed and watered. As we sat at our folding table eating some lunch, I told Cindy I couldn't finish the race. "There are two lost horses out there because of me - I can't finish this race, the guilt won't let me." Cindy understands guilt, and immediately gave in. "Come on," she said, "Lets go up to the front and see what we can do to help."

We told the ride secretary Linda Parrish that I was pulling and decided what we should do was go look for the two horses, although the chances of us finding them in 160,000 acres of East Texas woodlands was close to nil. Still, I would feel better if we at least tried.

Just then an ambulance and fire truck sirened into camp. A rider was down past Snake Pond - the same pond I had bogged down in. Bo Parrish, ride manager, climbed in to see if he could direct the ambulance to where the rider was down.

Cindy and I set out up the pink trail in the reverse direction we had run it in the morning. Sam was not in racing mode anymore - he had stiffened up during his hold and was moving only with reluctance. But Rhett was feeling fine and we slow-trotted up the trail. It wasn't too long before we saw John and Jennifer riding towards us. "You found them," we exclaimed excitedly!

But it was not to be. Jennifer was riding John's wife's horse - also a bit off and not racing today - and John was the guy who had found the downed rider and called 911. Now he was riding her horse back to camp! (We later found out that this horse threw John twice - John was definitely the superhero today, and was rewarded with a rescue prize and standing ovation at the awards meeting). John did find Toby's bridle, however, so at least the lost horses were free of entangling reins.

We set off up the trail again, listening to a helicopter zoom in. Obviously the ambulance had not been able to travel on the narrow, soft sand trails through the woods, and they had sent in a helicopter to recover the rider. We later discovered that the rider was Connie Owens, Jennifer's friend, and although she had hurt her shoulder, she would be okay.

We passed the pond and came to a dirt road. We checked about a hundred yards in each direction on the road, but there were no tracks, so we crossed and continued up the trail. The pink trail took a hard turn to the left, but a well packed, truck track continued straight ahead, and was clearly the path of least resistance. There was also a single set of hoof prints heading straight up the road!

We slowed to a walk, studying the ground, and about a hundred yards up - a second set of prints! Now we knew we were on the right track. The horses were off-trail, which is why no other riders had seen them!

Unfortunately, the truck track dead-ended after only 1/4 to 1/2 of a mile and in front of us were three barely visible and unused trails. We chose the central track and proceeded slowly, looking for hoof prints. But the trail was soft sand and covered with leaves and pine needles, and although we thought we saw the occasional disturbance, the sand would not hold a footprint.

Eventually we came to a fork in the trail, and without any clues, took the path straight ahead. But we eventually became discouraged, and I said "Lets go back and check out the left trail, I'm not seeing anything here."

We retraced our steps, but the left trail wasn't a trail at all, just a small clearing, and the right trail was the same. Cindy said "Let's try the central track again," so we set off again. This time we tried the right trail at the fork, and about one hundred yards in, I saw the long swamp grass pointing, as though a pig or deer - or horse - had recently walked through it.

We proceeded slowly. I studied the ground, and Cindy searched through the woods for the horses. Suddenly her heart leapt into her throat. "Is that them? It is! It is them!" We had found the lost horses!

We called John and his wife Suzie to let them know where we were, and then I dismounted, pulled my cowboy hat low over my eyes and gradually meandered towards the horses. After a couple of tries, I caught and haltered Dante and then Toby was willing to allow himself to be caught.

I led them both back up the trail, but missed the turnoff and eventually ended up back on the pink trail. We knew if we kept following it to the left we would eventually get back to the road though. True to form, Toby was pulling me down the trail. I held onto his saddle, but I could barely keep up. After about a mile of this I was starting to sweat!

We watered the horses at a safe pond - they were extremely thirsty. Cindy said "Why don't you ride? We can pony these horses." "Well I'm not sure we can pony Toby..." But we did, and sure enough Toby continued to lead the way, ponying Rhett and Cindy instead of the other way around.

Eventually we got back to the road and met the four runner, driven by Suzie. John and Jennifer gratefully took their horses and ran back to camp, while Cindy and I proceeded at a much more moderate pace. We were so proud of ourselves! I may have lost those horses, but finding them again took away that horrible sick feeling in my stomach. It was a good ride after all and we were both satisfied!

Back in camp we told our stories again and again, hugged, cried, and thanked everyone again. Thank you to all the riders who stopped and waiting for the situation to stabilize before continuing their ride. Thanks to Robert who risked his own life helping Sam. Thanks to John who stayed calm, saved Sam, and then rescued Connie Owens and her horse too! Thanks to Jennifer for the use of her rope reins and for not hollering at me for losing her horse. Thanks the Denise for her calmness and wisdom, and finally big thanks to Cindy, without whom I could not have held it together, nor found the lost horses.

I trained for endurance from 1992 to 1999, and have been racing ever since. I have never in all that time had a dangerous incident, and it really shook my confidence. But as Alfred said to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, "Why do we fall down sir? So we can learn to get back up."

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