Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Queenie and the Highway 5 Incident

courtesy of

Q: “Do you work on horses, too?”
A: “No, ma’am, I don’t.”
It’s a question I get asked frequently by clients when they meet me for the first time. The next couple of blogs will tell the stories that could be considered stepping stones on my path to writing horses off as a species I would deal with professionally:
When I was a kid, I would go to my grandparents’ house every summer for a week or so.  My brother and I would spend time with them, and usually my cousins as well, in one of the most rural settings Alabama has to offer. Through my young eyes, it was a magical time. The days were filled with exploring the woods, fishing, fireworks, shuffleboard at the community club, and swimming.  And then there was the horse.
Her name was Queenie, and her expressionless brown eyes hid the cold flames of her hatred for children.
I’ll spare you the details of the times that she would step on my bare feet and attempt to grind me into the ground (“I’m sure she didn’t mean to!”, the adults would say.  Riiiight.) No, we’ll go straight into The Highway 5 Incident.  I was about 7 years old at the time.
My grandfather wanted all of us grandkids to grow up riding horses.  I never had the desire, really, but was cajoled into riding double behind an older cousin.  I knew that my grandfather had been riding Queenie to keep her used to the concept and this made me a little more comfortable.  Before I agreed to get on, I watched my cousin ride her solo.
So, what could go wrong?  Almost everything.
My cousin and I together probably weighed about 150 lbs., which was far less than what Queenie was used to when she carried my granddad.  As my grandfather let go the reins and turned control over to my cousin, things were going well.  The plan was to take a slow ride down the roadside in front of the house, on the flat packed surface made from dirt and gravel from the nearby Cahaba River.
The “slow ride” portion lasted for about 10 seconds. That’s when the “hang-on-for-dear-life” part began.
Queenie picked up speed, first getting up to a trot, then deciding to go faster. As my adult family members watched us speed away, my cousin tried to regain control with what appeared to be a pretty fair level of skill for someone about 10 years old. It may have actually been desperation seasoned with a little bit of panic, but from my vantage point, it looked like skill. These are the kinds of observations one makes when one is a second grader on the back of a horse that has just decided to go off the reservation.
[I was probably suffering from what a psychologist would call a case of Normalcy Bias, or maybe just Denial.  My child’s mind was trying to convince me that everything was going to go back to normal, and everything was going to be just fine. Well, it wasn’t.]
 After about 100 yards, Queenie put on the brakes, and then reared up. This threw my cousin off… which was trouble for me in two ways.  First, it meant that there was nobody was holding the reins.  Second, as you will remember, she had been sitting in front of me.  When she fell off, she went backwards. This knocked me flat on my back while still sitting on the horse.  I was gripping with my legs, unable to sit back up.  Queenie had started trotting again, heading away from my Grandparents’ house and toward the biggest local road- Highway 5. I was still onboard, and with each stride she took, my back slapped against the top of her rump while I held a death grip with my legs.
Even as I struggled to get upright, I knew that it was never going to happen.  I was getting jostled too hard to ever overcome it.  It was at this moment that I accepted my fate.
 It had been a short life, but a good one, I said to myself. Then, I released my grip on Queenie’s flanks and waited for whatever would happen next.
I discovered that freefall is an interesting, peaceful sensation in the few heartbeats it took for me to reach the ground. I hit flat on my back, which knocked the wind out of me. Normally, this would have been a bad thing, but I was so grateful to be off the horse that I simply didn’t care. Slamming into hard-packed river gravel never felt so good.
My only worry at this point was that Queenie was going to double back to try to finish the job she had started- maybe stomping me into paste while I struggled to get up - but she didn’t. She did, however, make it to Highway 5 before my grandfather could catch her and get her back to the barn.
So, my cousin and I survived. I’ll never forget what my uncle (a towering, mischievous, mustachioed man) said to me later. As we sat on the front porch of my grandparents’ house, he barely hid a smile. “You mean to tell me you just let go? Why didn’t you hold on? It seemed like you had things under control to me.”
Later, I wondered why Queenie chose the course of action she did that day. She had never thrown anyone off before. The only conclusion I could come to is that she had been biding her time, waiting for an opportunity to eliminate two kids at once. Despite the fact that she tried to end me, I had to admire her cunning and patience in the pursuit of her targets.
More horse stories next time-