Two years ago, Gus and I competed in the Extreme Cowboy Association National Championship, and I wrote about it here, because it was the offseason, and cowboy racing sounds cool anyhow. Well, a few things have happened since then, and I thought maybe you would like to hear of them.
Last June, our horses were selected by Magen Warlick, one of the top cowboy racers in the world, to be used by top international riders during the World Finals in Glen Rose, TX. In return for their use, they would get a month of training in obstacle racing by none other than Magen herself. We jumped on this opportunity like it was a mud puddle next to a cute girl.
On Top of the World
My wife Teresa’s little guy Toy (Reys Kual Toy, all them fancy bred horses have to have fancy bred names, you know) was ridden by Hall of Fame racer Ashir Kol from Israel in the futurity, a class just for young horses who have never been raced before. Ashir and Toy finished seventh in the world! It was the first time an international rider had competed in the futurity, and not only that, he was top three going into the finals. Our little guy that we trained here at home, was one of the top cowboy racing horses in the world! It was an amazing time. People came up to Teresa in the concession line offering eye-popping sums of money for him; it was heady stuff.
My guy Gus (who also has a fancy name: Chip Im Hot) was ridden to a top ten finish in the International class. Teresa’s main horse Chevy was ridden by a young woman from Australia who is a prominent advocate for Autism Awareness. We have adopted Chloe, when she’s in the States we are now her “Texas parents”. You should check out her website, she’s an amazing young woman.
The Lowest of Lows
Riding the high of this amazing experience back to North Carolina, at about 5:30pm on November 12 we were abruptly brought back to gritty reality. Caught in stop-and-go traffic on the outskirts of Atlanta, we were sitting there waiting to start moving once again, just like we had patiently been doing for the last twenty miles. Suddenly my wife glanced in her side mirror and started screaming.
I looked in my side mirror and watched helplessly as a semi truck barreled towards us, no brakes on, no nothing. We had nowhere to go. There was just enough time to brace before the semi, moving at about 60mph, shoved a cube van carrying a load of acetylene and oxygen bottles into the back of our horse trailer. The force to the collision snapped the hitch off the front of the trailer, and sent us off into the adjacent lanes of traffic like a pool ball. Another semi hit the front of our Avalanche and sent it spinning back towards the center divider.
Teresa was screaming hysterically but was trapped in the passenger seat. I made certain that there was no blood, told her to stay in the truck, and ran back across the interstate to the horses.
It wasn’t a pretty sight. Chevy was in the front stall, pinned aqainst the tack room wall by Gus, who had somehow been flipped in the air over the stall divider and was now straddling it. Toy was pinned between the cab of the van in the back, the side of the trailer on the right, and the rear tack room wall, which had buckled underneath him so he was caught in a wedge from three sides.
Everyone was kicking and screaming, but these were obstacle racing horses, who had extensive training on how to be cool under pressure and to trust us. I stuck my head in the trailer, snapped my fingers and strongly stated “Quit!” They just stopped, looked at me, and waited for me to tell them what to do.
Although I am a veteran with a 20 year career in nuclear submarines with the attendant experience in casualty response, this was just a bit overwhelming. It took a few short breaths to figure out what to do next. Obviously, the doors in the back were not an option. Thankfully, our trailer was equipped with a full size escape door up front. Conveniently, there was a bunch of pry bars scattered on the ground from the back of the cube van. It was about this time that some fireman came up and flippantly asked, “So, are we putting them down, or what?”
Are we putting them down.
When we got him, Gus could barely even stand. I had spent EIGHT FREAKIN MONTHS doing rehab exercises three times a day with him just so he could WALK. Teresa raised Toy from a Foal. Chevy had just helped an autistic woman achieve her life’s dream. There was $100,000 in horses there!
Put. Them. Down. Or What.
When I retired from the Navy, I left it behind. But just for a moment, I put my military face back on, and told him bluntly exactly what I thought of his statement. Then I told him detail what I was going to do, and what he was going to do, and where he was going to do it. I won’t be typing it here, this is a family site. He gulped and left. Then I grabbed a prybar and started jimmying open the escape door.
Once I got the escape door open, we were in business. I could get Chevy out, and figure out how to get Gus unhung from the divider. Of course, the EMT’s and firemen were hamstrung by procedure, and couldn’t get anywhere near the trailer because there were a bunch of loose acetylene bottles in the cube part of the cube van, and there was a semi truck parked inside the van’s doors so they couldn’t be assessed or neutralized. Thank God for the good Samaritans around me.
A young man came and asked, “How can I help?” I told him I needed to get the divider out from under Gus, but it was wedged into the opposite wall. Lo and behold, he replies, “Hang on, I have a battery powered sawzall. I’ll be right back!” I lifted on the divider, he cut the hinges off, and now Gus was free.
By this time, the Fire Chief realized that I wasn’t going away, and he was going to have to get involved. He came to see what else was needed. Toy, though, wasn’t going to be any easy piece of cake. His hind legs were trapped, and there was no getting to them from inside the trailer. The Chief looked at him and me for a second, scratched his head, and said, “Looks like we’re going to have to get out the Jaws, aren’t we? I’ll get HERO out here and clear those bottles so we can get him out.”
Thankfully, a voice of reason. It’s been well over an hour at this point, and Toy is starting to get a little shocky. I very politely and very carefully let them know that we were okay, but time was starting to be a factor. He appreciated my level tone and got right on the radio. Half an hour later, they were set up and ready to go. It was the matter of a minute, and the entire side of the trailer was pulled away from Toy. Hallelujah! Even after all this, he waited for me to beckon him forward, and carefully stepped out of the trailer.
The Path Forward
My horses are alive, and free! In the middle of the interstate. Three hours from home. My trailer is an accordion, has a van parked inside of it, and has been cut to pieces. My wife is still in the Avalanche, which is being winched onto the rollback. The driver of the van was unharmed other than his knuckles from punching out a side window to get out of the van, and the truck driver was also unhurt, although he was absolutely sick about what had happened. He held the horses while I worked on Toy.
I made a cryptic “Hit by a truck. Horses hurt. Need help” post on Facebook. In no time flat, there was a pickup and trailer on the way to Atlanta from Hickory, and a total stranger who was local to the area hooked up and came to the accident site. At 8pm Animal Control eventually brought a horse trailer down to get the horses off the interstate. I was quite worried about them loading on a trailer, after all, the last experience hadn’t been very positive. But I’m serious, I just lifted my hand, pointed, clucked, and they stepped up into that trailer like it was just another day.
Now the Real Work Begins
I was prevailed upon to take the horses to the University of Georgia Equine Hospital. I eventually capitulated and said let’s go. After all, there was a lot of blood. It was 45 minutes to UGA, and I spend it on the phone getting someone to find Teresa (who was still with the truck putting herself back together. I wasn’t going to allow her around the horses until she was calm), getting my rescue ride redirected to Athens, getting the insurance claim going, and letting myself fall apart for just a second before I had to put it all back together again.
There will be no pictures of the injuries, quite simply, they’re too graphic and extensive to show. The photos from two weeks later were covered up by Facebook. It was pretty bad. But the UGA Equine Facility was Ah-May-Zing. Amazing. It was like a real hospital, but for horses. Incredible. They had three doctors assessing them, communicating with us, and complimenting how well behaved our horses were. UGA was super professional and extremely proficient. They rapidly determined that all the most concerning areas like joint capsules and load bearing bones were all miraculously intact. But the soft tissue injuries were severe and extensive. Toy had to stay at the hospital for five days before they would release them, and only because one of our dear friends had volunteered her long term rehab facility for us. I would never cheer for an SEC team, but I might donate a sizeable amount of money to that hospital.
Toy spent two months in a rehabilitation with our guardian angel and good friend Kaycee MacGibbon, who spent about four hours each day undressing, scrubbing and redressing his wounds. He was finally cleared to ride in March, and it was a glorious victory for Teresa to step into that saddle again.
Gus got to go home from the hospital the next morning, but he actually took longer to rehab than Toy, due to taking a shot to the knee that was difficult to see around all the other bruising and lacerations. We got to do all our leg rehab all over again. I probably know more about horse yoga than I do about human yoga. Gus and I have been together for four years, and some days if feels like we’ve spent more days doing rehab than riding.
Chevy was really only bruised, but has never been quite the same since. He seemed to just lose a step, and doesn’t bounce back from work like he used to. The trauma evinced itself differently with him. We think his cowboy racing days might be over, although he’s still an incredible trail buddy and calf sorting machine.
The humans were another story. It has been emotionally difficult to to pull horses on trips again. We had to find new vehicles, new trailers, fix damaged saddles, replace lost tack. Teresa is still struggling, although she has started counseling. We absolutely cannot sit beside a semi with her in the truck. And I miss my old trailer. It was perfect, and I’ll never find another like it. You wouldn’t think something so relatively small in scope compared to real traumatic events would affect us so deeply, but it has.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
It is truly a miracle that all three horse survived, and furthermore, recovered back to fighting form. Teresa and I were completely uninjured physically. The cuts from punching out the van window were the only human injury. The truck driver wasn’t asleep or drunk, just distracted, and incredibly remorseful. It is difficult to bear him any ill will. The cowboy racing community banded together and helped us with appointments, with vet bills until the insurance companies came through, and with supplies and medicines. It was staggering, the level of support and encouragement we experienced. I don’t want to push my convictions on anyone, but I truly believe the only way we came out of this experience like we did was the hand of God. Take it for what you will.
Things have changed for me and Gus on the obstacle course too. There’s no holding back, life is too short! This year, instead of being second to last like we were two years ago, Gus and I finished third nationally in Novice, are the Intermediate Division Regional and National Reserve Champions, and are eighth in the world overall!
Teresa and Toy resumed racing halfway through the season, and have been breathing down my neck at every race. It’s been a long road down and back. We are triumphantly returning to the World Finals in Texas this November, proudly sporting our scars.
We might go around Atlanta to get there, though.