I was working at my desk, actually having a good and productive morning, when my concentration was broken by the sound of thundering hooves. I looked up in time to see two horses—my two horses—gallop past my office window. They went by so fast that what I saw was a frozen image of one horse gathered, all four hooves under her, the gelding stretched out, one front leg far out in front, tail up, mane flying, and then they were gone. There are a lot of places on the property where the horses are free to go; past my office window is not one of them, but there was that instant when I sat there with my mouth open as my brain tried to comprehend the incomprehensible, to explain away the inexplicable, even as I told myself, Get moving, dummy; you’ve got a problem.
It turned out a Close Relative by Marriage had absentmindedly left a gate open. No big deal. These things happen. Throw a halter on them, bring them back, put them in a pasture. There are five pastures on our place, and the whole property, twenty acres, is fenced on three sides. We didn’t bother to fence the fourth side because it is pretty much damn near vertical and studded with boulders that make fencing an interesting logistical and engineering feat; there’s nothing up there for a long, long distance that needs to be kept out; and no horse in his right mind would ever go up there anyway. So of course both horses flew straight up the mountain as if packs of wolves were after them.
By the time I got my hat on and two halters from the barn, the horses had stopped for a snack in the corner of the property where my fence ends. My immediate neighbor on the south side also has horses, and the logical equine thing for my two was to trot back down along the fence line for a little coffee-klatch, some gossip, some kvetching about the quality of the last load of hay, the unseasonably cool weather, the decidedly un-horse-like nature of all those white wooly things guarded by dogs a mile or so away near the hardtop, and why the white wooly things smell so funny and make such odd noises, all the weighty issues horses deal with.
My Close Relative by Marriage decided to go latch the front gate to the property while I began to climb up the hill in a large semi-circle to encourage the horses’ natural instinct for gossip with their own kind. My horses must have extremely high IQs because they watched me, sniggering a little, and when I got about two hundred yards away they trotted farther up the hill.
I stopped. This was beginning to have all the earmarks of a long day.
I decided to continue moving up, parallel to my friends, but before I could make any headway they turned and trotted due south to a dirt road that winds its way up the end of the mountain. They paused, looked back at me and sniggered some more, then trotted briskly up the road and out of sight.
The late Roger Ott was a famous horse trainer in our neck of the woods. He was part Cherokee, and he told me once that in the old days, when Indians in the desert southwest needed to catch horses out of a wild herd, they would post squaws at all the waterholes, and the youngest and fittest braves would chase the horses in relays. As the horses got more and more tired and thirsty, they would gravitate to the waterholes, where the squaws would drive them away. After a while, when the horses were exhausted and desperate for water, a brave could walk up with a water bag, pour a little water in his hand and let the horse smell it, and then the brave would simply walk back to his village and the horse would follow. This ingenious strategy popped into my mind and so, simultaneously, did all the reasons it wouldn’t work for me:
I don’t live in the desert and while I have no idea where all the waterholes are in my neck of the woods, I know there are a lot of them. I don’t have a tribe’s worth of squaws to post at those waterholes; the only squaw I had was at that moment half a mile away checking our front gate. I don’t have a tribe’s worth of fit young braves to help me run relays. And I am not a fit young brave; I am a middle-aged man with an artificial knee, arthritis, and a magazine deadline. I made my way over to the road and began to follow tracks.
The horses had trotted up the road for about a quarter of a mile. Then they evidently decided to go visit another neighbor who lives up there, because their tracks went down his driveway. This neighbor runs a small business on his place, and what happened next, in sequence, was as follows:
As I walked past the back of his house, his wife scared the hell out of me by popping out unexpectedly with a bag of carrots in her hand. “Here. These might help bring them in.”
Another hundred yards and there was my neighbor, pointing toward the end of the ridge where the land drops down into another part of the valley. “I sent [one of his employees] after them to keep an eye on them.”
Another hundred yards or so and there was the employee, pointing across a draw. “They’re heading down toward the kennels.”
One of several dog-rescue kennels in our area is on that side of the mountain, and my two horses were trotting happily down to, I assume, pick out a new family pet. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, the dogs were caught off-guard and reacted as dogs do when suddenly confronted by two strange horses on their (the dogs’) property, and the sight of twenty or twenty-five dogs roaring and hurling themselves at their fences proved too much for my adventurers. They flew back across the draw, past me, and past the helpful employee.
My Close Relative by Marriage had by this time driven around the end of the hill and up the dirt road and was there to help. As the horses ran toward her, she quickly opened one of my neighbor’s gates and both horses flew into the safety of the pasture. We gave them some carrots, got the halters on them, and I began the hike home. As I passed my neighbor’s house, his wife popped out again and I returned what was left of the carrots, thanking her profusely and asking her to pass my appreciation on to all involved. She laughed and waved her hand dismissively.
“Don’t mention it. That’s what neighbors are for.”