Shaggy pinto on the loose

Published 8:00 am Friday, November 24, 2023

“The lovely thing about later today,” I said to Diane, the masseuse, “is that I hardly have any barn chores to do when I get home. For once, my body gets a chance to stay relaxed the rest of the day.”

“That’s great,” she replied.

With Paul in New Zealand for the last leg of his garden tour, this pre-scheduled massage was on the books and he generously gave the appointment to me rather than cancel on Diane. It’s a rare treat and I looked forward to feeling like a noodle afterward, as I fed the horses and assorted critters before taking a hot soak with a good book.

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Tucking the horses in at 5:30 with extra hay and freshly picked stalls, I was locking the gaits around the barn perimeter when I spied a small red car come down the drive.

‘Who on earth is that?’ I said to no one in particular as it pulled right up to the barn. Walking over to meet it, the car door opened and a neighbor, Lucy, climbed out.

“Hey, Pam, are you missing a horse?”

That is one of the two most feared questions anyone can say to me. (The other is, “Can you run your card through the card reader one more time?”)

But at least I could reply with confidence. “No. All mine are right here.”

“Well, I just saw a loose horse in a hay field next to Highway 11 wearing a blue blanket,” she said with troubled eyes. “There’s no fence and I’m afraid it’s gonna get hit by a car.”

There went my hot soak and the rest of Barbra Streisand’s autobiography.

We wondered to whom it might belong and Lucy intended, bless her, to drive round the local farms to enquirer if anyone was missing a shaggy pinto precariously grazing next to a busy scenic highway. The light was fading and I grabbed my phone, a leather halter with lead rope and jumped in the truck, heading south.

Pulling to the side of the highway I killed the engine and squinted into the distance across the hayfield. I easily spotted the bright blue blanket in the headlights and carrying the halter behind me so he couldn’t see it (who would want to be caught when there was all this recently mowed orchard grass to crop?), began to walk across the field, calling out to him in a low, casual voice.

“Hey buddy, hello old man,” I greeted, and stood still each time I saw him display any trace of tension. I had a peppermint in my pocket and crinkled the cellophane tantalizingly. The sound of cellophane can raise a horse from the dead, the same way trying to quietly remove the plastic wrapper from a slice of cheese can be heard by dogs in Slovakia.

This ‘buddy’ wasn’t having it. When I was within 10 feet of him he suddenly pivoted on his hind legs and trotted away into the gathering dark towards the woods and pond.

“It’s not even my horse,” I implored the crescent moon. “All I want in the world is a hot bath. Why do I have to traipse across the countryside in the dark?”

I caught a glimpse of the horse, I thought, next to the tree line which led to a dam between a couple of ponds. That was my neighbor’s farm and it was appearing likely that this was where the horse was heading. Relief! I turned off the light on my phone so as not to startle him, and that job instead went to another neighbor who, at that very moment, turned on his leaf blower from atop his roof, clearing away leaves before the forecasted rain. Spooked, the horse clattered down his driveway and onto the road.

The best thing about living in the country is that most people have either handled livestock or have the sense not to try. Here came another neighbor in a truck, crawling along the road, headlights keeping our fugitive in view. The horse, it turned out, had indeed come from the farm I had hoped, and decided it now wanted to rejoin his friends. He trotted down the fence line, I strode after him, the plan now put into place to open the pasture gate and see if we could quietly herd him towards it.

Some beach…he’d turned right and cantered back over the dam towards 50 acres of hayfield again.

The light from another cellphone on the other side of the dam reflected off the blue blanket—he was caught, or at least his blanket was being held by another neighbor who held his phone at the same time.

“Got a halter?” I asked, approaching slowly.

“No, I’m just trying to hold him by the blanket.”

“Let me try to pass you mine,” I said, moving inch by inch. Again, the horse whirled and ran back across the dam. But this time, success! His path blocked, he saw the open gate and willingly dashed through it.

It’s a funny thing…even with the dismay of shattered plans, there was still much to enjoy. As dark as it was, that slice of moon gave off a surprising amount of mottled light through the clouds. It reflected off the pond and I chose it, over the light from my phone, to lead my steps. With the exception of the distant hum of traffic on 11 everything was as still as a snow-clad landscape. In a few moments, I would be retracing my steps across the open field until I came to my truck which, I hoped, was still waiting along the side of the highway. This was an opportunity to be a part of the other world that exists after sundown. Perhaps I’d glimpse a fox, or a herd of deer cautiously stepping out of the woods. If nothing else, it was quite magical simply walking across unfamiliar territory in the moonlight.

And then a brood of ducks alarmed by my presence on the dam, honking in a panic, suddenly flapped furiously to become airborne with alacrity. I jumped out of my skin, cursed loudly and fell into the branches of a pine that broke my fall into a briar patch.

I hate horses.