It is around this time of year when more horse lovers come back out into the weather to travel and explore with their equine friends, and in honor of that I am writing this post about the time my friend and I found ourselves stuck in the woods when a ride took too long to complete.
I grew up learning to ride horses, and went on to get my own (Skeeter) when I had severe depression. He and I were too close for it to be described. We were riding around the neighborhood when I met my friend, T, who needed a companion to ride with since she was still gaining confidence and wanted to learn the area better. For years we rode together; up and down mountains, swimming in creeks and rivers, exploring trails long overgrown in the woods – things to be thankful we spent time building trust doing before we became stranded.
Just like any other ride, we left with the sun high in the sky, saddlebags full of snacks, water bottles, first aid supplies and our phones. Her horse was not up to the ride that day, so she borrowed one of mine (Reno) who I had used to train many beginner riders before then, but he was still capable of riding on advanced trails when asked to.
I knew this trail. It was the first one I had ever ridden since moving to Tennessee, and I had ridden it start to finish and back again; in the winter, fall, spring, and summer; on four of my horses and a neighbor’s horse. I knew this trail. It’s called “Mayham,” annually used in part of off-road vehicle races, and on horseback it takes two to three hours to cross. No problem when you leave early in the day, right?
T and Reno seemed to get along well, and quickly her confidence came out upon adjusting to his easy pace and familiar riding grounds. However, somewhere around half way through our trip both horses began to slow down and become unnerved. Normally they plodded along half asleep, but now their heads were held high as they looked back and forth through the trees and flared their nostrils, sniffing the air deeply until we rounded a corner to find something surprising. In the middle of our path sat a truck, burned to it’s shell. We could still smell it, I can’t imagine what the horses could smell. It was obvious this truck was not some wrecked off-roader – it was an older flatbed, sitting calmly in the middle of the trail, miles from where vehicles could safely travel.
The horses refused to pass it no matter how much we kicked them forward, instead, trying to turn around and hurry back the way we had just come. It got to the point that we lead them past the truck ourselves, cautious of how tense they were in case they suddenly jumped sideways or off the trail entirely. Once on the other side, and back in our saddles, we focused on finishing the ride without anymore unusual finds and taking things slow until our mounts calmed back down. And then the thing I never expected to see happened: Reno lost his cool. His eyes rolled into his head, his mouth opened wide with spit flying out, and he bolted down the trail ahead of Skeeter and I with no sign of stopping.
Poor T! She, much like myself, had been sure he would treat her like he had so many other riders: calm and steady. This was a horse that had been with me in parades, walking through traffic, stood in rapids, seen wild wolves and bears, and survived a vicious dog attack without being phased – and now he was running from something in a panic about …well we didn’t know. Eventually I realized he was not going to stop, and we were getting off the trail, so I told T she was going to have to jump off. She did, and stood with Skeeter while I ran up to Reno who had gotten blocked by some trees further ahead. He was pouring sweat and between wide-eyed glances behind us, he would kick out at the air. I checked his saddle, I looked for cuts, or even a wasp that could have gotten him – nothing.
Now T and I were both as nervous as the horses. We know they can see, hear, and smell far more than we do out there. Who or what was behind us? But there was no escaping. By the time I had caught up to my runaways, gotten back on the trail, and walked as far as we could in the remaining daylight, we had reached where the trail narrows between cliffs and vertical caves. I don’t know about you, but I am not riding through an area like that in the dark with nervous animals.
I got my phone out and called my family, and T called hers to update them. We told them we were okay, we were towards the end of Mayham, but it was too dangerous to ride down in the dark so we were going to sit right there. Then I called the emergency line, and told them the same thing. To save our batteries, the operator only called us back to tell us when the search and rescue team had reached the mountain we were on and to make sure we were still okay. And we only called him to update him when things got scary (as if sitting in the dark in the woods on a mountain with wild predators would ever be enough for us!). The horses had spent the time dozing off while standing over us, occasionally leaning down to nuzzle our cheeks to be comforting when we were getting too emotional about the situation between jokes and stories, but now they were standing tall and staring into the darkness, sniffing the air again.
The operator was less than thrilled to hear our update was not that we had been found after hours of the initial report, but rather that we could hear men on the ridge above us, see lantern light up there, and occasional gunfire. It was not any sort of hunting season – anyone who who was up there firing guns at night was not a good guy. I hung up to get rid of the phone light, and we stood petting the horses to keep them quiet until the other people seemed to move on. It was the longest part of the night, to be honest.
Around 2:00AM, the S&R team found us. We were relived to see them, our horses, not so much. By now I’m sure Skeeter and Reno thought anyone else up there was bad news, and they were quick to puff up and step between the team members and ourselves, staring intently at them and snapping their teeth at them when they tried to let them sniff their hands. No one was upset with them, thankfully, we all knew they were just trying to protect us, and we began to follow the trail by spotlight the short distance down to the end of the trail. Still, looking side to side and seeing the cliffs and wide cave mouths was intimidating when it was in your head that you could have blindly walked right off the edge anytime earlier in any attempt to escape the mountain’s night.
When we reached the road, the S&R team immediately had to leave and go back into the mountain on yet another call of someone stranded up there, and T and I were tackled into a crushing hug by her mother who had parked alongside our rescuers and waited all that time for us.
The next time we rode up there, however early we left, we took a tent and spotlights just in case.