Close Call for Peanuts - My pony and I learned about quicksand the hard way.
Close Call for Peanuts
Sometimes life events suggest Nature sets traps to cull the unwary. Or maybe she just has a dark sense of humour. I don’t know.
The year I was fifteen, our family moved to Southern Alberta to a grazing reserve that was sixty-two sections (square miles) in size. The South Saskatchewan River cut across the bottom portion leaving fifty-seven sections of natural prairie to the north which boasted one lonely old tree smack in the middle. That tree was safe. It served as a landmark in the featureless gentle undulations of prairie.
It was love at first sight. The openness and the badlands that bordered the river were utterly captivating. A job that would’ve taken three-days of digging cattle out of the bush now took three hours. There was no more rising at three o’clock in the morning to ride to a distant herd of cattle so you could move them before the day got too hot, no danger of being impaled on a hidden branch, and no slogging through insect-infested swamps to retrieve recalcitrant animals. All you had to do was look and there they were! And I believe I was the sole person in Southern Alberta who loved the near-constant wind as it blew the mosquitoes and hornets away. I was in heaven!
I was so enamoured of the beauty, I almost forgot that Nature is not gentle and kind. She allows and befriends the vigilant but can be brutal and ruthless with the unwary and uninformed. Those who disagree have never lived in her backyard.
I can almost hear her chortling as she set her traps.
One morning soon after arrival at my new home, I put a bridle on Peanuts and leaped astride bareback. At fifteen, I still liked to ride in shorts and bare feet. He was big enough and I small enough that I could ride him in comfort. We were headed to explore the badlands along the river and maybe find a few fossils.
Before long we arrived at a sunbaked narrow canyon. The base was broad and smooth and it had a gentle slope. Perfect! This looked like a good place to cover some ground so I urged Peanuts into a lope. No badger holes, no rocks, no abrupt drop-offs, no place for rattlesnakes to hide.
I should’ve suspected a trap.
We’d gotten to the centre of the flat area when Peanuts stumbled, righted himself then stumbled again. I was about to pull him to a stop so I could figure out the problem when his front end crashed to the ground.
I rolled and skidded along the hard-baked surface until I came to a confused halt. I was flat on my belly and couldn’t for the life of me see what’d happened to Peanuts’ front legs. They were gone! His head and part of his neck was stretched along the surface, his hind legs buckling.
With mounting horror, I crawled to my friend and gagged at the rotten stench that emerged. Thick, oozing mud was half-way up his shoulder.
Nature gave me some fast instruction – a little too late. I learned there were bogs and quicksand in the badlands. And it might cost Peanuts his life. I’d experienced bogs in my previous home but who in their right mind would expect a swamp in the middle of a desert? I certainly didn’t! But there it was, hidden beneath an innocent-looking sun-baked surface. Nature’s school was in session.
Still on my belly, I scanned the area. A cattle trail meandered along beside the flat area through the rocks. Spiky, dark-green horse-tail-like grass poked up through the baked surface along the edge.
I hadn’t noticed Nature’s clues. If the flat had been safe, the animals would’ve had a trail through the middle of it. Later observation taught me that the spiky, jointed grass-like plants only and always grew at the edges of these bogs. But that didn’t help me at the moment.
I jerked my attention back to my sinking horse. Even though he struggled, his front legs were in too deep. He couldn’t get the leverage to escape.
If I ran for help, he’d be gone before I could get back. My only tool was his bridle and I couldn’t lift him.
As a Canadian, I’ve had experience with ice and knew enough to keep my weight evenly distributed on a thin surface so I spread-eagled myself and listened for signs of cracking. If I fell through the surface too, neither of us would survive. We’d disappear into the wilderness with no trace except for a rapidly-baking surface.
I expected I’d survive if I skidded on my belly to the cattle trail but Peanuts would not. How on earth was I going to get him out?
My brain raced until an image of my father laying a horse on the ground came to me. If I could shift his weight onto his side, Peanuts might be able to fight his front legs free. Then maybe I could skid him if I could get him to push against the bridle – something he’d been trained never to do. It was a long-shot but all I had.
Perhaps I should explain what I had in mind. A very good horseman can gently lay a horse on its side using only a bridle. The process involves the horseman standing to one side with a rein on each side of the horse’s neck as if you were riding him. Feathering the touch, the horseman tucks the horse’s head around to the far side while keeping the animal from moving forward by careful checking of the near line. As the horse is restricted from moving forward and his head is turned to the opposite shoulder, the weight transfer goes onto the near foreleg. After a few minutes, the knee buckles and the horse falls gently onto its side. You keep him prone by holding the nose up on the far side. This procedure is painless and without trauma to the horse. It can be used if you are alone, far from home, and need to attend to an injured mount.
I’d never done it.
Knowing a trapped horse will not struggle for long, I had to move fast. I needed him to fight . . . and I had to avoid the same trap while I rescued him. Broken chunks of the surface showed me it was three inches thick – at least where we were. I’d assume it was the same all over and it seemed to be holding me. But if my plan worked, my weight would more than double as he jerked me against the surface.
Having considered the dangers, I set them aside and focused on my plan – something I knew was a long shot. But I wasn’t ready to watch my friend die.
I skidded as close as I dared to the open hole, flipped a rein over his head to the far side then crept as far as I could to the side, talking to him all the while to keep him calm until I was ready for him to fight. I didn’t want his struggles to pull him deeper. I was grateful that the bridle I used came from an old set of harness so the reins were made of thick leather and were extra-long. I’d need every inch.
The sweat that poured down my back and into my eyes wasn’t just from the blistering sun.
Praying I could do it right, I tugged his nose away from me. Was there enough room? His chin was on the ground. I didn’t want him to fight until I had his nose where I wanted it. Too soon and he’d sink further. I kept an eye out for new cracks in the surface – especially those that might form around me. If my weight caused the surface to crack, I wouldn’t be able to leverage him when he started to fight.
Since he was well-trained, he followed the pressure on the rein and turned his head away from me. It was half-way to where I wanted it when he panicked, thrashing and heaving against the thick, putrid trap and against the bridle.
Praying I didn’t overestimate the strength of the surface, I spun around onto my butt, pressed my feet against his rump, lay on my back, and pulled with every ounce of strength I had, hoping that, in his panic, he’d push against the bridle hard enough to shift his weight towards me and onto his side. If the surface held (and I wasn’t confident it would) he might be able to extract his feet from the bottomless hole. If I could get his front feet free, maybe I could skid him across the surface as he fought.
But I had to keep him on his side to spread his weight. If the surface was too thin, he’d just enlarge the previous hole and go down again . . . and I’d be out of options.
It’s amazing how strong you can be when you need it. My bare feet against his rump, I looped my hands in the reins (a no-no), lay flat on my back, and pulled as hard as I could. Thrashing wildly, Peanuts slammed into the bit which I held as steady as I could.
A few eternal seconds later, I heard sucking sounds and the reins loosened. He was pulling his front legs free! As he shifted onto his side, I skidded backwards to try to keep the pressure up so he had something to push against – but I wasn’t very heavy.
With a dizzying sense of relief, I saw his front legs were now over the hole, dripping slime into it and he was flat on his side. Exactly what I’d been trying to do.
But . . . If I let him up from this position, he’d fall back into the hole. How was I going to get him skidded at least a couple of feet towards me? His hind end hadn’t broken through the surface yet so maybe it was stronger than I thought. My weight hadn’t caused any cracking either – but ninety pounds wasn’t much.
I kept his nose high to keep him from struggling to his feet while I considered options. I couldn’t keep him immobile forever.
I could see only one choice. I skidded to the ends of the reins, moved again to press my feet against his rump. Then I yelled and kicked at him with my bare feet, encouraging him to fight even though I was keeping him from getting up. Must’ve been confusing for him.
Knowing I wanted something but no doubt having no clue what it was, Peanuts struggled. Using his rump as leverage, I was able to skid his front end a few inches at a time.
I had to let him get up. But he was so close to the hole . . . Would he plunge back into it? Would the surface hold? Would his hind end fall into the morass inches away?
Half his body was covered in black slime. His beautiful fluffy white mane hung in thick, stinking strings.
When I thought he was as far as he was going to get while on his side, I took a deep breath, checked once again for cracking of the surface beneath me, and released his head enough for him to get to his feet. I kept a tight hold on the near rein to keep him away from the hole until the instant he was up. Then I released all pressure, hoping he’d move straight ahead.
The surface held. Only a couple of feet from the putrid hole myself, I skittered on hands and feet like a monkey as far away from Peanuts as I could get in order to spread our combined weight on the fragile surface. Having been well trained never to drop the reins, I still kept control of him and ensured he walked slowly until we reached the rocky trail. I’m not sure I took a breath until we were at the top of a low ridge.
Remembering to check for rattlesnakes (a new danger of which I’d been warned), I sank onto an ancient rock. A warm breeze cooled my body as I stroked Peanuts and apologized for getting him into such a predicament.
The wind was parched so the muck on Peanuts soon dried and I scraped it off with a sharp rock. After casting a final look at the putrid hole behind us and filing away the new information, I re-mounted and we continued our exploration of the badlands. After all, it was a beautiful day and my friend was safe.