This story is by daughter Melanie, featuring the mare Jimmie and an accident on the range this summer.
We carry firearms on the range for a few reasons, but one of the most important is a situation where an animal has been severely injured to the point where treatment would be futile, and subjection to further suffering would be inhumane. My heart pounded and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. This couldn’t be the first time the story ended like this, I thought.
It was early September, and we had just trailed the cattle down from subalpine meadows in the Middle Fork of Hat Creek to the edge of low sagebrush country. We were bringing them home, and this was the first leg of the journey. We set up a makeshift one-night cow camp there on the banks of Big Hat Creek, right alongside the jack fence border of an exclosure put in years ago to protect the riparian area.
The way back to the ranch from the range involves a stretch of highway followed by a few miles of country backroads like this one. When we walk the cattle home, we have “flaggers” slowing traffic while our cattle go through to prevent accidents. Runaway horses in the dead of night, however, wouldn’t be spotted by a driver on the highway until it was too late.
I was nervous about the horses as night approached. Roxy and Jolene mostly. If the string somehow got out in the night, those two wise old mares would decisively take the road home off the range and lead the rest along. They knew the way, even in pitch black. The problem with the way home was that there was a short but necessary stint on the highway. Navigated in the dark, the scenario of an unsuspecting motorist connecting with a dark colored horse during the night was terrifying to even consider. So, I decided to put the electric fence horse pen inside the exclosure, situated between the hard fence and the creek.
This proved to be more of an undertaking than initially anticipated. With no opening in the fence next to camp, we had to take the horses a few at a time about a third of a mile downstream to the nearest gate, then back up to their pen. While everyone else constructed camp, three of us schlepped the twenty horses through the gate and thickets along the creek. It took us three trips, a couple of pissing matches between mares, and a mashed toe or two leading horses in the dark, but the job was eventually done. We would sleep a lot better with the horses confined; even if they did escape their night pen, the exclosure boundary would stop further travel.
Here’s a photo from that evening of the spot Melanie describes here. The hard fence here circles about 3/4 of a mile of this stream (this is called an “exclosure” and is put in by the BLM). The horses know that this road on the right leads back to the home ranch (with a dangerous stretch on the highway). Melanie was concerned that if the horses got out of their temporary electric fence enclosure (you can see the electric fence on the left side) in the night, they would run home and hit the highway. So she and the crew built the horse pen where you see it inside the fenced exclosure here. That way, even if they got out, they’d have the hard fence stopping them from continuing home.
The next morning, after breakfast and a start at packing up camp, it was time to saddle. I then remembered a pole gate adjacent to the cattle guard where the road wound through the exclosure upsteam. It was a shorter walk to bring the horses around that way, so we decided to catch a few of them and bait the remainder with some grain. It would be easy, we thought.
Jolene had other plans. Right as we were about to pass through the pole gate, she took off. Weirdly, she ran haphazardly upstream, away from home and back the way we had come the day before. Not sure if the pole gate on the other side of the exclosure was closed, I took off after her and several followers on foot, trying to beat them to the next cattle guard. I hoarsely shouted after Jolene, attempting to get her attention while running along behind her on the road. Luckily the gate was closed, and I managed to get the bunch turned around. They took off in the opposite direction, and I shouted again, this time at my fellow crew members who I thought remained by the pole gate we initially tried to funnel the horses through.
Most of the crew had gone back to camp, though. Annie and Montana tried to stop the running horses, but they just couldn’t get there fast enough. The frontrunners missed the pole gate entirely and bailed over the cattle guard, clearing the metal bars and landing on the other side. But the sweet and inquisitive Jimmie hesitated at the edge of the obstacle, and it was her downfall.
Cattle guards like the one pictured above are a fixture on many rangelands. They allow cars to pass over without requiring anyone to open a gate. Cattle, however, won’t cross cattle guards, so it keeps cattle in while letting cars through. Those metal bars, however, are the perfect size for a horse hoof to get stuck in. There’s usually a gate next to the cattle guard. In the case of the one on the range that day, it was a “pole gate” (you slide poles aside to open it). However, the open gate was obscured by brush and not very visible to runaway horses.
I ran up, too late to do anything to stop her big feet from wedging into the grates, right hind leg twisted over left front leg in a heinous configuration. I felt sick; this was my fault somehow. A different decision, maybe, and this wouldn’t have happened. I brought myself back to reality; there was no time for the blame game. Sensing that something terrible had happened, a bunch of the crew had run up from camp. Linnaea and Annie immediately got a halter on the red dun mare and began to quietly pet on her, Maddy and Josh secured her free hind foot with a soft rope, and Montana steadied her along her spine to keep her upright.
We knew that the clock was ticking. If Jimmie panicked and struggled, her twisted hind fetlock could implode into a mess of broken bones and torn ligaments and tendons. As far as we knew, the damage had already been done. But we had to try.
Jed and I got to work, but the task of freeing hind foot proved impossible. Wedged over her front, the hind foot simply could not be manipulated into freedom on our brute strength alone. We struggled there for what seemed an eternity, our fingers hopelessly grasping at the edges of hoof. I sat back in defeat, mind racing. “Jed, can you pull that shoe?” Jed understood immediately, and jumped up to his feet and took off down the road to retrieve tools for the job.
We waited there breathlessly for him to return. Jimmie stayed quiet, which was unbelievable to me. Horses are prey animals, and they fear situations where they are rendered immovable, unable to flee from a potential predator. Most horses would fight blindly to escape given this predicament, even to their own detriment. Jimmie was different. It was almost as if she knew we were trying to help her, and she trusted us to do so.
Photo of Jimmie from earlier that summer.
I leapt back into action when Jed came back, tools in hand. Steadying foot with the tips of my fingers, arm deep in the cattleguard, I tried to provide enough opposition for Jed to cut off tips of nails and then work the shoe free from hoof wall. Forearms and hands shaking and sweat dripping from our foreheads, Jed finally wrested the shoe, detached from Jimmie’s hoof, up out of the metal bars. Then he went to work with the rasp, indiscriminately removing as much hoof wall near the heel as he could physically reach. We tried a few times to pull hoof free as he went, doubt growing in my mind that this would even work as blood- Jimmie’s or mine, I wasn’t sure- dripped between my fingers.
Suddenly, Jimmie’s hind leg was extricated from its prison. We all held our breath. Surely, she would sense more freedom and begin to struggle. We weren’t out of the woods yet; a fight from her would still prove disastrous as her front leg remained deep in the cattleguard. But Jimmie remained still, her labored breathing the only sign of fear from her. Linnaea and Annie continued to sooth her as Jed and I went back to work on the front foot. I expected another fight between us and cattleguard, but we were able to twist the limb slightly and the hoof came up out from between the grates all at once as we fell back. Then, working all together, we slid the mare off the metal and out of danger on solid ground. Her breathing calmed and we stroked her neck quietly. The next few moments would be a determining factor.
While a broken leg on the ranch still may have a slight prognosis for healing with veterinary intervention, there is no way to get a horse with this type of injury off the mountain without putting them through incredible suffering. We always know that putting an animal down might be necessary to end their suffering. We’ve never had to make that gut-wrenching decision for a horse, and only once have we done it on the range with a cow dying of pneumonia that had progressed despite repeated efforts at treatment. It’s the right thing to do if the animal is in immense pain with no hope for recovery, but it is a terrible decision to make.
I looked at Jimmie resting upright on the ground, legs folded underneath her. We all knew the dangers when horses and cattleguards mix, but we were in the wrong place at the wrong time that day, and this accident was so seemingly avoidable and senseless. This couldn’t be the end.
The sweet mare Jimmie just a few months after she was started.
Jimmie is not a mustang, but she spent the first few years of her life running like a wild horse across the range allotment adjacent to ours. When we bought her from a neighbor, she was untouched. From the very first time I roped her and began to establish a connection with her, she just wanted to be a friend. That never changed. She’s always tried so hard to do right for us, carrying us miles and miles across the range, working tirelessly every day we rode her amidst dust and rain, pounding rocks and busting through brush with grit few horses could match. Yet this is how we repay her?
Jimmie was part of a group of “feral” horses that we purchased in a batch two years ago. They’d all spend their lives running on the range (this is them soon after they arrived–you can see they’re a dirty and bedraggled bunch. None of them were comfortable with letting a human within 20 feet of them, so grooming wasn’t really an option when they first came).
Jimmie just after we got her. Even before Melanie started her, she was naturally inquisitive and interested in people despite her fear of us.
If she could stand up on four legs, she would have by now, I thought. Surely her hind fetlock, so impossibly twisted a few minutes ago, was damaged beyond repair. Joints weren’t supposed to bend like that.
But then, she took a deep breath and heaved up to her feet. She stood with that hind leg cocked for a minute as we watched with wordless trepidation, then took a step forward and stood squarely, weighting each hoof. Her head then went down, and she nibbled at some nearby grass growing stubbornly on the edge of the trail. I don’t know that I have felt such relief before, and we all shared that moment with a collective sigh.
While she didn’t walk off perfectly (and who would have expected a different outcome?), she put weight on all four feet. We led her slowly back down to camp, where I carefully inspected her legs for cuts. I thought I would find deep lacerations, but instead there were a few little knicks here and there, and a little blood and some missing hair. With warm water off the camp stove, I rinsed her cuts and then covered them with soothing antibacterial lotion. The risk of infection, from what I could surmise, was low. I grabbed the tube of phenylbutazone (think equine ibuprofen) out of the first aid kit and gave her a full dose to mitigate inevitable inflammation and pain. I pressed my shoulder up against her sweat-dampened neck as I stroked her mane. “We’re never selling this horse,” I whispered, and Linnaea and Annie nodded in agreement.
There was no way to get a trailer up this far, so Jimmie would have to walk out, at least to Little Hat Ranch five miles down the road. We decided to let her follow along loose as we ponied the horses not being ridden by the cow moving crew. That way, she could choose her path and speed. We took our time, and I watched her carefully as we went for signs of increasing pain or even shock. She babied the hind foot with a limp, but her action looked pretty smooth overall and she kept up with the other horses just fine, even occasionally stopping to grab a few more bites of grass.
Melanie, Lily, and Josh ponied the extra horses down together (Melanie snapped this photo from the back of the bunch). Here they are stopped to let Jimmie, trailing free at the back, take her time and catch up. You can see the rest of the horses are tied together in “strings.” This is to keep any of those bossy mares from getting ideas and trotting home on their own accord. Jolene and Roxy, the problems, are at the bottom right–the paint and red mare that stand side by side (likely considering their next plan).
Down at Little Hat Ranch, we left most of the horses on the green pasture along the creek, once again within the confines of an electric fence horse pen. We trailered the remaining horses back to the home ranch down in the valley, as many as we could fit in the trailer. Jimmie was one of them.
Back home, I watched her carefully for worsening symptoms the next few days. I worried about her constantly. Should I take her to the vet? Were we missing something serious? Should I confine her in a smaller space to limit her movement, as is common practice with soft tissue tendon and ligament injuries?
Jimmie just a few days ago on the pasture, wet from a recent rainstorm. Being free to roam on the pasture is good for her current level of healing: she’ll exercise the leg with movement, but she’ll be able to pace herself if it’s causing any pain and move as much or as little as she wants to.
Without significant improvement, my choice to take her to the vet would have been easy. But every day I went out to visit her, she was moving much better. I gave her some bute the first few days to manage the pain, but then discontinued it to make sure I wasn’t artificially masking any concerning symptoms and that she was improving on her own.
For a couple of weeks after the accident, she had a slight hitch at the trot. A few days ago, I went out to check them all as they grazed the big expanse on the 11 tower pivot. She turned and trotted away from the four-wheeler, head up and ears pricked toward the other horses as the winter wind from up the valley lifted her mane. There was still a nearly imperceptible hitch at the trot, disappearing entirely after the first few strides. She’s clearly healing, and injuries of this sort can take a long time to mend. I think that given her current trajectory, she will be good as new by spring.
I still feel guilty about that day two months ago. But the best I can do to make it right is to learn from that series of unfortunate events and accept culpability for my mistakes that contributed to it. While we humans tend to blame ourselves and others, horses aren’t like that. They are forgiving almost to the point of unconditional, at least in my experience, and even when I fail them, they continue to show up for me. She only knew that we were trying to look out for her that day and trusted us to do right by her.
Webb, one of this summer’s crew members, on Jimmie earlier this summer. She was a favorite for anyone who rode her. Her sweet and willing temperament make her a joy to ride, and she seems to like being out there as much as we do. She is, after all, quite at home on the range.
That little mare has a home with us forever. She was special before, but now I know that she was meant to be here with us. Looking back and remembering that impossible situation, I now realize that there was Someone looking out for all of us, and we witnessed an unmistakable miracle that day.
Jimmie the day Melanie saddled her for the first time.