Ice, Horses and a Lesson Learned
by Judith Graybill of Trenton, MO
Just inside the barn door hangs a coil of blue and white rope, and a big scary lesson. The rope is one of those things that doesn’t have a specific job, yet does about everything. It has been used to drag logs, pull cars out of mud, guide a falling tree in the right direction, or be threaded through the come-along on butchering day.
It was the first thing I grabbed when Jacinth, our filly, went through the ice.
On our 40 acres, we have 2 ponds which are the source of drinking water for our animals. Instead of permanent fences we use electric poly-wire and practice rotational grazing; so, while the grass grows, we move the horses every 2 or 3 days. When cold weather sets in, the horses are kept in a winter pasture. Here they munch hay while the snow flies.
Last fall I picked out the perfect winter pasture. It was close to the barn, had a grove of trees for protection from the bitter north wind, and in the middle was the pond. That’s where I made the mistake. I left the pond in the middle. Now, I couldn’t move the pond, but I should’ve put a wire around it except for one corner where they would drink. I had heard stories of horses going through ice and drowning but I hadn’t made the connection… not yet.
By mid-January, the ice was so thick that when I went out every morning with an ax to break open the drinking hole, a few of the more daring horses came out on the ice with me. Just a few feet they came, and very cautiously.
And it did penetrate my thick head that horses on ponds weren’t such a good idea, but as cautious as they were, and they did only come out several feet… if the ice broke, the water was barely knee deep that close to shore. Whichever horse went through would simply get a good scare. I decided it was okay.
But I was forced to think again. On March 6, the mercury climbed high. Any bits of snow left over from the last storm disappeared. Fine smooth ice turned into sponge. Skates were packed away. Hockey sticks and bobsleds dried out in the sheds.
Not long after lunch, my little sister Carolyn, who had been outside playing, bolted into the house. “One of the horses is in the pond!”
I was out the door and halfway there before my thoughts caught up with me. “The ice is rotten, the horse couldn’t have gotten very far before it went through.” For some reason, my mind hit on 10 feet. “Ten feet out, surely… the horse might even get out by itself.”
On the way past the barn I glimpsed that blue rope. Hardly slowing, I grabbed it. Soon I’d know what we were dealing with. At the top of the hill now… can see —-
No. No way. In the middle of the 45 foot pond bobbed a dark head.
I ran. A little closer and I saw that it was Jacinth. At 9 months, she was the lightest of all our horses, not to mention the most curious, and she had made it all the way to the middle before the ice gave way. Eyes rolling, and teeth bared, she fought like a wild cat, striking out with her front hooves. But she couldn’t conquer that jagged wall of ice.
At the pond, I tested the edge of the ice and figured it could hold 120 pounds. Too bad if it couldn’t, I was going out there. I walked closer to the swimming filly, then stretched full length on the ice and slipped the rope over her head. But what good…
“Carolyn, get an ax!”
She hurried, but it seemed like hours. What could I do but lie there and talk softly to the filly? Her eyes were terrified and I wondered if horses can faint. Every breath whistled through her peeled-back lips and clenched teeth. Was she wearing out? How long had she been out here? “Easy girl, easy, save your breath. We’re gonna do all we can to get you out of here…
When Carolyn came back, I grabbed the ax, and in a short time I was chopping an open channel through the ice, towards shore. I would cut both sides and Jacinth would crash against it, breaking out the middle. Chunks flew. Together we were going to make it! Jacinth seemed to know what to do to help, and I was so proud of her.
With a sickening slurp, the ax fish tailed, slid out of my hands and disappeared into the murky water. Immediately, the filly panicked and swam back out the way we had come.
“Carolyn! The other ax! Hurry!
She ran. I picked up my end of that blue and white rope and guided Jacinth to me. I knelt at the raw edge, soaked to the skin and grabbed Jacinth’s halter. I held her head up and she leaned on my arms. I still couldn’t believe how she had known the minute the ax disappeared.
Carolyn, the neighbor boy, and my oldest sister Charlotte, arrived on the scene together. While I chopped with the second as, Charlotte and John fastened another rope to Jacinth.
Six feet away from the bank I stood back, grabbed one of the ropes and told them, “Pull now!” and to Jacinth, “Come on girl. You can do it!”
For a minute I thought she was done fighting, but then suddenly she was rearing and plunging. With our weight on the ropes to create resistance, she got her front feed out onto the ice, lunged, and broke through.
This time, her feet touched the sloping bottom of the pond. Amid showers of encouragement, and showers of water, she crashed her way through the few remaining feet of ice.
The rest of the horses had crowded around, anxiously watching the excitement and we had to chase them back, all except Jacinth’s mother.
The little sorrel filly was shaking like a leaf. I suppose it was as much from exhaustion and shock as from cold. We led the pair slowly up the hill to the barn where Jacinth got a rub down, a blanket, and lots of attention.
By evening, she was back in the pasture, and roaring around like her usual self. I hung the coil of blue and white rope back on its hook and beside it, my big scary lesson: don’t ever let the horses have free access to an ice-covered pond again!