Horses in the River

Nov 08, 2018
It must have been around the end of January and at least 15 years ago, I only keep a diary when I am away hunting so the details are from memory. I think it was late Sunday afternoon when Matt and I realized a local farmer was trying to drive a herd of horses out of our field, we drove over to them and offered a hand. I only found out the next day there were 25 horses in the group and only the four of us. The plan was to drive them down the steep bank onto the frozen Assiniboine river and walk them across as at this point on the other side there was gentle incline up into the field where they should have been.

November Musing Photo
We got the horses down the steep bank and they bunched up, just on the ice, refusing to cross. This bunch was almost wild, no chance to catch one and lead him across hoping the others would follow. Lots of shaking heads and prancing hooves. Matt and the farmer were out in the middle of the river hoping to give them some direction. Myself and the farmer’s son moved close behind them in an effort to get them to move, nothing doing, I was afraid of slipping on the treacherous bank and sliding in amongst the hooves.
The ice cracked with an almighty crash. I yelled to the others “she is breaking up, get off the ice”. The horses were in a circle, the edge of the circle up to the bank. The ice broke instantly, probably less than 2 seconds from start to finish. The first crack went diagonally from the bank across the circle, then a second crack went from that around the horses in a clockwise direction. The third crack started between my heavy mukluks’ and completed the circle round the horses. The further half circle of ice dipped under the water on one side raising a horse on the other side high in the air, for a split second his hooves were at my eye level. Then he slid off on top on to his mates as that huge block of ice broke up, the other half of the circle had just broken into small blocks. OH Shit!
The scene was horrific but at least the four of us were high and dry. I didn’t stop to count, but I guessed we must have had 30 horses in the frozen water with just their heads showing, jostling with each other for space as the hole was hardly big enough for them. The area between their heads was just full of giant ice cubes. A cloud of steam rising from the icy water. We were stunned. How long have we got I asked? Ten to twenty minutes was the reply. Right, you get your truck over here and your ATV, Matt come with me let’s get some tools and rope. The farm was half a mile away, I raced to the shop, the poor old truck was airborne most of the way, Matt go find Mum and tell her what has happened and get Mum to call every neighbour she can think of as we need help. I grabbed the chain saw, spare oil and gas, axe, sledge hammer, crow bar and every rope and tow strap in sight. We raced back to the river.
My plan had been to chain saw the ice away to allow the horses to climb up the steep bank, but I quickly realized this was not going to work, not enough time. Next plan was to rope a horse and with an ATV on the bank and ease the horse out beside us. As the horse got out of the river he was streaming icy water, this was freezing on the ground making our footing even worse and my canvas insulated work suit was getting drenched. This is not fast enough I thought, Matt go back to the farm and bring the 20 yd steel cable. We had made this into our “long range” tow line, we kept it hooked on the fence outside the work shop so we could always find it. Matt, just hook it on the truck and drive like mad. Now other friends and neighbours started to arrive to help.
Matt came back, a big 4x4 farm truck was backed up top of the river bank,  a volunteer stood at the top to pass instructions. Open the truck window, I don’t care how cold it is, you need to hear instructions. Les - you are the best with the rope, keep noosing a horse. Hook that steel cable to the truck, give me the D-Link I need that this end. “Mouse the hitch on the truck What? Mouse the hook, wire the end shut so the cable will stay hitched all the time. Now it was getting dark. Everett the local vet appeared beside me, that was huge relief for me. What’s going on? I told him my plan was to yank these horses out with a rope round their neck and pull them right up into the field. Can I do it or will I pull their heads off? You have no choice we are likely to lose them any way, they should all be dead, or will be very shortly was his reply.
The first horse was hooked up. I yelled GO, GO, GO That truck took off like a bat out of hell, the horse fairly leapt out the river and flew up the bank. Not exactly what I had intended but he still had his head on. Now we had a plan and as more people showed up others organized themselves to move the first horses along the river bank to a gully and up onto the field. It was very cold, my work suit had frozen solid just cracked at the joints so I could move. My gloves kept getting soaked so half the time I was hooking up the rope to cable with bare hands, my work suit was undone to the waist, I was drenched in sweat. Matt had to leave to get his young family back to Winnipeg. I remember Dave kept passing me his gloves, at least wet and warm was better that wet and cold.
Every time a horse reached the top of the bank I raced up behind him. Others unhooked the horse, the rope was thrown back to Les so he could noose the next horse and I hung on the end of the cable and pulled it back down the bank to hook up with the rope and then the process was repeated. I was operating on adrenaline like I had never operated before. Time became a blur, the extreme cold wind, still a little steam from the horses. It was surreal, the truck lights were way over our heads, I was hitching up the rope and cable in near darkness. Lots of shouting in the background. I think a tractor appeared with front end loader was used to assist some horses to stand up. Get them up, keep them moving, I thought to Myself, but I left that to the others as I kept racing up and down the bank. The footing was really getting treacherous due to water off the horses freezing under our feet. I nearly slid in head first but Rudy grabbed my shoulder, no time to stop and thank him, hook the rope on and then back up the bank after the next horse.
The remaining horses, only a handful now were starting to really show the signs of cold, heads were sagging, noses were almost in the water. Now noosing them was becoming more difficult, the pace was starting to slow. We can’t slow, come on, keep going, I thought to myself. Finally we were down to two. I am not sure what happened exactly with the second to last horse. We had pulled him out of the river, someone called my name, I turned around, the towing truck had to stop, things were crowded up top and a horse or person had stepped in front of the truck. What happen next is frozen in slow motion my mind. The horse on the bank was trying to roll upright. Dam I could see exactly how this would end. With a valiant effort and a twist of his head this great animal rolled over, up right, he shook of the noose and then unable to get a grip on the ice covered bank he slid head first back in the river. I tossed the rope to Les who seized the opportunity to noose the other horse. Once again I raced up the bank behind this horse. Now something was different, the others were also climbing up the bank to the field, but we have one more, I raced or more like fell down the bank. The last horse was floating on his side his head deep in the water. We have to try, we can’t leave him , not now, not after all this effort!” Everett looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, he is gone and so will the rest if we don’t carry on. What? I exclaimed, Everett asked if I had space in my barn  for them? If we can’t get them off this field and out of the wind we will lose some more in fact I will be very surprised if we don’t lose several. I walked up the bank and over to the last horse we had pulled up into the field, he was gone, and starting to stiffen already. Hell I thought “No peace for the devil, my evening was not over yet.
Time is a bit blurred to remember now, but my next recolection is that I was back in my barn preparing some space for the survivors, I found some straw and spread it around. Most of the horses were been driven across the field in the dark to the barn. A stock trailer was backed in and the rear door opened. I saw two frozen horses laid down on the floor, one was pushed upright and staggered out, the other one couldn’t get up. I tied a rope round his head and the other end round a post in the barn, I waved the trailer away and the rope pulled the horse out. The truck and trailer raced away into the dark. I started to rub the horse down with handfuls of straw, this had no effect. I pulled over a 150,000 BTU space heater, plugged it in and pulled it as close as I dare to his head, when he stirred I moved the heater to his chest, I knelt the other side of him and rubbed his chest with straw. The heat from the heater over his back worked wonders, both on the horse and me. When I heard the trailer returning with another load, I was able to get my horse on his feet and round the corner into the a space I had prepared. The process went on. The other horses were driven in, people started to drift away. Finally the last surviving horse was pulled out of the trailer. Our work was done. We said a few good nights and I stumbled away to the house.
Pat ran a hot bath for me while I drank my first scotch, I needed help to pull off the soaking frozen clothes. After a hot bath, and a great omelet washed down with mugs of tea and lots of scotch I was beginning to take stock of the evening. What a night, with lots of help we had managed to pull 24 horses out of the river in little more than an hour. Twenty two survived, one must have been caught by the current and washed under the ice the second the ice broke, the last two didn’t make it. One lay frozen in the field and one was to remain frozen in the river, to make his last journey in the spring, when the spring thaw came.
I awoke at 2 am, pulled on a dry pair of coveralls and walked over to the barn. The sight I saw almost brought tears to my eyes, there were 22 horses alive and well! I walked amongst them, patting a rump here and a shoulder there, a few muzzled me. They were trucked away the next day and I never set eyes on them again, but for one evening in my life I felt I owned 22 fine horses.

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