On the loose – A horse owner’s worst nightmare
This week’s police blotter in The Union carried a chilling tale of three horses being fatally hit by a truck. Early Sunday morning, an unknown person obviously unchained and removed a bungee cord from the gate of their paddock, allowing them to wander. Fortunately, the driver was in a large vehicle and was unhurt.
All livestock owners dread the thought of their animals being loose on the high-speed roads of today. Long gone are the local cattle and sheep drives on public roads, when people knew they had to slow down and give the animals the right of way. Dogs and cats cause many automobile accidents, but they’re smarter in getting out of the way than sheep, cattle or horses.
Most people who have not grown up in rural areas are inexperienced or unaware of the potential danger of colliding with livestock. One of the unlucky horses weighed nearly 1,800 pounds and yes, as you might suspect, the vehicle was totaled.
Animals get blinded by headlights, tend to move in a group with herd instinct and may run blindly if spooked, thus increasing the danger. I’m sure the driver of the truck in this week’s accident was devastated, and the last thing he expected was to be confronted by loose horses. But, it happens.
As a child I remember a mare and foal that were boarded on our ranch, and then returned to Nevada, who – along with three others – were run down on the open range desert by an unwitting driver in a Cadillac, who then fled the scene.
This week, too, a neighbor came up our driveway, excitedly asking: “Felicia, do you know who might own 15 mules? They’re loose on my sister’s place!” Immediately jumping into my pickup, I followed her home, spotting manure droppings on the pavement and then on busy Duggans Road.
In the meantime, I was able to contact the owner, who was on her way and hoping we could contain them. Another friend had spotted the loose animals and had also called her, while someone else had contacted the sheriff’s office.
With help from neighbors, we found where they had crossed the road and were relieved that a thoughtful property owner had closed them in a pasture. How fortunate!
With help, and leading the two horses first, the mules followed and were returned to their own pasture where someone had cut the fence! And what’s worse, this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Speculation is that it may have been hunters, unaware of the danger they were creating, or just kids who wanted to ride across the property without first getting permission. We may never know.
Last week, we were in a similar dangerous situation. Vacationing in Italy, my husband was in charge of the ranch when some old friends came to visit and asked, “Dick, do you just let your horses roam up and down the driveway?”
The wind had collapsed a section of the old wooden fence and all 11 of my horses were roaming at will. Fortunately, others on the ranch spotted them almost immediately and rounded them up before they got off the property.
Legally, horse and livestock owners are liable if their animals get loose and cause an accident. It is a hard thing to deal with someone cutting a fence or leaving a gate open. In many cases, these animals are the livelihood of their owners, and these people care for their animals as much as they care for themselves.
It’s a fact, though, that many inexperienced owners of large animals haven’t had the education and awareness to understand their responsibility in caring for them. Good fences, closed gates, regular feeding times and daily scrutiny of fence lines for possible breaks are essential. Yes, after the weary fence blew down, we’re looking at a $1,000 expenditure for new fence line.
For horse owners, it’s important to keep ropes and halters handy. I leave breakable leather halters on my horses, simply because it’s easier to catch them that way. (Nylon halters don’t break if a horse gets hung up, and aren’t safe to leave on when they’re turned out.)
So, what should you do if you come across loose livestock?
First, try not to scare them, never chase them from behind, and do your best to block them from main roadways. Just standing in the way will often encourage them to head in a safer direction. If you have a rope, or even your belt, you can quietly approach a horse at its neck to catch them in order to lead them to safety. Usually, others will follow.
Stray livestock should be immediately reported to the sheriff.
If you’re driving a vehicle, slow down or better, stop. Put on your hazard lights to warn other motorists of danger and keep in mind the animals may turn right in front of your car.
Meanwhile, the loss of the three horses goes deep in this community. They were beloved members of a family, were competed in shows throughout the state and literally brought up young riders in the Northern Mines Pony Club.
One horse, Satchmo, was a 29-year-old mainstay for the Saddle Pals program for handicapped riders for five years. Saddle Pals’ director, Jacque Holub, says the 29-year-old gelding was “so perfect that he would adjust to carrying riders’ uneven weight as if he were carrying a glass on his back.” He even took care of a blind girl in the program.
These horses were pampered, beautifully cared for and loved. They gave their best, providing sport and friendship over three decades. They will be sorely missed by all those who knew them.
Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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