The Farm Chronicles: The day I lost my head

My friend Ed and I were competing as a team for the Maryland Spring Hunter Pace Championship. The Hunter Pace was a series of five races of about five miles each across fields, fences, streams, and all sorts of rough terrain. Each race was hosted by a major hunt club and there were some 150 horses in any given race. In 1999, we placed third. In 2000, we were aiming to win it all. Problem was, my horse Jacob’s Ladder, “Jake” for short, had been ridden only about eight times before the races began in April. We had only jumped some logs in the woods behind the barn. We were not too sure how Jake would perform with all the obstacles and distractions. My wife Chris thought I was absolutely crazy for entering.

Jake was a tall 16-2 hand chestnut Irish Thoroughbred. He was really high-strung, as we would say about a horse that was spirited. We raised him as a foal. At 45, I broke him to ride. He almost broke me. He had a habit of rearing up. One time, he jerked his head up and smacked me in the middle of the forehead. Almost knocked me out. The next time he did it, I pulled him over backwards and stepped off just before he landed on me. Horses don’t like that feeling. He never did it again. Another time, I was just brushing Jake in the cross ties and something spooked him. He pulled backwards and the cross tie broke and the fastener hurled into my temple. That one did black me out. And so it was as we prepared for the races. Jake’s sire had won over a million dollars racing and those genes were passed on to the son. Jake loved to race.

Ed on his horse Sullivan and me on Jake became the team to beat. Sometimes he ran so fast it made my eyes water up and I couldn’t see where we were going. One time, we had gotten behind because a friend of ours had a spill and I got off to help her. Ed went on ahead. I said I would catch up. Jake and I came out of that woods into a field and we were moving fast. There was a four-foot fence, an asphalt road, and another four-foot fence up ahead. And it was a cold spring day. That asphalt would be slick. But I just let Jake run as fast as he could. He took that fence and hardly landed before launching off that road over the next fence. I thought I was going to die, but we made it and won. When it was time to go, Jake, having been hauled only a couple of times, was a little difficult to load into a horse trailer. So we had to be gentle.

There was a certain young man who thought he knew everything about horses and he wouldn’t listen to anybody. This guy insisted on helping. Against my better judgment, I told him to just lead Jake up to the trailer and pet him, whilst I put my shoulder against his butt and pushed. Well, this guy got impatient and started tapping Jake with a riding crop. Before I knew it, Jake hauled off with both hind legs, knocked me about six feet in the air, and my riding helmet flung off and rolled down the meadow. A woman standing by started screaming hysterically because she thought the horse had kicked my head off. A crowd gathered to make sure I was OK. Proverbs 26:3 says, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.” I would say both whip and rod should go to the fool. In spite of all that happened, we did win the championship. No whip necessary and head intact.

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Bill Wilson