George is a 11-year old sorrel quarterhorse, registered with the AQHA as “Commanding Affair”. George isn’t my horse, he belongs to Sherri Friesen, and so do I. (It’s a long story, don’t ask). Witnessing George’s gregarious nature, comic antics & consistently personable attitude have become distinctly favoured moments for me. From the first time I met George I knew he was a unique individual, but I don’t think I ever thought him to be one for making command decisions. Funny how a horse can change your mind about things…
Sherri & I usually make the 16-kilometer trek through Campbell Valley Park anywhere from 2 – 4 times week, in whatever weather the lower Fraser Valley tosses at us. It isn’t the most challenging ride, but it has its share of twists & turns and it’s accessible for us “urban riders”. A while ago Sherri was afflicted with a sore back, so with George not getting his regular trail time in, Sherri asked me to take him out for some exercise. Glad to get in any saddle time I could, I tacked George up & we headed for the park.
George & I had barely reached the main trail when I heard a commotion in the woods to the east of us. George was already piqued and braced when a blue roan came thundering around the corner, carrying a seriously unhappy young lady who was trying desperately not to fall off amidst reins, arms & legs all waving in different directions. The girl shrieked for help and I moved George into the centre of the trail in an attempt to block the runaway, but the roan bolted past like we were so much warm butter. As I turned George towards the fleeing horse he seemed to have already gotten pretty much the same idea. Before I could squeeze his flanks, George was already in motion. But describing what he did as “motion” is like calling an ocean “moist”. I know quarterhorse’s are legendary for their bursts of speed and I’m no stranger to velocity myself, but then again I’ve never been shot out of a cannon either. That is until George took off after that roan.
Some of the narrowest parts of the trail were ahead of us, along with the sharpest corners, giving me a moment or two of concern about how long it was going to take us to catch up with a horse running flat out from fear. Just because chasing a crazed runaway isn’t quite juicy enough unto itself, within a ½ mile the hog fuel & bark mulch trail we were on turned into loose gravel & hard-packed dirt, and that happened at the crest of a hill near a sharp turn. So we had a big gap to close in an impossibly short length of time.
Now keep in mind that up to that point I’d not ridden George all that much, and had no idea of his true capabilities, so you’ll understand my modest concerns – all of a sudden I’ve found myself on the back of a big hairy bullet that’s racing around corners whilst leaned over far enough for me to scoop dirt with my ears. With almost every step George seemed to dig a little harder, pouring more effort into every stride. Fleeting thoughts about insane things like posture & lead changes danced comically alongside that ringing admonishment echoing from years ago, “Keep those heels down!”. Besides that, I lost my damn hat!
As we rounded the last corner before the beginning of the gravel we caught sight of the roan. I figured that George had stretched himself out as far as he could possibly go & there just wasn’t another ounce of speed left, but George discovered an extra stash of “go like hell” under the saddle & despite running flat out he managed an incredible lunge towards the other horse as I struggled to grab anything that looked like it might be attached to it. I missed the first few grabs & was at the point of either reining George in for fear of him falling or just plain leaping onto the roan like some cavalier stunt man when George simply crossed in front of the roan & cut him off! This gave me the opportunity to reach around the roan’s neck & grab an armload of mane, and ultimately having no place to go he finally stopped.
I held on hoping the roan would stop prancing long enough for me to tie him off to my own saddle horn. Whenever I relaxed my grip around his neck the roan would start to prance again, so I just stayed there – my legs wrapped around George, my arms wrapped around the other horse, trying to calm the rider all at once & generally hanging in mid air with a “what the hell do I do now?” thought ricocheting around inside my head. I was contemplating just letting go of George & sliding off when I heard horses approaching from the same direction we had, and over the hill came the rest of the company the girl had been riding with. Of course they had no idea I was involved in this little escapade and all they saw was some guy wrapped around their friends’ horse with her thoroughly bruised, screaming & wailing. It was rapidly becoming one of those “just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any worse…” situations.
Through a frenzy of signs, gestures & one-word explanations the other riders caught wind of what had really transpired & suspended their notion of lynching me & barbequing George. Between us we managed to get things more or less under control. That is all except George. Throughout all the excitement of catching & restraining that horse, getting the girl off his back, getting me unwrapped from reins & mane and keeping the other girls from pulling me apart no one was really minding George. He was standing in the middle of the trail, nostrils flared wide enough to back a Greyhound bus into, snorting like a steam engine on steroids & flicking his ears back & forth in what could only be described as an equine impersonation of a helicopter. I reached for his neck, gave him a rub & a hug and began to praise him quite enthusiastically, which was just what George though he had coming to him.
The excitement gradually stemmed, we got the gal back onto her horse & the rest escorted her out of the park leaving George & I standing in the middle of that trail; me still reeling from the adrenalin and him still snorting & doing his whirlybird imitation. I figured that while this probably wasn’t quite what Sherri had in mind when she asked me to exercise her horse that it was indeed sufficient & now was a good a time as any to head home. We hadn’t gone a dozen paces when I realised that George was not walking at all properly. After checking his feet & finding nothing obvious I decided to hand walk him a ways while watching his legs for any signs of injury. Without my weight he walked gingerly but without any real lameness or limping so we continued on home, him still snorting every once in a while & twirling his ears and me shaking my head in amazement that I managed to hang for as long as I did. Walking back also afforded me the luxury of retrieving my hat - complete with hoofprints, bark mulch & dead bugs.
Since then a few folks have congratulated me for what happened, but let’s make one thing perfectly clear - George was the hero that day, all I did was go along for the ride. He was lame the next day, and it took the better part of a week of liniment rub-downs and walking to ease him back to his old self. He still pulls his clown acts whenever he thinks he can get away with them, but we look at them quite differently. The little things we used to scold him for go more or less unnoticed, and that apple or carrot tucked into a pocket is usually followed by 1 or 2 more now, but for me the most poignant aspect of that experience was how it changed my regard for George. He undertook a task completely of his own cognizance, formed a plan & acted it out all while babysitting me at the same time. We hear talk of horses trusting people, but what I learned that day was an unwavering trust for a horse. George is a whole lot more than a great horse, he’s my buddy - and my hero.