Back in the saddle

By Doreen Zyderveld-Hagel

It was like getting back in the saddle again, but safer where from I sat, in a sleigh directly behind three draft horses. They pulled our human herd, of over 20 people, effortlessly through the snow in the dark.  

A giant spotlight lit the path in front of the horses to help them see, as they wore blinders to prevent them from spooking, and thus limited their vision. I could smell the sweet aroma of their sweat as they trotted along, and the sounds of sleigh bells softly rang out, as our pack sang acapella and mostly off key, the lyrics to some Christmas carols.  

It was particularly heartwarming to hear my adult son join in, as he is on the autism spectrum, but high functioning. His strong, melodic, baritone voice rang out, which was unusual, as he is normally quite withdrawn and introverted, uncomfortable in crowds and group settings.  

There is something about horses that are therapeutic for those on the spectrum and those who are not. For me, it was a bit of a breakthrough being that close to the back of a horse once again. The last time, the experience was horrific – to put it mildly.  

Forty months ago, I swung my leg over the saddle, which I had done thousands of times before, but this time the horse lit into bucking. After I repeatedly hit the saddle horn, I was slammed to the ground. 

I suffered from extreme blunt force trauma, and was critically injured. After over two months in the hospital, and several surgeries and complications later, I went home to learn to walk again, using snow shoes.  

My 50-plus years of being around horses had come to an abrupt and bitter end.  However, I was very grateful to survive and walk again, as many people are not that fortunate.

Hence, I was understandably nervous around horses afterwards, and so it was a real blessing to go on a sleigh ride, and feel that connection again, not once, but twice during this past festive season.  

I must admit that when the work horses stopped to catch their breath after a long pull uphill, I got nervous; along with when a couple of snowmobilers went by, on that day-ride, a week later. My body stiffened, then relaxed when the giant equines carried on. They took it all in stride, reassured by their driver’s cues. 

Draft horses are known for their level heads, because they are of the cold blood strain, being slower and heavier; that’s a good thing, as you wouldn’t want a horse that size to be hot blooded and wild in its reactions. A sleigh ride would become a ride from hell, of which I had had enough.  

Notwithstanding, my great grandfather, of Scottish heritage, was said to have stopped a runaway wagon team back in the early 1900s in Ontario, so rides from hell do happen on occasion, and probably even more so back when horse and buggies were the main mode of transportation.  

It would be like the modern day car wrecks, which happen on a daily, and minute-by-minute basis worldwide; albeit it is a greener, safer, but slower way to travel than the modern day vehicles.  

I came from a long line of jockeys, saddle makers and wagon drivers, which explained my obsession with horses, regardless of being piled, stepped on, fallen on, falling off of, kicked and bitten. On the other hand, I was gently carried home by my horse when I had a concussion after being hit in the head by a widow maker tree, and teetered side to side in the saddle, as my mare would throw herself underneath me, so I would not fall off. We zig-zagged our way back to the vehicle, far out in the bush.  

Then there were times when riding back to camp in the dark, stalked by predators, or sunk in the muskeg, and the horse came through with flying colours, keeping us both safe, and risking her life to save me.  

On some occasions the whole world felt like a terrible place, but while on the back of a horse I felt at peace.

You take the good with the bad, and by just crossing the street, one can get hit by a bus, so there are no guarantees of tomorrow, and a person’s life can change in an instant; as did mine, when my young gelding decided that it was not a good day for a ride and so he unloaded his rider.  Nothing personal, just being a horse, reacting to whatever ailed him that fateful day, over three years ago.  

In quiet introspection, I sat on the sleigh bench next to my son, covered in a warm blanket and sipping hot chocolate. Life is good I have concluded.  

Doreen Zyderveld-Hagel is a Kelowna writer.

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