by Scott Kroeger
Scott and his barefoot champion Gunman!
For the past 12 years I have the privilege to go on an annual week's ride in the high country of Australia's Snowy Mountains. Some 8-10 blokes go up where people never go and camp out, fish and chase wild horses (we call them brumbies down here). It is a week that I live all year for.
This is the first year that my horse Gunman went up there barefoot. Now you have to understand that these blokes up there are professional cattlemen who live and work in the saddle. They have forgotten more about horses than I'll ever know. But to a man, they said my horse would not last even a day. I took along some Old Mac boots (borrowed from Ysabelle Hobson-with many thanks) just as a backup, but I didn't think he would need them as we had trained hard over the past year on gravel, rocks and bitumen road.
A few years back they started contest for "The Horse of the Year" given to the horse that goes the best over the whole week. A day's ride would be anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on the weather and terrain. Massive climbs and descents have left many with grey hair of loss of it completely. Saddle cruppers and breastplates are needed just to keep the saddle on your horse. The rules for the contest are simple: You have to ride every day and complete every ride or you are out. If you are thrown or fall from your horse you are out. If your horse fails to perform or go where and when asked, you're out. The sole judge is our host and professional cattleman and horse trainer Glen Symons (who has trained polo ponies for Prince Charles). The goal is not to have an impossible trip for a horse...but to have a lot of fun and reward the best horse over the week.
Here is how the week went:
On the road by 6:00 am for 6 and a half hour journey...last three hours really rugged. But Gunman was going home and his excitement knew no bounds. Two hours after landing we saddled up and took our horses on an easy "stretch-out" to loosen them up get them relaxed. It was a 3-hour ride that saw kangaroos and cockatoos but no wild horses. Gunman did fine. But that night I heard the groans of disapproval. I assured them I had the back-up boots if they were needed. But as these were new-fangled thingy-be-dabs, there was not a whole lot of confidence in them either.
Big day with an 8 hour ride that included lunch overlooking the Snowy River in all its glory. Came across a palomino stallion we had seen last year on his own. This time he had a roan mare and a bay mare with him. There was one instance in the chase where he was gliding through the bush when the sun cut through the canopy and caught him broadside with his golden mane and tail straight out. What a sight...the memory of it is forever etched in my mind.
On the way back, one of my mates had a shoe come off her front foot. They were going to walk back...so I pulled out the Old Macs and said, "Here, try these!" I fitted them to the mare and told him to walk the mare around to get her used to them. He led her in a small circle and then hopped in the saddle. It was as if she had worn them all her life. These grizzled old men shook their heads in disbelief. My mate has committed himself to buying a set of Old Macs (Dave M.-you owe me on this one buddy). Gunman did great...but they said he wouldn't last the week.
A shorter 6 hour trip. Fresh horse sign everywhere, but we just missed the first bunch we came across. One rider drops out and goes back. Great scenery and conversation at lunch turned to discussing the principles of proper hoof mechanism. I had sent Jackson's and Strasser's books to these guys prior to the trip, so they had lots of questions and some of them were starting to rethink their attitudes. Gunman had a great day. We only saw one lone brumby mare on her own on the way back to camp.
The longest and hardest day. We descended the "Jacob's Ladder" from the top of the Snowy River Canyon to the bottom of the Jacob's River that empties into the Snowy. Shod horses doing this descent do not feel as much as they go straight down, but Gunman felt every step. He quickly figured out that going down in a zigzag manner was much easier on his feet. I let him have his head and he quit taking the lead and was content to drop back on the zigzag.
We had morning tea at the bottom, in the river sand. Gunman seemed uncomfortable in it and started pawing the ground. It was all that was needed for the "experts" to say he was footsore and done. I took him over to the river for a drink and a stand in the flowing water and then we all mounted up. An hour later, with Gunman leading, he started trailing a mob of horses. He is like a bloodhound...nose to the ground, he headed off. The mob broke off the trail we were on and had headed up a small draw when 3 juvenal stallions come up on our six-o'clock...following the herd. Clinton and I gave chase for five or six minutes down the river's edge, over rocks and trees, steams and boulders...letting Gunman have his head and pick his own course. Me, I'm just looking out for branches, and keeping the stallions in sight. But they are fresh and in fine condition and no match for our mounted and tuckered out ponies...so they gave us the slip. But, ohhh what a ride. It takes several minutes for my heart to slow down. Footsore? Not my horse...as everyone of them watched him bolt out under the spur. Most everybody knows by this time who the trophy is going to. But there is some dissent, still.
It is cold and snowing, but not sticking to the ground. One rider has the flu and another is too old and cold and there is some concern for his health, so a number of group leave camp for home, conceding the competition and admitting Gunman is sound and healthy. I ride out with my host after they break camp. He is determined to give Gunman a real test of metal. It is a short ride, but steep and dangerous. After stopping to let our horses blow and for him to roll a cigarette, he plies me with more questions and admits that he never would have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. While saying that as a professional, he couldn't risk not shoeing his horses, he needed to rethink this whole barefoot thing and not get so worried about a horse that throws a shoe if you have Old Macs. He declared Gunman the winner on that steep mountain side and said, "Let's get back to camp...me and my mare are both buggered!"
Well, there was a wild party that night at the camp (which I give you my word I did not overly participate in) and I slept a sound and peaceful night ready to return to Melbourne the next day. Long before the trophy was awarded, I told them all that I had come to prove something with a barefoot horse...and win, lose or draw for that trophy...I had proved that point...Gunman was barefoot and sound.
I woke the next morning from a contented sleep that finalized a wonderful week of horse riding in places where God only allows a few people at a time to go. The Snowy Mountains are breathtaking and we were now breathless and exhausted...but with smiles. Gunman had won the "Best Horse of the Year" Trophy and the day looked to be a leisurely departing of camp for the long drive home.
It was still very early and the rest of the camp was still sleeping after a party that went long into the night. I snuck down to the hut and grabbed my fishing gear to start looking for breakfast. The small lake in front of the hut was full of German brown trout and I had pulled in a good 2 a half pounder the day before. Several minutes later, the horses came down the hill, keeping warm and looking for a feed, so I stopped fishing and crept up the hill to secure Gunman and ready him for the trip back.
The night before two other riders came into the hut bringing their two mares with them. They were mongrel horses and started fighting with the others as soon as they landed. I suppose that's normal. I looked at Gunman's face and there was a gouge out his forehead and I knew he had not had a good night. I grabbed a bucket of feed and advanced on him. The other horses gathered behind me. I reached out to grab his halter...it was the last thing I remember!!
The feeling of coming to was awful. My whole face ached and I couldn't breath through my nose, no matter how hard I tried...and there was blood, a whole lot of it--everywhere! Even grown men get a little scared at times like these. Thoughts race through you head about dying where no one will ever find you. But I remembered people are here, go find them. So I picked myself up out of the pool of blood and attempting to stop the flow from my face with my hand, I stumbled some 40 meters downhill to the hut. Larry D. was sleeping on the veranda inside his swag and I woke him to tell him I was in trouble. Larry is a member of the Snowy Mountain Ski Patrol as well as a fly fishing guide. His knowledge of first aid quickly stemmed the flow of blood and with the help of Glen's wife Julie (who also came in the night before), I was made comfortable for the trip into the nearest town of Jindabyne. "You've been kicked full on in the face, mate and you'll need a few stitches at least" Larry said.
35 kilometres and 40 minutes later, we arrived to find the doctor's office closed (it was Saturday morning). Larry was good mates with the paramedics so we went around the corner to them. They did an assessment, and then told me we were off to Cooma Hospital some 61 kilometres away. Country people are different and whenever a mate is in trouble they all rally to the cause. Larry said not to worry about my horse or gear or anything and to give him a call from Cooma when things got sorted out and he would come and get me. We said good-by and took off. The pain was killing me, my face was puffing up and I was in shock, but they couldn't give me anything till I got to a doctor.
In the hospital in Cooma the triage nurse took great care of me, starting with a morphine injection...everything was fine after that. They took X-rays and came back with the bad news. That stupid horse had issued a kick to my face that broke my cheek bone and eye socket in 4 places...full orbital blow-out in the eye socket is what I believe they said. What used to be my nose just a flat piece of skin. They were very worried about my losing my eye, but so far, I was still seeing out of both of them.
They notified my wife that I would be going to our nation's capital, Canberra, some 115 kilometres away as the Cooma Hospital did not have a sophisticated surgical theatre. So again I was away in an ambulance on the road. Once there, they said, "don't eat anything, your will be operated on soon." I sure hoped so as I had not eaten since 9:00 pm the previous night. Well, time passed, I had a CT scan done, but the surgery didn't look like it was going to happen that day, so they gave me more drips, more morphine and I slept.
I was scheduled for the next day and the surgeon came in and talked to me about what was going to happen. He said I would be receiving a couple of plates in my head and some titanium mesh, pins and screws that would become a permanent part of the landscape that was my face. Hours passed by. The guy across from me with no thumb was to take up an hour and a half in theatre but didn't arrive back till four hours ticked by. Then another four hour emergency came in. The Doc fronted up and apologised that it wasn't going to happen today either. I complained that this being 9:00 pm Sunday evening, I hadn't eaten since 9:00 pm Friday night. He was shocked and said I could have some food. Of course the hospital kitchen's were closed, so I had one of the nurses (we call them "sisters" here) order me up a pizza. I don't think they had ever done that before. Anyway it came. I took one bite and groaned with pain. I couldn't even chew. I ended up sucking on half a pizza before giving the rest of it to the staff who thoroughly enjoyed my beneficence.
I fasted all day Monday, and finally arrived in theatre around 6:00 pm. The only things making the situation bearable was a great nursing staff, my secret possession of my mobile phone and regular 4-hourly morphine shots. I had a final talk with my surgeon and said, "Well, in for a penny, in for a pound...you might as well fix anything else you find in there...long as you're there. My wife's sort of keen on George Cluny, so anything to get the edge here will help." He smiled and said, he'd see what he could do. Usually when I wake up from general anaesthesia I enjoy the euphoric sensations it provides. But this time was different. I felt the same pain in my face as I felt in that paddock. I still couldn't breath and I was reliving that horrible experience. I was scared again. Then I heard my name being called over and over and I woke to a friendly face telling me to cough. I had a plaster over my entire nose and tape and gauze everywhere else. It was late in the evening and they told me to just rest and sleep...something I didn't argue them about.
The Dr. came in later the next day and said that it was worse than they expected and pretty messy. More to the point--I was lucky to be alive. A little more to any side and I would either be blind or a vegetable. The pastor and an elder from the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Canberra who I knew from previous days came in to talk and pray with me. We spoke of the how difficult it must have been for my guardian angels to protect me the way that they did. But God isn't done with me yet and I have much to do in service of the King before I die. So I thank Him for the extra days He has given me.
People start phoning me, (sisters running around wondering where that noise was coming from) and communication with the outside world arranged for my son to gather my horse, float and gear to be retrieved. I even got flowers sent from the Strasser Clinics Organising Committee (thanks ladies, they were beautiful). After many more antibiotics, drips, morphine etc., they let me fly home to Melbourne. I thought it would be an easy trip, but it was arduous and tiring. My family doctor met me at home for a check up (yes, he makes house calls--can you believe it?) and gave me more pain medication.
My family has been great in this crisis and taken good care of me...not letting me...rather forbidding me to do anything. Yesterday, a plastic surgeon took out my stitches, and took of the plaster that made me look like the Phantom of the Opera, and said the job was not bad. My wife was amazed and now she adores me even more...
I still have CT scans to go and possible other "touch-up" operations to get through...and a long recovery process, but, I have some permanent mementoes from an otherwise wonderful trip to remind me of the year my barefoot horse won "Horse of the Year".
Scott Kroeger, email@example.com
Scott's website: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/kroeger/index.html
Note: Photos are provided for reference and educational purposes only, and are not meant to indicate guidelines for trimming. Every horse should be trimmed as an individual. Opinions vary as to what constitutes "correct" but keep in mind - there are NO PERFECT FEET, not even in the wild. Owners are cautioned to seek professional help for the trimming of their own horse's feet. Owner trimming of pathological feet is not advised. Photos may not be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any way.
©2006 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
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