The Perfectly Planned Ride
There is an adage that says “nothing defeats a perfect plan quicker than not following it.” Knowing what and how to do something, but failing to do it often leads to disaster, and sometimes, death. Jim Marx, an expert horseman, and trainer, knows how to plan for a short trail ride in the north Georgia Mountains.
“It’s a beautiful October morning here in Dahlonega,” announced the radio playing in the barn. “We expect a cold front to move through later this afternoon or evening, but right now it’s a sunny sixty-three degrees with winds out of the northwest at fifteen miles per hour. Rain chance is only twenty percent now, but increasing to sixty percent with the possibility of thunderstorms as the front approaches. Go out and enjoy the day!”
“Well big guy,” said Jim to Renegade, a gray quarter horse gelding he was grooming, “looks like we’re going to have a great day to demonstrate your newly learned trail skills. Let me finish pulling our equipment together, then we’ll load you in the trailer, and drive over to River Run trailhead to meet Lisa.”
Jim crossed the barn from Renegade’s stall to the tack room and pulled a canvas saddle bag from its hook. Methodically, he checked the inventory on both sides. One side is for the horse, and the other is for the rider. Everything was neatly packed, including first-aid kits, water purification pack, a Leatherman’s tool, even a hoof-boot in case Renegade should throw a shoe. Satisfied, he closed it up and walked it to the tack area in his trailer. Next, Jim examined the black endurance saddle to make sure all the rigging worked, and nothing was in need of repair before carrying it to join the saddlebags. Finally, as a precaution for the weather forecast, he packed his yellow slicker. It was time to load the horse and go.
Renegade, an eight-year-old former racing quarter horse, belonged to a client who wanted to use him for trail riding. Shortly after buying him, she realized her skill level wasn’t sufficient to retrain a hyper ex-racer and brought him to Marx three weeks ago. The desensitizing process went well, and Jim was anxious to put him to work on a real mountain trail, complete with water crossings.
As he pulled into the horse trailer parking area at the trailhead, the dashboard lit up indicating an incoming call. The caller ID read “Lisa Winter.” Lisa, a large animal veterinarian of some repute, has a client base that covers most of Lumpkin County.
“Good afternoon,” he answered by pushing the call button on the steering wheel. “We’re just parking. Are you on the way?”
“That’s what I’m calling about,” came the soft voice in response. “I have an emergency at the Baker farm, and I won’t be able to ride with you today. I am so sorry. I know how anxious you are about getting Renegade on the trail.”
“Well, that sucks,” responded Jim, “but I guess that’s to be expected when my favorite riding partner is the best vet in the county.”
“Can we do it tomorrow, or maybe this weekend?”
“Weather will be a problem tomorrow with this front coming through tonight, and the trails will be too crowded over the weekend to give him the work he needs.”
“Jim, please tell me you’re not planning to go alone!”
“Shouldn’t take more than an hour, ninety minutes at most. I don’t think I can get into any serious trouble in that short time.”
“You’re taking a green horse onto a mountain trail where he’s never been, by yourself, and you don’t think you can get into any serious trouble? That’s asking for it. Please go home and let’s do this another day.”
“We’re here, Lisa. Renegade has done everything I’ve asked him to do for the past week. We’ll take things nice and slow, and I think we’ll be fine. I’ll call you after I have him back in the trailer. Shouldn’t be more than two hours. Keep your phone handy.”
“Apparently, the decision has been made, and there’s no sense arguing the point, right?”
“It’ll be okay. I’ll buy you dinner tonight and tell you all about it. Now go take care of your emergency.”
“Make a note that Lisa is unhappy about this, but I know you are an expert rider and know what you’re doing, so I am going to hang up and wait anxiously for your call. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” He disconnected the call and stepped out of the truck.
Renegade backed smoothly from the four-horse, gooseneck trailer, and Marx tied him alongside, near the tack storage area. Years of experience guided Jim’s hands and eyes over the horse’s body checking for any soreness or abrasions that might have occurred during the short drive. None were detected, and he stepped back to take in the full measure of the animal in front of him. He stood five-feet-four-inches tall at his withers, what horse people call sixteen hands, and was a muscular eleven hundred pounds.
“Well, boy, it looks like it will be just the two of us this afternoon. Let’s get started.” Jim deftly placed a saddle pad and the thirty-pound endurance saddle on Renegade’s back and cinched it loosely. Next, he attached the saddlebags, and then neatly folded and tied his yellow slicker behind the saddle. From an ice chest in the truck, Marx grabbed two bottles of water, placed them into a holder attached to the saddle pommel. Almost ready, he removed a bridle with a snaffle bit from the saddle, slipped it over Renegade’s rope halter, and connected the reins to the bit.
“Shit,” he cursed as he locked the truck and trailer. “I forgot my damn helmet.” Riding horses had been a part of his life for nearly forty years, including a five-year stint on the professional rodeo circuit, and he only relented to wearing a helmet when riding with Lisa. He’d fallen or been bucked off numerous times, and other than many bruises and aches was never seriously hurt. Besides, to him, the helmet was uncomfortable. A cowboy hat or a baseball cap like the newly purchased Atlanta Braves one he was wearing was far more to his liking.
Untying the lead line from the trailer, he threw it around Renegade’s neck, secured it with a cavalry knot, and prepared to mount. Making sure the horse stood perfectly still, Jim placed his left toe into the left stirrup and grabbing a handful of Renegade’s mane, took two bounce steps and lifted himself into the saddle. He sat there momentarily for two reasons. First, to reinforce the horse’s training that he wasn’t supposed to move until given the cue to do so, and second because Marx frankly enjoyed the sensation of sitting on a good horse. Satisfied, he took up the reins, applied slight leg pressure, and Renegade moved forward.
Aside from Jim’s rig, the horse trailer parking area was empty. “Looks like we’ve got the place to ourselves, big guy,” he said to Renegade as they passed onto the National Parks Service trailhead. Autumn colors seemed splashed on the trees as they proceeded along a winding path leading into the forest. Fifteen minutes into the ride Jim’s cell phone buzzed. Usually, he wouldn’t answer it, but the caller ID indicated it was Lisa.
“How’s everything at the Baker farm?” he asked after pushing the talk button.
“Mare’s colicing badly. I just gave her a shot of acepromazine, and I’m waiting for it to take effect before I insert the nasogastric tube. Since I have a few minutes, I thought I should check in to be sure you’re alright.”
“We’re fine. We have the place to ourselves. In fact, I haven’t even seen a ranger so far. I think we will get quite a bit done in an hour or so.”
“I just got a severe weather update on my phone. How about wrapping it up and going home?”
“I can see clouds beginning to build, but they still look far away. I have two obstacles I want Renegade to see; then we’ll call it a success and go home. Shouldn’t be much longer.”
“What do you need him to do?”
“A water crossing, of course, but there is also a wooden bridge I’d like to see him negotiate. The spot I’m thinking about is about fifteen or twenty minutes away from here where we can do both. As I said, we should be on our way home within an hour. We might get a little wet, but we’ll be fine.”
“I’m unhappy, but I know I can’t change your mind. Be careful, and call me as soon as you are back in your truck. If I can’t answer, leave a message.”
“Yes, mother. Now leave me alone so I can get back to work.”
Thinking about what Lisa said, Marx checked the sky and saw the puffy white clouds present when they entered the woods beginning to turn darker and more threatening. Shortening the reins in his hands, he applied a bit more leg pressure and brought the quarter horse up to a collected lope. At the new speed, they should get to the creek crossing in less than ten minutes.
Suddenly, the gelding veered sharply to his left as his prey animal instinct activated. Expertly, Jim calmed the horse and got him back on course while a young doe raced across their path.
Although much can be done to desensitize horses in a round pen or arena, nothing compares to actual trail work where they can experience Mother Nature to her fullest. A horse only recognizes two relationships, that of the herd, and that of predator versus prey. Once a trainer like Jim establishes himself as the alpha, he begins eliminating some of the many fears a horse has as a prey animal. The trail is a final exam of how well the horse did to confront those demons.
People who don’t ride may think the horse does all the work, but Marx already felt the perspiration accumulating on his cotton shirt as they continued toward the stream. Cotton, as opposed to synthetic material, holds the moisture instead of wicking it away. A good thing in the summer because it helps you stay cool. Right now, though, keeping cool wasn’t going to be a problem.
Casper Creek is a signature feature of the River Run Trail because of its many cascading falls, and the spot Jim had chosen for today’s exercise was a section about ten yards wide with a moderate current running east. Another fifteen yards upstream was a wooden bridge perfect for a dry crossing. Renegade had seen water before. He had walked into a placid pond on the ranch property and even crossed a man-made water obstacle in the arena, but he had never seen or attempted to traverse moving water.
They approached cautiously, and Jim did not attempt to spur or force him in any way as Renegade contemplated the threat possibilities. He put his head down for a closer look and smelled every rock and plant, then slowly, placed his nose into the creek and drank. Then, one foot following the other, Renegade splashed into the stream. Water moving around his fetlocks caused him to fidget momentarily, but then he settled down and crossed to the north side bank.
“Good boy,” said Jim as he petted and praised Renegade. “Now let’s try going back the other way.”
Again, Renegade approached from the new angle with slight trepidation, but then plowed right in. Instead of crossing, Jim turned him upstream and walked him to the bridge, let him examine that from the water, then turned back and stepped out at their original entry point.
“Excellent!” thought Marx, again petting and complementing Renegade, as they walked towards the south side of the bridge.
The sky was rapidly turning dark, and Jim could feel the temperature falling as the sweat-drenched shirt caused him to shiver slightly. “Let’s get you across this bridge, and then we can head for home.”
Again, the process was almost painfully slow as Renegade picked and poked his way on to the wooden structure. In the distance, Marx could hear the low rumble of thunder. Slowly, nearly plank-by-plank, Renegade worked his way toward the northern bank. Within two or three steps from land, they were pelted with large, heavy raindrops. By the time they reached the opposite bank, they were engulfed by monsoon conditions.
Rain, driven by strong wind was beating hard against them, and Jim decided that it would be easier for Renegade to go back to the south side by crossing the stream rather than the bridge. At the trot, they covered the fifteen yards downstream to the area of their first crossing, and as Jim reached around to remove his slicker from the saddle strings, Renegade stepped into the water. This time, though, the creek had swelled and moved considerably faster than before. The big horse balked and reared agitatedly as fast water swept half way up his cannon bones. Jim struggled to get Renegade settled while still holding his yellow slicker in his right hand.
Finally, he had the frightened horse under enough control so they could move to the south side of the creek. Holding the reins with only the little finger of his left hand, Jim swung the slicker open. At that precise moment, lightning struck close by with an accompanying crash of thunder. The combination was more than Renegade could handle. He reared violently and leaped from the water sending Marx, head first, into the rapidly running stream.
First to hit was his head against a large rock knocking him unconscious. Fortunately, the cold water brought him back to consciousness before he drowned. Struggling against the rapids, he felt intense pain in his right shoulder and neck. He winced in agony and found it difficult and painful to breathe. A broken collarbone and cracked ribs, he assumed, made it difficult to drag himself from the water. At this point, he knew only two things: He was in excruciating pain, and he was exceedingly cold. What he didn’t know, was where he was. Trying hard, Jim couldn’t figure out where he was or why he was there. He was alone. And he was cold.
Propping himself against a tree near the water’s edge, he surveyed the area to try to get his bearings. Around him were multiple hoof prints, but no trace of a horse. Downstream, wedged against a log in the water, he could see what looked like his yellow slicker. With hands shaking, he checked his pockets for his cell phone. Nothing! His head pounded as he tried to think. Reaching up to the area that hurt most, he felt the warm flow of blood. His head was bleeding profusely, his shoulder and ribs ached terribly, and he was freezing.
Lisa had done all she could for the colicing horse and told the owner she would need to transport the ailing animal to the University of Georgia Veterinary School, in Athens. She helped load the horse into a trailer, cleaned herself off at a sink in the barn, and raced through the rain to her truck. It dawned on her that Jim hadn’t called. She picked up her phone and checked messages. Nothing. Looking at the call log, she noticed it had been over two hours since they last talked.
“That’s not like Jim,” she thought. “If he says he’s going to call, he calls. Even if it’s to say he’ll call back later.” Concerned, she dialed his number. Voicemail. “Shit,” she yelled. She was forty-five minutes to an hour from the trail, and it was pouring rain. Putting her truck in gear, she sped out to the highway and raced toward River Run. As she drove, she called the National Park Service.
“Hello, this is the National Park Service, Ranger Martin speaking. How can I help you?”
“Yes, my name is Lisa Winter, and I think we have an emergency.”
“Think?” replied Martin. “What kind of an emergency?”
A friend of mine is riding alone on the River Run Trail, and I haven’t heard from him in two hours. I tried calling his cell, but got no answer.”
“Any idea of which trail he was using?”
“I’m not exactly sure, but someplace where the trail crosses the stream and has a wooden bridge nearby. His name is Jim Marx, and his truck and trailer should be parked in the horse trailer area. Maybe you could get a better idea from there.”
“Okay, we’ll start a search from there, but I hope you’re wrong because the weather is terrible right now.”
“I know. I’m on my way to the park and should be there in half hour or less. Please call me at this number when you find anything.”
“Will do,” responded the ranger, and ended the call. Looking at the trail map on the wall, Ranger Martin concluded there were three places matching Lisa’s description. Grabbing a walkie-talkie, he pulled on his slicker and ran to his truck. While driving, Martin announced the situation on his radio. By the time he reached the horse trailer parking lot, two other rangers, operating all-terrain vehicles, were already there. Ranger Tom Carpenter was examining Jim’s rig.
“It’s locked and empty,” he advised, as Martin arrived.
Ranger Harold Miller, was standing near the trailhead checking possible directions to search, “He could have gone in any of three directions from here,” said Miller. “But the most likely, according to your information…Holy shit!”
Miller’s conversation was suddenly interrupted as a gray, riderless horse burst from the trail and raced to Jim’s trailer. The three rangers slowly approached the nervous animal while speaking softly.
“Easy, big boy,” said Carpenter as he carefully reached for the lead rope tied by a cavalry knot around its neck. Untying it and re-tying it to the trailer, the three men carefully examined the horse. From a pommel bag at the front of the saddle, Martin found a cell phone. It was not locked, and a missed call alert flashed on the screen. The call log indicated it was Lisa Winter. He pushed the call button.
“Damn it, why haven’t you called me?” she screamed into the phone.
“Miss Winter, this is Ranger Ed Martin. We spoke earlier.”
“Oh my God,” she cried. “Is he alright?”
“We haven’t found him yet, but we have found his horse and his cell phone. You said you were en route, how long before you get here?”
“Less than ten minutes.”
“I’m with two other rangers, and they are beginning to backtrack the horse’s trail. I will wait for you, and we will follow them as soon as you get here.” Martin ended the call. “Even in this rain, backtracking that horse shouldn’t be a problem. Tom, you ride with Harold, and when Miss Winter gets here, we’ll use your Gator to follow. Let’s get moving, he’s been out there at least two hours, and he’s probably hurt.” Carpenter and Miller climbed into the two passenger ATV and raced on to the trail.
Seven minutes later, Lisa’s truck skidded to a stop in front of Martin. “Any word yet?” she asked as she jumped from the cab.
“No, but they just started looking. Hop onto the Gator, and we’ll catch up.”
“Wait a second,” she said, looking at Renegade. “Let me get him in the trailer.” That accomplished, she climbed into the ATV. “Let’s go!”
High-intensity beam flashlights made it easier to see into the thick underbrush along the trail, but the going was still slow. “Stop, I’ve got something,” shouted Carpenter as his beam steadied on an object across the stream. The water level had subsided considerably in the last hour, and the two rangers raced across ankle deep water to the opposite bank where a yellow slicker had draped a fallen log.
“Ed, this is Tom,” came the voice over Martin’s radio.
“Go ahead, Tom. I’ve got Miss Winter, and we’re on our way.”
“We found a slicker caught on a log in the creek.”
“Yellow?” blurted Lisa. “That could be Jim’s.”
“Miss Winter says if it’s yellow, it could be her friend’s,” reported Martin.
“It has initials ‘JLM’ written on the inside,” said Tom.”
“That’s him,” cried Lisa. “James Louis Marx.”
Martin and Lisa caught up with the rangers, as Tom and Harold were returning to their ATV. Tom handed the raincoat to Lisa, and she confirmed it was Jim’s.
“Okay,” ordered Martin, “You two take your Gator to the other side, and we’ll stay on this side. Proceed upstream and keep a sharp eye out. If you see anything, give a holler.” Carpenter and Miller climbed into their vehicle and crossed the stream. From the two sides, the search began again.
“We got a new looking baseball cap on the north bank,” came Harold’s voice over the radio.
“Atlanta Braves?” asked Lisa as she grabbed the walkie-talkie before Ed could get it.
“That’s his too; I’ll bet on it,” she replied.
Suddenly, Ed slammed on the brakes. “Stay here,” he ordered. Picking up the radio, he spoke. “Get up here, quick and bring the Med Kit.”
Lisa stepped from the Gator as Ed was halfway to the stream. “Stay there,” he yelled, seeing her exit the ATV. Lights from the second vehicle appeared across the water, and the two rangers raced across the gently flowing creek to Ed’s side. In the beam of their flashlights was James Louis Marx still leaning against the tree where he had dragged himself. Behind them came a high-pitched scream as Lisa raced passed them to Jim’s side.
“No!” she yelled, tears already flowing. “No, please, no!”
“Miss Winter, I asked you to stay back,” said Ed, to no avail. “We’ll get an ambulance here right away.”
“Don’t bother,” she replied in disgust, wiping the tears. “Call the coroner. He’s dead. I may be a vet, but I’m still a doctor, and I know death when I see it.”
Two weeks later, the coroner’s death certificate lay on Lisa’s desk. Despite the fact she knew Jim was dead, she was reluctant to pick it up. Deep inside, she felt that as long as there was no official report, he might still be alive. She stared at the envelope, picking it up and tossing it back on the desk several times before yielding to the desire to know what happened.
James Louis Marx, Caucasian male age 43, suffered severe head trauma to the right cranium, possibly causing the victim to experience a concussive reaction. He also had a broken right collarbone and three fractured ribs. The victim had hypothermia, and the cause of death was exposure and loss of body heat.
She tossed the document back onto her desk, wiped some tears from her eyes and cursed.
“This is so stupid! So arrogant! Damn you, Jim, why? Why couldn’t you wait, one day two days, a damn week? What difference would it have made? Other than the fact you wouldn’t be dead! You had to go alone. You didn’t even bother to check in with the Park Rangers.” She stood and walked around her desk holding her head.
“You knew the weather forecast, yet you weren’t prepared by even having a jacket with you. Sure, you had a slicker, but what good did that do? Yes, you had first aid equipment, but it was in your saddlebag!” Frustrated, she continued pacing the office floor.
“AND NO HELMET!” she screamed as she slammed her fist on the desk. “You probably would have survived everything else, but no helmet cost you your life. Yes, you died from exposure, but the helmet would have prevented the concussion, your spatial disorientation, and your ability to think clearly. You would have still been in a lot of pain, but you probably would have been able to walk out, or get help. That’s just plain STUPID! I am so angry I can hardly contain myself. If you weren’t already dead, I would damn sure kill you for being so damn dumb!”