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The Last Hunter Pace

flickr-com/Beau Considine

It was a few days before my 54th birthday and I was at the starting point at the Amwell Valley Trail Association’s annual hunter pace. My horse Joey, came into my life less than two years prior, when my husband decided that it was time for me to own a horse of my own again. I did very little with the horses while raising my three boys—the happiest time of my life.

I took part in all of their activities and became the town’s first woman baseball coach. I was one of the few coaches to win the Babe Ruth Championship two years in a row (with the help of my son’s excellent pitching skills, of course). Now that my youngest was playing varsity baseball, my coaching skills were no longer needed.

“Find a horse for yourself—it is time for you now,” my husband told me.

Joey was turning five and very green when we purchased him and I taught him how to canter and jump. It was a surprise that I still “had it in me” after being away from horses for so long. Joey also reminded me so much of Hootenanny, the horse I grew up with. He looked like Hootenanny and acted like Hootenanny. Every week, we drove off in the trailer to go “someplace” and do “something”. It didn’t matter if it was a clinic or a show, a ride across the beach, or Christmas caroling. Two weeks prior, we had mastered a 3-foot cross country course, and last week we fox hunted for the first time. Joey was ready to show first level dressage and I was on top of the world.

“Joey saw horses coming up from behind. Suddenly, he tossed his head and let out a hardy buck. My right hand jerked on the reins and I heard a loud snap.”

Our latest “something” was the Amwell Valley hunter pace, where we were riding with my friend Judy and her little bay Arab, Crossie. Crossie was an ex-racehorse; he was gusty and excellent on long distances. Judy rode endurance and loved galloping through meadows as much as I did. She also didn’t have a horse trailer, so she was very grateful for the ride. I was very grateful for her company. The starter gave the countdown and we took off at a brisk trot.

Judy
Judy and Crossie. (Courtesy of the author)

The day was gorgeous! The sun was shining and there was a light breeze in the air. Judy took the lead since Crossie preferred to be first and Joey preferred to go last. At the start of every pace, Joey was always full of himself. He would buck and prance for about the first half hour, then he’d settle down. I was proud of myself for confidently riding through the bucks. It felt good to know that my horse was having a good time, and knowing that he felt good made me feel good. We trotted about a half-mile along a field when, out of the corner of his eye, Joey saw horses coming up from behind. Suddenly, he tossed his head and let out a hardy buck. My right hand jerked on the reins and I heard a loud snap.

Immediately I felt a sharp pain and I knew that my hand was broken. I kept trotting with both reins in my left hand and held my right hand away from my body, yelling, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Judy was too far ahead of me to hear my cries. Within a few minutes, I caught up to her at the end of the field. She and six other riders were walking in circles looking for the next marker. I recognized one of the riders as the father of one of my students. He was also a doctor. He smiled when he saw me approaching. “Hi Peg, the marker is down. We don’t know which way to go.” Then he noticed the pale look on my face and how I was holding my right hand. He crinkled his face in concern, “What happened to you?”

Peggy and Joey. (Courtesy of the author.)
Peggy and Joey. (Courtesy of the author)

“I just broke my hand when Joey bucked a few minutes ago,” I told him. The doctor was ready to dismount but I quickly continued. “There is nothing you can do out here.” He raised his eyebrows.

“I appreciate it, but I really can’t get off of him now,” I said again.

As I was speaking, other horses were approaching and Joey started dancing. Twice he leaped in the air from a stand-still, unseating me and banging my right hand on his withers. The pain was immense, but there was nothing I could do. “Peg,” Judy was looking on in horror, “we should go back.”

“I can’t,” I whispered, “I am finishing this ride.” Besides wanting to see it through, I didn’t want to ruin the day for Judy.

Meanwhile, everyone was continuing to disagreeing about which direction to take. I insisted on turning left, as I remembered we went left the previous year. Judy was the only one who listened to me. Everyone else turned right and galloped away. With that, Joey started dancing again, then settled as the group disappeared over the hill. Judy hesitated as she started to say something. Her eyes were wide with worry.

Peggy and Joey. (Courtesy of the author.)
Peggy and Joey. (Courtesy of the author)

“I’ll be okay,” I tried to reassure her. “If I get down, I will not make it back on foot. If we turn back, he’ll buck all the more with horses approaching in the opposite direction. I am beginning to feel very nauseous and queasy. Just give me a few seconds.” I turned Joey away from Judy, leaned over and vomited.

Judy knew what I was doing and called out, “Peg, we really should go back.”

“No way,” I protested. “As long as I am moving, I will be fine. Let’s get going.”

When your horse is fresh, keep his head up, your heels down, and go forward. I remembered these words of advice from my lessons with George Morris. So we kept moving at a strong trot and some slow galloping until we came to a creek where the water was deep and wide. “Let’s go in and let them cool off a bit,” Judy suggested. She walked Crossie to the edge of the water and continued walking to the middle, where the water came up to her feet in the stirrups. Joey and I followed, and both horses dipped their noses in for a good drink.

“[The woman] looked as though she really enjoyed helping, so I asked her, “Could you please hold my horse’s head while I drink this? I broke my hand a few miles back.”

Attached to Judy’s saddle was a sponge on a string. She dipped the sponge into the cool water, then rinsed her horse’s neck and back. “Come closer and I’ll rinse Joey,” she beckoned to me, “it’s what we do on the endurance rides. How is your hand?”

“It is numb right now, but we need to keep moving. If I am still for too long, I will get sick again.” After their bath, we took off again at a fast pace. Upon reaching the half-way point of the ride, we had to stop at the health check point. It was in the front yard of an older couple’s house. The couple greeted us with big smiles and the man looked at his watch and announced the time. “You need to stay here for five minutes,” he said.

His wife offered us refreshment from a nearby table covered with snacks and drinks. Judy accepted some crackers, juice and carrots for the horses. “Just cranberry juice for me,” I said, smiling at the woman. The woman returned my grin as she carefully handed me a paper cup. She looked as though she really enjoyed helping, so I asked her, “Could you please hold my horse’s head while I drink this? I broke my hand a few miles back.”

“Oh no!” she said, still holding the cup and turning toward the table where her husband sat. “Harry, come here! This woman has a broken hand and she needs medical attention.”

The elderly man hurried toward me. “What can I get for you?” he asked.

“I just need someone to hold my horse so I can have something to drink,” I replied.

“Shouldn’t you get down?” The woman protested.

“No, thank you. I will feel better if I have some juice. I just need someone to hold the horse, since I only have one hand right now.”

The man and woman looked at each other, wondering what they should do. Then the woman took hold of Joey’s reins while I drank the juice. The man looked at his watch and informed us we had only one more minute. I finished the juice and we took off again through the woods, over hills and across creeks. It was an awesome ride. With only one more mile to go, Judy and I broke down to the walk. The path was about 15 feet wide, with woods on the right and a corn field on the left. By this point, Joey’s early enthusiasm had worn off, and he was too tired even to grab a bite from the corn stalks. “How are you holding up?” Judy turned to me.

“My hand is numb, so it doesn’t hurt,” I said, laughing.

Just then, two teenagers came galloping by. Neither Joey nor Crossie showed any desire to move faster. They were not panting, but their heads were down and their eyes were tired. Judy and I were quiet for a moment. Then, Judy said, “Isn’t that the first pair that passed us?”

“Yeah, I think you are right.” I agreed. A few more moments of silence fell over us. “We can’t have that,” I announced assertively, picking up my reins.

“No we can’t,” Judy added, and we both took off at a gallop.

Within a few minutes, we passed the teenagers who had just passed us. They were walking and pooped out. Judy and I crossed the finish line, laughing all the way. “What a ride!” she looked back at me.

(flickr.com/Sera-Photography)
(flickr.com/Sera-Photography)

“This was the best pace I have ever done!” I confessed. As we walked back to the trailers, I saw my friend Susan and asked her to hold Joey while I dismounted. “I broke my hand. I need to go over to the ambulance to get it wrapped then I will be right back for my horse.” Susan looked frightened for a moment, but agreed to help. I took my feet out of the stirrups and dismounted for the first time since I heard my hand snap. Unexpectedly, I felt everything spinning around and I almost fell over.

“Ohhh!” Susan cried. She looked at me, then at Judy. Judy shook her head, as she knew there was no stopping me.

“I’ll be right back,” I tried to reassure my friends, staggering off toward the ambulance. The young EMT squad was sitting in director’s chairs with nothing to do. All three of them stood up when they saw me coming. “Hi, I broke my hand. Can you help me?” My voice had gone from strong to weak as I held my right wrist with my left hand and flopped into one of the director chairs.

“As loud sirens and flashing red lights cut through the quiet peacefulness of the Amwell Valley countryside, the co-pilot turned to me and proudly announced, “We will have you at Hunterdon Medical in no time.’”

“Mrs. Vurgason, what happened?” The young female squad member looked on worriedly.

“I broke my hand at the beginning of the ride. Do I know you?” I was feeling sick, but not too sick to know someone knew my name.

“I am Amanda. I went to school with your son, Aaron. I used to go to the wrestling matches to watch him wrestle.” She was not shy as she gently put her hand on my shoulder. I studied her for a moment and then I remembered—she was the girl who had the beautiful singing voice.

“I remember you now,” I said giving her a big smile as the feeling of nauseous returned. I leaned forward and unbuckled my belt.

“Let me help you with that,” Amanda offered, giving one end of the belt a tug. As she pulled and pulled, the belt kept getting longer. When she was finished pulling, she held the belt in the air, displaying the size of it for all to see. Suddenly, I felt more horrified then nauseous.

“Hey, put that thing down. We don’t need to show everyone how big my belt is!”

“Oh, sorry,” she said in disbelief, as if my belt size was not what was most important. She proceeded to remove my right glove while the other squad members looked on. I made the mistake of looking at my hand. There was a large lump at the fracture point, surrounded by black and blue. Immediately, the hand began to swell and I almost passed out.

“Get the stretcher,” I heard Amanda say to the squad. As I was being strapped on the stretcher, someone came over and informed me that had Judy arranged for someone to drive my truck and trailer back with the horses.

“That sounds good,” I responded. I was certain the horses were in safe hands. The crew began to lift the stretcher onto the ambulance.

“Don’t drop me!” I called. I was serious but pretended I was joking. Amanda sat down in the back of the ambulance with me and started writing on her clipboard. “I am going to monitor your vitals on the way to the hospital,” she said. I heard the driver and co-pilot start the engine. The co-pilot chuckled.

“Yeah, let’s get the siren and lights going!”

Urgently, I tried to sit up against the straps, but I couldn’t move. I shouted back up to the boys, “No sirens or lights until we are out on the road. The horses will spook and cause an accident!”

“No sirens or lights yet!” Amanda reiterated as she took out the blood pressure cuff. A minute later, the ambulance pulled onto the country road and the co-pilot turned to Amanda.

“Now?” he asked.

“Okay,” Amanda said softly, slipping the blood pressure cuff off of my arm.

As loud sirens and flashing red lights cut through the quiet peacefulness of the Amwell Valley countryside, the co-pilot turned to me and proudly announced, “We will have you at Hunterdon Medical in no time.”

I knew Hunterdon was the closest hospital, but this was not really an emergency, and all of my doctors were at Princeton Medical. So I politely asked if it would be too much trouble for them to take me to Princeton Medical.

flickr.com/Paul Long
flickr.com/Paul Long

There was some discussion up front, where I noticed the driver was clenching the steering wheel and peering out the windshield as if driving the Indianapolis 500. Amanda cut in. “We will take Mrs. Vurgason to Princeton if that is where she wants to go!” The driver shrugged his shoulders. Amanda took out her cell phone and called her brother. “How do we get to Princeton Medical from Amwell Valley?” she asked. After a few moments, she hung up the phone and shouted to the driver, “Turn the ambulance around! Princeton Medical is the other way.”

This is not a good sign, I thought to myself. The young driver whipped the ambulance into someone’s driveway as the sirens blared and the lights flashed. The vehicle came to an abrupt stop and Amanda lost her balance. Her clipboard fell off her lap onto the floor. Quickly, the driver backed out and headed in the other direction.

“Kids,” I called from the back, “maybe it would be a good idea if you turned the sirens and lights off until you at least know where you are going?”

“Turn the sirens and lights off!” Amanda called, as the ambulance barreled down the country road. When the road abruptly ended in a T intersection, the driver turned back to Amanda.

“Now what?”

Amanda advised them to turn right, and after some mumbling, they did as she instructed. A few moments later, the driver pulled into another driveway and turned around again. “This ain’t right,” he grumbled.

Amanda took her cell phone out and called her brother again. Since I was strapped to the stretcher, I couldn’t see out the windows to know where we were. I was glad that I was not dying or bleeding. “Turn around again,” Amanda instructed after hanging up her cell phone. “You were going in the right direction.” The ambulance turned around for the third time.

After a few miles, the driver sighed with relief, “I know where I am now.” The co-pilot pointed to a farm he recognized and asked Amanda if he could turn the sirens and lights back on.

“Let’s wait until we are on the main road,” I suggested, before asking Amanda if she wouldn’t mind calling my son. “Tell him to call Devon and ask her if she would ride Joey in the combined training event at Bucks County Horse Park next weekend.”

“Who is Devon?” Amanda wanted to know.

“Devon is Aaron’s fiancé.” I said with a giggle.

“Oh, Aaron has a fiancé?” Amanda straightened her back and delicately dialed on her cell phone.

“Yes, and she is a rider,” I said.

Amanda hesitated when Aaron answered. Then she said, “I have your mother in an ambulance on the way to Princeton Medical Center and she wants you to call Devon….” I could faintly hear my son’s voice from the stretcher before Amanda handed me her phone.

“He wants to talk to you.”

After reassuring him that I was okay, Aaron understood what I wanted him to do. He was not happy about it. “Shouldn’t you be more concerned with your hand than a horse show?”

“I already sent my entry in and it is not a horse show, it’s a combined training event.”

“It’s all the same to me,” he huffed. Dad and I will meet you at the hospital.” I handed Amanda back her phone as the ambulance turned onto the highway.

X-rays showed my hand was broken and surgery followed a few days later. The next weekend, I was a one-handed groom for Joey and Devon at the Bucks County Horse Trails, where they placed in their division, and all was right with the world that day. .

*****

That is my story and I am sticking to it. Stay tuned for what happens next. God Bless all who read my story.


About the Author

(Courtesy of the author.)
(Courtesy of the author.)

Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, Peggy competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John.

Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, a book for elementary equestrian students and teachers, and Long Ears and Short Tales, fiction stories for the Brayer magazine. She is also the author of Hootenanny Spirit,a soon to be published novel about her beloved childhood horse, Hootenanny, and how he has returned to her in Homerun Joe. Peggy and George reside in Newberry, Florida.

Read more from Peggy Vurgason.

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