Horse Play

Once Upon a Weekend of Not-So-Happy Accidents

Peggy Vurgason recounts four days when everything went wrong, and somehow, all was right with the world.

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

This is a true story that took place over a four-day period, beginning with Thurs afternoon and ending with Sunday morning. It is interesting and eventful. The names have not been changed in efforts to either honor or embarrass the characters involved. So let us begin…


On Thursday, my husband George and I planned a trip to Island State Park Beach in New Jersey with my horse Joey and his mule Billy John. Horses are allowed on the beach during off season. It was something we have been wanting to do for a long time, but kept putting off. George wanted me to take my molly mule, Mary Lou, but I felt more confident with Joey, since he had been on the beach before. There was no concern about Billy’s behavior. He is always solid.

Mary Lou has never been home alone before, so I took her to a nearby farm for the day. She would have plenty of grass to chow down on and could meet some new friends. As a rule, I always take halters off when horses are turned out, but since she was not at home, I left her halter on. I checked to make sure it was properly adjusted, and of course, it was a breakaway halter. Within seconds after I shut the gate, Mary Lou got her foot stuck in the halter and jumped in the air. The halter broke—because that is what it is supposed to do—and then she fell down. I quickly ran to the fence to see if she was okay. She looked at me, got up, and started eating grass. She was not fazed at all; she was content. All was right with the world.

We had a late start leaving for the beach. It took us two hours to get there because George was driving and men don’t like to follow directions. It was 4 p.m. when we pulled into the park. There was a sign that read, ‘Please do not feed fox.’ I found that rather odd; I didn’t know fox lived at the beach. Then, as we were unloading Billy and Joey, the most beautiful red fox trotted up to our truck and trailer looking for a handout. He appeared to be very healthy and well fed. His thick red coat glistened and black markings decorated his face and legs. He stood within six feet of us and was not the least bit afraid. At first, the horses were a bit concerned, but since they are used to our dogs, they eventually paid him no mind.

I really wanted to sneak him a dog biscuit or two that we always carry in the truck. However, I didn’t dare because my husband was watching. He thought we should obey the sign for some reason. So I ignored the precious creature and got busy tacking up. Our ride would be short because the sun would be setting soon and it would be dark.

There were only a few other people in the parking lot. Seagulls were searching for food, dropping down near the trashcans and squawking at each other. I wonder what they are talking about? I thought to myself, watching them fly toward the ocean and back again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the fox lying near the bushes, watching us. The day was cloudy, dreary and even kind of eerie.

( Canon)
( Canon)

We mounted our horse/mule and headed down a sandy trail through some thicket to the beach. Big Brother Billy John led the way with George on top, and Joey and I followed. As the trail opened into a wider path, the ocean was in full sight, about 300 feet away.

Then, Big Brave Billy John froze in his tracks. His huge ears stood straight up and his nostrils flared. I suggested that we stand still for a few moments and let the animals relax, since there is no forcing a mule—especially when that mule stands 17.2 hands. I thought since Joey had been to the beach before, he might lead the way. However, since Big Brother deemed it was not safe, that was good enough for Joey, who refused to go any closer. Suddenly, both animals looked at each other and then spun around and headed for the trailer. Joey tried to buck, but fortunately, I still have some cowgirl left in me, and I prevented him from doing so.

We walked back to the trailers and let them settle down. Then we decided to try the trail to the beach again. This time, we got a little farther before Billy said, “I am out of here!” and Joey said, “Wait for me!” We tried the path four more times that day and never got as close as we did that second time. Billy was still very upset—unusual for him because he is so solid. Joey was upset—but usual for him because he is so goofy. We walked around the parking lot and talked to the fox, then we called it a day. They were both very happy to load onto the trailer and go home. Shortly after, I picked Mary Lou up from the neighbor’s farm, and she was also happy to go home. The three animals enjoyed a nice dinner and all was right with the world.

Later that night was Beer Night. Every week, George and about six to eight guys have a bonfire in the yard. They have a few beers and solve the world’s problems. There has never been any trouble, and Beer Night is always peaceful. This time during the “festival,” George got up to stoke the fire and tripped over a branch from the firewood pile. During that same festival, two other guys had tripped over the same branch. The men did not think to move the branch after the first guy fell. George was sore that night, but fortunately, no one was hurt, and no one fell into the bonfire. The next day, which was Friday, George recuperated, and all was right with the world.

George and Bill. (Courtesy of the author)
George and Billy the mule. (Courtesy of the author)

Later that same day, Sam and Charlie, our two labs, were outside playing very hard, as they often do. Sam limped back into the house holding his right hind leg up. I gave him an aspirin and tried to make him comfortable. The next morning, I noticed he was still turning his toe out on that leg and I called Orlando Family Chiropractic and asked what would be a good time to bring Sam in to get adjusted. George and my son Joseph made fun of me and insisted that I take him to the vet instead of a chiropractor for people. Of course, being Italian, I stood my ground. I knew Dr. Mary was good with dogs. Sam limped terribly into Dr. Mary Orlando’s examining room. Mary is a kind woman and gently worked on Sam’s neck and hip. Sam walked out of the examining room without limping, and jumped into the car pain-free. All was right with the world.

As it happened, my oldest son Aaron was up from North Carolina for the weekend, and we made plans to go to Sal DeForte’s, my cousin Debbie’s restaurant, after five o’clock mass that evening. That same weekend, I was feeding my friend’s horses while she was away. I started early so I could have all of the animals fed before it was time to get ready for mass.

I took care of my horse and mules first, then went to my friend’s barn to feed her horses. As I was walking through the barnyard carrying grain buckets, my left foot got stuck in the mud and I went down on my left knee and landed on a rock. “Ouch!” I yelled, letting go of the grain buckets and clenching my knee. The pain was immense. I closed my eyes and could not move for a few moments while four older horses slowly walked over to me.

My first thought was that I could get trampled while kneeling on the ground with grain buckets. I wanted to cry, but instead, I said, “Cowgirls don’t cry.” The horses sensed something was wrong and gave me my space. I finished feeding, then limped back to my car and drove home. I took a nice, warm shower, then dressed for mass and dinner. As I was going out the door, I grabbed the cane. I had a feeling I might be needing it, as my knee had started to swell and hurt.

After mass, we headed directly to Sal’s. My son Aaron had also invited his friends Big Chuck and Matt, and Matt’s girlfriend, Kim. Kim is a veterinarian at the West Trenton Animal Hospital, and before the food arrived, she got a call from the hospital and had to leave to do an emergency surgery on a dog.

We missed Kim but had a very nice dinner and, of course, a wonderful dessert. Then I stood up and it hit me. My knee became very painful and I felt like I was going to pass out. I headed toward the door to leave, but I had to stop and plop in another chair. I was burning up and felt sick to my stomach. Cousin Debbie brought me ice and a bucket to puke in and offered to call an ambulance. Thankfully, I didn’t puke. It would not have been a nice thing to do in a restaurant, and especially Debbie’s restaurant.

George, Aaron and I drove home in Aaron’s black Cadillac. Big Chuck drove Aaron’s friend Matt to the West Trenton Animal Hospital to meet up with Kim. (That is, after Matt got stuck paying the bill.) The first order of business was for me to lie down while George and Aaron drove back to the barn for night check. While they were gone, I would decide about going to the hospital.

About 20 minutes later, George and Aaron were walking into the house and Aaron’s cell phone rang.  It was Matt. He asked Aaron if we would be joining him in the Emergency Room at Capital Health. Apparently, Matt, kind soul that he is, tried to pet the dog Kim had operated on as she was waking up from surgery. The dog was not in the mood to be petted and bit Matt; now, Matt was in the emergency room with a dog bite.

( Macri)
( Macri)

As it happened, our room in the ER—we decided to get my knee checked out—was across the hall from Matt’s room. We could hear him arguing with the nurse about the tetanus shot. “You are not sticking me with that big thing. Don’t you have a smaller needle?” We saw the nurse leave the room and return a few minutes later with something in her hand. We could hear him mumble something, and then we heard a screech, followed by a sigh. So Matt survived the tetanus shot with a smaller needle, and all was right with the world.

Meanwhile, an X-ray had revealed that my kneecap was fractured. They gave me a brace and wanted to give me pain killers. I asked if I could have an Ambien instead. They said, “No.”

I asked if I could have a Benadryl because I often itch at night. They said, “Yes.” I took the Benadryl and got a good night’s sleep. The pain was minimal, and all was right with the world.

The next morning, a friend of ours, Ronnie, a regular at the restaurant whom we had seen the previous night with his wife, Lynn, called George to see how I was feeling. He had a story of his own. That morning, Ronnie had found Lynn at the bottom of the cellar steps. She was unconscious and he called 911. Seconds later, she came to, and Ronnie called off 911. I didn’t quite get the whole story about what happened, but Lynn was okay, and all was right with the world.

George and I drove back to the barn for some quiet ‘pony time’ to catch our breath. Joey and the mules saw us walking toward the fence. They stopped eating their hay and walked over to greet us, knowing only too well that our visit would involve a treat. Joey noticed my cane; his eyes widened as he picked up his pace and perked his ears.

“I am okay,” I assured him, as he nuzzled my cheek with his muzzle. After they all had eaten their snack, the group went back to eating hay. I leaned on my cane and watched a gentle breeze ruffle Joey’s blonde mane. George put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me closer to him.

“I love listening to the sound of their munching,” he whispered while focusing on his mule. “The three of them are so content and get along so well.”

I looked up at him. “They know they are loved, and all is right with the world.”


So that is my story and I am sticking to it. God bless you all and please be careful.

(P.S.  I did send Matt a check to cover the restaurant bill.)

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.