This is a true story and happened June 8, 2007. Fourteen years ago today.
As I write this, a thunderstorm is sweeping across the farmland west of me. The air rumbles, the wind picks up, and lightning splits the sky.
The heavens remember too.
Four images stay with me long after the lightning strikes. They are prophetic, foreboding, devastating, and beautiful.
In the first, I’m outside closing the stall window in the rain. Baldwin–a gorgeous, 17-hand, Dutch-Warmblood –is inside and does not come to the window, like he usually would, to see if I might feed him a treat. It is here I first consider not driving down to feed the outside horses. There are four of them: Blackjack (my kind senior), and the three yearlings, highly bred and equally expensive. I do not know yet that this is a tornado; only that there is a severe thunderstorm warning, and I am feeding the horses alone.
The rain is heavy and sideways, and the wind nearly knocks me down. I have to push the stall window hard to close it. The sky is a color I have never seen, black-green with darker clouds swirling. The wind is blowing in all directions simultaneously. I don’t realize this means it forms a funnel. I run the short 20-feet from the barn to the truck, battered by a storm that evokes pictures of Zeus, the Greek God of Thunder, glowering atop a mountain throwing boulder-sized bolts of lightning. Tree limbs snap and break, and it’s raining so hard I can’t see through the fiercely-swiping wipers. I drive through this hell to the hilltop and stop, searching the field in front of me.
The second image is Blackjack’s face as he looks out from the shelter. I’ve decided that if the horses are inside, I won’t go further. If they are waiting at the fence, I will get out and feed. At first, I don’t see anything, and then his head appears. I see his long black face and the white blaze and my heart falls with the rain; they’ve seen me now, and they will come to eat.
Four horses leave their shelter and walk toward the fence. I am 100 yards away in the truck and groan at their stupidity. And then a third still-frame in the movie. Light and sound split the sky, shattering it with electric-white and yellow-pink lightning.
Four horses were walking; now there is one on the ground.
As a child, I galloped across my yard, whinnying. I didn’t want to own a horse; I wanted to be one. Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, I didn’t climb on the back of this magnificent creature until I was in my late teens. It was a guided ride, single-file, and mostly walking. My horse was slow, and he fell behind at one point and had to trot— maybe all of five-feet—to catch up. I fell off.
My earliest horse memory was watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown in 1973. I was six, and he was stunning. A quarter of a century passed before I learned to ride, and I did it at a dude ranch in the majestic Colorado mountains. Three months later, I moved there from New Jersey.
A horse was everything I wanted to be. Strong, beautiful, wild, and free. A reminder that when all else fails, run. I rode with abandon the first year, across an 1800-acre mountain ranch. My guide now, a Mormon cowboy who was a wrangler at the guest ranch I’d visited the summer before I moved. He was 21 to my 32; clearly, there was a method to my madness, but that was hard to explain to his very Mormon parents when they wanted to know what I saw in their son.
“Well, he’s a cowboy,” didn’t seem to be a sufficient answer.
The love affair had begun, and not the one with the cowboy.
For ten years, I worked my way into the horse field, literally. I adopted two ancient and beyond broke ranch horses I only ever rode bareback with a rope halter. I learned to care for them, to overcome ignorance with desire and risk with necessity. Horses are dangerous, and I was often afraid. I wanted to ride like the wind, and sometimes I did. Fear was small compared to destiny, which held the reins too— while a beautiful head rose in the air and four hooves thundered beneath me.
In 2004, I got my first paying job as a trail guide in the Poconos. For my interview, I managed to saddle a horse correctly and even get the bit half in his mouth, to no amazement greater than my own. When I began to work the next week, I was full of dreams and stupidity. This job was baptism by fire, and I burned daily. The stable owner was an alcoholic, and I was an immediate target for being short. Even simple things were almost impossible like heaving a thirty-pound saddle onto the back of an 18-hand horse in a narrowly confined standing-stall. I did it anyway.
The rain has no remorse and pounds the truck. Lightning continues flashing, and I sit there stunned.
I need to get to them, but I need to get Liz too.
She owns Baldwin, the three yearlings, fifteen other horses, and the 150 acres of beautiful, private farmland here on Long Island’s North Fork. I’ve worked for her two years now, managing the farm just a few months.
Liz is fascinating— a writer, artist, old punk-rocker, and avid horse insaniac. Her grandmother was the founder of Imagist poetry. Literary genius doesn’t run in this family; it stampedes. Liz’s father ran a successful New York publishing company. Her youngest brother had one in Arizona. Her middle brother wrote several anthologies of the Beatles and Pink Floyd, the latter researched while traveling with the band. Liz honors her legacy by naming her horses for famous authors or literary characters. Chekhov, Cervantes, and Candide are the three yearlings.
I race the truck against the storm and down the driveway. I’ve barely stopped at the gate when I’m out and running through the front door— not knocking or ringing the bell, something I’d normally never do. The house is dark and quiet, and I fill it with yelling:
“LIZ! Lightning struck the horses!”
She’s back in the bedroom, half-dressed, half-asleep, smoking.
“I went to feed the babies, and I know they were struck by lightning. One of them is down, and I’m not sure about the others.”
“Oh my God,” she says, “Are you sure?”
“Yes!” I say. “They were walking towards me, and there was an unbelievable crash and then lightning!”
“I heard the thunder!” she says. “Are you sure they were hit, though?”
“One of them is definitely on the ground,” I reply.
She pulls on a raincoat and boots, and we run to the truck. It’s a quarter-mile drive back to the field, and she’s rationalizing, searching for possibility.
“Horses can survive lightning,” she says. “Maybe they’re only hurt.”
“I am sure one is dead,” I replied. “I could see him on the ground. I think it’s Chekhov.”
We reach the hill, and through the rain, we see not one but two horses on the ground.
Blackjack and Cervantes are dead.
Lightning strikes again. The storm is not over, and we drive to the fence, alongside the still, dark bodies. There is no time for tears, and we look for the remaining two yearlings. They are close, within 20 yards, and both are standing. Candide is holding his right-front foot up and will not put weight on it. Chekhov appears unharmed. They are still, heads down in the rain.
“We have to get them out of there!” Liz says.
“I know, but how?” I reply. “It’s still dangerous! The storm isn’t over yet!”
“We have to try, I’m getting out, we’ll have to run with them down to the barn!” she says.
The barn is a half-mile away through an open field that was hit once. Lightning strikes the sky again (who says it never strikes the same place twice?), and I pull Liz back into the truck as she opens the door.
“Wait! You can’t go out there now! You’ll get killed! It’s too dangerous. We need to wait!” I say.
“If we wait, they might get struck too!” she says.
“Just wait! You can’t help them if you’re dead! Watch the lightning, the storm is passing over us, and we’ll get a break, it’s our only chance.”
She gets back in and closes the door. We listen and count; there are mere seconds between the next thunder crash and the jagged white dagger that splits the sky. But it’s moving east now, the bolts falling in front of the horses toward where we need to run. If we wait a few minutes, we’ll be behind it. This is the plan.
“Okay, now! I’ll get Chekhov; you get Candy,” I say.
And we go out the truck and over the fence.
Horses are flighty characters in their best state, yearlings predictably unpredictable, and always dangerous. These two do not move, and I pet Chekhov reassuringly while I put on his halter.
“Easy buddy… easy,” I soothe. “Good boy…easy.”
He is secure in my hands, the lead rope fastened under his chin. We run in unison. I am aware of a silent witness. Another part of me is watching, in awe of this magnificent beast who knows to run calmly beside me. He could go from 0-20 mph in seconds, but he stays with me. I run for both of our lives.
There are two gates we must go through, and opening them while maneuvering yearlings is often a challenge. Swing too fast they bolt ahead and, if you’re unlucky, kick back also – sometimes in play and sometimes in fear – it doesn’t matter, each kick is equally damaging. Chekhov walks through the gate with me. The barn is in sight, and in we run. Liz is behind us with Candy.
It’s all a blur now. Put the horses away, feed them hay. We are surprisingly calm. Crisis brings out the best in me, and I have been here before; save the horses first and yourself later. Liz calls our vet, John, and tells him what happened. He is on speaker, so I can hear him.
“Really? Well, I know they say horses get hit often. Were they wearing shoes?” he asks.
Who cares if they’re wearing shoes? I think. They’re dead!
He agrees to come, and I’m relieved as if he can do something. He lives four miles away and arrives in minutes. Liz sends me out with him; she doesn’t want to see the dead horses. I do. One of them is mine, only the third I’ve ever owned, and I need to lay upon his beautiful body and say goodbye.
“Are you sure they’re dead?” John asks me.
I think this is a stupid question, but I answer anyway.
“Yes, I’m sure. We were in the field to get the babies and stood right next to them.”
When we reach the horses, he murmurs:
“Oh yes, they’re dead, aren’t they?”
We get out and walk to them. The rain has stopped, but the sky is still swirling— a lighter gray with clouds zooming past, now in just one direction. The air is heavy, not humid but bearing weight, as if what happened leaves a feeling. There are slight rumbles of thunder in the distance and a low glow of pink reaches above the horizon. It is dusk, and the sun is setting.
I go to Blackjack, his mouth is open slightly, eyes partly closed. He is shiny-black from the rain and lying on his side. The yearling, Cervantes, a vibrant liver-chestnut color, is smaller and lies in an identical position beside him. They have defecated; as the living often do when they die suddenly. They are still warm. I know because I lie down on Blackjack and stroke his neck.
“I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”
There is nothing left to do now, and we go to check on Chekhov and Candy. John examines Candy’s leg. He is still favoring it, and John thinks he may have been struck through the ground after the lightning hit the other two. It remains to be seen if this will have lasting consequences. Tonight we give thanks; we saved two.
Liz goes inside to call her trainer who is half-owner of Cervantes. He is an Olympic level rider and, between his expertise and Liz’s money, they are planning to bring a horse to the World Cup and Olympics. Two years later, she will breed a colt whose half-brother wins the 2009 Dressage World Cup. These are not pets; they are dreams.
I go into the house too. She is making calls and pouring us wine. I am anguishing now because I think it’s my fault. I explain everything that happened; I didn’t want to feed them in the rain, but guilt got the better of me, and I drove down to check on them. I saw Blackjack’s face when he heard the truck, and then they came out of the shelter.
“It’s not your fault Josie. I would’ve done the same thing,” she says.
She is pragmatic now.
“These things happen. Horses get hit by lightning in Florida all the time. It’s more common than people think,” she tells me.
“I wish I hadn’t gone down there at all. Maybe they would’ve stayed inside and been okay,” I say.
“They could’ve all died if the lightning struck that metal shelter while they were inside,” she replies, trying to comfort me.
I nod in response, but it doesn’t assuage my guilt. I know only that the sound of the truck brought them out. I will never absolve myself of this.
“I’m not going to sleep tonight,” Liz says.
She’s told me before she has insomnia, and I remember some Valium I’m hoarding.
“I can get you Valium if you think that will help? I have some at home,” I tell her.
“I think it might, yes,” she says. “Do you mind going?”
I’m grateful to have something helpful to do. I call everyone I know on the way home and have barely told the person on the phone when I’m desperate to hang up and call someone else. It’s trauma, the need to replay things endlessly. I am in shock and remind myself to slow down and pay attention. The last thing I need to do is wreck.
When I get back, Liz is half-drunk and wholly grateful for the Valium. There is little left to say, so I stay a few minutes and then tell her I want to see them one more time.
“I went out while you were gone,” she says.
I hug her and leave.
I go now to the grey-green field in the aftermath of a tornado.
The sky is the iridescent orange-pink that comes when there’s enough cloud to highlight the sun but not so much to block it. The air is still.
I walk from the far end of the 10-acre pasture, so they are first just a spot in the distance and gradually come into view. I have run this field with these breath-taking beings many evenings while bringing them in. For moments together, then they fly by me, hooves pounding, manes flying, breath blazing. It is my favorite feeling.
Now I walk alone. I am praying. I approach them, and I’m confused. I’m seeing things, or something is different. They’re not just dark anymore but look speckled. Delicate, pink petals cover their bodies.
Here is the final beautiful thing. Liz has pulled all the buds off her rose-bushes and scattered them on our dead horses.
“When Allah created the horseThe Koran
he said to the magnificent creature:
I have made thee as no other.
All the treasures of the earth shall
lie between thy eyes…
Thou shalt fly without any wings,
and conquer without any sword. “