Most of my life I have found it easier relating to animals. You feel with an animal, he has the power,the instinct, and it is pure without corruption. To communicate you show, you interpret, you sense and feel. If your requests are honest and your means of empathy correct you develop that connection between two entities. Humans gain access to another world, a less complicated world were you also receive the animals power and strength. This other world I believe, taps into our most primordial inner self and finds us at home and at peace. An animal will give of himself to the very death for his master,(his god). This is the true story of such an animals devotion to his master, and the heroic rescue mounted to save him.
My husband and I have ridden and trained horses most of our lives. We’ve shown and bred most types. My husband originally from Tennessee had fond memories of his boyhood ridding Walking horses through the mountains of Eastern Appalachia. He had migrated north and with Walking horses not being prevalent in this area he stayed with horses working and training other breeds.He frequently related stories of the back hills and the horses he knew as a boy with a yearning and love in his voice.
Christmas 1988, I went to his home town and obtained a young stud colt, “Pride Of Stoney”. As luck would have it the colt was named after Stoney Creek were my husband was born and raised. Al,(my husband) raised, trained and promoted the colt taking Reserve Halter Champion. Everywhere you saw Al you saw the colt, they were a two some right from the start.
Stoney was a member of the family with all the traditions. Yes, there were the traditional baby pictures showing his growth and development. Manners that every child needs to be taught , and we took great pride in his growing into adulthood. Al bred and serviced mares with the stallion, Stoney always the perfect gentlemen. There were some 10 grandchildren,(so to speak), from Stoney in his brief time as a stallion. Trail ridding was Stoney and Al’s forte, their true love, so at the age of 5 Stoney was gelded. The Vet called frequently to check on Al . You see he knew Stoney would be fine but Al was taking it awfully hard.
By this time we were exclusively into Walking horses and loved them. We had been on the Michigan shore to shore ride traveling across the state almost 300 miles. We had gone on numerous pack trips and in 6 months put over 800 miles on our horses. Trail ridding was the norm, Al and I went places only our boys could take us. We loved the adventure, the challenge, the getting back to nature. We enjoyed the idea we were going places and experiencing things few people could. If there was difficulty, danger, or rough going; it was Al and Stoney who lead the way, pulling the horse out of the bog, ponying the nervous colt, or trying the unsafe trail first. The two of them concurred the seemingly impossible together.
When planning our vacation we decided to visit The Great Smokie Mountains National Park. We would take the horses and visit Cades Cove where Al’s great-great uncle had been the first white settler. The Great Smokie Mountains with it’s 850 miles of trails and all of it’s splendor. It seemed a challenge and an adventure to be sure , but our boys were up to it. This would be the “Mother of all trail rides”. Friends of ours decided to come with us on this incredible journey, little did any of us know what lay ahead or how we would be grateful to come home alive.
Funds everywhere had been cut and the park service was no exception. The spring of “94” had been an especially hard one, many floods had washed roads away completely. We were assured trails were fine to check with local rangers for specifics. And so we headed out to find our adventure.
Getting to the Park, the 14 hours south should have been an indication of things to come. The hitch broke on the trailer at Cincinnati, Stoney kept his cool in the new trailer we had bought him as it hit the cement. Luckily there were no injuries , we got it welded and were back on the road .
Entering the park you sensed a greatness and magistery. You became aware of what seemed a whispering barely audible at first but becoming clearer the deeper into the park you traveled. The voice was carried it seemed on the wind , it was the sound of the mountain. The beauty was awe inspiring, so vast, so larger than life, and making us feel so insignificant. We started up New Found Gap road where you climb approximately 6,000ft. Your ears pop, your stomach is in your throat . Will the hitch hold, will the engine make it, will the rig make it around the switch backs? As you breathe a sigh of relief you soon realize now comes the bad part, “Down Hill”. You drop some 3,000ft. on roads that weren`t made for 40ft. rigs. The transmission whining , the smell of burning brakes, you hold your breath and hope they hold. We made it into the horseman’s camp ground at Towstring getting ourselves and the horse’s bedded down about midnight.
Our first ride in the Smokies we managed to get ourselves lost. We traveled cross country down the washed out side of a mountain. I have a terrible fear of heights and Al never does admit we are in trouble to me for that truly does send me over the edge. I kept saying , “Are you sure this is a trail”? “Oh yes” was the reply, “Just follow me and you’ll be OK”. Finally when it looked like “ Man From Snowy River “ I said ,”Al this isn’t a trail ,I can’t go down this” It was a wash out . Red sand and clay with deep cuts as the rain had chiseled deep groves with the run off. Al’s reply,”Its a trail now”! My horse knows me, the more I panic and cry the slower he goes , at times stopping completely until I regain my composure. I have learned to close my eyes or just look up at the sky and let him carry me down. We had a compass and knew camp was ,”That a way” , but in the mountains , that a way may be 10 miles up then down the mountain only to find your at some impassable divide. We found our way in about dark and with our wonderful horse’s nothing was unconquerable.
The Laurels in bloom , the creeks rushing like rapids,
the ledges, the Fire Azalea, the spectacular surroundings are only for
the sound , both mentally and physically. Now I think how naive I was thinking
as long as we had our boys even Mother Nature and The Mountain could be
tamed. The semi tropical forest surprised me and the canopy of laurels
seemed a fairy tale come true. We traveled 15 - 20 miles a day over what
is truly Gods country, also some of the roughest terrain I have ever ridden.
Of the 8 million people that visit the park every year, only 10% ever get
more than 100ft. off the road, and we planned to make up for this.
I had such confidence in our boys, we had been every where done every thing and they had always gotten us out . Areas of the trail were a ledge, just big enough for a hiker. From the saddle you’d look down at Mother Nature and all her splendor. It’s dangerous and challenging , and through it all our boys never balked, never refused or misstepped. We met people who with other breeds and types of horses lived in the surrounding states and our boys seemed to out shine them all in work and temperament. I had never seen such beauty or felt such a part of it all.
We had two back country trips planned. The first was 24 miles and the horse’s handled the packs, the equipment and us well. We had worked hard planning what to pack and the weight for each horse. Everything needed for both people and horses had to be packed in and out, even horse feed. Water was every where so that at least lessened their load. Each horse would carry 150lbs. packed weight plus rider. The trails were passable but heading into Birch Spring Gap became notably narrow, a rock outcropping angling off the mountain was the only place to step to get through. Again Stoney led the way, and every one followed. It was at this point our friend Marianne,(ridding a 2 year old Walker, out of Stoney) stepped forward and slid off the trail. My mind froze , I could see the scenario already playing out at it’s worst. Marianne using great skill bailed off before the filly went completely over the edge. Not having to fight the added weight of her rider the youngster, with the help of my husband and Marianne was able to climb back onto the trail. Stoney stood riderless were he was left on the narrow trail and when given the command continued on. The back country trails are remote and rarely used, with budget cuts the rangers simply can’t maintain them all. If you add the storm damage of the spring to the problem the road to our National Parks is paved in catastrophe.
On our second back country trip our friends (because of their son) decided the trails were to dangerous and would stay behind in base camp. Marianne told me latter she had a premonition the night before , something terrible would happen. She couldn't shake the feeling if they went they might not come back. It had been raining so hard my husband and I checked with the park ranger, filling a route permit and inquiring of trail conditions. Flood warnings had been posted for all of North Carolina, but we were assured up this high the trails would be fine , and although getting through the first couple of mountain streams might be difficult we were cleared to leave the next morning.
The horse’s were quite a sight , so loaded with feed and equipment it was difficult to mount them. They were good strong horses and up for the 32 miles of climbing to an elevation of over 6,000ft. Marianne still concerned watched us as we left making us promise to turn around if things got too bad. If only it had been that easy.
We had made good time in rough conditions and were ahead of schedule when we reached the Balsam MT. trail. As we started in the trail was so overgrown we couldn’t see where we were or where the trail was. We could however see the weather system below us coming in. A mounting feeling of doom was edging into me and I kept making suggestions to turn back. We had to find a place were you could turn around with out falling of the mountain and with this weather system moving in we had to find shelter. We felt trapped as if some unknown force was sucking us in further and further. How the horses walked the trail I don’t know. Stoney led the way acting as if he were walking on egg shells, his nose to the ground each step he tried.
We found out latter the Balsam MT. trail is one of the most remote and rugged areas of the park. Even the ranger hadn’t been up there. An ice storm had toppled trees some 4 years earlier and that was the last people could remember the trail being used. The only death at Cattalouchie had happened on this same trail. With park funds cut no maintenance had been done in years. Places in the trail were not even a foot path,at one point nothing was left of the trail but a rock strategically placed filling the void between air. At least a half dozen fallen trees to big and low to get under and to high to get over crossed the trail. Other trees that had to be crawled under ,or jumped while making sure you hit the foot wide remains of the trail on the other side. The Balsam MT. marks the head waters for the Big Creek and all the rain had washed what was left of the trail away.
As R/C,(my horse) strided across air to reach the single rock outcropping I became hysterical, frozen in fear screaming as he balanced there. No words can describe the shear panic of what seems assured death at each and every step, feeling yourself falling hopelessly at every breath. The trail was impassable , we couldn’t turn around there was no place to make an emergency shelter for the night ( there wasn’t enough trail left to lay down on). Al rationed surely they wouldn’t send people up here, it had to get better, this was a bad section if we get through this we would be home free. If we could make it to Tri Corner Knob we would have shelter for the night against the storm. The rain was blinding and my mind simply couldn’t go on. Exhausted, overwhelmed with fear my husband finally got me to stop screaming by rebuking me for scarring the horse. He got me quieted down and we began to literally traverse the side of the mountain. Each time we would think the worst behind us and each time the task became larger bringing us deeper and deeper into trouble.
Stoney went places even today I would swear impossible, pulling himself , my husband ,the weight of his gear and leading the way for R/C. and myself. He was our hope to get through. I followed as if a machine , numb without emotion left in me. It took us 9 hours to go 3 miles. Stoney scrambled to keep his footing with Al talking to him,”You just got to buddy” and the horse as if on a mission kept going. Stoney and my horse R/C were raised together, if Stoney says you can do it my horse will follow. We staggered into the 3 sided shelter at night fall. We would rest ,eat, build a fire to try to keep warm and things would look better in the morning. We did not know we were getting the tail end of the hurricane hitting Georgia.
It rained all night and was still raining the next morning. Exhausted and cold we headed out again. I left a message in the shelter log incase we didn’t make it to let people know what had happened. Al kept trying to reassure me saying,” We can make it, we got this far,Stoney will get us through he has never let me down.” Both of us could see how tired the horses were and we prayed.
Each obstacle, each traverse , each climb the horse took
that day is the story of an animal doing the impossible simply because
he is asked. In my opinion we asked more from our horses than was physically
possible, and each time my husband said to Stoney ,”We have to “ each time
the horse did the job making it possible for us to get through.
Stoney stepped forward onto a narrow portion of the trail and it gave way. We watched in horror as he fought violently to get back up onto the trail. He struggled ,fell, and rose again. Struggling to gain a foothold he fought desperately as the rock gave way beneath him. He got almost to the top where shear rock had to be scaled, he tried and fell again. Then as if mustering all his strength he managed to get to his feet and held himself there for a moment just looking at Al. I will never forget that look. Al started screaming ,”No Stoney ,you got to fight ,you can do it”, and the look seemed to say I’m sorry boss this time I just can’t, it’s time to let go. Al tried to hold on as the lead pulled from his hands and Stoney fell end over end down the mountain. Al began screaming ,”Whoa Stoney Whoa”, as if the command would somehow magically stop the downward plummet, as if somehow , some way Stoney would find it with in himself to obey. This time though it simply wasn’t with in his power.
Then I watched as the trap door opened and down Al went. His feet just went out and down he went. As I looked over the cliff I could see nothing. No husband , no Stoney, just a small path of destruction down the mountain as far as I could see. I didn’t speak , or scream, or move . I just stood there, I don’t remember thinking at all just blank. This wasn’t real , this wasn’t happening. My God , they were gone. I stood there for what placed like an eternity.
Then I heard my husband’s voice calling to me. I couldn’t see him but his voice gave me reassurance. He was OK, he had found Stoney on a ledge over 350ft. down the mountain.Neither of them could get up the rock wall so Al was going to try to go down and find a way out . Stoney refused to move, he simply would not budge. With the rain and fog encircling them it was difficult to see if the horse was refusing due to injury or he had simply given his all. Why was Stoney refusing even to try? Al tried feeling around on his hands and knees and the fearful truth became known . They were on a ledge 5,700ft. up one step in any direction and they would fall the rest of the way to the floor below. There was no way up and no way down for Stoney. Al removed Stoneys tack, thinking long and hard. He just couldn’t leave Stoney there to starve to death on that ledge. He had a knife and he would have to find the courage to use it. He would cut Stoneys throat to save him an agonizing death alone on the ledge. Al felt it was his responsibility, but every time Stoney looked at him he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Al climbed and pulled himself up far enough and called for me to throw a rope to him and he climbed out. We started the forced march for help.
We had walked and fought the elements the day before, now we were walking 16 more miles in terrible terrain. I kept going because Al wouldn’t leave me, Al kept going for Stoney. Al couldn’t leave me but he was on a quest. If he couldn’t save the colt at least he could get the ranger to shoot him. Both my husband and myself were saying good-bye to Stoney and blaming ourselves. On we went sliding down, falling, climbing, having the horse we had left pull us along, all the time thinking if only we had gotten a few more feet. If only we had not come. Al kept repeating ,”I had to leave him what choice did I have”? I kept saying,”Leave me , take the horse and get help. I can’t do this”. My husband wouldn’t leave me and most of the way I kept holding him back. My husband said allot sometimes and then nothing for miles. Each of us trying to face the loss of what was truly a member of the family.
Al walking in cowboy boots and rain gear dragging through the mud and roots and rocks. Sliding down whole sections of trail like a giant water slide only at the bottom you fell of the mountain. Down the trail the forced march for help continued. Should we dare hope for Stoneys life or should we face facts. There were times I thought my heart would burst, I can’t do this just leave me. Every time I would stop my husband would refuse to go on without me saying,” We make it out together or not at all”. I felt as I couldn’t breathe , I kept thinking , just one foot infront of the other and if you fall hopefully then you’ll die and he’ll have to leave you. I don’t have a death wish I just believed I couldn’t make it out and Al could without me. Al said he’d never ride again , never own another horse. It’s hard to love something that much. Sell the horse’s , sell the farm . This seemed the end of every thing . The sight of Stoney falling end over end down the mountain, and the look in his eyes flashed in our minds like haunting nightmares.
My horse pulled us both into base camp just before dark. Marianne had stood vigil waiting for our return , she didn’t even recognize us(we looked that bad). Then the sign of recognition in her face with the immediate question,”Where’s Stoney”? I tried to wave her off, the words could not be spoken . “We lost him” I muttered as the tears began to flow. My God somebody help us , our family hadn’t made it back, part of it was still out there. It was to late to mount a rescue that night , it would have to wait until morning. My husband begged me not to cry , each time the tears coming to his face. The ranger could do what he couldn’t he hoped . We couldn’t just leave him out there. I begged, I pleaded, I cried and hung on everyone . “I’ll do anything , go anywhere, pay anything, please he’s out there 5,700ft. standing alone on a ledge”.
Not one person slept in camp that night and still the rain came. With every drop Stoney seemed to slip further and further away from us. With every gust of wind we felt him out there. We visioned him alone and hoped morning wouldn’t be to late.
Horsemen came from all over for the rescue, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, North Carolina, Alabama and Michigan. Tony was the optimist , not willing to hear or surrender to Stoney’s not coming out. Dan had been involved in horse rescues before and nobody could out walk the funny gaited man from Wyoming. Could the horse survive not only the fall but 24 hours out there? Would he try to move in desperation and fall again, could they get him out at all? We had been told the rangers shot the animal then dynamite the carcass. The rangers would try for a human but it was just far to dangerous with an animal to risk human life.
Memories flooded back into my head of what the horses had done for us. The constant training when they were young had paid off. The impossible tasks we had asked of them ,they had done . They had given honestly and with every bit of heart they had. While on a foot ledge with full pack jump a tree and while your at it hit the 6 inch ledge on the other side. Get down on your knees and crawl under a tree while the remnants of broken limbs pierce your body, calmly step over air and balance yourself on a rock, but not too long as the rock may not be anchored that securely. The times we scaled the side of the mountain with our bare hands and on finding the trail called to the horses, the sound of them fighting to get to us with falling shale and rocks giving way as they found their way to us. How hard they had fought to come to us. We asked them to play mountain goat, while the rocks give way beneath you traverse the side of a mountain. Over and over we asked and time and time again they answered with faith and devotion. For Stoney to die on that ledge due in part to his trust and devotion seemed to horrible.
At first light 4 rangers and half a dozen horsemen started
out. They would use and old maintenance road to go most of the way, then
they would have to pack in over 7 miles climbing to an elevation of almost
6,000ft. They carried 400ft. of rope, repelling gear, axes, saws, shovels,
trail blazing equipment. Al who had already walked 21 miles the day before
tried to keep up with the man from Wyoming. Al’s blisters bleeding his
legs bursting had one thought ,
The first on the site was Dan and down he went. He told me latter it looked pretty bad and he wanted to get to the horse before Al did. Then the call came up,” He’s alive and he’s standing”! They threw ropes down having to repel to him. The men looked at each other in disbelief. How in the world can we get him out of here? It was at this point the young ranger Wess spoke up, “ We’re going to get this horse out of here , I don’t care if it’s a foot at a time or an inch at a time but this horse is coming out . He didn’t make it this far for us to give up now”, and so they started.
In camp desperation mounted, it was everyone’s horse out there. Maybe the media could help, you saw things like that on TV. No one could find a way down the mountain from base camp to get to a phone. There was a guy with a 4 wheel drive maybe if he got back he would take us. Please God they have to try. All the time telling yourself you have to face facts. What will be, will be. Minutes seemed days with everyone speculating on the possible out come. Marianne and I tried to busy ourselves, there is only so much crying and fretting, and speculating you can do hour after hour. We worked on my horse who had been injured.Half the camp feared asking or facing the black aspects of the rescue, the other half feared sending Marianne or I into yet another bout of tears. The children in camp with their glowing optimism and pure concern were a blessing. The dreaded fear in me could not be voiced to these shinning little faces. “ No we haven’t heard how Stoney is, but it’s a very good sign they aren’t back yet”. This was true the longer they were out meant they were working on getting Stoney free and he was alive. There was a chance and we held on to it.
At the rescue site it was now about 5 P.M. , every one worked desperately, each seemed to tear into the impossible task of making footholds up the mountain to get this horse out. Not one man ever voiced the possibility of failure or destroying the horse, they would not face it. Yet it hung in the back of their minds. They shot lines, used pick axes, saws, clearing equipment, shovels, ropes, and when they had nothing they dug with their bare hands. Creeping a few inches this way a foot that. Exhaustion and impending nightfall made their work all the more hurried. They had laid 1/4 of a mile of trail across the shear side of a mountain, but the last 100ft. they could do no more, there was a solid rock face. They had taken the only route open to them and still the last 100ft. was a grade so steep and of rock nothing could be done.
Tony brought water , Dan brought electrolytes, between these and seeing a partial route of escape open Stoney seemed to liven up. Jerry another rescuer on the scene well versed in horse’s said to Al, “ You know your horse, can he do it”? Al thought Stoney could. Jerry spoke again, “ If he goes crazy and starts fighting we can’t hold him, on the other hand after everything he’s been through if he doesn’t have enough fight left in him we can’t get him up the last 100ft. Does he have it in him”? A winch was out of the question the horse wouldn’t have any legs left. Rump ropes would only impede what Stoney now had to do on his own.
Jerry and Ray would attach 2 ropes to Stoneys halter and
stand at the top of the trail . If Stoney lost his footing they hoped they
could hold his head down enough to keep him from falling over backwards.
Al would be at the bottom giving encouragement , Al had to stay clear of
the horse, Stoney might fear injuring Al and in the momentary pause lose
the fight. The men had done all they could do , Stoneys life now hung on
this last all or nothing attempt. My husband was sure Stoney could do it
and said ,”He’s never let me down, he won’t go crazy if I’m here. If this
is physically possible and I ask him he’ll do it”. Everyone was ready,
everyone held their breath as Al gave Stoney a finial pat of love, let
go of his halter, stepped back and screamed “Get it son”.
Stoney is on R & R , nothing but cuts and bruises from his ordeal . Al and I can finally walk again and truly believe in miracles. To everyone who cared and worried and fought to save a horse, we can all bathe in the knowledge of what mans inner strength can accomplish when called upon -