Widowmaker [wid·ow-mak·er] noun – A dead branch caught precariously high in a tree which may fall on a person below.
Jesse, a.k.a. Lena’s Sweet Rum, was my golden boy until he became Bob’s golden boy and later Julie’s. Never mind that he was a bay. Bob and I had him for ten years and now Julie has owned him for eighteen. We referred to him as Jesse the Wonder Horse because he always came through, and one day I’m convinced he saved my life.
I brought Jesse home when he was two years old. My friend Julie was waiting for us with a brand new halter and an enormous bag of carrots and it’s a toss-up as to who was more excited. I started walking him in that halter every day, like a dog. We’d walk around my 13-acre pasture next to the railroad tracks and on down the road. I taught him to walk across the ditches at first and later to leap over them. If I walked, he walked. When I leapt, so did he. After we started work under saddle, I always had a choice whether to take it slow or plunge ahead.
There’s nothing more unsettling than a horse that jumps out from under you rather than stepping down into a ditch and walking back up the other side. You can feel them twitching under you, tensing for the jump and there’s nothing you can do but hope you can hang on and that they will clear the ditch and land on the other side instead of down in the bottom with a broken leg.
On the other hand, it’s fun to jump anything you don’t feel like slogging through. I recall cuing Jesse to jump one yucca bush after another to alleviate the boredom of a long hot ride on the otherwise featureless Colorado plains.
By the time Jesse was five I’d put over a thousand hours on him. He was so push-button I could ride him in a halter and lead rope. After work I’d ride him ten miles just to keep him fit. I joined the Larimer County Horseman’s Association and rode up into the mountains on the weekends with twenty or thirty other people and their horses.
It wasn’t unusual for Jesse and I to trot around the bend and find a group of riders standing beside an obstacle. “Everything alright?” “Everything’s fine. We just thought we’d wait and let Jesse cross this bridge first.” And we would walk right across so the others could follow.
It was on one such ride that Jesse saved my life. We were walking up a switchback trail when Jesse started. Reflexively, I pulled back on the lead rope to stop him from running off. An instant later a loud crack from overhead reached my ears and I loosened my hold and leaned forward. Like a bullet, Jesse launched into a full gallop and up the trail we sped. A minute later we stopped, sides heaving to look far below as an enormous widowmaker crashed upon the very spot we’d been moments earlier.
What I love about this story is how it illustrates the deep trust between me and my horse. Jesse heard the crack and reacted, I second-guessed him, he acquiesced, I reconsidered and gave him the go-ahead. In a matter of seconds we made a decision which may have saved our lives.
Jesse turned thirty last April which is remarkably old for a horse, and he may not see another Spring. Julie has given him a perfect life and now must make an unimaginably difficult decision, whether to watch him struggle through another northern Colorado winter or let him down easy. When he goes, a part of me goes with him, but this time he will be the one to show me the best way across the ditch.
Update: Jesse died of a stroke on December 16th, 2015, two months after I posted this story. Always the gentleman, he relieved Julie of her heavy decision by reaching the finish line on his own terms.