Jesse and the Widowmaker

StandingJessBobWidowmaker [wid·ow-mak·er] noun – A dead branch caught precariously high in a tree which may fall on a person below. Oxford Dictionary.

Jesse 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 and Julie met us with a brand new halter and a big bag of carrots. 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 step down into a ditch and back up. You can feel them twitching under you, tensing for the jump and there’s nothing you can do but hope they can clear it and land on the other side instead of down in the bottom.

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.

JesseCamSandOct90It 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.

527JessJulie  JessSuperSweetSiderSummer85

Julie and Jesse on her ranch in 1998, and Jesse and his mother, Freckles in 1985

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.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

One reply on “Jesse and the Widowmaker”

I love that story about the tree. I’m glad he saved you but sad to hear about him getting older…makes me a little misty 🙁

Don't be shy - leave a comment!