When Cade Cole and Jordan Jonas approached a washout on a trail in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Montana-Idaho border, they weren’t expecting their pack train to tumble down the steep, timbered hill. But when one young horse in the string scooted backward to grab a mouthful of grass, he threw himself and two mares off-balance. The three horses broke off the pack train and crashed down the hill, gear and all, before landing in a scattered disarray. Jonas caught the aftermath on video, which he posted to his Instagram on Aug. 20.
Cole and Jonas, both seasoned outdoorsmen with horse-packing experience and former participants on the popular survival reality show “Alone,” were on their way to meet a group of clients for a survival course at the time of the accident. (Jonas, who won Season 6 of “Alone,” hosts survival and backcountry skills courses.) The horses were loaded down with cookware, camping gear, and other equipment. The area they were riding to was so remote, the clients were flown in on a bush plane while the guides made the 32-mile trek.
The offending horse rolled to the bottom of the ravine where he landed gracefully on his hooves and started eating grass like nothing ever happened. One mare, a large bay named Annie, landed upside-down in a thicket of trees. The white mare, Pearl, wedged herself into the root ball of a dead tree with a broken saddle. During the fall, her saddle pad had scooted under her belly and ultimately protected her from a branch that would have likely “skewered” her.
“It looked really bad. My first thought was that I had a couple dead horses,” Cole told Outdoor Life. “It was tough for me because [those horses] are like family. We work together, we live together, we do everything together. So I was really stressed out. But then everyone was okay. We had an angel on our shoulder.”
Cole tied a few breakaway knots into a length of climbing rope and lashed them to Annie’s saddle and halter before rolling her over. The rope kept her from tumbling farther down the mountain, while the knots helped absorb some of the shock to prevent her from injuring her neck. She landed on her hooves.
Next, Cole and Jonas had to saw open the root ball to free Pearl. Once she was upright, she had to scramble up the steep, sandy hillside back onto the trail. Cole put all his force into her lead rope to keep her momentum upward. He says she let out a satisfied whinny once she was back to safety.
The aftermath of the fall is tough to watch. Cole says the video he posted is both gut-wrenching and useful for showing the less-than-glamorous side of a backcountry job to the general public.
“I’ve never filmed anything like that before, and watching back through it, I’m not sure how I felt. That’s not something I’d typically put out for people to see,” he says. “But I think it’s an interesting side to show people. That’s the reality of working in the mountains. There’s a lot of danger behind the romanticism of being out on horses. It’s a beautiful life and it’s an awesome way to make a living, and it’s really fulfilling, but there’s a downside to the good. You’re going to have accidents like that. It’s not just ‘Legends of the Fall’ or ‘Yellowstone’ where everything’s just happy-go-lucky, pretty horses in front of the mountains all the time.”
In situations like this, Cole says the most important thing to do is remain calm and keep your composure, and pay attention to your surroundings to avoid making things worse.
“At the end of the day, it’s as dangerous for you as it is for the horses,” he says. “Keep your hands clear, keep your feet clear, try to keep yourself out from in between any of the rope or horses and trees, or anything that could come down on you. But the main thing is just to take a step back and breathe.”
As for keeping the horses as safe as possible, Cole’s advice is to not act in a manner that would stress them out more, since humans only have so much control over their horses to begin with.
“If you get freaked out and panic, you’re just going to make a horse wreck into a bigger horse wreck,” he says. “It’s traumatic for the horses, too. They just need a minute to sit there and catch their breath and process what has happened. If they do freak out, you’re never going to be strong enough to grab a 1,200-pound animal and make it hold still. So just take a minute, relax, breathe, and then come up with a logical plan.”
The post Watch: Pack Horses Miraculously Survive 80-Foot Fall from Wilderness Trail appeared first on Outdoor Life.
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