Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A turn of events

On Labor Day, a friend and I decided to head over to the 4-H Center in Front Royal to try to do a 12-ish mile ride at the Shenandoah National Park.  The weather was stunningly perfect, and as we headed up the mountain, I remember commenting that this ride was pure bliss.  The temperature was warm, but not hot.  The humidity level was low.  There was a lovely, gentle, cool breeze blowing.  No horse flies were attacking us.  No gnats were swarming Nimo's ears.  And the creek we were riding next to was gurgling and bubbling.

About two minutes later, my friend's horse, who was a little in front of us, stopped suddenly and started crow hopping.  Both my friend and I immediately thought it must be horse flies, even though we hadn't seen any so far and her horse isn't reactive to them.  As I got closer, I could see what looked like two smaller horse flies on his hip.  I pointed them out to my friend, but she couldn't reach them, and asked if I could get closer to see if I could swish them off with my whip (a big reason I carry a whip on rides is to swish flies!).

As I asked Nimo to get closer, he started crow hopping too.  And then I realized the bugs on my friend's horse weren't horse flies.  They were bees.  Small, scrawny, and very angry bees.  We were getting swarmed by them all of a sudden, and Nimo really started to freak out.  I should note that Nimo is always completely calm about horse flies.  He typically just stops when they land on him, and he patiently waits while I figure out where they landed and try to kill them.  Once, he even stood completely still while my daughter dismounted, even though he was being bitten by a horse fly.  He waited until she got off and for me to walk over to where the horse fly was and smack it.

So, I wasn't prepared for how reactive he was.  And I was desperately trying to wrap my mind around being attacked by bees.  All I could think of was when Winnie the Pooh tries to steal their honey and he and Piglet have to run for their lives when the bees attack.  But in real life, I didn't think honey bees were aggressive.

But within another second, I didn't have time to think of anything except the extreme serious nature of the situation.  Nimo was alternately trying to bolt, buck, and spin as he desperately wanted to escape from the bees.  The problem was that we were on a single track trail on one of the steeper sections of the mountain.  One side of the trail was basically straight up and on the other side was basically straight down into the creek.  There were trees and big rocks everywhere and the trail was covered with loose rocks.

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I have never been more terrified on horseback than I was at that moment.  And I think it was the only time that I can think of where I actually wanted to do an emergency dismount, but there was no safe way to do it.  With Nimo constantly spinning and bolting and the trees and rocks, I would be condemning myself to serious injury if I tried to get off.

On the other hand, I didn't have much of a choice.  In all the shenanigans, I lost one stirrup and then the other.  One of my reins got loose too, so I didn't have a good connection with Nimo's hackamore, and with each pogo stick-like bounce Nimo made, I became increasingly unbalanced.  I even yelled out, "I'm going to fall off!"  I'm not sure what value that had or even why I said it, except that maybe I thought my friend could try to avoid me with her horse.

And I remember this moment so very clearly.  Nimo was on the trail, having turned so he was facing down the mountain.  The next step he took would be onto an incredibly steep section of trail, practically straight down.  I knew I wouldn't be able to stay on.  It was like I could see the future relentlessly approaching.  I knew I would fall to the left and hit a tree, which would force me into and probably under Nimo, so he would step on me with his hind legs as he bolted down the mountain.  And my friend's horse would probably bolt with him, so he would run over me, maybe losing his balance in the process and unseating my friend.  Both of us would be lying on the trail, likely very badly injured with no cell phone service while our horses took off.  They probably wouldn't run all the way to the trailers, though, which were about 2 miles away.  If we were lucky, they would bolt far enough that someone in one of the houses we'd ridden past would notice two riderless horses and call for help.  But I didn't think Nimo would run that far.  Instead, we would be waiting for one of our husbands to realize we were gone too long, but I wasn't even sure if they would know where to send help.

The sense of panic I felt was so intense.  And yet all I could do was brace myself for the fall.  Try to mentally prepare for the pain and try to find a way to work through it.

And then Nimo stopped.  He stopped one step away from that steep section of trail.  And he settled immediately.  And then he started turning slowly back up the trail on his own.  I can't explain why he did that, even after thinking about it for over three months.  The logical and rational among you might say that he may have realized the danger of continuing down the mountain in a panic and so he stopped out of a sense of self-preservation.  Or maybe he sensed my panic and settled out of a sense of saving me (that has never happened before, by the way, but I was pretty terrified).  Or maybe the bees weren't swarming as much because we had moved away from where they first attacked and so the sense of danger diminished.  Or maybe he realized that the stinging and biting was similar to what horse flies did, so he decided to wait for me to help him.  Or maybe we have a pretty amazing Guardian Angel.  I don't know the answer, but whatever happened, I think I owe my continued mobility and maybe my life to the fact that Nimo stopped.

I was able to get my reins back in order and finish guiding him so that I could get off safely on the upside of the trail.  He stood patiently while the bees continued to sting him and waited for me to get my wits back and then I started leading him down the mountain while my friend followed.  (Her horse thankfully did not react quite as much as Nimo did, and she was still securely on.)

After a short distance (50 feet?  100 feet?), we stopped because the bees had not followed us.  But the horses still had quite a few on them and I did too.  I brushed off all the bees I could find on Nimo and killed as many as I could before trying to get all of them off of me.  My friend got off too and did the same for her horse and herself and then we checked each other to see if we had missed any.

We walked for maybe a mile to get to the entrance to the park, where there were a couple of boulders that were great mounting blocks.  By then, our adrenaline had evaporated and we spent the remaining mile walking back to the trailers and feeling pretty damn lucky.

When we got back to the trailers, we untacked the horses and I rummaged in my tack box for some salve to put on the bee stings.  I didn't have much hope that it would help, but I felt like I should do something.  I found a jar of Zephyr's Garden salve (I think it is this one) and applied the salve to any swelling that I could see on Nimo and on me.  My friend did the same with her horse.

We had a bite to eat, and then headed home.

When I got back to the barn, I was telling someone what had happened, and he nodded knowledgeably and said, "Yellow jackets."  He explained how they aren't bees; they are wasps, and they nest in the ground.  I guess it's common for people mowing their lawns in Virginia (and probably other places too) to be attacked when they disturb a nest.  So, when we were riding on the trail, we must have disturbed a nest (that apparently wasn't there even two weeks ago!).

I told my story to lots of people (I felt pretty amazed to be alive!), and I heard a lot of stories in return about people's encounters with these creatures, and it is now my belief that "yellow jacket" is simply a euphemism for the World's Tiniest Assassin.  These are vicious, horrible things.  And unlike bees, who just sting one time, yellow jackets can sting multiple times AND bite!

That probably explains why my left hand and arm swelled up, as did my left thigh.  I had bites/stings in a lot of places, but those two areas really swelled up and don't even get me started about the itching.  It was awful!  Once the swelling had died down in my hand, I could actually see probably 12-15 tiny red scabs from where I had been bitten or stung, just in one square inch!

Nimo fared a bit better than I did.  The salve I put him seemed to really help.  I say that because I missed three bites/stings (one on the top of his tail, one at the base of his ear, and one on his shoulder) when I applied the salve and all three were crusty and pussy within a couple of days while the other areas with swelling were still swollen, but didn't have any discharge or appear to bother Nimo.  When I saw the ones I'd missed, I immediately put some salve on them, and they started healing within a day.  So, if your horse does get bitten or stung, it may actually help to apply salve:)

The worst thing about the whole situation is that we lost the prime conditioning trail for training for Fort Valley.  We ride in several places, but the Shenandoah National Park trail we were on is really the best for training for any mountain ride.  So I was pretty bummed about losing access to that trail (at least until winter started and the tiny assassins were dead or had moved on).  (I also posted on one of the endurance Facebook groups that is specific to this area to warn people about the yellow jackets - I never did hear if anyone else had any issues.)

So, I had some thinking to do about how we could continue to train for Fort Valley without the best trail...


  1. Wow, I'm glad you and Nimo are okay! I've been lucky that whenever I've encountered a swarm of wasps or bees I was able to speed up under control to get away...

    1. Thanks, Marie:) Definitely if we'd been in a more open space, I don't think it would have been such a big deal.

  2. Yikes, what a scary experience! I'm glad you were both okay (minus the stings).

  3. You are very lucky. People can die of the mass of stings from stumbling into a yellow jacket nest. I think you should nuke the site from orbit - it's the only way to be sure.

    1. I feel very lucky, Karen:) And it was good that the horses did not have huge reactions and that neither my friend nor I had an allergy to the stings. An allergic reaction in those circumstances may well have been deadly.