Today’s “Oh Crap” moment is brought to you by Gretchen Pelham, who recounts the story of how she recently “brained the branch” while foxhunting.
What happens when the photographer has an Oh Crap moment?
I don’t have a picture of my whopper of a “cropper” in the hunt field, mainly because I was the one taking the pictures! I always hunt with my Canon 20D equipped with a 300mm zoom lens shoved down the front of my hunt coat. When I see a moment worthy of a shot I put the reins in one hand and then drag the camera out to start shooting. Sometimes I have plenty of time to shove the camera back down my coat before my Field Master takes off, but mostly I’ve learned to shove it down with one hand while breaking into a gallop. The coat really holds the big camera steady and I can jump anything (I’ve gone 4-foot with it!) without fear of the camera coming out and clocking me on the chin. I have also had all my hunt coats altered to accommodate the camera, as they can’t fit too loose or too snug to hinder getting the camera in and out one-handed. I have the camera insured in case I do wreck it one day, and if that day ever comes I will surely NOT tell the insurance company just how it was annihilated!
Earlier this month I had gone on a 10-day foxhunting trip out west to Arizona and California with two of my Joint Masters of the Tennessee Valley Hunt, Grosvenor “Gro” and Rosie Merle-Smith. Being on hired horses the entire trip makes the whole camera handling scenario tricky, as those horses had never been trained to be a tripod. But on our last day I was riding a super little Thoroughbred mare for the second day in a row, so I was a little more secure with her. She wasn’t too bad a tripod, and I was getting some good shots. Her name was Bug, and we were both blissfully unaware of what was coming next.
The territory was very steep with some oak trees providing sparse cover in open, green fields. We were going up a ridge through the cover that was steep enough to make you pay attention, so I had the camera safely tucked in my coat. I had both hands on the reins and was ducking and weaving while holding onto the mane to keep my backside out of the saddle as Bug climbed up the ridge at a walk. Rosie was in front of me on a larger gelding, and I saw her duck under a particularly thick oak branch. She made it just fine and knowing that I was on a much shorter horse I didn’t give that branch a second thought.
There was a log or something raised off the ground underneath the branch. My mare started to telegraph to me that she was thinking this was something to jump. I was thinking of the steep grade and how uncomfortable a jump up that steep hill would be. So I took contact of the reins to tell her “No, do not jump it.” This sounds like I had minutes to think about this log, but really it was only one or two seconds from seeing the log underneath to actually going under the branch.
I remember I did duck down just before going under the branch while taking contact with the reins, so I hadn’t totally spaced out about the very thick wood substance above me. But then the mare jumped whatever was underneath the branch. Maybe she thought I was telling her to jump when I ducked down while taking up contact with the reins? Don’t know. She may have jumped that thing no matter what I did. She didn’t do anything wrong – just bad timing. Next time Bug-a-Boo, jump the troll-hiding logs AFTER you and your rider clear the branch, please.
So yep, I brained the branch. I made contact right on the forehead just above the brim of the brand new, only been worn for two months, very expensive Charles Owen helmet. Rosie told me it sounded like a baseball bat cracking on a fast ball. Rosie looked back behind her to see a horse rear up and flip over. It took her a moment to realize that it was my horse that was doing the sun fishing.
I watched Bug flip over on top of me. As I was falling I saw the seat of my saddle, empty of me, and Bug rearing up with her front legs and head thrashing about as she, in very slow motion, was coming straight over tail towards me. It took a while for me to hit the ground as the grade was so steep. When I did I must have either closed my eyes or I rolled my face in the dirt because I couldn’t see anything when I hit. I remember rolling around with repeated impacts to each side of my ribs. It was rather like what I would image being inside a dryer filled with anvils bouncing off your sides would feel like.
Then the impacts stopped and I continued rolling to slam into a tree trunk. My eyes were open to see the bark, and I watched as I bounced uphill off the tree to hit a stump. I was head first downhill as I tried to grab the stump with my left arm, but then I either flipped over my head or spun somehow to stop feet first downhill in a sitting position.
There I just sat very still to take inventory. First I noticed that my upper teeth were killing me. My head was pounding from the goose egg swelling on my forehead under the helmet. My left upper arm was throbbing. And strangely my ears itched. They were stuffed full of bark and dirt that I’m still digging out a week later.
But my legs and back were fine. I have a bad disc with a hair trigger that mercifully decided I didn’t need to deal with it on top of everything else. And my asthma didn’t even cuss at me – my breathing was fine.
I just sat there until Ben, who was behind me, reached me first. He asked if I was okay; I said something like, “Well, I think so.” I heard Rosie and Gro call to me from above, and I hollered back that I was okay. Rosie got to me next, and she later confided that she really didn’t want to look at my face. She just knew that I had missing teeth and would be all bloody. Being such a good friend, she looked anyway.
Rosie told me that she didn’t see if the mare actually landed on me as she flipped, but she did see that when Bug got up I was underneath the mare inbetween her hind legs. So the impacts I felt before I hit the tree trunk were Bug’s hind hooves doing a tap dance on my ribs trying to get away from me. Yet she never once stepped on me. Kicked me a few times and knocked me about, but she never put her full weight on me. Good girl, Buggie.
As I sat there for some reason I laughed, don’t remember why. Ben said, “Well, now that you are smiling I should tell you that your hunt coat is shredded. I could take a picture of you now, while you are still smiling because once you get up I doubt you will still be in the mood for a picture.” Such the gentleman, he snapped the shot of me still sitting there with the shoulder of my coat torn off and the back pieces of the coat still attached to the collar.
I was not bleeding and didn’t feel like any bone had broken. The camera had come loose from the shredded coat. My teeth hurt from the camera clocking me on the chin, I think. Or the camera hit me directly in the mouth, but I didn’t see any teeth marks on the camera itself. I did find sharp, black lines stained into the chest of my white hunt shirt from the zoom lens. Weird.
My left dress boot had long, deep scratches from the middle of the shin down to the toe of the boot from my metal “cheese grater” stirrup pads. So at some point my leg was through the stirrup all the way up to my shin and the stirrup had to of flipped upside down on top of my leg in order for the scratches to be on the top of the boot. But I don’t remember ever being caught in the stirrup. Double weird.
Rosie helped me walk up to the top the hill. I stared to notice all the new places that hurt and started taking inventory out loud. Then I realized I was whining and said, “Oh, I shouldn’t whine.” Rosie laughed and said, “You just got trampled by a horse! I’m shocked you are walking and talking. Of course you can whine!”
After sitting for a bit at the top of the ridge, I realized that the best way for me to get back to the barn was on the mare. Bug had stepped on herself above the hock, but she seemed fine otherwise. So I put my helmet back on (it hadn’t cracked), shoved the camera down the front of my hunt vest and got back on Bug without too much difficulty. Another hunt member, Jeff, was kind enough to ride back to the barn with me as he knew the way. I rode one-handed back.
Getting off was quite painful for the left shoulder, and that’s when I started to worry about a torn rotator cuff. When the car whip came by after I had turned Bug out (with Jeff’s help), I hopped in to get back out to the hunt. The camera was completely unharmed, and there were still more shots to get.
I was moving around okay until the next morning. Getting out of bed poised a major challenge, as did dressing with only one functioning arm. That next day we flew home. Spending all day on several planes was brutal.
I pulled about every muscle in my core in addition to a groin. I had whiplash in my neck from denting the branch. The goose egg on my head was tender. All my ribs hurt every time I laughed or coughed, and my left shoulder protested anytime I used the arm. But when I got home the gazillion x-rays at my doctor’s office showed nothing broken. Not a thing broken and hardly any visible bruising. The only real injury may be that my left rotator cuff is torn or strained (the MRI results are still outstanding). I think it’s safe to say that I was very, very lucky.
Unfortunately my hunting kit has been significantly depleted. I think my breeches are ruined – the dirt and grass stains on the backside are winning the battle and there is a tear in an unmentionable spot. I also need a new helmet and hunt coat, and my left boot will never polish up again. Looks like I will get to have that new, blue frock coat I’ve been wanting and new patent leather top boots to go with it! Wahoo!
But the worst of the fall was all the itching afterwards. See, when Rosie went to help me up Ben had stopped her. Seemed I had rolled right though a Poison Oak bush and was still sitting half in it. It spread from the only part of me that wasn’t covered in hunt livery – my face – to several spots on both legs. Itch. Itch. Itch. Poison Oak is evil.
I think I need to write Canon to tell them of the abuse that I routinely give their camera. It still takes great pictures even though I have now fallen with it three times. Every summer I have the camera body and zoom lens cleaned. One year the technician asked me after seeing all the chipped paint and dents, “What did you do to it? Run over it!?” Just about. This year I can say that I didn’t run over it, my horse did! 😉
Gretchen Pelham, MFH
Tennessee Valley Hunt
Holy crap, Gretchen! We’re glad that you’re OK, and that you clearly have an amazing (or possibly sick) sense of humor. Truly, Horse Nation has the toughest riders in the land.
Gretchen Pelham, Horse Nation salutes you!
A big thanks to our mucking fabulous sponsor Equi-Tee Mfg. for making this series possible!
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