As writers, we learn to expect the unexpected and be ready to capture experiences in words. One such moment stands out from this past winter for me.
My husband and I were sleeping in our cabin loft, on 60 acres where we keep our horses. I woke at 3 am to crunching snow below our window. I sat upright, wondering what sort of late night intruder it could be. An escaped convict heading north to Canada? Our three horses? Had they escaped from their pasture? No. We had tucked them in the barn in warm stalls due to 30 below temps outside that night. That left a moose. Or two. The crunching of snow continued. I crept to my window and gazed down at the entry steps.
Three dark rumps of … horses! But they couldn’t be ours. I woke my husband. We threw on boots, jackets, hats and gloves. The moment we stepped outside, we caught the sight of not three, but seven horses as they trotted off through the woods under a star-sprinkled sky. The air, deep cold, turned the sound of hoofbeats into drumbeats as the herd trotted off down the county road.
Now what? We couldn’t let horses disappear into the night without trying to rescue them. We’d woken more than once to the blood-chilling howls of a wolf pack. Other times the shrieking cries of coyotes. Riskier still was for the horses to continue down the county road, which joined up eventually with a busier highway. The horses, we started piecing together, must have escaped from our friends’ ranch in the other direction.
From our barn we hastily gathered halters, lead ropes, and a bucket of sweet-feed: a mixture of oats, corn, and molasses. In our Ram pickup, we set off. A mile and a half later, our headlights caught the startled eyes of horses to either side of the road. Charlie slowed to a stop.
I hopped out, sat on the metal tailgate, and shook the bucket of oats. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The horses ears pivoted toward the sound and they nickered. Though skittish in the truck’s white beam, the horses zeroed in on the bucket. “Go!” I called, knowing that one bucket and seven horses could turn dangerous.
Charlie turned the truck back toward our barn and paddock, all seven horses trotting along, jostling to get closer to the bucket. A tailgate in 30 below zero is dangerously cold without long underwear or snow pants. I’d dressed in a hurry. Now I worried my skin would freeze through my jeans to the metal. Orion and the Milky Way looked down as we turned into our driveway toward our barn.
I hopped off the tailgate, hurrying with the bucket toward the red metal gate and unlocked it. Gate wide, I scattered oats on the snow-covered ground and dashed out of the way. The horses squealed and whinnied, circled and kicked in competition for the grain. When the last horse entered, I shut the gate, then I threw them extra hay bales from the hay shed.
Horses with heavy winter coats do survive cold, as long as they have plenty of feed. Without a wind, the horses would be safe until morning. We left a message on the answering machine of our neighbors, who would wake up to an empty pasture and come retrieve their horses. Satisfied with our good deed, we returned to the warmth of our bed, feeling like true wranglers.
That night’s rescue still feels like an unexpected dream. Fortunately, when we awoke to runaway horses we were prepared with oats, equipment, and a place to contain them. To our relief, in this harsh northern landscape, it all ended well.
As writers, we need to be equally prepared to capture unexpected ideas. We need to lasso them with pen and notebook paper, napkin, or grocery bag—whatever’s on hand. Lure them in with a quick note on an iPhone. Sit down at a laptop or computer and start typing. We need to take swift action and capture unexpected ideas when they pass our way. Or risk losing them forever..