The Stranger Who Changed My Life: The Horse Whisperer

The road was wet, our dad had been drinking—and we crashed, flipping our horse trailer. Then a mysterious man appeared out of nowhere.

The horse whisperer
Illustration by Keith Negley
It was a Saturday morning in early June, a day my sister Karma and I believed would end in triumph. For weeks, we had been preparing for the gymkhana at the county fairgrounds, sponsored by our local riding club. My horse, Tonka, was a sleek pinto with patches of white and brown, long white stockings, and a star on his forehead. Tonka and I could run a three-barrel race faster than any kid in the county, or so I thought, and I hoped to bring home a blue ribbon. Karma’s horse, Comanche, was a pro at pole bending, a timed race that involved galloping between tall poles. My sister also hoped to win a blue ribbon.

Clouds began to gather in the sky. Not a good sign. A little rain could turn a riding arena from dust to mud. “It won’t last,” Karma said. I hoped she was right.

My mother usually drove us to our riding events, but on this day, my father emerged from the house, briefcase in hand. He spent a lot of time at his law practice, even on weekends, and he planned to drop us off at the arena with the horse trailer. My father counseled people with all kinds of legal problems, big and small, and he accepted barter if they couldn’t pay their bills. His clients loved him, but the father we knew was distant and troubled.

Although we never discussed it, my father’s struggle with alcoholism had become the silent center of our family life. My three siblings and I were accustomed to the scent of bourbon that clung to his breath. My mother was paralyzed with fear and indecision. Her salary as a part-time nurse couldn’t possibly support four children, and no one talked about alcoholism in those days. It was our family secret.

We couldn’t talk about feelings either, but we all loved animals, and we shared in the joys of taking care of our ever-changing menagerie of dogs and cats, as well as our horses. For Karma and me, Tonka and Comanche were constant companions.

We hitched the trailer to our Blazer and led the horses up the ramp. I shut the trailer gate and got in the front seat. Karma sat in the back. We wore identical outfits of jeans, T-shirts, and dusty brown cowboy boots. My hair was in pigtails. The rain was now falling at a steady rate. My father pulled out of our driveway and headed toward the fairgrounds, picking up speed once we hit the main road. The pavement was dark and wet.

It wasn’t until we felt a big bump that Karma and I realized the car was out of control.

For a moment, I thought we were flying. The road rose up an incline to a railroad track and then dipped, and we soared out of the dip like a launched rocket. I glanced at the rearview mirror and could see the horse trailer swinging back and forth.

My side of the vehicle, the passenger side, hit the shoulder of the road, and the trailer broke off. The car and trailer rolled and tumbled away from each other as if in slow motion. There was an eruption of metal, glass, and dirt, and then all was quiet.

The horse whisperer
Courtesy of Kristen Iversen
I could feel rain on my cheek. I realized I was lying in the back of the Blazer, next to Karma, and we were facing the back window of the car, which was oddly open.

“We have to get out,” Karma said.

We could see our father in the front seat, struggling with the door.

I crawled across what had been the roof of the car and pulled myself out after my sister. She stood looking at the car, upside down in a gully, belly to the sky, surrounded by twisted metal and crumbled glass. My father’s door moved slightly, and he wriggled out. “I’ll flag someone down,” he said, his voice rasping.

Karma and I stood in shock. The dream of our gymkhana disappeared. Our eyes found the horse trailer, wedged into a ravine a few yards away. Together we walked over, afraid to peer inside.

Tonka and Comanche lay on the floor, their cheeks flat against the floorboards, legs tucked at their sides. Unlike the car, the interior of the trailer was surprisingly intact. The horses were completely still. Karma and I looked at each other. No words were possible. We knew they were dead.

Suddenly a man appeared. A man younger than our father but perhaps old enough to be the parent of one
of our friends. He wore jeans and a T-shirt. I remember a straw cowboy hat; my sister recalls only his face.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” we answered together, although we knew that nothing was all right.

“Sit here on the grass,” he said, and I sank to the ground. My legs were shaking. Karma sat next to me.

He stooped down to look into the trailer. The horses were motionless. He reached inside and touched first Tonka’s flank, then Comanche’s. Suddenly Comanche’s flank quivered.

The man turned to face us. “They’re going to be OK,” he said. “They’ve just been knocked unconscious.” He talked to them, rubbing their cheeks and gently pulling their ears. “It’s probably what saved them.”

He kicked the trailer door open, and both horses struggled to their feet. He backed them out, one by one. Like us, they were trembling from the shock and the cool rain.

He tied them to the fence at the side of the road and helped us to our feet. “Do you live far?” he asked.

“No,” we said.

“You should walk them home. They probably won’t want to get in a trailer again.”

“OK,” Karma said.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“We’re fine,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “You’ll all be OK.”

Our father was talking to a police officer. He was distraught and in pain and took little notice of us. If the officer knew our father had been drinking, he didn’t do anything about it. We untied our horses from the fence to begin our walk home, nearly a mile.

I looked back; the man was gone.

My sister and I never found out who he was, and we never forgot him. It was as if he had brought our horses back to life, and some of that magic had rubbed off on us too. He gave us strength in the short run to gather our wits, to take our two horses by their halters and lead them home. But the experience also helped sustain us during the days and weeks that followed. Many years would pass before my father could face his demons and our family grew close again. But this calm and caring stranger gave us a sense of hope, optimism, and human connection in a dark and frightening moment. He told us that we would be OK—and in time, we were OK, all of us.

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Kristen Iversen
Kristen Iversen is the author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, now in paperback.