After several false starts, October 17 was designated as the flight date from Los Angeles to Kona. That morning, we were putting the finishing touches on the paddock and loafing shed right up until time to leave for the airport. I had an email from Andee at Pacific Airlift confirming that the horses were loaded and the flight would depart on time. It was a very long day, but we had been instructed to arrive at the airport at 2:30 with the trailer and we would be given further instructions for pickup when the horses arrived.
At 2:30 on the dot, an enormous airplane pulled up on the tarmac at about the same time as our new friend with the trailer. The plane looked like any passenger jet, but instead of people coming off, metal livestock containers were being conveyed via a lift onto waiting flatbed trucks that drove away someplace we couldn’t see. We knew one of those containers had to be holding our precious little cargo, but it was impossible to see into them from our location on the other side of the runway fence. So we watched as the last container came off and waited for further instructions.
About 3:00, the state veterinarian called with directions to the location for pick up. We found them in typical Hawaii fashion . . . standing on the side of the road with the state veterinarian trying to fill out paperwork in the wind, and the groom that had traveled with them holding two lead ropes with two very perplexed, and very tiny horses on the other end. Transactions on the side of the road seem to be the norm here, so the informality of the transfer was no real surprise. Everyone assured us these were the cutest little horses they’d ever seen and of course, we thought so too. The veterinarian performed a quick check to make sure the horses were okay and that the paperwork was in order and gave me instructions regarding their “quarantine.” Horses imported into Hawaii must stay at least 200 yards away from other horses or be sprayed with an approved insecticide daily for a period of two months after which they have to undergo a follow-up Coggins test submitted to the state veterinarian’s office.
The horses seemed to be no worse for the wear of the trip, though they looked a little surprised to suddenly find themselves in a distinctly different environment with a bunch of strangers surrounding them.
After we signed the paperwork, we loaded them into the trailer without any fuss, Java huddling next to Comanche for comfort. We arrived at our place 45 minutes later without incident, and they unloaded like champs, preferring
to leap out headfirst. We led them into their new paddock and removed both halters after showing them where to find fresh water. Within minutes, they were eating the kikuyu pasture grass, grazing peacefully together as though nothing unusual had happened that day. Never mind that they had traveled almost 5000 miles over the past week, leaving their former pasture mates far behind. They were a new herd of two now and they stuck together as though glued at the hip as they explored their new paddock. By the time we had satisfied ourselves that they were settled in, the sun was going down. It was time to leave them for the night, so we closed the gate and headed indoors. We checked on them before we went to bed and they were still doing fine, so heaving a huge sigh of contentment at the smell of fresh manure now wafting through the air, I slept, with visions of all the fun we would have with these two swirling in my dreams.
The next morning, Tim got up as usual to make coffee, and of course, he went out to check on the horses first thing. I did not think it was funny when he came running back to the bedroom with the news that the horses were gone. Unfortunately, he wasn’t joking. The gate was open and the paddock was empty. I remembered hearing the dogs barking around midnight, but I hadn’t checked to see what set them off. Apparently, it was the horses making their escape. Tim started checking the coffee groves around the house and I jumped in the car to check the roadways. Now I was having visions of their little bodies crushed on the road. They’re about the same size and color as the wild pigs in Kona, so someone might easily hit one on the road or shoot at them thinking they were pigs. They might catch their tiny legs in a pig snare and be struggling somewhere. Any number of things could happen to them and none of them were good. I knew they wouldn’t know their way home after just one night in the paddock, nor would they know who I was if I found them. I comforted myself that maybe someone had stolen them and then I worried about how we would get them back from that unfeeling person who had taken them. After twenty minutes of wondering how this could have happened and torturing myself with the worst possible thoughts as I searched every possible road within a few miles (there aren’t many on this part of the island), it occurred to me that neither of us had grabbed our phones so even if we found them, we had no way to tell each other. In my haste to start the search, I had also made the rookie mistake of going out without a rope or halter.
I headed back to the house to find Tim holding my phone out to me. We agreed that we needed to calm down and be more thoughtful about how we approached the problem. He asked if I had seen any tracks and foolishly, I had to admit I had completely forgotten to look. So I took my phone, a halter and a lead rope, and starting at the open gate, sure enough, there were tiny hoofprints leading away from the paddock, around the fence, and uphill past the house. Clearly, that was what started the dogs barking. I should have trusted them, though it would have been impossible to round up two little horses in the dark.
I thought if I could just pull on what little tracking skills I had left from studying with a master tracker thirty years ago, maybe we had a shot of recovery. There were no people print, so my theory of theft fell by the wayside. This was a simple escape. Following the hoofprints was a study in patience. They led uphill, a typical horse behavior when faced with this sort of topography. But the ground is rocky and doesn’t hold a track well. I resorted to looking at overturned pebbles, scraped places in the rock, and trails through the morning dew on plants. Here I would find a tail hair caught on a branch and there was a chewed-off piece of grass. I kept after it for another twenty minutes, hoping our neighbors wouldn’t mind me traipsing through their coffee groves at dawn, and then, wonder of wonders, I saw two little horses calmly eating grass at the top of the neighbor’s property. A rock wall that ran across the back and one side of the property stopped them, just about two hundred yards directly behind our house. My heart rate slowed back to normal and I called Tim to report where I found them.
They weren’t panicky, but they were in a completely foreign place on a steep slope with treacherous footing and of course, they had no clue who we were. Since they’re so young, and they arrived with halters on, I wasn’t sure how reliably halter broken they might be. Was this trip the first time they’d ever worn halters? Every time one of us would get close enough to lay a hand on one of them, they would both shoot past us and into the coffee trees. Now, coffee trees aren’t very tall, but these little horses would simply disappear among them. Tim brought a pan of feed with hopes that they would recognize that time-honored sound and come running to us, but they didn’t seem to care much about it after a full night of grazing.
After we were both exhausted from going up and down hill, trying to avoid the pukas (holes) and rocks that littered the landscape while keeping the horses as calm as possible, we finally had them sort of sandwiched between us on a relatively level stretch of ground.
We sat down and waited, slowly ooching towards one another when the horses had their heads down and eyes averted. We now had totally calm horses standing in the twenty feet between us. As Comanche’s curiosity got the better of him and he started investigating the pan of timothy pellets, Tim slowly draped a loop of lead rope over his head. I held my breath as the rope caught on one ear but we finally caught some luck as a little head flip slid the rope completely down around his neck. Once we had him secured by the rope, I was able to get the halter on. Java watched all of this with interest, but was unwilling to come close enough for a repeat performance. With Comanche now in hand, Tim led him in a scramble down the slope back to our house, with Java following close behind. It took us three hours from the time we discovered they were gone until we had them safely back in the paddock.
What we learned was that our latch apparently was not fully closed. It looked like it, since the clip was fully around the chain, but in fact, the chain simply slipped through the clip when one of the horses pushed against the gate. A stupid mistake that could have ended very badly, indeed, and one that neither of us will ever make again. We now check and double-check the chains and clips to ensure that the clip goes through the chain and have even put a secondary clip on the gates in case one opens accidentally, so that there will always be a backup closure. These horses are too precious to risk losing them through carelessness.
Our new charges were off to a rather inauspicious start, but we were happy to have them back safe and sound, and even more happy that they didn’t seem to be concerned at all about any of the events of the past twenty-four hours. As we checked on them throughout the day, I was flooded with relief that they seemed to be okay. Now that the crisis had been averted, I couldn’t wait to get to know these remarkable little sprites.