The morning began like
any other; Ayden was on the road driving again. However, today he found himself
on an unfamiliar road. Not paying attention and driving erratically, he was
sure he was headed in the right direction because all four lanes were bumper to
bumper with cars traveling well over the speed limit. Also, the four lanes in
the opposite direction were virtually abandoned, an intermittent stream of cars
traveling slowly in the right lane. Obviously, the place he had left was not a
popular destination. He felt he had no choice but to keep on going.

Ayden was so
preoccupied with weaving through slower cars, those only doing seventy-five to
eighty miles per hour, that he had completely forgotten about the passenger
sitting next to him. There was no conversation, he just silently watched as
Ayden drove. The passenger did not ask about their destination, he seemed
content to just be along for the ride. He turned to the window watching the
blur of passing trees and traffic.

Lost and moving at
break-neck speed, Ayden briefly thought that if he crashed on this strange
stretch of road he may never find his way home. Home seemed so long gone and he
was not even sure in which direction it was.

Traffic suddenly
slowed to a crawl and it immediately irritated Ayden. The passenger commented,
“Looks like an accident ahead.” Ayden did not acknowledge the passenger,
instead moved to the right heading for the shoulder to get around the obstacle
of slow traffic.

Swerving onto the
shoulder, he thought better of his escape route when he saw flashing lights and
three crashed cars on the shoulder. He held his place in the right lane and
passed the accident minutes later. The passenger said, “Well, those people are
lucky that the rescue vehicles were able to make it to the accident through
this heavy traffic. It looks like all involved should be fine. They will probably
spend tonight at home.”

Again, Ayden did
not as much as glance in the direction of the passenger. He thought to himself
that he was lucky to have not been involved and was relieved to be on the open
road once again exceeding the speed limit. He pulled a joint from a cigarette
pack and fired it up.


The neon sign of
the liquor store at the exit ahead caught Ayden’s eye even in the bright midmorning
sunlight. However, buy the time he decided he need a beer to cool his parched
throat, the exit was a tenth of a mile ahead. From the far left lane, he
crossed three lanes without glancing in his rearview mirror and made it to the
exit four seconds after noticing the sing. It was a miracle there were no cars
on his path.

He exited the
liquor store with a twelve pack and a quart each of vodka and bourbon. He thought
he was playing it safe because he was unfamiliar with the road and there was no
telling how far the next liquor store may be—may as well stock up.  With a beer between his legs, he was back up
to speed when he reached the end of the entrance ramp.

Ayden did not
offer the passenger a drink, and the passenger did not ask. He sat quietly,
content to take in the landscape.

Morning faded to
afternoon, as the weather turned colder. Clouds had thickened and the bright
sunlight faded to a gray glow on the road below that had narrowed to two lanes
in each direction still clogged with cars traveling ten to twenty miles per
hour over the speed limit.

Ayden noticed that
the road was now moving through a valley with mountains rising on each side.
The highest peaks rose into low hanging clouds, obscuring their true height. A
river flowing through the valley meandered back and forth across the road. As
they traveled, the mountains closed in and the light faded. Soon the car
labored as the grade steepened, climbing an unavoidable mountain in his path.

The road curved
sharply as it gained elevation. Deep vertical rock cuts grew up on the left and
steep slopes dropped to the right. Occasionally, on the right, were views of
the mountain that lie ahead. Wisps of fog began to blow across the road. It
eventually thickened, shrouding the traffic and slowing the pace to a cautious
crawl. Ayden’s patience quickly diminished. In frustration, he turned to the
passenger and asked, “Is there a way out of this mess?”  

He responded, “The
main road will begin to descend into a valley several miles ahead and we will
drive out of the fog.”

Ayden could not stand
idea of several additional miles creeping through the fog and exited onto a two
lane road with no traffic to slow his journey. The fog diminished and he was
again traveling well above the speed limit, happy with his choice. With his
newfound freedom, leaving the traffic behind, Ayden took the cap off the vodka
bottle again and pulled a beer from the back seat. Turning the passenger he
said, “So much for your advice, we’re making great time.”

“Yes, we are
moving along. Where are we going?”

“Don’t concern
yourself with that—I’m driving—how ‘bout a beer?”

“No thanks, not

“Okay, suit

Suddenly the fog
closed in much thicker. Ayden was having difficulty seeing the lines on the
road and the curves that lay ahead. His hands tightened on the steering wheel
and fear of driving over a cliff or into oncoming traffic gripped him. He saw
the fuzzy outline of gravel drive and eased the car off the road.

“Okay, how the
hell are we going to get out of this?” he asked the passenger.

“Let me drive, I
can find the way down the mountain.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Well, okay. I
could use some sleep.”

They traded seats
and the passenger, now driver, turned into the road. However, it seemed to
Ayden they were heading in the wrong direction.

“You’re going the
wrong way. You are taking us back the way we came from.”

The driver
responded after a few seconds, “You must be confused because of the fog and
because you’re now sitting in the passenger seat, Trust me and get some sleep.”

Ayden could hardly
hold his eyes open and passed out in a matter of minutes. He had an unusual
dream, despite being extremely intoxicated.

In the dream, he
was driving in his home town with his friends getting high, as usual. Suddenly
everyone turned against him and they were angry at him for some reason. They
drove to the river, dragged him from the car, and tied him to the hood. They
threw mud and rocks at him and shouted profanities. Then someone released the brake
and the car rolled over the bank into the water.

Ayden was looking straight
up at the surface and the sunlight fading to darkness as he and the car sunk to
the river bead. In the dream, he was thinking that he was lucky that the car
went straight down and did not roll in the current, trapping him under the car.
He believed he had a chance, however slim, to free himself. Twisting and
turning, he managed to free his hands, allowing the ropes to loosen just enough
to allow him to slip free. His first move was straight up to the air above;
however, he knew those who pushed him in waited there. So he swam with the
current to a bend in the river and surfaced out of view. He turned and ran
downstream not looking back.

When he woke, he
felt out of breath and relived that it was just a dream. The dawn light through
gray clouds half lit the countryside and the interior of the car. Ayden asked
the driver where they were.

He said, “We are
about one hundred miles from home. We should be there soon.

Ayden was suddenly
sat straight up, shaking the sleep from his foggy head, and said, “Pull over
right now—I knew we were headed in the wrong direction.”

He slid over
toward the driver, grabbing the wheel, turning it hard to the left, and forced
his foot to the brake peddle. The car careened across the deserted two lane
road, skidding to a stop on the shoulder. He opened the door and forced the
passenger out, he thought. Not looking for oncoming traffic, he turned the car
in the opposite direction and accelerated. With his head pounding, he reached
in the backseat for a breakfast beer. As he turned he caught sight of the
passenger staring out the window.

“What the hell did
you have in mind driving in the wrong direction? Where are we anyway?”

“As I said, we
were about an hour and half from home. Where do you want to go?”

“I’m looking for
something new and don’t want to go home. There’s nothing there for me. You have
delayed my travel by at least eight hours.”

The passenger did
not respond to Aden’s
angry words and they fell silent again.

All Ayden could
think about was making up for lost time. Pushing the car faster, a light rain
began to fall.

Several hours had
passed when Ayden pulled into a gas station to fill up, take a piss, and buy a
cold six pack. The stop took no more than ten minutes. With rain now pouring
from the sky, Ayden was back on the road that soon began to curve its way up
the mountain where the fog had forced to pullover yesterday evening.

Traveling too fast
for conditions, the car was sliding around the curves, not staying in the
narrow right hand lane. He slid around a 180 degree bend and was suddenly face
to face with a truck coming down the mountain. The truck tried to brake but the
wet road caused it to fishtail, blocking both lanes.

Trying to make it
to the right shoulder of the road, Ayden lost control and headed straight down
a steep wooded slope. Unable to slow or steer, he braced for impact as the
trees flew past. It took less than a minute for the accident to unfold;
however, it seemed much longer to Auden. Finally, the car slowed and suddenly
crashed a stop at the bottom of the slope into a stream. The air bags deployed,
keeping Ayden from crashing into the windshield. He laid dazed and
semiconscious, unable to move.

The passenger
dragged Ayden to the right seat and slid into the driver seat. He started the
stalled car and eased it out of the rain swollen stream, driving downstream a
short distance to where the road had crossed it a few hundred yards from the
crash site.

Ayden was now
fully conscious and could not believe that the car was out of the stream and
moving back onto the road, heading down the mountain. Nonetheless, he screamed ,
“Hold it, your going the wrong way again.”

The driver said,
“You are in no condition to drive—you are lucky to be alive. Don’t you think
it’s time to go home?”

Ayden almost felt
like giving up—he was so tired and he needed rest. However, he said, “Hell no,
I don’t want to go home. Pull the car over now and let me drive.”

The driver looked
at Ayden and did as he asked. Ayden slowly slid over into the driver’s seat, feeling
sharp pain in his left shoulder, arm and leg. He was not able to lift his left
hand to the steering wheel. He pulled the shifter into drive, quickly grabbing
the wheel with his right hand, and headed up the mountain road.

“Please let me
help you—you need to see a doctor and you need rest,” said the passenger.

There was a part
of Ayden that knew the passenger was right; however, what came out of his mouth
was, “I am fine. I don’t want to go home.” He drove on.

As he reached the
plateau at the top of the mountain, Ayden suddenly felt ill because of the pain
and because he had had nothing but beer, vodka, and bourbon for the past two
days. Unable to focus on the road, he swerved to the shoulder, dropping the two
right wheels into a ditch. He tried repeatedly to pull the car ahead, but he
was stuck, again.

“Okay, I give up.
If you can get us out of this one, I’ll agree to go home,” he said to the

“Okay then, let’s
go home.”

Trading seats, the
driver backed out of the ditch, and they headed down the mountain road toward



Copyright © 2007 Mark Holmberg. All rights reserved.

Slick's Marbles

For the last 6000 years humans have been riding horses and using them in various ways for work. However, horses existed for over four million years prior to being domesticated. During this time they evolved into one of the fastest creatures on earth and developed a sensitive alarm system. The slightest unnatural sound, smell, or unusual movement can trigger a horse’s explosive flight response. The instinct to run from danger has proved to be troublesome and, at times, dangerous to humans on or near a fleeing horse.

The first rule of equine safety is to be in control of your horse, according to Kay Head, a horse trainer I hired recently. She said, “This rule is a no-brainer; but from what I see you ain’t close.” The first time she saw Slick, I was putting the saddle on him for our first lesson and for some reason he took exception to it. While in a cross-tie, which consisted of two heavy timber posts about eight feet apart embedded in a large concrete slab with heavy chains that clipped to each side of Slick’s bridle, he suddenly reared and tried to run backward. His back legs slipped and he ended up sitting like a dog, still pulling at the ties.  Kay said, “It looks like Slick has lost all his good marbles and they have been replaced by bad marbles.” I was told that if I wanted to be safe riding Slick I had to get rid of the bad marbles, find the good marbles, and be dominant and in control, even when this 1000-pound animal is frightened and decides to flee.

Kay asked for some history about Slick’s behavior to better understand why this horse was on edge and so easily frightened. My wife Cindy and I told her about how well behaved he was when we first got him and how he progressively became harder to deal with. Cindy told Kay about the first time we experienced Slick’s dark side.

On a sunny spring day Cindy was riding Slick, a five-year-old spotted saddle horse that we had owned for about four months. We had had no real problems with him during this time. I was riding a twelve-year old Tennessee walking horse mare named Cocoa. After crossing the Little River outside of Woodstock, Georgia, we decided to take an unfamiliar trail that headed south, paralleling the river. As we approached a bridge carrying a highway over the river and trail, Slick became noticeably frightened; but we made it under the bridge with no major problem. However, Slick was obviously on edge. Suddenly a grasshopper jumped and buzzed across the trail in front of Slick. That was too much for him and his flight response kicked in. A grasshopper, weighing no more than an ounce or two, set this horse off at a dead run down the trail with Cindy desperately trying to stop him. Slick suddenly side stepped, reared, and Cindy went flying off, face first to the ground. Slick turned and headed toward me and Cocoa, with his ears pinned back. I jumped off Cocoa and was able to catch him before going to check on Cindy’s condition. She was shaken and it was obvious that she would soon have a black eye.

During the months following this first encounter with Slick’s flight response, Cindy told Kay that she continued to have problems with him. She got to the point where she preferred to ride even-tempered Cocoa. Slick realized he had control over Cindy and that she was afraid of him. And oddly, this seemed to make him increasingly fearful.

So, feeling very macho and sure of myself, I told Kay that I began riding Slick regularly. I had no problems, at first. He was fun to ride and had a lot more energy compared to Cocoa. He was obviously well trained by his previous owner. He turned easily with leg pressure and light neck reining and would quickly speed up and slow down on command. He seemed to enjoy working and his fear was in check most of the time. 

However, while riding with a friend, Slick lost it again. We were cantering when we came to a sharp bend in the trail. I leaned to make the turn and my saddle suddenly slipped to the side—I had obviously not adequately tightened the saddle or it had loosened during our ride. This startled Slick and his flight response kicked in. He broke into a run and I went flying off. Slick kept going and did not look back. By the time I caught my breath and picked myself up, broken ribs and all, my friend had returned to check on me and said he had no idea where Slick was.

When I found Slick, the saddle was hanging under him and his back right foot was hung up in a stirrup. He was absolutely wild. It took about twenty minutes to catch him, calm him down, and get the saddle off. During this time it became clear that his right rear leg was hurt; however, I had no idea how badly.

Following an expensive vet visit, we received good news that there should by no permanent damage to Slick’s leg and he should recover physically. However, there was definite permanent psychological damage. It took almost two years before Cindy and I did anything to repair this damage.

During those two years I continued to ride Slick, but it was almost always a challenge. I began to feel as if I was riding a time bomb—it was just a matter of time before he would go off. I was constantly on edge while riding and it was no longer an enjoyable pastime. I would joke that a good day riding Slick was one with no broken bones. We often rode at Kennesaw Mountain National Park, a busy public park in Marietta, Georgia, and I became increasingly fearful that I might hurt someone passing us on foot.

I eventually had all I could stand of this horse and decided to sell him. However, I needed some help to get him manageable enough to sell. That is why we hired Kay Head. Cindy and I heard from a friend that Kay really understands horses and that she had helped this friend a great deal with her horse. We figured it was worth a try. It was clear that we could not deal with Slick without professional help.

Kay started right in working on the saddle issues by having me saddle and unsaddle Slick until he no longer was bothered by it. She said that a horse will learn and remember almost anything if you repeat it seven times a day over seven days. I became very efficient at saddling this horse. In less than a week Slick had overcome his problem with the saddle. That was one problem down—several more to go.

Next, Kay began the ground-work phase of our training. I worked with Slick in a small round pen for two months, totally from the ground. I did not ride him at all during this time. Kay taught me how horses communicate and interact in a herd situation. She explained there is always a hierarchy, with some horses being dominant over others and how dominance is asserted. Kay said that I must learn how become like a dominant horse as far as Slick was concerned.

I started by learning pressure points in order to move Slick around where I wanted him to go. Two points on the upper and lower neck turned his head, pressure on the side near the stirrup would move him sideways, and pressure on a hip would turn his back end. She also showed me how to pet Slick in order to calm him down; much like his mother would have when he was first-born. This work helped build confidence between Slick and me and prepare him to respond to leg and rein cues while riding.

I then moved to driving Slick around the ring using voice and body commands, asking him to speed up, slow down, change direction, and stop, all while standing at the center of the pen. Kay explained that this is how dominance is established. She said, “Keep the pressure on him to do what you are asking and as soon as he does it take the pressure off.” Kay said, “That’s how the dominant horse in the herd works—through pressure and body language. You want Slick to see you as dominant, not the other way around.”

The ground-work went well and Slick eventually began to calm down. He seemed to enjoy working in the round pen and he was a fast learner. My attitude toward Slick began to change. I was looking forward to working with him and I was no longer talking of selling him. He became my companion—how could I even think of selling him?

The next step was to get back in the saddle. Slick’s skittishness and fear seemed to return as soon as I got on him. However, by going through familiar tasks and commands he quickly calmed down and was easily doing what I asked of him. This was not at all how our relationship had been just a few months previous.

At this point Kay taught me a valuable lesson, the one-rein stop. She explained that I would be able to stop any horse by turning him with one short rein held at a constant length. I quickly gained confidence with this and Slick would respond immediately by stopping, turning his head, and tapping my foot with his nose, as if to say, okay, you have my attention. It was a huge relief to be able to easily stop Slick when he began to get out of control.

Kay said having control over a horse and having his trust is a great responsibility. One must never ask a horse to do something he’s not ready to do and the rider must never put the horse and himself in danger. She said, “You can undo a lot of training by trying to force a horse to something dangerous like crossing a flooded stream or descending a steep muddy slope. You have worked very hard to build a trusting relationship with Slick and you must work equally hard to maintain it.”

Slick’s re-training took six months. During that time I developed a better understanding of horses and how to communicate with them. I know from recent experience that Slick’s natural flight instinct is still very much a part of him. The simplest things can scare him, such as a deer crossing our trail or something as benign as a tree stump. Just about anything can provoke Slick’s best defense, flight. But we now have tools and training to deal with this. The idea of selling Slick is gone. He is a pleasure to ride and he has his good marbles back.

Copyright © 2006 Mark Holmberg. All rights reserved.