ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. – When 19-year-old Jennifer Carothers saw her mare Melody charging toward her back window, trampling through the mud and neighing as if her tail was on fire, Carothers’ instincts took over.
Melody, gentle enough to let Carothers ride her bareback in the summer, usually steps over puddles because she doesn’t like the feel of her hooves pushing into soft mud.
And here she was galloping down the wet hillside, straight toward Carothers’ kitchen, and letting out bestial screams.
The mare had come for help. And Carothers immediately knew why.
Melody’s baby – her colt, her constant companion – was nowhere in sight.
Adrenaline, intuition and fear surged through Carothers’ body, and she was out the door.
No time to throw on a T-shirt or jacket over her sports bra. No time to take the spurs off her boots. No one else home to help.
She jumped on Melody’s bare back, yelling, “Go find your baby.”* * *
* * *
It was two days before Christmas and although December had been a cold month in Ellwood City, Pa., this day it was pushing 50 degrees.
Just the right conditions for the ground to turn soft but water to remain frozen.
As Melody’s hooves pounded toward a neighbor’s field, Carothers heard the splashing before she saw the pond.
A frosty sheet of ice covered the entire pond, except a small circle in the center where the ice was too thin to hold the weight of an 8-month-old colt.
Encircled by ice and submerged in water, the chestnut Quarter Horse named Alex flailed for his life.
* * *
The adrenaline, intuition and ar pumped harder.
Jumping off Melody, Carothers thought only about her “baby.”
Trying to make a path for the horse to escape, she stood at the edge of the pond, stomping her boots, forcing the ice to crack and shatter. It was so slow, and with each successful step, icy water spilled into her boots and soaked her legs.
Twenty minutes, or what felt like it, passed. A freezing Carothers tried to keep her mind on the job as a freezing Alex continued to cry and thrash in the water.
By the time Carothers was up to her waist in water, she knew it was taking too long. She got out of the water.
* * *
Her boots were practically frozen to her feet. She kicked them off. Barefoot, she walked across the ice toward Alex.
“If it can hold a horse, it can hold me,” she told herself.
Stroking his brown coat, she tried to soothe him as he continued wildly treading his legs to keep his head above water.
Once, twice, she leaned over the edge of the ice, trying to lift the 800-pound animal out of the water.
On the third try, she lost her balance or slipped or was just too fatigued, and head first, joined her colt in the middle of the frozen pond. With no one knowing where she was. With no one in sight.
* * *
The girl and colt struggled together in the inky water, both kicking furiously to stay afloat, Alex’s hooves striking Carothers’ ankles.
But then Alex stopped kicking.
He quieted down for the first time. He laid his neck on the shelf of ice trapping him. And Carothers, knowing what he meant, latched onto his sternum and by wrapping her arms around his neck, pulled herself out of the water and onto the ice.
Alex went back to his desperate fight against the cold water that had already held him for nearly 30 minutes.
* * *
“You guys gotta help me. My horse is stuck.”
Bob Jacobs knew it was trouble the moment he saw his neighbor girl, drenched and barefoot, knocking on his door.
Pulling on shoes, Jacobs, his two sons and his wife took off with Carothers to the pond 100 yards away.
Alex’s situation hadn’t changed. All they could see was his head bobbing in a 6- to 8-foot circle of water.
Then things happened rapid-fire.
Jacobs told his sons to grab life jackets and their canoe.
Police – no one is sure who called them – were standing on the hill, looking down at the pond, trying to find the hidden drive to the location.
Jacobs was in the canoe, using an ax to break the ice.
Carothers hurried across the ice to comfort her colt.
Jacobs told her to come back.
Police and fire teams found the driveway.
An ambulance arrived and Carothers was wrapped in blankets and put in the back of the truck.
Jacobs’ mother-in-law called a vet.
Two firemen took over Jacobs’ canoe and busted their way through the ice, toward the still-frantic Alex.
And as soon as the firemen had a path to freedom chopped into the ice, Alex bolted out of the water.
* * *
As Jacobs’ wife put a rope around Alex’s neck and rubbed his stiff, wet body with blankets, Jacobs headed toward the ambulance.
“Everything’s OK. He’s out,” Jacobs told Carothers, and she cried.
As the vet arrived and put the colt on an IV, the ambulance took Carothers to the hospital.
* * *
That evening, after getting a short rebuke from her father for trying to save the horse on her own, Carothers’ parents took her home.
The doctors said to stay inside for at least 24 hours. The worry was hypothermia.
But Carothers had to see Alex. The last time she’d seen him, he was still in the water, fighting and terrified.
She flicked on the light in the barn. She wanted to see for herself he was OK.
She found the colt asleep next to his mother.
All was well.
She turned off the light.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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