The morning of June 26, 2016, Ashley MacCormick received one of those calls every horse owner dreads, yet half expects at any moment. Her gelding Mac-Talla (Mac for short) was roaming loose in her central Nova Scotia community of Belmont.
Ashley had no idea a nightmare was just beginning.
Earlier in the spring, Ashley, 28, was offered a section of her neighbours’ acreage for pasture. With little turnout on her own property, she jumped at the opportunity and worked to erect an electric wire enclosure. It was just completed when a note, screwed into one of the posts, warned her to move the fence because it was impeding vehicle access to hunting and fishing – even though the note writers were trespassing!
“I moved my fence far enough so the four-wheelers could travel around without disturbing anything,” she said. “I didn’t think anything of it because I like to think I live in a good community.”
Soon after the message appeared, however, her fence was apparently vandalized. A sizable post was snapped, the gate opened and wire left gaping in several sections. Left to his own devices, Mac escaped.
After hearing that her horse was on the shoulder of the road, a shocked Ashley grabbed a halter, lead rope and some grain and hurried to retrieve him.
In the year since buying the 15.3-hand Appaloosa/Tennessee Walker/Arabian cross as a Mother’s Day present to herself, Ashley and her two daughters, eight-year-old Faith, and six-year-old Claire, had formed a strong bond with Mac, so she assumed he would be an easy catch. But, by the time she arrived, Mac had spooked at a stopping car and bolted into nearby woods.
Other than two brief sightings within the first week of his breakout, it seemed like he had completely disappeared. His owner, along with friends, family and community members searched around the clock on horseback, on foot and in vehicles. “We exhausted every route,” said Ashley.
Coyotes and Bears?
Posts went up on social media and flyers were distributed. The RCMP opened an investigation into the fence incident. Strangers sent encouraging messages of support.
Naturally, Ashley feared the worst. She imagined Mac being killed or injured by coyotes, bears, even a train or vehicle. She also wondered if someone would find Mac and keep him. “It was like missing a child,” said Ashley. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function. It was like tunnel vision.”
The first sign Mac was still around arrived two weeks later. Ashley and her best friend Christie Cox found dried-up manure while searching on horseback near local power lines. The area was combed heavily for four days, to no avail. Then, as if she wasn’t dealing with enough, a close family member died. While Ashley attended the out-of-province funeral, friends continued to search. Still no luck. “It was the first time I put my head down and cried,” Ashley said. “It was the first moment I gave up.”
On July 17th, Ashley’s neighbour and son spotted manure at the gate of a provincial power substation about 15 kilometres from her home. Hearing the news, Ashley rushed to the site. “I kept hoping,” she said. “My heart was pounding. I felt like I was so close. I really thought I was coming home with him that night.”
While that wasn’t the case, Ashley’s spirits remained high at dawn the next morning when she discovered signs Mac had made this location home – tracks, manure and a spot where he had laid down. Later, she came across several piles of fresh manure and hoof prints on a dirt road behind the substation where the utility was cutting and mulching trees.
While seemingly on the right track, Ashley received a call from her friend Christine. “She said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. Somebody put a picture on Facebook. They’re going to send it to you. They’ve got your horse!’”
When the photo arrived on Ashley’s cell phone, all she could see was a horse’s neck, mane and, of all things, an orange ratchet strap. “It was just his neck but I knew it was him,” said Ashley.
As it happens, one of the mulching duty workers had gone home only to stumble across the horse in his yard. Unsure what to do, he threw the strap over the animal’s neck and held on, making it difficult to get a good picture.
“The Best Feeling in the World”
An emotional Ashley and her daughters were reunited with Mac on July 18th, a full 23 days after he went missing. “And when I saw him,” said Ashley, choking up as she recounted the moment, “It was just like I was coming home. I went up to him and he put his face into me and it was the best feeling in the world because it was like he was letting me know he was okay. I just wanted to stand there and let him rest because I couldn’t imagine what he’d gone through.”
Relieved and ecstatic, Ashley walked Mac back to her property, which amazingly, was only three kilometres away from where he was found.
The horse came through his ordeal relatively unscathed. He lost about 32 kilograms (70 pounds), his hooves were chipped and he had some cuts and scrapes. These days, Ashley said he is slightly spookier on their daily rides and more protective of his food. Other than that, he’s back to his friendly self, living in his paddock right beside Ashley’s house. “I can’t bear to let him out of my sight,” she said. “It’s definitely something I never want to go through again.”
One thing has changed for Mac. His previous owner had told Ashley he was born in July – meaning he turned 14 while missing – but she wasn’t sure of the actual date. Ashley and her family decided July 18th, the day Mac was found, will forever forward be celebrated as his birthday.