Ranchers lead a hazardous life. When accidents happen, the nice thing about living in a rural community is friends and neighbours who come to your aid.
On a cold, windy late spring day, Don Hatch, 59, was riding a young horse to check cattle on one of his range allotments near Salmon, Idaho. He trailered the colt several miles, parked the trailer, and rode a couple miles upcountry. Something spooked the colt and it turned downhill and started running. “I was in a bad place when he wheeled and headed downhill,” says Don. “I didn’t dare try to spin him to stop him, because I was afraid he’d fall on me. It was too steep. I figured I could ride it out down the hill and then spin him. But it went from a run downhill to a buck downhill and I didn’t ride out the buck.”
The colt bucked him off and kept going. It was 3:30 in the afternoon “I landed on my arm and got suspicious that I’d hurt it pretty bad,” Don recalls. “When I went to roll over, my arm wouldn’t follow me and I could feel the bones crunching.” The dogs followed the horse a ways, then came back to him.
Don’s wife Kathy works at the post office in Salmon. She got home about 5 p. m. and wondered why Don wasn’t home yet. By 7 o’clock she was worried. “He told me he was going out on the hill, but I didn’t know exactly when he left,” she says. “He was going to put shoes on my horse before he rode.”
By 8 p. m. Kathy was extremely worried, because she knew they needed daylight to find him. She called Michael and Carolyn Thomas (friends who run cattle on the same range allotment) and told them she was going to drive to where Don parked the trailer. Michael and Carolyn met her there.
“We got to the trailer and he wasn’t there,” Kathy says. “Michael said let’s get horses and I said we don’t have time. So Michael started up the mountain in his vehicle and Carolyn and I drove back to get a four-wheeler.” On their way back they saw another neighbour, Bill Andrews, on his four-wheeler irrigating. Bill offered to help search.
“Michael’s vehicle soon overheated and he couldn’t go any farther,” Kathy continues. “We met him up there and he took our four-wheeler. Bill and Michael drove four-wheelers along parallel ridges across the canyon from one another, and Bill saw Don’s horse down in the draw.
“I saw Bill stop and get off his four-wheeler and start walking down into that draw,” says Michael. “I drove down toward him, and when I got down on a little bench across from him I could see the horse down there.”
While hollering back and forth to Bill, Michael turned off his fourwheeler to hear Bill better. The wind was just right that Michael was then able to hear a faint yell, farther up the canyon. Don Hatch had seen Michael on the fourwheeler on the skyline heading off into the draw, and started yelling.
The wind direction was a miracle. “If it had been blowing the other way I never would have heard him,” says Michael. “Bill couldn’t hear Don at all. Don couldn’t see Bill and didn’t even know he was there.” It was extreme luck to be in the right place at the right time, with his motor turned off.
Actually one of the dogs helped saved Don’s life. She snuggled up against him, trying to keep him warm. “Between the shock, pain and cold, I was shivering and shaking so bad that she came over and laid against me,” Don says. “She knew I needed body heat. But every time I’d start groaning because of the pain, she’d lick my face. With the wind blowing, that sure made my face cold! So I tried not to groan.”
Don is hard of hearing and couldn’t hear the four-wheeler on the ridge. “The dog was laying against me, and she heard Michael,” says Don. “When she suddenly raised her head up to look at something, I raised up, too, on my good elbow, and looked, and saw a four-wheeler go by about 300 hundred yards away. There was just a little open space there where I could have seen somebody. I started hollering, and in about five minutes Mike showed up.” If the dog hadn’t alerted Don to the four-wheeler he wouldn’t have started hollering.
“I was sure happy to see Mike,” Don recalls. “It was about 9 o’clock when he found me. He took off to tell Bill Andrews where I was, then went to the top of the hill to try to get cell service to call Carolyn.” Michael told Carolyn to call 911 for an ambulance.
“Bill came leading my horse and wondered what to do with it,” recalls Don. “I said pull the saddle and bridle off and turn him loose. I told Bill we can worry about the horse later. If he’s loose he could fend for himself.”
Michael went back the next day to find the horse again. “I hunted every hollow and never did find it,” says Michael. It was several days later before the horse was found. After realizing how difficult it was to relocate the horse, Michael says it was truly a miracle they found Don so quickly. He wouldn’t have survived the night. Don had spent six hours on the ground and was cold from wind and rain, and going into shock. If Don hadn’t yelled at just the right time, Michael wouldn’t have found him. “A person lying on the ground in the sagebrush is hard to see,” says Michael. “ When I drove in the direction of his hollering I darn near ran him over before I saw him.”
The search and rescue people got there at dark. They put Don on a backboard and onto a cart behind a four-wheeler, to take him to a jeep track where they met the ambulance. In the ambulance they worked to warm Don up.
The ambulance crew called for a helicopter to transport him to a hospital in Missoula, Montana. EMTs located a flat spot on the ridge and set out glowing lights to mark the landing spot. “The pilot brought the helicopter right in above us in the dark, then hovered and bounced it a few times on the sagebrush to mash it down so he could land,” says Kathy.
It was a windy night and the flight was choppy, but Don was very grateful for the helicopter and said, “It’s not everybody that goes up the mountain on a $500 horse and comes off on a $500,000 helicopter,” he said later.
His arm was broken in 10 places, and his pelvis was split while still on the horse trying to ride out the bucking, but he recovered. When word about the accident got around, neighbours pitched in to help with irrigating and offered to do the haying. Friends and neighbours moved cows and packed salt. Michael’s teenage son looked after irrigating fields the rest of the summer, and other neighbours helped with whatever chores needed to be done.
“This is what makes our community such a great place to live,” says Kathy. “When something like this happens, friends and neighbours are always there to help.”
Postscript — Now, 5 months after his accident, Don Hatch is recovering well. He had extensive surgery on his shattered arm and was unable to use it for a couple months and then underwent extensive physical therapy to regain range of motion and strength. Being a rancher, he didn’t take much time off, however. Even though neighbours helped him at first with irrigating and haying, he was soon out there on his fourwheeler trying to drive it one-handed, and irrigate one-handed. Before haying season was over he was driving his swather and baling hay. He got back on a horse before the doctor wanted him to, but it was a “gentle” one, Don claims.
His split pelvis (which was not quite severe enough to require surgical repair) has given him the most pain because it’s taking so long to heal. His first rides to work cattle were miserable and had to be short. But he continued to ride and by fall was able to participate in part of the cattle roundups and more of the necessary riding chores, including helping neighbours with their cattle work — in exchange for their helping him. He is happy to be doing his work again, happy to be alive. He loves ranching and cattle and especially loves riding range and training horses — things he’s often done by himself. He recently commented that he’s never felt lonely out there, except once: the evening he lay injured, with nightfall approaching, and the realization that he wouldn’t be able to survive the night. That one time, he says, “I was awfully glad to see Mike show up!”
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841