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 December 27: Dear Diary, I Almost Electrocuted My Horse Today

Michael Hillman

The day started off serenely. I awoke to a quiet house and the smell of fresh coffee. Audrey, my wife, having risen several hours before, was in the barn tending to our three horses. After rising, she had quietly closed the bedroom door so I might sleep a few hours more, undisturbed by Miles, my 'Alarm Cat.'

I stumbled downstairs and filled my coffee mug. Picking up the morning newspaper, I settled down in front of the fireplace, which my wife had rekindled and restocked, and slowly allowed myself to awake.

The howls of a bitterly cold northeast wind, clearly audible over the crackle of the fire, gave me just cause to delay joining my wife in the barn. After leisurely finishing my second cup of coffee, I added a few more logs to the fire and donned my jacket.

For the past two months, winter had been a no-show. Instead of the usual 20 to 30 degree days, we had been enjoying temperatures in the mid 50 and 60's. But the cold front that had roared thru during the night made those days seem like a distant memory.

We didn't dally in the barn, after turning the horses out; the stalls were cleaned with little time wasted. Returning once again to the house, my wife and I settled down to begin our planned day's worth of work.

Around 11:25, I strolled into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Through the window I could see Worf, my retired event horse, staring forlornly at the automatic water. A few weeks earlier, I had restored the power to the waterer's heating element in expectations of the cold winter months to come.

For years I had been struggling with how to keep the waterer from freezing in the winter. Because of my nuclear engineering background, I prided myself on my ability to keep things running long after most people would have put them out of their misery. If I could maneuver a nuclear submarine down a narrow shipping channel, keep a Ford Fiesta running for 500,000 miles, or a 1951 hateful tractor purring, it was going to be a cold day in hell before a simple waterer was going to get the best of me.

When the internal heating element in the waterer began to fail, I installed a light in the body of the waterer. When the pipe for the waterer froze, I snaked a heat tape along its length. Every year I was forced to come up with one more jury-rig, and every year I got away with it.

This year however, I set my mind to finding a permanent fix. All jury-rigging was removed. The wire ends to the heater were trimmed and then properly connected and taped. A few hours after restoring power, the water in the bowl was warm. Patting myself on the back for once actually fixing the waterer, and in good weather to boot, not in the usual arctic cold, I turned my attention to other farm chores.

Within a few days however, both my wife and I noticed the horses standing around the waterer. Something undoubtedly had gone wrong with the heater, as the horses' body language told me they had been shocked by it.

Try as I might, I was unable to find, let alone recreate the jolt that had sent them flying. For the following three weeks, I tried, to coax the horses back to using the waterer. Patiently I would scoop out a handful of water and offer it to them. With every handful I would move one step closer to the waterer. This action was repeated over and over again until the point where, with my hands submerged in the water, and the horses' noses just inches above the water, the horses overcame their fear and drank heavily without my help. I patted myself on the back with the thought that contrary to the old cliché, I had brought a horse to water and made it drink.

It soon became somewhat of a ritual. Every time I saw one of them near the waterer, the scene was repeated. Once one drank, the others drank too. With every passing day, it took less and less time. Slowly but surely I was winning back their confidence.

Seeing one more opportunity to win them back, I put down the tea I had just made and headed out to coax Worf to the waterer. As I hopped the fence, I stumbled. With one hand still on the fence, I reached out to grab the waterer to steady myself. Surprisingly I received a mild shock, the type of shock one would receive from those novelty spheres that send arcs of electricity when you touch their surface.

When I righted myself, I touched the waterer again, but this time there was no shock. Drawing upon my vast experience as both a nuclear as well as electrical engineer, I summarized that was probably dealing with a very high resistant ground and that the waterer housing, somehow acting as a capacitor, slowly, probably over days if not weeks, would build up a charge, which the first horse to drink out of the waterer would discharge. Which explain why, after the horse had been shocked, I was unable to recreate it. It all made perfect sense to me.

If in fact the waterer was undergoing some sort of capacitor effect, the fix was simple: ground it.

Retrieving my tools, I quickly set to work installing ground wire from the watering bowl to the anchor bolts that held the waterer to its cement support block. All the while swearing that in spite of my best efforts, once again I found myself working on the waterer on the coldest day of the year!

As I worked, Commander Riker, my fearless event horse, kept a close eye on my efforts. Standing just out of arms length, Riker had been the most resistant to using the waterer again, but as I had made a special point of working with him, over the past week his fear had all but disappeared. With the ground straps installed, I re-energized the waterer. Confident that I had licked the problem once and for all, I called to Riker.

Ambling over, he eyed the waterer cautiously. But the sight of my hands immersed in the water bowl was all the reassurance he needed and my trusting horse dove in to quench his thrust.

Riker's nose had no sooner broken the surface of the water then he fell to his knees, letting out a groan that sent my body shivering. "Oh my God," I thought, "I just electrocuted my horse. Oh My god! Oh My God! . . . "

For what seemed like an eternity, Riker's body twitched and spasmed. His legs struck out in all directions, his head scraped back and forth across the hard ground. I knelt down and cradled his head, but felt helpless. Having been witness to one too many deaths of horses, I recognized the final stages of the death struggle. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" was all that I could say.

With one final spasm, Riker's body went limp and the full weight of his head came to rest in my arms. I sat stunned. "Oh my God I just electrocuted my horse."

I sat stunned, clinging to the hope that what had happened was in fact an illusion, that I could step back in time five minutes and everything would be as it was. I softly spoke his name over and over again, and slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, I felt his head rise.

"Was he still alive?" I thought. "Come on Riker, stay with me boy, stay with me." I stroked his neck and patted his body. His blinked open, then shut, then open again. I continued to plead with him. Hoping against hope. Then suddenly, he sat upright and shook his head, as one does after receiving a hard blow to it. Before I was able to move an inch, he leapt to his feet, let out a kick toward the waterer, and bolted off to his pals who were standing wide-eyed on the other side of the pasture.

I looked toward the sky. "Thank you God," was all my shell-shocked mind could muster.

I glanced at my watch, the whole event had taken less then two minutes, but they were the longest two minutes of my life. I stared at the waterer and visualized it being ripped from its place by slings attached to the bumper of my truck -- but resisted the temptation.

I trudged off after Riker who had no intention of being caught, especially by the likes of me. He trotted around me sound as could be, and I let out a sigh of relief. No permanent damage I thought. I cringed however when I caught sight of blood on his legs, but after 12 years of marriage to a veterinary nurse, I knew what I saw was anything but life threatening.

Nevertheless, I still called the vet.

"No, he's not. He's out on a road call. Can I help you?"

"Yes would you tell him my horse was just electrocuted by the waterer. The horse is up and looks ok, but he's got a few cuts. Also, would you also tell him its Riker."

Of course, the timing couldn't have been worse. Less then five minutes before this incident, my veterinary nurse wife had run into town and wasn't due home for another hour. So until the vet arrived, it was up to me, someone who faints at the mere mention of blood, to tend to Riker's wounds.

I had no sooner begun to clean the wounds when Rebecca, my newest student, pulled in for her lesson. For the past few lessons Rebecca had been treated to rides on Ricker, and today's lesson was to have been the same. Rebecca's eyes followed the trail of blood drops on the barn floor to Riker's wounded legs, and she then listened patently as I recounted the events. "I guess this means I don't get to ride him today right." Mused Rebecca, after I finished my tale. The half smile on her face broke the tension and we all began to laugh.

We were still laughing when the vet and his assistant appeared. the vet serious expression quickly gave way to a smile as he caught sight of Riker, obviously perturbed at being inside on such a nice day.  "Well he looks OK, his temperature is normal, and his lungs and heart sound fine … " Given that I had boasted just the night before about my prowess in being able to get horses to drink, the vet couldn't resist adding, " . . . but I dare say, I don't think he'll ever drink from THAT waterer again." Once again, laughter filled the barn.

For the next two hours I kept my eye on Riker, it was during this window of time that if Riker was to having any effects from the shock, they would begin to show. When the time window closed, and with Riker playing happily with his buddies, I finally turned my attention back to the waterer. Re-energizing it, I put one lead from my voltmeter into the water in the bowl, and one into the puddle Riker had been standing in. The needle swung to 120 volts. Riker had completed the circuit.

In hindsight, the cause of the shock that sent Riker to almost meet his maker was as plain as day. Up until that morning, I had been correct in my assumption that I was dealing with a high resistant short. Because I always wore rubber soled sneakers, the resistance through my body to the ground was too great to allow current to conduct. Thus I never got a shock, even when I placed my hand in the water. I had received the shock that morning because I had one hand on the fence post, which, still wet with frost, acted a pathway to ground - with me in between.

The horses on the other hand had metal shoes, and therefore had no insulation. As a result, every time they used the waterer when the poser was on, they were indeed getting a very mild, low-level shock.

That morning however, while repairing the waterer, I gave little thought to water that was dribbling out of the waterer and spread out over the now frozen ground. Riker, standing in the puddle, completed a now almost perfect short to ground.

My greatest error however was the breaking of the first rule every Nuclear Engineer learns: "Always believe your indications." In this case, my indications where the horse’s body language that said the waterer was giving them a shock. I just assumed that they we’re being stupid. I incorrectly assumed that If I couldn’t feel it, it wasn’t happening. It never occurred to me that unlike humans, horse never lie. All I had to do was believe them, if I had, and had taken an extra few minutes to pull out a volt meter, this story would never have occurred.

Later that evening, I realized that had it been me standing in the water, I probably would have died. Needless to say, since the event, I've developed a new-found fondness for Riker, even if he does try to bite me every time I walk past his stall.

Fortunately, other then the few superficial cuts, the incident had no long term effects. As I watch him trot every morning, I can’t help but wonder if the shock might have had one positive unintended consequence. For, instead of his normal plodding trot . . . Riker's trot is now much more . . . um, err, dare I say it? Energized.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman