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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Nevertheless, I still called the
"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
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
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.