FLORAL CITY — Gary Trent, who has always had a lovely smile, tells people, "I love horses, but you got to remember that with a horse, anything can happen.''
Gary was eating a roast beef sandwich at Pudgees' Hot Dog Stand the other day when his cell phone rang. It was a neighbor, Tom Ritchie.
"Your horses escaped your pasture,'' Tom said. "They ran down the road and now they're in Pete's pasture.''
I happened to be with my old friend Tom that morning. We were trying to figure out what to do about those horses when Tom called Gary.
Gary is 63. He has five horses, Chester, Cuka, Blue, Dee Dee and Dakota. They are like children to him and his wife, Cathy. Gary didn't want to think about what might happen if they ended up on busy State Road 48. That was the end of that leisurely lunch.
By the time Gary and Cathy arrived at Pete's pasture, Pete had caught Chester and was leading him home on a rope. One down, four horses to go.
Gary grabbed a rope from his truck and headed toward Dakota, his prize paint. Fifteen hands high and 1,200 pounds, she is the dominant horse in his herd. Catch her and the other ones would follow.
Dakota, always gentle, began rolling playfully. Gary grinned his fine grin and approached.
Suddenly, Dakota aimed her rear end in his direction.
• • •
Gary grew up on a ranch in Northern California back when every black-and-white television in America was tuned to a western and every kid wanted to be a cowboy.
His daddy put him on a saddle when he was 3. He still remembers his first love, a mustang named Cricket, whom he rode for more than half his life. Even when he began a career in the telephone business, he kept horses.
A decade ago he moved to a rural section of Citrus County. When he and Cathy exchanged wedding vows three years ago, the chapel was their new barn and the witnesses included close friends and horses.
Dakota, who was present that day, counted as both.
• • •
I didn't see Dakota kick Gary, but I saw the result.
He lay face-down in the pasture as if he had been shot in the head. We all rushed over. "Gary, Gary! Are you all right?" I thought he might be dead.
About 100,000 people a year are hurt in horse-related accidents, usually after they fall or are bucked off the saddle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kick victims who survive end up with broken bones and brain injuries.
Gary stirred. Kneeling, groggy, head down, he opened his mouth. Blood streamed out in a torrent.
Then: "I got to catch my horses!''
Unsteady, he spat blood and bits of teeth. A tooth hung from his gum like a sock in the breeze.
A cowboy doesn't abandon his horses. Gary picked up his rope and headed after Dakota. She sprinted into the adjacent orange grove. The other horses followed, with Gary behind them, bleeding all the way.
Whenever he felt faint he knelt and spat blood.
For 20 minutes, the horses circled the pasture and the orange grove. When they stopped and began grazing, Gary slipped a rope around Dakota. She didn't protest. Gary walked her down the dirt road to his pasture a quarter of a mile away. The other horses followed as he had hoped.
Only after securing his horses did he head for Lecanto and the dentist, who shook his head and yanked the hanging tooth. The dentist referred him to an oral surgeon, who removed the mangled four others.
That night, before bed, Gary walked to the barn to make sure Dakota was all right. He thought she acted embarrassed.
• • •
Two weeks have passed. Gary has secured his pasture gate. He has made his peace with Dakota. The oral surgeon will soon fit him with a bridge.
Gary hasn't eaten a sandwich since the day he was kicked. Cathy is feeding him Italian wedding soup and macaroni and cheese. He looks forward to sinking his teeth into solid food. Smiling, too.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.