When Horses and Modern Life Collide

12/13/2010 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the morning of December 4, 2010, Bert Bonnett, 100, saddled up his gentle Fox Trotter mare, Cassie, for a California Christmas Caroling ride. As he rode home along Wheatland Avenue in the equestrian minded community of Shadow Hills, Sunland, CA, a speeding car forced Cassie to the edge of the road. Cassie's feet found metal beneath the fallen leaves and she and Bert went down and slid into the metal grates of a storm drain.

Bonnet scrambled from the drain, unscathed, but Cassie ultimately died. The efforts of this little community, only 20 minutes from Hollywood, to save Cassie brought emergency personnel and an entire community together. Although Cassie succumbed, will her story help save a lifestyle?

Horse people know when a horse goes down, the rider's survival often hinges upon the equine's reaction to the situation. Cassie lay very still until Bert could extract himself from the drain. Bert's wife, Bari, had observed the bond between the pair over the past twelve years:"Cassie always took such good care of Bert. She would stand forever for him to mount. She was so careful never to hurt him."

Like most tragedies, things happened fast. The car was too fast for two other horseback riders to get a license tag number. Firemen responded and blocked the street. Neighbors came from their homes to offer assistance. Someone ran down the street to the home of Dr. David Robertson, DVM, who was enjoying a weekend off working on his veterinary truck. Robertson ran up the street to sedate the mare to aid in her extraction. He found a situation more serious than anticipated and soon Dr. Renee Wanner, DVM, and Dr. Bob Bradley, DVM, joined the equine field triage effort.

Bert hovered near his mare. In his 98 years riding horses, Cassie was special. On his 100th birthday, Fox News profiled the cowboy and he extolled Cassie's virtues.

Once Cassie was completely sedated, firemen moved the recumbent mare to a neighbor's lawn where the veterinarians cleaned and sewed and bandaged Cassie's wounds. Even with the mare's serious injuries, Dr. Wanner remained optimistic. "My job as a veterinarian is not to throw in the towel when things look difficult. I was there to put a family back together." The Bonnetts stood nearby as the team worked.

Wanner was moved by the community support for the mare. "The whole neighborhood was there. Kids were shaking up antibiotics for me; people were holding ropes, offering lawns for use, running to buy bedding straw; just anything to help." After three hours, Cassie finally stood, but had little control over her hind quarters. Wanner felt devastated. Once again, neighbors and bystanders pitched in. They ran to obtain PVC pipe and there on the lawn cut, to veterinarians' specifications, a splint for the mare's hind legs.

By early Sunday morning, Wanner and Robertson recommended Cassie be transferred from her temporary donated stabling to an equine hospital and the Bonnets quickly agreed.

Careful veterinary evaluation found Cassie's outlook grim. The decision to euthanize Cassie centered on the quality of her future life and the probability of continual pain.

The mare had been a gift to Bart by his goddaughter and had been with Bart from the age of six months. Bart had trained her, even while in his 90s. "Their bond was special," said his wife. "I was surprised to see their relationship so special after all those years and all the horses he has owned."

Outrage followed Cassie's death. Mike Fullerton, long-time friend of the Bonnett family works with Equestrian Trails, Inc. He feels action should be taken to remove and redesign the storm drains that proved so hazardous. "My feet slipped into it when I was there. Joggers and bicyclists are in danger. Some child could be next. They could lose a foot." He talked of legal action and efforts to replace the metal drains.

Equestrians had been planning a campaign to be called "Yield to the Horse" whose purpose was to educate drivers about co-existing with horses on roads. Bari Bonnet asked if the project could change the name to Cassie's Cause. Nicole Walther, who helped on the scene that Saturday, summed up the problem of LA and Hollywood drivers meeting the equestrian world. "People don't want to live in downtown LA. They want the quiet, rural atmosphere, but don't understand the horses were here first."

The community had been trying. They have installed stop traffic push buttons at the perfect height for riders to press before crossing busy intersections. Cassie's Cause wants to broaden the streets and put in bridle paths to separate horses from traffic. The campaign also wants to address a fundamental problem Walther sees in California society,"Some drivers simply do not realize animals are living beings. They do not realize they jump when a car honks."

The community continues to rally behind Bart. A donor plans to deliver Cassie's brother on long-term loan for Bart to continue his lengthy trail rides.

The problems that arise when urbanization and equine communities co-exist are complex. Urbanites relish the rural ambiance but fail to understand the sacrifices this requires. Dense populations require efficient drainage systems and roads for commuting, not ambling. How can we make this intersection of our equine past and our urban present safe, yet satisfying?

A gentle mare died due to forces beyond her scope of knowledge or control. And although a community came magnificently together attempting to save her, they failed. Perhaps they can save what a team like Bart and Cassie require: an equine friendly environment melding past and present. Americans want to get where they are going, fast. But some, like 100-year-old Bart Bonnet, still want to saddle up and sing Christmas carols on horseback and take the long way home.