Wild horses: Equine encounters of the worst kind

Pooh Johnson still shudders when she thinks how much worse it could have been. She's the owner of the two horses who fled her farm Thanksgiving Day and ran head-on into 70mph traffic on Interstate 64.

Johnson's chestnut mare, Bunny, collided with a westbound Nissan SUV driven by David Firth, 62, of Lynchburg. Jaws of life were necessary to extract Firth from beneath the sheared-off roof of his crumpled vehicle before he and his wife, Kathy, were taken to UVA Medical Center with serious, but non-life threatening, injuries.

Johnson, who owns Old Poorhouse Farm on Black Cat Road in Keswick, says her daughter had been riding, had groomed the horses, and was putting Bunny in the paddock around dusk when she heard gunshots.

"The horse backed up when going through the gate and started down the drive," says Johnson, who was in Richmond when the escape occurred. "The other one followed."

She's still puzzled about the direction the horses took.

"Why would they leave the farm and head to the interstate with all that noise and lights?" Johnson wonders. "I almost think she went nuts."

Bunny, whom Johnson says was between 18 and 20 years old, was killed by the collision, but Johnson's daughter was able to walk the other horse, a white male named Spanky, back to the farm. "It's a miracle he wasn't killed," says Johnson.

Johnson has lived at Old Poorhouse since 1971 and remembers one other horse getting loose during those 40 years when a gate swung open and jammed. That horse was captured before reaching I-64, which lies less than half a mile to the south of the farm.

Johnson says she's spoken several time to the Firths, who were released from UVA Medical Center November 28, since the accident.

"I don't want to talk to reporters right now," says Kathy Firth from her home in Lynchburg.

"It could have been so much worse," says Johnson.

Indeed, in 1988, Fluvanna School Superintendent Dr. James Albert, 62, was heading home to Lake Monticello on I-64 around 1:15am when a horse moved into the eastbound path of his 1984 Ford station wagon. Three horses had wandered away from Charlottesville Livestock Market and had reached the interstate median east of the Route 20 exit.

Albert, who'd been returning from Waynesboro after having been named a regional president of the Boy Scouts of America, was killed immediately, as was the horse.

"It was embedded in the front of the car," says Albert's sister, Jean Firkins, 91, who lives in Alexandria. "The worst thing I ever had to tell my mother was that Jim had died," says Firkins. "He was the beacon in her life."

Albert's widow, Jeanne, now deceased, sued Charlottesville Livestock Market for negligence, and in November 1989, settled out of court for $600,000.

"Owners need to take responsibility," says Firkins. "This happened in the middle of the night, and those horses certainly should have been secured."

"There was evidence a gate wasn't locked," says Charlottesville attorney Brock Green, who represented Mrs. Albert and points out that state statute requires anyone keeping farm animals to keep them away from public roads.

"If it's a normal horse jumping the fence because it was spooked, it's going to be hard to prove negligence," says Green, noting the common law theory of negligence requires anyone keeping animals to prevent them from wandering.

While police say they don't specifically track horse-vehicle collisions, more than 23 years after educator Albert's death, the November 24 crash struck a powerful chord with Green.

"It's their size," says Green of the often thousand-pound animals. "You hit one, and it can do a lot of damage."

The recent incident also resonated with Karen Johnson. Co-owner of the Keswick-area Limestone Spring Farm, she lost two horses to a collision on Richmond Road in February.

"It brought back such horrible memories," says Johnson, who says she's still not sure exactly how four horses followed a "very ingenious" mare through an open gate on the farm, which lies just to the south of I-64. "I have no idea how that happened," she says.

A Subaru Outback driver heading east hit six-year-old Misty, and then Misty's colt, Gunny, aged two, who died at the scene.

"I had to call the vet to have [Misty] euthanized," says Karen Johnson.

The driver had some injuries and was taken to a hospital, according to Albemarle police spokesman Darrell Byers, and the car's damage was significant. He was not charged, nor was Johnson.

"I did change the way the gate is secured," says a still-shaken Karen Johnson, who says her husband, out of town when the accident occurred, improved the gate when he returned.

Even nine months later, she says, "It was a horrible experience."


" It could have been so much worse," says Johnson." Sounds pretty bad to me .

Am I missing something, of course losing a horse is a blow, but I have never heard or read in any news account that the horse's owner is terribly sorry that these people were injured by her horse.

With the proximity of horses to the highway and the apparent lack of fencing along the highway to prevent these encounters, I bet this will happen again.

How awful - having a horse get loose on the road. We had a crazy Christmas once with our first horse escape in 20 years. Google: "Blue Christmas It a took a few attempts by the caller at our back door to make me understand.."

Years ago driving to work along Garth my husband and I
encountered a bull (a very large bull) trotting towards town.
We stopped at the nearest house (this was before cell
phones) to call the police and the woman told us "Oh that
must be my daughter's bull." Very Charlottesville.

Clash of cultures ? Maybe this will help. " Welcome to the Country" by Frank Levering

" By the time you finish reading Welcome to the Country you’ll know, likely, a fair bit more than you do now about the cultural traditions, unwritten codes of behavior, laws, and farming practices in rural Virginia—with particular attention to the ten-county Central Virginia heartland that straddles the Blue Ridge Mountains. This region of often exponential growth is comprised of Albemarle, Nelson, Louisa, Orange, Fluvanna, Madison, Greene, Augusta, Rockingham, and Rockbridge counties. If you’re a newcomer to this ten-county region—or, indeed, to any predominantly rural region in Virginia—this book will help you adapt to your surroundings and live harmoniously with your neighbors. If you’re a native, reading this book will offer you a crisper understanding of and more up-to-date information about the place you have long called home."


Johnson needs to read Levering's book. And what is Johnson doing "speaking several times to the Firths?" The Firths should document every phone call she makes to them and what is said, for that may be valuable in litigation. One thing for sure...anyone who has been injured in a serious auto crash knows that, regardless of litigation, one is never made whole.
I, too, have never heard a word of sorrow or remorse from Johnson for this calamity; could have been edited out of each news story....or might not exist. Not sure.
Call Wilbur Post on this one...
"A horse is a horse, unless of course
It's met by a vehicle with such force
That the horse, of course, becomes a corpse
His name is Mr. Dead!"

You will not prevent any animal from jumping a fence and running out into a road or an Interstate. With a horse, you are speaking of a 1500 - 2500 pound animal. Deer do damage to cars and weigh less. The only option would be if the state would build barricades to prevent animals (and people) from wandering onto the Interstate. But then taxpayers will cry foul.

Perhaps Johnson isn't stating anything of remorse due to any legal actions? What they ment by "it could have been so much worse" is that none of the people DIED in the wreck. Only the horse did. (Which if you are horse lover, is bad.)

I also think it is interesting that the posters here who think one can control animals at all times - probably never have had an animal or a horse - or been around any of them either. They have minds of their own!