Surrounded in a Stampede

A cloud of dust and a thundering herd was coming straight at me—what would you do?

While living in the city of Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan, I frequently enjoyed weekly walks into the nearby steppe to visit a natural freshwater spring. The cool water provided a refreshing oasis, especially during the hot, dry months of summer. Like ancient times, people often brought large water jugs to fill and enjoyed friendly chats while waiting.

The steppe is a mostly treeless, slightly rolling terrain common to this geographic region. Few trees mean few birds. However, it is ideal for raising horses, as the traditional nomadic Kazakh people did for centuries. During my treks it was common to spot a herd of more than 100 horses gently grazing on the grasslands.

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The golden steppe

Stampede!

One early June day, I set out toward the spring before the midday heat. Passing through the Soviet-era apartment blocks, I crossed the last street and stepped out into the countryside. Rather than my usual counterclockwise route, I turned right to bypass the big hot water pipes snaking across the steppe.

Enjoying pleasant weather, I looked ahead to spot someone pulling a cart full of water bottles along the sandy path. Suddenly, she stopped. Glancing in the direction of her gaze, I saw why.

A large herd of at least 100 normally docile horses was galloping right for me! The other walker had stopped at a safe distance, but I began to panic as I realized I was directly in their path. The group was spread so wide and coming so fast that there seemed no escape. The noise of their hooves was close enough that I could feel it.

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Soviet-era apartment blocks in Karaganda

Thankful for a Calm Head

Unless you’ve run with the bulls in Pamplona, staring down a stampede is not something you usually face (I hadn’t). I decided to calmly stand my ground. As the first few horses approached, still running full speed, they began to part like the Red Sea.

A narrow gap opened as they separated and sped past, as if I was in a trough between two giant waves. The dust spray settled over me as the sound of hoofbeats continued. I didn’t move or even blink.

After what seemed like minutes but was really about 20 seconds, the last of the horses passed, leaving me breathless. I still don’t know what spooked them. Perhaps like me, a marathoner, they were just running for the fun of it. After all, Kazakh horses are legendary for their long-distance endurance.

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The spring – now enclosed by a protective structure

Safely Home

After returning home, I decided to share the stampede encounter on my Facebook wall. I thought it would make a good, although brief, story. Interestingly enough, while I got a few “Likes,” I also received comments that got me thinking.

Several asked, “Where’s the video?” I realize most people these days carry smartphones. I do. However, this encounter happened a few years ago, before iPhones were common.

But even if I had a phone, there are times when I like to leave it behind, especially when enjoying a peaceful walk. Sure, it’s handy for emergencies, but there are other ways to get help, like asking a neighbor.

In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t have a camera or smartphone with me that day. The experience is still vivid in my mind’s eye, and I hope the word pictures shared in this post help bring it to yours, too.

Some stories are best that way.

Thought question: If a picture is worth 1000 words, what’s a video worth?  Are words worth anything?

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Sunset across the Kazakhstan steppe

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