Riding on resilience
Disaster didn’t stop Gus Hoffman from pursuing his passion
Gus Hoffman believes it was a grizzly which spooked his horse, Soldier, after he dismounted for trail cleanup in June of 2017. He was alone, the lead rope in one hand and a saw in the other, when the 15-hand horse’s powerful rear hoof launched to his throat. Gus fell back, dropped the rope and felt disoriented – like he couldn’t breathe. He tried to radio for help but couldn’t speak. He knew he was in trouble, but had no idea that his throat was crushed, and his windpipe mostly severed.
The incident could have been a scene from a western movie, and could easily have led to the closing credits of his young life. What Gus then did is inexplicable – a testament to Western resilience – and something medical professionals call a miracle. With internal hemorrhaging and barely any oxygen, he got up, tracked Soldier, put one foot in the stirrup and then the other, and rode a staggering two miles back to 320 Ranch.
320 Ranch Executive Chef Devin Kemp said they were setting up for a chuckwagon barbeque when the incident happened.
“I walked around the chuckwagon to see what the fuss was about,” Kemp said. “He (Gus) was off his horse and was wheezing as he was trying to get words out... clearly struggling and bleeding from his throat…I told him to get in the suburban and I drove him up to the main office where we radioed his father.”
Kemp said Gus was spitting up blood and could barely breathe during the ride to the office.
“I didn't really know what the extent of the injury was, but I knew that it wasn't anything that basic first aid could deal with. I just told him it was (going to) be okay and that he was doing really well,” Kemp said. “I've never seen an injury that scared me like his did. It was just really serious and there was no good way to help him or treat it whatsoever.”
From there Gus was positioned in the back of a SUV to meet the ambulance, soon he was placed in a life flight to Billings and eventually Salt Lake City. Everything was a blur with everyone from medical professionals to family asking themselves, “Will he live?”
When the hemorrhaging was stopped Gus’ throat was sewn back together: fragments secured with hope that his body would continue its miracles. The question then was, “Will he speak?”
When Gus was brought out of a coma, his parents – Marce, horse operations manager at 320 Ranch, and Beth – had to present him with the news that he might never speak again.
“I know I will,” he scrawled on a piece of paper in response.
Testament to his determination: He speaks. He had dozens of surgeries – way too many for his mother Beth to count.
“When we got back from the hospital – our first day back, he couldn’t talk, and he texted me to see if I’d go to the barn with him and get in the paddock with the horses,” Beth said. “He walked in and walked up to this horse and starts loving on it. We left the paddock and he texted me, ‘Do you know who that was?’ I said, ‘No.’ He texted, ‘That was Soldier. He saved my life.’”
There are more surgeries ahead for Gus, as scar tissue needs to be removed from around his vocal chords. He needed a break, though. He wanted to adventure, snowmobile, hang with his friends and do all the things a normal Montana kid does, save one. Most kids – most people – would never get on a horse again.
“He got back on that horse,” his mother said admiringly. “And he has never stopped.”
As soon as he had medical clearance, Gus was back to riding and has remained constant in his stance: What happened was not Soldier’s fault. Gus spent the summer again employed at 320 Ranch – working on trails and with the horses. He’s also ridden Soldier.
“I didn’t think much about it. I just rode him,” Gus said.
Beth said she’s proud of all the progress he’s making, including pursuing his passion for horse training – which is what he hopes to do as his profession when he gets older. He’s been learning from professional trainer Dana Hokana. “He flew on his own out to Oklahoma City to meet up with the trainer and drove back to California with her. He has definitely been moving forward with his life. So, I think that’s awesome,” Beth said.
Gus even attended the Lucas Oil American Quarter Horse Association Championship in 2018 and is excited about all he has observed and learned. “She has taught me a different approach of getting your horse to follow your commands and a different view of the horse world,” he said.
Gus had no idea as he saddled up that fateful day that his young life would be altered, or that he would be viewed as an inspiration. Kemp asserts that it’s nothing short of a miracle that he was able to recover.
“From riding the horse out of the backcountry to give himself a chance to live, to countless hospital visits and rehab, it really shows what this young man is made of: Pure guts, heart and drive,” Kemp said. “I don't think you could really put it any other way.”