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NORCO – An annual, four-day San Juan Capistrano-to-Norco trail ride in its 18th year turned tragic May 4 when a horse died after a 300-foot fall down a steep, remote hillside near Trabuco Canyon.

Clay Southerland of Orange Park Acres and his 4-year-old, Cash, were among 45 horse-and-rider teams taking part in the 62-mile trek by the Norco Outriders. On the morning of Day 2 – the most technically challenging of the four days -Southerland, 56, fell with his mount and two other horse-and-rider duos along a portion of unforgiving single-track trail.

Southerland, who had fallen with his horse before he came off during the slide down into the ravine, caught up to Cash and reportedly found him lying on his side on a ledge with trouble breathing.

“I tried to make him as comfortable as possible,” Southerland said. “Within three minutes, he was gone.”

The ride, organized into four groups of 11 riders who departed at 15-minutes intervals, followed South Orange County’s picturesque trails through O’Neill Regional Park into Trabuco Canyon and then near Santiago Peak, eventually reaching Norco on Sunday. Southerland was in the second group when trouble struck about 9:30 Friday morning.

The group had left an airfield in Trabuco Canyon at 7 a.m. About three miles into the ride near Holy Jim Canyon, the trail changed from a fire road into a single track.

When the the trail leader of the group ahead of Southerland, Mike Williams, noticed one of his 11 riders was missing, Williams alerted the group behind him and asked if anyone had seen the missing man and his horse.

Southerland soon thought he saw a flash of a light-colored cowboy hat to his left in the ravine as he rode past. As he slowed Cash and moved to the high side of the trail – just a few feet from a sharp-turning switchback – Cash turned and face-to-face with the horse behind him and made an evasive move away.

“My horse took an evasive action to get away, attempting to climb up the slope,” said Southerland. “The dirt gave way under his front legs and he slid back. He reared up and fell into the ravine with me on his back.”

The evasive maneuver caught up two other riders and their horses, and all went down the slope of thick brush and cactus.

Southerland said everything happened quickly, but he remembered tumbling and Cash rolling over him. He knew Cash had fallen below him because he heard the snapping of tree branches.

One of the other riders, J. T. Garoutte, 53, from Norco, and his horse, Dave, reportedly were caught on a ledge in thick brush before being eventually rescued by Williams and another experienced rider who had cut a path to them. Southerland also climbed up to help Garoutte, and the two men and Dave eventually walked out from the ledge and back onto the trail.

The Norco Animal Rescue Team responded to the emergency. Riders and their horses were later airlifted by a OCFA helicopter. Williams had hiked down into the ravine after he alerted rescue personnel to make sure those two men and their horses were all right. He stayed there until everyone was airlifted. Williams was the last to be pulled up by firefighters.

On Monday, Williams and five other riders hiked four miles to the site of the accident. They gathered up the saddles, tack and supplies. Forty of the initial 45 riders finished the trail ride.

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