Saturday, July 31, 2010

Back from Vacation

by Laura Crum

Hi, all. I’m back from my road trip, and my month long break from the internet. I have to say, as much as I enjoy this blog, and the email I get, it was very freeing to spend a whole month without once looking at a computer screen (or a screen of any sort). I think we sometimes forget just how much time we give to this activity. That said, I very much enjoyed reading the posts that were put up here while I was gone, though I was saddened to hear that Jami got some bad news about Gailey. But I loved Francesca’s story about showing Kwintus, and had fun reading all the other entries.

As for me, I tried to take the good advice you all gave me, and not worry too much about my horses while I was gone. (Thank you to all who wrote to me—I truly appreciated and paid attention to your input.) And yes, I came back to find that everything was just fine. My friend and boarder, Wally, lived here while I was gone and took great care of all critters and the garden. I am happy to be with my horses again, but, as with the internet, I also have to say that once I got into the rhythm of the trip, I found it very freeing to let go of my routines and my familiar chores and cares and just enjoy seeing new places and having new experiences.

For those who said they wanted to hear about my adventures, I had a great trip. My husband, my son, myself, and our dog, traveled from our home on the California coast to my inlaw’s home in southeastern Michigan in our camper. This is the seventh time we have made this trip in the camper and we have many favorite spots to visit and we always explore a few new places. Some highlights from this trip—visiting thousand year old Indian petrogylphs at sunrise on an isolated ranch in Utah, whitewater rafting on a spectacularly beautiful river in Colorado, camping in a remote alpine meadow at ten thousand feet in the Rockies (again in Colorado), swimming at sunset in Lake Michigan, and returning to the old pack station in the Sierra Nevada Mts of California that was part of the inspiration for my book, Slickrock. We had good luck with our traveling and no setbacks—our most nervewracking experience being camping on the Nevada desert in a big thunderstorm—lightning crashing on the buttes all around us. This was a little scary, but also spectacular. Nothing bad came of it, though the dog was a wreck—she hates thunder.

I thought of many of you as we drove across the country, having corresponded with you on the blog and knowing where you live. And Shanster, I tried to call you from Poudre Canyon, but guess what? Cell phones don’t work there.

Anyway, it was a fun time and I’m also glad to be home. All my horses look good and nickered when they saw me, and I got their feet trimmed and have started riding again, so things are back to normal here.

I have one sad, and at the same time ironic, story to share with you. It certainly made me think.

One of my favorite activities when I’m in Michigan is visiting with my sister-in-law and her husband, who train TB racehorses. By the time I get to their place, I’ve been away from my own horses for a couple of weeks and I find it very comforting to stroll around their farm, being introduced to the new babies, and then sit on the back lawn, drinking ice tea and watching the yearlings graze in their paddocks, while talking “horse” with two very experienced horsemen. This year, however, as we were pursuing this enjoyable activity, my brother-in-law, Larry, announced that they were very shook up. They had been to the track that morning to work their horses and discovered that a fellow trainer, someone they interacted with every day, had been killed the previous evening.

Apparently the man had been turning a horse out in a paddock. No one really knew what had happened, since no one was there at the time, but the man had been found with the leadrope in his hand, having been killed by a blow to the head; it appeared that he’d been kicked. The horse he was turning loose was one he’d owned for several years and my sister and brother in law said that they had never heard of the horse being difficult or dangerous.

We all shook our heads. And I bet you are doing the same as you read this. Because how many times have we all turned a horse loose without pulling the horse’s head around until he faces us and the gate? I do it all the time with my gentle horses. I step through the gate, slip the halter off, and let the horse walk past me into the corral. But any horse, even a gentle horse, is capable of kicking up his heels and running off. I’ve seen it many times. I’m sure you have, too. And it just takes being in the wrong place that one time.

In all probability, the horse that killed the trainer meant no harm. I pictured him being released from a day’s confinement in a stall, perhaps, as most of these racehorse folks keep their horses in boxstalls a lot. Full of pent up energy, he jumped forward and kicked out, striking the trainer purely by accident. I have seen horses make this gesture in a defiant kind of way, as if they were saying “I’m free now, you bossy thing,” but I have never seen one do it out of a calculated desire to do damage. That sort of purposeful kicking I most often see when a horse is tied or when someone appoaches to catch a horse. But that kicking when released, which I have seen a fair amount of, I have never thought was ill intentioned.

In a way, this makes it all the more dangerous. We know the horse isn’t malicious and so we don’t take that extra step of turning him around before we release him. My sister-in-law and I both agreed that we try to remember to do this, but we often let it slide with gentle horses.

At this very moment we looked up from our ice tea to see that the two yearlings, one still a stallion, had managed to untie the gate to the paddock and were loose. My sister-in-law trotted briskly off to shut the front gate so the horses couldn’t get out on the road, and my brother-inlaw and I went to herd them back in the paddock. They went in easily, no problem, and my brother-in-law stepped up directly behind the second colt and slapped him hard on the butt as he went through the gate. “Get in there,” he said cheerfully.

I stared at Larry as he tied the gate shut.

“You know,” I said, and our eyes met.

“I was thinking the same thing,” he said ruefully. And then he grinned. “But that horse wouldn’t hurt me. I know him. I raised him from a baby.” And we both shook our heads.

Because that’s how it happens. The horse you trust, the horse you think won’t hurt you…. And so you do dumb things, because you aren’t thinking of the downside.

The ironic part of the whole deal, for me, was that I had been thinking and writing about this subject quite a bit in the months before my vacation. Some of you may remember some of the posts I did—one called “Reality Check”, describing a similar unexpected wreck that severely hurt a good horseman, and one called “Beware”, on more or less the same subject. Here on the blog we all pondered the good and bad sides of “what if”, that insidious little voice that can either paralyze you with unnecessary fear, or help you to stay alive and intact while dealing with thousand pound animals that can easily hurt and/or kill you by accident. So the whole thing had been much on my mind. But at that moment in Michigan I had forgotten all about it. I wasn’t thinking about how dangerous horses can be, or fear issues, or blog posts or any such thing. When I did think of my horses, many miles away in California, it was in a nostalgic, aren’t-they-sweet sort of way. Thus this story hit me like a bucket of cold water.

The result, for me, is that I am making an effort to remember to turn every horse around so that he faces me and the gate before I turn him loose. Such a little thing to do, just a few extra steps, probably unnecessary, but still…

And I remain a fan of keeping “what if” in mind. I do try to walk the middle road and not give up things I love because they can be dangerous. Horses are dangerous. Though probably no more dangerous than road trips down Interstate 80 (!) I don’t plan to give up my horses or the trail riding that I love. At the same time, I am willing to make an effort to be vigilant and to learn from my mistakes and the stories of others. I am willing to keep “what if” in mind and let that little voice help me.

I feel sad for the man who died, though I never knew him, and if by sharing this story I might help prevent even one such accident in the future, it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

So, how about you guys? What’s your take on it? Do you turn your horses to face you before you turn them loose? Any insights or stories to share?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Murder in the Garden

Many horse owners have barns, pastures and gardens. This spring and summer, my own gardens were awe-inspiring. My daughter snapped this photo of our sunflowers, an incredible example of the beauty and tranquility of nature. Our peach tree is heavy with fruit and despite the drought, I've enough zuchinni to make cake and bread and enough tomatoes to pass out to friends. Yes, my garden brings out my soft side of tenderer of the earth. However, as the summer progresses, the garden slowly brings out my dark murdering side.

First it was the tent caterpillars. Armed with clippers, I cut off their nests and dropped them in a bucket of soapy water where I happily watched them drown.

Next it was the giant, green tomato caterpillars. Gleefully, I plucked them off with my fingers and stomped them to death under flip flops and sandals. They have been vanquished, but now I'm fighting the blight, which curls and yellows the plant's leaves, and blossom end rot, which ruins the fruit.

And the poor peaches. I must be ever-vigilant if they are to survive the brown rot as well as the onslaught of sucking, poking and chewing insects and critters. Since the critters aren't greedy, we have made a truce. The insects, however, I attack with a vengeance. I foolishly dream about organic gardening and attempt to keep the insects under control with my "Bucket of Death." But then I snap; the sight of bugs ravaging my fruit and vegetables causes a primal urge to kill to bubble to the surface. Grabbing spray bottles and Sevin powder, I attack in a frenzy. As I spritz and stomp and kill, I think of book titles (Those of you who are writers will totally get this):

Murder in the Peach Orchard
A Thousand Deaths
The Telltale Rot
Smash, Crunch, Ooze

Am I winning this murderous battle? Never.
I hear the hum and buzz of the beetles.
Quickly I spring to action; I must ready my Bucket of Death.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Price of Horses

by Linda Benson

I'm sure those of you involved with horses are quite aware that the price of horses has been one of the casualties of our latest economic downturn. Horse prices have, at least in the parts of the country where I've lived, always had some fluctuation according to the time of year. Normally in the cold, wet months, or times when pasture is scarce and the kids are going back to school - prices go down. And in the spring, when pasture is lush and the weather turns lovely and summer is just coming on, horses become popular again as recreational animals, and it's hard to find a gentle broke horse for a reasonable amount of money.

This scenario, to me, has all gone topsy-turvey in the last couple of years. I am truly only speaking about the nice type of family trail riding horse, and I cannot say how it is for show barns, or the upper echelons of dressage, jumping, cutting, and other competitive sports. But I'm sure they have taken a hit also, and some of you may want to chime in here with your experiences.

It used to be (even as far back as the 1950's and 60's when I grew up) that any kind of a decent riding horse, no matter how old, commanded a price of at least $500. And a very nice, well-conformed, fancy riding horse with some training on them, in the desirable age of say 5-12, would be worth an easy $1000-$1500 and up.

And these prices were true in many states that I lived, all the way up until a few years ago. It was just plain hard to find a decent horse of any kind for under $500.

This is not true any more. Every horse person that I know has had a horse given to them, for free, perhaps one that's a little long in the tooth, but not over-the-hill. Solid horses with a lot of training on them - people are giving them away. For free.

Granted, the county where I live has unemployment rates lingering in the teens, and it's just a sad fact of life that many people cannot afford their horses any more. But what happens then to the bottom of the barrel - to the really old horses, the ones with physical problems, and the ones not yet trained? Craigslist is full of free horses. This used to be true only in the winter, but for the last couple of years it has been all year round. These are usually old horses, stud colts (not worth the price of gelding) untrained young stock that are now 3-5 years old and have been out to pasture all their life. But I've even seen good, well-trained 15-19 year old horses offered for free to a great home. And I won't even mention the fact that some people are actually turning their horses loose on forest service land, to survive by themselves. (Please don't ask me what I think of people that consider this.)

Although this kind of market could be great for small time horse trainers or dealers or anyone who thinks they can train a horse and turn a profit - there are also plenty of shysters out there, ones who might take a horse for free and then take it right to the auction.

For people who truly love horses, it's a sad and scary situation.

I think many factors are at work here, and the bad economy and family financial woes have just brought things to a head. I personally think there are just plain too many horses out there right now, compared to how many riders we have. And, since the closure of the slaughter plants in the U.S. there is a surplus of older and unwanted horses standing around in pastures and people's backyards.

As I see our society moving in a more urban direction, I believe we (as horse people) need to do two things;

1) Foster new equestrians and horse lovers, and help them develop the skills they need to keep and love horses.

2) Stop breeding so many horses. If you can't raise a foal up long enough to train it and sell as a riding animal, you shouldn't be in the business of breeding.

These are my opinions. Some of you may disagree with me. Feel free to share what you think, let's just be civil.

How is it in your neck of the woods? Have you seen horse prices fall through the roof? What do you think might be done to alleviate the situation, and help horses everywhere?

Monday, July 26, 2010

One Step Forward, Five Steps Back

I apologize for missing my post on Sunday. It’s the first regular post day I’ve missed since they blog started. I was busy all weekend and just ran out of steam by the time I arrived home last night.

Gailey had a small cut on her leg on Saturday. It just so happened the vet was coming out to see another horse, so I snagged him to look at my mare, too. This was a different vet from the one who’s been treating her for cellulites, but he has treated her various lamenesses over the years since she was three years old.

He just shook his head at the big leg and told me it was what it was. He agreed with the other vet that it probably would never get any smaller. Too much damage was done to the lymphatic system. I told him my worries regarding her getting cellulites again and my fears I might lose her. He is a pretty straightforward guy and tells it like it is. He nodded his head in agreement and said I most likely would have to put her down.

Even more concerning to him was how much her fetlocks have dropped in the past year. Gailey has these long pasterns which make her very comfortable to ride. The downside is her suspensories are stretching to the point where the fetlock on the big leg is almost hitting the ground when she moves. Here’s how the conversation went:

“Should I keep doing dressage with her, or would it prolong her life by taking her home and just trail riding her?” I asked, staring at my big mare who means the world to me.

“It doesn’t really matter at this stage of the game. You might as well use her as long as she’s comfortable.” He heaves a big sigh and just stares at those hind legs of hers.

“Any guesses how much longer that might be?” I don’t really want to hear this answer.

“Oh, maybe another year or so. When she lies down and can’t get back up, you’ll know it’s time. Right now, she’s unusually sound considering the problems she’s got going on in those back legs.”

At this point, my heart drops to my feet, and I feel sick to my stomach. Even the rejection I received from a publisher when I got home didn’t make a blip on my radar as I pondered my current situation. Somehow, publisher rejections lose their power when contemplating the mortality of a dear friend and partner who has been a huge part of that person’s life for the past 12 years.

I can’t imagine life without my big red-headed mare.

I can’t imagine life without horses. I’ve had horses since I graduated from college with the exception of one or two years back in my twenties. Yet, buying a new horse is not in the cards for me anytime in the future. We just put a big addition onto our house so our money is tied up in that, not in a new horse. Not only could I never replace Gailey in personality, but I surely couldn’t afford to replace her right now with a comparable horse. I’m not sure I want to ride dressage if I can’t ride a horse that moves as well as she does. I’ve done dressage on horses not built for dressage. It was a constant struggle for me and them. I’m not sure I want to go there again. Gailey has never been the easiest horse to ride, but she’s been the most comfortable. I think you’ve all heard the quote from a doctor friend of mine: “If you would have sold me your horse, I could have ridden right up until the day I went into labor.” That’s how comfortable she is. The price you pay for comfort is in those stretched suspensories and sinking fetlocks.
Gailey in 2004

Gailey, taken today
So I took a few pictures today and compared them with pictures from 2004. Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part, but I don't see a huge difference. What do you guys think?

I know I’m worrying about something that has yet to happen. So I guess I need to concentrate on enjoying the good times we have left while she’s happy, healthy, and sound. I’m even contemplating a trip to the ocean with the group at the barn.

That beach ride will make for an interesting subject for another blog post.

Happy Trails, Jami

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Kwintus Chronicles: Showtime!

I was determined to be super organized the night before Saturday’s dressage competition. I figured the more organized I was, the more Zen I’d feel when the alarm went off, rousing me from a long, restorative, competition-priming sleep. So, in an élan of efficiency (okay, so it was more of an élan of anxiety, but let’s pretend…), I gathered all my show paraphernalia. I lay my brand new hairclip with the pearl embellished, navy blue chignon basketty-net thing next to my “tubette” (French for dressage hat; what’s it called in English?). I repositioned the pin in my stock, put my pale blue, sleeveless competition shirt on a hanger under my navy blue jacket. I rummaged through my underwear drawer to find my favorite (albeit somewhat frayed) Calida granny knickers and my new, wobble-defying, extreme hold sports bra (do you have ZeBra sports bras in America? They are brilliant! ), and put them on the old white rocking chair beside my bed. I folded my brand new bright white “sticky bum” jodhpurs and placed them at the bottom of a basket, along with a pair of pale-blue and white socks. I added a towel, as well as a sponge bag filled with miscellaneous indispensables: sunscreen, deodorant, lipgloss, a brush and comb, a gallon of Rescue Remedy.

Then, satisfied with my preparations, I took a long, cool bath (it's still mad hot over here in Switzerland), pulled on my PJs and went to bed early, ready for my aforementioned long, restorative, competition-priming sleep.

Yeah right.

Actually, my zzzzzs got off to a good start, and I didn’t even notice Mr. Prescott slip into bed beside me a couple of hours later. I did, however, pick up on his nasal obstruction issues when at two am, snuffling and sniffling, he pottered into the bathroom, unraveled a length of toilet paper and trumpeted away his discomfort at a level of decibels powerful enough to wake up the entire neighborhood. Then, satisfied with the state of his nasal passages, he pottered back to bed.

And started snoring.

I poked. I kicked. I poked again. The nocturnal concert continued. I tossed. I turned. I grumbled. I fretted. I checked the time. Two-thirty. Three. Three-thirty. At three-thirty-five I grabbed my favourite pillow and my mobile phone (set as an alarm clock) and stormed down the corridor to the guest-room. Where I tossed and turned, and fretted and sweated, imploring the Sandman to come back. He didn't. Maybe he'd run out of sand.

Imagine my bleary state at seven-thirty a.m. See me at the kitchen-table, round shouldered and grumpy as heck, sipping my tea and contemplating toast. Witness the ocular ice-picks I hurled at my poor husband as he spread Cenovis across his toast (Cenovis is the Swiss equivalent of Marmite) and proffered apologies for disturbing my peace, before kissing me, wishing me luck, and setting off for an early morning waterskiing session with his friend. I showered and dressed, hoping Kwintus had had a less eventful night.

Kwintus had obviously had plenty of beauty sleep. He looked like a superstar when I arrived at the stables, having already been groomed, plaited (tail too!), oiled and doused in insect repellant. While Steph added the finishing touches, I hauled the day’s necessities into her lorry, my stomach showing increasing signs of preoccupation. My spirits lifted when Kwint - proud as an Olympian athlete - astronaut-strutted into the lorry in his protective boots, clearly looking forward to the task at hand.

The trip went smoothly. We arrived at the show an hour before I was scheduled to tack up, and even found a parking place in the shade. My trainer, Marie-Valentine,
met us with her usual bubbly enthusiasm, and we opened up the lorry to give Kwintus as much air as possible (it was 34° and mega muggy), and went to take a look around. My daughter and her boyfriend arrived, armed with multiple cameras, as did my lovely friend Sybile, the owner of a stunning, seriously talented, young black stallion.

With such a show of support, I definitely felt the love!

But time flies when your stomach’s in a state; before I knew it we were back at the lorry, unloading Kwintus and tacking up. I was lucky to have so many people around because they took care of my horse, leaving me free to take care of myself. Applying a touch of sunscreen, I watched Kwint enjoying the devotion of ladies fussing around him, telling him how fabulous he looked. I could tell he thought he looked rather fabulous, too!

I mounted, and we headed towards the warm-up arena. Thankfully, I was one of the last few competitors riding this test, so there weren’t a gazillion other riders buzzing about, something I always find intimidating. I tend to have a problem with left and right; it takes my brain a fraction of a second to figure out which is which, so even the simple matter of passing other riders on the right requires concentration. We walked on a loose rein for ten minutes, Kwint stepping out proudly, definitely in “look at me” mode, me trying to breathe deep into my diaphragm, mentally revising my program. Gradually, I picked up the contact, shortened his stride, and pushed him into trot.


Could this horse be more of a show-off? Marie-Valentine gasped. “Magnifique!” she exclaimed. My daughter Olivia giggled. I grinned, enjoying the swing of his back beneath me, the soft contact in my hands. It was magical, a moment I'll never forget.

Because of the furnace-like atmosphere, we’d planned keeping the warm-up to a minimum. Kwintus isn’t the type of horse to goof around; pick up your reins and he goes straight to work, all he needs is a little time to warm-up his muscles. We’d aimed for fifteen minutes but it still proved to be too much. The heat sapped his energy, and reduced me to a perspiring, nervous, jelly-like blob.

Showtime came. With shaky legs and flagging impulsion we trotted into the arena.

“Breathe,” I told myself, smiling as we passed the judges, urging my horse to step under a little more. “Come on, Kwintus; it’s only five minutes. We can do this.”

The bell rang. We trotted down the centre line. Except it wasn’t quite the centre line. Oops. Oh well, nothing we can do now, I decided, closing my legs and seat to halt at X. Our halt wasn’t quite square, nor was it entirely straight, but at least Kwintus didn’t look around to see if everyone was admiring him, which is what he usually tends to do. Maybe even he knew we’d fluffed it! We moved into a decent working trot. For some reason, I was somewhat caught off guard as we turned right and extended up the long side; we definitely lacked amplitude and brilliance. I then had a hard-drive meltdown and rode the ten-metre circle one letter late. Luckily, I didn’t hear the judges ring the bell to tell me I’d made a program error (there was another arena right next to ours with another test in progress, so the bells were a little confusing. And had I heard the bell and realized my mistake, I’d probably have become irretrievably flustered), and carried on to turn right at E and halt at X for four seconds. Ha! That halt was brilliant! So pleased was I with our halt that I almost forgot the ten-metre circle at R, remembering with barely two half-halts to spare, and then lost his haunches a little as we returned to the track. Bummer. We transitioned to walk at C, turned on the haunches before the corner, moving into an extended walk that lacked ground coverage (Funny how Kwintus can cover ground fabulously when we’re out hacking, yet when we’re working he can’t be fussed). I
collected him before K and pushed him into canter, leaving the track at P to turn into the centre line, transitioning to walk for three strides in the middle, then moving into the opposite canter lead. I probably should have breathed more deeply into the transition as his walk was a little precipitated. We repeated this exercise at S (more smoothly this time), and then cantered past the judges, extending down the long side (H to K), collecting at K to turn into the half-diagonal (F to E) where we transitioned to trot at L. Yay! Good one! We resumed canter at S,
but ran into trouble just after C when I got my collection technique in a twist just before the extended canter down the long side. Oops! Kwint fell into a big, bumpy, trot, and it took me a couple of strides to rebalance him and resume the extended canter. Major bummer, and major loss of points. At A we transitioned to trot again, and I collected him in the corner, determined to ace the extended trot right down the diagonal. Ta-dah!

Then came our bête noire: the twenty-metre circle while progressively giving the reins. As I mentioned in my previous entry, “The Final Countdown”, Kwintus thinks this part of the test is a complete waste of time. I’m not too fond of it either, mainly because Kwint has always had a tendency to stumble when you drop the contact; it’s one of his few weak points. Consequently, I did what I dared, he did something half-way decent, we didn’t fall over, and I collected him at C, rode towards S where we turned into a semi-circle and rode down the centre line towards G, where we executed a pretty good halt. I saluted, dropped the reins and hugged my horse.


We’d finished. We’d done it! I’d overcome my nerves, pushed my boundaries, ridden my first test in an unfamiliar environment (the only other tests I’d done with Kwintus had been at my previous stables, on my “own terrain”). Kwintus had done his best for me in temperatures he’s never been comfortable with. We hadn’t made total idiots of ourselves. In fact, some parts of the program had felt pretty darn good!

We didn’t place; didn’t even come close to placing. Precision-wise, we have considerable work to do, and I need to work on controlling my nerves in order to avoid the sort of hard-drive meltdowns that lead to program errors. But in the past six weeks, from the moment I signed up for the competition, my riding has definitely improved. Competitive riding will never be my thing, but I’ve realized that the challenge of riding a test gives me something to work towards. And if only for that reason, I’m sure I’ll be signing up for competitions again.

Besides, I think we look pretty good in the photographs!

Thanks for your support, and for reading this very long, very detailed account of my latest adventure with Kwintus!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with competition. What drives you (or not) to compete?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Women and their Love of Horses

by Linda Benson

Picking up on the post "Smitten" by Francesca Prescott, 7/4/2010, which touched a chord in many of you, I'd like to expand a bit on the research project I did in my senior year of college - a social research project called A Passion for Horses: American Women and their Love Affair with the Horse. I dropped out of college at age 20, went back at age 48 to finish, and finally graduated at age 52. So this research was done after many decades of being a horsewoman myself, and I have always been fascinated by what it is that draws women and girls to horses.

My research consisted of interviewing women from ages 12 to 66, all who described themselves as horse-crazy. I asked them all a series of questions, from when they first became interested in horses - to what it was about the connection with horses that so appealed to them, and lots more.

One hundred years ago, women were expected to wear long skirts and ride side saddle.

I originally had thought that perhaps media influences (the Westerns on television in the 1950's and 60's) or more recent books and movies celebrating horses (The Black Stallion series, etc.) had shed some influence.

But the most common thread I found through all these varying ages of horse women was that they had loved horses for "as long as they could remember" or that they thought "they were born with" their love for horses. Interesting, huh?

Cultural factors have definitely made our ability to own and love horses more easily obtainable today. Note the picture above. Up until about the 1930's, it was unseemly for a woman to be seen mounted astride in trousers. A 1912 book called Riding and Driving for Women stated "the whole idea of women riding astride was an outrage . . . women's thighs were too round and too weak to grip riding that way." And from a medical manual from the same era "riding is dangerous to female anatomy: it produces and unnatural consolidation of the bones of the lower body, ensuring a frightful impediment to future functions which need not here be dwelt upon."

Still, horse lovers have survived. As attitudes towards women were redefined in the 1940's and beyond, the horse's role in society also changed - from primarily a work animal to a recreational one. And conditions were ripe for a woman's love of horses to finally take flight, and finally enjoy the sport of riding in all its glory.

Most all of the women in my study agreed that there had been some older member of the family (if not a parent, maybe a grandparent, aunt, or someone) who first introduced them to horses.

And the other thing they all agreed upon was that it is not just the sport of riding that appealed to them. It is the whole connection with the horse, the bonding with their animal, taking care of the horse, just being around them in general. Horses were described as stress relievers, therapy, companions, and just beautiful to look at. All of these things were important to the love of horses discussed by the subjects in my research.

How about you? What things are important to you in your love of horses? Riding, or what else? Do you think you were born with these feelings? Can you remember anyone of a past generation that might have passed this love down to you?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Continuing Saga of the Big Leg

I haven't updated everyone for a while on Gailey's progress. She's been getting massage therapy on her big leg for about a month now. I've been riding her regularly. I even rode in a lesson on Thursday in the 95-degree heat. We both held up better than I thought we would.

I've been working with Wendy of The Well-Kneaded Horse. At first, I saw an inch difference in the size of her leg. Lately, it's remained consistently the same size, though my trainer believes she's much more comfortable. She says she looks more sound than she has in a few years. I understand these things take time. I just have no clue how much time.

Wendy is using massage and cold-stone therapy treatments. She's done lymphatic massage on people, but never horses before so we're both interested in seeing how this goes. Her lymph nodes are sore, which I guess might mean that they're not working properly. Also, with horses you're working against gravity. They can't put their feet up like people can with swelling issues.

Unfortunately, in this heat wave we've had this week, her leg has gotten bigger, which is no surprise. Heat doesn't help swelling, I guess. I've been hosing it, but it's not making much of a dent.

Gailey definitely enjoys her weekly massages (I could be so lucky). The things we do for our horses!

I've also toyed with trying acupuncture. My vet is skeptical, while others I've spoken to have raved about it. I'm always open to new options, but there's only so much money. Has anyone here had any experience with alternative therapies for horses?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blogging for the First Time

I must admit, as a person who loves to write, you would think I'd have been blogging since blogging was first created by . . . (anyone know the answer?) However, as a full time writer, part time adjunct at a community college, wife, mother of two children, two horses, three dogs and two cats, and some-time gardener, I find that time is precious. But when asked to join Equestrian Ink, I did not hesitate. Being able to combine two passions--writing and horses--is what I love to do. I have written over sixty books for children and teens and the majority have included horses. I still ride in my old age, although leisurely trots on the trails have replaced competition, but when I write my novels, I can 'become' an African American jockey during the Civil War, or an experienced equestrienne navigating a jump course. I also learn through my research incredible information about horses in history, which makes me appreciate their contributions to our country and which I hope to share as I continue to blog.

So thank you readers and members of Equestrian Ink for welcoming me to the blog. Please go to to find out more about me and my books.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Kwintus Chronicles: It's the Final Countdown!

Oh dear. It won’t be long now. Yes, IT’S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (sing it! If you know the song, that is…)! Early on Saturday morning, which is…errr…gulp…the day after tomorrow, Kwintus and I will be travelling in Steph’s horse-lorry (loading/unloading is easier than in my van) to the Chalet-à-Gobet, a village above Lausanne, where, at approximately twenty minutes after noon, we will be taking part in a dressage competition.

If you read one of my earlier posts you will know that I’m not exactly the most competitive person on the planet. Surges of adrenaline do not do it for me; mention the word “competition” and my stomach turns over, refusing to be held accountable for anything that’s been anywhere near it in the past twenty-four hours.
I guess I’ll cross that digestive bridge when I reach it, namely tomorrow.
Meanwhile, this afternoon, I have my final pre-competition lesson with my trainer, Marie-Valentine. It won’t be a long lesson because Swiss/French (we live right on the border) temperatures are totally out of control (it’s supposed to be a whopping 40° centigrade in central France today), making conditions on our white-floored outdoor arena at 3.30 pm seriously sizzling. Then there’s the horse flies, the regular flies, the squadrons of unidentified ugly beasties that insist on vampirising poor Kwintus’ neck.

I’ve been heading out to the stables super early during the past week in order to avoid the worst of the heat, but Kwint and I still sweat buckets. I’ve kept our sessions short: a fifteen minute walk down a shady forest trail, followed by a twenty minute workout, followed by another fifteen minute walk down the forest trail, and then a long, cool shower. Seriously, it’s just ridiculously hot, which is crazy since until it became ridiculously hot about two weeks ago, it had been ridiculously cold since last November. But that’s how the weather tends to be in this part of world.

Anyway, the good news is that I know my program. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that, on Saturday lunchtime, knowledge of the program will be wiped out by a massive surge of adrenaline as Kwintus and I enter at A and power towards our halt at X, leaving me flailing like a moron in the centre of the arena, with no recollection whatsoever of what comes next. Mind you, Kwintus will probably know. We’ve practiced the program so often that he seems to know where the two ten metre circles come, where to stretch into an extended walk, where to transition into canter- walk and strike off on the opposite lead in the centre of the arena. The last part of the program might be a bit of a problem as he clearly thinks the twenty metre circle with the neck extension is a complete waste of time, and always tries to lean into my inside leg to make it smaller. Then, if I don’t collect him properly before the corner and get him into my outside rein before turning into the final half-circle and halting at G (I think it’s G, it’s the middle letter right before the judges), he just kind of roll-flops into it. I mean, I can almost feel him yawning in boredom, asking me “are we done yet?”. He’s such a character!

The bad news is that the weather forecast for Saturday is mega caliente again, so our warm-up session will be kept to a strict minimum: ten minutes walk, then five minutes trot and canter on both reins, and then off we’ll go to face the judges. If I do more than that, Kwint’s engines will fail; he’s eighteen years old and, having spent most of his life under more clement English skies, has a hard time performing in hot weather. Nevertheless, I know he’ll do his best for me, because that’s the kind of horse he is.

Anyway, it’s getting late, so I must change into my riding clothes and head out to the stables for one last practice. My daughter, Olivia, will hack him out tomorrow to preserve energy!

Think of me on Saturday! I’ll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Early this morning I was hanging three pairs of freshly washed jodhpurs out on the washing line to dry. Suddenly, the heavy horses across the road (who pull a special wagon for local garbage collection – I wrote about them in an earlier post) began thundering around their field, kicking up their heels, squealing and generally having a wonderful time. What did I do? I did what any other horse-gaga person would have done. I rushed to the top of the garden, opened the gate, and stood watching their wonderful display of grace and power with a giant smile on my face, goose-bumps erupting all over my body. My throat constricted, I may even have brewed a couple of tears. Neighbors shot me strange looks as they drove past me in their cars. Well, yes, I suppose I must have looked rather odd, standing there gazing at the horses in my pjs, a cheesy grin stretched across my face. Anyway, the horses settled down after a while, going back to grazing and swatting flies, so I pottered back to the laundry room looking forward to tackling the fascinating task of sorting through divorced socks.

That’s when the questions started niggling at me. What is it about horses? Why do they do…well, what they do to me? Where did this passion come from? What prompted it?

I can fully comprehend an inherited passion for horses. It makes sense for horse-mad people to pass the equestrian torch from one generation to the next. There’s good imagery in the French expression “il (or « elle ») est tombé dedans quand il était petit”, which translates to “he (or she) fell in when he (or she) was small”, and applies to the likes of show-jumping superstar Rodrigo Pessoa, or to members of the Whitaker clan. These people were probably, quite literally, riding before they could walk. It also seems logical that children born into horse-loving families might develop an interest in horses; my daughter, Olivia, definitely caught the horse bug from me.

But where did I catch the horse bug? My parents were never particularly interested in horses. They never felt the need to stroke a suede-velvet nose, or enjoyed running their fingers through a long, thick, waxy-tough tail. They weren’t particularly fond of that unique, musky-sweet horsey scent. They didn’t tear up watching movies such as International Velvet, or The Black Stallion. Sure, they’ve always thought horses are beautiful, they’re not scared of them, and have enjoyed patting the ones I’ve been associated with over the years. But that’s as far as it goes. In no way did they encourage my horse-craziness; my mother didn’t specifically choose bedtime stories revolving around horses. During weekend outings, we never went out of our way to go and look at horses, although if we happened to see any as we drove by, my parents would always point them out to me.

I have a vivid memory of my father slowing the car down as we passed a horse and rider on a country road. I must only have been about five or six, but I can still remember him winding down the window to say hello to the rider, asking if his horse was friendly. The man was definitely friendly! I remember how he bent down to talk to us, how he laughed, telling my father his horse was “très très gentil”. I remember how he waved at me, bright-eyed and flat-nosed against the back window. I remember him asking me if I’d like to have a ride on his “gentil cheval”. Of course, he was probably joking, and I was far too overwhelmed to take him up on his invitation. Yet as crazy as it sounds, forty-odd years later, I still regret not taking him up on that spontaneous proposition!

Was this my “ah-ha” horsey moment? Was I contaminated by the horsey-bug during that chance encounter? To be perfectly honest, I think I was born with it. But as it’s my first ultra-vivid horse memory, I can’t help thinking that that friendly man had something to do with my childhood obsession, my teenage fervor, my lifetime passion. Call me mushy, but I wish there was a way for me to let him know!

So, tell me. When were you first smitten?