Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Great Ride

by Laura Crum

Ok, its another trail ride post. I can’t help it. I love trail riding with my kid and every time we go out on an especially good one, I just have to write about it. Part of it is that its so special to share this with my son (and I know, as Francesca and others have so poignantly pointed out, that this stage of life does not last forever), and part of it is that I just love riding my steady little Sunny horse through the hills of my home. But I can appreciate that you all might think I’m getting a little repetitive. If anybody wants a break from my endless trail ride posts, just give me a word—I’m willing to write about other things.

But today its trail riding again. My son and I just got back from a two hour ride, which is my favorite kind of ride. Long enough to be a real ride, not so long I’m stiff and sore afterwards. The horses like it, too. They get enough exercise that their hair coats are damp under the saddle and cinch, but not so much that they’re really tired. Just right.

Actually, I meant to do a shorter ride, one that only takes an hour and a half, but when we got to the Lookout my son said, “Let’s go home through Moon Valley.”

Sitting on the Lookout bluff, staring out over Monterey Bay, I hesitated. I had other things to do in the afternoon. But going through Moon Valley would only take a little longer. And we hadn’t been that way in awhile.

“Please, Mama,” my son said. “I really want to go that way again.”

That clinched it. I always try to honor my son’s requests when we ride, as long as they’re reasonable. I want riding to be as fun for him as it is for me. So we took the trail that descends steeply downhill from the Lookout to Moon Valley. And I learned a funny thing. (Well, I already knew it, so I re-learned it.)

We usually ride the trail through Moon Valley in the other direction—don’t ask me why. In fact, I can’t recall that we’ve ever rode it in reverse before. But today, on my son’s whim, we descended where we were usually ascending, and rode the trail in the opposite direction. And it was like a whole new trail.

I saw things I had never noticed before, big trees and views that didn’t appear going the other way; some parts of the trail actually looked foreign to me, though I’ve ridden it many times. Twice I almost missed a turnoff. In short, it was almost as interesting as the first ride down a new trail. I was tickled.

My son was happy, singing as we rode along. Sunny and Henry walked with their ears forward, looking at everything. Sunny spotted a deer in the woods. We all watched it bound away, the horses alert but perfectly calm. They are such good horses.

At one point, traversing the hillside above Moon Valley, we heard a bulldozer and a chain saw working away in the woods near the trail, clearing brush. Oh no, I thought. A lot of horses don’t care for the snarl of a chainsaw and the topple of falling trees. But Sunny and Henry never turned a hair, and we cruised peacefully on by.

As we rode past huge redwoods and through a bright meadow where an abandoned swingset sits forlornly in the woods, I was reminded that I have my heroine, Gail McCarthy, ride this exact route with her son, Mac, in my latest book, “Going, Gone”. So, for anyone who wants a more complete description of the “swingset trail” (and also a little more excitement), read the book (!)

The whole real life ride past uneventfully, in the best way. I wasn’t nervous crossing the busy road (don’t ask me why I get nervous some rides and not others, cause I don’t know). We trotted and loped a long straight stretch through the meadow, the wind flying in our faces, our horses happy to move out. And it was seventy degrees the entire time and the sun dappled woods and trail dust evoked the very essence of late summer. I was so happy. What a great ride.

If anybody has any happy moments with their own horses to share, I’d love to hear them. This is what makes it all worthwhile-- all the work and worry and expense (and the setbacks and disappointments--see my last post)—these wonderful, magical moments with our horses. They can be as small as sitting in the barn listening to your horse munch his hay, or as huge as a two week pack trip through the mountains (and I’ve sure done both). But for today I didn’t need anything more than a magical two hour ride with my son through the hills of home.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reading about Horses

When I was a horse-crazy kid (before I became a horse-crazy adult) I read everything I could get my hands on about horses. I made a goal of reading every horse book I could find in our library, in the kids section - anyway. That habit has carried over to this day, so I'm always on the look-out for a good horse book. (Hint: Writers love books - so we read a lot, too :-))
Here are two recent horse novels (published in 2010) that I truly enjoyed - and you might, also:

The Outside of a Horse, by Ginny Rorby
Dial Books for Young Readers/2010

The Outside of a Horse deals with the power of horses to heal. We all know the expression, right? The Outside of a Horse is good for the Inside of a Man (or Woman.)
This novel is the story of Hannah Gale, whose dad returns from the war in Iraq a different man than when he left. With her family structure in shambles, Hannah retreats to the solace of horses at a nearby stable. There's lots of details here for horse-lovers, from Parelli techniques to Triple Crown winners to rescue animals, but it is ultimately Hannah's story. She's a wonderful character, who has been dealt a raw hand in life. How she deals with it, and how she attempts to heal both her dad and herself, makes for a very moving story. Highly recommended.

Riding Invisible, by Sandra Alonzo

Hyperion/ 2010

Riding Invisible is told in journal format, and when you first pick up this book, it appears to appeal to a younger audience. Don't be dissuaded, though, the story packs a punch. It's the journal of Yancy, who runs away with his beloved horse Shy, after his brother Will (diagnosed with conduct disorder) has threatened harm to Shy. We've all threatened to run away with our horses, right? But what if you had to, to save your horse? And considering that Yancy starts out without much of a plan, riding through the paved streets of Southern California without telling his parents he's leaving, well . . .

Riding Invisible is both an adventure story and a serious story of a family coming to grips with a difficult situation, and a boy finding his own courage and voice through it all. Wonderful book, and highly recommended.

You can probably find both of these books in the YA (young adult) section of your nearest bookstore or library. Or you can put them on your Christmas list. I bet you'll like them.

Can you recommend any good horse books you've read recently? We'd all like you to read ours, of course, but there are lots of other good books out there, and we love to share. Tell us what you'd recommend.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Silver Lining

This time next week, I’ll be in my car, on my way to England, taking my daughter to university. Goodness knows where we’ll be at precisely this moment (it’s 4.30 pm here in Geneva, Switzerland) but I’m guessing we’ll be somewhere close to Paris, heading towards the port of Calais where we’ll spend the night before catching the ferry the following morning. And goodness knows what sort of state I’ll be in, although judging from my current condition I doubt I’ll be a great candidate for the Miss Perky award.

I’m sad. I’m tearful. Frankly, I’m a bit of a mess.

My beautiful daughter is leaving home. And although I know we’ll be in touch every day thanks to modern technology, and although I know she’ll be home for Christmas, and although I know I can get on a plane and fly over to see her for a couple of days if I really really want to, I know that life in the Prescott household will never be the same again.

I’m thrilled for her, I really am. I’m proud she did so well in her International Baccalaureate, proud she got into the university of her choice, proud of the beautiful, kind, intelligent, talented, wonderful person she’s become. She dazzles me, she truly does. And it’s not as if my nest will be empty; my equally gorgeous, kind, intelligent, talented, wonderful son still has three years of high school in front of him. Thank goodness!

We're all going to miss her. But her departure is going to hit me particularly hard because she and I have always been especially close. We’re like two peas in a pod: our passion for horses, our interest in fashion, our reserved personalities, our obsession with washing our hair, our inability to put the top back on the toothpaste, our incessant worrying about hurting other people’s feelings, our discomfort in large groups. Etc. Big etc!!!! I’ve been blessed, I really have; over the years I've met so many mothers who have suffered from being shut out by their adolescent daughters, enduring tantrums, hurtful comments, inconsiderate behavior. My daughter never put me through anything like that. She and I always have enjoyed each other’s company, have always been able to talk about anything. We've always had fun together. As my mother says, she’s never been a minute’s trouble.

And now she’s going away, and it’s going to be SO strange. Until now, I’d never understood how my mother felt when I boarded a plane and flew off to seek my fortune in America with my boyfriend back in the early Eighties (err, I didn’t find it!). Back then there were no mobile phones, no emails, no way of remaining in contact twenty-four seven. Back then, my parents could only kiss me goodbye, walk away and hope for the best. Communication was limited to letters and the occasional long-distance, madly expensive phone call and, retrospectively, I could have been a little more considerate. Not that they ever complained, bless them. The fact that kids leave home is simply in the grand order of things, but – oh dear - it definitely feels like a significant chink in the circle of life. That cliché about children growing up too fast? Pff!

Oh, I’ll be fine. Of course I will. In fact, I’ve even found a positive point about her moving overseas: I’ll have Kwintus all to myself!

Can you tell I’m clinging to that silver lining?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Escape Artist---and a Disaster

by Laura Crum

As some of you know, I ride several days a week at a local arena where my friends practice team roping. I used to be a roper, but gave it up when I got pregnant at 43, and I’ve never taken it back up again, having decided I prefer trail riding. But I do love moving cattle on horseback, and I enjoy being with my friends, and its also nice to lope circles in a big, well groomed arena once in awhile, so my son and I go ride with the ropers a couple of times a week.

Our favorite chore is gathering the cattle. This is not exactly a real big deal, as the cattle are in a twenty acre pasture. But they can be resistant and the pasture has steep hills and a several acre section of redwood forest, so this can make things interesting. Last time we gathered, we had to do a bit of loping to and fro across the field to deter the leaders from making a break and it was all great fun. Then, when the herd was safely in the catch pen, my friend Wally said, “We’re missing one.”

Sure enough. The dark red brindle steer was missing.

This was not good. Those of you who are cow people know that cattle are herd animals, and they seldom leave the herd unless they are sick or injured.

But another friend, Mark, said, “That steer is an escape artist. He probably got out.”

Oh dear. Because on one side of this pasture are some suburban houses and on the other is several hundred acres of unfenced forest land. Neither scenario was a positive one.

Obviously we had to go look for the steer. Some people rode the fenceline. My son and I rode into the section of the pasture that was forested, to see if the steer was hiding out.

Down the hill we went, riding into a dark gully full of redwood trees, with a steep little creekbed at the bottom. I was not on my steady Sunny horse, but on my friend’s six year old blue roan gelding, Smoky. Smoky is a good, level headed young horse, but he is not Sunny. He jigged a bit and fretted, looking anxiously into the bushes as we crossed back and forth through the dark, hilly forest, trying to find a dark red steer. (So, why couldn’t it have been a white steer, ya know?)

My son, on Henry, was his usual fearless self. “I’m right behind you, Mama,” he said as we slogged up yet another hill to the very top corner of the pasture.

I still didn’t see the steer anywhere. But Smoky was focused very intently on the redwood tree at the top of the hill and his whole body was tense. I’m not going to kid you, I took a good grip on the saddle horn, and felt of my horse’s mouth. “What’s up, Smoky,” I said in a meant to be calm voice, hoping quite strongly that he would not spook and try to take off down this steep hill.

“He sees the cow, Mama,” said my son.

“He does? Where? I don’t see him.” And I didn’t.

“He’s lying down. Right behind the redwood tree,” said my sharp eyed kid. “I see him. So does Smoky.”

I urged Smoky to take a step forward and I looked down. Sure enough, right behind the tree, not ten feet from me, lay the dark red steer, holding perfectly still, looking right at me. Well, damn. Its not many cattle that will purposefully leave the herd and then hide from you like that. This was obviously one wily steer.

“Get ready,” I told my kid. “We’re gonna get him up.” And I stepped Smoky toward the steer and slapped my leg with my hand, yelling, “Here now,” or something equally meaningless.

Smoky was tense but willing. He didn’t spook when the steer hopped up under his nose and he didn’t run off when the animal took off down the mountainside. My son and I followed at a more sedate pace and I yelled to let the others know where we were and that we’d found the missing cow.

Some ten minutes later, with several friends helping, the wily red steer was herded into the catch pen to pay his dues as part of the roping herd. And my son had a grin a mile wide.

“We’re good cowboys, aren’t we Mama?” he said. And, I guess, in a manner of speaking, we are. Though I can tell you, I quite sincerely wished I were riding Sunny a few times while we were trekking through that forest.

So that’s my little adventure for today. Does anybody else out there suffer from nerves when their horse gets tense? Man, all a horse has to do is get on the muscle just a little and I tense up inside. I know better than to get tight with my legs or pull on the horse too much, but inwardly I am just as anxious as can be. I can hide it pretty well, but its still there. And this is why I value Sunny so much. He doesn’t get tense—and so I don’t either. But I am riding Smoky a lot, so I need to work on this. Any suggestions?

PS—I wrote this post on Friday. On Sunday my friend and boarder, Wally, took Smoky to a practice roping—I didn’t go. When Wally came home he had a sad story to tell, and both he and I are puzzled and, I will admit, distressed. Because after three years of absolutely no indication that he’d ever do anything violent, Smoky blew up—shortly after being saddled, while tied to the trailer. Bucking and bouncing off the end of the leadrope. Wally untied him, thinking to spare the horse getting hurt on the trailer, and also thinking he could get his attention and get him under control. Not so. The horse was bucking blind, for what reason we don’t know; he acted like a cinchy horse, but this horse has never shown one indication of cinchiness in his entire life. Whatever the reason, he bucked over the tongue of the trailer and got himself hung up in the safety chains. He ended up on the ground, with half his body under the truck and his leg still in the chains. Wally thought he would simply have to find the quickest way to kill him.

The other ropers gathered around and were able to immobilize the horse. They actually had to jack the trailer up to free his leg and drive the truck off the top of him. To Wally’s amazement, Smoky stood up and walked off sound, though with a nasty cut on his pastern. The vet who came said she thought the cut did not go the joint. The next day Smoky was slightly lame and sore, but not excessively so, for what he had been through.

We’re doctoring him, and healing him up, but both Wally and I are really sad. Because if a horse will do this once, for whatever reason, he’s capable of doing it again. I, for one, am not game to ride him any more. At least not until someone else has ridden him for a good long time, and it has been clearly demonstrated that he’s safe. I don’t think Wally should ride him either. Wally is 77 years old. Neither he nor I have any business messing with a horse who is capable of being violent.

But it makes me very, very sad. Because we put a lot of effort into bringing Smoky along and the horse was doing so well. As evidenced by the first part of my post, I trusted him. I never, ever thought that he would be capable of violent, blind bucking. I never saw one sign that he was the least bit prone to being cinchy. I’ve been wrong before, so that’s no surprise, but seldom have I been this blind-sided by a horse.

Anyway, there’s my horse story for today. Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer Riding and Mastering the Little Things

I hope everyone’s summer has been full of good rides, be it in the arena, field, or trails. I’ve been riding about four days a week and working on my changes, among other things. Gailey, despite the permanent big leg issue and stretching suspensories, is going better than ever.

Gailey in her summer fly armour. Notice the big left hind leg.
I’ve finally mastered a three-loop serpentine without a change of lead and in balance. This may not seem like a difficult thing to do, yet with this particular horse, it was. The arena I ride in is about the size of a small dressage arena. My big mare has a hard time doing the counter canter loop. She’d rather change leads. Add to that my uncoordinated efforts to keep her from changing. Somtime during the past few months a light clicked on. I quit twisting my body and trying to pull Gailey around with the reins alone. Instead, I sat up straighter and quieter, concentrated on not changing the weight in my seatbones, and keeping her round and together. Once all those things came together, the serpentine was incredibly easy.
In addition, I’m able to plug my seat into the saddle in canter and use it to bring her back to a school canter then urge her into a forward canter. Forward. Back. Forward. Back. Forward, Back. Over and over we go in endless circles, practicing my half-halts and her obedience. My legs are staying on her sides. My butt is staying in the saddle. I’m sitting up straighter.
On to shoulder-in and haunches-in, I’m actually able to do a shoulder-in and haunches-in in both directions without tightening my butt, allowing her to move forward freely. Same with half-pass. I’m sitting up and enjoying the ride. Everytime I try too hard, I stiffen and then she stiffens. I’m working on staying relaxed and deep in that saddle.
Canter has always been my nemesis with this horse. Now I’d rather canter than trot. I’m also able to turn her in a small circles around my inside leg, outside rein, the precursor to a canter pirouette.
It’s possible you’re surprised I haven’t mastered all of this sooner. I can certainly understand, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m not the most physically coordinated person in the world, so none of this comes easy for me. At the beginning of the summer, I decided to take it one day at a time with her, not knowing how long she’d stay sound and healthy.
Gailey seems happy, cooperative, and content. She shows no signs of giving up. She’s trying hard. I’m having a great time, too. I hope your summer has been as productive and enjoyable.

Speaking of Promotion

Book lovers need to head to a great blog
http://www.bookingmama.blogspot.com/ for a chance to win a copy of Whirlwind.
Scroll down and click on the Whirlwind book cover on the left.
Julie has a wonderful blog filled with reviews and giveaways. It's a treat.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Publish, Promote, Panic

I have been writing and publishing since 1984 when my first story appeared in Highlights magazine. Sixty plus books later, you would think I would have the hang of this crazy business. Yet here I am once again in panic mode.

Writing I LOVE, but every stage thereafter sends me into nervous jitters. Right now I have a completed novel with my agent. I love it; she loves it. Next week it will get sent out to prospective editors. Will any of them love it? Or will it politely get rejected for some obscure reason? (Doesn't fit our list. Too similar. Too different. Marketing hates it. We're only doing Twilight clones. Blah blah.)

In March and May I had two books published. Terrific, yes. Terrifying, absolutely. Because in today's publishing world, the fate of an author's books is in her hands. That brings up promotion, which I agonize over every day. Am I doing enough? Is what I'm doing working? And if it's not working, will my book, which I researched and wrote for a year, disappear?

When I go to conferences, I am envious of the authors who are also mini-publicists. I'd rather write (and ride and garden and hang with my kids and take walks with my dogs.) Only my horses, kids and dogs don't buy my books. So I guest blog and Facebook and send out postcards. I check sales on Amazon and "Big Buzz" on Ice Rocket, and worry that my books are getting lost in the flood of novels with titles like Fang and Crazy Girl.

Fortunately, through the years, I have added a fourth and fifth 'p' to 'publish, promote and panic.' Perseverance plus my love of writing keeps me persisting. I'd love to hear from other writers--do you also panic? And how do you deal with it?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Trails

by Laura Crum

My son and I explored a new trail while out riding yesterday. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but it was very exciting for us. We have ridden the network of trails near our house for many years and thought we knew them all. Then, a few nights ago, we “googled” the area that we ride and low and behold, saw what looked like a trail we hadn’t been on. So yesterday, when we rode up to the Lookout, we peered at the spot where we’d seen the trail on the computer screen, and there it was. Diving off into the brush, with the marks of hoofprints written clearly in the dust.

My kid was thrilled. “Lets go, Mama,” he said. He has been getting bored of our regular rides. Yesterday he asked to go on a longer one, but I didn’t have that much time. So now I hesitated. I, too, was curious about the new trail, but I have done a lot of exploring new trails in my life, and I know what kind of pickles can result. And I am always extra cautious riding with my child.

Still, horses went this way—that was plain. And I knew from looking at it and from what we’d seen on Google that it probably led towards home. “OK,” I said, “as long as you promise that if I say we’re going back you’ll go back without arguing.”

My son promised with alacrity and we started down the trail. Sunny led with his usual alert caution. Sunny is not a spooky horse (not remotely), but he walks with his ears sharply forward at all times and approaches new sections of trail very carefully. Henry followed with his usual calm, willing demeanor. We descended quite of bit of pleasant single track winding downhill through the brush and in and out of big redwood groves. So far so good. Lots of hoofprints, lots of horse manure. The trail was well used by horses.

However, the descents were getting steeper. We reached one long downhill chute and I hesitated again. This section was really quite steep, in loose dirt. The horses slither down such bits on our usual trails, but this was much longer. Sunny and Henry waited calmly for my choice, my son urged me on.

“Come on, Mama, we can do it. Lots of horses have been this way.”

Well, this was true. But I had no idea what sort of riders used this trail. Perhaps they were all undaunted trail riders mounted on agile Arabs who rode the Tevis Cup in their spare time. We, on the other hand, were a sedate middle aged woman and a nine year old kid riding two retired team roping horses that, though reliable and steady, could not be described as nimble.

But the trail didn’t look dangerous, as long as the horses stayed calm and focused—and these two horses are the epitomy of calm and focused. So I instructed my son to keep Henry right behind Sunny and stay straight to the hill and go slow. And down we went.

Sunny is the master of the slow descent. He creeps down a steep hill, taking tiny steps in front and shuffling his back feet. If he has to slide a little he is unflustered. My son kept Henry behind and we had no problems. We traversed another half mile of pretty, winding trail, ducking under low tree limbs and dodging crooked trunks that leaned into our path. And then…

I pulled Sunny up as I looked at the section of trail in front of us. A right angle turn to the left went straight up for fifty feet and made a hard right turn around a big tree trunk—with a two foot step up over a solid log right in the middle of it. This was tough stuff. If a horse slipped or floundered here, there was a distinct possibility he’d go down.

I know well enough that if a horse goes down, even to his knees, all bets are off. A rider might stay on, might come off—it’s a crap shoot. I’ve had horses go down with me before—you’re not in charge of what happens. You can’t control it. Having a horse go down is my single greatest fear.

Henry and Sunny are not going to dump us on purpose. But, like all horses, they could go down. Neither one has ever come any closer to this than very minor stumbles, and these are rare. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I looked at that steep, tricky bit of trail and wondered if we weren’t courting disaster.

My son, predictably, urged me on. But this carried no weight. My son has never had a true horseback disaster (he has come off only once) and this is precisely why he is not fearful. I want to keep it that way. Nonetheless, his point that we would have to go up some steep bits if we went back had weight.

“And there’s nowhere to turn around,” he said.

Uhmm, yeah. We were on a stretch of narrow sidehill singletrack with a steep slope beneath us. I dithered. Outwardly I sat calmly on my horse, who stood with complete calm patience on the trail—Henry standing equally relaxed behind him. I reminded my son that if I said we were going back he wasn’t to argue. Inwardly, I went over the situation somewhat frantically. What was best to do here?

While I dithered, my eyes scanned the terrain and I noticed something that had not been immediately apparent. The vines were trampled to the left of the trail, showing where several horsemen had elected a different route up the hill. A much simpler line, less steep, and minus the sharp turn and big step up. I studied this line. It looked doable. There was no trail, but the trampling gave every indication the footing would be OK.

“All right,” I told my son. “We’re going this way.” And I showed him the line. “Keep Henry right behind Sunny.”

And I clucked to Sunny, pointed his nose to the left, up the hill, through the vines and brambles, and said, “Come on, let’s go.”

Sunny, intrepid little critter that he is, sighed and thrust up the hill, never faltering, never scrambling. Henry followed steadily. There is a certain calm, confident poise that is worth even more in a trail horse than athletic ability (though there is nothing wrong with athletic ability) and Sunny and Henry have that self confidence in spades. They are also willing and obedient—we have never over matched them or abused them. And they are both strong, sound little horses. They topped that rise no problem, and we popped out on an old road bed.

Aha. I knew exactly where we were now. I turned right on the roadbed and we marched along toward home. The sun sparkled on the trees, my son was as happy as a lark.

“What a great ride, Mama,” he said. “This is just great.” He whistled small snatches of the William Tell Overture—I had to admit it fit our mood perfectly.

I, too, felt happy and triumphant. We’d explored a new trail and done well. It felt like a grand adventure. As we marched the rest of the way home, stepping over fallen logs, following a route we hadn’t ridden in awhile and seeing the small changes, making a safe crossing of the busy road and heading up our driveway to our front gate, my son and I chattered happily. The horses were their usual calm, alert selves.

When I unsaddled them, the truth of the saying “Didn’t turn a hair,” was obvious. Their hair coats were smooth and unruffled, only slightly damp under the saddle and the cinch, after our two hour ride, complete with plenty of hills. The horses are in reasonable shape, but it is their calm demeanor that allows them to execute the ride with so little stress.

I let them graze for awhile before I put them away, and then rubbed each one fondly. What good horses they are and how much I appreciate them. I was happy we’d all had a successful adventure together.

And yet? Despite these good feelings there is a part of me that wonders if I made the right choice. I truly didn’t know if that trail was doable for us when I started down it. My usual habit is to hike a trail first before I ride it with my son. These trails are not in a park; there is no authority that pronounces them safe. Most of us horse people just follow the ones where other horses have clearly trod. But, of course, those other horse people could have been much more competent trail riders. I had no way of knowing.

Did I make a foolish decision? Have you been faced with such a choice? What do you think I should have done?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On The Trail Again

by Laura Crum

My son and I took our first trail ride since our month long vacation exactly one week after we returned home. We rode our two horses, Henry and Sunny, three or four times at home and at the local roping arena to be sure they were going good, and then set out one foggy morning to ride a one and a half hour loop near our place. I have to admit that these cool (60 degrees), gray, foggy days we get quite often here in coastal California in the summer, are not my favorite weather. But it is excellent weather from a trail horse’s point of view. Henry and Sunny executed the whole ride (including several steep climbs) without even cracking a sweat, despite their thirty days of layoff.

As we left through our front gate, I was visited with the sort of anxious nerves I often feel when I set out on a ride with my son. Because when we ride from home the first thing we have to do is cross a busy road upon which the cars zip by at fifty miles an hour. And I hate this part of the trip.

Our horses are not afraid of the traffic—this is one of the reasons I chose the two of them. Both will stand by the road perfectly still, solid as rocks, as the traffic goes whizzing by and I wait and wait for a gap in which to cross. This can take five minutes (literally). Doesn’t matter if busses, logging trucks, motorcycles or bicycles swish by, just a mere couple of feet from their muzzles. Henry and Sunny are unperturbed. They stand, calmly waiting. My son chatters happily. I, on the other hand, am an emotional wreck.

Oh, I try to hide it, but inside my nerves are seething. I hate, hate, hate, having to stand in such proximity to the deadly traffic….with my young son. When I do this solo, I am much calmer. But my son loves to ride and I believe (I think I believe) that I can keep the risk within reason.

But still…what if a bee stung a horse, what if the neighbor’s goat leaps out of the brush with a loud “baaa”. The horses are not afraid of the traffic—that’s one of the reasons they stand so quietly. And, conversely, they would never comprehend how deadly spooking into the road would be. Me, I comprehend it. The cars are going too fast to stop easily. So, I worry.

But (knocking on wood), we wait patiently for a gap and cross safely—neither horse turns a hair—as it has always been. We scoot through the back parking lot of a neighborhood church and strike the ridge trail, which ascends steeply, with many big step ups. Both horses handle it well, and my son and I gaze out to the west, where vistas of the Monterey Bay open up, strung with grey wraiths of fog, this particular August morning.

The ridge trail follows the spine of the ridgeline—it’s a very pretty trail, with wooded slopes and views of the mountains on both sides. We follow it for a mile or so and take a branch trail to the Lookout—a bluff that overlooks the whole Monterey Bay. There we let the horses rest and just take in the sights. Sunny and Henry cock a leg and practically go to sleep; they’re that relaxed. Both seem mighty comfortable at being returned to their job as trail horses.

The rest of the ride is equally uneventful—in the best kind of way. Both horses are calm and willing—they seem happy to be there. Ears up, walking out steadily. Sunny and I get along well, as we have for quite awhile now. Henry is his usual self—the ultimate trooper. My son whistles and sings little snatches of songs—we comment on the small local landmarks as we ride by certain tree snags and windy meadows. We are able to enjoy the scenery and each other because we are not having to “cope” with our horses. Our horses are taking care of themselves.

When we near home we make one more successful crossing of the road and head back up the hill to our front gate. I pat Sunny’s neck and tell him what a good horse he is and my heart is full of gratitude. I feel this way every ride. I am so grateful to these two horses, that some would call plugs, for their steady, reliable ways on the trail that have given my son and I so many hours of unworried pleasure (the road is my only worried moment on most of these rides). I would not swap these horses for any high powered critters of any sort, no matter what their talents. Nothing (horsewise) is a greater pleasure to me than cruising down the trails enjoying the natural world, my son, and our horses in such a peaceful, relaxed way. I promise the horses silently (and I mean it) that I will take care of them until their end—that I will give back to them for what they have given to me.

And then we are home, the front gate shut behind us, horses unsaddled and grazing on the “horse lawn” (grass I water to keep it green in the dry California summer—so the horses have a patch to graze on). My son is happy, swinging in his swing that hangs from a liveoak in the barnyard. I am happy, watching the horses graze. The horses look very happy, too. I think we all (horses included) are basking in the feeling of another pleasant ride accomplished.

I think idly about how much I wish I did not have to cross the road in order to ride our local trails, but I can think of no logical solution. That road looms in my mind sometimes like a huge river, and there are days when the emotional effort of crossing it is just too much for me, and I elect to ride at home in my riding ring instead. Since I would infinitely rather trail ride than ride in a ring (so would my horse) you can see that the road really is a big issue in my mind.

So that’s my story/topic for today. Do some of you have similar issues that bug you when it comes to trail riding? Or pursuing any horse event you love? That road torments me—I admit it. I cross it a lot, and I will do so again, but it is a real thorn in my side. Anybody have any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When to Let Go

I have blogged here about my wonderful donkey, Josie, that I had the privilege of owning for almost ten years, and her battle with laminitis. For the last year, I have fought this battle with her daily, preparing a concoction of various medicines in her feed, building her a separate paddock, fitting her with a grazing muzzle so she could be out in the pasture without eating too much.

Ten days ago we both lost that battle, and I made the decision to have her put to sleep. I agonized over the decision, because she seemed to pull out of her lameness earlier in the year for a few months, and felt good enough to playfully run and buck around the pasture a bit. Her lameness became worse and worse as the year progressed though, even with all of my care, but I kept hoping for another miracle. I spoke with my vet, asking him when it would be time to let her go. "When she has more bad days then good days," he had told me.

The last few months, Josie mostly just minced around the corral, walking on eggshells. Lying down more than normal, she began to develop sores on the outside of her knees. I knew, but I didn't want to know. I kept hoping and praying she might pull out of it again, that I might have a few more weeks or months with this wonderful, gentle old soul. And some days, she would mince out into the pasture wearing her grazing muzzle and seem to really enjoy herself, standing in the sun and having wonderful rolls in her dust pile.

Don't you wish that our animals could actually speak to us, so we could ask them where it hurts, and how much it hurts? But we do the best that we can.

In the end, Josie did tell me, in her own way. She stopped braying in the mornings when she first saw me. And she began to shrink from my touch when I'd brush her, not wanting to be caught or touched at all. Josie appeared to be in pain at all times, even with the large amounts of painkiller I gave her.

When my wonderful vet came out to put her down, he gave her a tranquilizer first, and she sleepily munched grain and apples and carrots from her feed pan, barely able to keep her eyes open. That's what she was doing when he gave her the final shot that put her to sleep, and I felt like my heart twisted and broke in two. It is so difficult, when you love an animal, to make that decision to end their life.

But I have to believe I was giving Josie the final gift. I know she is now, finally, out of pain. My vet sat with us for a long time afterwards. I stroked Josie's long ears, and we talked about what a wonderful animal she was.

An old stockman told me one time - when you raise animals, you will lose animals. And when you love those special animals, it's heart breaking.

If any of you have to make this decision for an animal that you love, whether it be equine, canine, feline, or something else, I wish you well. It goes with the territory, and it's part of the job of being a responsible, loving animal owner.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Breaking up is Hard to Do

A few days ago, a friend of mine (we'll call her Pat) left me a few voicemails. I could tell by the tone something was wrong. I called her back to find her choked up with emotion. She'd discovered a few things and was filing for a divorce.

You're probably wondering what this has to do with horses. Actually, lots. How many of you have been through a divorce or faced with the stark reality of one? I know I have. With it comes the sticky situation of how to keep the horses and the farm intact. Most single women find it daunting to run a farm on their own, financially and physically.

In Pat's case, she has five horses, some valuable, some not. She wants to keep two, and she'd love to keep her beautiful farm. Yet, how realistic is that? I was lucky. My ex had a business, so I kept the farm, he kept the business. We did everything quite civally. I know others who aren't quite that lucky. Another friend of mine kept her farm, for a while. After a year of working long hours as a nurse and being a slave to her small farm, she ended up boarding her two horses and selling the farm. Now she has a small house and lots of spare time for her horses.

What happens when you've amassed a small herd of horses and are faced with the stark reality of losing your farm and your horses, not just through divorce but possibly through loss of income? How realistic is it to try to keep everything? What options are open to you? I've been trying to help Pat with her options, but she isn't ready to accept them yet. She doesn't want to change her life or lose her farm and horses. In most cases, this is not realistic.

Sometimes, it just takes a little imagination and a lot of networking to find options for your horses, especially ones you want to keep.

One of our local trainers is looking for inexpensive Hanoverian broodmares. Pat has a broodmare approved by the Hanoverian Society. Another friend has a nice farm, grooms for a local trainer and takes regualar lessons but cannot afford the upfront expense of a nice dressage horse. I suggested Pat lease her most hard-to-sell, difficult yet talented horse to this friend. She'd get a good home and free training, possibly even exposure at shows. In a year or so, they can decide where to go next. I'd go the advertising route for the third horse, a nice young Hanoverian filly.

The last two horses, she really wants to keep. Pat isn't working and is in school and has one more year to go. Can she keep two horses and finish school? Even if she can, they won't be worked or shown or become anything but pasture ornaments. They're both too nice for that (both are nieces of my mare). It seems to me, she'd be better off leasing both of them for two years until she gets back on her feet. People would line up to lease them, they are that nice, including me. ;)

Yet, still she hesitates. I can understand. It's hard to face life changes like this, especially after two decades of marriage. You have to think of what's best for your, your family, and your horses. Sometimes you really can't have your cake and eat it, too.

You also have to face the issue of the horses being considered community property. I've heard several horror stories of horses being split between the fighting couple and being starved or sold for meat in a moment of spite or revenge. Not that I think for a moment either of these two would do such a thing.

In my own case, my horse was listed in the divorce decree with a value assigned to her. For us, it didn't really matter, but for others, it may. How do you protect your horses from becoming "assets" in a nasty divorce? Can you? By rights, they are most likely community property. Assigning a realistic value to them might also be an issue considering the parties involved and the relative ignorance of the legal community. If the horses are insured, that's one way to assign value, which might also be something to consider when valuing your horse for insurance purposes.

I think the best thing for a horse-loving person to do in a divorce situation is to be pro-active. If you believe you'll need to sell off part of your herd, take control of the sales so you know where your animals are going. Of course, talk to your attorney first, but I wouldn't wait until the courts decide the fate of my animals, I'd be taking steps to insure their well-being and their future. If I want to keep one or two, I'd start working on ways to do that before the horses are pawns in a nasty tug of war.

While I hope none of you ever have to go through this, I'm sure many of you already have. I hope things turned out okay for you, your family, and your horses. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Zenyatta goes for 18

Just a quick announcement that the great race mare, undefeated Zenyatta, tries for her eighteenth win tonight, August 7, 2010 in the Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar racetrack in California. If she wins, she will be a three time winner of this race.

Post time is approximately 6:15 PM Pacific Time, so you can adjust that for wherever you live. It should be televised on TVG, which is a horseracing channel available on many cable and satellite systems.

We've written more about Zenyatta earlier. (You can use the search feature in the upper righthand corner to find out more about this great mare, now six years old.) Can she make it a perfect 18 for 18?

I'd love to see her in person, but instead, I'll be right in front of the television, screaming her on. Hope you can watch her, too!

Friday, August 6, 2010

I'm off for vacation so I'm cheating with a short blog

Those of you with animals, yards, gardens and kids know how difficult it is to get ready for vacation. My kids aren't little any more, yet it doesn't seem any easier. Our critter/house sitter was here last year, and is a vet tech student with horse experience, so you would think I would be less anal. Plus our chihuahua goes with us ($75.00 extra for the beach house), but the two big dogs, three horses and two cats stay home, and already they are sighing gloomily.

I am taking to the beach two swimsuits, five books, and six boxes of peaches. I won the fight with the bugs and now my peach tree runneth over. There's no way I'm leaving town without those peaches! Not only are they gorgeous (even with the dings and rotten spots), they are sweet and juicy. My family loves peach jam, and using the new pectin that doesn't need ten pounds of sugar per peach (okay that's an exaggeration), I can make jam that is incredibly peachy.

I would love to find out how other folks manage to leave town with sanity intact. But since I'll be at the beach with no e-mail, I won't get to read the fun responses. But I will happily blog when I get back whether the horses, dogs, cats, flowers, and garden survived without my constant worrying over them (since I do most of the animal and plant wrangling) and post a photo of a jar of jam so ya'll can enjoy vicariously!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Something rather yucky happened to me at the stables today. I’d just finished riding Kwintus, had showered him, made him comfortable, put my tack away and was sitting taking off my boots when Fiz, Steph’s four-month-old Swiss Shepherd puppy, bounded up to me. Fiz is a bright-eyed, floppy white bundle of fluff, an open invitation to gaga-babble and those rub-a-dub, big goofy cuddles. Always a sucker for rub-a-dubs with puppies, I leant over to interact gaga-ishly with him, letting him nibble my hair, and smushing my face in his soft white fluffiness.


You see, today, Fiz wasn’t just soft white fluffiness. As he gamboled away, distracted by a falling leaf, something pungent filled my nostrils. Eww. Concerned, I picked up the tip of my ponytail and took a tentative whiff. Big eww. But what the heck was it? It smelt kind of like garlic, but possibly a little beyond.
Unable to figure it out and unwilling to use my imagination, I settled for garlic that had “gone off”.

Steph appeared at the tack room door.

“Your dog just rubbed something smelly all over me,” I said, zipping up my boots, putting on my flip-flops and pulling a distraught face. “D’you think he ate some of Kwint’s garlic powder?” (we’ve been feeding Kwintus garlic powder supplements in an effort to discourage the squadrons of horse-flies and other little flying bastards that torture him whenever he’s out in the field. In case you’re curious, I’m not sure the garlic helps much – the far more chemically formulated Wellcare anti-fly lotion seems far more efficient, as does the brand new (chemical) Centaura spray bought at considerable expense from my lovely veterinarian. Believe me, I really was trying to do the decent organic thing but if you’d seen my very spotty, very itchy, poor demented horse you’d have caved to the pharmaceutical big dogs too.

Steph looked dubious. “I finished the tub of garlic two days ago, so Fiz couldn’t
have eaten any of that. But I did see him rolling in something not too kosher looking earlier, so…” She threw up her arms and shrugged.

A wave of nausea erupted inside me. I sniffed my tee-shirt, immediately wishing I hadn’t. Blimey, whatever the dog had contaminated me with was seriously intense. As I emerged from the tack room, a gentle breeze ruffled my tumbledown pony-tail, wafting stray blonde strands around my face. I said rude words and promptly scraped my hair tightly off my face, securing it in a knot.

Steph chuckled. I smirked, and urged Fiz to give her a taste of the same medicine.

“Can you take Vicky home?” asked Steph a few minutes later, ambling past me with a bag of hay as I picked up my bag and went to give Kwintus a kiss goodbye before heading towards my car. Vicky is her cleaning lady. She lives near me, so I often give her a lift home on Wednesdays.

Unsure of whether poor Vicky would enjoy riding home with my smelly self, I nevertheless said it would be my pleasure.

“The puppy rubbed something yucky in my face,” I told Vicky apologetically as we headed down towards the main road. “Here, smell my hair.” I leant over the gearbox and offered her a charming sniff.

Vicky giggled. “Naughty puppy. All day he is bringing a very smelly bone in the house and eating it. Even he rolls in it. Is an old, VERY smelly bone. With worms in it. Pooh! All day I throw it outside, but always he brings it in again. He thinks it’s very nice. Naughty puppy!” She burst out laughing, then turned to me and frowned. “Hmm, is very smelly. I think maybe we are needing to open the car windows today.”

With pinched nostrils and the wind teasing my worm-ridden smelly old bone contaminated top-knot, we whizzed back towards civilization. I dropped Vicky off, chanced a deep breath, regretted it, and then refrained from breathing until I dove almost headfirst into my bath.


Ever happen to you?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Teach Him His Job

by Laura Crum

As most of you know, I’ve been gone for a month, so my horses have had a vacation. Yesterday my son and I took Henry and Sunny up to the roping arena to help gather the cattle and give our two horses an easy day of riding. Both of our boys were good, if a little lazy—seems like they were still in vacation mode.

My other “task” while at the arena was to watch my friend Wally rope on his young horse, Smoky. I’ve written about Smoky before and how hard Wally has tried to bring this horse along to be a confident, able, happy horse. At this point Wally is pretty proud of six year old Smoky, and has just started competing on him at small ropings. And he wanted me to watch him rope on the horse and see how well Smoky was doing.

So I watched. And Smoky did great. Perfectly calm and quiet in the box, ran hard, made the corner well (Smoky is a heel horse), covered the steer excellently. His stops were a little rough, but you know, nobody’s perfect. Most of all, Smoky seemed confident and happy, and this reminded me of a subject which I thought I’d discuss on the blog.

When Wally got Smoky back from the horse trainer this past spring, the rather laconic trainer waxed lyrical on what a nice horse Smoky was and how well he liked him. He’s ready to go, the trainer said. Just teach him his job.

And this statement reminded me of a discussion (via email) that I had several years ago with Janet Huntington of Mugwump Chronicles. We were discussing what caused horses to “burn out” and grow to hate what they did and how this could be avoided. I had a theory, which I proposed to Janet, and she mentioned it briefly in one of her blog posts. Since then I’ve thought a lot about this subject and come to the conclusion that I was partly right and partly wrong in what I said then, and I thought I’d put my ideas out there and hope that you all would comment and add your insights.

So here’s my theory. Horses burn out and get sour when they don’t understand the point of what they are doing. A happy horse needs to throw in with the work he is asked to do, and in order to do this, a horse needs to understand his job.

I still believe the above theory. However, I went on (once upon a time) to expound on the events horses could understand and those they couldn’t. I can attest to the fact that rope horses get the point. They know whether they have caught the steer or not. A good rope horse will often dance anxiously off when the rider misses, rather than the calm, proud way that they walk when the steer is successfully captured. Cutting horses know if they held the cow. Jumping horses know if they jumped the fence. Race horses know if they won the race. Working cowhorses know if they turned the cow. Trail horses know if they got you from A to B and successfully through the obstacles in between. Horses understand these jobs, and (often), since they understand them, are willing to throw in with them, are even willing to work quite hard at them and are still happy with their lot. Of course, any abusive, unkind rider can change this dynamic in a hurry, but given a reasonable owner/rider, often horses are happy to do these jobs.

Then I went on to list the jobs I thought horses didn’t comprehend very well—the events where I frequently saw cross, unhappy, burned out horses. I still think there is some truth in my perception, but since I have been involved with Equestrian Ink I have corresponded with some people whose horses did truly enjoy these disciplines, and this has caused me to rethink my ideas. So, I am going to list off the events I once thought that horses don’t easily comprehend, admitting right off the bat that some of you have horses that do comprehend and enjoy these events. If you would, I’d like you to explain why your horses enjoy these disciplines and how you think your horse views his work.

So, OK, it was my perception that reining horses (and cowhorses in the reining portion of their work), pleasure horses both English and Western (and all walk, trot canter, execute figures type horseshow events—equitation, hunter under saddle…etc), dressage, halter horses, and barrel racing horses had no way to get the point of what was being asked of them and frequently grew very cross and sour from endlessly being asked to do this thing better and better for no reason that they could see.

At the time of the original email discussion, Janet pointed out that some cowhorses seemed to enjoy the dry work portion of the event and took pride in executing the figures. I didn’t argue, since she knew much more about this than I did. Since then I have heard Francesca, who writes for this blog, talk about how Kwintus likes to show off his skill at certain dressage movements and lopinon4 talk about how her horse CJ likes to execute what I think (correct me if I’m wrong) are western pleasure exercises. I have heard barrel racers describe their horse’s skill and pride. And it occurs to me that maybe sometimes horses do grasp these activities better than I thought.

So that’s my topic. Do you agree that a lot of what makes a happy horse is that horse understanding and throwing in with his job? And have you, like me, seen a lot more frustrated horses in some activities than others? What events do you think horses comprehend more easily?

My Sunny horse, for instance, loves trail riding and hates arena work. He is lazy and reluctant in the arena, once he has the edge off. He makes it plain that executing pointless circles and figures totally bores him. On the trail he walks eagerly, ears up, cooperative and steady, eager to see new country. He plainly gets the point of covering country and equally plainly cannot see the point of going round and round in a pen. Since I happen to agree with him, we get along well. The previous owner tried to use him for dressage and (I think) found him quite frustrating in this respect. So, there’s one example. I’m interested to hear what you think.