Friday, June 13, 2008

My Next Project

By Laura Crum

My next project? Writing book number eleven in my mystery series about equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, of course. At least, that’s what I’m supposed to be working on. Don’t tell my editor (Merry, if you’re reading this, close your eyes), but lately work on the next book has been somewhat delayed by another project altogether. A project named Smoky.

Yes, that’s him, as he looked last month out in the pasture, four years old and full of himself. Those of you who have read my previous blogs and know that my current horseback adventures are mostly fairly sedate trail rides with my seven-year-old son, may be asking yourself (with some justification) what in the world did she want with this colt? That’s a good question. The short answer is: I didn’t exactly want him, but now that I’ve got him, he’s won me over, as so many horses in the past have done.

Smoky is a grandson of a mare I rode many years ago; he was given to us by his breeder in exchange for a debt. Though I wasn’t in the market for a young horse, I agreed to take him: what can I say? I’m a sucker for an appealing equine. Smoky was a three year old blue roan gelding with thirty rides on him when I got him. He seemed like a gentle, willing colt, with no buck and an easygoing nature. He also seemed very babyish, with a slightly awkward, almost tentative way of moving.

I knew that Smoky had been raised in boxstalls and small turn out pens; he had never been in a space any bigger than an arena; he’d never seen a wire fence, or grazed his dinner in his life. Nonetheless, virtually my first move upon acquiring him was to turn him out in my sixty acre pasture. This field has lots of “topography”—rolling hills, rock outcroppings, two small streams running through it…etc. Though I have replaced all the barbed wire with smooth wire, it does have wire fences. My twenty-eight year old gelding, Gunner, and Danny, a horse with an old injury that gives him a slight limp, are the two current equine residents of the pasture, so I knew that Smoky would have some steadying influences. And, of course, I kept a careful eye on him.
It was an interesting process to watch. Over the year that he spent turned out, Smoky went from a slightly awkward three-year-old to a robust, powerful four-year-old, and became a very strong mover. In the photo above, he has just galloped in to see me and is easing up, after running full speed across the pasture.

Now the point of this post (if I have one) is that the pasture was very rough this spring. The ground has a lot of clay, and this particular year it went from being very wet to very dry in a short period of time. This had the effect of “setting” the ground (somewhat like concrete) in little ridges; every hoofprint that dug deep into the mud in February was a rock-hard crater by April. Not to mention all the ground squirrel holes, rock outcroppings….etc. Rough, broken ground for sure, nothing like a groomed arena or racetrack. Nonetheless, I have many times seen Smoky (and many other horses over the twenty-five years I’ve owned the place) run flat out across the field, jumping the ten foot wide creek bed without missing a beat, never once stumbling. Its amazing and a little scary. One can’t help crossing one’s fingers.

And yes, he could break a leg. In the wake of this year’s Derby, such a thought comes readily to mind. Certainly Smoky is running as fast as he can; a knowledgable spectator can easily see that he is using every bit of speed he has. No one is making him do it. He feels like it. Its his nature.
Its this very thing that has turned him into a balanced, athletic, powerful mover, a horse who is ready to do something. I’ve let Smoky spend a year living like a natural horse, to “grow him up”, and this is what horses do, given the freedom to do it.

Watching these young horses out in my pasture has taught me a lot. Primarily that a horse will, out of his own desire, run faster, stop harder, jump further, and turn tighter than we would ever ask them to do. I have seen them do this when the mud was so deep and slick I would have been scared to walk a saddle horse across that hilly ground, as well as in the rough, hard, broken condition the ground is in right now. I could no more run across that ground on foot without twisting an ankle than I could fly. Yet the horses do it without a stumble. And I have seen them persist with this “play” until they were soaking wet and gasping for air; again, a great deal more exhausted than I would feel comfortable with were I riding them. Its their nature.

Yes, they could break a leg. So far, none have, knock on wood. But after what I’ve observed, despite the grief I would feel, there would also be the knowledge that this is part of what it means to be a horse. To run hard is in their genes. It is also what makes them healthy and strong. Its part of the inherent risk in life.

I try to keep this in mind when I feel sad about the filly that broke down in this year’s Derby. It could, after all, have been Smoky who broke down racing across my pasture. There’s no use pointing a blaming finger at a particular sport or event. Sometimes, even when everyone is doing the best they can and a horse is doing what it wants to do, accidents happen. Unpredictable and tragic, accidents are a part of life.

(I do, however, think that breaking horses as yearlings and working them hard as twos and threes is a recipe for lameness and breakdowns—its one of the main reasons I gave up training cutting and reining horses.)

So here’s to horses and their gallant hearts, their beautiful, athletic bodies and playful spirits, and here’s to those who love them. Lets all try to hold a space where the least possible accidents will happen, and yet know that when they do, it isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.

Laura Crum


Mrs. Mom said...

What a handsome and athletic looking fellow you have there Laura! He should do you proud when you are ready to start him back under saddle. And I surely will not question your decision to get a young horse ;)!!

You brought up a very good point. Horses are wired much differently than people are, and they KNOW how to "take care of themselves" in the situations you described. They can handle those big bodies over varied terrain with out a person up on them amazingly well. And they will stop when it is time to stop- not one stride too much, and not one stride before they are ready.

No matter how hard we try to "protect" them, no matter how many WAYS we try to protect them, if we trust their innate instincts and skills, the horses are better off.

Who knows the ability and tolerence better- the one LIVING in that body, or the one looking from the outside? :)

Great post Laura! Looking forward to more from you! (Now get cracking on that book before your editor goes haywire on you! LOL)

Laura Crum said...

You are so right, Mrs Mom, especially about the fact that I'd better get to work on that book. I'm negotiating with my editor right now for a later turn-in date for the manuscript. Too many projects...mostly equine ones!

Jami Davenport said...

Oh,Laura, wonderful post. I've had my share of lameness issues this year. I swear my mare wait until show season then suddenly comes up with a limp, but I'll save that for my post.

Good luck with your handsome fellow.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Jami. What's going on with your pretty mare? I hate it when the horse I'm using comes up lame right when I want to use him--don't we all? But I hated it even worse when I was showing. I resorted to keeping pads on all four of Gunner's feet all the time during those years, just to prevent that eventuality (though now that he's retired and turned out he goes barefoot just fine--go figure.)

Mary Paine said...

Smoky is beautiful! I admire you for giving him the chance to run and grow and experience the joy and freedom of those sixty acres! It's hard to watch them running and jumping on uneven ground. I've hard my heart in my throat many times over the years watching my horses doing the same. I suppose it's a mark of love for them that we keep our fingers crossed and let them do what they love.

Thanks for the wonderful post and sharing Smoky's journey with us.

All the best,

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Mary. Smoky is doing well--he'll be a reliable riding horse--in about a couple of years. I always forget how long these projects take. He definitely wanted to buck this year when we started him back under saddle. (I immediately turned him over to a friend who can ride one that bucks and now he's going fine.) We'll ride him this summer and turn him back out in the pasture in the fall. Next year, as a five-year-old, I'll let my team roping partner start heeling on him a little. No pressure, just at practice ropings. That's the plan, anyway. Of course, you never know what will happen. But yeah, he's a nice colt.

Kay said...

Hi Laura,

He's gorgeous. I am real sucker for roans, red or blue.


Laura Crum said...

I am also a sucker for roans--one reason why I agreed to take this colt. Funny thing--this picture was taken of him in his spring "coloration"--in mid-summmer he is a steel blue-grey, in mid-winter he is virtualy black. Only in spring is he this odd white-with-black-points color. Roans are great--they change from month to month! Thanks for the comment.

Greener Pastures--A City Girl Goes Country said...

He's gorgeous. Good luck with him.

I just discovered you from reading Mrs Mom. I am a writer also. And a barrel racer. I am looking forward to finding some time to go to your website to check out your books. "Chasing Cans" sounds like it will be right up my alley, no pun intended, lol.

Laura Crum said...

Debi--If you do read Chasing Cans, be sure to let me know what you think of the barrel racing parts. I am not a barrel racer and have never been one, but I've been around it a lot. I used to team rope and many of my friends who competed with me also competed at barrel racing, and I have watched them many times. As for the trainer in the story, she is based on several trainers I have known--they were just not barrel racing trainers. Anyway, if you read it, let me know what you think. Thanks for the nice comment.

Anonymous said...

That Smokey boy is one fine-looking fella.

Must go get CC. No, I've never chased cans myself, I'd rather run outside for hours (the R&T championship is this Saturday with a course over 30 miles long that includes summitting Mount Jura)but your novels always bring some facet of the horse world alive for us. Looking forward to the read.

Laura Crum said...

LisaPreston--Are you the same Lisa Preston who has been emailing me for many years? It must be--with the ride and tie avocation. How did you find this blogspot? Hope all is going well for you--I just got back from horse packing for a week in the Sierra Nevada Mts, so haven't checked in here for awhile. Thanks for the comment. Hope your competition went well.