Wednesday, September 30, 2009


By Laura Crum

My son and I took a long trail ride yesterday afternoon. Well, a three hour trail ride. That’s a long trail ride for me these days. About halfway through, my son exclaimed blithely, “I could go on exploring forever. I love long rides.” Now, I, who knew we had the whole way home to cover, was a little less enthusiastic. I thought we’d better start back.

We were exploring, riding along the ridge on an old dirt road that I haven’t ridden in fifteen years. Neither my son or our two trail horses had ever been this way. When I last rode here I was on Gunner, who has been retired for the past ten years. Some of what I saw I vaguely remembered; some of it had changed—there was no gate where there used to be one, there was, however, a house where no house had previously been. So I was exploring, too.

My little boy was bright-eyed and happy, glad to be seeing new territory. His horse, Henry, trooped along reliably, as usual. Sunny, my little bombproof trail horse, was just as calm. The wind blew in gusts, causing lots of bright gold leaves to whirl around us, sparkling in the long slant of the sunlight in a very fall-like way. We came to a large tarped pile of firewood by the side of the old roadbed. Both horses eyed it cautiously but marched steadily on. Just as we were passing it, a flock of quail erupted from behind it, wings drumming in that loud whir so typical of ground birds taking off. I grabbed for the saddle horn automatically as the little feathered bombs flew around us, fully expecting my horse to spook. Heck, I had spooked. Why wouldn’t he? At the same time my eyes shot to my son, checking to see that he stayed aboard.

To my surprise, though both horses looked at the quail, ears sharply forward, neither spooked. They didn’t even flinch, let alone untrack their feet. My son was unperturbed. All three of my companions seemed quite relaxed. Just quail, their respective demeanors indicated. We’ve seen quail before. Sheepishly I relinquished my grip on the horn. Clearly I was the only spooky one in this crowd.

In my own defense, Gunner, my previous mount on this route, would have felt obliged to produce a good ten feet sideways sudden leap at the quail, even if he wasn’t really scared. He would then have regarded them with wide eyes and marched calmly on when I kicked him. Gunner was very predictable. My horn-grabbing reflex became deeply ingrained during the ten years in which Gunner was my main mount. And Sunny is not above spooking, he just doesn’t do it very often. As I’ve described before, I bought Sunny because he is such a reliable trail horse.

So on we rode, exploring new territory, all of us having a good time. As always, Sunny and Henry walked with their ears up, looking at everything. I remain mildly surprised by this. As alert as these horses are, I tend to expect them to be more jumpy. Unlike a “pluggy” horse, who plods with his ears at half mast, both Sunny and Henry march along, ears forward, bright-eyed, taking everything in. But as the quail behind the tarp incident demonstrated, Henry and Sunny’s alertness does not lead to spooking. This was/is a lesson for me.

Eventually we headed back. The road was level and I asked my son if he wanted to trot or lope. As my kid loves nothing better than loping in the arena, I fully expected him to say yes. But instead he shrugged. “We can if you want,” he said. So we trotted awhile.

“This is fun,” he said, “but I’d rather walk.”

“Really,” I said, pulling up. “How come?”

“You can see more,” he answered.

This surprised me. It’s the reason I walk on the trail mostly. I’m not above loping up a gentle hill. It is fun. But I love to look at things, and you don’t see much at the lope. Still, the answer surprised me, coming from a nine-year-old.

So we walked, looking at things large and small. The huge burned out stumps of first growth redwoods, a tiny garter snake crossing the road in front of us. Some deer in the sun dappled woods beside the trail. We talked about the local geography, and what paved road reached the top of the ridge we had just ridden to, and where the creek in the gully flowed to. We observed the “horsetail plant”, which has been growing since the time of the dinosaurs. And so the way home passed quickly. Though by the time we were back I was pretty stiff. My kid was just fine.

And I realized that I am exploring in more than one way. I’m exploring what I want to do with horses now. I’m no longer competing or training (not to speak of—I don’t count occasional rides on five-year-old Smoky, who is a very gentle, easy-going young horse). I’m mostly enjoying the local trails and helping my kid to enjoy riding his horse. As someone wrote to me (I think it was Kate), we have different stages in our horse lives, and I’m now in a very different place than I was fifteen years ago when I rode Gunner down this old roadbed. Then I was competing at team roping every weekend, and practicing roping two days a week. My trail rides were just to give my horse a break from all that work. Now trail riding is my main event. At times I feel very sedate and middle-aged; at other times I look at my son’s smiling face and think that this is the best horse event of all. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m only riding a couple of days a week on average. But the horses don’t seem to mind and we’re all having fun. What more can you ask?

I often ponder where I’m at with the horses now, in part because I’m the type to ponder things and in part because reading various horse blogs over the past year has made me think a lot about the different places other people are at with their horses. I’ve tried to cut back on reading blogs—my computer is old and slow, and perusing blogs was taking an inordinate amount of my time. But I still can’t resist sometimes. Its a big equine world out there with all sorts of people in it. I’m always interested in what others are doing and where they’re at with their horses.

Fanny wrote me recently sending me photos of herself and her horse on trail rides through the Canadian Rockies, where she lives. They were beautiful photos and I felt nostalgic for the days when I took many pack trips through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California every summer (the basis for my fifth book, Slickrock). But those trips are over ten years behind me. Last summer I took my son on a short pack trip to the lake where I lived for three months with my dog when I was twenty-two. It was quite a journey down memory lane, though only a two hour ride down the trail.

So, does anyone else have any thoughts you want to share on how your horse pursuits have changed and whether this is working for you? I’d enjoy hearing your insights.


Monday, September 28, 2009

The Gift Some Call Insanity

I start most days with feeding and caring for my horses with remainder of the day revolved around teaching, training, exercising, grooming and the health care of the horses under my charge. Sometimes I wonder why I do it. We all know that the life choice of horse ownership is not an easy one. In addition to the loads of physical work, there is the endless commitment – rain or shine – and the always looming potential for heartbreak. Colic, lameness, and injuries – I am sure that all of us have endured many of these situations. Plus there is the financial commitment that is ever growing. I once added up the percentage of my disposal income that went to horse stuff rather than luxuries like vacations, new clothes (non horse related), jewelry, and new vehicles (other than horse trailers) and well, lets just say I chose to never do it again.

So why do we do it? Are we all a little nuts? Perhaps, but we are also all a little healthier for it. I can’t speak for anyone else but I can tell you that I can’t imagine my life without being covered in horse slobber. For me the simple act of kissing one of my horses on the nose puts my life in balance and the world in better perspective. In spite of the increasing loss of open space, Southern California boasts some of the highest per capita horse ownership in the United States. Why do you suppose that is??? Even if you are lucky like I am to own a small bit (4 acres) of horse property, horse ownership in Southern California is not a cheap proposition. Rates for board in many suburban areas are as high as $700 to $800 a month and that does not count training, veterinary cost, or any of the extras. I have had horses come into my barn for rehab from an injury or after colic surgery where their owners continue to spend thousands of dollars on an animal that may not survive long term or that they may never be able to ride again. Why? It certainly does not make sound financial sense. My answer is – it is for the simple miracle of unconditional love.

In today’s overly busy, overly competitive world of personal agendas our horses simply love us with a purity that mere humans can rarely find elsewhere (except with our dogs and cats). I feel that we now live in a world that puts endless demands on us. Someone always wants something. Some one is trying to sell us something; we are trying to balance professional lives with family and personal commitments; we are trying to balance finances; keep our households running and somewhere in there find a little bit of time for ourselves. There are so many details to every minute of the day; we spend half of our time on sensory overload. But when you have a horse, for me at least, everything slows down and gets simpler for the time you spend riding or just being in the barn, and being in the company of your horse. You focus in that moment on only a few things, your horse, your ride, the beauty of the day, your tack, your stall, the smell of horse sweat (yes, I am a little weird, I like the smell of horse sweat) but it is all very basic compared to the other complexities of our day.

And our horses primarily have one focus – us as either the deliverer of food, attention and a good scratch. But it brings us all back to those rudimentary basics of food, warmth, and shelter which is truly all our horses ever expect from us. I also think that this return to the fundamentals help keep most horse owners more grounded. Face it, most humans have egos that can run a muck and easily distance us from reality. We can easily build over inflated senses of our selves and forget that is not just about what we achieve for ourselves that matters but it is more about the lives that we touch along the way. Horses don’t care who we are or how important we may think we are. They just care if we are kind and provide them with their basic needs. Horses are also not judgmental and have an amazing capacity for forgiveness. Both of which are traits that are sorely lacking in many people.

So in my opinion, horse people may be a little bit crazy to the rest of the world, but I actually think we “get it” better than most. We know that by staying in the company of horses we can stay in touch with the basics and with the benevolent traits that are often lost in human nature - unconditional love, forgiveness, and openness.

What keeps you committed? What is it about your relationship with your horses that keep you coming back for more? What basic human need do horses fill and what are the greatest gifts we all derive from it? I look forward to your input. Whether you compete or have horses for pleasure, professional or amateur, beginner and someone with years of experience; I think that we all come to it and take from it the same basic element – Love.

What do you think??

I'd love to hear from you.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Revise, Revise, Revise

Hi Everybody,

I have to say one of the most satisfying parts of being a novelist is writing The End. You've created a whole new story. Mostly, after finishing a book my first inclination is to put my feet up, grab a cup of tea, and veg out for awhile. (I'd love to include go for a ride, but until my back is healed the rest of the way, that marvelous option is out).

The euphoria lasts a few days, sometimes a week. Then it's time to take another look. Uh-oh. Here, for me, is where reality sets in. As I read through the work and get feedback from trusted colleagues, I begin to see the first writing of the book as what it is - clay to be molded into a finished product.

It's amazing how many iterations of a story I go through in it's development. My current, recently completed work, is just beginning the revision process (i.e. raw clay. Over four hundred manuscript pages of it.) Sometimes when I go back I love the characters but the pace is too slow or some pieces of the story just don't hang together right or are confusing to me as I re-read them. (This is one of my not infrequent 'What was I thinking?' moments). This time I'm happy with the pace and the story hangs together well (after over six months of research and outlining. Whew!) The problem with this story is in characterization.

I've read reams of how-to information for authors about characterization. What it all boils down to for me, really, is whether the characters are inside my head or not. I had a nagging feeling all through this story that my characters weren't coming alive for me. The background, the plot, the suspense were all there, but I wasn't really connected to my main character.

Sure enough, when I got some trusted feedback, it was all about ways to improve the characterization. I spent a week rethinking the story, which is a contemporary fantasy, and finally went with my gut. The story is really best suited to be a young adult fantasy. I ripped apart huge amounts of the background I'd put together on the main characters and reworked them as teenagers. All of a sudden I was inside the head of my main character (in part because she has so many of the same feelings I did at sixteen). It's amazing! Scenes primarily devoted to character development that I wasn't totally happy with before are now flowing at amazing speed.

I'm sure there's lots of ways to describe why the characterization is so improved, but to me it's simple. Now I love my characters. I understand them and I'm inside their heads and their hearts.

Hope everyone had a wonderful summer and is ready for a happy, fun-filled fall season!

All the best,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Annoying Habits

By Laura Crum

I have a new horse in my barn. Well, not new exactly. My one boarder, who is my friend and old team roping partner, bought Smoky a couple of years ago. The horse had just turned three. His previous owner (who was the breeder) had put about ten rides on him. Both Wally and I rode the colt and liked him. Wally took the small blue roan gelding in exchange for a debt, though neither Wally nor I wanted to train another colt. We promptly turned him out for six months in my sixty acre pasture (which has lots of topography), so that the colt, who had been raised in corrals and had a very babyish, tentative way of moving, could grow up a little and learn to use himself. Wally had a good hand that we know put sixty days on Smoky the summer of his three year old year. Then we turned him out again.

The summer of his four year old year Smoky got ninety days of riding by this same good hand, which included working cattle, going on gathers, and being ridden outside. Then he got turned back out. By this time the horse was a very strong mover, and could gallop across the pasture, up and down hill, leaping the creek, in perfect balance, never breaking stride. He could outrun the fastest horse turned out there. In the spring of his five year old year, Wally sent Smoky back to the same trainer for ninety more days. Then he sent him to a rope horse trainer for another ninety days. And at the end of this time (Sept 1st) he brought him back to my place and the two of us starting riding him.

Its been interesting. The four horses I keep here (my old team roping horse, my trail horse, my son’s horse, and Wally’s team roping horse) are all over ten years old and settled, steady horses, each in their own way. Smoky, though a very gentle, easy-going colt who never once challenged his trainers, (they both reported zero bucking, spooking, or bolting episodes), is still a colt. He doesn’t have that steady quality that an older horse has. Both Wally and I questioned if we ought to be doing this, as we both feel we are past our colt riding days. But Smoky has convinced us.

Yes, we have to work at it to keep his head carriage steady, yes he sometimes bounces when he stops, but that’s about the worst of it. He’s reliable and quiet on the trail, good with other horses, never fresh, not spooky, completely flat-backed. You can make a team roping run on him, though he’s a ways from being ready for competition. His worst fault is being lazy and a little pushy (the people who raised him until he was three were the sort who fed treats). But he takes correction well, and I’d rather one that was lazy then one that’s on the muscle.

There’s just one little thing. Smoky likes to paw. The first day I had him here, I noticed this habit. As I began my evening feeding routine, distributing hay to each horse, Smoky stood next to his feeder and pounded on the ground in a steady repetitive fashion with a front foot. It was annoying.

“Quit!” I yelled.

Smoky ignored me and raised clouds of dust with his emphatic digging.

I started to yell at him again and stopped. I was teaching this horse to ignore me. Without thinking about it much, I grabbed a small rock, about one inch in diameter, said “Quit’ again in a calm voice, and nailed the colt in the shoulder.

Smoky jumped, unsure what bee had stung him, and went right back to pawing. I nailed him again in the barrel. I’m a pretty good shot with a rock.

This time Smoky jumped and crowhopped a little. He still wasn’t sure what was going on, but he eyed me suspiciously.

I stood there waiting. Smoky began to paw again and I hit him right in the side. He saw me this time and jumped away from me to the far side of his pen. Since he’s in my one small pen, which is thirty by thirty, he still wasn’t too far away. He began pawing again. I nailed him in the butt.

Smoky jumped, turned around, and faced me with his ears up, looking distinctly wary. This was fine with me. I began the feeding routine again. Smoky stood at the far side of his corral and watched me. He did not paw. When I put his hay in his feeder, he stayed back, looking nervous. After awhile he approached cautiously and began to eat. When I reached out to stroke him between the bars of the corral, he flinched away from me.

In another horse, I might have found this response worrying, but in Smoky’s case, it was just right. Smoky is annoyingly gentle, as I’ve said, and always wants his nose in your pocket, the result of how he was raised before I got him. I was quite happy that he should learn to be a little more wary and respectful of me.

Thus my feeding routine became one of loading my pockets with a few small rocks as I walked down the driveway, and zinging Smoky as soon as he began to paw. In a very short time, Smoky gave up the pawing. Yesterday, when he was tied to the trailer, he lifted his front leg to begin the gesture. I said, “Quit” in a low voice and his ears came up, he looked at me, and he put that foot down quietly. Wally laughed. “He’s afraid of you,” he said.

“Oh yeah. He thinks I’m the wicked witch of the west. Except that I also feed him. But do you notice, he doesn’t crowd me any more.”

Wally acknowledged that this was true. We both wish that the colt had been raised in a turned out situation—he will always be a little too willing to get in your space for our taste. But he’s a good colt and he learns fast and is gentle to ride, so he has a lot going for him. And I’m well on the way to curing him of his annoying habit.

Any one else have an annoying equine habit that they’ve found a cure for? I’d love to hear your story.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Do I Ride?

Why Do I Ride?

Now there’s the $20,000 question. I’ve ridden for so long that it's just something I do. So today I took the time to stop and analyze the real reasons behind why I put my feet in the stirrups a few days a week.

I've posted before about why I board my horse, but why I choose to ride as opposed to some other pursuit is a different question.

So why do I ride?

The obvious reason for me at this point in my life has to do with exercise. I find riding, especially dressage on my particular horse, to be very good exercise. There have been a lot of times in the past few years that I’ve considered quitting, but the ultimate decision came down to exercise. I don’t want to be one of those middle-aged women who rarely ventures outside when the weather is bad. In fact, I’ve put on twenty pounds this past year, which I attribute to the fact that I have gone from riding 5-6 days a week to only riding 2-3 days a week.

Of course, if I’m only looking to exercise, there are cheaper ways to do that. I could get a membership to a gym or I could start jogging or swimming, etc. Instead, I’ve chosen to spend my free time with an animal. Maybe that’s the difference? Maybe that’s why I ride?

Riding involves interaction with another living being. It's a cooperative partnership. When all goes well, it's one of the greatest natural highs on earth. There's not another feeling on earth like riding a horse who's happily going forward, light and round. I had a ride like that last week. No pulling, no shying, no falling on the forehand and going faster. Instead, the horse and I seemed to be in sync. When that happens riding is easy, effortless, and infinitely rewarding. There was this tenuous thread connecting us, easily broken, simple and complete, needing only the slightest movements from my body and subtle thoughts in my mind.

A leisurely trail ride through the woods on a brisk fall day would feel just as good. The sun shining through the trees, leaves crunching under the horse's hooves, geese honking as they head south for the winter. The feeling of my horse underneath me, relaxed and happy to be out of the arena. Just me, my horse, and nature. I've had moments like that, and they're priceless.

How about the perfect ride at a show? Usually I know when I ride into the ring that it'll be a good ride. Everything just comes together and one movement flows into the next effortlessly. All I do is sit and enjoy, not wanting to do anything to disturb the harmony between my horse and me.

So why do I ride? For moments like those.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Question

By Laura Crum

So today I have a question for all you horse people out there—particularly those who have adopted out a lot of horses. I have done a little of this, and sometimes my adoptive homes worked out and sometimes I had to take the horse back. Sometimes they worked for a few years and then I had to take the horse back because something had changed—the adoptive owner had lost her job or had a new boyfriend and was no longer so interested in the horse…etc. So I have some ideas about what makes a good adoptive home, but I don’t feel I have that much experience.

Here’s Harley’s story—I would welcome advice.

Harley belongs to my uncle, who is a team roper and has owned and raised horses all his life. My uncle bought Harley a couple of years ago for ten thousand dollars, which is a pretty fair price for a team roping horse. (I know, in some disciplines it would be peanuts, but for a rope horse it’s a good price.) Harley was everything the price implied—a twelve year old, well broke, sound, mannerly critter, and a very good rope horse. My uncle roped on him for all of six months and the horse came up lame.

The lameness was diagnosed as a suspensory tear. My uncle did everything that was prescribed. First rest, then a surgery, more rest, gentle legging up, and then, when the horse went lame again, another surgery. Much money was spent. A year and a half passed. And though most horses do heal up and get sound from an injury like this, Harley didn’t. He is still lame. The vets now think he may always be lame. My uncle has him turned out in a small field, and though the horse walks freely and seems comfortable in the pasture, if you trot him he has a noticeable bob. He isn’t sound enough to be a riding horse. A person could walk him for short sessions—either by hand or on his back—which might, perhaps, help him to heal.

My uncle decided he wanted to find a home for Harley and asked if I knew anyone who might be appropriate. It just so happened that that very day a woman I know, who loved horses when she was a girl, told me she’d decided that she wanted to “bring horses into her life again”. She has a small property where she keeps goats, chickens, and ducks….when her kids were small she kept a pony for them to ride. She is an animal person and a very reliable, responsible one. I know her well.

I asked her if she wanted to own a horse. She said, “Maybe.”

The upshot of this is I told my uncle about this friend, and got his permission to tell her about Harley. I put the two of them together. My friend met Harley and loved him. My uncle met my friend and agreed she was a very nice woman. “But,” he said, “She’s not a horse person. Its not the right home.”

I knew exactly what he meant. My friend is not really a horseman. She has some experience with horses. But even a gentle horse like Harley might spook or kick up on a windy day. These are behaviors a horseman takes for granted. But a woman like my friend could get scared or hurt. She doesn’t really have a horse corral or fenced pasture. Merely a largish fenced area where she keeps the goats.

Here’s the rub. My uncle intends to put Harley down if he can’t find a good home for him. He’s also willing to take the horse back at any time if the new home needs to get rid of him. The friend who wants Harley and my uncle live about one mile from each other. These things are in favor of giving the horse to this home.

The fact that my friend is such a responsible person who takes such good care of her animals is in favor of giving her the horse. The fact that she is not a horseman and doesn’t have a horse setup weighs against it. But lame horses are hard to give away in today’s climate. Harley is a happy, healthy horse who does not look as if he needs putting down.

I’m stymied by this. Should we give the friend a try and take Harley back if it doesn’t work out? Or is that asking for trouble? Should we keep looking for someone else who might possibly want this horse? I don’t think we’ll get many takers right now.

I honestly want to do a good thing here, not a bad one. I don’t want to see my friend get hurt or scared. I don’t want to see Harley get hurt. My uncle has thrown the ball back in my court, asking me if I think that he should give the horse to this gal. I’m worried I’ll end up with Harley myself, rather than see him put down, and I really, really can’t afford to take on another horse (see my last post on “An Old Gray Horse”). I’d like to see this friend have a chance to get back into horses, as she wishes to do. I’m truly confused as to what’s the right thing to do.

So what would you do here? Any advice?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Old Gray Horse

By Laura Crum

Out in the five acre field where I keep Gunner, the retired cutting/team roping/cowhorse that features in my mystery series about equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, there is an old gray horse. His owner called him Gray Dog. Somehow, I’m not quite sure how, I agreed to take Gray Dog and retire him.

His owner was a friend of mine and she had too many horses. She didn’t want the financial obligation of retiring Gray Dog. She said the horse was kind and gentle. He had been a team roping horse. He had navicular and had been nerved twice. Gray Dog gets around fine in the pasture but he isn’t sound enough to ride. He’s about sixteen hands, a registered Quarter Horse with a very TB look to him. He’s a hard keeper and needs plenty of hay and Equine Senior as well as pasture to keep his weight on.

I’m still wondering how I came to be responsible for Gray Dog. I can tell you the story, but it hardly makes sense, even to me. Here I am, feeling short of time and money because I care for too many horses, four of which are old/crippled retired pasture ornaments. Why, exactly, would I take on another old useless horse? Because my friend was desperately trying to find a home for him, I guess. He was for sale dirt cheap. When I asked her if he was gentle enough for a beginner, she promptly offered to give him to me. At one point, I had visions of my husband riding him, which vanished between my husband’s lack of enthusiasm, and Gray Dog’s lack of soundness.

Anyway, my friend hauled Gray Dog to the pasture where I keep my herd of retirees, and I turned him in with Gunner, wondering if I’d gone stark raving mad. I warned my friend that I would not be buying expensive veterinary care for this horse. If he got too lame to be a pasture pet, I would put him down. My friend agreed and said she would pay for euthanasia and the tallow truck. Fair enough.

And so this very tall (to me, sixteen hands is a very tall horse—I know you warmblood people will laugh), dignified, fleabitten gray gelding backed stiffly out of the stock trailer and became my horse.
From the beginning, Gray Dog was a gentleman. He never tightened the leadrope (not once) as I led him around his new pasture. He never pinned his ears (not once) as he got acquainted with 29 year old Gunner. Though aloof seeming, he was always easy to catch and handle. His ribs showed, he walked stiffly, but he seemed healthy and content, right from the beginning.

Gray Dog and Gunner were a good match. Though Gray Dog is only eighteen, his body type requires about the same amount of equine senior and hay as the much older Gunner. My new old horse gained weight slowly and his gray coat developed a silvery sheen. He began to trot a little more freely, and would even buck and play at feeding time. He was no problem to catch and hold for the farrier and to be wormed. He was a gentleman about everything. At least, I thought, if I had to rescue another old useless horse, this one is no trouble.

And then a funny thing began to happen. When I would walk out to check on the pasture horses, Gray Dog, formerly aloof, would spot me immediately. He was the first one to approach me. He would nuzzle me and my little boy affectionately, not begging for treats, always polite and respectful of our space, but distinctly friendly. It was as if, in some mysterious way, he had recognized that we were his benefactors. He had decided that he liked us. It sounds silly, but it felt true.

And I, who have many horses that I have owned for ages, horses who have done lots for me, horses that I have put many miles on, I started to fall for this old horse that I’d never once swung a leg over. I looked forward to seeing him almost as much as I looked forward to seeing Gunner. Though I don’t, in general, care much for grays, I admired the silvery color of his coat and thought his steady dark eyes had a noble look. He reminded me of Shadowfax in “The Lord Of the Rings.” (OK, now I’m really getting silly…I know.)

In short, I fell for this old gray horse in a big way. For no other reason than that he is a genuinely nice horse. I know his history. I know he was a good team roping horse who would pack a beginner, and a good trail horse. He took several people for their first-ever ride on a horse. He was kind to the babies in his previous owner’s pasture. She used to wean the young ones to him as a babysitter. But the thing that really matters is the feeling I get from this horse. Its just a pleasure to be around him.

This is a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not a horseman, and a lot of horsemen wouldn’t understand it either. But I am grateful that fate, or something, caused me to agree to take this horse, against all logic. This horse deserves his peaceful retirement. This horse has been a gift to me, not a burden. I’m proud to own him.

OK…I really hope my husband never reads this blog. He’ll be sure I’ve gone off the deep end. But I wonder if many of you have similar illogical bonds with certain horses that would really make no sense to any one else, but which work for you. Or am I just a little loony? Or maybe its both. Cheers—Laura Crum

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Barn Friends

People often ask me why I board my horse. I have a few acres, pasture, a nice barn, and an all-weather outdoor arena. I could give the standard answer, and often do, that I want to be at my trainer's barn so she can ride the horse a few days a week.

Truth be told, while that's a good reason, it's not the main reason. I've kept my horse at home quite a bit over the years. It's been fun. In a lot of ways, I miss seeing her every morning and hanging out with her in the evenings. Yet, keeping your horses at home can be a solitary venture. At least, it is where I live. No one around me has horses so I'm pretty much on my own unless I want to trailer somewhere. With my busy schedule, that's often not possible.

The main reason I board is because of the people I meet at the barn. With the exception of childhood and college friends, I've met the majority of my good friends through horses. Let's face it, horse people are little different. Most of the time the only other person who can understand us in another horse lover. Over the years, my dearest and closest friends have been met through a boarding stable. Usually we share a love of horses and dressage that it's hard to find elsewhere.

When we meet for drinks, horses are the main topics of conversations. We talk about other horse people we know, their horses, where they're boarding and training now, etc. We go to clinics together, sometimes making it a girl's weekend out. Now those are the best of times.

While my barn is competitive at shows, most of the people who board there are not wealthy. We're working people who are willing to make sacrifices in our lives so we can afford our horses. We mortgage our homes to buy our next show horse or work two jobs to afford extra training and show fees.

I enjoy the personalities, both horse and human, you find at boarding stables. At least most of them. I could do without a few of thoses personalities, especially when their behavoior endangers themselves and others. For the most part, I like everyone at my barn. We hang out at shows together. Have parties together. Spend time at the barn together.

I'm a social person, so being around people is important to me, even if it costs me twice what I'd pay to keep the horse at home. So I imagine I'll continue to board for now.

There are other ways to socialize and ride horses. Perhaps, I'll cover some of them in later posts. Does anyone have suggestions? Especially those of you who keep your horses at home?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Personalities Plus

Horses like people have all kinds of personalities. They get into funks, have good days and bad days and their memories are better than an elephants! They truly are amazing creatures.

In our barn we have a multitude of different personalities. I like to just go and hang out with the horses and study them, really watch their behavior.

In the main barn we have Hank. Hank is a gorgeous paint who is very sweet, yet cautious. I look in Hank's eyes and I watch him as he tries to figure out who and what he can trust in this world. He reminds me of a wounded child who really wants to do the right thing and awaits a cruel punishment if he should ever do anything out of line. Hank's choices were limited when he came to the barn. He was bought at auction for a mere sum and he could have easily wound up in the hands of the killers. Charros had owned him prior and by the visible scars on his sides and face, it is obvious he was badly abused. I didn't know him when he first came to the barn because we didn't yet have our horses there, but it is my understanding you couldn't stand on his right side, touch his nose, or aproach him in any way other than very slowly, and his fear of men was a major issue. However, through Terrie's (see our new eq ink member) patience and loving hand, in a few short years, Hank has been transformed. He loves a kiss on the nose, he allows you to stand on his right side, and he's even allowing some men to be around him (he actually let my husband give him a kiss on the nose recently!). This horse is an amazing success story as Terri is now doing dressage and jumping with him both in the arena and out on the cross country course. His personality is truly one of sweetness and light.

Next to Hank lives Pete. Pete is the king of the castle. We even call him His Royal Highness. He is now 21 years old and is a fantastic teacher for some of us lowly riders. In his prime Pete did fourth level dressage and competed in three day. He's just cool. You know when you walk up to someone and think, "Wow, he's just cool." That's Pete. It's like he's got in under control. He knows it and you know it. The other horses know it, too. He also has an expectation to be treated as the king that he is. He likes his cookies and lots of pats and reminders telling him how wonderful he is. Pete has earned the respect of the barn, and he deserves it.

Then we have Tahoe. Tahoe is a wonder pony. He's 26 now and is the pony club dude. I can't remember how many kids have ridden this pony for various ratings but it's A LOT. He kind of has this "I can do that," attitude. No pretention, no strange quirks. He's who he is and he's happy go lucky, does his job, and likes to hang out. He's like the kind of guy you'd want to hang with, have a beer and watch Sunday football because he's just a good friend type. You know you can always count on Tahoe--loyalty and friendship are his strong traits.

Across from Tahoe is Isis. Hmmm....what can I say about Isis? Okay, she is a tad neurotic, and maybe a little bit of a hypochondriac. For instance if you don't pay any attention to her and you're giving another horse attention, she sulks in the corner of the stall and actually has been known to feign colicking (no lie). She is a head bobber. When she's bored or anxious that head and neck look like she's bobbing for apples. But she is a very sweet girl, just really sensitive and if she were a human being I'd probably suggest a little counseling to help her get to know herself a bit better.

Then you have Krissy (my mare). Krissy is also kind of needy like Isis. She goes back and forth between needing you and then playing alpha mare. If she's out in the paddock with the pony she bosses him like nobody's business, but if he's not out there with her she's crying and having a fit. When she hears my voice, she nickers and paces until she spots me. She seems to understand that I am Mom, as she loves to be told how beautiful and special she is by me, and she loves to rub her face all over me. She lives next to Maxim whom she adores and whom in no way shape or form is she going to allow Isis to get close to, and she does not like Isis to get near me either. We are hers and hers alone. Ironically though, she has no problem with me getting near Maxim--her boyfriend. Now take Max down to the paddock where she can't see him and she is not a happy girl. That's my girl--a giver and a taker. Plus, she likes to share jokes with me--see photo.

Maxim is one I really don't quite have figured out yet. He's like the strong silent type until he's out in the arena or in a paddock where he can burn off energy and show off a bit. He doesn't come across as a bully or show off in his house but put him out with Tahoe and he makes sure the old boy knows he is the boss, and put a mare out there in the arena with him and he picks himself up and blows himself out as if to say, "Look at me, aren't I gorgeous!" I think he doesn't remember sometimes that he's been gelded.

Chief is a 16.2 hands baby. He just turned five and the best way I can describe Chief is he's like the little boy who has his hand in the cookie jar and his mom is staring at him, and scolding him for getting nto the cookies after she's told him not to, and Chief is standing there with his big, innocent brown eyes saying, "I don't know what you are talking about. I am not getting any cookies. I was counting them for you. I promise." I love this horse because he is super sweet, yet mischevious. His mischief makes him even more endearing.

Finally we have Monty. Monty is my daughter's pony. He really just wants to get it right. He's kind of spoiled (likes to bang the posts at dinner time--("Hurry up, feed me. Can't you see I'm starving!"), but he also understand his job is to take care of his kid and he does it very well. He loves his little girl. You can see it in his eyes when she's around him. Like Hank, he also has some war wounds from his past and he can be wary of men. He is a gentle soul who likes to be told he's loved and he's special. I adore this pony because he tries so hard and does his job so well that he has a very special place in my heart.

I gave a run down of the horses in our barn because I think they are all fascinating, wonderful horses and each one has something different to give and share with us. All we have to do is take some time out to watch and listen. And for me, just by paying attention to their behavior and treating them with love and respect, I have learned so much about life, love, and friendship.

I'd love to hear about your horse(s) and their personalities, their behavior and who they are and what they mean to you. Please share!

Have a wonderful holiday wekend and happy riding.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Enjoying Our Horses

By Laura Crum

I just got back from an idyllic ride through the redwoods with my nine year old son. We cruised up a gentle logging road in mixed shadows and bars of sunlight on our two gentle, bombproof trail horses, Henry and Sunny. A mellow summer morning made the forest calm and peaceful. My kid and I rode side by side, enjoying the sights and smells. We saw a young buck deer, and a yearling coyote, and butterflies playing in the sunshine. Baby quail scuttled into the vines along the trail as we passed. We rode by the biggest madrone tree I have ever seen, its shiny green leaves flickering in the breeze, above its red peeling bark. We rode through cool shady redwood groves and past a lone Douglas fir, standing tall and straight like a solitary sentinel by the trail. As we neared the top of the ridge, we saw the tumbled coastal mountains all around us, misty blue in the distance.

All the way up and back, our two steady mounts never put a foot wrong. They never spooked or balked or crowhopped or jigged. Their ears were up, their eyes bright, looking around, taking it all in. They seemed to enjoy the ride as much as we did. We let them stop to air up whenever they puffed a bit. When we got back home and unsaddled them, both had a light sweat under the saddle and on the neck and such, enough to show they’d gotten some exercise. Neither was truly tired. The ride took about two hours. We mostly walked. Trotted occasionally when the horses wanted to. We had a blast. My son sang or whistled for most of the ride. I daydreamed and gazed at the endlessly interesting and beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains. Sometimes we talked—about the horses, about what we were seeing, about anything and everything.

I was happy as we put the horses away. I thought how lucky we were to have this in our lives. I thought that I was enjoying my horses as much or more than I ever had. I felt truly blessed to be able to give this great experience to my son.

And then…. And then what? I can just hear you asking. Or I imagine I hear this. What awful thing happened?

Nothing, really. I came home and had a minute and sat down at the computer. I read a few horse blogs, which I haven’t done in awhile. Don’t get me wrong. I find horse blogs endlessly entertaining. But I have realized that I need to spend more time working on mystery number twelve in my Gail McCarthy series, riding my horses, finishing my remodel, and (boring but true) cleaning the house. Reading and commenting on horse blogs was taking time I needed for other things. Still, today I did it, anyway. And I learned something…about myself.

Because after half an hour of reading about what other people were doing with their horses, I felt a bit anxious. Other people were/are showing and competing and training and learning. They were/are challenging themselves…and their kids. They were/are having fun with this. All of a sudden I wondered…am I doing enough? Should I be riding a more challenging horse? Should I train young horses again? Should I compete? Should I encourage my son to compete?

Those of you who have read this blog know that I competed relentlessly at reined cowhorse, cutting, and team roping in my twenties and thirties. I worked for half a dozen professional trainers. I broke and trained upwards of fifty colts for myself and others. I hauled my horses all over the state of California (and further) virtually every weekend to compete at some event or other. I owned cattle to train my horses. It was a rare day that I did not ride (and train). I really have a very clear picture of what training and competing amounts to.

In my forties I quit riding young horses and competing. Instead I spent my time having a baby and raising him. I taught him to ride. And in my fiftieth year, he and I started riding the trails together on our two steady horses.

I am truly having as much or more fun with my horses right now than I ever had in my life. No, its not exciting in the way that some of the things I used to do were exciting. But somehow riding beside the crashing surf or along the spine of a steep ridge is exciting enough right now. And no, I feel no pull towards competing or training. I don’t miss the hauling. I don’t miss the intensity. So far, my son seems content to trail ride with me and gather the cattle for our team roping friends. We work the chutes and put the fresh cattle through. I feel connected to my horses and the natural world, and I still get to work cattle, which I enjoy. I love to watch my son have fun with his horse. It seems like enough.

Its only when I read about these much more strenuous, intense horse pursuits that other women my age are attempting that I get these niggles of doubt. Ought I somehow to manufacture a desire to compete again, to improve, to ride young horses? Am I missing something here?

Of course, I know the answer. The answer is that I am happy. My horses are happy. My kid is happy. What more can you ask? If I don’t want to compete or train any more, that’s fine. Its equally fine if others do.

After I disconnected myself from the internet, I pondered my reaction to reading those horse blogs. Why did reading them make me feel worried that I wasn’t doing enough myself? It only took a moment’s contemplation to show me that I was perfectly happy with what I was doing, and that it was great that others were happy with what they were doing. No problem there at all. But I wondered.

Am I the only one who is enjoying her horses in a low key, relaxed way after spending many years in intense training and competition? (I doubt it.) If others are also in this position, do you too fall victim to this odd angst or anxiety that you are not doing enough?

For me, the answer itself is simple. I am enjoying my horses, and what I do with them makes me (and them) happy, and that’s enough for me. Since I have no urge to push myself any more, I don’t. Its only when I compare myself to others (which we all know is a no-win deal) that I get that niggle of doubt. I would welcome hearing any insights that any one else can contribute on this subject.