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.



Anonymous said...

I wrote a post recently that was in part prompted by some of your earlier thoughts - my thoughts on what I'm doing now with my horses and what I feel about it - its at

Like you, I now do completely different things than I used to with my horses, but they're satisfying in different ways, better now than before, at least for me.

I enjoy your thoughtful posts.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Kate. I will try to check out your blog--though you see by my post that one of my current resolutions is not to, well, I won't say "waste", but rather use so much time checking horse blogs. I found that over an hour a day was going into this, and it is time I need to spend on/with my family, horses, writing...etc. But I also find it endlessly fascinating to read about what other people are doing with their horses, so am easily seduced into skipping around from blog to blog. I guess I could call it research. Ya think?

I did enjoy hearing from you that you, too, were in a much more contemplative mode with your horses than in previous years. Its nice to feel that one has companionship on the journey.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about spending too much time reading blogs - it's important to set priorities and make sure the most important stuff gets done - I wish I had the self-discipline to do that!

FD said...

I've been thinking quite a bit about this recently - good timing.

I retired from full time riding / yard management a couple of years ago and I missed the horses horribly at first. I made it a clean break, got an office job. Not long before I found fugly & Mugwump chronicles I started riding again occasionally.

This summer, I helped a friend with some cheap unhandled fuglies that she was flipping. It has been a very, very busy few months. Autumn is coming on, they're all broken, mannerly and about 50% are sold.
I will be positively glad to go back to riding only a couple of times a week at most, giving the odd lesson and doing some fine tuning.
Ten years ago I would not have believed that. I still love horses, and don't forsee a life without them - but I no longer need them fulltime. Who knew? Certainly not me.

Anonymous said...

When I was young... about 15 years ago (I would've been 9 years old), I would've loved to be able to do barrel racing, show jumping or hunters. At that time, I was riding english, but I was fascinated by western saddles. After a good 5 to 10 years with horses, I got out, for a few years (2?-3?). Then, I missed riding so much, that I offered to exercise and train horses. It worked, and I got 8 horses to train and ride. 2 were already green broke to ride, so I started riding on them at first... What a change, I never thought I would feel so unbalanced and insecure! Things settled quickly and I broke a wild 6 y-o mare and 2 fillies as well as train a stallion to halter and lead (had never been handled and was 3) and a mare that had never been handled to halter (she was also 6), I trained foals to halter and lead as well as all the ground work and lunge work (HARD WORK!), all the while riding the horses who needed exercise!!! After a while, I studied horse hooves and barefoot performance trimming and I currently am trimming my horses (I have back issues and it's hard work), so I never got my certification, because I could never do a bunch of horses without leaving in an ambulance. Got a horse shortly after, she was ALL mine! Trained her from top to bottom (she was an untrained 2 year-old). I slacked on the work with the 8 horses, because it was taking A LOT of time and energy. Rescued 2 ex-racing standardbreds (pacers) and am retraining them to make trail horses. My first horse is also only doing trails, and at 3 and a half, she is quite bomb-proof and reliable. I am still perfecting her training, training the race horses, one is really good, will rarely pace now, the other... well... she'll never trot, but has broken into a galop a few times. Getting more and more reliable. Still doing feet for my three horses, sometimes for a friend, but it's never free since I am pretty much assured to have back ackes for a week (most will not pay, so the answer is no, it's a long process to comprehend and apply and hard work to do)! I wouldn't want any farrier to trim my horses, I will do it until I am no longer capable... and I am now training my sister to do hooves too. She is such good help!
Anyways, I only trail ride now with my horses, mine is too young to compete, the ex-racers are too old and moody, so I content myself from the breathtaking scenery, leaves in the fall, deer and wildlife, creeks and lakes and rivers... hey... this isn't so bad after all! I never was interested in stressfull horse events, for me, horses are a way to calm myself and get rid of stress not create it. My horses are happy and never doing the same work, sure they have to take me down familiar trails, but there is always something different, even if it's only the wind blowing in a different direction.

Laura Crum said...

FD--I am always interested in your comments. Your life with horses has taken a very different path from mine, and yet I recognize much that is similar. I, too, am quite suprised at times that I honestly feel no attraction to the more strenuous horse life I led for so long. I just got back from riding at the roping arena with all my team roping buddies (all of whom are still roping and competing). My son and I gathered the cattle and put them through the chutes, loped some some nice circles in the big, freshly groomed arena, and helped haze and work the chutes. My son had a blast. So did I. I was completely relaxed, enjoying the lack of presssure and the feeling that I was just having fun with my good old horse. Not for one second did I wish I were roping. I guess if I find myself wanting it, I'll go back to it. But not until then. Sharing the pleasure of our horses with my son is enough for me right now. And like you said, who knew? Ten years ago, I never would have gussed I'd feel this way.

And Anon, all you've done with horses makes me tired just reading about it. I never would work on feet--I know what you say is true--its very hard work. I hate even picking them out any more. Makes my back ache.

Like you, even if I'm riding familiar trails, there's always something new as the seasons change. I love it and the horses don't seem bored.

Laura Crum said...

Also, FD, I have to ask. What does "flipping" mean? I assume it has to do with starting a horse--I also assume you don't mean flipping one over backward. I had to laugh because the phrase reminded me of the time mugwump and I were stumped by the term "backing" a horse. We both wondered why the heck it was such a big deal to teach one to back. I finaly said that I thought you guys meant getting on one for the first ride. She didn't believe me at first. It was really funny. So, what does 'flipping" mean?

Also, have you ever owned horses? I'm curious. Judging by your comments, you've been a professional who trained for others and ran stables, but you don't talk about your own horses. I once asked Dick Francis this question, and was interested to hear that no, he'd never owned one.

Now me, I was never really a trainer, though I worked for a few, but I have owned, and still own, way too many. It is not a cost effective approach, I can assure you.

FD said...

Man the things that don't translate! I've had to resort to google a few times.
Flipping is buying something cheap, doing it up, and selling it on for (hopefully) a profit. So you flip houses, cars, and in this case, horses.
So yeah, green / unhandled youngsters or scrubby older horses. She buys them at auction in spring when the grass is coming in. Spends spring & summer feeding them up, breaking, putting miles on the clock, then sells for autumn so she doesn't have to bear the cost of over wintering them. (Her land doesn't drain well.)
It isn't dealing per se - not large enough scale, and she doesn't do it as her full time job, but it's not rescue either, because although these are horses that would likely go to slaughter if not bought, at the end of the day, she intends to make money.

You're absolutely right - I've never really had a horse that I've bought officially. I've had horses on longterm lease (7+years), loan, borrow, placement, training/competition agreement, but the only one I ever bought was a $200NZD nag that I basically rescued and donated to my then boss's kids at the end of the summer.

I've had the chance to buy some nice horses and I've been offered a bunch more (some really, decidedly not so nice - I always wanted to ask, Do you really think I'm that much of a sucker???) but apart from that one pity purchase I've always stuck to my guns and not bought. Made the decision when I was only 20 and it has served me well - I couldn't have afforded to do half the things I have with permanent horses. Admitted, it was a decision made more in pique and grief than logic, but it's worked.

Still, part of me still wants a permanent horse (or horses) of my own. Buuuut. Having been a pro I have seen so much happening in livery yards etc over the years. I have some lovely horror stories. So, permanent horses will have to wait till I have a place to keep them.
Ironically, not working with horses is likely to put me into a position where I can afford to buy / mortgage a place of my own in the next five years, whereas if I'd stayed full time horses I just wouldn't have had the income.

I hear you about ownership not being cost effective - and believe me I know - I have seen clients go bankrupt trying to hang on to their horses, lose their property, marriages break up, the lot. And yet, despite all that, in the back of my head, a wistful little voice says: someday....

Laura Crum said...

FD--I just have to say that of all the things I've done with horses, including riding for professionals, competing at cutting and team roping, packing in the mountains, trail riding, breaking name it, the thing that I have overall enjoyed the most is just having my own horses at my own place. Feeding in the morning (which I am about to do), just seeing them in odd moments, sitting in my chair by the barn and watching them...etc. Knowing they're mine and no one can do anything to them or about them against my wishes. Like you, having worked for some pros, if I had to board, I probably wouldn't own horses. It just wouldn't work for me. So I hope you listen to your wistful voice. My sedate trail horses, in their big corrals just down the hill from my house give me (and my son) endless pleasure.

Shanster said...

I boarded horses into my 30s. Now we have our own place where I keep my horses.

First of, I would NEVER EVER be able to keep more than one if I was still boarding them out... I just don't have the money.

Secondly, I do enjoy seeing them each day, feeding them etc. Even going out to pick the drylot where they stay at night is a nice chore in the sun and fresh air...

Watching them come in from pasture ... all of it,

I dunno if I'd ever go back to boarding. I'm crossing my fingers I never have to!

Cheers - Shan

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I too boarded my horses when I was younger and had no horse property of my own. And lest anyone think I am one of the lucky rich who can just go out and buy what they want--no, it didn't happen that way. In my thirties I bought a bare piece of land, suitable to become a horse property, built a set of corrals and moved a travel trailer in. I lived in that travel trailer for seven years until I could afford to build a house. The barn and riding ring were built over the years, when I could afford them. I was careful to avoid getting into a lot of debt. I've been living on this place, in one form or another, for nineteen years now. So it was definitely a long journey to get to a place where I have a "horse property".

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read the book "Last Child in the Woods:Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder", by Richard Louv? Great book, if you haven't read it you should, it relates to how you are raising your son...
Our goals and sources of pleasure with our horses do change as we grow older. For the better, in some ways.
Reading about your son and his goal to "see more things" while trail riding his steady, happy horse---well, I have a lot less fear about what the world will be like when I grow old, knowing that people like your son will be around to take care of things.