Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reader's Write Saturday--Susan Spence

This Saturday, I'd like to welcome Susan Spence, who's written a western love story.

Remember, you can send your posts for Readers Write to me at I thought we migth add another fun twist to this, perhaps to be posted on another day. How about a Internet barn tour with pictures of the exterior, interior, especially stalls, and tack room? It can be your barn or a barn in your area that you like. I can start with my barn as soon as I get time to take some pictures. I designed it myself, and I can tell you what I love about it and what I wouldn't do over.

Anyway, welcome, Susan!

My book doesn't have an equestrian theme specifically, but the hero's horse is, well, a hero's horse. It takes place mainly in Montana in the open range ranching days of the 1880s. It's a western, but also a love story. It is historically accurate and since I have ridden most of my life and also driven horses, I can describe these things. My attempt was to portray life during these times, as well as create an exciting read.
The feedback I've been getting from both men and women has been incredible. The hard part for me has been getting it out there, not only because I'm somewhat of an introvert, but because it is self-published on a shoe string budget. Anyway, here's an excerpt:
Theodore Lavold had always wanted to go west... One day he made up his mind. A wealthy businessman came into his store and began talking about what he believed was the future of the town. He thought the way to make money was to start selling the newly manufactured luxuries people seemed more able to afford. Theodore offered to sell him the store on the spot.
...Elizabeth was as shocked as Lavina was thrilled. She looked around her comfortable home, wondering why on earth her husband and daughter would want to leave it. In the end she agreed to take her family west mainly because her husband once again had the fire in his eyes she had seen when she met him twenty-five years earlier.

Rinsing the mud out of her sons' clothing using a basin on the washstand in a hotel room in a frontier town, Elizabeth Lavold realized why her daughter had never been interested in her suitors back east. None of them had that fire in their eyes, no real passion for living. That was what Matt Daly had. Suddenly she was proud of her daughter.

A Story of the West is available through bookstores, from Amazon, or if you want a signed copy contact It's also available as an ebook. Contact me to order one of those also.

I am currently at work on a sequel (ride in the summer, write in the winter, what a life!).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An Old Cowboy and a Blaze-faced Horse

by Laura Crum

Led and Lad. That’s who I’ve been thinking about lately. Led was the cowboy who taught my uncle to rope. And Lad was the horse who taught me to ride. The two of them are connected in more than one way.

Led was the last working cowboy on a famous old ranch in these parts. In the end this ranch became a state park, and Led ended up living on my uncle’s small horse ranch. Led was not only a working cowboy, but also a competitive rodeo team roper—in the 1940’s. As an old man, he taught my uncle, just beginning his team roping career, the value of a good rope horse. And thus we come to Lad.

Previous to Led’s instruction, my uncle, raised on a dairy ranch, bought cheap trading horses and tried to rope on them. The horses had no experience and neither did my (then young) uncle. The results were not spectacular. It was Led who began to teach my uncle the basics of team roping and helped him to find and buy Lad, a registered Quarter Horse who had been trained to be a competitive team roping horse.

Lad may have been the first registered horse my uncle bought. For sure he was the most expensive horse my uncle had ever purchased to that date. Lad cost six hundred dollars, the equivalent of six thousand these days, a fair price for a middle of the road rope horse.

Lad was not a fancy horse. Foundation bred and fairly coarse and common looking, Lad was dark brown and had a plain head and a big blaze. He had been raised on a ranch and was nobody’s pet. But he knew his job and was well broke enough that a kid could ride him (and I did—though he spooked occasionally and dumped me once in awhile). Lad and another old rope horse named Tovy effectively taught me to ride.

Both Led and Lad were a constant part of my life for many years when I was young. The old man and the horse gave me the background that is still my basic footing in the horse biz. They knew, none better, the true cowboy way. They were tough, effective, fair, unsentimental critters, and from them I gained a sensibility I still have, though I’ve modified it a bit over time.

My uncle, the most unsentimental of the lot, did give Lad a good long retirement and kept him until he died. As for Led, his story is sadder. In his old age he fell in love with a young woman and left my uncle’s place to live with her. She eventually found a younger man and essentially threw the old cowboy out, leaving him to end his days with a nephew who lived in a big city. Led wrote me a letter before he died, saying that he little thought he’d meet his end so far from horses and all that he’d loved. I wrote him back, but I knew that no words of mine could change the pain of that situation.

I often think of Led and Lad and am grateful for the tradition and way of life that they brought to me. Though Led was an old man when I knew him, we often talked horses together, and I learned a great deal from him. And the knowledge he passed to my uncle, my uncle passed to me. From the time I was very young, I knew how to tie a proper horseman’s knot and how to get along with a snorty old rope horse (this would be Lad). I rode my uncle’s many trading horses, I brought in the cattle, I helped my uncle start young horses. By the time I was eighteen, I was starting colts on my own. I spent two years working on a commercial cattle ranch and several summers working for a mountain pack station. When I went to work for professional horse trainers in my late twenties, I had a background that helped me to evaluate what I saw and take the parts that worked for me and discard the rest. Eventually I progressed to training my own cutting horse and competing on him (reasonably successfully-—see my previous posts titled “Winning” and “Once Upon A Time” for that story), and finally to breaking and training team roping horses for myself and my friends. I made some pretty nice rope horses, if I say so myself. And it was essentially because of Led and Lad that I had this knowledge.

Today, it is this foundation that helps free me to make my own choices. Because I know how the cowboy thing is really done, I’m not buffaloed by others’ opinions. I feel comfortable following my own path. If I enjoy trail riding on my steady bombproof horse (wearing my cozy Ugg boots) and don’t need to compete and train any more, I’m OK with myself about that. And I owe this confidence very largely to the old cowboy and the blaze-faced horse. I still take my son to the roping arena to ride with my uncle and the other ropers, even though I no longer care to rope. But I want my son to absorb the same tradition I absorbed, to learn how the thing is done from people who can really get the job done. I’m hoping this will free him and give him confidence, just as it has for me. (And no, I’m not saying that team ropers are more skilled than people of other horse disciplines. By and large—this is a generalization—they are practical, competent horsemen—if you really can’t ride and deal with a horse it is pretty much impossible to go full blast down the arena and rope and turn a steer. Thus the event itself weeds out those who have no horsemanship skills at all. On the other hand, many ropers know little about the fine points of working with a horse and their horsemanship can be a pretty crude thing. However, people who rope have to do more than just talk the talk.)

I’m guessing that lots of you in other horseback disciplines have had a mentor or a special horse that really gave you a grounding in the horse biz. Certainly many people who write in here have given very helpful, insightful opinions in the past, when it comes to training and relating to horses, and just life in general. Anybody have any stories to share on this subject? I’d love to hear your take on it.

PS--It’s a good thing I’ve got an indoor activity right now, as it has rained non-stop for almost ten days and no riding is happening here at all. My riding ring looks like a holding pond. My hairy, muddy horses are squelching through the slop. So far all are sound, healthy, eating well, keeping their weight on… knock on wood. The saddle horses don’t seem to mind the break from work. My thirty year old pasture pets are warm and dry under their blankets. During a brief lull yesterday I pulled on my rubber boots and walked around all corrals and pastures, ascertaining that every horse does have plenty of dry ground where he can get out of the mud (and I could see by the signs that they were spending time there). So things are going reasonably well, considering. But it is not fun horsekeeping weather.

It is, however, ideal weather for writing, and I have been getting quite a bit of writing done on book #12. And, as you can see by the sidebar, I’m also getting ready to announce the arrival of book #11. Yep, “Going, Gone” comes out this spring; I’ve put a short synopsis on my website, for those who are interested. This book centers around the murder of a livestock auctioneer, and involves a rescue horse, nefarious kill buyers, and a heroic horse blogger, as well as a thrilling (if I say so myself) horseback chase scene, so there should be something there for everybody. Not to mention “Going, Gone” features illustrations by Janet Huntington of Mugwump Chronicles, so all you fans of mugwump won’t want to miss her very nice drawings.

The book will be available in April, and I believe that you can already preorder it from Amazon and/or the publisher. However, I am planning to announce a special offer for horse bloggers only, so stay tuned for that. Until then, stay dry. Cheers--Laura

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dressage Books for the Heart and Soul

I thought I'd mention a few of my favorite dressage books which have nothing to do with dressage theory. Some of them may be out of print or hard to find. These are books that delve into the artistic and spiritual side of dressage and that elusive connection with a horse that transcends the physical.

Riding Towards the Light by Paul Belasik: Mr. Belasik writes books that go beyond theory. I've always enjoyed his books and the insight they provide. This particular book delivers an account of his apprenticeship with the horse, which lasted 13 years. He struggles to discover the ultimate truths behind dressage riding and offers some disturbing and valuable insights. Mr. Belasik has written an entire series of books, all of which I recommend.

Beyond the Mirrors by Jill Keisser Hassler: I love this book. I've read it and re-read it several times. Ms. Hassler died from cancer a few years ago. His son is well-known dressage rider, Scott Hassler. This book book explores the spiritual and mental benefits of dressage riding. It's an uplifting, enjoyable book.

My Horses, My Teachers by Alois Podhojsky: Mr. Podhojsky writes about his connections with various horses over the years and what they taught him. A former director of the Spanish Riding School during the 1940's, he tells a story of his life with horses, their personalities, and the valuable knowledge he gained from each animal.

Dressage for the New Age by Dominque Barbier: An enjoyable read which discusses how to cooperate with your horse on a mental plane, not just a physical plane.

The Ethics and Passions of Dressage by Charles De Kunffy: A reader can always depend on Mr. De Kunffy to present a thought provoking and sometimes controversial view of dressage riding. This book doesn't disappoint.

Dressage Masters by David Collins: This compendium of techniques and philosophies of some of the world's most legendary dressage trainers includes beautiful, full-color pictures.

Dressage Rider's Survival Guide by Margaret Odgers: It's my understanding that this book developed via conversations on the Ultimate Dressage Bulletin Board. This book won't give you a spiritual lift or re-define how you communicate with your horse. Instead, it'll make you laugh as it pokes fun at dressage and those of us who at times take it way too seriously. I loved this book and definitely identified with the situations and people.

The above books are from my dressage library. I'm guessing there are more, but I haven't read them or seen them (hard to believe). Anyway, I'd like to cover books next time (dresage and otherwise) which are biographies of the authors' journeys with horses.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

One Horse's Story

by Laura Crum

In the discussion following my last post stillearning raised some great points about the issue of selling a horse you feel you can no longer keep. She referenced the idea that it may just be ego that tells us we are the only ones who can deal with this horse’s issues. I agreed with her that there may very well be others who can deal with the horse’s issues as well or better than we can, but is their loyalty to the horse going to be as high as ours, who trained him and owned him for many years? Perhaps he worked his butt off for us, acquiring his issues along the way. I suggested that we owe him at least keeping track of him and taking him back if need be, to be sure he doesn’t come to a bad end. And I referenced my first horse, Jackson, who was mentioned in my previous post.

Well, it occurred to me this morning, reading stillearning’s last comment, that Jackson makes a great illustration of the point I am trying to make. So here is his story.

I bought Jackson when I was fifteen years old. I had saved my money for many years and hounded my parents, and I was finally permitted to buy a horse of my own. My cowboy uncle was my trusted advisor. We tried many horses, but my uncle liked Jackson, who looked like a rope horse (15.3 and strongly made). We found the horse through an add in the paper; he was dirt cheap, and the woman who owned him said he was gentle. She’d owned him for two years, she said. He was fourteen years old. She was clearly a novice, and was able to walk, trot, lope the horse around her little ring. My uncle and I rode him and we bought him that day. That’s all in the world we knew about him.

I owned Jackson for three years. He turned out to have some issues. Though gentle to walk, trot, lope around a ring, he did not care for solitary trail rides and would rear vertically to make his point clear. I dealt with it. If put under pressure to load, have his feet worked on, and at certain other times, he would kick out, hard. I learned to be careful. He did not care for being a rope horse and tried some pretty violent evasions. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

When I had owned him three years, I decided I wanted to buy a young horse to train. I was not so attached to Jackson and sold him, as my previous post describes, to the riding school where I used to take lessons. The fact that he did not end up at the saleyard is pure luck. (See my post--"What Do We Owe Them?" for more on this.)

Here’s my point. When I was trail riding Jackson one day I met a middle aged lady on a horse. She looked at my mount and asked me his name. When I told her she said, “I raised that horse and trained him myself.”

I kept quiet about the training.

She asked where I got him and I told her.

She said, “I sold him to that gal when he was twelve. She was just a beginner and wanted a gentle horse. I sold him cheap because she said she’d give him a good home.”

And I could tell this lady was not pleased. She had not expected that her horse would be sold again in two years. And this time to a fifteen year old girl. But she had clearly not kept track of the horse. And she did not offer to buy him back if I wanted to sell him. She simply rode on, on the younger horse she now had.

When Jackson was seventeen I sold him to a riding school. I was tired of his issues, which were not of my making. As I said, it is simply luck that he didn’t end up at the sale and get bought by the killbuyers. So, I think it is a point worth making, that, as long time owners and trainers of a horse, we may have a little more loyalty to that horse and an acceptance of his issues, since we know exactly how he got them. They are usually due to our own choices. Someone who has owned the horse for a couple of years and didn’t create his problems may feel quite free to pass him on. It may not be ego to suppose that we are more likely to take good care of this horse when he gets old and give him the retirement and dignified death we might feel we owe him in exchange for all the years of work he has done for us.

Again, I’m not suggesting that we all need to keep all of our horses. I know its not always possible. I am wondering, however, if we don’t owe our horses something, if we have owned them a long time, and made the choices that created the issues they have, lameness or otherwise. I guess I’m asking if we don’t at least owe it to keep track of them and be sure that they don’t come to a bad end. Which means be willing to take them back. The problem, however, which I understand very well (because its happened to me), is that we often get these horses back when they really have no more useful riding horse years left, but may have many years as a pasture pet…which is all about taking care of them and writing checks to pay for their care…and not about riding and having fun. So, there’s the question in a nutshell. Do we owe them that?

I am asking a question--I'm not saying I know the answer. My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that I do owe my horses that, and if it's financially impossible for me to keep my retirees any more (which may well happen), then I owe them that dignified death. I am not at all adverse to letting someone else care for them (and write the checks) as long as I continue to be responsible for them and have enough control over their fate to be sure they don't end up starved or otherwise abused (or dumped at the sale.)

As always I welcome hearing your thoughts on this. Its a complicated subject, because we all have different circumstances. And yet everyone who has owned a horse for a long time will probably understand how critical it is that we as responsible horsemen give some real thought to what we owe these horses.

We’re still looking for more authors to feature on our Reader’s Write Saturdays. Send us a short piece of fiction, your favorite blog post from your own blog, or anything you think might interest our readers. Send it to Jami at

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Do We Owe Them?

by Laura Crum

The other day I was thinking about the riding school where I took lessons as a kid. And I began to remember my favorite lesson horses. Melody and Gypsy, the two old mares who were my mounts when I was just a beginner. Dusty, a horse I actually progressed to jumping three and a half foot fences on (pretty good for a thirteen year old who had previously only ridden western). Peg, on whom I learned vaulting, and won many a bareback class. And there were others. Rhonde, Uncle Max, Thunder, Freckles…all were my favorite at one time or another.

I took lessons at that riding school for many years. I went to their summer camp program. I knew their horse herd well. And they had almost a hundred horses. They took pretty good care of these horses. The horses were turned out every night in a big pasture and fed hay every morning in the corral; the ones who were to be used were then caught for the day. No horse was thin. Lame horses were not ridden. The horses did get vet care. If a horse was old, that horse only had to give a few lessons a day. Many times I heard the instructors refusing to let the more advanced kids ride Gypsy and Melody, telling them that the old girls should not be used too hard. In short, it was not a bad place.

Still, I have little doubt that when these horses’ time was done, they were hauled to the local saleyard and bought by what, in those days, was called the “chicken man”. The guy who bought horses for chicken food. This was just what most people did at that time. It was taken for granted.

Now, I have a confession to make. I sold my first horse, an ornery bay gelding named Jackson, to this riding school. Jackson was not a particularly endearing or successful first horse—I have written a few times about the fact that he was prone to vertical rears and kicking (under certain circumstances), and that once he kicked me in the head and knocked me out cold. What my parents were thinking to turn me loose on such a creature I can’t imagine. But, if only asked to walk, trot and lope around a ring, Jackson was reasonably gentle. And when I determined to be rid of him and buy myself a young horse to train, I sold him to the riding school where I had taken lessons.

Jackson was a success there. I went up to visit him some years later and he was doing fine, well loved by the little girls who rode him. And no, he didn’t end up at the sale. I heard from a friend who taught there that he was kicked by another horse and suffered a broken leg. He was euthanized by the vet right there on the place. By that time he was over twenty, so, all in all, I’d say things worked out OK for him.

Now I didn’t train Jackson—when I bought him he was fourteen. I owned him for three years. I did not create his problems, and he left me a more cooperative horse than when he came to me. But also, I did not take responsibility for him. When I sold him I left him to his fate. Would I do that now? I’m not sure.

I think of all the horses I rode at the riding school, Gypsy and Melody and Dusty and Peg, all such good horses. I was grateful to them. I thought I loved them. As a child and then a teenager I never thought to ask what would become of them. I never thought of it as my problem.

I think of other horses I owned at one time and then sold. I don’t, to this day, know what their fate was. Did they end up on a truck, bound for slaughter in Mexico? Was the basic trust I tried to instill in them when I owned them completely and finally betrayed? How much might they have suffered? It will always torment me, to some degree.

And this is what I am trying to do differently with my son. We talk a lot about our old, retired horses and why we retire them. We talk about being grateful to our horses and taking care of them until they die. My son goes with me when I feed the retirees. I am trying to show him, both in words and by example, that it is our business what happens to these horses, how they end their lives. It is definitely our problem.

I have no idea what effect this will have, of course. But at the very least I am hoping that when he looks back on the horses that taught him to ride, he will feel good to know that we took care of them and were there for them until the end. I am hoping that we can begin a new pattern. I am hoping that, unlike me, he will be free of this nagging sadness.

I’m grateful that I have had the resources to keep my horses, that I have not been forced to sell them out of financial necessity. But if I did have to sell some horses because I didn’t have enough money to keep them all, it would not be my older horses who would go. No, the horses who worked hard for me all their lives, whose quirks are the results of my training and my choices, these are the ones that I owe. I will honor my debt to them by making sure that they have the retirement they deserve. Its not that I think I am the only one who can take good care of a horse. Its that this is my responsibility, not someone else’s. It is my privilege to do right by these horses.

Believe me, I sure know how tempting it is to decide to offload a horse that is no longer useful to the owner. Its so easy to develop a convincing rationale for doing what would be most covenient for us, the human in charge. Maybe the horse is old, maybe it has issues, lameness or otherwise. For whatever reason, we, the owner, no longer want to ride this horse. And so often we have other, younger horses that we’d rather ride. Our older horse is taking up space, or costing us money, or taking time (usually all three) that we would rather devote to these younger horses that are our current interest. And so we decide to find the older horse a new home. We rationalize that it could be “better” for the horse, that the horse will get more attention. And sometimes this can be true. But what we are really motivated by is the fact that it will be “better” (more convenient) for us. We are justifying our ready excuses as to why we shouldn’t have to take care of a horse who has served us well and perhaps been injured, physically or emotionally, or perhaps just grown too old for the job we want to do.

I’m not saying that one should never find a new home for a horse. I have “rehomed” several horses in the last ten years that just didn’t fit my needs. But I always took responsibility for these horses. I didn’t sell them. I placed them in homes where I thought they would work. One lived happily in that home until he was retired and eventually euthanized. One is still living happily in his home. Three I had to take back. Why? Were they bad homes? Not at all. In two cases the people lost their jobs and could no longer afford the horse. In one case the woman went through a divorce and could no longer afford the horse. If I had not been there, ready and willing to take the horses back, if I had simply sold them and lost track of them, they would have been sold again. There is no way of knowing where they would have ended up. Thus, I believe that if one wants to rehome a horse and still be responsible, one needs to maintain control of that horse. Usually, this means not selling the horse.

I am currently facing this dilemma with my horse, Plumber, who features in my mystery series. I’ve known Plumber since he was born; I’ve owned him since he was three. I broke him and trained him myself. He’s been a competitive team roping horse since he was eight. He’s won several saddles, lots of money, numerous buckles and awards. He started to slow down at nineteen. Last year, at twenty, we used him very lightly. It became clear near the end of the season that Plumber just didn’t want to run hard any more. He also doesn’t care for steep hills. He’s still sound for walk, trot, lope type work on level ground. But he’s not really a kid’s horse. A little too flighty, inclined to spook and prance, rather full of his own ideas. (And all these issues are no doubt due to my failures as a trainer.) This spring Plumber will be twenty-one. He isn’t going to be much use to me as a riding horse, since I want to trail ride and the country where I live is very hilly. It would be fairly easy for me to find him a home if I gave him away. He’s gentle for an intermediate rider, kind, smooth gaited, no one has ever come off him in his entire life. He’s very safe. Lots of people would enjoy him. It would be convenient for me to have an extra pen and one less horse to take care of. So, am I going to rehome Plumber?

I don’t think so. I owe him. He’s my little horse and he did his best for me. It may not be convenient for me to keep him, but I’m going to, even if I have to eat mac and cheese, or make other sacrifices. I plan to keep him and retire him because I think that’s what would be best for him.

The writer of one blog suggested that horses don’t really get attached to us the way we do to them. No doubt this is true. Plumber nickers whenever sees me, including when he’s in a group of other horses…etc. Is he fine when I’m gone? Sure. But there is also no question that this little horse who has lived in the same big corral here on my property for seventeen years and been hauled to many, many events, and who has covered a great many miles under my saddle, is used to his people and his life. Could he accept change? No doubt. But what if I’m not trying to figure out a solution that’s convenient for me and might be acceptable. What if I want to do the best I can for this horse?

I’m not going to say that I know what’s the best thing for every owner of an older horse to do. I don’t. Plumber won’t get as much attention here as he would if he were somebody’s one special pet horse. I have four other saddle horses at my place that need my attention, as well as my other retired horses.

What I do know is that I accept responsibility for my horse who has done so much for me and seems so bonded to me and his life here. It isn’t about ego and thinking I’m the only one who can do it. Its about love and doing the best we can for the ones we love. Its about hanging in there when it isn’t easy or convenient. That’s what I want to teach my son.

When we sell a horse we lose control over that horse’s fate. That’s a fact. Its possible to rehome a horse and do right by him. As long as we retain control and keep track of how the horse is doing, it can be a good option; we need to be willing and able to take that horse back at any time—or his end may not be so pretty. But there’s a whole nother equation. And that’s about wanting to give back to the ones who gave to us. And yes, it sometimes is about eating mac and cheese (figuratively, anyway). We can delude ourselves that its not about that, but those are meaningless words. Unfortunately its often about making sacrifices so that we can do our best by our horses. Sometimes we need to do things that aren’t easy and convenient for us because its better for someone else. Often we need to stretch ourselves a little and look beyond what comes as the most “logical”, “natural” choice for us, the human owner. Sometimes we need to look at what would be best for a horse who has done a great deal for us. Maybe we need to consider what we owe them. And so I will continue to study on what’s the best path for my horse, Plumber, with an open mind and a willing heart. Because I really want to do what’s best for him….not just what’s convenient for me. And its my belief that Plumber, like me, loves his pleasant life and his companions and his familiar routines. And I don’t plan to take that away from him lightly.

The real question in my mind is whether it would be better for Plumber to turn him out with my other retired horses or keep him here at home and try to give him what attention I can. Plumber is a fussy critter, more like a mare than a gelding, prone to kicking at his companions in the next corral and squealing, and he is very, very used to his routines and very people oriented. In the pasture he would get far less attention, but much more freedom and grazing. The fences in the pasture are not perfect, though they’re decent, but still not as safe as my pipe corrals at home. I have never had a horse seriously hurt in this pasture (knock on wood) in over ten years of horsekeeping there. But I worry. Plumber is not the ideal candidate for turnout. If he made it through the transition, I’m sure he’d be fine, but would this fussy little people oriented horse be happier here or in the pasture?

If anyone would like to chime in with suggestions about the best way to retire a real “people horse”, I’d love to hear them. I’d also be interested in your thoughts concerning rehoming an older horse with issues (whether due to lameness, age or whatever) that are the results of one’s own training and choices.

And don’t forget about our Reader’s Write Saturdays. Send us a post about you and your horse, or short piece of your own fiction, or your favorite blog post from your own blog. Or your take on one of the many subjects we’ve brought up and discussed here. Anything you think might interest our readers. Send it to Jami at and she’ll post it on the next available Saturday. We’ve very much enjoyed all the contributions so far. We’d be glad to feature you soon.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reader's Write Saturday--Jordann

A big EI welcome to Jordann, who joins us this week with a post about her first fall from a horse. Thanks so much for taking the time to write something for us, Jordann.

Please send your posts for Readers Write Saturday to We'd love to feature you with a story about yourself, your horse, or anything else that pertains to this blog.

I've been a reader of Equestrian Ink for quite awhile, I really enjoy the stories and the discussion that follows. I love how everyone's voice is heard, no matter how small the comment.

Here is a story from my blog, about my first fall off my horse, Oliver. Attached is a picture of he and I this summer. The fall in the story happened four years ago, and as you can see from the picture, it hasn't damaged our relationship.


Oliver was three the first time I fell off of him. I'd been riding him in the arena and pastures in the summer when he was two, and had continued down that path the summer of his three year old year. It was early fall when I finally got the nerve up to start taking him out on the trails.

The first few times out were quite tense on my part, I have to admit, I was scared. I knew he needed to get out on the trails, it was the only way he would ever be competent, but I really didn't want to be on him his first time out.

My Dad and I would take him and Classic (trailsafe queen) out behind the barn, on some trails that we had made, and thus were not likely to be occupied by four wheelers or dirt bikes. I snugged him into her hip (or as close as she would let him, she wasn't a fan of his), and away we would go, me riding as quietly as possible, Oliver swinging his head this way at that, eyes bugging out, gawking at everything.

After a few rides like this we both began to gain confidence. A few minor spooks, but I was quickly realizing that they were nothing I couldn't handle, as long as I was ready. I was starting to have fun with it, introducing him to banks, ponds, hills. He was very honest, he really wanted to go where I was telling him, even if he was scared of the seemly bottomless puddles, and the scary squelching mud at the base of ditches. We even had a few whooping cowboy moments as he awkwardly negotiated a fallen log.

It was fall, and it was gorgeous. The leaves where all changing to brillant yellows and oranges, where I come from, we don't have any open spaces, it's all woods, so every trail ride was like being immersed in a brillant oil painting.

One afternoon after school, we went out, and I decided it was time for Oliver to lead for awhile. We'd led on and off before, and he was still having confidence issues with it, so all of the more reason to work on it. I nudged him up past Classic, ignoring her pinned ears, she can be a crab sometimes. We were moving slowly down the trail, Oliver's ears pricked, his steps short and quick, just a bit tense. The soft hiss of my dad opening a water bottle behind us sent Oliver into an instant crouch, ready to bolt. I held him in, stroked his coat, and noticed he was sweating. His eyes rolled back, looking for the source of the sound. I let him stand quietly for a moment. Everything was alright.

I didn't want to lose too much forward, he was still nervous when I urged him onward, three steps down the trail he stepped on a branch that shook between his front legs. I was ready for him to do anything at this point, bolt, buck, spin, shy, teleport. I was not ready for him to rear. And rear he did. Straight up and to the right, spinning away from the Scary Attacker Branch.

I started slipping, first back onto the cantle, then to the left as he spun away from me. Off I went, butt first into the dirt. (and onto that darn Scary Branch, shaking it again, making him back away) I still had his left rein in my hand, but no gloves. It didn't matter, he'd never been loose out of the pasture before, and the road was only 100 feet behind us, I wasn't letting go. The rein zipped through my hand, taking off skin as it went, but I caught it with about six inches leeway.

By this time my Dad had positioned Classic to block the path down the trail, and Oliver was so surprised that I had parted company with him that he stopped and just stared at me with intense interest. I stared back up at him, making sure that he wasn't going to start spooking away from me as soon as I got up. I started getting to my feet, carefully, not shaking the Scary Branch.

I gathered my reins, and took a damage assessement. My hand was rope burned pretty badly, but other than some bruises, everyone seemed ok. Once that was established, I marched over to the Scary Branch, picked it up, and started approaching Oliver with it.

When he was ok with me rubbing him all over with it, I mounted back up, and continued on the ride, this time letting Classic and Dad lead. My hand had started throbbing, and after about half an hour, we stopped and tied the horses, loosening their girths. I decided I'd made my point, and we headed home in the growing darkness.

As we reached the barn, looking warm and inviting with its windows illuminated in a golden light, I dismounted and led Oliver into his stall. This was perhaps the first and only time I've ever attended to my own needs before my horse's. I clipped him to his tie ring and dipped my injured appendage into his water bucket, such relief. I vet wrapped my hand and gingerly began to untack him. He craned his big head around and sniffed my purple clad hand, breathing in deeply, and exhaling with a rattle.

I rubbed his white striped forehead, scattering white hears all over his chestnut muzzle. I untied him and led him out to the pasture. It was almost completely dark by now. I could hear his pasture mates, Classic included, munching on their hay, just out of range of my sight. It was cold, I could see Oliver's breath, in a few short weeks we would start keeping them in the barn at night.

I uncliped my lead but Oliver didn't turn to join his buddies. He carefully extended his neck and started sniffing my chest, asking The Question. The Question is his careful technique, his gradual invasion of my space, a way of asking to be near me, and giving me a chance to rebuff him. When I do, he stays away, when I don't, the result is his nose on my cheek, breathing gentle puffs of warm air practically up my nose. I blew my own breath into his flared nostrils. We stood quiet like this for five seconds or so, then he turned away, and went for his supper. His big brown butt fading into the darkness.

It would be a lie if I said I wasn't nervous the next time I took him out on the trails. Heck, I was nervous the next 10 times I took him out. That fall happened four years ago, and although there have been a couple since, its that one that flashes through my head whenever I feel him start to waver under me. But at the end of the day, when he sniffs my cheek, he's my boy, and that's the only thing that matters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


by Laura Crum

Last week I did a post on the reasons I gave up showing horses and looking back on it I find it very incomplete. I mentioned the political aspect of it as a judged event and the cost. These things did have a lot to do with why I quit, but there were other reasons, too.

Kate mentioned seeing too many “servicably sound” horses in her hunter/jumper world, and I had to agree. Competition of all sorts in the horse world seems to result in so many horses pushed to keep working despite being sore, and then thrown away like used sporting equipment when they just can’t go any more. I think all of us have seen this and been affected by it. Some of us quit competing because we don’t want to be around it any more or support it in any way. However, I didn’t get to that place until I quit competing at team roping, the last competitive event I practiced.

Today I want to revisit cutting, particularly the last cutting where I competed. This would be our local county fair, twenty years ago this past fall. My horse, Gunner, was nine, and I had been competing on him at cuttings since he was four. I'd gotten a little jaded on the political element and the whole horse trainer shtick (see my post “Once Upon A Time”), and was starting to go team roping and liking it. But I decided to show Gunner one more time at the fair. I didn’t know it would be my last show, but I wondered.

In order to get ready for the cutting I practiced a bit and then hauled my horse over to a friend of mine, who was a local trainer.

“I want you to watch me cut a cow and tell me what you see,” I said. “I want to know what I should work on.”

So I walked Gunner into the herd and cut a cow. The cow tried him hard and Gunner worked well. Clean and crisp, not too long or too short, he was spot on; I never had to touch his face; he held that tough cow right in the middle and never missed a beat. I was very proud of him. When the cow turned away I touched Gunner’s withers to let him know we were done and walked back out of the herd and said to Bob, “Well?”

“He did fine,” he said.

Now even for trainer speak that was pretty laconic. I’m not particularly patient with trainer speak, anyway.“What do you mean he did fine? Is he as good as the horses that win?”

Bob shrugged.

“How is he different? What are they doing he isn’t doing?"

Bob shrugged again. “They’re a little fancier. He’s not doing anything wrong. They’re just flashier.”

Well, OK then. I knew what he meant. I was down to the root problem. There were two reasons that Gunner was not as fancy as the horses that won a lot. One was that he was big for a cutter. Gunner was 15.3, with good solid bone. He probably weighed 1200. Most successful cutting horses are smaller and lighter, which makes it easier for them to be quick and catty. I still remembered the initial reaction of the first cutting trainer I worked for when I unloaded Gunner from my trailer. This guy took one look at the horse, shrugged, and said, “Sell him and get another one.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “You haven’t even seen him work. He’s a nice horse.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “You want one that’s little and cute and catty. He’s too big. He looks like a rope horse.”

However, Gunner really was a good horse. He was quick and cowy and moved well and he had a lot of intensity and snap. He made a pretty darn good cutter. And now we came to problem number two, and it was the real stopper.

I had trained Gunner to be an effective cutter. What I had not done was train him to be flashy. So, what did this mean?

In the cutting horse world at that time, the horses that won regularly did a lot of “extra stuff”. If a cow moved slowly to the left and then paused, these horses did not mirror the cow, moving to the left and pausing, as I had taught Gunner to do. Nope. These horses did a whole lot more. They jumped to the left, to the right, back to the middle, pattered their front feet and back to the left, even if the cow was just hesitating there, doing nothing much. It was very flashy.
So what’s wrong with that, you ask. That’s what’s cool about cutting horses, all those fancy moves. Well, yeah. And again, not so much. Because these horses weren’t dancing around because they wanted to, nor was there much point in it. They were dancing like this because they had been spurred good and hard, over and over again, and they knew better than to simply mirror the cow and do what a cutting horse is supposed to do. No, they needed to move and dance constantly, and be “over the top” in every way, or they’d be punished.

Don’t get me wrong. Good cowhorses do some of this “dancing” on their own, because they love to work cows. Gunner did it, to some degree. It is part of what’s cool about cutters and all cowhorses. But these winning horses did it every time a cow slowed down enough to let them, and I knew very few (well, I personally didn’t know any) who were not taught to do this with an awful lot of spur.

I’m not saying I didn’t spur Gunner to teach him to be a cutter. I did. I don’t know anyone who trains cutting horses and never uses spurs. But I wasn’t willing to spur him over and over again when, by my lights, he was doing his job correctly, holding his cow, moving crisply, mirroring the cow’s every move, and working exactly as I had taught him to work. I wasn’t willing to torture him to make him fancier.

I also wasn’t willing to sell him and get one who was more the right “type”. At that time, I could have sold Gunner for a lot of money (by my standards, anyway). Even though he wasn’t ultra fancy, he was a solid, reliable cutting horse who was completely gentle and sound and he would pack anyone. Many trainers looked at him and thought they could “tune him up” and he’d be perfect for their beginning non-pro. I was offered ten thousand for him several times, which was a good price for an entry level cutting horse (at that time).

But I didn’t want to sell Gunner. I’d trained him myself, and I was proud of him. More than that, I loved him. I wasn’t going to dump him and get something I could win more on. And that was that.

As for the option of letting an accomplished trainer keep Gunner in training and make him flashier, well, I knew just what that would entail. I’d been around long enough to be sure that I didn’t want anyone else beating up my good horse. So many “horse stories” look very pretty when you see the horse placing at the big show with rider and trainer grinning at each other. Its only when you know the true underpinnings of such a story, all the abuse dealt out to horses and all the hatefulness between people, that you realize that the fairytale fa├žade that’s presented is a very long way from reality. Unfortunately abusive treatment of horses, and trainers who start out charming and humble only to reveal themselves as passive aggressive sociopaths only interested in protecting their fragile egos—this is pretty much a routine tale in the professional horse business. Such trainers are often talented at training and winning—its compassion towards horses and forgiveness towards people that’s lacking. I’d learned enough by now to want nothing to do with all that. Also, for me, part of the point was that I wanted to be the one riding, training, and showing my horse. I didn’t own a horse for someone else to be riding him. Let alone that I couldn’t afford to keep Gunner in training, I had no interest in that idea.

I left Bob’s place feeling that I’d made a pretty nice horse and if I couldn’t succeed under the system, well, I’d leave that system behind.

So, I showed Gunner at the fair, feeling it would be my last show. It wasn’t a big class, maybe fifteen horses. I drew up fourth. Watching the first three go, I saw right away that the whole pen of cattle seemed to be runners. Nobody was able to cut some nice little pup that set up in the center and allowed their horse to “play”. Nope. Every cow wanted to run hard, driving across the pen in a strong attempt to get back to the herd.

This is actually the most challenging type of cow for a horse to hold, and, unfortunately, a horse doesn’t usually get marked for doing a good job of it. Judges wanted to see a cow set up in the middle and a horse get “fancy”. Running cattle were a big negative.

However, Gunner was quite good with tough cattle. He could run and stop and he stayed honest. When my turn came, I cut some cattle that ran (I couldn’t find a pup either) and Gunner held them really well. I didn’t make any mistakes. It was a solid go, but not very flashy. As I rode out, Bob, who was turning back for me, said, “Your horse ran across the pen real well.”

I knew just what he meant. We’d done a workmanlike job, but it wasn’t by any means a spectacular run. The judge marked me a 71, which was a fair mark for what I’d done.

I led Gunner away from the ring, feeling proud of him for a job well done, and mildly disgusted with the whole deal. Cuttings are, in case you don’t know, a long drawn out business, with lots of warm up and time spent settling the herd, and all of it, except one’s own run, and the occasional moments when one’s competition is doing something cool, is about like watching paint dry. I was pretty jaded by this time, as I said in my last post. I didn’t even watch the rest of the class.
I unsaddled Gunner and brushed him, completely sure that some of my fancy competition would outscore me. I hadn’t marked very high. I couldn’t hear the loudspeaker from where I was, so I had no idea how things were going.

It was only when a friend came dashing up to my trailer saying, “They’re looking for you,” that I found out.

I’d won the class. Apparently the fancy horses hadn’t been able to cut any easy cattle either, and everybody had either lost a cow and/or gotten out of shape. My 71 was the highest score.

Back I went, leading Gunner, to get my silver buckle and have my photo taken. It wasn’t the biggest show I ever won, or the highest score I ever marked, or my best run. Not even close. It was, however, my last show, and our local county fair, and for some reason it remains one of my favorite memories. I still have the buckle and the photo, which remind me of that happy moment. In an odd way, the fact that I won that last cutting seemed to validate all the time and money I’d spent on training Gunner to be a cutting horse.

I never regretted giving up cutting. I trained Gunner to be a team roping head horse and roped on him until he was fourteen. At fifteen I retired him to the pasture, and he is living a happy turned out life, sound, if peggy, at thirty years old this spring. He is still my horse, and I still love him and take care of him.

As for me, I competed at team roping for almost ten years, first on Gunner, and then on Flanigan, until the point where I realized I simply did not care about winning. I enjoyed roping, but I had gotten completely to the end of my tolerance for seeing horses crippled and people be unkind to each other, all in the interests of winning. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people were good to their horses and nice to each other, but plenty were not. At the end of my team roping career I would get to a roping and find myself fervently praying, “Don’t let any horses or people or cattle get hurt (yes, I cared about the cattle—so laugh at me), and let whoever needs to win, win.” It didn’t take too long after that for me to be sure I never wanted to see another horse get hurt again in pursuit of the almighty win. I never wanted to watch some poor mostly lame critter struggle on or see someone beat up a horse who had somehow failed to please the rider (though often the fault lay with the rider rather than the horse). All because people wanted to win. I didn’t even want to be around it.

For those of you who read this blog and who like to compete in some horse discipline, I am not suggesting that you don’t treat your horses well. It is totally possible to treat your horse well and compete on him, too—I know that. You cannot change the behavior of those around you, but you can decide what you yourself will do and not do. This blog post (and my previous post “Once Upon A Time”) were suggested to me by reading some blogs where it seemed to me that winning was glorified a bit and the path by which that win was achieved was not portrayed very honestly. When horses get trashed and there is much hatefulness between people along the way, winning isn’t worth it—not in my opinion.

The other reason I wanted to address this subject is that I think it is truly worth bringing up and talking about. I competed for many years and for a lot of that time I was really enjoying myself. Training my horse, improving, testing myself…all this meant a lot to me. When I got to the place where I was ready to leave it behind, well, I had got to that place, as this blog describes. One of my best friends, a woman who is a much more competitive team roper than I ever was, recently got to the same place and gave up competition. She and I trail ride together and we have a talked a lot (as you might imagine) about this process of letting go of the need to compete and why we needed to leave that world and how it has been for us. I don’t mean to suggest that I know some single answer that is right for all horse people. I just know that my friend and I have discussed this subject a lot lately as we mosey down the trail, and it is much on my mind.

Competition, and the desire to win, is driven by several factors. Money is one of them, and I haven’t even touched on this. But people who are in the horse business to make money need to win. To prove their stallion, or their training barn...etc. The need to make mony fuels the drive to win, in many cases. And a lot of abuse springs from this root. But many of us compete in order to prove ourselves…we’re not in it to make money. We train, and try to improve, and then compete to test ourselves. And in some cases this testing and proving of oneself can become an intense ego driven need to win that results in the sort of abuse that I have described. In the discussion following my last blog post several people, including Terri and stillearning, talked about what we can do to change this. I freely admit that I have no idea, though Terri had some great suggestions. Its true that I have just opted out, and I don’t know if this is an honorable solution or not. The bottom line is that I couldn’t stand to be around it any more.

I do know that horses and people get hurt trail riding, too. But in my experience the pressure we put on ourselves and our horses in the interests of competition is far more likely to lead to injury and breakdown than a relaxed ride “outside”, where winning is not a factor. So now I trail ride in the hills and on the beach with my son and my friends. And I visit Gunner in his pasture and pet him and tell him what a good horse he is. I’m having just as much fun as I did when I was cutting and team roping, somewhat to my own surprise.

That’s what I call a happy ending.

Feel free to tell me I’m nuts and competition is a good thing. My team roping friends who are still out there trying to win tell me this all the time. Cheers--Laura

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dressage--To Read or Not to Read

I'm a dressage book junkie. I admit it. My bookshelves are crammed with every possible dressage book, classics, out of print, and new releases.

I used to loan them out to anyone who asked. Not so much anymore because so many of them were never returned. What is it with people who don't think they need to return a book they've borrowed? Especially one that isn't available anymore.

I've often wondered how a rider learns to ride dressage without reading. There's so much to know, I don't see how it can be learned during a weekly riding lesson. I learned how to ride most of the movements in my head before I ever rode them on a horse because of my obsessive reading of dressage books. In theory, I think I could ride Grand Prix, if I could coordinate my body. Of course, reality is a different story, but I do know how to ride all the movements whether or not I've ridden them on a horse. Dressage is the one horse sport which seems to require an intellectual component, and many will tell you it requires an artistic component as well. Regardless, in order to ride dressage properly, you need to understand the theory. You can't just jump on a horse trained to Grand Prix and ride the movements.

Now I don't mean to stomp on anyone's toes, so if you think I'm wrong and your horse sport requires the same, please point it out. The next closest horse endeavor would be learning natural horsemanship, which requires an extensive knowledge or how a horse thinks and his body language.

I'll often be riding in the arena when my trainer is teaching another student. Often this student is an upper-level rider. Yet, when the trainer asks theory questions or quizzes the rider on basics, they haven't a clue how to answer the questions. It always blows me away. Dressage is such an intellectual pursuit. I make the false assumption that dressage riders are avid readers like me. Not true, I realize. Yet, if you don't get the knowledge from books, it seems you'll waste a lot of precious, expensive lesson time learning the movements.

Which brings a different type of rider to mind, the one with tons of theory knowledge and no practical knowledge. There's always at least one in every barn I've ever boarded. This person is usually smug and self-righteous. They spend most of their time grooming their horse or criticizing other riders behind their backs or to their faces. They rarely ride. When they do, they often have some phobia, such as being afraid to canter. You'll find them at horse shows, hanging out with their pals, who are just as critical as they are. I avoid people like this. Several years of showing a difficult horse have humbled me. I keep my mouth shut when I'm watching dressage classes, except for words of encouragement. Dressage is hard to do and until I've achieved the expertise of an Olympic rider, I'm not saying a word.

So back to dressage books. If you do feel the need to read and increase your knowledge of dressage theory and riding, here are some of my all-time favorites:

The Dressage Guide: This book examines how to ride the movements in the Training through Second Level tests, including the basics. It's not for everyone, but I loved it. The author quotes the classics then interprets the masters' words into modern-day English. For example, when discussing how to ride Shoulder-In, the author quotes paragraphs from several classics then give their own opinion on how to ride a shoulder-in.

The Beginning Dressage Book: I learned how to properly lunge a horse from reading this book. This is the best beginner's dressage book I've found. The author goes into detail on the proper seat and dressage basics in easy-to-understand and read language.

That Winning Feeling--I love this book. There's really no theory in it, but the message regarding the power of positive thinking is priceless.

Centered Riding--I'd like to post some of Sally Swift's visualizations on the arena walls. This book is crammed full of great information.

The Dressage Formula--When it comes to theory, this is one of the best.

Riding Logic--A classic and a must for every dressage rider.

Practical Dressage Manual--Another classic

Dressage Questions Answered--I love the format of this book. It literally does answer most of the basic dressage questions.

Next time, I'm going to cover a different type of dressage book, more of the artistic bent.

Gailey Update: I've been back in the saddle for a week. We've walked, trotted, and cantered. The swelling is still there, and she's stiff, but she is sound.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Readers Write Saturday--Claudia McCreedy

A big EI welcome to Claudia McCreedy. Claudia joins us this week with a post about overcoming fear. Thanks so much for taking the time to write something for us, Claudia.

Please send your posts for Readers Write Saturday to We'd love to feature you with a story about yourself, your horse, or anything else that pertains to this blog.

I had a few riding lessons about 20 years ago. Then life got in the way. When my daughter was about 7 she started taking riding lessons. I watched with ill concealed envy for about three years. Then I started taking lessons. Shortly after that my husband got sick, he who had not missed a day of work in 27 years. He was sick, in the hospital, sick, over Christmas. What is significant about that was that when he got out he wanted to get a horse. We had never really considered getting a horse before that. We ended up with Tonka, a PMU draft colt that was about 9 months old. Next I found my dream horse – knew he was the one (don't know how) – at a Dept. of Agriculture action of seized horses. I didn't even know what he looked like until we went to the auction. Rohann is Percheron TB cross. He was two and had already been gelded.

So there we were green on green on green. We found a place to keep them and eventually I sent Rohann off for horse boot camp. That was about four years ago. Keep in mind caution has always been my middle name. I have gotten lessons from all sorts of people that I have come into contact with at the barn. I read about and tried to follow different training approaches mostly of the natural horsemanship type. Rohann is a big guy, drafty in build and a very, very easy keeper. Of our two horses he is the leader. He has much more whoa than go, which is fine by me. I have learned a great deal about confidence, leadership, and persistence with Rohann. I have been so lucky that he has a great laid back temperament.

Early on, on a trail ride he tripped going down hill and went down and I came off. He stepped on the inside of my lower leg to pushing off to jump up out of the little gully we were in. Luckily he didn't break my leg because of the soft sand we were in. He did whinny for me for me after he got up. I was able to get back on and ride out. A couple of years later (in a hurry on a windy day trying to get ready to go on a trail ride – invites were rare) while picking his hoof Rohann (who I would not classify as a spooky horse) spooked, big. He spooked in place, but the hoof I had been holding came down on my foot (concrete under us) and I had a break/crush injury.

The following has been explained to by me by my then 11 year old daughter as I do not have memories of the event. Three months after the foot incident my daughter and I were riding in the upper pasture, which to me is quite hilly. Rohann took off from the upper section (not liking being away form the herd) he bucked three times and I came off going down hill. My husband and I had ridden our horses up here before and were fine. The only thing different is that my daughter was with me and on a different horse but one who was in the gelding herd. I was wearing a helmet. My memories resumed from the hospital bed. But aside from a pretty sore shoulder I was physically fine.

Mentally, fear was raging. I first noticed it when I was looking at a horse catalog in the saddle section and felt nervous like you do when you are about to go into the job interview. I got on a few times after that but was shaking with nerves when I did. I just could not give up though. I worked with a girl on natural horsemanship (Parelli) stuff on the ground for the better part of the year. His ground manners improved a great deal. It was a good move on my part. I then set a goal of one hundred five minute rides in the arena. I had about thirty or so rides under my belt when I found someone who understood the whole working your way back thing. She got me interested in the Mary Wanless riding philosophy. Maybe it is how my mind works, but I love it. There are a thousand things to be thinking about when riding but not one of them is fear. I feel so much more confident when I am on horseback now. I have a better understanding what a “good seat” is. He can offer an unasked for trot and that is fine, I can deal with it. All of our work since the accident has been in the arena, with one exception. I am thrilled to say that we have trailered out with some of the other boarders at our barn to some very nice trails and had a successful ride.

We are not yet cantering, but now I feel like I am working on having a much more solid foundation for it when the time comes. It has been a couple of years since the accident. I have just kept at it. It is like the “How do you eat an elephant?” question. One bite at a time. I just can’t give up. I have taken the endurance approach (just keeping at it) to over coming fear rather than by trying to take big brave leaps and bounds.

The most amazing thing for me to realize is how all of this has translated into “real” life. Now when I am in a difficult situation I can resist the “must curl up in the fetal position” reaction and correct my posture bring up my resolve and say “I am going to ride this pony!”

Claudia McCreedy

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Once Upon A Time

by Laura Crum

Awhile ago, reading some interesting horse blogs, I came upon some opinions about horse trainers and showing horses, and it made me think about the days when I was very involved with professional trainers and horseshows. In my twenties I worked for half a dozen trainers as an assistant (these were all cowhorse and cutting horse trainers), took lessons from many more, and practiced and competed with bunches of them. I learned a lot about this part of the horse training business, and I thought it would be fun to do a post on this subject and get your opinions.

I would like to point out, first off, that this era in my life is very much in the past—today I stay home and ride my own horses with my son, mostly on the trail. I don’t train or compete at all—and I’m not interested in going back to it. Funnily enough, I just talked to an old friend the other day, one who went much further in cowhorse competition than I ever did—this gal competed for many years at the national level. Today, like me, she trail rides—that’s it. Says she doesn’t miss going down the fence at all. So I guess there’s a few of us out there.

Anyway, to get back to my subject, back in the days when I was learning, training and competing with the pros, I found something out. You can learn something from everybody. There wasn’t one trainer I was ever involved with who didn’t teach me some useful tricks. I liked some trainers better than others, some I grew to actively dislike and thought they were cruel to the horses, but they all taught me something. I used what I learned from these guys to put together my own approach, which involved bits and pieces that I got from all of them—the stuff that worked for me-- and years later, when I was training rope horses for myself and my friends, I would often remember that old Joe had taught me this, or Sonny had taught me that.

The second thing I learned was that trainers rarely agree. I can count on one hand the times I heard a trainer praise another trainer’s method. No, invariably, trainers thought their own approach superior and were often quite hostile to the idea that another trainer had a good method. Trainers at the top of the pile were respected and spoke well of—because they won. However any trainer who could remotely be considered to be on the level of another trainer was competition—and each trainer considered him or herself to have a better “way”.

Mind you, trainers were not loud or boastful about this (in general). That’s not the cool trainer way. Trainers were mostly quiet and on the surface, perhaps, quite humble. It was only over time, particularly if you mentioned something you’d learned from someone else, that their deep rooted attachment to their own thinking and methods would show. If I ever disagreed, or brought up an idea I thought might be helpful, I was firmly put in my place. I quickly learned never to mention anything I’d learned elsewhere and to, in general, keep my mouth shut when working for or taking lessons from trainers. Overall, they were not open minded. Unless they asked for an opinion, it was best not to give one.

This did not mean that they didn’t have something to teach me, and, in the end, I became very adept at discarding ideas that didn’t work for me and acquiring methods that did. I started out training my horse, Gunner, to be a reined cowhorse, and rather rapidly burned out on the methods used (at that time) to create a competive bridle horse. I won’t go into the details, suffice it to say that after placing at the Snaffle Bit Futurity, I switched to cutting. I trained Gunner to be a decent cutting horse, even though I was pretty ignorant. I took lessons and rode for guys who were competitive and Gunner was just a nice horse. We won quite a bit at the jackpot club cutting level, and, again, placed at some big events. Not one but three professional trainers offered to train Gunner for free if I would allow them to haul him and show him. That’s how nice a horse Gunner was. Trainers do not, in general, offer to keep your horse in training for free.

Of course, what these guys were thinking was “what a nice horse—he could do so much more if I were on him instead of that girl who doesn’t know much.” And, of course, they were right. When I competed on Gunner, virtually every horse I showed against had been trained by a professional trainer. Even if I had wanted to go this route, by the way, which I didn’t, I could not have afforded it. I did not have the money to keep my horse in training. I worked for trainers so I could afford lessons and entry fees. When I pulled into those big cuttings I was frequently the only two horse trailer and old half ton pickup in the entire parking lot. Virtually every other rig was a long shiny multi horse affair pulled by a big dually.

Over time, the ramifications of this began to sink in. I had a good horse and I sometimes managed to get him showed. We placed and won from time to time. But it became clearer and clearer that the people who beat me, over and over, were people on professionally trained horses, either pros or people with a lot of money who kept their horses in training with pros. Were they just better?

A lot of the time they were. No question. And I really didn’t take it too hard whether I won or not; I was pretty focused on turning in a performance that I felt good about. But I couldn’t help but notice that those few folks who, like me, showed their own “homemade” horses, never seemed to get marked as high, even if they had a good run. After several years of this, I was clued in enough to understand.

Horseshows, including cuttings, are, in general, judged by people who are horse trainers. These people all know each other, and they also know all of each other’s wealthy clients. This is their business. They place each other and the wealthy clients far more readily than they place an “outsider”—its just the way it works. This is what puts money in their pockets; this is how they make a living. If Joe places Sonny, next week Sonny will place Joe. If Sonny places Joe’s wealthy client, then Joe is more likely to place Sonny’s wealthy client, and even more crucial, some day Joe’s wealthy client might move on to Sonny (and the clients moved from trainer to trainer all the time). Yes, a judge will place the outsider if he/she has a distinctly superior run. But if the outsider and the insider have similar runs, the insider gets the call every time.

I saw this quite clearly at one of the biggest events I went to. I was watching a class that I wasn’t in and saw a Nevada cowboy I’d never seen before (and neither had anyone else) have a spectacular go. Some very “in” folks showed against him, and did well, but not that well. What happened? The cowboy placed—he did so well they couldn’t ignore him—but he placed fourth, rather than the first he deserved. Its just the way it works.

And again, watching the open class at a big show, I saw a trainer I knew well have a very good go. I watched the whole class and felt sure my buddy would win or place high. He did not place at all. Afterwards I walked over to his rig and asked him, “Did you do something wrong I didn’t see?”

“Not really,” he said.

“Then why didn’t he use you?”

“Oh, he pretty much went with the board of directors.” (This would be the board of directors of the state association, many of whom, big name trainers all, had been showing in the class.)

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked him, really wondering.

He shrugged. “I didn’t get marked today when I deserved to be, but somebody will mark me high when I don’t deserve it, and I’ll win the class. It’s just the way it goes.”

I knew what he meant. My friend was a well known trainer and though not quite as “in” as the trainers who had placed, he was plenty in enough. He was also a very talented trainer and eventually became very famous. He could make the system work for him. I was learning.

A year later I showed my horse in a biggish class (forty horses) at a fairly high level show (for me) and won the class. What happened? Well, I managed to get my horse showed, for one thing. And the judge was not a horse trainer. He was an old rancher who had got his judge’s card. He didn’t hang with the in crowd of horse trainers. He placed the horses he liked. It taught me something.

In the end, I burned out on the “political” element. And the cost. I really couldn’t afford this sport, and was spending more money than was appropriate on pursuing it. I could also see that I would never be truly successful if I persisted in training my own horse. I switched to team roping, which is judged only by the clock. And lo and behold, the political element vanished. There were lots of not-so wealthy folks winning, though, of course, the wealthy folks could afford better horses, lots of lessons, practice and entry fees…etc. But, overall, it was definitely much more fair.

Not that team roping was in all ways superior to cutting. I am not saying that at all. I could do a whole nother post on the the abuses I saw during the years I roped (which is why I don’t rope any more). But the political element was (mostly) missing. And horse trainers did not dominate the scene. After almost ten years of a world dominated by horse trainers and their so-strongly held opinions and endless competition with each other, I was ready for a break.

Since then, I’ve continued to value all the good information that I got from various horse trainers, and I’ve added the final piece to the puzzle. It isn’t going to come as any surprise to any of you when I tell you what it is. We’ve often talked about it, both on this blog and others. Listen to your gut. Its that simple. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, listen to your gut. Use your gut, and what knowledge you have, to be discriminating. Realize that no matter what any trainer tells you, there’s more than one way to get something done. If this trainer’s way doesn’t resonate for you, believe me, you can find another way to get the job done. You don’t need to be buffaloed by any given trainer’s opinion. It kind of reminds me of our discussion on this blog about feeding treats. There were hugely varied approachs, and all of them seemed to work for the people who used them. Its best to go with an approach that feels right to you.

Don’t get me wrong—it is absolutely vital and helpful to get the advice of a good trainer, or some sort of experienced horseman, while you are learning. Just don’t believe all you hear. If something doesn’t seem right, go get another “expert’s” opinion. As I started out saying, you can learn something useful from everybody. But hang onto your gut sense of what works for you, and don’t go too far against it. (I guess you could apply this to religion and politics, too.) There’s always another way to do it.

So how about you? Some of you, I know, like to compete, and I’m sure that many of you, like me, have had experiences with professional trainers and judged competition—for good or ill. Some of you are trainers—of many disciplines other than cowhorse and cutting. Has your experience been anything like mine—or has it been vastly different? What’s your take on it?

Monday, January 4, 2010

It is our horses that have it right!

It is our horses that have it right!

I apologize to all for being delinquent in my posts for the last several weeks. We all go through it; a period of time when the to-do has no end to it plus the days and your energy level gets shorter and shorter. For me that was December. Although I love the holidays with my family, I often make it more of a burden than a joy. I angst over getting all my shopping done, how much money I am spending, wrapping presents, cooking holiday goodies, decorating and every other little neurotic detail related to the season.

This coupled with the fact that I picked up 6 new clients in November and December and the numbers of horses at my ranch went from 9 to 16, all led to the perfect storm of being overwhelmed, under-motivated, and stressed to the gills. After it was all said and done; I had survived the holidays and finally had a brief moment to myself, I got to thinking. Boy do I have it wrong and do the horses have it right. I truly want their life. They work maybe an hour or two each day, except at shows when they work a bit more. But in exchange for that “heavy” work load they are pampered and fed and cleaned up after and blanketed and coddled and cared for and, and, and, and! I think I am very jealous! They don’t worry about buying Christmas presents and not over spending and entertaining, they just wait to be served their meals, worked when it’s time, be turned out for play, blanketed when its cold and checked on several times each day. That is the life we should all have.

They take and enjoy each day as it comes and don’t differentiate between Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year Day, or any other day of the year. They just enjoy each day for the simple pleasure of what it is – a 24 hour period to breathe in the fresh air, eat, sleep, hang out with their friends, play, and yes, that little bit of work. What are we thinking? How many of us waste a portion of each day stressing over how much we have to do rather than just getting done what we can or worrying about things over which we have absolutely no control. That would certainly be me.

So along with losing 5 lbs (ok maybe 10), having better eating habits, getting organized, and sticking to my to-do lists, in 2010 I also resolve to be a lot more like my horses. I will work a little less, stress about it a lot less, enjoy each day for what it offers, enjoy those simple pleasures and love unconditionally. Because we all know that is the one thing that horses and dogs really have right, they love, unlimited, unabashedly and unashamed and unconditionally. They just love and they don’t hesitate to show it.

How many of you have New Years resolutions? It is the time for it. Any related to our four-legged friends. I would love to hear them. Did anyone else stress about the holidays like I did? I just had the hardest time relaxing and enjoying them this year.

I do hope that everyone had time to relax and to spend time with family (2 legged and 4 legged) and to enjoy life. I also wish everyone a happy, healthy and peaceful year of enjoying those simple pleasures like being in the company of a horse.

Also as an addendum to this post, I have already broken a little bit of my own resolution by staying up most of the last two nights stressing over a colicky horse. The impaction colic was brought on by this 3yr old eating the tails of two of his neighbors. As of this writing he is finally passing oil and should be fine but both his owners, his vet and me have been quite worried and were on the verge of taking to a referral hospital for surgery last night. Yikes, that is not the way to start the New Year. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to prevent him from chewing/eating any more tails. We have been spraying the tails of his neighbors with “no-chew” spray but it has been only marginally successful. I could go to hot-wire to keep him away but then I also deny him social interaction which I hate to do. He is practically free fed so his motivation is not hunger. We are going to get him some stall toys and a “lick-it” treat to see if that helps but I am open to any and all suggestions. I look forward to everyone’s comments.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Readers Write Saturday--Petra McGowan

Please keep those Readers Write entries coming in. We really enjoy learning more about our readers. You can email them to me at

This week we have Petra McGowan.


First I’d like to mention that English is my second language so I’d like to “pre-emptiveIy” apologize for any grammar mistakes ;o). I started reading your blog recently and really enjoy it. Keep up the great work.

So back to myself – my name is Petra McGowan. I am a horse & dog lover and live with my hubby, two horses, two dogs and a kitty on our 40 acre ranch in Canada, Manitoba. Durango, my Trakehner x TB gelding is 5 years old and is sweet as a pie, but unfortunately he has been having troubles with his hip and is off work for the moment (dressage). But we still get to enjoy hacking and liberty games together. He is better at heeling than my boxer girl who I do agility trials with. My mare’s name is Cadence. She is a PMU baby – Percheron Arab cross. Very smart, very pretty, beautiful mover – people actually think she is a Trakehner as well. But I need to make sure I make her smarts work for me, not against me otherwise things will go terribly wrong. She was my first ”project” horse that I started myself. I got her as a yearling and on number of occasions I was thinking “what did I get myself into”? She’s a HOT HOT stuff. But with time we build excellent rapport and starting her was very peaceful. One day I just hopped on her back while she was hanging out in the paddock. No halter, no saddle, nothing. Now she’s going on 5 and my coach can’t believe what an “excellently packaged for dressage” animal she is. No exceptional bloodlines, no fancy pedigree. She also enjoys hacking and is an explorer. She’d always rather chose someone else’s drive-way to visit instead of going home. I am so proud of her.

Recently I quit my job as a marketing manager and decided to develop eco-friendly all natural premium line of equine grooming products - EcoLicious Equestrian ( I am very eco-aware, my skin is quite sensitive and I find products available on the market very harsh, irritating and full of toxic ingredients. After all we are the ones responsible for protecting the health of our horses and our earth with our choices.

I am so blessed to have horses in my life. I learn so much from them every day. They help me through tough times, give me joy, never judge....

All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you!

All the best to the new year!

Petra Z. McGowan
EcoLicious Equestrian Inc.