Friday, September 30, 2011

Research....Or Not?

by Laura Crum

I hear a lot of authors talking about research. How they love research. How a trip to Europe can be called research and written off on one’s taxes. (That sounds very glamorous.) Sometimes research seems to mean looking things up on the internet…endlessly. (That doesn’t sound so exciting.) I have heard a well-known author say that she never writes about a country that she has not at least flown over in an airplane. (Amusing. But it left a funny taste in my mouth.)

Most recently a book was recommended to me (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was) as being a great story and “meticulously researched”. I bought the book. The underlying story was good, I’ll agree, but the book, which was exceedingly well-padded with all that meticulous research, was a very slow read and I ended up skimming it, thinking all the while, “get back to the story, dammit.” In my view the book was crammed with researched details in order to make it long enough to be a “best seller”. The actual storyline would have been much better served if the book had totaled between 100-200 pages, rather than the 300 the author relentlessly stuffed into it.

The truth is I do not care for obviously researched details in novels. I like a story to flow and not to bog down while the author shows off his/her knowledge of the subject at hand. Particularly a mystery novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love description. I love detail. I just don’t love the stilted, wordy passages that are simply meant to convey some sort of authenticity. The ones that announce “I looked this up somewhere.” I delight in reading description that comes from the heart and reflects an author’s intimate knowledge of something he/she loves.

People often ask me what sort of research I do for my novels featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. My answer is that I don’t do research. My life is my research. This isn’t strictly true, of course, and I always have to admit that I do call my childhood friend who is deputy chief of police and pick her brain about what the cops would do under certain circumstances. And I call my old boyfriend who is now a vet and ask about the dosages for certain drugs and whether some concept I have regarding veterinary medicine is really plausible. I also ask him to tell me any interesting veterinary emergencies he’s been on lately. And this information is critical when it comes to writing realistic mystery novels. I’ve been tickled when former cops emailed to congratulate me on describing police procedure correctly, and expressed their irritation at the number of mystery novelists who apparently fail in this respect. And I have been asked numerous times if I’m a vet, quite frequently by veterinarians. So yes, I know research has it place.

But…I object, I actively object, to the notion of an author selecting a subject, or a country, he/she knows nothing about, and using it as a background/locale for a novel. The proverbial country the author has at least “flown over in an airplane” approach. A little internet research and hey presto, said author is an expert on the place or activity. That’s not the sort of novel I want to read. I’m interested in reading “been there, done that” stories written by people who really know the subject/place they are writing about (and are ideally quite passionate about it). I think the difference in the two styles of writing shines as brightly as the difference between night and day.

For me, this means writing about landscapes I know intimately, such as the central California coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, rather than setting a novel in Europe (which I visited once for two months and loved—but that’s not a very deep sort of knowledge). It means writing about aspects of the horse biz that I’ve actually participated in (such as cutting and roping and horse packing in the mountains) rather than setting my stories in the hunter/jumper world, say, or on the polo field. Yes, those are interesting and glamorous venues, but I really don’t know much of anything about them. My lifelong passion has been western cowhorses, and I can speak with authority and in accurate detail on this subject, having trained such horses for many years, and been a competitor in several different cowhorse events. Nowadays I mostly trail ride through the local hills, an activity I find fascinating, and these trails provide the backdrop for my latest novel, “Barnstorming”, due out this coming spring.

I’ve ridden the trails in all kinds of weather, in every season of the year. I know them as if they were my backyard, which, in a sense, they are. The steep and tricky switchbacks, the big views over Monterey Bay, the narrow singletracks through the towering redwoods—I’ve ridden them hundreds of times. I’ve met all kinds of strange and interesting things on the trails, from assorted wildlife to scary looking guys with machete in hand, and I’ve incorporated my trail adventures into my novel. So there you go, life as research.

What about the veterinary stuff, people ask me. The sad truth is that if you’ve owned horses non-stop for almost forty years, as I have, you’ve acquired a vast amount of veterinary knowledge. Horses are always having some problem or other, be it lameness or colic, or some odd injury. My husband calls it the “five horse” rule. Something is wrong with a horse at least 20% of the time, and if you have five horses or more, that means something is wrong 100% of the time. This is, unfortunately, more true than humorous. In forty years of horse ownership I have amassed enough veterinary detail to fill out my twelve mystery novels quite nicely, not even counting the things that have happened to my friends and been recounted to me. Once again, life as research.

Ok, I know many of you write—certainly my fellow authors on this blog do plenty of writing. And I'm guessing most of you who read this blog read fiction at least occasionally. What’s your opinion on research, and carefully and obviously “researched” details in novels? I love a good discussion.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Lungeing Quandry

Do you work your horse on a lunge line? Despite having been involved with horses for decades I’m a bit of a newbie when it comes to lungeing. In fact, I don’t think I ever lunged my first two horses, Kali and Amanda, which seems strange to me now, particularly as far as Amanda was concerned. That highly strung mare would definitely have benefitted from being worked on the lunge, but seeing as nobody ever worked their horses on the lunge at that particular yard, the concept never even entered my head. I didn’t lunge my third horse, Monty, much either. Truth be told, I didn’t have the opportunity to do very much of anything with him, as I only had him for two years, the majority of which were spent recovering from broken limbs (I broke my leg sledding soon after getting him and was out of action for nine months, and, soon after I recovered, Monty threw me off, shattered my shoulder and nearly fell on top of me, whereupon I gave him to a good home and quit riding for seven years).

Kwintus, who has now been retired for close to a year, was clearly accustomed to lunge work (we bought him as a fifteen-year old schoolmaster), but due to his stumbling problems we soon decided it was best avoided. But when seven-year old Qrac came into my life earlier this year, I immediately knew I’d have to learn how to lunge him. The person who took care of Qrac while he was being sold always lunged him for ten minutes or so before riding him, so I initially felt I should do the same. It was reassuring to allow my horse to get rid of any excess energy before I climbed on, not that he ever did. Qrac has always been very well behaved on the lunge and impressed me from day one with his response to verbal cues. I suppose most horses do the same, but with my lack of experience, the fact that he springs into trot whenever I say “Qraaaaaac; au trot” (I tend to speak French to him when I lunge him) still astounds me. I think he’s such a clever boy!

What I’m still uncertain about is whether I should lunge him in draw reins, or side reins, or something. My trainer, Marie-Valentine, always lunges horses in draw reins. She says they don’t work properly through their backs if they’re not coaxed into a long and low frame. So when I bought Qrac I set out to buy a lunge, a surcingle and draw reins so that Marie-Valentine could give me some lunging lessons. But who would have thought that finding a surcingle to fit a Lusitano would have been so complicated! Regular horse-sized ones were way too big for him, and none of the shops around here carried anything in between “pony” and “horse”, so for the first few weeks I simply lunged him “au naturel”. I eventually found him a cob-sized one that fit fine, but by that time Marie-Valentine was busy travelling around Europe, going to shows with some of more advanced students, so I only managed to have one lesson on lunging Qrac with draw reins. And being a world class worrier, when it came to having to do it alone I got all freaked out about adjusting the damn things. Were they too slack? Too tight? Was he holding himself right? Was he too tense through his back? Was I doing it right? So worried was I about doing it wrong that I soon took everything off and went back to lungeing him “au naturel” again, which, from what I sensed, was what he was used to anyway.

In fact, from what I’ve seen on the Internet, it seems to me that most Iberian horses are lunged without draw reins or side reins or any other equipment to keep them in a frame. My other trainer, Greg, prefers to lunge horses without restraints; he says that what good lungeing really comes down to is observation.

I’ve lunged Qrac about twice a week for the past few months and he seems to be doing fine without draw reins. I watch carefully, talk to him a lot, play with my fingers, adapt my body language, coaxing him to reach down and stretch, but, of course, this isn’t as efficient as physically closing him. Another drawback (is it a drawback?) is that, without draw reins or side reins, I can’t “force” Qrac to stay flexed to the inside, and he does tend to bend to the outside on the right lead canter, at least for the first few minutes. However, now that he’s become stronger, after a few rounds I coax him into a smaller circle, whereupon he needs to stay in the correct flexion in order to remain balanced. He seems quite comfortable performing a couple of rounds of slow canter around me, really coming under with the hind leg, so I guess I must be doing something right.

Nevertheless, that little niggly voice inside my head still constantly harangues me, going on about that virtually unused cob-sized surcingle hanging on my peg. Would Qrac be better off being lunged in a more contained frame? Would it be more efficient? Or does lungeing with draw reins/side-reins/etc just make them work harder? I don’t think I’m wasting my time lunging him “au naturel”, but then again, maybe I am. Maybe I’m just “moving” him, as opposed to working him. What do you think? How do you lunge your horse?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On the Trail Again

by Laura Crum

We’ve been out on the trails again in September, which makes me happy. I was gone all of July, and in August all we did was gather and chase cattle at the roping arena, which is fun, but not my very favorite thing. My very favorite thing (horsewise) is riding through the hills on my steady little yellow mule, looking at the flora and fauna of my home trails.

My break from trail riding did serve a purpose. Sunny came up lame at the end of June—the diagnosis was a tiny fracture on the edge of the navicular bone. Shoes and pads and rest were recommended. Sunny got a rest, and he’s worn front shoes and pads for two shoeings now and –voila. He seems completely sound. At least for the light riding I do. The hills are not bothering him at all and he is absolutely even at the trot. I’m happy.

Below are a few photos of my favorite ride. This ride involves going out my front gate, crossing the busy road (which always raises my stress levels), and then bushwacking our way up a narrow little trail that is very overgrown until we strike a (slightly) bigger trail that leads through meadows, redwood forest and tangled groves of shrubbery and liveoaks to a clearing at the top of the ridge where you can see the Monterey Bay.

So below you see my son on Henry and our friend/boarder, Wally, on Twister, in front of the view, with Sunny’s ears in the foreground. We are looking north towards Santa Cruz, and my son is sticking his tongue out cause he doesn’t like having his photo taken.

From the Lookout we ride another trail home, just as overgrown in places as the one we take on the way out. It doesn’t appear that many horsemen have ridden this way lately—perhaps they have been taking a break, too (?) Usually we see far more hoofprints and horse manure than we did on our recent rides. So far this September we have met no one on the trails—neither horsemen nor hikers. I have to admit, I find this very pleasant. It feels like we are out in the wilderness, though this is an illusion. Civilization is all around us—just hidden by the exuberant woods. I like the fact that we are riding a big loop and see different places on the way back. Here the trail goes down through the liveoaks and tangled greenery.

Here we are on Sunny and Henry, pushing our way through the jungle.

Here’s the view from Sunny’s back as we go down the trail.

And again, in the heart of the green world.

Then its down the ridge to once again make a careful crossing of the busy road. As I said, this always makes me nervous. On our last ride our friend Wally began to cross the street before my son and I were quite on the shoulder and by the time Wally had reached the middle of the road a car was bearing down from the left and a big semi-truck from the right. Since we were not yet on the pavement, I told my son to pull up and hollered at Wally to cross and wait for us. Which he did. My kid and I backed our horses up a step or two and a fair batch of traffic whizzed by at fifty miles an hour a few feet from Sunny and Henry’s noses. We’ve done this many, many times before, of course, and the horses are always perfectly solid, but it still scares me. This time I worried that they’d get ancy because Twister was on the other side of the road. But no, little Sunny and Henry stood like rocks while I waited for the road to be perfectly clear. This is why I bought them.

Eventually the road was empty and we crossed—but by the time we’d reached the far side, a guy on a Harley came blasting down the road making the maximum amount of noise—I’m guessing on purpose. We are off the road now, headed across the field and up the hill to my front gate and home. All three horses raised their heads at the roaring racket immediately behind them, but not one broke out of the steady marching walk. I was so proud of them. Here I’m looking down at Sunny back in the barnyard.

The whole ride only takes an hour and fifteen minutes, but there are plenty of hills and varied terrain and it is always interesting in every season. I think of it as my “hour loop”, the ride I can do on a regular basis.

Does anyone else have a little “everyday” loop like this? I find it very pleasant, though I confess, I don’t get it done every day. And do others besides me stress at dealing with traffic? My horses are very calm and comfortable around moving vehicles—I’m the one who hyperventilates.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Great Back to School Book Giveaway

Risky Chance, my latest horse book, came out last week and I am excited to host a giveaway. It is the seventh book in the Horse Diaries series (Random House) illustrated by the fabulous Ruth Sanderson.
I've met Ruth several times and admire her dedication to her craft, and when Chance came out, I was excited to see her incredible interior art, which captured the setting, characters and, of course, the horses--I even bought one of her pictures! (See page 63)
Risky Chance is set in California during the Great Depression when Seabiscuit was king of the race track. Research for the book was terrific fun, especially looking at old photographs. During that era, racing was dangerous for jockeys and horses, and the story reflects this, but since it is a book for younger readers, I kept the violence PG.
So if you and your kids love a good horse story (or if you know a friend who loves one!), please leave a comment about your favorite horse book, which will enter you in The Great Back to School Book Giveaway. You just might be the winner of a copy of Risky Chance. I'll announce the winner October 4th (when I return from visiting family.) And don't forget to share this contest with others!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


by Laura Crum

I’m currently facing a very difficult question. I’m sure you all can guess what I mean. Among my retired/rescue herd, ET, who is 31, is going downhill. Those of you who have read this blog for awhile will know that I have written about this exact situation before. But every time (and there were several), ET pulled out of it. I would worm him at a two week interval, up his feed, and in a month he’d look better and on we went. But this time the situation is a bit more complicated.

I have six pasture pets on this property about fifteen minutes from my home. Four live in the “big” pasture—about forty acres that grows pretty good grass year round—we feed hay from Sept through December in an average year and the horses usually look fine. The two oldest horses, both 31 right now, live in the two separate smaller pastures (about five acres each) and are fed year round equine senior delight (this is not Purina Equine Senior, but a complete feed made by a small mill around here that works wonders on all old horses I have tried it on), in the amount each needs, which in ET’s case means free choice, as he can no longer chew hay up, or graze much (no teeth). And this has been working pretty well for several years.

I have agonized over putting ET down off and on, as the horse will, for no reason that we can see, sometimes start eating less and losing weight, or not eating less but still losing weight, but every time, as I wrote above, I have been able to turn the trend around and he looks better. This is all complicated by the fact that as old horses will do, he seems to have lost much of his sight and hearing and at times seems a bit confused. For several years now, every fall, I wonder if its right to take him through another winter. This fall, he once again began to get thinner, and my friend Wally, who helps care for the horses with me, insisted it was time and we should set a date.

We both felt sad at the thought, but lets face it, ET is very old for a horse who was ALWAYS a hard keeper. Were it not for our willingness to pump a lot of very expensive feed into him, he would be dead long ago. Neither Wally nor I are wealthy people and the financial burden, though not the bottom line, is a factor. But both of us really want to do what’s right for ET. The cold, wet storms are coming and though we blanket him, and there is shelter, he often stands out in the rain looking miserable. Is it right to try to keep this skinny old horse going through another winter? Is it in his best interests, even leaving our best interests out of it?

And then there is Rebby. Rebby is part of the group that lives in the big field and he is in his mid/late 20’s now, and is no longer keeping his weight on in the pasture. In order to take proper care of Rebby, we really should put him in one of the smaller fields and supplement him with the senior feed. But we can’t put him in with either of the two older horses as he’d be dominant and would take the feed they need to survive. If ET were gone, Rebby could have that field and be able to thrive.

If we lived out there, or had endless free time, we could bring Reb in and supplement him, and then put him back out. But Wally and I have busy lives and we don’t live there and its all we can do to make it out there every morning to feed, with the occasional extra trip to blanket, or meet the farrier…etc. We divide these chores between us and periodically moan over the money and time we spend on these perfectly useless horses, but we just keep doing it. We’ve been caring for the horse herd in this pasture for over ten years. In that time we’ve euthanized two horses due to the maladies of old age, and both were pretty clear cases. One had gotten so crippled he could hardly hobble without major pain killers twice a day, and one went down with a stroke/seizure and couldn’t get up. Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, so these two horses were promptly replaced by two others, one of which was ET.

ET makes no sense at all. He was never my personal horse. He was a team roping horse that I saw at many ropings, being traded from cowboy to cowboy. Nobody ever cared much about him that I could tell, but he gave good service to many. He was perhaps the oddest looking horse I’d ever seen, and yet a very effective performer. He was also dog gentle, little kid gentle, and endured several very abusive owners without protest. Just kept doing a good job. But he kept being put on the market—I suppose because he was so odd looking, and each time he was older and the price was less. The last time he was 18 years old, and it was easy to see what his eventual fate would be. So I bought him.

Yep, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. For awhile I was able to farm him out as a kid’s horse, but ET was always a terribly hard keeper. One home returned him because they couldn’t afford to feed him, and the second, as I discovered, after a few years lost a job and didn’t feed him enough. When I saw how thin he was I took him back and put him in the field where I had a vacancy due to an old horse that had died. And I have kept him and cared for him ever since.

But even with all the equine senior feed in the world and a good pasture, it was hard to keep weight on ET. He’s a long skinny snake of a horse by nature (with short legs and a very long neck and one eye). He looks a little like a dachshund crossed upon a giraffe. Honest. I’ve done a pretty good job keeping weight on him, but it ain’t easy.

So, OK, I sadly agree with my friend Wally that maybe we ought to put ET down this fall. And the next day I go out there to have a good long look at the horse and see what he tells me. Well…

My son and I walk out in the field, where ET is standing, looking pretty content. Its sunny, with a breeze, and I note that ET still has plenty of equine senior in his feeder. He polishes it off in a leisurely way, over the course of a day. I walk up to the old horse, talking to him, and he swings his one eye around so he can see me and snuffles the hand I hold out to him. That one eye looks pretty bright to me. I note that I cannot actually SEE ribs or hipbones, though I can darn sure feel them. ET is getting fuzzy with his winter coat, which helps. But I don’t think he looks that bad. I rub on him a little while and then walk off to check the water.

ET watches us go and then, after a minute or two, he ambles towards his feeder. And then, who knows why, he breaks into a trot. And gee whiz, the old fart still trots sound. Rickety but sound. And he looks comfortable.

My son says tentatively, “ET looks pretty good.”

“Yeah,” I say. And I know right then I am not going to put this horse down. Not until he looks like he needs it. Which he does not at this moment. The idea of walking out into that sunny pasture and catching this sweet old horse and leading him out to get the green needle fills my heart with revulsion. ET is not suffering. He may not be exactly thriving but he looks content. He sure doesn’t look like he needs killing. And I, quite frankly, can’t bring myself to do it.

BUT. The other reasons still apply. How am I gonna feel when I walk out there this winter and see him looking miserable in the rain? How about if he goes down and lays there some cold nasty night unable to get up and we don’t find him until morning? Am I going to wish then that I’d had the heart to put him down now?

I’ve heard it said that its better to do it a day to soon than a day too late. But what if you are six months too soon or a year too soon. Is that doing them a favor? Aargh!

Let alone that I want to act in ET’s best interests, it is still totally impractical for me to be stretching us financially just to keep this one very old, borderline OK horse going, especially since I need a way to properly take care of Rebby. Practically speaking, I SHOULD put ET down. But I can’t. It feels wrong.

So when is it going to feel right? After he’s suffering? Is that a good idea? Burt and Pistol (the two old horses we euthanized) clearly needed to be put down. But ET seems to be on a slippery downhill slope and I don’t know where to draw the line. I just know I could not have led him out to the vet for the kill shot on that sunny day when he looked at me with a bright eye and snuffled me gently, then trotted over to his feeder. But when exactly am I going to feel right about it? The proverbial day “too late?” After he’s already gone through too much?

My other 31 year old horse, Gunner, looks fabulous—nobody who sees him believes how old he is. He has pasture, gets a heavy flake of alfalfa every morning and half the senior feed ET gets, and he’s doing just great. And my previous horse, Burt, survived into his late thirties in very good flesh and spirits on this same diet—right up until the morning he had his stroke. ET is just a VERY hard keeper. I guess its possible that I could devise a diet that would be more ideal for ET, but to what purpose exactly? Wally and I both feel maxed out on the amount of time, energy and money we are putting into our pasture pets already. (And for those who read my last month’s post on “Good Enough—Or Not?”, we did end up rebuilding the worst section of fence—at our own expense.) And its not as though I can make ET young again. No matter what, his inevitable end is drawing near.

Argh! I am frustrated and worried, and I have to admit, if you gave me a magic wand I might make that whole lot of old horses disappear. I have enough on my plate just caring for the four horses here at home. But there is no magic wand. There is the kill shot, and if I do not have the heart to kill a horse than I must keep taking adequate care of him. But what is adequate care in this case? I cannot afford to spend more money on ET than I am already doing, so diagnostic vet work is out of the question, and I don’t really think it is appropriate at this point. I don’t have a cushy box stall to put him in for the winter, even supposing he would care for that, which I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t. The horse is sound and not in obvious pain—he’s failing because he’s getting very old and always had a tricky metabolism. No magic pill from the vet is going to fix that—at least in any significant/permanent way. And nobody is going to take this problem off my hands. In the springtime, when I see all these old guys grazing on green grass in the sunshine and looking very happy, my heart just fills up with joy and it all seems so worthwhile. Heading into winter storms with an old horse that is slowly going downhill it seems like a very heavy burden to bear. Whatever I choose is wrong. Or at least not right.

Its easy to say ET is old and failing and a burden therefore its OK to put him down. Its easy to say that’s the best choice for him. It’s a lot harder (at least for me) to look him in his kind, bright eye and decide to kill him here and now when he doesn’t seem to be suffering. I’m stumped.

OK—anybody have any insights? I am pretty worn out with worrying about this and a bit, OK more than a bit, depressed over it, as I’m sure you can tell. Or maybe its just the autumn doldrums, which others have referenced on their blogs. Whatever it is, I feel sad and confused.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Snowman: The Eighty-Dollar Champion

Last night I stayed up late to finish this book:

The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Snowman: The Horse that Inspired a Nation
by Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine Books/ Random House/2011

After wiping tears from my eyes, I got up this morning to give it five stars on Goodreads, and here is my review:

You can't help but be inspired but this story of a once-in-a-lifetime horse that was literally saved out of the back of a killer's truck. It's not only a story of Snowman and the special bond he had with a young immigrant from Holland named Harry de Leyer, but it's also the story of a moment in history. Elizabeth Letts seamlessly weaves us in and out of the rich American country estates, where horses were king, to World War II Holland when the Nazis occupied the country. But it is mostly the story of Snowman, a quiet, gentle half-plow horse, who accomplished so much in the show jumping world that it allowed an entire nation to dream big dreams. You'll believe in miracles too, after reading this, and you'll never look at a rescue horse in the same way again. 

Author Elizabeth Letts says this on her website:

Harry de Leyer first saw the horse he would name Snowman on a bleak February afternoon between the slats of a rickety truck bound for the slaughterhouse. The big gray horse had matted hair, open wounds on both knees and harness marks across his chest. He was as plain and friendly as a favorite mutt. A man’s best friend kind of horse Harry decided. He bought him for $80.

I have to credit the author for keeping us on the edge of our seat through horse shows and jump-offs, triumphs and let-downs. This fantastic horse and the special relationship he shared with a young riding instructor who saw his potential is well worth the read. Truly inspiring and if you're a horse person, you are going to love it. I was lucky to get an early copy from our library, but this is one book I'm going to buy and keep on my shelf.

The story takes place mostly in the 1950's, and Snowman has long since gone to Horse Heaven. But Harry de Leyer is alive and still riding at age 83. Here's a recent article about him:

Tomorrow, September 21st is Harry's birthday. He'll be 84. Wish him a Happy Birthday!

Have you read the story of Snowman yet?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mystery of the Runway Farmsitter

Over Labor Day weekend, my husband and I took his daughter and her boyfriend to the San Juan Islands. We were quite excited about this trip, as they'd never been to the Islands before. We couldn't wait to share it with them.

One of the challenges we all face when we go on vacation is finding a farmsitter, especially one which doesn't charge an arm and leg.
An old Army buddy of my husband's, we'll call him Leo, volunteered to farm sit for us. Leo had gotten himself in a bit of trouble a few years ago in a drunken bar fight. As a result, he'd spent a few years in jail. After he'd been released, Leo's aunt and uncle had taken him in. He'd really turned himself around in the year he'd lived with them. He'd stopped drinking, was working hard to get his life back on track, was even teaching Sunday school at the church where his uncle was the reverend.

Off and on, Leo would do work for us on the farm, stuff we just didn't have time to do. This visit, we had a list of chores for him. Because the truck his uncle had given him was broken down, my hubbie picked him up at a bus stop near hubby's work.

As we were leaving for our trip, Leo mentioned that he'd like to wash my truck, which sorely needed it. Hubbie showed her where the keys were so he could move the truck over by the barn, nearer the hose. I asked Leo if he would be OK out here on the farm for 4 days without any means of transportation. He assured me he had plenty to keep him busy. I gave him our neighbor's number in case he needed something.

Fast forward to Sunday evening about 5 pm. We're having a great time with the kids. We've gone whale watching and seen two pods of whales, attended the piano/organ concert at Rosario, had some incredible meals, hiked to Mt. Constitution's lookout, essentially hit all the tourist spots.

My cell rings. It's our neighbors (my former daughter-in-law and her new husband, both of whom we're very close to) wondering if we gave Leo permission to drive our truck. It appears as soon as we left on Friday he headed out and didn't come back until after midnight. Saturday, same story. Now it's Sunday, and he's been gone since early morning. They're concerned about our animals and have gone up to feed them.

Hubbie immediately calls Leo on his cell and reaches him. Leo claims he didn't realize he wasn't supposed to drive the truck but says he's on his way up our driveway as he speaks. We don't buy his story. I call our neighbors a half hour later. No sign of Leo. I reach him on my cell. Again, he answers, this time he claims he's only 5 minutes from our home. I tell him in no uncertain terms to get the truck home and not to drive it again.

We go to dinner, but Leo has effectively ruined our evening as we worry he's fallen off the wagon and imagine all sorts of horrible scenarios. We try to call and text Leo several more times, but his phone is now turned off. The last time we talk to our neighbors that evening is about 11 pm. No sign of Leo or our truck.

Our neighbor was going to take the truck in to be serviced first thing Monday morning. He calls us at 7 am (we are already at the ferry landing waiting for the next ferry) to inform us the truck and Leo are nowhere to be found. Leo has now left our animals without care for over 24 hours (though our neighbors are taking care of them).

As we drive the 2.5 hours home, I'm getting more and more frantic. I check my iPhone for possible serious accidents within the last 24 hours. Thank God, there's been none involving a green Chevy pickup truck. So at least, I know Leo hasn't wrecked on I-5 and injured innocent people. We can't get any information from the State Patrol on our truck's whereabouts because I don't know the license number. Lesson #1, always have your license numbers stored somewhere easily accessible.

We're calling everyone we can think of who might know Leo. Via some sleuthing on Facebook, I find out the name of the aunt and uncle he lives with and obtain their phone number, again thanks to my iPhone. They haven't seen him either but are extremely upset that he'd betray our trust like this. After several calls, they haven't located him either. But they do know his brother saw him late Sunday night in a bar in Tacoma (about 45 minutes from our house).

Now, let me pause to say that this truck is my baby. I bought it brand new in 2002. It's my dream truck, a fully loaded 3/4-ton, heavy duty, Duramax diesel with a towing package, leather heated seats, the works. And it's paid for. Since we're all horse people, you know how expensive a truck like this is and how hard it will be to replace it.

As soon as we get home and armed with the truck's title and other info, we drive to the local sheriff's office. They're closed, but a deputy is walking into the building and agrees to take our information. After hubbie and him bond over having both been Army Rangers out of Fort Lewis, we head home.

By the time we arrive home, the deputy has left us a voicemail. He's located our truck. A towing company has it in impound at a nearby towing yard about ten minutes from our place. It appears Leo was picked with a DUI and the truck impounded.

We immediately go the impound yard, which actually isn't open on Labor Day, but a tow truck driver happens to be there. We pay the impound fee, but the truck won't start. It appears Leo has put over 300 miles on my truck and run it out of diesel. Back we go to our house for a diesel can. Still the truck won't start. We find a mechanic nearby, again not working on Labor Day, but in his shop repairing his own car. He agrees to start our truck for us.

Finally, we are on the road, out a few hundred dollars, but no other harm done, unless you count my husband's immense disappointment in Leo. But lesson 2 is trust your instincts and don't be so willing to give your trust to someone who hasn't earned it.

Well, Leo finally surfaces a week later in a VA hospital in Seattle. We don't really know when he went into the hospital, but we do know that he ran the truck out of fuel about 6 miles from our house and was sleeping in it. The State Patrol picked him up at 6:30 on Monday morning and booked him on possession of a vehicle while intoxicated and--get this--driving without a license. They dropped him off somewhere in Olympia and supposedly another friend took him to the hospital later that day as he isn't feeling well.

We haven't talked to him since, nor has he talked to us. We know through his aunt and uncle that he's claiming we'd given him permission to drive our truck, which we did not. We've decided not to press charges and chalk this up as lessons learned for both of us.

Leo had stood by my husband when hubbie came back from Iraq. Hubbie was pretty messed up after having been hit by a roadside bomb. Leo had helped hubbie get through some very difficult times. Hubbie trusted him with his life, now he can't trust him at all. Unfortunately, he's lost a very good friend because of Leo's irresponsible actions and betrayal of hubbie's trust, which hurts more than any of the rest of it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Transitions or "Life keeps Coming Atcha"

Transitions: any change of pace or speed as from one gait or movement to another. (The Equine Dictionary)
Transitions: passage from one place, stage, type etc to another (Websters)

I decided to write about transitions because since I have joined this blog, each post/comment reminds me of the multitude of transitions we make and write about whether we're on horseback or getting on with our lives. Sometimes it's difficult to relate: Francesca and Terri are performing transitions with horses and on horses that I have never and will never accomplish. Laura loves trail riding like me, but I don't come from a roping background and have never faced a steer. And the trips! I am lucky to go to the nearby lake for a long weekend, but eagerly read about the others' exotic vacations.

We all have dealt with different transitions in writing as well. Linda will be moving into e-books with The Girl who Remembers Horses while Jami has already tackled and found them a wonderful addition to traditional publishing. Laura's 12th adult mystery will soon be out while I have two new children's books out this month. Jami has swtiched from horse books to football and I just submitted a proposal for a new limited series about dogs!

Lately, here in Virginia, my transitions have been abrupt but typical for this time of the year. As our hot summer turned to chilly fall, I began teaching four college classes and started back riding. At the same time I'm trying to promote two new books, revise a third, and sell a series. Add to that family, garden and yard cleanup, paying the bills, Lyme vaccinations for the dogs etc. I know from comments that this is typical for all of us who live in a rural area with animals, family and a job. There are never enough hours in the day and each transition--whether it's seasonal or animal/job-related--brings a new set of challenges and additions to the 'to do' list.

Making sure my blog gets written and posted on time is always on my list. But I value the comments and posts because they let me know that I am not alone as I stumble through my transitions and let me laugh at or sympathize/emphasize with some of your own stories.

Keep reading and posting about your own transitions this month whether it's a kid going off to college, mastering the half-halt, finding the right horse, getting a job promotion or a book sale, or putting enough hay in your barn for the winter. Each is about life moving forward and running smoothly (or at least not too bumpily!)

Oh, and next Saturday, look for a September Back to School Book Giveaway of my two new books: Dive Right In and Risky Chance.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Cover

Just got this cover for my 12th book! Yes, my 12th book will be coming out this next spring—in 2012, how appropriate. The cover is by the very talented Peter Thorpe, who has done most of my covers. I think he did a wonderful job on this one. My son actually came up with the concept of a barn being “struck by lightning” as a play on the title, and Pete did a fabulous job of painting this image and doing the lettering.

“Barnstorming” takes my protagonist, equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, into some new territory, both as she solves the mystery and in her personal life. Those who have read the series know that Gail starts out in “Cutter” as an eager 31 year old vet who is one year into her career, with a new boyfriend and a new horse. In the first ten installments in the series she ages one year in each book and goes through some important life changes. By “Chasing Cans”, the 10th book, she is 41 and the mother of a young child. (and still has to solve a dramatic mystery on the ranch next door—the woes of an amateur sleuth).

In my last two books Gail ages five years per book, as I wanted to bring her closer to my own age (I’m 54) and write about some themes that interest me now. “Barnstorming” has a lot to do with solitary trail riding and the challenges that come up. And since it is a mystery, Gail faces the challenge that I think all of us secretly wonder about. What if we met a truly nasty person out on the trail? What if that person had a gun?

All my books are very much based on things I’ve seen and done, and all the horses in my stories (and the other critters) are as true to life as I can make them. They behave like real horses (most of them are modeled on my own horses—and those who read this blog will recognize them); they don’t talk, or solve crimes, or defend their master from the bad guys (all of which I have seen and winced at in various novels). Sunny, my little palomino trail horse, has a starring role in “Barnstorming”, as he did in “Going, Gone”.

I will admit that I have been fortunate enough never to have met anyone truly nasty on my many solo trail rides, but I have met some odd/tough looking sorts and certainly had my moments of wondering “what if”, which gave me the seed of an idea for this story. I’m hoping you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

OK, the book is six months away from being published—I guess I shouldn’t go on about it too much. I’m currently in the process of getting my older titles available as e-books and on Kindle, which is taking me awhile, because I don’t have electronic copies of the first ones (written twenty years ago). So by spring that job should be done. In the meantime, here’s a list of my published titles, with a short synopsis of each book. If you would like to own a signed hardcover copy of any of the first eight books, please call my friends Wally and Lynn at Valley Feed (831)-728-2244 and they will send you one for $20, including shipping to anywhere in the continental United States. These older titles are also available online from Amazon etc, but sometimes they are hard to find or expensive. Hopefully by spring you will be able to buy them as e-books—I’m working on it now.

I’m very excited at the thought that these books may become readily available again. I put so much of my life into writing them, and the stories are not only good mysteries (or I think so, anyway), but also reflect a lot of my thoughts about life…and horses. I hope some of you will give them a try.

Here’s the list (I can hardly believe I’ve actually written this many books):

CUTTER: Veterinarian Gail McCarthy thought cutting horse trainer Casey Brooks was being paranoid with his stories of poisoned horses and sabotage, but when his blue roan mare returns riderless and Casey is found dead, she isn’t so sure.

HOOFPRINTS: Gail McCarthy is a horse vet with a hectic schedule, not to mention a horse, a new boyfriend, and a house payment, and her life is more than a little disrupted when she finds two dead bodies in the course of a routine call to a well known reined cowhorse barn.

ROUGHSTOCK: While attending the annual Winter Equine Seminar at Lake Tahoe, Gail finds one of her fellow horse vets dead, and another accused of his murder. The trail leads back to Gail’s hometown, and through the twists and turns of the team roping world, plunging Gail into a confrontation with an unlikely killer.

ROPED: A stalker haunting the ranch of an old friend creates a harrowing personal drama for Gail as she struggles to sort out a mystery involving animal rights and a bitter feud—and win a team roping event at the same time.

SLICKROCK: Gail embarks on a solitary pack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with just her two horses and her dog for company. All too soon she stumbles upon a soon-to-be-dead man, and is drawn into the whirlwind of nefarious events that precipitated the tragedy.

BREAKAWAY: Faced with a depression and some big life changes, Gail struggles to find the right path as she is confronted with the strangest mystery she has ever heard of.

HAYBURNER: Gail is called out to treat injured horses when the biggest boarding stable in the county catches fire. When a second barn fire occurs nearby, Gail finds herself in the middle of the search to catch the arsonist—before any more horses or people die.

FORGED: Gail’s horseshoer is shot in her barnyard, while shoeing her horse, embroiling Gail in a dangerous attempt to capture an elusive killer.

MOONBLIND: Gail’s cousin Jenny, who runs a Thoroughbred layup farm, complains of mysterious villains who are out to destroy her business—and harm her horses. While trying to support Jenny, Gail discovers this threat is all too real.

CHASING CANS: Legendary barrel racing trainer Lindee Stone is killed when a horse flips over backwards with her. The cops are calling it an accident, but Gail witnessed the wreck and thinks there is something fishy about it.

GOING, GONE: While on a vacation in the Sierra foothills, Gail finds that her old boyfriend, Lonny Peterson, is accused of murdering a local auctioneer. In an attempt to save Lonny, Gail ends up in a harrowing horseback race with a ruthless killer.

And to be released Spring 2012, BARNSTORMING: In which Gail, on a solitary trail ride, discovers a fellow equestrian shot through the heart, and embarks on an intense hunt to discover why violence is haunting her local trails.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


by Laura Crum

Recently an acquaintance of mine had his very nice roan rope horse colic—and he almost lost the horse. The culprit was stones. This guy said his horse passed a total of eighty-nine stones over a two day period, ranging from pencil eraser sized to as big as your hand. Since this horse is twenty, the owner did not want to attempt surgery, so the horse was given painkillers and oil and fluids and they waited it out. The horse had colicked due to stones before, but this time he was very painful. The vet did not think he would make it. But time passed and the horse got better. And eventually the gelding seemed fine. Eighty-nine stones later (!)

We talked about this at the roping arena, of course, and we all had a story to tell about stones. Another friend told of hearing a big thunk as his horse passed manure. When he investigated, he found a baseball sized stone. And this horse never colicked.

Another friend said that he’d had to euthanise a horse due to a sudden, violent colic—the horse went downhill incredibly fast in 24 hours. The autopsy revealed a big stone.

Of course, I had to tell my “stone” story. My son’s horse, Henry, colicked three years ago. The colic never seemed very severe, but it wouldn’t go away. Every time the Banamine wore off, Henry started going down and pawing…etc. He never got extremely painful, he never cracked a sweat, his vital signs stayed pretty normal. But after 48 hours of relatively mild colic we hauled him to the equine hospital and they ultra-sounded him. They said they could see what they thought was a large pocket of small stones and sand and recommended surgery. Henry was twenty years old at the time, but I really valued him and desperately did not want my kid to lose his horse. So I opted for the surgery.

Henry got through it just fine (though I pretty much sweated/cried the entire time he was under), but when the surgeon got inside the intestine, he discovered not just the bucket full of sand/stones they expected, but also (in another place) a single BIG stone. As big as a very large cantalope—not something a horse was going to be able to pass. They had to make a second incision in his intestine to get it out.

Anyway, three months of steady rehab and ten thousand dollars later, Henry was a riding horse again, and even though I am not a wealthy person, it was all worth it to me, because Henry is such a great horse. For those who might want to know what such a stone looks like, see the photo below. We call it our “ten thousand dollar rock”.

Previous to this, I had never even seen an enterolith before, let alone been the owner of one. I knew about stones as a problem, but that problem had never come my way. I had heard that stones can be caused by feeding straight alfalfa hay, and I never feed straight alfalfa. Usually I feed a grass/alfalfa mix that’s mostly grass. But I know for a fact that Henry ate straight alfalfa hay most of his life—he only came to me as an 18 year old horse. I’d also heard that stones are far more common here on the west coast of America—that they’re practically unheard of in the East—even when people do feed straight alfalfa. Something about the minerals in the soils and water out west is apparently conducive to making stones.

So today I’d like to ask if others have had experiences with stones or if you have some info to share. I am sincerely hoping Henry does not go through another struggle—much less make another “rock” like the one on my mantle. Hopefully it took him all of twenty years to make that one—I doubt he has enough time remaining to make another. But still, it’s a worry. Any thoughts?

PS—For those who are curious about the statue, my husband bought it in a Tibetan shop in old Delhi thirty years ago, when he was traveling the world. The figure represents Chenrezig (the Tibetan name for Avalokitesvara)—the avatar of compassion. The Dalai Lama is said to be a reincarnation of this being.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where were You?

I've missed my last two post days. Both times I was on vacation. I was going to post today about the runaway farmsitter who abandoned our animals, took our truck without permission, and hasn't been seen since (the truck ended up in impound). I also considered posting about the Orca whales we saw on vacation (3 separate sightings). I wondered if I should start my planned series titled So You want to Ride Dressage.

When I woke up this morning, none of it seemed appropriate. While it's not horse-related, I chose to tell my tale of where I was when the towers fell. I'd like to hear your story, too.
I'm on the west coast, and I was starting work at 7 am that summer. Since my commute takes a half hour, I got up early. As I was getting out of the shower that morning, my former husband (we'll call him John) called to me from the living room. He told me a Cessna or something had flown into the WTC.

As I continued to get ready, I wondered if the pilot was committing suicide or what. It didn't make sense. John called to me again, telling me another plane had hit the 2nd tower. I hurried to the living room. He was staring at the TV in shock. Turning to me he says, "That was no Cessna." He said a reporter was standing in front of the WTC reporting on the first crash when a plane flew right behind her and hit the 2nd tower. She didn't even notice it until her camera man pointed it out.

I turned on the news as I got in my truck to head for work. I was barely out of the driveway when it was reported that the Pentagon had been hit.

I had no idea what was going on, nor did anyone else, but the preliminary reports were that America was being attacked by terrorists. As soon as I got to work, I turned on the big screen TV in my temporary "office." I work at the state capitol. My colleague and I, who do computer support for the Legislature, had been displaced from our real office earlier that year when a 6.8 earthquake closed our capitol building. We'd been put in a hearing room for the summer. This room had all the multi-media stuff including a projector and a big screen.

My colleague showed up shortly after I did. We sat in a couple chairs in the hearing room and watched the rest of it unfold on the huge screen. Soon we were joined by a few other staff members. Our capitol campus was on lockdown, no one allowed in or out. Personally, I wanted to go home, well aware our capitol building was a replica of the one in DC and could be a symbolic west coast target. I knew it was a remote possibility, but I knew I wouldn't be worth much at work that day.

The entire day was eerie and surreal. Very few people came to work that day. The few that did seemed to congregate in our hearing room to watch our TV. We were locked in these deserted capitol buildings for the majority of the day.

We watched in horror as people jumped to their death in an attempt to avoid being burned alive. We saw the first tower fall, and my heart sank. I felt sick. I knew all those first responders were inside, valiantly rushing to save the people on the upper floors. Not to mention the people trapped inside or attempting to escape. My next thought was get out of the second tower now.

I heard reports that another plane was unaccounted for. Next I heard it had crashed in a field about ten minutes from the nation's Capitol. Even then I wondered if the passengers might have brought it down. Several minutes later the 2nd tower collapsed.

I spent the remainder of the day, reeling from shock, bathed in grief for the loved ones of all those people who had died, and full of hope that survivors would be found. Of course, very few were as the days unfolded.

As we remember this day, let us not forget the good things which came out of it. We united as a nation. People generously helped other people. We gained a renewed respect for our first responders. And let us not forget all the people effected by this tragedy.

Feel free to tell us your story and reactions of that day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Trajectory and Focus

Back in April, when I bought Qrac, my seven-year-old Lusitano, I was entranced by his good looks and his calm, commanding presence. My tendency towards lower-back problems made me appreciate his smooth paces, in fact, prior to buying Qrac, several people had warned me that once you get comfortable with a smooth moving Iberian, transitioning back to the bouncier, bigger moving German/Dutch Warmbloods is virtually impossible. Frankly, since I have no intention of transitioning to any other horse for the next fifteen years or so, I don’t really have an opinion on that, although I guess I can see where they’re coming from.

Riding Qrac is becoming smoother all the time and in the past few weeks we’ve made considerable progress. I mentioned in an earlier post that, on top of working with my regular trainer, Marie-Valentine, I’ve recently started working with another trainer, Greg Scheers, a local showjumper. Greg keeps five horses at my stables and lives in a small flat on the premises, which makes him wonderfully available. He took care of Qrac during my recent holiday in Colorado, gets along well with him, and calls him “The Playboy”!

I’ve found working with Greg and Marie-Valentine complementary. I’ve known Marie-Valentine for many years, and she and I are very similar in our sensitivity and appreciation of “feeling” in riding. For example, when riding on a circle, she and I will both have a tendency to focus more on how the horse feels to us, on the way he’s moving. We’ll obsess over the softness of the connection rather than on the geometrical perfection of the circle (unless, of course, we’re working towards a competition). Greg, however, insists that I focus on riding a perfect circle, assuring me that the less I worry about how my horse feels to me, the better he will move. “How Qrac moves is his problem,” he says. “He needs to find his own balance. And keep your head up. Don’t look at him; look at where you’re going to go. You don’t need to look at him to know how he feels. Besides, it makes him move ‘smaller’.”

This approach initially freaked me out, throwing me out of my comfort zone; suddenly my rides felt mega untidy, but I soon realized that Greg had a point. It sounds silly, but the process of “feeling” how my horse is moving without looking at him initially reminded me of massaging my stomach clock-wise with one hand and my head counter-clockwise with the other. But I’ve found that the more I concentrate on my trajectory, the more focused Qrac becomes. Of course, Marie-Valentine has been badgering me for years to keep my head up (and to keep my pony tail still, as to do this I really have to stabilize and engage my core) but, for some reason, Greg’s obsession with trajectory seems to finally be doing the trick.

Work with a showjumper and you’re bound to come into contact with poles. My last encounter with poles dates back to the early Nineties and the memories are relatively traumatic, so when I saw Greg starting to lay out poles in a strange pattern on the ground I swallowed hard. “Err, what are we going to do?” I queried, trying to deep breathe away that prickle of adrenaline. I hate adrenaline!
But all he was doing was laying out a square that created the boundaries for three circles of various circumferences. The biggest circle went around the outside of the outermost poles, the middle-sized circle went in between the outer and inner poles, and the smallest circle went inside the inside poles. And the inside circle was tiny! Well, it seemed tiny to me, considering Qrac still had a tendency to “run”.

When I first trotted Qrac around the middle-sized circle (which was hard enough), the idea of transitioning into the inner circle seemed way beyond our capabilities, but when Greg told me to choose a good moment to do so, I took my time, prepared our trajectory and took Qrac into the centre, where he surprised me by soon finding his balance, bending around my inside leg, and taking a steadier contact with the outside rein. After a few rounds, we transitioned back to the middle-sized circle, and then back to the outside. We also worked on walk-trot and trot-walk transitions in the different-sized circles, to which Qrac responded beautifully, gradually softening, bringing his hind legs further beneath him..
But could we perform the same exercise in canter? The notion initially seemed way out of my league; at the beginning of the summer I couldn’t even canter Qrac on the right lead without him losing his balance and switching to the left lead. Of course, I worked on this so much that I now generally feel more comfortable on the right lead than on the left, although once in a while he still loses his balance and pops a flying change. But it’s one thing cantering a “free” (wonky!) circle in arena, and quite another cantering around a “marked course”. Even the middle circle would require him to really take the outside rein and seriously sit down. As for the inner circle…well, pff, seriously? Whatever next; a pirouette?!

Oh me of little faith!

Within two sessions, Qrac and I performed several totally acceptable, nicely balanced canter-trot transitions in the middle circle, even ending the second session with a mind-blowing right-lead canter-walk transition. And, during a third session, we actually managed a couple of uphill, wonderfully harmonious rounds in the central circle!

Having discovered how useful poles are as markers, I now really enjoy working with them (we don’t have letters in our huge, oval-shaped arena, so it’s hard to find a reference point). And Greg was right; having me focus on the trajectory has improved my connection with Qrac. I suppose he feels more secure, more guided. He’s gained in confidence, is far more attentive to me, and therefore easier to ride. He’s also becoming stronger, and is really starting to fill out. As for me, I’m fascinated by the constant evolution of my partnership with my wonderful new horse. I know a lot of people find dressage boring and repetitive, but, as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats the magical feeling of those tiny, soft, harmonious, step-by-step triumphs.

How about you? What particular aspect of horses and/or riding fascinates you the most?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Need Advice

by Laura Crum

So today I have a question for everyone who has ever taught a kid to ride. I haven’t done a lot of this. I’ve given the occasional lesson to the occasional child, and I’ve certainly supervised many beginners on horseback, but I have never been in charge of a kid’s steady progress from being a beginner through intermediate to advanced. Until my son came along.

The way I have taught my son to ride is based on the way I’ve taught him in general. I am a homeschooling mom and I am using the path called “unschooling”. At this point I can hear the collective gasp. Perhaps many of you are now feeling that I’m part of the evil empire. I have slowly become aware that many folks consider someone like me to be at best misguided, and at worst positively diabolical. Let me point out that I feel the same way about those who deliver their innocent children into the jaws of the public school system and abandon them there. But perhaps a horse blog is not the place to discuss this subject.

The fact is that “unschooling,” or learner led learning, has worked very well for me, both when teaching my kid to ride and teaching him to read (he is a voracious reader reading well above his grade level, in case you were wondering). With the riding, this has amounted to (mainly) giving him a completely reliable horse and providing him with lots of opportunities to ride. I let him decide what he wants to do on any given day. If he’s struggling with something, or I see the horse needs a correction to stop him from developing a bad habit, I’ll intervene and give my kid some advice and direction. At times I have had to ride the horse and “straighten him out” (this is very rare). Certainly I intervene if I see something developing that isn’t safe (though Henry is such a good horse this really hasn’t come up). But mostly my son just rides his horse and enjoys it. We trail ride, we gather cattle and drive cattle, we ride in the arena at the walk, trot and lope. We have fun.

This way of learning to ride is quite different from the formal lessons I was given as a child. I well recall a succession of demanding riding instructors who frequently insisted I do things that I felt were over my head and ride horses I was afraid of. I remember how scared I was, often to the point of tears. I think if I had not been so passionate about horses and riding, those formal lessons would have put me off the whole business for good.

My son has never been passionate about horses the way I was/am. Horses are a part of his life and he really enjoys them, but it has never been lost on me that if he were hurt or badly scared or seriously over-pressured, he probably would not want to ride again. So far, I have been able to prevent this from happening. Largely by giving him such a reliable horse to ride and being present and carefully observing every single moment he is on his horse. And letting him decide what he feels up to doing. The net result is many, many happy shared times on horseback. So far, so good.

My little boy has spent his whole life on/with horses. From six months to five years he rode in front of me on my horse, from five to seven he rode his pony, Toby—first on the leadline, then independently. From seven until now (he just turned eleven) he has ridden his steady, reliable Henry—on the trail, on the beach, on gathers…etc. Despite the lack of formal lessons and the fact that my son is a gentle, sensitive kid, inclined to be too passive rather than too aggressive on a horse, my boy has developed a good seat and can make his lazy horse mind him. He is a pretty strong, confident rider at this point. And therein lies the problem.

Lately we have had some fresh cattle at the arena where we ride. These are cattle that need to be trained to run down the arena and go through the chutes—before they can be roped. And this job has fallen to my son, who vastly enjoys it.

Henry, who used to be a rope horse, knows exactly how to run down the arena after a steer. My son is an effective enough rider that he can ask the horse to drive and the horse will obey him. The net result is that my kid, for the first time in his life, is blasting down the arena in a hand gallop, rather than a long trot or a lope.

No, Henry is not running away, he isn’t even going full speed. But its still pretty fast. And no, my son is not really completely in control; he just isn’t used to going that fast. I trust Henry not to buck or bolt or do something stupid, and these things are not happening. Henry chases the steer down and pulls up at the end of the arena, just like he’s supposed to. Both horse and boy are enjoying themselves. But I am a little bit freaked out.

What if, my mind keeps shrieking. What if Henry stumbles or even falls, what if my son just loses his balance, what if he comes off? Going that fast the odds are he could get hurt. The last time one of our friends came off in that same arena in the middle of a roping run he broke six ribs.

Part of me says my son is ready to do this. Part of me trusts his judgment and thinks that if he feels threatened by the speed/lack of control, he’ll pull the horse up. Part of me knows he has a very good seat and won’t come off easily. But part of me knows what he doesn’t know—how unpredictable the whole business is—and realizes he can’t really make accurate judgments with his degree of experience. Sure, he thinks he’s doing great, but he doesn’t realize the potential downside and might not protect himself enough. The biggest part of me just wants to prevent him from getting hurt—or even, God forbid, killed. Yes he wears a helmet, no that won’t prevent you from getting killed. The last kid I knew of who was killed on a horse was wearing a helmet. She broke her neck.

OK, maybe I’m paranoid. Kids my son’s age are jumping cross country courses and making actual team roping runs—for real. This is a lot tougher stuff than just running a steer down the freshly groomed arena at a hand gallop. Maybe I’m just way overprotective. I’m not sure.

So far I haven’t said anything, other than reminding my kid to shorten his reins before he kicks Henry up to the gallop after a steer, and telling him to be sure to stop the horse if he feels out of control. I applaud what a good job he’s doing with a big smile on my face. I try not to dampen his joy with my worry. And I am proud of him. He’s doing great, learning new skills, and he feels confident. He’s getting a lot of well-deserved praise from the ropers, which is good for him. But the thought of my little boy getting badly hurt because I allowed/encouraged this activity really bothers me. I’m pretty darn sure I wouldn’t think it was worth it. So am I making a good choice here?

Today I’d like to ask what others think. Have you taught a kid to ride and seen the young child progress to doing pretty dangerous stuff? Where do you draw the line? What is appropriate? I’m sure the parameters are going to be a bit different depending on the individual child, but how do you as parents/instructors decide what is a reasonable risk and what isn’t? Clearly if I wanted to avoid all risk I wouldn’t put my kid on a horse—horseback riding is a notoriously dangerous sport. But then, if I wanted to avoid all risk we wouldn’t drive our car anywhere either. And then, of course, we’d die of some odd, unpredictable disease. I get it that risk is part of life. But there are some risks that I think are just dumb—such as putting a young kid on a green horse, or anything less than a truly reliable, solid-minded babysitter. I would not choose to take that risk. But there are still these gray areas—like galloping Henry down the arena after a fresh steer. Where do I draw the line between acceptable risk versus unacceptable risk? What guidelines do I use? I’m not sure I know.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wildfire Summer

The fires in Texas have been taking hold of my Twitter feed over the past few days - farm owners seeking help to evacuate their horses. After growing up in Florida, I can sympathize. Wildfires are terrifying, worse when you have horses to worry about.

Florida is famous for hurricanes, but actually wildfires are more common. The cycle of the Florida wetlands is fire and flood, and all the subdivisions and interstates in the world haven’t been able to change that. Springtime in Florida smells of smoke.

The year 1998, in particular, was a terrible fire season. Florida’s dry season lasts from November to June; the summertime is humid and loud with thunder, a delightful climate for frogs and alligators. In 1998, though, the seasons seemed to switch. It was unnaturally wet over the winter, and the controlled burns and wildfires that should have thinned the underbrush were doused by rains. In the spring, as the heat returned and the fire season began, everything seemed to go up.

We waited for June’s rains with red-rimmed eyes, brushing the ash from our cars each morning. We listened to our horses’ breathing and fretted over the damage being done to their lungs, we lost sight of the sun in the yellow-tinged skies. We stopped conditioning work and jumping because of the smoke-choked air.

June came, and then July. The rain did not. One by one, the cities cancelled their Fourth of July fireworks. In Daytona Beach, the speedway postponed the Pepsi 400. For the first time ever, the theme parks in Orlando silenced their nightly fireworks shows. It was quiet, and hot, and hard to breathe.

I worked at an orange grove stand in the evenings, listening to the radio and writing stories and eating grapefruit slices. (Evenings are not busy times for beachside orange grove stands.) It was nearly time for me to leave when news came over the radio that a fire was burning out of control on the south side of the Kennedy Space Center. My horse lived within sight of that southern fenceline. I closed the shop early and flung myself into my car.

When I drove across the causeway, I looked north, towards the space center. I could see the flames leaping into the air, ten miles away. The entire shoreline looked apocalyptic.

Night fell as I drove into the smoke, two hours before sunset. It was pitch black on the farm road; I barely saw the fireman in my path as I crept along, nose to the steering wheel.

He leaned into the car. “You can’t go any further,” he said. 

“I have to get my horse out,” I told him. “He’s down the next driveway. We have a back way out, onto Tropical Trail.” Tropical Trail was a road to the south, leading away from the flames. I didn’t exactly have a road to get to it, but I knew the way.

He stepped back. “We’ll be up that driveway in half an hour. Don’t be there.”

My riding buddy was already there when I leapt out my car; both our horses were tacked up. “Do we go now, or wait?” she asked. 

But I was distracted. There were six other boarders, and no sign of any of them. The horses were in the pastures. “Is no one else here?” 

“Nope,” she said. “It’s just us.”

“What do we do with their horses?” There were no trailers. There were no trucks. We were two high school girls, about to ride our horses through wood trails and orange groves to get them to open space. 
We couldn’t get out the other horses. This wasn’t an adventure novel, this wasn’t The Saddle Club - this was real life.

“The fireman down there said he’d open the gate,” she said. “If they end up coming down here.”

“Well.” I didn’t know what to say that. I did the only thing I knew to do in times of crisis: took my horse’s reins and swung into the saddle. We sat, mounted, as the smoke swirled and the sirens wailed, waiting. 

Finally, a fire truck appeared in the barn driveway.

“This is it,” I said. I looked at my car. “Sorry, car.”

But we got a reprieve. A fireman came out of the truck and walked up to us. “We’re calling off the evacuation,” he said. “Wind’s changing and it’s contained to the space center.” He looked us over, teenagers on horseback, and shook his head. “You girls and your horses.”

It rained a week later.
Amarillo, the horse I nearly rode out of a wildfire. Girls and their horses, indeed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Girl Who Remembered Horses

by Linda Benson

Exciting News! My novel THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES has been accepted by Musa Publishing for their brand new YA imprint and will be out very soon. The tentative release date is November 11, 2011 for e-book, with paper book coming (hopefully) soon after.

Here is a short synopsis:

Several generations into the future, Sahara travels with her clan in a barren environment where recyclables are bartered for sustenance, and few remember horses or their connection to humans. But Sahara has recurring visions of riding astride on magnificent animals that run like the wind. With the help of Evan, a young herder from the Gardener’s Camp, Sahara discovers a crumbling book containing pictures of humans riding horses and learns her visions are real. Confronting a group of hunters led by hot-headed Dojo, Sahara rescues a wounded horse, but the animal escapes before it can be tamed.
Sahara is labeled a foolish dreamer and almost gives up her quest. Following horse tracks into a remote ravine, she finds wild dogs attacking a dying mare, and must drive them off in order to save the foal. Now she must not only attempt to raise it, but finally convince her clan of the ancient bond between horses and humans.

THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES is a speculative fiction novel, but is not a fantasy. I tried hard to make the horse details as real as possible. It was inspired by a college research project on women and their obsession with horses, as well as the changing status of horses today as we become a more urban society.

This book is a labor of love and very dear to my heart, and I am so excited! Just wanted to share the news. Also, The Girl Who Remembered Horses has a Facebook Page already 
If you want to stop by and "like" it, you'll get all the newest details, including cover art, which I haven't even seen yet!

Question - How many of you have an e-reader? You'll get first peek at this book!