Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gunner Comes Home

by Laura Crum

The photo above shows my 31 year old horse, Gunner, (and me) fourteen years ago. Gunner was 17 and had been retired from competition for a few years at the time the photo was taken, but I still used him for light riding. As you can see, he was happy to pick up the lope in my riding ring, for the local newspaper’s photographer. I’ve used this as the author photo on a couple of my books, and yes, before anybody else says it, I looked a lot better 14 years ago, pre-baby and minus twenty pounds.

Gunner and I have had a very long partnership. I bought him as a three-year old- with ninety days of riding, and did the rest of his training myself. We competed at the Snaffle Bit Futurity and placed in the ladies division and the non-pro, and then I went on to show Gunner as a cutting horse until he was eight, winning a few buckles and year end awards. When Gunner was nine I taught him to be a team roping head horse and competed on him at team roping until he was fourteen, when I retired him from competition due to various arthritic complaints. I used him for light riding until he was about twenty, when I turned him out to pasture. He’s stayed comfortably sound for eleven good years in the pasture, and I was happy to see him running around on the green grass with his equine buddies. In the last few years he lived in a separate field, next to another old horse, so that both of them could be fed a supplemental ration of equine senior feed that worked for each individual.

I brought Gunner home from the pasture on Thanksgiving Day. We had euthanised his longtime companion, ET, previously (see my earlier post “Sad”), and I didn’t want Gunner standing alone in the winter storms, even with his blanket on. Besides, I missed him. I kept him turned out in this pasture five miles from my place for all these many years because I thought it was best for him. In the last few years, either Wally or I drove out there every day to supplement Gunner and ET with the equine senior feed they needed to thrive. Eventually ET was not thriving, even on free choice equine senior and lush pasture, so we made the choice to euthanise him. And this made me come to the decision that it was time to bring Gunner home.

There were a lot of factors involved here. For one thing there is no shelter, other than trees, in the pasture where we’ve been keeping these horses. In our climate this works fine for healthy horses in good flesh, and the two horses we still have turned out there (Danny and Gray Dog), who are in their teens, look just fine. But horses in their twenties and thirties usually need a little more help, and last winter I was out there all the time blanketing Gunner and ET for winter storms and taking their blankets off when it was sunny. It will be a lot easier for me to take good care of Gunner here where he has a shed to stand in when it rains, and I can monitor his condition closely and feed him exactly what he needs.

Another factor is company. I had to keep Gunner and ET in separate small fields in order that each got enough equine senior feed to thrive, but they were right alongside each other and could see each other at all times. The other horses, in the bigger pasture, are frequently out of sight of the small fields. I felt that my poor old horse would feel lonely and left behind by the herd if I kept him alone like that. Here at home he has horses all around him, his corral is big enough to run around (and he does) and I have already noticed that his demeanor seems happier.

And then, I missed having him with me. Letting ET and Rebby go was hard, and really woke me up and brought home to me that if I wanted to spend time with my special old friend, I needed to do it now. And I honestly think that Gunner has already shown that he appreciates the attention and interaction with his human friends, as well as his equine friends. He seems very engaged and interested in everything going on around him, and there is plenty to keep him interested.

Besides the fact that I feed three times a day, we are often down in the barnyard just to hang out with the horses, even if we aren’t catching the riding horses to do something with them. And I often turn the horses out to graze on my property. And, to be honest, my son and I spend time just rubbing on the horses and feeding them cookies. I know, I know, I never used to feed treats as a practice, and I still don’t believe in this as a training aid, nor would I do this with young horses who need to learn what right behavior is, but my kid so wanted to give his loved horses cookies that I caved. (My karma ran over my dogma, you could say.) I simply taught the (all older, well-broke) horses to take the treats politely and now we have a little cookie feeding routine. Gunner loves it.

I don’t have a current photo of Gunner in the computer (as a matter of fact I haven’t been able to download or upload—I never know which it is—any recent photos because my computer is so spazzy I’m afraid that something as traumatic as photos might give it a knock-out punch, so the most recent photos that I can post are from this summer), and it is impossible to get a very flattering shot any more. Gunner is sway backed and peaked rumped, and his face looks old. But there are no ribs or hipbones to be seen or felt, and he has a decent amount of fat on the crest of his neck and over his whole body. He’s in pretty good flesh and his always very fuzzy winter coat is thick and shiny. He’s sound and his appetite is good. I’ve been happy to see that he moves around very freely in his big corral and throws in a buck when he feels like it. Gunner is doing OK. And he’s getting lots of love around here.

Below you see my son snuggling with Sunny in our barnyard—and Gunner is getting his fair share of such attention, too. I think he’s happy that he’s home.

If any of you have some tips or advice about how you keep your very senior equine citizens happy, healthy and engaged with life, I would love to hear them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's a Maybe: The Retired Racehorse Book

Sometimes I think that my greatest talent is coming up with awesome ideas and then sticking them on the back-burner until I have "time." (As if "time" were something I was ever going to possess, to clench in my fist, to cackle a villainous laugh over. I've got you at last, Time! Probably not.)

Stuck on my backburner I have various art projects (what to do with that charming little Sam Savitt paperback before it decays entirely? Something amazing. I'll look it up later), an entire manuscript imaginatively named The Eventing Novel (I'll completely rewrite that eventually), and, most annoyingly of all, the Retired Racehorse book.

I've been planning the Retired Racehorse book since the day I started Retired Racehorse Blog. You might know it, a little WordPress project that made me moderately Internet Famous amongst a small proportion of Thoroughbred enthusiasts and got me a lot of Facebook friends. (Hi Facebook friends! xo) I meant to just keep training Off-Track Thoroughbreds and blog about their training as I went, and eventually put it all into a lovely retraining manual, since it can be difficult to consult a blog before you go out to ride.

But it spun all out of proportion and somehow I ended up a writer in New York City. I attribute this development directly to Retired Racehorse Blog, and I still want to write the book, out of appreciation, at the very least! The blog deserves its book!

The problem, of course, is that I'm not training horses anymore, and I can't just make up fixes for problems. I don't have a set curriculum for a horse. I'm not Natalie Keller Reinert Horsemanship MasterClass, Inc. My blog posts were mentally composed as I was riding, thinking through the problems that the horse was presenting me as I tried to trace them to their roots in his early training as a racehorse.

And then yesterday I was in the basement of the Strand Bookstore, which is one of my favorite places to be (certainly it's my favorite basement) and I found a gorgeous little vintage hardcover of Ahlerich: The Making of a Dressage World Champion, by Reiner Klimke. It's basically a detailed—incredibly detailed—training diary of one of the most wonderful dressage teams we've ever seen. Just wonderful.

I didn't buy it, because it was $40 and my price limit for books is closer to $1.

But it did remind me that I had a perfectly good diary of training a retired racehorse from racetrack to amateur eventer in five months, and I really ought to pull the Retired Racehorse Book off that back-burner.

Except I still really don't have time.

And then today I saw a WordPress plug-in called Anthologize, which is supposed to make your blog into a book automagically, and I thought, this is the sign! I'll do it today! 

But then I read the instructions, and it doesn't work on hosted blogs. (i.e. dot wordpress dot com blogs, aka free blogs.)

So I pulled out my hair for a few minutes (it's really long and I can spare a few strands) and then took a deep breath. I'll still do the Retired Racehorse Book. Just not at this exact moment. When I have time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Trials of Horsekeeping at Home--Stall-Cleaning

I've had Gailey at home since September. I've kept her at home before, but it's been years. So far it's not been much of an inconvenience. Of course, my husband and me can't take off for weekend trips at the drop of a hat like we once did. Still, I'm fine with that. Think of the money we save.

When Gailey lived at home previously, she was the tidiest horse a person could ask for. She never made a mess in her stall unless it was raining hard enough to launch an ark. If nature came calling while she was eating hay in her stall, her head would shoot up and she'd be out the door, heading for the same corner of the paddock each time to her personal outhouse.

After years of being boarded in a stall with no attached paddock, she's picked up some annoying habits. The most annoying one of all is that she's turned into a pig. I mean a full-blown P I G. I'll spare you the gory details. She leaves messes all over her stall, including on top of her fresh hay and in her water bucket, even in her feed bucket.

In the past, if I stripped the stall of shavings down to the rubber mats, she'd stop making a mess because she didn't like laying down in it. Not so this time, she didn't seem to care. She'd turned into an equine pig pen.

I was at my wit's end and resigned to my fate which included cleaning her stall two to three times a day. On Thanksgiving I threw a bale of shavings in the stall, figuring that she'd completely soil it within hours.

Well, go figure, it's now three days later, and her stall is pristine. She's using the outside facilities, rather than the stall. I haven't had to clean it three times a day or even once a day. I'm not sure my reprieve will last, but I'm enjoying it while I can, however long that might be.

In the meantime, I'm off to the feed store for more shavings.

Friday, November 25, 2011

I'm a Collector

So, I know I haven't been here for awhile as things in my world have been a bit topsy turvy. I am grateful that I have the support of this group and that they have been so patient with me. I will be back from now on every other Friday.

Now on to my world of horses. There are 9 of them. Yes--9. I can only refer to myself as The Collector. Not sure what that says about me, but am pretty sure it does say something. At least they aren't stud colts (one is but he will be gelded). I don't know if any of you have watched Buck (the movie), if you haven't you should. We watched it last night while in the after math of turkey dinner in a comatose sort of state. I loved it but there was this woman who owned 18 stud colts! I'm like, who the hell does that? Buck asked the same thing. I won't spoil the movie for you, but if you watch this I am sure you will find yourself angry with the stud colt collector. She definitely got a reaction from my family.

My collection consists of 3 almost 3 year old fillies--Mia, Bronte, and Kaia, 1 sweet middle aged mare who sadly is a Wobbler (she happily resides at Terrie's with her many boyfriends, 2 old quarter horses Hobbit and Mouse (who I have renamed Pig due to the fact that he is consistently covered in mud and can not seem to keep himself or a blanket clean). Hobbit and Mouse are like the odd couple. Hobbit has a corner in his corral that is his bathroom. He does not go anywhere else but in that corner. Not Mouse (I mean Pig). I now have Will who is the horse that I am riding these days. Will has some anxiety issues and seems to think he owns all of the fillies, however, Hobbit strongly disagrees with Will. Hobbit claims he is King of the Barn. I tend to agree with him. Any horse who is as neat and clean as he is gets the King vote from me.

Finally there is Little Cruise. His registered name is High Octane Formula (Terrie named him). He is an Appendix colt that my cousin has at her place and that yes I agreed to take him because he is soooo pretty and well behaved and most likely my next riding horse--and oh yes, also because I am crazy.

Then last but not least we have the super pony Mr. Monty. Monty is my daughter's pony and he is the most fabulous pony in the world. This pony and the kid are quite a pair! He fuels her Olympic dreams and teaches her a great deal along with Aunt Terrie.

My mother and my husband keep asking me which ones I plan to sell. Ummm...... Sell a horse? I just sort of smile and say, "I don't know. Maybe the grey one or possibly the bay one." They both shake their heads and probably realize that I am not selling anyone!

Am I crazy? Probably, but they make me happy and all I can say that throughout all of the crazy that truly exists in my world it's those silly 9 horses that keep me grounded.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Good to be back.


The Girls and me

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Are you superstitious? I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly superstitious person. I don’t have a meltdown if I come face to face with a black cat, or a crow, or if I have to do something important on the 13th day of the month. I’d classify myself as “superstitiously aware”. For instance, I wouldn’t purposely tempt fate by walking under a ladder if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, and maybe I’d experience a nanosecond of doubt and hesitation should I rope myself into doing something major on a Friday the 13th. But I never throw salt over my shoulder, and can't recall spitting on my chest three times. Nor do I hang garlic to ward off vampires, not because I’m particularly impressed by Robert Pattinson (although I do think that Damien in “The Vampire Diaries” is rather yummy!), but simply because I’d rather cook with it.

How about the old adage of bad things happening in series? Do you believe in that? As far as I know, there’s no scientific evidence of crap thwarting people in multiples of three, but when I look around or think back to my own experiences, it sure seems to be the case. For instance, for the past few weeks I’ve definitely been experiencing a bout of turbulence. During the first week of November, in the space of four days, I moved Qrac, my Lusitano stallion, to two new stables, each diametrically opposed to my house (for all the woeful details about the first stable moved him to, see my last blog, “The Giant Pickle”). I’m happy to report that,after almost three weeks in his brand new stable, Qrac is doing better than ever and that I’m loving the fabulous indoor arena, loving having my trainer, Marie-Valentine, come twice a week, loving interacting with people in a friendly atmosphere, loving the compliments constantly being sprinkled on my horse! I’m not particularly enamored with the 45 minute trek out there, but the facilities make it worth it. Besides, Michael Buble’s new album has been injecting the journey with plenty of Christmas cheer.

However, last Friday, after the “law of series” blasted me with two major bummers in the space of two hours, even Michael Buble couldn’t cheer me up. Bummer number one (which really counts as bummer number two in the proverbial sequence of three, seeing as the original bummer was finding myself in a damp and dismal riding stables) hit around 11.45, when I handed my orthopedic surgeon three freshly developed x-rays of my right ankle. He wrinkled his nose. I knew it wasn’t good.

My right ankle has been bothering me for about two years now. The pain probably stems from a double fracture I sustained just over a decade ago, following which my surgeon had to insert titanium rods into my lower leg, with pins placed just below my knee, as well as into the inside of my ankle. The rods and pins were removed about twelve months later and all was well until I fell down the stairs carrying the laundry basket three years ago and tore the ligaments in the same ankle. I rested my foot, did physiotherapy, but from then on my ankle never has felt completely right. In the past year, it’s gradually got worse, to the point where I’m not comfortable walking anywhere in anything other than good trainers, or sturdy hiking boots. Heels? Forget it! And as much as I love my Ugg boots, I don’t feel like they offer enough support. I’ve been meaning to go and have an x-ray since the spring, but there have always been far more important or pleasant things to do, and the pain has been more or less bearable. On bad days I found different ways of putting my foot down when I walked, and I carried on with my life, hoping to wake up one day all shiny and new. Well, it didn’t happen. Lately, night after night, I’ve been stinking out the bedroom, slathering my ankle in anti-inflammatory gel, until last week I finally caved and made an appointment for an x-ray at the hospital. I thought the x-rays would reveal a little arthritis which could be resolved by some cortisone infiltrations.

Turns out I have a massive cyst on the outside of my ankle which needs to be surgically removed. Not only does it need to be removed, the ankle needs refurbishing with good bone, which my surgeon will probably take from my hip. Furthermore, to ensure the pain I’m experiencing isn’t also linked to ligament issues, my surgeon has scheduled an MRI this Friday morning. I’ve a sneaky feeling my ligaments might be a bit dodgy, in which case the operation will be more complicated. Either way, according to my surgeon, I’ll be out of equestrian action for between four and six weeks, potentially more, which totally sucks.

But this wasn’t the worst news I received last Friday. After I left the hospital, I headed up to my old stables, where my now-retired and mega-beloved Kwintus lives in peace and happiness with his also retired best-friend-forever, Coconut. Coconut belongs to S., who owns the stables and who promised me when I first moved Kwintus to her place almost two years ago that, once retired, my horse would be able to spend the rest of his life there. I retired Kwint last autumn, when the arthritis in his 5th and 6th vertebra really started bothering him. He’s spent most of the year out in his field, super-glued to Coconut. Separate them for a couple of minutes for one reason or another and they holler their heads off. They’re in love.

Last Friday, at approximately 12.30, S. calmly finished eating a banana, looked at me across her kitchen table and told me I had to find another home for Kwintus.

My stomach filled with ice water. I couldn’t believe my ears. Why? For what reason? It’s not as though she has no space for him; most of her stables are empty, Kwintus is the only horse on the premises who doesn’t belong to her. Recently she’d been complaining about everyone having left because she hadn’t been able to get her indoor arena built before the winter, and, consequently, of no longer having any income. I still paid her pretty good money every month for Kwint’s retirement. Sure, it wasn’t as much as I used to pay her for Qrac, but considering Kwint spent from mid-May to the end of October living in the field, his upkeep hasn’t exactly been labor intensive.

With tears in my eyes, I asked her why she was kicking him out. Her answer? “It doesn’t fit the concept”.

Frankly, I could pick holes the size of the Grand Canyon in her aforementioned “concept” but have too much integrity to do so on a public blog.

I offered her more money. With tears in my eyes, I begged her not to separate Kwint and Coconut. I asked her to imagine what it would to them. “They’re only horses,” she replied. “They’ll get over it.” Yes, I suppose they will, but it seems so pointless, so unnecessary. But it’s her place, and it’s her decision, and there’s nothing I can do to change her mind, so I went home and immediately started making phone calls to try to find other possibilities for Kwintus.

Later this morning I’ll be driving to a village outside the town of Cluny, in Burgundy, to look at a place that comes highly recommended by Maya, an old friend of mine who owns a tack shop close to where I live. Maya recently retired her daughter’s horse there, has known the lady who runs the place for many years, and tells me wonderful things about it. Burgundy is much further away than I’d like, but it’s difficult to find nice places to retire horses in my area. I live in a beautiful part of the world, in the countryside just outside Geneva, Switzerland, but we’re stuck in a narrow stretch between the lake and the mountains and, consequently, land is exorbitant, which makes keeping horses exorbitant, too. There is one very nice place near me that caters to retired horses, but not only is it full, it’s also crazy expensive, costing almost as much per month as I pay for Qrac. Most local places seem to be small, sad, depressing dumps, and after everything Kwintus has given, whether it’s to me, to my daughter Olivia, or to his previous owners, he deserves so much better.

If I like the place in Burgundy, I’ll be hitching up my trailer and hauling him there this weekend. Just writing about separating him from Coconut makes my eyes tear up, so I dread to think of how I’ll be feeling as we drive away on Saturday or Sunday morning. I keep telling myself that he’ll soon make friends with other horses, and live a wonderful life in acres and acres of rolling fields in another
beautiful part of the world. If he goes there, Kwint will be just over two hours away, a distance that rules out weekly visits, but seeing as the facilities also offer guest accommodation (it’s a registered “chambre d’hôtes”, a small rural hotel), it would be nice to visit him once in a while at weekends, particularly in the warmer months. Of course, I really wish I didn’t have to uproot to my wonderful old horse, but crap happens, people disappoint, and what choice do we have other than to make the best out of bad situations?

I’m really hoping this place in Burgundy will be perfect for Kwintus, that I’ll get a good feeling from the lady who runs it, and that I’ll be able to trust her to take good care of Kwintus during his golden years. His welfare is the only “concept” that matters to me, to the point where I’m actually more upset about separating him from Coconut than I am about needing surgery on my messed-up ankle. Hopefully, finding Kwintus a nice new home will end this current cycle of gloom, and I’ll be able to start New Year with a lighter heart.

What about you? Have you had any runs of bad luck recently? And, more importantly, what is your experience with uprooting retired horses?


by Laura Crum

I’m very sad today. My horse partner made the decision yesterday (with my agreement) to put down our two pasture pets who have been going downhill for the past year. ET was 31 and Rebby was 27. Despite our best efforts at feed and care these two would not maintain their weight—ET could not see or hear much any more. With the winter storms coming and both Wally and I completely maxed out on the expense and time involved in trying to keep these horses in borderline OK shape, he finally decided it was time. We both felt terrible, but I couldn’t really argue with him. He very kindly agreed to hold them while they were euthanised—I don’t think I could have done it. I took care of these horses for over ten years and tried very hard to give them a good quality of life in the pasture. Neither was ever my personal horse, but I did train Reb (who belonged to Wally). It is so hard to draw an arbitrary line like this. Neither horse had an acute failure going on. They were just skinny old horses who were slowly failing, despite the fact that we were putting out about $500 a month in supplemental feed to try to help them. ET had a constant mildly snotty nose. Both horses looked pretty rough. Nothing was going to get any better. I don't think we were wrong. It's just very sad.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Staying true to the goal.

After spending my last several blogs gushing (and hopefully not boring everyone) about my trip to Africa I decided to shift back to my seemingly endless journey as a writer. After reading Alison's great post about the book fair and the challenges of promoting her book, I found myself re-energized in my quest to publish my first full length novel.

In addition to teaching and training horses full time, as well as my own competitive career in Dressage, I have spent much of my writing career producing non-fiction articles (usually horse-related) and promotional materials for other companies. It has done a good job of paying the bills but distracts from my own personal quest to publish a novel. In past blogs I have solicited and received great advice on how to be more disciplined in the time I measure out to write "my stuff" and input on keeping the plot organized when having to take breaks from writing in order to make a living.

Like it seems for all of us, life and finding quiet time to write is an ongoing juggling act. I get that, but for me it also comes down to setting the right priorities. I am very guilty of being too available to my clients some times and not defining clear enough boundaries. I tend to spin my wheels trying to be all things to everyone rather than simply saying no once in a while. Well, today I started a new trend. I turned off my phone, locked my doors, turned on my head phones and wrote for 3 hours nearly uninterrupted; if you don't count the cat trying to sleep on my computer keys a couple of times. And I feel great for it!!!! For a long while now I have felt the need to make changes in my perspective. Maybe it is menopausal 50's or maybe just me finally growing up, but I have been feeling a sense or urgency to do the things, like Africa, and accomplish the goals, like my book and my new horse, that have been a part of my consciousness for so long.

Well I am turning the page (pun intended). I am not abandoning my job as a teacher and trainer, (I love it too much), and I am not going to completely stop my non-fiction pursuits, (bills have to get paid), but I am going to scale back significantly. Right or wrong, I put much of my personal life experiences and characters in my real life into my writing. One of my horse characters is very similar to a "problem-child colt" I had in training a few years ago and the adolescent girl in the story has a little bit of every teenage girl I have taught over the years. So becoming a hermit to just write would not work for me anyway and I think I would go a little stir crazy.

I have though, set out a schedule for myself of milestones I want to reach over the next 6 months. Do you think this is a good idea? What works for all of you to keep yourself on some sort of a deadline? I have always worked best under pressure which is really just a way of enabling my tendency to procrastinate. So, I am open to any and all suggestions.

On a separate note, this past weekend I took a big step toward to another big goal on my "bucket list" of sorts - compete at the FEI level in Dressage. Well Uiver, my new horse, and I competed Prix St. George (the first rung of FEI) this past weekend. We, or I should say I, made mistakes on my tempi changes, but we were fairly competitive in a big open class. I will have photos and more details on my next blog. In the meantime any words of advice to keep me on my schedule would be greatly appreciated!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Beyond Writing

I meet many writers who have a story in their heart that they are dying to publish. Most have written the novel, short story or article, queried, sent them out, been rejected . . . You get the picture. Publishing is a tough business if you want to break in to the big name markets, which is why most writers I meet are also venturing into eBooks, small press and self-publishing. However, no matter how your book is published or in what format, you--the author--will need to promote it-unless you are J.K.Rowling. (My daughter informed me that every 30 seconds someone opens a Harry Potter book.) This is the work that goes beyond writing, and for me, it can take up much of my time and effort.

Last week I drove to Kentucky for five days of book promotion. I did two school visits, spoke at The National Middle School conference, and spoke and signed books at the Kentucky Book Fair. Before leaving, I filled book orders, answered fifty student emails (from the eager sixth grade readers I would be visiting)and planned five different talks on top of finishing up teaching responsibilities, packing and getting the 'house' and animals settled so my husband's caretaking job would be easy.

The trip was a success. I didn't get lost, technology worked, books were sold and signed, and students were lots of fun. One school visit was especially rewarding: the sixth graders had read Gabriel's Horses in their class.
They'd written reviews, emailed me, and were totally engaged with the book. They were excited to meet a real author, and I was peppered with questions about Gabriel's story as well as the writing process. The best thing about school visits is getting kids who do not usually go to the library, a book fair or bookstore pumped about reading and writing, and it's a chance for me to interact with real readers.

Because I teach, I keep my away-from-home time to a minimum. Most serious authors spend days and weeks traveling to school visits, book fairs and conferences. Loretta Ellsworth, my tablemate at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort and author of YA (her newest book is Unforgettable, a great teen read)travels over a week every month, but she knows authors who travel to promote half the year. I was exhausted after five days, and I am embarrassed to say that I have not caught up at home and school--I still have books and bags in the trunk of my car! Of course, one of the things that is fun about book fairs is schmoozing with other authors. Loretta and I shared online promotional tips and discussed what worked and didn't work. Both of us agreed that no matter how much and how hard we promote, there is no guarantee that a book will be a success.

Promotion is tough and it's hard to tell what works to sell books. But watching a young reader's eyes light up when she saw one of my American Girl books or hearing a reluctant reader tell me he couldn't put Gabriel's Horses down were huge rewards.

What works for you? What questions do you have about promoting? I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Cowboy Way

by Laura Crum

How do we choose the background/setting of our novels? I was asked that question the other day, in the course of a class I’m teaching at the local community college about “How to Write and Publish a Mystery.” Of course, I can’t answer how other authors make their choice. But for me, it was easy. I wanted to write about horses, specifically western horses, because horses have been my life. Horses and the cowboy way.

I was raised (in the horse biz, anyway) by a bunch of team roping cowboys, and their particular mindset really shaped me. I notice this quite a bit when I interact with folks that don’t come from that world. There often seems to be a sort of disconnect between us. I was thinking about this the other day and wondering why, and I had a light bulb moment. Its all about the cowboy way.

The cowboy way isn’t something you can learn from a book. Its something you have to live. Its easy to say that its about horses and cattle, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But it really amounts to a lot more than that.

Defining the cowboy way isn’t easy, but I’ll try. It has to do with being willing to get the job done, not whining about cold fingers or mud or dust or heat (or all the rest of the weather that Mother Nature can throw at you). It has to do with a sort of matter of fact physical courage and team spirit as well as an ability to read livestock accurately. Cowboys aren’t usually too chatty (until they’ve had a drink) and they are often pretty blunt. They have both a sense of pride and a sense of respect. They stand out when you put them somewhere in the modern world. They draw the eye. They don’t look much like suburban office workers, even if they choose to wear chinos and T-shirts and sneakers. There is an air of dignity about them.

In truth, a description like this doesn’t make much sense, which is why I spent a good deal of time in my first five novels trying to portray the cowboy way. The old “show not tell” approach. My desire to paint a portrait of the cowboy life as I have known it is a lot of what motivated me to write my mystery novels in the first place.

You might wonder what mysteries have to do with cowboys, and other than the fact that mysteries can be set in pretty much any venue, the answer is quite simple. My favorite mystery author was Dick Francis—not least because of the authentic horse lore that was so often woven into his stories. His jump jockies resembled, in many ways, the cowboys I grew up with and worked with and for-- practical, tough, understated guys who could both take a hit and loved working with horses. When I was thirty years old, I decided to try to write a mystery novel based on my background in the horse biz, in flagrant imitation of Dick Francis (who by the way corresponded with me for years—I sent him my books and he never failed to write back with both praise and helpful suggestions).

Having grown up with the cowboy way, I tend to admire folks like this. I’m also disconcerted by those who wear pristine white sneakers that are several years old. Sneakers that have never stepped on anything dirtier than a sidewalk. These folks are dismayed at the thought of walking through horse poop, or God forbid, cow poop, and the notion of wading through such muck to toss some alfalfa hay at the livestock gives them palpitations. Let alone the idea of climbing aboard a horse that might want to buck you off. They can’t imagine why anybody would want to do that.

Since all of my shoes probably have a little dried dung of some sort adhering to them somewhere, and I wade through the dust and/or mud every single day to feed my horses (not to mention I’ve been bucked off more than once in my life), I am in a pretty different space, and my conversations with these folks tend to veer off into mild incomprehension. (I think all you fellow horse people, cowboy oriented or not, will understand this.) As in sitting in a room that is perhaps mildly cool, the well dressed lady to the left of me fusses endlessly about the need to turn the heater up, and bundles herself up in her fancy coat and scarf. She looks at me, wearing a light (and very unfancy) sweater and asks, “Aren’t you cold?”

I think about it. I just can’t get my mind around the idea that she thinks this ever so slightly cool room is something to bother about. “Not really,” I say, “it was a lot colder when I was feeding the horses this morning in the rain and wind.” And the thought that goes through my mind is that she needs to try gathering cattle on a blustery day if she wants to know what uncomfortably cold feels like.

I realize that the well dressed ladies of the world probably think I look quite rough and uncouth and they no doubt imagine that I am envious of them, with their high heels, manicured finger nails, shiny little sports cars…etc. But nothing could be farther than the truth. That tidy suburban world holds no allure for me. I like my rough and messy life, full of animals and plants.

As a homeschooling mom, I’ve made many choices concerning what I want my son to learn. I want him to learn to read and write and do math, of course. I want him to learn how the world works. I want him to be able to get along with people…and understand the natural world. I want him to be kind. And I’ve thought a lot about how best to teach him these things.

Currently my son and I go twice a week to a practice roping at my uncle’s small ranch. Here we help gather the cattle out of the pasture and drive them through the chutes. We haze and chase cattle and help the ropers—a group of men ranging from 30 years old to 82. I’ve known these men all my life and used to rope with them, until I gave it up when I got pregnant in my 40’s. But they still treat me like part of the gang.

I don’t agree with them about everything—in fact I disagree with them about lots of things—I would not even bother to discuss politics with them, as we have rather opposite points of view. But I want my son to learn something these men can teach, and most kids don’t get a chance to learn it. To put it simply, I don’t want my son to learn pushy, unkind kid manners from the local suburban soccer team as they play on artificial turf; I want him to learn to be a man among other men. Men who know how to handle horses and cattle, who are in touch with the natural world.

I watch as my boy meets the 82 year old cowboy’s eyes and greets him politely and confidently, “Hey, Burt, how are you?” (And you should see trim, still athletic Burt rope a steer—at 82.) I watch as my child gathers the cattle as part of the team of adults, riding across the big meadow in the sunshine. I watch as he answers promptly, “Yep, I’m ready,” when asked if he’d chase a steer down to the pen for the men. And then he gets the job done. I watch him ride his horse effectively and get a friendly word of praise from 30 year old Mark, who is a handy horse trainer. I watch my kid smile quietly and say “thank you.” My son is learning the cowboy way.

And I believe I am giving him a gift.

Below you see us headed out to gather the cattle. My son, on his horse, Henry, is following 79 year old Wally, riding Twister.

And here is my kid bringing the cattle up the alley on Henry. Next to him on the black horse is our friend Mark, riding Coal. Sorry the photos are blurry. I have a hard time taking good photos from my horse’s back.

PS--My "new" computer has failed a couple of times lately, so if I don't respond to comments or email, or fail to post on my regular Weds schedule, that's why.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A New Book - and a Giveaway!

I'm pleased to announce the release of my newest book, THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES, which just came out from Musa Publishing. It's available right now as an e-Book, and hopefully next year in print. I am giving away two copies - with details at the bottom of this post!

Of all the manuscripts I’ve written, THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES is probably dearest to my heart. I’ve always been passionate about horses, and this is a story about the bond between horses and humans. But it’s also a story about culture and society, and how easily we could lose important knowledge from the past. Could the world really forget the ancient bond between humans and horses? Could one girl’s dreams make people remember? Here’s a summary of the story:

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 attempt to raise the young animal, finally convince her clan of the ancient bond between horses and humans, and learn the secret of her true identity.

I searched through my journals recently, and found the exact spot where I got the seed of inspiration for this story. It was six years ago, right after Hurricane Katrina, when I believe all of us were realizing how easily nature, or some other catastrophic event, could wipe out almost everything about the world as we know it. At the same time, as a horseperson, I was aware of the dire fate of many horses in this country. As fewer people seem to have the knowledge or economic situation to own a horse, many are being shipped to slaughter, and reports of horses actually being turned lose to fend for themselves are common. Also, a few years prior, I had done a college research project on Women and their Passion for Horses – and more specifically, where this passion comes from. All of these factors triggered a story in my head – What if people actually lost all of their knowledge about horses? What then?

After living with this story for so many years, (and a very long journey towards publication involving some near misses and almost happens) I was thrilled when Musa Publication picked it up for one of their earliest releases from their brand new YA imprint called Euterpe. It’s a story perfectly suited not only to young adults, but horse lovers everywhere, as well as those who enjoy adventure stories set in an imagined future. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES is available now, ready to gallop into your e-readers!
It's available for $4.99 at the Musa website (in formats for all e-readers) on, Smashwords, OmniLit, BookStrand, and it should be available on Barnes and Noble soon.

And now for the contest - If you'd like to win a copy of THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES - and I'm giving away two copies - simply leave a comment below to enter. It's great for readers from ages 9 to 99, and available in many formats. I can send you a PDF version to read on your computer, or PRC, mobi, or ePub if you have an e-reader.
Contest is open internationally, and I'll pick the winners on December 1, 2011.

And please check out the facebook page for THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES, where I also post lots of cool horse links:

 Good luck to all who enter! Hope you enjoy this great horse story set in the future!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thar be Whales--Three Times Blessed

I promised this post months ago, and ending up posting other items. While this doesn't have much to do with horses, I'm hoping you'll enjoy it just the same.

Orca Whales (also known as Killer Whales) have long resided in the Puget Sound area. Right now there are three resident pods of whales (a pod being a family and resident meaning they don't migrate elsewhere). Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling each year for various reasons, such as a decreasing food source and pollution.

As a one-time boater, my former husband and I made many trips to the San Juan Islands. Each time we were fortunate enough to see whales. Usually, we didn't look for them, they seemed to find us. Sometimes, we'd see huge groups of whale-watching and personal boats off in the distance searching for whales, while we'd be sitting in the middle of a large group of them as they cavorted and played around us.

This summer, my husband and I took a trip to the San Juans with some friends on their 43-foot Tollycraft yacht. Both my husband and the wife of our friend had never seen whales in the wild. We hoped to see them, but as responsible boaters we were also aware of the effects of crowds of people in boats harassing the whales and the current laws requiring that a boat stay 200-yards away from the whales if at all possible.

With that in mind, we came out of Mosquito Pass and headed out into the Straits of Juan De Fuca and down the side of San Juan Island. A whale-watching boat passed us and headed toward the middle of the Straits, while the other boats hugged the edge of the island. Since the whale-watching boat's behavior was a little unusual, we figured he knew something we didn't. We followed the whale-watching boat on the off-chance they knew where they were going. They did.

We saw the huge fins of whales in the distance and shut down our engines, binoculars ready, and well over 200 yards away. At first. The entire pod headed straight for us.

An hour later, we were still surrounded by whales. Every time we'd start our engines another group would swim by and we'd shut down again. After two hours of being entertained, we finally powered up and went on our way. A week later on our way home, we happened upon the whales again. Then a few weeks later on a family trip to the San Juans, we went on a whale-watching tour with my stepdaughter and her boyfriend. Again, more whales. All in all, it was a good year for whales. And an incredible year for those of us privileged to witness them.

I started to write a passage about how the whales affected me and all those fortunate to see them in person. Instead, I grabbed a passage from one of my first books, The Dance. In this passage, Rico is a cynical celebrity dragged along on a whale-watching expedition against his will. How Rico feels about these magnificent creatures, pretty much sums it up.

From The Dance

Rico slouched against the stainless steel rail, observing the whales with disinterest. Several Orcas of differing sizes circled the boat, moving closer with each pass. They frolicked in the water, giving Rico and Mariah a private show. Eva must have sent them—the guardians of his soul. Sure. What crap.
One of them leapt out of the water with amazing ease and grace, coming down so close to them that he backed up a step for fear of getting wet.
He had to admit that the huge black and white suckers were impressive.
In spite of his perceived boredom, he couldn’t take his eyes off them. Their lives seemed so simple and pure, his was so complicated and messy. They probably worried about catching their next salmon and keeping their babies safe. It’s not like he’d know. He wasn’t a whale researcher. How the heck did whales do it, anyway?
Another large Orca surfaced within twenty feet of the yacht. The animal’s fin appeared to be as tall as he was. The huge beast rolled on its side and stared straight at him with one large eye. Rico leaned over the rail for a closer look. He stared, mesmerized.
Nothing made sense, yet everything made sense. He felt disembodied, as if he observed everything from a remote position, as that large sea-going mammal worked its magic. It called to him, spoke to his soul. All those things that troubled him so deeply seemed so insignificant. In one profound moment, he realized that nothing mattered as much as moments like this.
Rico held his breath, afraid to break the spell. A delicate thread connected him to the world around him. He clung to it, like a dying man clings to his last breath. In a flash of insight, he understood the simple complexity of life and the delicate balance that held it together. Peace and contentment he’d never known filled him, surrounded him, cradled him. He floated free of his human burdens.
It was too much. The depth of his feelings frightened him. He looked away, breaking the contact. Shaken, he gripped the railing. The intensity of the experience seemed surreal.
The Orca launched out of the water with amazing dexterity and grace. It landed with a huge splash, sending salt water flying everywhere, including on his face. Rico swore the damn thing laughed as it dove under the boat and breached on the opposite side. He’d never forget the sound it made as it blew spray into the air. He swiped at the water on his face.
The large Orca gathered his pod together and swam away from them. Their fins glistened in the evening sun. Water lapped at the hull of the boat.
Rico wiped a tear from his face as whales cavorted in the distance.
Mariah dabbed at her eyes. “Oh, Rodrigo, Aren’t they awesome?”
Her unrestrained enthusiasm was contagious. “Yeah, they are, baby. Breathtakingly awesome.” This time he meant it.
They moved him in ways he couldn’t put in words. The whales had penetrated his cynical armor and left him humbled.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review

by Laura Crum (and son)

My son just finished reading Alison’s book “Risky Chance”, and very much enjoyed it. I read the book, too, as I do most every book my son reads, and thought it was perfect as a read-alone book for a child my son’s age (11) or as a book to read aloud to a younger child. The book is told from the horse’s point of view (a la Black Beauty), and Alison’s knowledge and love of horses shines through very clearly. The story was realistic enough to be believable, but the sad/difficult parts were redeemed (for a child) by the happy ending. I especially enjoyed the details about the southern California racing scene during the Depression. The illustrations were also very good. So here is my boy’s review/book report, in his own words.

Title: The Horse Diaries: Risky Chance

Author: Alison Hart

Time: 1935-1940

Subject: Risky Chance is about a Thoroughbred horse who is a racehorse. He was born to run. He meets friends, Marie and Lanny. But also enemies, Bugsy and a money sucking owner. This story has both dark and light in it. And in the end light wins. Risky Chance tells his story in his own words.

My rating: Four stars!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Memory of Pistol

by Laura Crum

It was right about this time, five years ago, that we lost Pistol. So today I’d like to tell his story here, in memory of a great horse.

Pistol was a horse I fell in love with at first sight. I guess all you fellow horseman know that feeling. You see the horse and think immediately, wow, I want to own that horse. I still remember the first time I saw Pistol, heeling a steer at a little roping arena near Salinas, and how he took my breath away. I turned to my friend Wally, who was looking for a heel horse. “You need to buy that horse,” I said.

Wally boards his horses with me, and though I could not afford another horse myself at that time, I knew that if Wally bought Pistol, Pistol would live with me. And I instantly wanted this in the worst way.

Pistol was a flashy horse, a bright sorrel/roan/paint with a flaxen mane and tail, over the knee white socks and a bald face. Well-made and solid looking, he definitely took your eye. But his looks were not the reason I fell in love. It was the way he moved. And the way he tried.

The intensity with which Pistol came around the corner, covered the steer, and slid to a stop was like nothing I’d ever seen in a heel horse before. Pistol was a cut above any rope horse in that arena—he shone very brightly in the crowd of jackpot ropers and their mounts. Pistol looked like he belonged in the big time.

Well, come to find out, he did. John, the roper who owned Pistol (he had just bought him from our local horse trader), was a friendly guy, and he told us the horse’s story. Or what he knew of it.

It seemed Pistol was raised on a ranch in (I kid you not) Death, Nevada, and the rancher who raised him was pretty proud of him. He didn’t intend to sell the horse, but two rodeo cowboys came through on a horse buying expedition and took a liking to Pistol. They offered a high price for the then four-year-old gelding, and also offered to buy four other colts—but only if the rancher would sell Pistol.

So Pistol went to live the rodeo life, and by all accounts he was a success. He was hauled by some rodeo greats and competed in some famous competitions. But by the time he was seven, he’d landed at the horse traders, why we never knew. It probably had something to do with being broke, which is a common condition with rodeo cowboys.

At any rate, the horse trader had made a deal to sell the horse to a wealthy team roper for a LOT of money, when the man decided to chase one last steer on the horse and test the gelding’s ability to run. He picked a hard runner and made the horse late and Pistol ran for all he was worth—and pulled up dead lame at the end.

The deal was off, and the horse trader, who wasn’t prone to spending money to fix trading horses, hauled Pistol to the veterinary hospital, figuring this horse was worth the repair bill. Apparently Pistol had a bone chip in his knee. Surgery was done to remove it, and… they operated on the wrong knee. Then, of course, they had to operate on the correct one. So now Pistol had two recovering knees.

The horse trader healed Pistol up and turned him out for the recommended six months, then legged him back up again. And promptly sold him to our friend John, with the very clear caveat: “If this horse comes up lame, its your problem. I told you the truth about him. He’s yours.”

Pistol appeared to be completely sound, but in the weeks to come we often noticed John flexing the horse’s knees and looking worried. Other ropers commented that John had been foolish to buy a horse who would almost surely break down. Me, I wasn’t discouraged. Pistol had the prettiest way of working that I’d ever seen. I kept telling Wally he needed to buy that horse.

To make a long story short, Wally kept offering to buy Pistol and eventually John agreed to sell him. I think John was influenced by worry that Pistol’s knees would bother him. Wally bought Pistol for the same very reasonable price that John had paid the horse trader, and he brought this great horse home to my place.

To say I was thrilled would be putting it mildly. All our friends told us we were nuts. But both Wally and I believed that Pistol, then eight years old, would be OK. And almost from the beginning, Wally and Pistol were a great match.

I couldn’t wait to ride and rope on Pistol, but I soon found out it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Because, to be quite frank, Pistol and I were not a great match. Oh, I could ride the horse, all right. Pistol was pretty broke and I had no trouble with him. But I could not rope on him.

The reason is something I never thought of until I was faced with it, but perhaps some of you will understand. Pistol was a pro—he had always been ridden by very effective ropers. He ran to the right spot and expected that his rider would throw the rope. As a beginning roper, I often hesitated, wanting to take an extra swing, and this didn’t work for Pistol. He simply moved on and ignored all signals to go back to the “rating” position. You could almost read his disdain. I gave you the shot, pal, was implicit in his body language. Pistol did not tolerate fools gladly.

This frustrated me, as determined as I was to rope on this great horse. But I soon found out I was not alone. Wally lent Pistol to others who were much more accomplished ropers than I was and they couldn’t rope on him either. One and all they said the same thing. Pistol did not listen to the rider in the course of a roping run, He simply did the job he knew to be right…and expected the roper to do his part.

This didn’t work for most jackpot team ropers (me included), who wanted to tell the horse what to do. But it worked for Wally, who simply wholeheartedly embraced the notion that Pistol would be where he needed to be. From the very beginning, Wally was able to win on Pistol.

I gradually acknowledged that I couldn’t rope on Pistol, and stuck to my horse, Gunner, even though Gunner was developing arthritic issues. Eventually Wally bought a rope horse named Flanigan, that I bought a half interest in. But I still loved and admired Pistol, and when we decided to take a pack trip in the mountains, I asked to ride him.

I knew Pistol had been raised on a ranch and ridden in the mountains a lot, and I figured that this was where I would really be able to enjoy him. Wrong again.

Because Pistol, true to form, had a very clear notion how to scramble up and down rocky passes and did not feel he needed direction from me. Thus when I tried to correct his choice of drop offs that I thought were too steep and aim him at the easier part of the trail, Pistol threw his head in the air and stumbled, bringing my heart into my throat.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Wally. “I thought he knew how to go in the mountains.”

“He does,” Wally said. “You’re getting in his way. Just leave him alone and let him pick the route.”

“But he wants to go the wrong way,” I said plaintively. “I just want to steer him where its easier.”

OK. Fast forward to the ride out. I absolutely refused to ride Pistol, and instead rode Flanigan, who had been raised in the Midwest. This was Flanigan’s first time in the mountains and he was obviously very unsure about the creek crossings and the rock. But I figured I could cope with this better than Pistol and my ongoing feud about which route to take.

Wally rode Pistol the whole way out on a completely loose rein. If Wally had had a book, he might have read it. That was how little he worried over, or even paid attention to, Pistol’s choice of route. Pistol never put a foot wrong. He did not throw his head. He was perfect.

Me, I rode Flanigan, directing him all the way through the rough spots. “No, don’t step on that rock, it looks wobbly, step on this one.” Flanigan allowed this, he even seemed to like it, changing his footfall in mid-stride at my direction. He crossed the creeks for me with little fuss despite his inexperience. I loved him. Wally and I had each found the horses we would ride on many, many pack trips through the mountains. Flanigan and Pistol carried both of us to some of the loveliest spots on earth, and though we crossed many, many steep and rocky passes to get there and traversed many a tricky trail, neither horse ever got so much as a scratch.

One of the strangest stories about Pistol occurred at the very last big roping we ever took him to. Pistol was suffering from ringbone and we knew his competitive days were almost over. We took him to the finals in Reno, guessing it would be his last major event. To our surprise, as we walked out to feed the horses early in the morning the last day we were there, we saw a man sitting with his back to Pistol’s stall door. At 6:00 AM. He got up when we approached and looked at us. “This is Pistol, isn’t it?”

Wally and I stared at this middle aged, well dressed cowboy and agreed that it was Pistol. The man introduced himself. He was the same rancher who had sold Pistol to those rodeo cowboys ten years ago. “And now, “ he said, “I’d like to buy him back. I always liked him.”

Wally and I looked at each other. Pistol was effectively crippled and running on bute. We planned to retire him soon after this roping. And here was a chance to get rid of him, get Wally’s money back, and hopefully sell him to a good home. But almost instantly we both shook our heads.

“You don’t want this horse,” Wally said. “He’s crippled.”

“We’re going to retire him,” I added.

The man said, “I have a nice pasture where I could put him.”

Again, we looked at each other. It was almost too good to be true. This guy wanted him to retire him?

But again, after a moment, Wally shook his head. “I owe this horse,” he said. “I want to keep him.”

“We’ll take good care of him,” I told the man.

The rancher looked at Pistol and patted his neck, nodded, shook Wally’s hand and walked off without a backward look.

Now it may sound strange, but the fact that I really couldn’t ride Pistol didn’t make me love him any less. I took care of this great horse for many, many years and considered it a gift. Wally roped on Pistol and rode him in the mountains until Pistol was fifteen years old, when we retired him. It wasn’t his knees that got him, either. But eventually he had ringbone in a front foot and navicular in a hind. The combination was too much and Pistol became a pasture pet.

We worked hard at keeping him comfortable in the pasture…at one point we nerved him. At other points we gave him bute every day. He had good periods that lasted years where he needed no pain med at all and ran and bucked and played and looked completely sound. We were able to give him ten happy years in the pasture.

Eventually Pistol grew so lame in one front foot that he began to have chronic abscesses in the other front foot. He was twenty-five years old. We had to give him painkillers morning and evening to keep him comfortable, and there was no hope he’d improve. The time had come.

Wally scheduled the date with the vet. The evening before it was to happen, I went out to give Pistol Banamine and some equine senior. After the meds were given and Pistol fell to eating eagerly, I stared at him sadly. Other than being lame, which was masked by all the drugs we were giving him, Pistol still looked great. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that he needed to be put down.

And then Pistol looked up from his feed and looked me in the eye. After a minute he left the feed bucket and walked purposefully to the middle of the field. He looked back at me and then lay down…flat on his side. He remained like that for maybe two minutes, not moving. Then he got up, looked at me again, walked back to his feed and resumed eating. He didn’t appear to be colicked, though I realize that is the likeliest explanation for his behavior.

However, I took it as a sign. Pistol was telling me that he was ready, and indeed, the next day he lay down calmly and quietly, showing no resistance to the drug, and died peacefully. That was five years ago. I still miss him.

Thank you, Pistol, for everything. You were a great horse and I am so grateful I had the privilege of knowing you.

The photo below shows my friend Sue Crocker heeling a steer on Pistol—I am heading on Flanigan. Like most of us, Sue found Pistol a bit intimidating to rope on, but she heeled two feet on this run and we placed in the roping.

Monday, November 7, 2011

More of Africa

In addition to the amazing wildlife we encountered in Kenya, the horses we rode made the trip just as memorable. Their resilience, willingness, bravery and toughness will stick with me always. In my previous two blogs I told you how we crossed the Mara river between groups of hippos and were charged by elephants. Through it all the horses were keenly vigilant but never panicked or fled. It was on our third and fourth day that the full scope of their toughness was revealed.

After spending 2 nights camping on the escarpment with breathtaking vistas from the top and long rides that included galloping with Zebras and Wildebeest, we descended the escarpment to traverse the long grass plains for Lion Camp. Our travel across the plains was filled with encounters with all measure of gazelle, antelope, giraffe, cape buffalo and wonderful herds of elephants that were thankfully not aggressive. It had rained hard the day before so the air and sky were so clear and bright and everything had that fresh, after the rain smell.

Our original plan was to cross the river a fourth time but when we reached the river it was significantly deeper and the current very swift. In addition the hippos were in abundance and were bobbing in water right in the part of the river with banks safe enough to cross. Tristan, our guide, started across to test the depth while the rest of were staring at the hippos in terror.

Within feet of leaving the bank, Tristan’s horse was up to his neck in the water. Tristan quickly turned back and we scrapped the river crossing much to everyone’s relief even though in meant adding 10 miles or better to our ride before reaching Lion Camp. Let’s see a longer ride and sore behind versus drowning in the Mara River – a no brainer.

Our long way around to the bridge crossing was uneventful and at times even a bit boring. The horses didn’t blink at walking across a concrete bridge with no rails over the rushing Mara River. I don’t think I could get my horses to walk up to that bridge, let alone cross it without freaking out. After the bridge the scenery once again turned beautiful with green grass dotted by trees and an abundance of wild life. After cautiously passing another herd of elephants, Tristan and his son Archie spotted lions in the rocks of a small hill.

As we rode within range I was amazed when Tristan and Archie casually rode within feet of the lions lying amidst the rocks. Tristan knew the lions well, they were several adolescent males and an young female that Tristan had watched grow up over the seasons of bringing Safaris to this camp. The young lions were keenly interested and seemed to be in a crouch position but neither Tristan, Archie or the horse’s seemed to be concerned. Archie and Tristan beckoned for the rest of us to ride closer so I timidly asked my horse Sage to step toward them. Sage moved forward obediently completely undaunted by the proximity of predators in front of her.

The fact that the lions were apparently not hungry, they were used to the presence of people and horses and that the horses showed no fear, we were able to stand safely admiring the lions for several minutes from only a few feet away. We encountered the same pride of lions 2 mornings after with the same disinterested reaction from both lion and horses. This experience cemented my respect for the horses especially considering we witnessed this same pride of lions takedownand devour an Impala the next evening.

The weather here in California has turned to winter far too soon for my taste and horses are acting silly and spunky to say the least. Halloween weekend I started to shave my competition horses like every year and within days the temperature went from 80 degree days to 50 degree days and night lows in the 40s. As a result, my new horse Uiver started to spook at phantom demons, horse eating leaves and jackets on railings that were near to eat him. This got me thinking. Why is it that my prissy show horses go bonkers and become paranoid at a simple change of season and the horses in Africa stoically and calmly deal with deluges of rain, wind, swimming rivers, extreme terrain and standing within feet of a lion. What is it that made the instincts of the same species so different on different continents.
The horses that we rode in Africa were a variety of breeds. Most were thoroughbreds, mostly from Argentina, and some had Arab and Irish draft breeding. My Thoroughbred can be stoic and sensible about some things but let a bird fly with 10 feet and he will come unglued. So what do you think? Is it survival instincts, de-sensitization, feed, training that make the horses so different.