Friday, June 29, 2012

Fun With Funder!

                                               by Laura Crum

            I have been reading horse blogs for four years now—ever since I was invited to join the newly created equestrianink blog (thank you, Jami!). During those years I have gotten to “know” many other bloggers. I read their posts, I comment on their blogs, they comment here. Sometimes we start emailing each other. And now that I am doing facebook (I know, I said I never would, but my publisher insisted I had to), we comment on each other’s facebook pages. Some have become real friends. And once in awhile I even get to meet that friend in real life. After years of online friendship, this is a pretty big thrill. (I’m pretty sure that most of you out there know what I mean—having has this experience yourselves.)
            One of the blogs I have followed for a long time is Funder’s “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”, listed on the sidebar. When I started reading it, Funder lived in Memphis. Over the years she moved to Ohio, then to Reno, Nevada. Her horse Dixie went from being a goofy, green critter to a good endurance mount (completing 50 mile events). Funder chronicled all this with humor and grace, always keeping it real. Her blog became one of my very favorites. And she became my personal “go to” consultant for questions about the cyberworld and cyberworld relationships, since I am old enough and inexperienced enough in this area to feel bewildered a lot of the time. Funder has been a wonderful internet friend. So I was thrilled when she moved to San Francisco last month and we set up a date to meet.
            Schedules and such being allowed for, Funder drove down from her home to visit me here (near Santa Cruz, on the Monterey Bay) this last Weds (trip takes a little less than two hours). And when she got out of the truck, it was as if I’d known her for years. It was pretty amazing. And a great lesson in what cyberfriendships can create.
            We toured my humble abode and Funder met my horses. Here we are trying rather unsuccessfully to get Sunny to pose with us.

            Funder and a sulky Sunny.

            We talked about going for a trail ride then and there, but my local trails are thick with poison oak right now. I’m not very susceptible to the rash, but Funder was pretty sure she is, based on past experience. We agreed she would haul Dixie down at a later date and we’d ride on the (poison oak free) beach. Then we headed out for Mexican food and margaritas by the bay. Though since we are responsible adults (!) and we had to drive, we only had one apiece.
After coffee and lots and lots of yakking about everything and anything, we marched to the edge of a convenient cliff for a good look at the Monterey Bay, which Funder had never seen. Here she is, looking out at the blue, blue Pacific. If you look real close, you can see my reflection in her sunglasses, taking the photo.

            It was an absolutely lovely, breathtaking day. Sunny, brilliant, 72 degrees. I was so happy that Funder got to see my part of the world at its very best. Here’s what it looked like.

            And after that Funder drove home along the coast in the spectacular sparkling weather. I’m sure she saw some more lovely things. And I was really tickled that we got to meet and hang out. Can’t wait until she brings Dixie down to ride with me.
            So, fun with Funder was had—I absolutely couldn’t resist that title(!) I’m so glad we got to meet.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Exactly one week ago, my left hand had a close encounter with some big, yellow teeth. Yes, my horse bit me. Hard.

I’d never been bitten by a horse before, and the fact that it was my own, much loved Qrac who bit me hurt my pride almost as much as my fingers. In his defence I know for a fact that he wasn’t himself when he bit me. But when I pulled up at the stables last Thursday morning, all I saw was a horse fed up with the swarming flies, getting a little cantankerous with the horse in the field next to him.

I’ve led Qrac both in and out of his field many times in the past and he’s always behaved like a perfect gentleman. He’s always waited quietly for me to open the field, and has never tugged away until I’ve unclipped his lead rope. He’s never danced around me with excitement whether on the way in or on the way out.

So when I noticed he seemed a little fed with being outside, I immediately headed down to bring him in.

I knew things weren’t going to go as smoothly as usual the second I clipped on his lead rope. My adrenaline surged as I realized that the horse in the field next to him was also a stallion.

Seriously, what possessed the people at the stables to put two stallions in adjacent fields? And why hadn’t the electric current been turned on? Our fields are back to back, there is no security space between two horses, so if they start being silly or aggressive, chances are they might really hurt each other. I’ve never been too comfortable with this set-up, but that’s the way it is, and Qrac has never had a hissy fit or a willy waving contest with any of the geldings who have always been put out next to him. In fact, he’s always totally ignored them, going about his grazing and minding his own business.

But last Thursday morning someone screwed up and put another stallion next to him. The other stallion is much older than Qrac. He only arrived a couple of weeks ago, so I didn’t recognize him as I walked over to Qrac’s field, slipped under the wire and walked towards my horse with the lead rope.

Qrac let me clip it on without any problem, but it was when I began to lead him towards the wire gate that he lost his cool. The other stallion began trotting up and down the fence with his tail in the air, taunting him. Suddenly, Qrac rushed past me, slamming into the wire, then rushing backwards again, dancing. I should have let go, but I was worried about him racing around with the rope trailing, stepping on it and injuring himself. So I spoke calmly but firmly to him, struggling to unclip the bottom wire and then the top wire, while at the same time trying to keep an eye on my horse and shoo away the other.

It didn’t work too well.

One of my friends saw me struggling and rushed down to help me.

“Open the top wire,” I said, beginning to panic as Qrac pranced and danced.

She undid the wires. I got Qrac through, thought we were home safe, but the other stallion went ballistic, squealing and racing alongside us. Qrac spun around, I yanked the rope-chain with my right hand, yelled at him, but he’d forgotten all about me. Meanwhile, the two men who take care of the horses had seen what was happening and raced towards us, but they were a fraction too late. Qrac stood on his hind legs, boxed the air, I lifted my left arm to…well, actually I don’t know what I wanted to do…The next thing I knew he’d snapped at me, catching my left hand between his teeth. He didn’t let go right away, either.

I was shocked and scared and furious and, once he let go, tried to wallop him with the loose end of the lead rope, but before I managed to do so, one of the men grabbed it from me, yanked it a couple times, and led my temporarily demented horse back to his stable. Nobody realized he’d bitten me; it all happened so fast.

Frankly, I got lucky; I knew right away what could have happened, but still don’t want to think about it.

Feeling a little faint, I walked back up the hill and headed straight to the tack room/cafeteria, put my hand under the cold tap and stood there for ages. Qrac had nabbed me underneath my thumb, sinking his teeth into the side of my hand, crunching the fleshy part of my palm. Thankfully, I wasn’t bleeding, but nevertheless the skin was slightly scratched. Most worrying, my hand was swelling quickly and was throbbing like mad. Gingerly, I patted it dry, then swathed it in a thick, gloppy arnica gel. My friend rummaged in her first aid box and found a pre-packed cold, wet bandage which she wrapped around my hand. By now it really hurt, and I was beginning to worry that something might be broken.

Just then, one of the other horse owners, a doctor, showed up, noticed my haphazard, funky bandage and came over to see whether he could help. He examined my hand, made me move my fingers this way and that, checking for fractures and told me I’d been lucky, and that as far as he could tell, nothing was broken. He suggested I take an anti-inflammatory twice a day for a couple of days, that I go home and ice it, take arnica if I believed in homeopathy (I do) and see my doctor for an anti-tetanus shot as soon as possible, just to be safe.

By the time I got home the bitten part of my hand was huge. It was also an unpleasant shade of yellow, kind of like an uncooked chicken drumstick that has gone off in the heat. I spent the rest of the day alternating between nursing my hand under a bag of frozen peas, and slathering it with arnica gel. The arnica gel definitely helped avoid multi-coloured bruising, as over the next few days my hand remained a sickly yellow, whereas, presumably for circulatory reasons, my wrist turned blue and purple. The following morning, the hot doctor in my village (seriously, he’s really hot!) gave me an anti-tetanus shot ensuring a tiny, elegant colour coordinated bruise at the top of my left arm.  

Of course, I was out of action riding-wise for a couple of days, which totally sucked as Qrac and I are working towards our first competition, scheduled for the 8th of July. Qrac had two days off, before being hacked out by another rider over the weekend. By Monday I felt a lot better, so scheduled a lesson with my trainer. My hand pinged a bit once in a while depending on how I moved my fingers, but overall I managed fine.

Has this incident affected the way I handle my horse? Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be taking him in and out of the field for a while; I’ll get one of the yard’s employees to do it. Chances are Qrac would be perfectly well behaved with me, but for the time being I don’t want any anxiety on my part unsettling him. He’s never showed any signs of aggression while being handled, he’s always been a very gentle, affectionate horse who loves being brushed and fussed over.

However, horses are horses. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re unpredictable and they can be dangerous. To complicate matters, Qrac is a stallion, and even though he’s been chemically gelded and is therefore far calmer than he was before he was vaccinated, rarely presenting any “stallion behaviour”, putting him in a field next to another stallion (or, heaven forbid, a mare!) is just asking for trouble. What happened last week taught me that because Qrac is a calm, gentle stallion, he’s even more unpredictable, since nobody expects him to get aggressive or “misbehave”. I’ll definitely be keeping all this in mind. And after this incident, I’ll also be far more motivated to have him surgically gelded this winter.

Have you ever been injured by a horse in a similar situation? What happened? How did it affect you?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing About Riding

                                               by Laura Crum

            I think most of the folks who read this blog ride. But I’m also willing to bet that most/many who read this blog also write. Perhaps you write a blog of your own. Perhaps you are steadily working on a novel you hope will be published some day. Perhaps you keep a training journal of your time with your horse. Perhaps you’re a published author in your own right. Maybe all of the above. But I’m guessing most people who read this blog write—and probably write about horses.
            Writing about riding is something I’ve done a lot of. My mystery series features an equine vet who owns horses and there are many riding scenes in the stories. Because the books must have an exciting climactic scene, there are a good many horseback chases in my novels, too. I have spent a fair amount of time dwelling on writing about riding.
            Trying to make the reader feel that he/she is there on the horse-- the rhythm of the gait, the mane blowing back, the wind in the face, the landscape flashing by, the trees against the sky and the scent of grass crushed under hooves. This is the stuff I work at.
            The truth is I began writing mysteries because I wanted to write about horses. I wanted to write about how it feels to ride. And I wanted to be published. I conceived the notion that I would write mysteries based on my career training and competing on western cowhorses of various sorts, just as Dick Francis had created his immensely popular mysteries founded on his career as a steeple chase jump jockey. And it worked. No, I did not become as popular as Dick Francis—not even close—but a publisher did buy my novels—twelve of them to date.
            And here I am going to deviate into self promotion and point out that if you are curious as to whether I was at all successful in writing good stories that convey what it feels like to ride western cowhorses (somewhat in the vein of Dick Francis), you can now buy my first eight mysteries for 99 cents each on Kindle. Here is the link. The order is Cutter, Hoofprints, Roughstock, Roped, Slickrock, Breakaway, Hayburner and Forged. The last four books are also on Kindle, but they are more expensive as they are controlled by my current publisher. But, in order, the last four in the series are Moonblind, Chasing Cans, Going Gone, and Barnstorming.
            Anyway, the topic of writing about horses and writing in general has been on my mind since I am currently teaching a class at our local community college called “How To Write and Publish a Mystery”. I taught this class many years ago (like twelve years ago—pre-kid), and was recently asked to teach it again. It was always a lot of fun, though, like most things I have done, it doesn’t pay all that well. To make a long story short, I agreed to teach this class again.
            And once again, the class has proven rewarding and fun to teach. I enjoy teaching very much and am constantly surprised at how much the adult students seem to take from the class. We are halfway through and it has been a great experience for me, and, I think, for all the class. The students have each produced a synopsis and an outline of their proposed mystery and are working on the first chapter, and all the concepts have been really interesting and well thought out.
            But here’s what intrigued me. These students have shelled out a fair chunk of both change and time to take this class, which is about writing a mystery. Some of them had actually completed manuscripts previously, but had never managed to get published, so wanted to refine their work. Others had “always wanted to write a mystery”, and had an idea of the book they wanted to write. And all this I understood. But there were a few who had never done much writing, had, in fact, “never read a mystery”, and had no idea what they wanted to write about. I was a bit stymied by these individuals. Why in the world would they choose to take a class like this? Some of them actually asked me how I got my ideas.
            I am pleased to report that to date all these students have come up with concepts, and all but one have been able to write a synopsis and at least the beginning of an outline and this last guy has now found an idea and is on track to planning his book, so its working out OK. But it still puzzles me. The whole reason I wanted to write books was because I wanted to write about the world of horses—a world I loved with an all-consuming passion. Without that drive to convey the horse world, I don’t think I would have had much interest in becoming an author. I chose to write mysteries because I loved to read mysteries and understood the form. If I had never read a mystery, I really doubt I would ever have tried to write one.
            In any case, I encouraged the students to think about their own passions—what did they really understand and love and want to talk about? And I encouraged them to read a few mysteries, so they could see what sort of thing a mystery was. And so far its going just fine. But I’m still a little puzzled.
            Do those of you who read this blog and also write yourselves approach your writing the way I do? I’m guessing most of you write about horses, as that is the theme of this blog. (And by the way, I was quite disappointed to find that not one student in my class had the slightest interest in horses—usually there is at least one that is drawn to my books for the horse element.) Even if your subject matter is not usually horses, is it something else you are passionate about? Do the ideas and concepts come to you easily? If you did/do have an interest in writing a book, would it be a mystery? If you have never read mysteries or been interested in them, would you take a class on how to write them? I’m curious. All insights are welcome.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Six Degrees of Lost

By Linda Benson

Hi Everyone! I am pleased to announce the release of my newest novel from Musa Publishing. It's called SIX DEGREES OF LOST, and it's out as an ebook right now, although I hope to have some promotional print copies soon.

Sometimes you have to take a journey to find out where you really belong.

Olive’s mother is headed to jail and her brother to join the Army, so thirteen-year-old Olive is uprooted from sunny California and dumped in Washington State like a stray. That's exactly what she feels like surrounded by her aunt’s collection of homeless dogs, cats, and horses.

Fourteen-year-old David’s future is already carved in stone. From a military family with two brothers serving overseas, he’s been pointed towards the Air Force Academy his entire life - but a rafting trip gone awry might ruin his chances.

When a runaway dog is almost hit by a car, the search for its owner leads Olive and David, two teens from entirely different backgrounds, to an unlikely bond. Will their growing attraction to each other be enough to keep Olive from a foolhardy journey to find her mother? Will David risk his family’s plans to save her?
This book was inspired by some things in my own life. First, the setting: it's set in a rural portion of the Pacific Northwest, much like the area I live in. Second: the story line about returning lost animals to their homes was inspired by a group of friends here in the country who always call each other when we spot a strange dog on the road, or a new cat, or loose livestock of any kind.
The main story of Olive and David, however, took on a life of its own once I set these characters on the page. It's told from two viewpoints, with Olive and David narrating alternating chapters, and even I was totally surprised by the turn of events when these two meet and become friends. Darn teenagers! You just never know what they might do. *grin* But for me, this is one of the joys of being a writer - watching your characters become real on the page.
As for horses - well, there are two old horses in this novel. They play background parts, I have to admit, but they are there, as well as lost dogs, abandoned puppies, homeless cats, and even an annoying peacock. These things just seem to wander into my stories, no matter what I do.
Below is a small excerpt from the book, shortly after Olive and David meet, when she shows him the horses for the first time.
 “So what’s with all those dogs barking in the back yard?”
“They’re foster dogs. My aunt takes them in when they get too crowded at the animal shelter. Some of them aren’t adoptable, and would be put to sleep otherwise.”
“Really?” I gulp.
“We’ve also got six cats in the house, plus the horses out back. Come on, I’ll show you.” The yellow dog jumps up and down, begging for the stick. Olive flings it down the driveway. I see a small shelter out back, with sagging fences. Olive is already headed that way, taking short barefoot steps on the gravel, so I follow.
A sway-backed pinto horse, with a mouth full of hay, sticks his head out from the shelter and then turns and goes back to his breakfast. It looks kind of bony. “Wow,” I say. “Skinny.”
“Yeah, that’s Paintball.” She grins. “Well, that’s what I call him. He was found wandering loose up in the National Forest. Aunt Trudy says somebody just dumped him there.”
“Why would anybody do that?”
            Olive shrugs. “I know. Hard to believe, huh? I guess they couldn’t afford to feed him, but still, that’s just mean.”
A huge brown horse wanders over to the fence. “Who’s this one?” I reach between the strands of wire and pat his head. He’s just as skinny as the first one.
“My aunt says he’s ancient, and we’ll probably never get his weight back on. They found him tied to a tree in front of the animal shelter, but they don’t really have any facilities for horses there, so he came here instead. He’s sweet, huh?”
“Yeah, he seems nice.” The old horse pushes his head underneath my hand, clearly enjoying the attention.
“I call him Shakespeare. ‘Cause he looks so noble and elegant.”
 Elegant? I think. That’s a stretch. “Can you ride them?”
“I don’t know. Aunt Trudy says we don’t really know that much about them. Anyway, it’s been too hot, and she’s always busy. She’s a clerk at the animal shelter thrift shop, and she takes turns working down at the shelter, besides feeding all these animals here at home.”
Olive talks so fast she makes my head swim. She barely takes a breath, and rattles on. “So besides the ones she takes in from the shelter, my aunt is always finding animals, too. She says there must be an invisible sign at the bottom of the driveway that says: Lost Animals Stop Here.”
“Is that how you found this dog?” I stroke the big lab’s ears, and he presses against me.
“He was standing in the middle of the road,” she says, “and almost got hit by a car.” She smiles. “Maybe he was reading the sign.”
“And Aunt Trudy says there must be another sign down there, too, that says: Dump Your Unwanted Animals Here.”
“Really?” I stare at the pattern of freckles dappling Olive’s nose. Very cute.
“Last year she found a mother cat and four kittens in a box out at the end of the driveway where someone left them.” Olive swipes a strand of hair from her face. “And three other cats have just shown up here, too. Mugsy, Stinker, and Paws. And there was a pony last year that just came trotting up the driveway, and no one ever claimed him, but Aunt Trudy found a home for that one.”
“Wow,” I say. “So what about you? How’d you get here?”
Olive ducks her head suddenly, and doesn’t answer.  Me and my big mouth. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
I hope this excerpt has been enough to pique your interest. If you have an ereader, this book is available right now, for $4.99 on Amazon (and also Amazon overseas), Barnes & Noble, from Musa Publishing, and will be available from all major online booksellers soon, as well as Overdrive, for libraries. Hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


                                                by Laura Crum

            Riding gentle horses, as my son and I do, can fill you with a sense of complacency. The horses are always steady and reliable, and you get to thinking the horse is never, ever gonna do anything “wrong”, or anything that will surprise you. And this is a big mistake. As we learned the other day.
            I mentioned in my last post that we ride a couple of days a week at my uncle’s practice team roping arena with a bunch of friends. These friends include the four old cowboys I wrote about in the previous post, a couple of women more or less my age, a thirtyish horse trainer, and a guy and his son—the son is just a little older than my kid. The son, I’ll call him L, is eager to learn to rope, and last year the father bought a said-to-be gentle rope horse gelding for the kid to learn on. And L has been riding this horse and chasing cattle on him ever since then.
            I never liked this horse. I tend to respond to horses intuitively at this stage in my life, and I didn’t get a good vibe from this chunky sorrel gelding. He seemed to be a competent rope horse, he was said to be kid gentle, he seemed sound and reasonably well broke, but I didn’t like him. No real reason. Just a feeling. I didn’t care for the way he moved; the horse was a cribber, and I thought he had a sulky, resentful expression. But really, just a feeling. Still the guy bought the horse (spent a lot of money), so his son would have a horse to learn to rope on. And I never saw this horse do anything terrible. He packed the kid and seemed gentle enough, and obviously knew how to be a rope horse. So Ok then.
            Last Thursday we were all up at the arena—business as usual. Here’s the gang driving a recalcitrant steer into the stripping chute. (Does that steer look a little outnumbered to you?)

 My son is the one with the helmet—as you might guess, in this crowd, no one else wears one. Anyway, everybody was having fun and L made a couple of dry runs on his horse. L isn’t actually roping yet, just chasing cattle on his horse, and roping the dummy from the ground.
            I was working the chutes and talking to friends and keeping half an eye on my son and his horse, and I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to L and his horse. L’s dad and some of the other ropers were coaching L, so he was getting plenty of supervision. Anyway, L tied his horse up for some reason. I went down to the far end of the arena to put some cattle through the chutes, so I wasn’t anywhere near him when it happened. I didn’t see it, so am relying on what my friend told me.
            Apparently L walked back up to his horse and untied him, preparing to get back on him, and at the same time one of the many dogs running around bit down on a plastic water bottle it was carrying and made a scratchy noise right behind the horse. The horse jumped away and fired with both hind feet and caught L in the chest—in the rib cage, right near the sternum—hard enough to throw him to the ground and knock the wind out of him. After some careful examination (and L catching his breath), he was pronounced bruised but OK. Though sore and kind of shocked. And we were all vastly relieved. Because a kick like that can seriously damage you, if it catches you wrong.
 The thing is, none of us imagined the horse would ever do something like that. As a group, we were just too complacent.
I had never noticed that this horse had a tendency to kick, but my friend told me she had seen him kick hard at the ropes, when they dragged by his back feet. Most team roping horses ignore the dragging ropes, it’s a pretty normal thing in the course of a roping run. But there are a few rope horses that don’t like them. These aren’t horses I would choose for a kid to learn to rope on.
In any case, excuses were made for the horse, that he had been kicking at the dog, and caught the kid by accident (which is almost certainly true), and that it was known that he didn’t like things (like ropes and dogs with noisy plastic bottles) by his back feet. L said he should have been more aware. This may be so, but my thoughts are a bit different.
I would not care to have my own kid ride or handle a horse with this issue. I would not care to have this horse in my barn, period. For my money, an older solid horse that is willing to fire with his back feet (hard) in the direction of a human (even if he isn’t aiming at that human) is going to be sold. Its not like he’s a young horse that doesn’t know better. And its not likely that you’ll train an older horse out of this behavior. A broke horse either knows better than to do this, or he’s forever dangerous.
I have had to make this decision before. Several years ago, before he bought Twister, my friend/boarder, Wally, bought a bay gelding we called Sammy. Sammy was twelve or so, and a competent rope horse. He seemed well broke. For a while Wally and I were perfectly happy with him. It was obvious Sammy wasn’t a very outwardly friendly horse, but we’ve had several horses like this that turned out to be great horses—notably Flanigan (a real grouch) and Pistol (very stand-offish). We did not count it against Sammy that he wasn’t friendly.
As time passed Wally grew less happy with Sammy as a performer—he didn’t think the horse’s heart was really into trying hard. And over the course of the year he was here, Sammy made two extremely aggressive gestures toward Wally. Both times there was an excuse. Wally walked into the horse’s stall at a roping while Sammy was dozing, and the horse lunged at him hard, mouth bared. If Sammy had connected, as he clearly intended, Wally would have been missing a chunk of flesh. Wally dodged, and we all made excuses. Even gentle horses will act aggressive when startled from sleep (this is true). But a few months later Sammy had a cut on his hock. When Wally tried to examine it, the horse fired at him—hard. Again, if it had connected, Wally might have been missing a knee cap. Again, there was an excuse—that cut clearly hurt and the horse didn’t want it messed with. But…
No horse in my barn has ever behaved like that. I can say with reasonable certainty that all of our horses, including grouchy Flanigan, aloof Pistol, and flighty Twister and Gunner, knew/know better than to ever make a seriously aggressive gesture in the direction of a human—no matter what. Neither Wally nor I wanted to have a horse around that was willing to kick hard at a person. Especially since my then three year old son was often down in the barnyard. Yes, I always watched my kid carefully, but still, it just wasn’t worth it. And Sammy was sold.
(On the other hand, I tolerate Sunny’s willingness to make a bluffing “fake” kick in the direction of a person he thinks he can maybe boss around. Sunny has never hurt any one. His kicking gestures wouldn’t hurt if they did connect, and they aren’t even meant to connect. Sunny is bluffing. And I was easily able to intimidate him out of this behavior—we haven’t seen it in a long time.)
I would probably sell L’s horse, if I were L’s dad. I’d try to find one that was a little more trustworthy for a kid, even if he wasn’t as good a rope horse. And yes, I would make L wear a helmet.
But here’s the rub. A helmet wouldn’t have helped L when the horse kicked at him. Most of us take our helmets off when we dismount—my son certainly does. And even if L had been wearing a helmet in the moment he was kicked, the blow landed on his chest, not his head.
The truth is a helmet does NOT keep you safe, as so many people imply/say. It protects you from a certain type of head injury (hopefully). We all know Christopher Reeves was wearing a helmet when he broke his neck. The only horse fatality that occurred near me in years was at a nearby boarding stable during a lesson. Several children were in the ring at one time and one horse kicked at another horse and caught the child on that horse just wrong and broke her neck. All the kids were wearing helmets. I could go on and on. Most of the serious/fatal horse wrecks I have known over the years would not have been helped by a helmet.
This isn’t meant as a defense of helmetless riding. My son wears a helmet, as you can see. Despite the fact that none of my team roping/cowhorse oriented friends wear helmets, I bought one and wear it on the trail (thanks to my blogging horse friends). Helmets are a good idea. But they do not “keep you safe”. What keeps you the safest is riding a broke, trustworthy horse. And NOT riding with people who ride ill-broke, untrustworthy horses. If I had to choose between my son never wearing a helmet again but only riding Henry, or wearing a helmet but riding an assortment of riding school horses I didn’t know in the ring with other children riding other horses I didn’t know—I would choose Henry sans helmet every time.
And here I get down to the point of my post. I am a little upset that L’s horse, now known to be willing to kick in a dangerous way, is going to be present at our practice ropings. Previous to this incident, we all made the assumption that the horses there (all broke geldings and one very gentle mare) were safe horses to be around. Various friends/relatives bring their very small children to the arena. We let our dogs run and play during break. And now those of us who are reasonably responsible will have to be very careful that no child or dog gets near L’s horse. I will have to caution my son not to ride too close to L, and be sure that he complies with this. Which will not be easy as he and L are the only two kids who ride up there regularly. But it is not lost on me that if L’s horse fires hard at a rope near his back legs and catches my kid just wrong it could do very serious damage—and my kid’s helmet is not likely to help him a bit.
Has anybody else out there had experience with a horse who had this issue? How did you handle it?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer Memories

This is going to be a short post because the crazy season of summer has descended upon me and I am once again overwhelemed with all things related to horses, kids, Pony Club, and horse shows. Tomorrow I will be overrun by 10 girls ranging in age from 11 to 18 for a camp I was crazy enough to host.

I know it will be fun but at the moment I am am not quite sure from where I will muster the energy.  The one thing I do love about giving these camps is listening to the endless giggles and chatter that is inevitable when horse crazy girls get together.  It brings back wonderful memories of my summer vacations spending my days between riding and hanging out by the pool or going to the beach or best yet, riding on the beach. So I ask, what is your favorite summer memory from childhood???

All of mine involve a horse or some other animal from our familily zoo of rabbits, goats, hamsters, birds (even a raven named chester), dogs and a cat that was half domestic Tabby and half bob cat.

My summers were long and lazy and filled with friends and adventure. How about you??

For me, a favorite this summer is the newest addition to Rocking Horse Ranch. In my last post I chronicled my efforts to save 2 baby starlings that had fallen from a nest in my barn. Well 1 is still surviving and, dare I say thriving, and completely taking over my household.

He is flying, curious about everything, taking delight in tormenting my cats and confounding my dogs. His name is Thump and he spends his days between a large flight cage outside and a regular one in the house. Or his favorite thing is to just take off and fly from one end of my house to the other dive bombing cats and dogs on the way.

I have read that Starlings will mimic and learn to talk and I can already tell he is very intelligent and very opinionated.

As I try to type this, he is jumping on the keys and attacking my fingers when I try to shoo him away. I keep telling him it is my computer but he does not seem to care.

Hope everyone's summer is starting out well. My has certainly been intertesting so far and I feel will be filled with the antics of one little bird who is quite the survivor.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Nature vs Nurture

During my rambling rides on Relish (say that four times quickly) and while I am doing barn chores, my mind often wanders.  Sometimes I think about a topic for Equestrian Ink. Since nothing exciting happens in my life that involves horses (and knock on wood and throw salt over my shoulder that it stays that way) dredging up cool topics to write about is challenging. At some point, I will write about writing since I have such vast knowledge (ie: I am old) but I am not ready yet. I am still in the burned-out stage but occasionally a flicker of the old excitement returns. Anyway, I am rambling as Relish and I do, but since I did think up a topic this morning, I need to get to it: nature vs nurture.

There have been many great posts and comments on finding a steady and safe horse and finding the right horse. The right horse means too many things to mention. Obviously, the right horse for a kid who loves to trail ride is completely different from the right horse for a rider wanting to compete at the Olympic level.  Size, breed, training, conformation, personality, age, gender, and health are all crucial factors that add to the mix. But how much is influenced by nature and how much by nurture?

Women I know who raise boys are always amazed how their sons seem to be geared toward 'boy' things despite their influence. My son's first word was 'tractor.' My daughter's was 'kitten.'  I was the same mother to both. In the same way, I have owned many horses. My riding and training techniques have not changed hugely. Yet every horse I have owned has turned out differently.  My recent mare (who I owned from birth) was pissy, hormonal and sensitive. Relish (who I've owned since he was two) is naughty, sweet and usually steady. So is nature more of an influence on the way a horse turns out?

Perhaps in my case since I have always been kind and respectful around horses, allowing them their individuality while quietly insisting they respect me. Certainly any horse who is mistreated whether out of ignorance or anger or one who does not receive adequate food, shelter, or care is affected by nurture. But in most cases, it seems to me that nature plays an even bigger part especially since man has genetically altered the horse to create breeds suitable for certain sports.

Relish is big bodied with spongy pasterns. He would have broken down if forced to jump. (And I do mean "forced." He is not a horse motivated to exert himself.) He's comfortable to ride yet his rangy gaits are unsuitable for pleasure classes, and forget bending and flexing for dressage  or any western sport that requires agility.  I often wonder what would have happened to him in the hands of a rider determined to show or compete. Would his personality have changed from naughty and sweet to stubborn and resistant? Would health issues have turned him sour?

My daughter's friend, Rachel, a rider, is taking care of our horses while we are in Arkansas. She was telling me about her cousin's horse, a mare, who constantly bucks. They lunge her and ride her in circles for hours etc etc and still she bucks. No one likes her and obviously this is an unsafe horse for the cousin, who is thirteen, and they are working her to sell at a big sale where she will end up in the hands of . . .who knows. Later, I started thinking about the mare and wondered if they'd ever checked her back for soreness and made sure the saddle fit correctly.  I'd buck too if I was constantly in pain, and I began to feel sorry for the horse. At the same time, I have friends who had a mare who exploded and they tried everything--hormones, special pads, massage yet the mare continued to be unsafe. Nature or nurture?

Obviously it's a mix of both. Horses are as different as humans, and if we can find the right partner, it's a great 'ride.'

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Riding With Old Cowboys

                                                by Laura Crum

            We helped our friends gather and rope their cattle yesterday. My son and I ride regularly with several team ropers who are in their 70’s (and in one case 80’s). These four old men have been riding and roping all their lives. They’ve learned a few tricks in those years. Two of these guys (my uncle Todd and our friend/boarder, Wally), taught me to ride and rope. And they are both still roping today.
            I bring my son to ride at this practice arena for a reason. Its not that I want him to become a team roper (and he’s shown little interest in learning the sport). I’ve seen enough of competitive team roping not to care if I ever see any more. The abuse created by competition exists in this sport as it does all competitive horse sports. And I, for one, have had enough of such abuse. I don’t even care to be around it any more, or support it any way, even with my presence. But our practice roping is different.
            Nothing is on the line here. No one is pushing his horse too hard in order to win. There is space for my son to chase cattle, even though he’s not roping or even learning to rope. But, like me, my kid enjoys working cattle. And the horses enjoy this, too. So we gather the cattle, and bring them up the alley, and haze them, and occasionally chase one that isn’t wanted for roping. Once in awhile we’ll “work” a steer—doing our best to get our old rope horses to “hook on” and move with the animal like a cutting horse does. It’s all great fun for both horse and rider. Below you see my son chasing a steer down the arena on Henry.

            But the fun of working cattle is not the main reason I bring my kid here to ride. I want him to grow up around these old cowboys and their horses, just like I did. The funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you exactly why.
            It would be easy to say that they represent a way of life I admire—but it wouldn’t be strictly true. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t admire here. I’ve seen some of these old guys beat up horses and cattle in ways that I don’t condone—and believe me, I spoke up. In my old age, I pretty much speak my mind, and I won’t tolerate seeing an animal abused in front of me without trying to stop the abuse. Not to mention that I can’t even listen to them when they talk politics—that’s how radically we disagree in that area. Oh, and the derogatory/patronizing attitude often expressed towards women can really piss me off. Not to mention some of these old birds aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. I could go on and on. But…
            But I still take my son to that practice roping every week, and the reason is partly to do with these old cowboys.
            It’s a little difficult to put into words, but maybe some of you will know what I mean. My old cowboy buddies are more than just themselves; they are, in a sense, icons—living symbols of a way of life. A life that is about horses and cattle and the cowboy way. About being tough under pressure and having some courage, about knowing how to ride a horse and how to “read” a cow. About staying out in the weather (hot and cold, muddy and dusty), and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. About not being afraid to get dirty, and understanding the natural world. And about a particular sort of grace and camaraderie I never found anywhere else. My heart still lifts when we all go out to gather cattle on our shiny horses on a bright morning in early summer.
            The gift I want to give my son is to understand this beauty from the inside out—to have it be part of him. I don’t necessarily want him to admire or emulate these men (though there are many ways in which I do admire them), but I want him to understand the way of life they represent. I don’t want him to grow up on pristine soccer fields made of artificial turf, duking it out with eleven year olds in shiny uniforms who have neither manners, grace, nor any real understanding of life. I want him to learn something bigger than that.
            I imagine that this emblematic quality exists in any horse sport. It certainly did in the other horse sports I participated in—cowhorse and cutting—and the ranching world is steeped in it, as is the world of mountain horse packers. But I can see it just as clearly when I think of jumping horses or dressage or racehorses. In all horse sports there is abuse, yes, but there is beauty and history and some deep gravitas, too. And though I don’t want my son to be exposed to abuse (and I let him see me stand up against it), I do want him to understand that grave beauty that comes with understanding and interacting with horses, and people who know horses. Not to mention the genuine joy and great fun that comes with getting a job done on horseback with friends.
            So here’s to the old cowboys, with all their good points and flaws. I can’t imagine a world without you.
            My son, on his good horse Henry, bringing the cattle up the alley with Wally and Twister.
Do others of you share this same odd balance between criticism and admiration when it comes to the "icons" in your horse sport of choice?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Do You Do?

                                               by Laura Crum

            We went on a lovely trail ride a little while ago. That is, until the unexpected happened. We survived it just fine, but it made me think about what the bottom line of trail riding really is. And it reminded me of why I ride a solid horse.
The thing about trail riding is the thing you don’t expect. You can ride a particular trail hundreds of times and know it like a book, and then one day something totally unexpected happens and you have a wreck. This can happen in an arena, too, particularly if you’re working cattle, which is what I have spent my life doing. But in my experience, you are much more likely to meet the unexpected drama “outside”.
            This is the reason so many folks are scared of trail riding. It sounds good, until they are actually outside the safe confines of an arena and are suddenly aware that anything could be around the next corner. Bicycles, barking dogs, wild animals, hikers with flapping ponchos and scary backpacks, tipped over trees blocking the trail in a tricky spot…you name it. A whole lot of people don’t like the uncertainty of the trail.
            The flip side of this coin is that trail riding is endlessly interesting. I will admit that at this stage of my riding career I find the arena boring. I do know there are various “interesting” things I could do there, but to be frank, I’ve done most of them in the past and I’m just not engaged by them any more. Working cattle is the only thing I find interesting in an arena; cattle are just as fascinating and unpredictable as the trail.
            Anyway, despite the fact that I find trail riding fascinating and delightful, I am not unaware of the dangers. When I chose to take my young son out on the trails (he was seven then), I bought two solid, bombproof trail horses for us to ride. And we’ve covered many, many miles on the trails since then—without being hurt, or even seriously alarmed (knocking on wood—quite literally). But still, stuff happens. And even though my son and I have done many rides with just the two of us, I have to admit that I’m more comfortable when our friend/boarder, Wally, comes along. It’s just a little more support/security. And I was REALLY glad that Wally was with us the other day.
            We’d headed out on our little local trail loop, which we can ride to from my front gate. I’ve written about these trails quite extensively in my last two books (“Going, Gone” and “Barnstorming”), so if you’ve read these books, you can probably picture the trails accurately. In any case, we hadn’t been on these trails in a couple of months, due to riding mostly on the beach and at the local park, as well as working cattle up at my uncle’s place. No one maintains the local trails other than other equestrians and hikers—solely at their own discretion-- so when I haven’t been up there in awhile, I’m never sure what I will meet. Anyway, I was glad that Wally wanted to come with us.
            We rode out our front gate on a lovely, sunny, 70 degree morning, and, of course, the first thing we had to do was get safely across the busy country road I live on, where the traffic zips along at 50 miles an hour. I hate crossing this road. We do it in a very safe way, but I still hate it. I would absolutely not be willing to ride along the shoulder of the road, as I see other horsemen do. But we make a straight crossing, and I can handle that. Barely.
            Anyway, we ride across my neighbor’s field until we are on the shoulder of the road. There’s lots of open field behind us, so if anything should spook the horses, there’s somewhere safe to go. But we must stand right on the shoulder, in order to see, while the traffic whizzes by not three feet from our horses’ noses. Whoosh, there goes a bus. Logging trucks are very big and noisy at 50 miles an hour. I particularly hate trucks with flapping tarps. And bicycles make an odd hissing noise going fast. A guy on a Harley revs his engine as he passes the horses. Very funny.
            Our horses stand rock solid through all of this, not moving at all. They always do. They wait patiently (and it can take several minutes) for us to find an opening in the traffic. When no cars are visible in either direction, we cross. To my son’s annoyance, I still insist that he be on the pony rope for this road crossing. Its just one extra bit of security. If a horse spooked into the traffic, it would be lethal. I do everything I can to keep us safe.
            Once across the road I heave a sigh of relief and we take the narrow single track trail into the woods. We always go in the same order. I lead, on Sunny, next my son, on Henry, and finally Wally, on Twister. Twister is every bit as good a lead horse as Sunny, and we have done it that way, but he walks too fast in the lead and the other two horses can’t keep up. We found that Twister doesn’t at all mind walking slow in the rear, and Sunny is a solid leader and sets a nice medium pace. We like to keep my son in the middle, as that is the safest place. So this is our order.
            The first thing I notice is the trail is REALLY overgrown. It doesn’t look like very many folks have been through here during the couple of months we were absent. If you didn’t know where the trail was, you’d have a hard time finding it. And a lot of the luxuriant growth that masks the trail and drapes itself from the tree branches is poison oak. Lovely.
            Its not that I didn’t know that there was plenty of poison oak here. Of course I did. And none of the three of us is very prone to getting the rash. But today we are literally pushing our way through it. Not the best.
            The first part of this narrow trail is pretty technical at the best of times. It runs along a little sidehill (fairly steep) and winds between trees. There are places where you can easily whack your knee caps, and there are low, very solid branches that must be ducked under. I barely make it on 14.3 Sunny. Wally must hang off the side of 15.2 Twister. When you add in the fact that we are pushing through the tangle of overgrown vines—well, its not the easiest ride in the world. I never have any photos of this part—I’m too busy to take pictures.
            But we push through the poison oak and scramble up and down the steep bits, and duck under the head bonker tree and weave our way between the leaning trunks like some very solid (and crooked) pole bending course and eventually we get over the ridge and onto some trails that are a little more used. Again, I sigh in relief. This part is usually easy.
            I take a photo as we start down the easy trail.

            Soon enough we are going uphill and the trail gets very overgrown again. Its pretty, in a jungle-y way, so I take another photo.

            And just around the next bend from where I took that photo, the hill gets much steeper and the way is blocked by a recently tipped over tree. I check Sunny, or rather, Sunny and I check together, as we both look at the tree, which is just the “wrong” height. Wither high—too low to go under, too high to go over. I had been discussing wither high snags with Funder just that morning, and what a problem they were—now I wished I’d never mentioned the subject. I seem to have jinxed myself.
            The undergrowth is so thick, that Wally, in the rear, can’t even see why I’ve stopped. “What’s the matter?” he yells.
            “There’s a tree. And I don’t think we can get by it.” I’m looking as I talk. The hill is steep and brushy on both sides of the trail, very hard to get around. The trunk is about eight inches thick—not huge, but too heavy to shift, or so I think. Wally hollers that he’s coming up to see.
            We’ve done this routine before, for similar reasons, so we know the drill. Wally climbs off Twister and hands the reins to my son. My son and I hold perfectly still on the narrow trail as Wally slithers past our horses to take a look at the tree. He tries to move it, and it’s obvious that won’t work. But the tree does shift a little.
            Wally, ever creative, begins bouncing up and down on the tree and gradually beats it down so that at the low (and branchless) end, it is now only knee high rather than wither high. Our three horses stand quietly while Wally wrestles with the tree, despite the wildly waving, snapping, crashing branches in the brush beside them, though Henry does take the opportunity to snatch at the nearby and abundant vegetation (his worst vice). When Wally has beaten the tree down as far as he is able he gives it a long look. “We can get over that,” he says.
            Yep, we can. And it will be much easier than trying to turn around here. We wait until Wally has climbed back on Twister and then we all pop over the tree and get on with our ride. We meet another (big) downed tree a little further on, but fortunately we can easily detour around it. In a little while we’re at the Lookout.
            The fog is in over the bay so the view isn’t much, but here I am in my riding helmet, thanks to all you horse bloggers who encouraged me to buy and wear one.

            The ride home is uneventful, though full of brushy tangles to push through. Here is a photo my husband took of this stretch of the trail when he hiked with us last year at about this time. It looks just about the same this year, and as you can see, it is pretty jungle-like.

  As I ride along I think to myself how glad I am that my son and I didn’t attempt this ride without Wally. I probably never would have thought of jumping up and down on the tipped over tree; it would have been hard to do while I was holding Sunny. And I would have been very worried that I wasn’t able to keep my focus on my son and his safety, while trying to clear the tree. And it would have been a real problem to try and turn around there.
            So this is the downside of trail riding—especially with a young child that you must protect. Our horses are great and do anything we ask, but there are limits to what they can do for us. If I had been solo and met that tree, I probably would have backed Sunny up until I found a wide spot in the trail and then turned him around and gone another way. What would you do?