Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Incredible Story of a Very Lucky Cat

By Francesca Prescott

I heard a wonderful story this morning. Some time ago, somewhere around where I live, an elderly couple heard the sound of pitiful mewing in their courtyard. They looked everywhere, scanned the surrounding trees for the source of this misery, but saw no sign of a cat.

The mewing continued, and the couple grew more and more concerned, walking around and around their cobblestoned courtyard, until they realised that the sound was coming from underneath the ground.

What to do?

At a loss, they called the fire department, and a group of men was immediately dispatched. The firemen explored the surrounding area and after a while discovered an open drain pipe that ran beneath the couple’s property. But the cat was clearly stuck and the drain was drain far too narrow for anyone to climb down and attempt to reach it.

The cat continued to cry. Everyone felt terrible. Someone needed to come up with a plan to put the poor cat out of its misery, one way or another.

The thinking caps came out, and pretty soon the captain of the firemen had two suggestions. The first one was pretty gruesome: stick a high pressure hose down the pipe, flush the cat out and have him emerge downstream. No more pitiful mewing. No more mewing whatsoever. Ever again. Cat kaput.

“That poor animal!” exclaimed the elderly couple. “Whoever owns it must be going out of their mind with worry. Surely there must be something else we can do?”

“Well, there is, but it’s going to be expensive,” replied the captain of the fireman with a resigned sigh. “I’m afraid the only way we’re going to free that cat is to dig up your courtyard, cobblestone by cobblestone.”

“Then let’s do it,” said couple in unison.

Calls were made, workmen were brought in, a vast portion of the courtyard dug up and, several hours later, a victorious shout echoed around the property as a delighted fireman pulled a terrified, wriggling cat from underneath the ground.

The cat wriggled so much that it escaped the fireman’s grip and ran off, probably never to be seen again by anyone involved in the rescue operation. Nevertheless, everyone agreed that rescuing that little cat had been one of the most rewarding and uplifting experiences they’d had in a long time. Numerous bottles of white wine were brought out, along with bread sticks, ham, pickles and chunks of cheese, and they all celebrated the incredibly joyous outcome of what would, under most circumstances, have been a tragic, miserable day.

If only there were more stories like this! Do you have any to share?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Moments on a Horse

                                                by Laura Crum

            We’ve all had them. (Or at least most of us who read this blog, anyway.) Those moments when magic is palpable—and a horse is part of the picture. My novels were inspired, to some degree, by my desire to portray the magic I found in horses.
Lately I’ve become more and more interested in photographic images, and (sadly for a writer) less interested in wordy descriptions. I am not a good photographer in any technical sense, but I like the feeling that I can sometimes capture in photos. I enjoy looking at my favorite photos—the ones that bring a special moment back to me. Anyway, I take a lot of photos. My husband was looking through them the other day, and he said, “All these photos are of HORSES.” Uhmm, yeah, guilty. (They’re not all of horses, but lots of them are.)
Yep, photo after photo of horses in my files—many of them taken from my horse’s back. Perhaps I could find an image that truly captured the essence of riding? So I went through my photos again, looking for my favorite shots--pictures that illustrated the feeling of delight that I have in riding a horse. Pretty soon I had a whole list of these photos. It was impossible for me to narrow it down to one or two. And this gave me an idea for a post.
So here are some photos of horseback riding. They are almost all of trail riding, in one form or another. After selecting them, I realized that the beauty of the country we ride through is an integral part of the magic of riding—for me. I will comment on what I like in each photo. Will you guys vote on which ones speak to you? There is no prize. Just the fun of discussing the magic of being on a horse, and what images convey this magic to the observer.
A lot of these are ear photos, and all of these photos were taken by me from Sunny’s back. There are several of my son on his horse, Henry, also (mostly) taken by me from Sunny’s back (which is why a few are a little bit blurry). The ones that show me and Sunny were almost all taken by my husband. All of the photos were taken in the last four years with a little point-and-shoot that fits in my pocket (or my husband’s pocket) when we ride or hike. I haven’t included any of my older photos (taken with a fancier camera—that won’t fit in a pocket), or any that were taken by my friends who are “real” photographers. This is strictly an amateur’s snapshot collection of trail horse photos. But it makes me smile, and brings back those happy moments. Let me know what you think.

I love the above photo. To me, it says it all. About riding, about the beauty of the place where I live. Ears forward, looking out at the edge of the continent, above an empty beach by the lovely Monterey Bay.

I used this photo for my Xmas card one year. Taken by my husband as he hiked with us in November on our local trails. I am on the palomino (Sunny) and my son is on the sorrel (Henry). The ridge in the background is the one I see from my porch.

Something in the drama here speaks to me, maybe the light or the body language—we were looking at sea lions surfing, and that comes back to me every time I see this photo.

This is my favorite photo of the view from the Lookout (about a mile from my front gate, via our local trails). Looking north toward Pleasure Point and Santa Cruz. Taken on a bright January day.

Riding down the local trail we call “the pretty trail” (going home from the Lookout). Taken by my husband on midsummer’s day. Really captures the lush beauty of these woods in summertime and the peaceful quality of riding two steady horses.

 This is blurry (shot from Sunny’s back) but I still love it. For me it captures my son and Henry and this lovely ride through the redwoods.

              A boy and his horse—loping along in the spring sunshine. Pure joy.

              About to go wading. When I look at this I can almost smell the ocean.

Riding down to the sea through the sand dunes. The red vest makes a good focal point.

Riding to Parker Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I love the reflections. This photo takes me right back to being in the mountains.

Crossing Aptos Creek—I love the reflections here, too, and the drops hitting the water.

This shot was taken by our friend, Bill, as we rode away from his place in the Glass Mountains. “Tiny horsemen in a big landscape,” says it all.

This is my husband’s favorite “ear photo.” He thinks it is one of the few truly interesting riding photos I’ve taken.

                                    This shot seems almost iconic to me.

                                       This has an epic Biblical quality.

This one just speaks to me of so many happy rides with my son on Sunny and Henry.

       A boy and his horse alone on a big empty beach. No footprints but our own.

                         Ok—this is not a great photo. But it makes me smile.

I’ve got LOTS more I could post, but I guess this is enough for now. Interesting how so many of them feature water. Anyway, if you have a favorite, tell me.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How it all Begins

In previous posts I have discussed beginnings and touched upon research. The last post Laura mentioned her adventures with a book club who dissected her mystery. Awkward! (Laura, you handled it beautifully). My question was "had any of these ladies attempted to write a mystery?" Starting, researching, plotting, characterization. . . the time, effort and creativity needed to craft a book-length piece is incredible. Sure the book club's job IS to discuss the book. But how much better if they had asked Laura questions on how she actually accomplished the writing?

So today I am going to discuss just one aspect of one book, Emma's River, which is historical fiction for 8 - 10 year old. YAWN. A young reader. Lightweight compared to Sophie's Choice. True, yet the amount of work I did seemed as difficult and creative as a Styron tome, beginning with where did the idea come from and how did it turn into a book?

When I was researching for my early chapter book, Anna’s Blizzard , which is all about the Blizzard of 1888, I read many books. One of my favorite was Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford (Bison Books). Mollie Sanford traveled from Indianapolis to Nebraska City by train and steamboat. She was one of the first families to settle in the Territory of Nebraska, and I was eager to read about her life on the plains to help shape my characters and setting for Anna. However, as I read, I was totally fascinated by her description of her steamboat journey. Mollie and her family traveled on the luxurious cabin deck, which “boasted of staterooms, saloons, and a nursery.” She wrote of meeting “fussy old ladies with their poodle dogs” and a new friend Dora who turned “sweet sixteen.” But she also wrote that a “destitute creature was found today with a dying child” on the main deck, where the immigrants traveled. This piqued my interest!

Mark Twin also wrote about his steamboat trip up the Missouri River. He described the passengers boarding the New Lucy “like a mass of sheep tumbling over each other in the dark.”  He wrote about geese on the sandbars, thunderstorms, and climbing to the top of Chimney Rock. By now, I had decided that a steamboat trip would be the perfect setting for an adventure. Further research cemented the idea.  

My first version became a picture book titled Up the Big Muddy.  I envisioned illustrations of lovely ladies waltzing under chandeliers on the cabin deck as well as immigrants and sweaty deckhands squashed together on the main deck accompanying my rollicking text. Alas, the picture book was nixed for several reasons; the main reason was a similar picture book had just been published by a different publisher. Fortunately, my editor liked the idea and suggested turning it into an early chapter book, which meant a more complex plot.
Journals and diaries offer observations, details and language that history books can not, which is why I love them for research. However, Steamboats of the Western River, a detailed history of steamboats, gave me my plot.  I read true tales of steamboats exploding, sinking, catching fire, and running aground. Who knew? Further research helped flesh out my characters and focus the plot. Soon Emma, Patrick, Twist, Mama, and Doctor Burton boarded The Sally May and months later Emma's River grew into a suspense-filled adventure on the Missouri:

            “Look Emma!” Mama waved at her to hurry. “There she is.” The Sally May rose from the river as tall as a three-story building. The steamboat was white, with gold and black trim. Pendants and flags snapped in the breeze. Its name was written in red scroll on the paddlewheel housing.
            Hand on her hat, Emma tipped back her head so she could see the top of the two chimneys. They belched thick smoke. Above the pilothouse, gulls dove and soared. Emma’s heart soared with them.         

 Oh how I love how an idea turns into a story! I'd love to hear your ideas--how did they turn into a story?          

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Being a Star...or Not

                                                by Laura Crum

            A lot of people suppose that being famous, even in a small way, is huge ego gratification. And yes, it can be. I am not famous, really, but there are those who know who I am from reading my books, and I am sometimes asked to speak at various gatherings. And yes, it is flattering. The other day I had a rather unusual experience along these lines, and thought I’d write about it.
            So, normally when I give a “book talk”, it’s at a library or bookstore, and the people who come are either fans of my books, or mystery fans in general, or people who like horses and think they might like my books. And normally I give some kind of presentation (geared to the audience for that event), and take questions. I strive to be entertaining, and mostly I do a pretty good job of this, I think. And it’s all very flattering, though a bit time consuming and tiring for someone who is basically an introvert. To be frank, I don’t seek these events, though I have done a lot of them in twenty years of being a published author.
            But my most recent event was a real change of pace. I was invited to speak to a book club—a dozen women who meet regularly to discuss the book that they had chosen for the month. They had been meeting in this way for many, many years, and now, for the first time, they wanted to read a book by a local author and have that author come address their group.
            This sounded easy enough, and, of course, I agreed. The group chose my most recent novel, Barnstorming, and they all bought copies of the book (good). And on the evening in question, I showed up to give my “book talk.”
Well. They were all very nice people and they had wine and lots of food and it was very pleasant. But…their usual habit was to discuss the book they had read and say what they did and did not like about it. And it became clear to me as the evening went on that this was more or less what they intended to do—as I listened.
            To be frank, at first I sort of inwardly rolled my eyes. I was now supposed to listen to my book being dissected (in the nicest possible way) by these well-meaning ladies? They had called me out on a winter’s night for this? Surely they could have talked about their impressions of the book minus my presence.
            It wasn’t terribly different from reading reader reviews on Amazon—except that none of them were mean. They all said that they liked the book. And then proceeded to give their thoughts about it—not all of which were terribly flattering. Once I got my head around the fact that this was the evening’s event, it was actually pretty interesting.
            It soon became clear that this was not my usual audience. None of them had horses or were at all interested in horses. Most of them were not mystery fans and knew little to nothing about the genre. Their book club read all kinds of books, but apparently few of these books had been mysteries. They all enjoyed the background of Barnstorming (the area where we all live), and most seemed to really enjoy the character of my protagonist and the overall story, but they were accustomed to reading longer, meatier books (think “The Poisonwood Bible,” which was mentioned), and I could tell by their comments that they felt my book was pretty lightweight.
            At one point they went around the room, giving their impressions of the book. One woman said, “Horsey,” and I wasn’t at all sure this was a compliment. Another said, “Cute,” which I was sure wasn’t a compliment. And then she explained that she had never before thought of a horse as being “cute,” and my description of Sunny, using that adjective, was a revelation to her.
At this I actually laughed out loud. The idea of someone who had never thought of any horse as being “cute” is pretty foreign to me.
Eventually, as they discussed my book, including me from time to time, one woman said that, of course, as an artist, I needed to follow my own path. She used that word, “artist” in the somewhat heavy way many people employ this term, and I had to chime in.
“I don’t think of myself as an artist,” I said. “My books are not literary novels, they’re mysteries. I think of myself as a craftsman. I know how to make a good chair. In other words, I know how to make a pleasant, entertaining story. My books are “airplane books.” You get on the plane in San Francisco with the book and it keeps you entertained for your three hour flight and you disembark in New York and leave the book on the plane.”
They all looked at me with big eyes, and one woman said, “Well, I’m really glad you said that.” (It was only too clear that she had been WANTING to point out that my book was not great literature but was afraid to insult me.)
And then she went on to say (at some length) that she had enjoyed the book partly because it was “easy.” At this point another woman jumped in and said that she didn’t agree and she thought there were some very interesting philosophical points in the story (again at some length).
So eventually I chimed in and said that though I made “chairs,” not great art, I did try to make the most beautiful chairs that I could, and that I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what I really wanted to talk about in a given book, and then I shaped the mystery around this. I tried to make the books as insightful as I could, within the context of the stories remaining fast- reading mysteries.
The discussion went on along these lines, and I did find it very interesting to hear these strangers’ impressions of my book. It was a touch awkward to hear the book’s possible faults pointed out—because unlike in a writing group, my published book is a done deal. It isn’t going to change now. If you point out a problem, I can explain to you what I was trying to do, but I can’t “fix” it. It was clear that these people were used to pointing out what worked and didn’t work for them and speculating on what the author was trying to convey in a certain passage. A couple of times I finally interrupted and said, “I can tell you what I was trying to do here. It may or may not have worked for you, and that’s OK, but I can explain what the point was meant to be.”
Anyway, it was a pleasant evening and they were all nice people. Most of them said that they would like to read the whole series and see how the character evolved (yay). I had to feed my horses in the dark, but hey, I’ve done that before.
So have any of you other authors done something like this? Any thoughts on how you would have handled it?


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saratoga Dreamin'

by Natalie Keller Reinert

I'm writing tonight about summer-time.

It's seventeen degrees in Brooklyn this evening and summer-time couldn't seem much further away. I've been outside nearly all day, and I'm warm for the first time in thirteen hours -- because I just got out of a scalding hot shower. I've turned up the radiators and I've stolen my husband's flannel PJ pants (he never wears them anyway) because I want to write about summer and I can't do that without bursting into tears unless I'm warm.

Oh summer. I spent all my time thinking about you. I've actually been writing about summer since... last summer. That's because I was working all autumn on my new novel, Other People's Horses, and it's set in the most wonderful, summery-est place of all: Saratoga Springs, New York.

One of Saratoga's perfect, cute, adorable, wonderful signs.
Does it get any better than Saratoga in the summer? Probably not, or I wouldn't be dreaming of it every day. The leafy streets, the gaudy Victorians, the red-and white awnings of the grandstand... and all those horses.

Thoroughbreds everywhere.


There's even a barn named Horse Heaven. Genius!

Look, I know Ocala is the Horse Capital of the World (TM) and I know that's probably disputed by Lexington. I've lived in one town; I've visited the other. But Saratoga, graceful beautiful historical Saratoga, truly wears the crown. Saratoga is like Racehorse Disneyland. It's so perfect you have to suspect the hands of masterful Imagineers must have put it together; a shimmering illusion of what the racing life should be.

I conceived Other People's Horses while sitting at an outdoor cafe in Saratoga last summer. It was scorching hot and the sun kept finding me no matter how I wriggled around the table, trying to use the umbrella for shade and failing. I pulled my straw hat down to shield my eyes and flipped open my Fasig-Tipton catalog to the blank pages reserved for notes. Instead of jotting down observations about the yearling Thoroughbreds we'd seen at the sales pavilion earlier, I jotted down the plot of a story.

The story of Alex, the star of my first novel, The Head and Not The Heart, set loose upon poor, unsuspecting Saratoga.

Jumping in head-first at the most prestigious meet in North America, Alex, an inexperienced groom, and six horses journey to Saratoga and find that pretty is as pretty does, but one can't account for how people will behave, even in the most beautiful surroundings. There's a whole new cast of characters, including Leading Trainer Ken Doll (not his actual name), and some fun new horses, each with their own quirks and personalities.

Concept cover art for Other People's Horses
In the end, some of my favorite parts of Saratoga made it into the novel. The horses crossing the road with a horsey crossing guard to block traffic. The wonderful bars and restaurants tucked into the stately brick buildings downtown. The riots of flowers and brightly colored buildings that make up the sprawling grounds of the historic racecourse. The modern glitz of the sales pavilion where baby racehorses sell for the gross national products of small European nations.

And of course, some horses that I've loved, or lost, or met along the way.

Everything comes together under one of the hottest, driest summers Saratoga has ever known. Which, I might add, is the exact opposite of tonight. It's probably snowing up there right now. There's a reason why Saratoga is only a heavenly vacation spot for racehorse groupies in the summertime. That joint is really, really far north. 

But tonight I'm dreaming of summer-time. It's almost here again, right? I can see it, I can feel it, I can taste it now. Green trees, blue skies, soaring temperatures. Cold drinks and melting ice cream. And, oh look! There's me in my straw hat, leaning on the white rail of the paddock at Saratoga.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guest Post from Maureen Gaffney

It's interesting, isn't it, how some of our most memorable moments in this sport are wrecks that we barely survive, horses that are bad actors, or moments that really set our hearts racing? (And not in a good way.) Please enjoy this guest post from one of our readers, Maureen Gaffney, as she recalls one such incident. But first, a little about Maureen:

Maureen was born in Sebastopol, California, about an hour north of San Francisco.  As her family could not afford to own horses, she found a nearby stable willing to let her work for free.

This small Arabian horse farm was then purchased by new owners who dramatically expanded the facility and it soon became one of the top Arabian show barns in the country.  Starting as a groom and working up to assistant trainer, Maureen worked at West Coast Arabians for 8 years, then moved on to work for some of the best performance trainers in Santa Ynez and Texas before ending up back in Northern California. Horses supported Maureen through college in Santa Barbara and at UC Berkeley.


By Maureen Gaffney

While working at Paragon Arabians in Santa Ynez, California as an assistant trainer (this is code for ‘sacrificial rider’), we took in two horses from a new client.  They were brother and sister, both by the notoriously hot (and a touch psycho) sire, *Gdansk.  I had learned to be a little wary of the owner who brought in a young horse and cheerily proclaimed “Oh yes, she’s broke”.  Sometimes they were. Sometimes mom and dad had an interesting interpretation of “broke”.  It was time for me to find out on which side of the line “Eulipia” fell.

I grabbed the requisite fistful of strawberry and gray colored mane with my left hand, reins short enough for light contact with her mouth, and placed my foot in the awaiting stirrup.  For the previously mentioned reasons, this one made me nervous.  With one last full in-and-exhale, I checked her eye to make sure we were still on the same planet, and having been given the proverbial green light, I pushed off.  Somewhere during those yawning, eternal 4 seconds before I was firmly ensconced in the saddle, the light in her eye flashed red! red! red! and with my leg at approximately mid-arc over her back, the three-year-old filly with the hot bloodline lost her ever-loving mind.

She bolted--first up--then forward like a sleek hide-and-hair covered cannon ball.  Having not yet attained a sitting position much less the second stirrup, I was hurtled onto her neck which only served to further her profound and deepening pool of panic.  My attempts at soothing words were hampered not only by the imminence of my impending fall--only the severity of which was now in question--but by the copious amounts of her long silvery hair winding through my molars.  My soft-toned pleas of "It's okay honey" she heard as "run for the bay like a bunny" and so we lurched around the arena via the most tenuous of connections for a few more adrenaline-laced moments before she unceremoniously threw me over her head where I landed with a thud in a mushroom cloud of dirt. 

Generally speaking, horses--Arabians in particular--do not like to step on foreign objects in their path of travel.  In fact, they will go to great ridiculous lengths to avoid even a discolored patch of dirt.  A horse that you have finally decided is physically incapable of performing a simple cross-over move will suddenly embark on a 40+ mph supersonic side pass if a shadow or stray bit of hay interrupts his route.  For this reason, I was greatly surprised to find the filly placing not one, not two, but three hooves into the small, middle and upper levels of my back. I lay there for some time trying to decide if I was broken.  She gingerly approached me, reins and mane all asunder with that ", hey--whatcha' doin' down there?" look on her face. 

I was not broken, nor--apparently--was she.  She persevered and menaced me further, but via a clever combination of a near starvation diet*, exhaustive pre-ride exercising, and an inventive program called "let the groom ride her", she never managed to unload me again. 

*not really.

Maureen has since hung up her spurs and is now a desk jockey working to plan and implement a long-distance trail around the San Francisco Bay.  She enjoys writing, riding (mostly bicycles these days), cooking, wine and friends.  Maureen has been published in Horse Illustrated, American Trails Magazine, and Dirt Rag (a mountain bike magazine).  She lives in Larkspur, California with her favorite man.    

Thank you so much for stopping by, Maureen, and sharing your story of one of those "memorable" horses. I'm sure many of us can relate, and glad that you survived to tell the tale!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Crazy Stupid Idiots

by Francesca Prescott

I recently went for a nice quiet trail ride with Céline, a lovely lady and Grand Prix rider who has become one of my trainers. It was a beautiful sunny day, relatively warm for January, and our horses were happy to be out, strolling along peacefully. Céline rode a friend’s horse, a grey Lusitano stallion tending to be pretty laid back about the world at large. As for Qrac, he’s become far more laid back during outside rides than he was when I first bought him; he’ll look at things, sometimes stop and think about them, wiggle around them if he thinks they might be a bit dodgy, but rarely does he spook and spin like he used to. He’s far more sure of himself and sensible.

So Céline and I ambled along, chatting, our horses behaving particularly politely on this gorgeous day. We didn’t go far, just walked the easy hour-long loop through quiet country lanes and forest paths. And then we headed back to the stables.

To reach my stables you have to go down a long stretch of narrow country road and then turn right, down the private entrance to the barn. It’s not a busy road, and for part of the way there are open fields on both sides, so if there’s a car coming, or a tractor coming, you can push your horse over onto the grass and have plenty of space. However, as you get closer to the right turn for the stables, the fields on the right-hand side turn into horse paddocks, so there’s only a narrow grassy verge between the road and paddocks. But it’s usually fine, and I’ve found that the majority of people in cars slow down when approaching horses, or if they don’t do so spontaneously, they are willing to slow down if you turn around, smile, raise an arm and make “please-slow-down” gestures. Most tractor drivers do the same.

Naturally, as a rider, I always slow down, or even stop when I see riders, giving them plenty of room to pass. So if I was a farmer driving a tractor down a narrow country road or down any road on the planet, and I saw people on horses ahead of me, I’d slow down and try to keep a safe distance. As a farmer, surely I’d know enough about the unpredictability of horses (or dogs, or cows, or sheep, or any animal) to have the common sense to take my foot off the accelerator, hang back a little, give the riders time to get themselves organised, find a safe haven if necessary, or turn their horses to show them what is approaching. Surely I’d have safety in mind. Surely I wouldn’t hurtle towards them at full speed when I could see full well that the only place they’re allowed to go without breaking the highway code is onto a narrow grassy verge between the road and a line of paddocks. Surely I’d have enough imagination to conjure up disaster scenarios and do everything I can to avoid them.

I know it’s a stereotype and that I’m naïve, but I tend to have this image of farmers being friendly, kind, nature-loving people with rosy cheeks and big, bouncy dogs, as depicted in the English pony stories I read during my childhood. Sure, they’d give you a bollocking if you ploughed through their fields on horseback, and they’d have every right to do so. But they would never behave like the criminal moron Céline and I met on the road back to the stables. As far as I’m concerned, nobody would. Ever.

I heard the tractor long before I saw it. I could tell it was going fast, and something in my gut told me it might cause trouble. I turned in my saddle and saw it speed down the hill, past the church, hurtling towards us, just as we approached the area where, if traffic approaches, you’re supposed to ride along the grassy verge between the road and the paddocks.

“Uh-oh, there’s a tractor,” I said to Céline. “Coming fast.”

“He’ll slow down,” she answered, matter-of-factly. She’s very poised, Céline.

“I’m not so sure,” I replied, glancing behind me worriedly as I pushed Qrac to the side of the road and onto the grassy verge.

We didn’t have the opportunity to discuss whether he would or he wouldn’t. Because the moron in the old red tractor definitely didn’t want to, and was only forced to do so because, as he powered towards us, coming really REALLY close, our horses freaked out and clattered into the middle of the road.

At that point I figured tractor-twit would stop, allow us to reassure our horses, get them back under control, let us ride ahead and turn right down the private road into the barn. Yeah right. As Céline’s horse launched himself across the road and into the field on the left hand side where he took off at a gallop (she stopped him within a few strides), and my panic-stricken Qrac swung left and right, cantering on the spot in the middle of road, slipping and sliding, totally petrified, the tractor continued to roll forwards. I couldn’t believe it. Speaking reassuringly to my horse, I encouraged him to cross over to the left side of the road and into the open field. As I did so, the tractor continued to come towards me. The man scowled at me, gesticulating impatiently for me to get out of the way. I managed to get us into the field where Qrac also took off, coiling his haunches underneath him for a couple of strides before I could stop him.

“We’ll trot,” yelled Céline, dealing with her own panic-stricken, seriously coiled Lusitano. Her idea was to reach the turn-off to the barn as quickly as possible as tractor guy wasn’t going to give us a break, and we’d almost reached the walled private property at the end of the field and couldn’t go any further. There was no way in heck that the horses were going to stand still and wait for the tractor to pass, so we power-trotted forwards, clattering back across the road and to the relative safety of the right turn to the yard where at least we knew the tractor wouldn’t follow. As we coaxed the horses back to a very tense walk, tractor-man roared past us, revving his engine, scowling.

“I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed, still trying to steady Qrac’s nerves, not to mention my own.

“There are idiots everywhere,” said Céline. She has her own stables a few minutes away by car, and told me she regularly deals with morons in tractors.

Qrac’s heart was still pounding and my legs felt like jelly as Céline and I dismounted about two minutes later. A few people had watched our misadventure from the stables’ car park and asked me whether I’d got the tractor’s license plate number, knowing what exactly what I meant when I replied that I’d been far too busy trying to stay alive to do anything of the sort.

I’ve thought about this incident many times since, wondering what the heck was wrong with that guy in the tractor. I’m aware that many farmers around here dislike horses. They harbour a lot of animosity and jealousy towards riders, even towards barn owners, whom they consider rich and spoiled (incidentally, the owners of my stables are also farmers). But harbouring animosity and putting lives at risk danger isn’t the same thing.

I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if Qrac or Céline’s horse had slipped on the road. I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if it hadn’t been Céline and me out there, but other less-experienced riders, who hadn’t been able to regain control over their horses. I don’t want to imagine the dozens of other catastrophic scenarios that could have gone down. However, I’d like to believe that the twit in the tractor has since had his licence revoked, been locked up for criminal behaviour, and is sitting in a dingy prison cell being forced to write “I won’t harass riders with my tractor ever again” a gazillion times. Sadly, I doubt it.

Have you ever been bullied on the road while out riding? Why do you think people behave that way? Of course, as Céline said, there are idiots everywhere, but what do you think could be done to increase awareness and discourage people from behaving like this?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When a Good Horse is "Bad"

                                                by Laura Crum

            I brag all the time here about my steady little trail horse, Sunny, and how reliable he is. And this is quite true. But Sunny is only human-- uhmm, I guess that would be equine. He has good days and bad days, as we all do. I think you horse people will understand that a chilly mid-winter day after two weeks off is likely to result in a bad day, yes?
            Last week Sunny had a couple of “bad” days. I couldn’t really blame him. And his bad is quite manageable. But I thought it might be interesting to discuss how various folks deal with this sort of thing. So here’s the story.
            My oldest horse, Gunner, got cast a week before Xmas, and needed a lot of attention. And all the next week it stormed like crazy. So no horses got ridden for almost two weeks. Right around New Year’s we started riding again, mostly little rides in our riding ring, as it was muddy and slick almost everywhere. Quite slick. As I was leading Sunny up to the riding ring one day, I slipped and fell down right in front of him. Predictably Sunny threw up his head and trotted off to the nearest clump of grass. But…as I sat there on the ground, unharmed, but a bit chagrined, watching him leave, Sunny (once he was a good twenty feet away) kicked both hind feet out in my general direction.
            Sunny had no intention of kicking me. There must have been at least twelve-fifteen feet between his hooves and my body. It was a gesture of defiance, a thumbing of his nose at me. I can read Sunny perfectly, and I knew what he was saying.
            You see, I handle Sunny a bit differently than my other horses, and there is a reason for this. Sunny is a horse who is always wondering if he can dominate his human. I’m not sure how he got like this—I do know he showed this behavior with his previous owners. Unlike every other horse on my place, Sunny will offer to kick, bite, step on my foot, push through me on the leadrope…etc. Or at least he would do these things when I first got him. None of my other horses would ever consider, under any circumstances, making an aggressive gesture at a human. But Sunny will. Thus, I handle him differently.
            Sunny is not a dangerous horse. I do not believe he has any intention of hurting anyone. He just wants to see if he can be the boss. And if his human does not firmly reprimand him and let him know that he will NOT be the boss, his behavior escalates.
            When I bought Sunny, the first time I went out to catch him he turned his butt to me and made a (quite token) kicking gesture in my direction. I stepped to one side, walloped him as hard as I could with the leadrope, and drove him around his pen until he faced me and stood still to be caught. It took a couple of repeats, but after that Sunny politely faced me to be caught. For many years now, in fact, he meets me at the gate. But there were many other areas in which Sunny needed a similar correction.
            I’ve blogged about this before, so won’t go on about it further. Suffice it to say that though Sunny’s behavior is polite and respectful these days, and he often nuzzles me quite fondly, I know perfectly well that he’s always aware of whether I am assuming the correct dominant role. And I am careful to do so. And we do fine.
            Now I could have fallen down while leading any of my other horses, and though they might have spooked and run away, NONE of them would have kicked in my general direction. This was Sunny saying to me, “Ha. You just put yourself in a one-down, vulnerable position. Now I can dominate.”
            And sure enough, when I went to catch him he kept swinging his butt toward me, which he hasn’t done in years. Sunny doesn’t miss a trick.
            So I caught him and walloped him a little, and he made mouthing motions and OK then. I climbed aboard and we had a nice ride. And the next day I decided to go ride on the beach.
            It was a gray, unsettled day and a storm was blowing in, but we had a favorable low tide at the right time, and it was a day that I COULD do it schedule-wise, and my son wanted to go, so off we went. (I’ll bet you can guess where this is going.) When we got there the horses were very alert and looky (for them), but they are reliable horses and we headed out confidently. Here’s what it looked like on the beach. Pretty stormy.

                      We were bundled up and the horses were just plain up.

                     My son and Henry and a big, empty beach. Ours were the only footprints.

            My son’s horse has a very smooth trot (you can sit his long trot with ease) and a rough lope, so my kid likes to trot. He’ll trot for miles. Henry can trot as fast as most horses lope and Henry infinitely prefers to trot rather than lope. So my kid and his horse love to long trot down the beach. Sunny has an equally rough trot and lope—though neither are really terrible, just a little rough. So I don’t much care whether we trot or lope. Anyway, we let our fresh horses trot along. They blew and snorted and looked at stuff, but overall they behaved themselves. We rode for an hour or so, alternating walking and trotting and a little loping. Then we turned around to ride back.
            Sunny has always had an issue with this. I don’t know if his previous owners walked him down the beach and then turned him around and galloped back or what. But on every beach ride, when we turn around to go back, I can feel Sunny get “up”. On a good day, its just a feeling in his body, which resolves in a long swinging walk, what my son and I call his “power walk.” But on a less than good day, it tends to result in a bunch of little hoppy bucks, as Sunny indicates he’d like to bolt now.
            I’ve dealt with this in various ways. Mostly I ignore it and just bump lightly him with the bit to remind him he’s under control. Sometimes, once he’s under control, I let him trot or lope until he’s happy to walk. Occasionally I make him march through the deep sand (this is very effective). Once in awhile, when he’s particularly obnoxious, I reprimand him a little. This day Sunny was very persistent with his hopping and scooting. But hey, it was cold, he hadn’t been ridden much lately, and we’d had a little argument the day before.
            My son thought it was hilarious. He kept his distance, aware of wanting to be away from Sunny’s feet as the horse kicked up, but he was laughing the whole time. “Let’s trot, and see if he bucks,” he suggested with a grin.
            “Ok,” I said, “but let’s hope he doesn’t buck me off.”
            In truth, I don’t think Sunny can/will buck hard enough to buck me off. And the long trot is a good gait for a horse that wants to buck. So off we went down the beach, with Sunny mostly trotting, but throwing in a little hop/skip every once in awhile. My son was having blast. Me, well, it was annoying but not threatening. I just put up with it.
            To tell you the truth, my main emotion was gratitude. I am so grateful to own/ride a horse whose bad days are so easy for me to deal with. I seriously don’t want to get hurt at this point in my life—it’s my number one priority when I interact with the horses. I don’t want to ride any horse that might freak out and panic, or genuinely try to get me off. Not interested in that at all. But Sunny’s little shenanigans are pretty benign. He remains level-headed and responsive to my cues even while he farts around.
            Eventually Sunny got tired enough to line out, and both horses were willing/happy to walk. We finished the ride relaxed, the horses having had just the right amount of exercise—people, too. So even though my horse was “bad,” we had a good day.
            And this is my question. How do you other horse people deal with a good horse who is being “bad?” I’d love to get your insights.
            Also, a big thank you to all of you who made our “free” promotion of my mystery novel, Slickrock, last week such a huge success. If any of you have time to post a review of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, I’d be very grateful. Thank you!