Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Survivors and Joy

                                                by Laura Crum

            Lately I’ve been thinking about survivors. No, not the TV show—I know nothing about that. I don’t even have a TV. Haven’t had one in my house since I was in college and lived with roommates who were addicted to soap operas. I’m thinking about real survivors.
            I live on a small property that I bought twenty years ago as a piece of raw land. Over time, and as I could afford it, I’ve turned it into a sweet little horse property. It’s fenced and has a barn and five big corrals with pasture sheds. There are two small houses (750 sq feet and 550 sq feet). There is a little riding ring and a vegetable garden and a shop building and a dog run and a fish pond. There is a rambling wild garden that melds into the truly wild and brushy hills that surround us. Every single bit of all this I designed myself. My husband and I maintain it. It’s a real labor of love and takes much of our time and money. But we don’t begrudge it.
            Sometimes people who haven’t known me very long come out here and say things like, “Aren’t you lucky?” or “I wish I had a place like this.” Or “I’ve always wanted a horse property but I could never afford one.” This usually makes me grit my teeth a little. Quite often the people who say these things own a nice suburban home in a subdivision. Their home cost them more than double what I paid for this little piece of bare land. If I’m in a good mood I smile, and say, “You know, I lived in an old travel trailer out here for seven years—that’s how I afforded this property.” If I’m in a bad mood, or I don’t much like the person, I say, “You could have had this; you just made different choices.” Because that’s what it comes down to.
            The only things that were here when I came here were the plants and animals of the brush country. Just wild, hilly land. We sculpted the land such that I had a level riding ring and a passable graveled drive up to the house (though for seven years the house was only a travel trailer). We built first the fences and corrals and barn and pasture sheds (of course—any horse person would do the same), and then, when we could afford it, the little house. Eventually we were able to replace the old travel trailer (which was falling apart by this time) with another even smaller house. Every single “garden” plant on this place I planted myself (or my husband planted himself), just as we designed and helped build the two little houses. I have to say that I think this creates a depth of knowledge and intimacy with one’s home that cannot be acquired any other way.
            And the payoff, twenty years into it, is the absolute joy I feel when I walk or ride around my home and look at the results of our planning and labor. The horses in their big corrals or turned out to graze along the driveway, my pleasant bedroom with the morning sun streaming in, my husband’s music room full of late afternoon light, the big roses that drape the pergola, the round vegetable garden in the middle of the riding ring, the porch where I have a margarita in the evening…all of it gives me endless satisfaction. And nothing gives me more pleasure than observing the “survivors.”
            What are the survivors? They are the plants that worked. I like gardening almost as much as I like horses, and I have spent lots of time out here planting things. Everything from fruit trees to flower bulbs, California native plants to Mediterranean shrubby herbs, wildflowers to water lilies, roses to redwoods, you name it, I have planted it. And mostly watched it die.
            Yes, its true. The casualty rate among things I have planted is something like 75%. The reasons are many. Gophers and deer are high on the list. Drought and neglect (it is meant to be a wild garden—I don’t fuss with the plants much) take their toll. Some plants just aren’t suited to this environment. Some plants (like ceanothus, a native California shrub sometimes called wild lilac) have a short lifespan and are going to die in a few years no matter what. So now, after twenty years of living here, I take particular pleasure in those plant projects that have worked. The ones that are thriving. The survivors.
            Last weekend my husband and I spent some long, sweaty hours cutting out the dead ceanothus plants by the driveway. Once glorious huge, blue-flowered, sweet-scented shrubs, they had died of old age a couple of years ago. But I was loath to tackle their removal. There was always a trail ride I wanted to do instead. But this spring I’m trying to focus more on the garden, and I’ve taken on a few chores that have been postponed for awhile. So the dead ceanothus went.
            And guess what? The redwood trees I had planted at the same time as the ceanothus, that were somewhat hidden by all that dead wood, leaped into the foreground, and I realized, to my delight, that the skinny five foot high saplings I had planted twenty years ago along the property line were now a redwood forest. Look.

            Its kind of amazing to stand in a redwood forest that you planted yourself. I looked at my trees and was so pleased that they had survived and thrived.

            And then I let my 33 year old horse loose to graze. Gunner is a survivor, too. When I first moved out here I brought two horses with me—Gunner and Plumber. Gunner was 13 and Plumber was 4. These two are still here with me today. They are my longest running animal companions. Gunner is 33 and Plumber is 24. Both are sound and healthy. Here is Gunner just last Saturday, two months after the bad night, right before Xmas, when he got cast. He has made a full recovery. Doesn’t he look good?

            And finally, on Sunday I rode.

So it was a good weekend in every way. Much joy in my survivors, plant and animal, and plenty of joy in loping Sunny up a few hills. I may not take elegant vacations to tropical islands—in fact, I rarely go on vacations of any sort. But I don’t mind at all. The life I love is right here.
Does anyone else out there find their greatest pleasure in just dinking around at home?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Winter Walk

Winter is almost over in Virginia, where we really haven't had any snow and none of the freak storms that California had or the severe storms that the Midwest and Northeast have had so for my critters and me winter has been mild.  Not that I have ridden. Too busy is my excuse, and since I am still working on revisions and historical backmatter for books and teaching and maintaining booths, I am swamped. Quicksand type swamped. I want to apologize to the other members of the blog because I have not even had time to read and comment on posts, which is not a neighborly thing to do!  And my own posts have had to be fast and furious including this one, which will be filled with photos of my winter walk. Kind of like photos from Laura's trail ride when she takes them from between Sunny's ears.

The dogs and I take long doggy hikes twice a day through rain, snow, sleet or hail.  Neither are too excited about rain or hail, but we do forge on.
Here they are dressed up for the start of our morning horse chores and hike.  Poor Ziggy, if it got any colder here he would need ear muffs! Their stylish coats keep them warm, but they will be happy to shed them when warmer weather arrives.

 Speaking of shedding, in another month I will be brushing wads of hair off Relish and Bell. It's hard to see that beneath the fuzz and floppy manes lurk fine-boned, purebreds. Yes, I am a writer of fiction, but really, both horses have 'papers.' Only they were bred by backyard owners who never should have mate stallion with mare. Bell and Relish have great personalities, but let's just say, that unlike Francesca, I will never have to worry about training for competition. Neither would make it. (Whew!)

Last note on my walk, is my own winter gear as we set off. Muck Boots are the best unless there is frost on the ground and then I take my life in my hands. I wish I would say I will soon shed this attractive footwear, but Muck Boots are year-round. They are fashionable with sweat pants or shorts.

 And here is my last picture and my attempt to get the dogs walking on the trail if front of me while I take a shot ala between Sunny's ears. Alas, neither dog cooperated and all I got were fuzzy photos and cold hands, and I didn't get a shot of the geese on the pond or the frosty leaves.

Do you have any musings about winter before spring arrives? Please share your winter chores, walks and rides.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Training for Tests

by Francesca Prescott

I did it again. I signed up for a show. It’s a month away, but I’m already stressing out over how things will go.

Despite having ridden for most of my life, I have very little experience with competition. To give you an idea, I’ve probably taken part in less than twenty competitions in my five decades on the planet. I’ve always had conflicting emotions about competing. I want to, but at the same time I know I’m happier in the arena at home, working towards four perfect strides, concentrating on refining my feel for certain movements, trying to get my body to find the keys to asking for, say, a good turn on the haunches. I want to be the queen of turns on the haunches! And of half pass! The queen of everything, really!  I love the finicky stuff. I love doing things over and over again, taking my time to get things just right, feeling my way. I could take lessons every day, all day long. I find training fascinating.

The problem is, you can’t take your time and do things over and over again when you’re riding a test. You can’t say, “hang on a second judges, I know I can do a better turn on the haunches than that, because I didn’t use enough outside leg to push the quarters around nor did I hold the outside shoulder enough, and I could have used a more inside leg for impulsion and bend, and besides, Qrac was being a piggy and going lalalalalala just then, so can we do it over? And over? And over?”

I’m not used to riding with competitions in mind, so neither me nor my horse are used to riding one figure after another.  Qrac may be rising nine, but he was an extremely green seven-year-old when I bought him, he’s not test savvy, and being of an anxious nature, tends to become fractious when asked to halt at X, go straight down the centre line, turn left at C, then extend down the diagonal, etc etc. And that’s before we add the judges and the flowers and the other horses and the noise. It’s all too quick, all too too what-what-what-comes-next??? Before we’ve gone past A he’s no longer focused on me and is all in a flap, doing a horrendous, Thelwell-inspired pony-trot.

It’s strange, but when I think about it, character-wise, Qrac is very similar to me. He’s super-sensitive, mostly calm, yet ridiculously quickly upset. Like me, he’s a big worrier. He does, however, tend to have a shorter fuse than me and can sometimes be rather rude when asked to venture out of his comfort zone. But with a little gentle persuasion he can eventually be swayed into trying, and once he’s figured out that YES HE CAN, he’s all proud of himself and game to do it again. Ok, sometimes he forgets that he could do something the day before and needs a little reminder. And sometimes I get frustrated, wondering what the heck is wrong with me that I take lessons, and more lessons, and more lessons (up to three a week), and work ever so hard, and lots of people drool over how gorgeous he is and how amazing he looks, yet, almost two years down the line, we’re incapable of doing a basic test smoothly! And then I think back to how Qrac was in the beginning and I tell myself we’re not doing so badly. I think about my horse a lot.  

So anyway, Qrac and I are signed up for a show the last weekend in March. Call me pessimistic, but I have very low expectations. The venue is indoors and spooky, the arena is small, and I know my horse is going to look at everything, that he’ll be tense and explosive. But my goal is to do more shows this season, because Qrac needs to go out and see things, he needs to get used to the show ring, and maybe over time we’ll both get used to riding tests, not to mention riding tests in unfamiliar places. Who knows, at some point, maybe we’ll even start really enjoying competing. Maybe, eventually, someday, we’ll place! Maybe we’ll “win the cup” (as my riding girlfriends and I say jokingly). Wow, wouldn’t that be something!

What are your experiences of training inexperienced horses towards competition? If you ride dressage, how did you approach working on a test? And whatever your discipline, how do you deal with a nervous, spooky horse on your first few outings?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Old Horses and Mixed Blessings

                                                by Laura Crum

            This is Burt, the first horse I was able to keep until his death. I bought Burt when he was five years old. I was 21 and still in college. Burt lived to be 35—and though I had to farm him out occasionally, as I moved and went through life changes, he remained my horse at the end. He spent his last years turned out in a pasture fifteen minutes from my house, where I visited him as often as I could. He died one sunny winter morning five years ago. I was on my way out to feed him and the pasture owner called me and said that Burt had been trotting around and suddenly fell down. And now he couldn’t get up because he was caught in the fence.
            I got there within ten minutes and I got Burt out of the fence and rolled him over, but though we tried and tried to get him up, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. Burt was twitching and showing neurologic symptoms, and he wasn’t trying to stand up. He’d had a couple of seizures previous to this, but he’d recovered OK. However, I knew, as I looked at him on the ground that day, that his twitching/seizing was getting worse, and that this was the end.
            I called the vet, who was there within a half hour, and she concurred. We put Burt down as he lay in the sunshine, and his death was quick and peaceful. I was grateful, though I missed the old horse, and still do.
            Burt taught me a lot. He was a real character, and always made me smile—Burt was a horse with a zest for life right up until his end. It makes me happy to know he was trotting around (and sound) on the day he died. What makes me sad is I wasn’t there to watch his joy. Oh, I saw him often, but I didn’t live with him. I didn’t hang out with him a lot in those last years. I fed him and rubbed on him a little and made sure he was in good flesh and his needs were met, but I had a kid and horses at home and I was always on the run, always busy.
            Burt was, I think, happy in his pasture. There were other horses to socialize with and the pasture owner and neighbors gave him attention. I think he had a good life. He wasn’t the one who missed out. I was. And after he died, I was aware of that.
            Death is very final. I remember Burt with much affection and his photo is on the wall above my desk. I have many happy memories of riding him on the ranch in northern California where I worked for several years. I am glad that I cared for him until his end. I’m glad he had a long, happy life. But I wish I could just be with him again, and feel his particular upbeat energy. I wish I could watch him trot around, with the sun shining on his bright bay coat. And that isn’t going to happen.

            It’s hard to juggle several retired horses along with your current riding horses, if your space and budget is limited. My little horse property is set up to house five horses, no more. Over the years, I have often chosen to turn my retired horses out—in our 60 acre pasture in the foothills (three hours from here—looked after by an old friend who is an experienced horseman), or at that pasture fifteen minutes from my house, which belongs to a friend. It saved me both time and money to do this, and the horses had the benefit of living in a natural way, which I thought (and still think) is good for them. But the downside was that I couldn’t keep an eye on them and spend time with them.
            Losing Burt made me think hard about Gunner, who was living in the same pasture where I had kept Burt. When Gunner got to be 30 it became harder and harder to keep weight on him, and I thought he wanted more attention than what he got in the pasture. But more than that, I just wanted to be with him and spend time with him before it was too late. So I brought him home...as one of my two boarders had left me, thus making a space for Gunner.
            The good news is that after living at home for a couple of years Gunner DOES look happier. His weight is just right, and he has plenty of pep. It gives me lots of joy to take him for walks and hand graze him. Every time I watch him run around his big corral, bucking and spinning, I get a silly, infatuated grin on my face. Every time I rub on him and see how good he looks, it takes me right back to all our many times together-- gathering cattle, cutting, team roping. I remember the blaze-faced three year old gelding with thirty days on him that I started riding thirty YEARS ago. I remember hauling this horse all over the western United States (Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) to various events. I remember camping with him. We did so many things together.
            So, yes, I am very glad I brought Gunner home. And it gives me joy every single day to see him looking happy and healthy. The bad news? The bad news is it takes a lot of time to care for an old horse properly. I now have two retired horses (Gunner and Plumber) and my riding horse (Sunny) to care for. My son exercises his own horse, Henry, but my kid is still young enough to require some supervision and help. So, in essence, I’m now in charge of making sure that four horses all get the attention they need. And this is on top of a busy life as a homeschooling mom with a large garden. For those who don’t know, both homeschooling and gardens take a lot of time, too.
            And then Gunner got cast just before Xmas, and I thought it might be the end of him. Luckily my old horse has made a full recovery, but it was a wake-up call for me. I began prioritizing Gunner’s walks and hand grazing over everything else. And though this DOES give me joy, there’s a limit to how much I can do in a day. So sometimes Gunner gets a walk and the other horses get turned out to graze…and there is no time for a trail ride. It’s my riding time that has taken the hit.
            I don’t think Sunny really cares—he is happy to be turned out rather than ridden. My son often rides his horse while I do the other chores. And I usually manage to ride at least once or twice a week. But I can see that, essentially, I’m exchanging riding time for time with Gunner. In a way, it’s a tough choice.
            Still, it’s the choice I’m making now. Maybe because I’m older and I’ve been riding all my life…maybe its easier to put time with my old friend first? I don’t know. I just know that despite my occasional moments of frustration, this is what I am drawn to do.
            Anyway, I thought I’d ask if any of you have had to make similar choices. Any insights? Because my horse time these days often looks like this.

            Instead of like this.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Love and Affection and Jealousy and Dinner

by Natalie Keller Reinert

So I used to have this horse named Rapidan.

Rapidan was kind of insane. He'd been a racehorse, he'd been a teasing stallion, and then he somehow found himself in a backyard in a town named Palatka. Palatka is every bit as urbane and sophisticated as it sounds, and if you are a Thoroughbred stallion with decided mental issues, a backyard there maybe isn't the best place for you. Especially if you get there and you're sharing that backyard with a goat and two massive pigs. Just saying. Think of your options.

Rapidan had the necessary corrections made to his anatomy before I got there, but the horse I took home from the company of the pigs and the goat was still fairly insane. Too much testosterone, not enough training. I gave him a lot of leeway under saddle, and absolutely none on the ground. To this day, Rapidan is the only horse to have ever kicked me when I walked behind him in the cross-ties. You know how you're always warned to stay close to the tail when walking behind a horse in cross-ties? Yes. Do that. It works.

Rapidan only kicked me once, I'll put it to you like that.

He was less than captivating when I got him. Palatka backyards can do that to a horse.
I had Rapidan maybe a year, and in that course of time he developed, as studdish horses will, the most extraordinary personality. I moved him to a farm where he could live outside and he thrived. He loved being ridden and I started grooming and tacking him without so much as putting a halter on -- he just stood there free in the five-acre pasture, enjoying the attention.

And the coolest thing Rapidan did? He came when he was called.

I could stand at the gate and gaze out across the field and shout RAP-I-DAN! and that horse's head would shoot up, and his ears would prick, and his tail would flag, and he'd come a'runnin'. He'd gallop all the way up the pasture and throw on the brakes three strides before the gate, sending sand flying into my face.

The thing about Rapidan? He thought he was the Black Stallion. He really, truly believed that. And his impression, thundering up to the gate when he heard my call, standing without restraint to be groomed and tacked, was pretty damn good.

It's hard to tell what sort of personal affection a horse might hold for a person, and I never give them a lot of credit besides the general "Human Feeds Me, Human Good" assessment. But every now and then you meet a horse like Rapidan, who gave you that little thrill -- he likes me! -- just by being in a big hurry to see you every day. My big, scary, bad-tempered Black Stallion gave me love and affection, instead of just demanding his dinner -- I liked that.

Today I visited with a horse I used to see every day, but haven't been around in a few weeks. He was hanging out in the barn, and I was leaning on the paddock gate, waiting for him to notice me and come say hello, but he wasn't in a big hurry to leave his hay.

So I called him.

His head came out of that stall so fast you'd have thought I'd shaken a feed bucket. Then out he came. To see me, right?

No, to preemptively chase away his buddy in case the other horse thought he could visit with me.

Then he came to say hello.

And I thought, now that's affection. Not just coming over to say hello, but making sure no one else gets any part of me.

Or any feed buckets I might be secreting on my person, I suppose.

Whatever, I felt loved.

*by the way, you can read more about Rapidan here, at Retired Racehorse. And Palatka.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Book Review of "Roped" by Dom

                                    by Laura Crum

            As those of you who read her blog, (A Collection of Madcap Escapades--listed on the sidebar) know, Dom is a talented young horse trainer and a fine writer and photographer. She recently had the misfortune to be working with a horse that had some severe issues. The horse reared up and went over backwards with her, breaking Dom’s leg very badly (required surgery). As with many young horse trainers I have known, Dom is not covered by insurance, so the medical bills will be hard on her. Not to mention the loss of income, as she cannot walk for ten weeks. Along with others, I am contributing to her recovery. If you want to help, she takes paypal at this email address. dominika.nawrot@gmail.com

            I have to say, this is the sort of cause I like to contribute to. A hard working person who gives a lot to the world has been hit by misfortune, and I can make a real difference by sending her a little money. So different from writing a check to a “charity” and wondering if any of it really goes to helping people/animals, or if it is all eaten up by “administration.”

            All this said, Dom has a lot of time to read right now. She recently posted a review of my fourth mystery novel, Roped—a review I just loved. Yes, I loved it because it was positive, no I had not contributed any money to Dom when she wrote it. I am not guilty of buying good reviews(!) Those who know Dom will know that she will always say what she honestly thinks, so I’m pretty sure I couldn’t buy a good review from her if I tried. And she knows a LOT about horses. If I had made any mistakes in the horse related details of this novel, Dom would have called me on it. Politely and kindly, because that is the way she handles things, but she would have let me know.

            Anyway, I am going to post her review of Roped here because I just love all the details she picked up on. It is fun to have such an insightful reader. For those who are reading the series in order, Roped is the fourth book. The order is Cutter, Hoofprints, Roughstock, Roped. The first two books in the series, Cutter and Hoofprints, are currently 99 cents as Kindle editions. Roughstock and Roped are $2.99. Click on the titles to order.

            So here is Dom on Roped. 

It should come as no surprise that I started reading the next Laura Crum book pretty much the second I was done reading Roughstock. The fourth book in the Gaily McCarthy mystery series is Roped.

I knew from the get-go that this book would be heavily western themed and I was looking forward to learning more about disciplines I'm unfamiliar with. What I wasn't expecting was for the book to open in the midst of tragedy. In the opening scene, Gail has to euthanize a horse with a broken leg. It turns out the depressing scene is a reflection on the state of Gail's life in general. Time has lapsed since the close of the last novel and not all is right with the world. I'm glad to see an accurate depiction of real life, with its ups and downs, but I'm saddened by the opening. I realize how attached I've become to Gail and her sorrows echo deeply with my own. I find myself angry at the character behind the betrayal, as if I knew either of them personally. By the end of the first chapter, I'm already involved in the story line.

Despite the noticeable time lapse, I feel like the introduction of the book really fills in some gaps in Gail's past. I learn more of her background and before long, I feel like I have a good insight to Glen, a character who is just making his first appearance in the books.

It isn't long before Laura tackles some hard-hitting issues in her book. In the midst of a roping competition, two animal rights activists make an appearance. I groan out loud when Gail spots them in the crowd, but am thrilled when Gail voices her thoughts about them. We seem to be on the same page about animal cruelty and the nut jobs who would rather set animals free to starve to death in the magikal wild than see them 'held captive' as pets. Laura doesn't mince words in her description of the wide spectrum of animal activists (ranging from the normal people who oppose dog fighting, etc. to the weirdos over at PETA) and I am tickled pink that she doesn't take the politically correct way out to save feelings and, heaven forbid, insult readers. A believable character has to have steadfast opinions that aren't going to please everyone... and Gail certainly has that.

I don't know about you guys, but I love having someone to hate in a book, and right off the bat it looks like Roped will be full of those characters. Even before I know what the mystery aspect of this book is, I find myself making a mental list of suspects (and then quickly reminding myself that whoever I guess will probably be wrong).

As usual, I find myself in Laura's amazing ability to describe things... from houses to weather to people. I don't know if it's just me, but the descriptions seem to get better from book to book. Even though it's a blustery day and the wind at home seems to come through the walls, I can feel the heat described in the May setting in Roped. I may be shivering under a blanket with Herbie huddled beside me, but I can taste the heat and sweat as if I were living it.

The one thing I'm grateful for is that this description doesn't extend to the death of one of my favorite characters. SPOILER ALERT!!! Blue, Gail's old dog, had to die some time, and I had a feeling that time was coming. Laura handles his passing with grace and without gory detail. I am grateful for the way she handles his death because I find it hard enough to take without reading it in infinite detail. Herbie is now huddled closer.

As I immerse myself in the opening chapters of the book, it becomes clear that this mystery is going to be different from the others. The other novels in the series have started with a dead body or an outright murder. But this novel starts with an old acquaintance seeking Gail's help with something fishy that she can't quite prove or pin point. Right from the start, I'm dying to know how this mystery is going to unfold.

While the mystery unfolds, Gail finds herself in a bar with some people she knows. Her relationship woes leave her feeling nostalgic and we get to learn about people from her past. Laura's descriptions of how people have aged and changed (or not) really hit home with me and I begin thinking of people I've watched age over the years. Her character descriptions are as vivid as ever. I don't know if it's that Laura's writing grows stronger from book to book, or if my attachment to the characters is just becoming more real, but I find myself intrigued with all the people around Gail. I feel as though Laura did a fantastic job tackling the passing of time without resorting to super-obvious tactics like flashbacks.

What follows next is a scene in which Gail gets to confront the animal rights activist and voice her thoughts on animal cruelty, specifically certain rodeo events. I find myself practically cheering out loud as Gail hits the nail in the head, as far as I'm concerned. Her points echo my own feelings on horse keeping, the treatment of livestock, and even the wild mustang issue. YES, YES, YES!!

As the confrontation wears down, I find myself back in the reassuring lull of Gail's interactions with those around her. There's something so familiar and comfortable about the way Laura describes the flowing conversations, even though it's a scene quite different from anything in my own life. I'm still having a hard time reconciling with Gail's new vulnerability... and over a man! I'm almost mad that a character that I like and look up to can get so unhitched over a man, but before I have time to get too mad, the conversation drifts back to horses and I find myself relating again.

I take the time to chuckle about the fact that my moods shift with the characters in the book, but I'm not chuckling for long before the action unfolds! Man, every single one of these books puts me on an emotional roller coaster and I LOVE it.

The scenes that unravel are delightfully dark and have a feeling of a world very different from mine, very... western. Dark bars, dirt roads, Spanish cowboys with straw hats and blue shirts. I'm totally fascinated by it.

I'm equally fascinated and enamored by  Gail's house. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd like to design my own house in a similar way. I'm heartbroken that Gail has put it on the market. Everything seems to be changing, and I am shockingly saddened by the whole turn of events.

What really impresses me is the way Laura mixes subtle details with grand descriptions of big events to create a believable world. Everything from bar fights described in explicit detail to the fact that the pick up truck in the driveway has a nickname make for a world that is very real to me, despite the fact that it's nothing like the world I actually live in.

But perhaps my favorite scene of the book is the big cattle gathering. The description of a perfect day, a mix of relaxing and exciting, the smells, the sights, the way the cattle move, all had me completely wrapped up and more than a little jealous (what with my broken leg and all).

My joy in this western world is cut short, however, by a crime so garish I can barely stomach it. Thankfully, Laura is quick with the comic relief, using a pair of personable Queensland terriers to take my mind off of the discovery Gail and her friend make.

It should come as no surprise that the comedy is short lived. Very soon, Gail is back to dealing with some pretty serious relationship woes. Without giving too much away, I just want to say that I cannot understand why she's with Lonny. I haven't liked him since the get go and I definitely don't like him now. The more I read about their seemingly failing relationship, the more my hackles rise. I do feel sorry for the bastard, but really, what did he expect? I'm rooting for my favorite vet-detective to keep her independence and just walk away from him.

Of course, Roped features some of Gail's work stories. One of the things I truly enjoy about this series is the description of day to day equine vet calls. Laura does a brilliant job describing various patients, from high strung horses who try to kill the vet, to steady older patients who mind their manners even in the worst of times. Gail's thoughts and feelings on each patient are realistic and often leave me in stitches. By now, the reader has become acquainted with some of the 'local horses' and some familiar faces appear in the daily rounds. It's just another thing that makes these books so believable.

But perhaps what Laura does best is lull me into a false sense of security. This book is very different from the previous novels in the series in that there is no dead body at the beginning. The nature of the mystery is different. The author seems to have a great time toying with that. Even with some excellent foreshadowing that leaves me with the promise that something is about to go very, very wrong, I find myself totally absorbed in the every day... the roping, the western dancing, the ins and outs of Gail's tumultuous relationship.

The other thing that's great about this 'different sort of mystery' is that Gail tackles it differently than the other books. There's no way to involve the police because there's no real evidence... only a strong suspicion. There's a lot of wait-and-see and the suspense is delicious.

Of course, it isn't long before the action builds, and despite the fact that I've been well warned and expecting it, I jump when it finally happens. Again, without giving away any spoilers, let me just say that the bratty little dog in this novel brings me to tears as the drama unfolds.

One of the things I loved about Roughstock was the involvment of the horses at the end of the novel. I was delighted to see the animals play even more of a role in Roped. As Laura describes Gail riding blindly in the dark on a quiet, young horse, I'm brought back to Vermont with Rayzer in the summer of 2011. Best of all, Laura manages to write the animals into the story line without being cheesy like some books tend to be. I feel like all the animals in my life are such an important part of my own story line, and it's nice to see that reflected in a novel without being over done.

And then, the mystery that has been so quiet and strange all along takes center stage with a crash and I am stunned at the violence, even though I had the right suspects in mind for once! By this point in the series, I have come to expect a dramatic finish, and this book didn't disappoint. For all my sleuthing and guessing, I was close, but not quite. As usual, the book got my blood pumping, and I wasn't convinced it was over until it really was.

Laura certainly knows how to keep a reader hooked. Between the suspense, the action, the mystery, and the fact that there are unanswered questions about Gail's relationship, I will definitely be back for more.

...and did I mention that the last page of the book had me blubbering like an idiot? Because it did.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cutter is FREE Today

                                                by Laura Crum

            As a Valentine’s gift, my mystery novel, Cutter, is available for free today and tomorrow (Kindle edition). Any reader who would like to try my mystery series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, now is the time. The first book in the twelve book series, Cutter, is free Feb 13th and 14th as a Kindle edition. Here is the link.
My first mystery novel, Cutter, came about for a variety of reasons. At the time I wrote it I was roughly thirty years old, and had spent the last five years of my life immersed in cowhorse and cutting horse training and competition. I worked as an assistant to trainers, I took lessons from other trainers, and I trained my own horses and competed on the weekends. I also loved the novels of Dick Francis, and one day a light bulb went off in my head. Maybe I could use my background training western cowhorses in the same way he had used his background as a steeple chase jockey—to create entertaining horse-themed mysteries. And so Cutter was born.
I will freely admit that I modeled the book on my much-loved Dick Francis novels. Whenever I got stuck, wondering what to do next, I would open a book by the master and try to see how he did it. Then I would go back to writing. So, yes, Cutter has a strong flavor of Dick Francis. But I fail to see anything bad about that (!)
The plotting may have borrowed from Francis, but the details of Cutter all came from my own life. The people and horses of the cutting horse world in California-- the world that I had absorbed first hand for many years—are the basis for the characters in this book, described just as I knew them. Oh, I didn’t name any names, and I mixed up one trainer’s face with another trainer’s style, but these people are the real deal.
The horses are the real deal, too. Gail’s horse in the story, Gunner, is modeled on my own Gunner—who is still with me and doing well at thirty-three years of age. I bought Gunner when I was 25 and working as an assistant to some very well-regarded cowhorse and cutting horse trainers. Gunner was in my riding string, and when a buyer came for this sweet colt I couldn’t stand it, and offered the owner his full price (and then I had to take out a loan to come up with the money). Here we are shortly after I bought Gunner—he is three years old and I am pretty proud to own him. He was by far the most expensive horse I’d ever bought, and royally bred to be a cowhorse.

Gunner was bred to be a cowhorse, all right, but I soon tired of the abusive practices I saw in that sport and veered toward cutting, which was overall (at least what I saw of it) easier on the horses. The trouble was that Gunner wasn’t as well suited to be a cutting horse as he was to be a cowhorse. Gunner was 15.3 and had plenty of bone. He was not the typical, little, catty-looking cutting horse. The first cutting horse trainer I worked with took one look at Gunner and said, “Sell him and get another one. A smaller one.” But I didn’t.
I continued to train Gunner to be a cutter. And despite the fact that he was a big horse for that event, Gunner was really quick and extremely cowy. He made a believer out of quite a few trainers. I had a couple of them offer to train him for free if I would let them show him. I declined. I wanted to train Gunner myself. Here we are at the family ranch, practicing. I particularly like the way his mane and my hair are standing straight up.

I’m sure that Gunner would have been a much more successful cutting horse if I had allowed others to train him, but not only did I want the experience of training my own horse, I wanted to be sure that Gunner was never abused—as I had seen so many horses abused in the barns of some of the trainers I worked for (not all of the trainers were abusive—but some were). I persisted, and over time Gunner won quite a few awards. Here we are winning the cutting at the Santa Cruz County Fair—I still have the buckle.

I eventually got tired of the politics involved in judged events, and took up team roping, which is timed. And despite the fact that I had never competed at team roping before, I trained Gunner to be a rope horse. Here we are, roping a steer at my uncle’s arena.

Gunner and I did a lot together, and my mystery series is full of the life we shared (with a few murders and some exciting horseback chases thrown in). I spent twenty years writing that series, and I owned Gunner the whole time. He has been my companion through all of it.

Gunner at 17 years, retired from competition, but still my riding horse.

When he was twenty I turned him out to pasture. He had ten good years living that way. He is the blaze-faced horse on the right.

When Gunner was thirty and had a hard time keeping weight on in the pasture, I brought him back home so that he could get just what he needed to eat and lots of attention. Here he is, thirty-two years old, being hand grazed by my son.

Gunner is thirty-three this spring, still with me, still sound. I love him dearly. He gets much handwalking and grazing and all he wants to eat. I will always be grateful for our long run together—thirty years today—and happy that my books commemorate his life.

So if you do download the free edition of Cutter (which I hope you will), you can read it knowing that Gunner is a real horse—and he has had a very happy life. The cover of Cutter was based on a photo of Gunner (cutting a cow) that I sent to the artist. I can see a resemblance. What do you think?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Winter Wondering

Why, pray tell, is a native southern Californian writing about winter. Well the answer is simply, we are actually getting a taste of it this year.

I know that readers on the east coast are probably thinking “pish posh” right now, especially after the recent blizzard Nemo, but for those of us who have never had to learn to be hearty and who are not acclimated to temps in the 20s and forecasts that include wind chill factors, the weather lately is wearing on our tolerance for the season.

Generally I joke with friends in other parts of the country by saying California has 4 seasons – fire, wind, earthquakes and mudslides. But this year we can add rain, hail, frigid temperatures and even a hint of snow. My ranch is in the foothills of inland San Diego County at the moderate altitude of about 1800 feet so we are used to more fluctuations in temperatures than coastal areas. It is normal for us to get down to the 30s at night for a few collective weeks throughout the winter, but this year has had us with one week with nights in the 20s and highs only in the 50s followed by a week with highs in the high 70s.

A horse show facilty at a slighty higher elevation.
Our horses were thinking "seriously, jump in that?"

My poor horses don’t know what season it is. That coupled with heavy rain, hail and wind and we are all wishing for spring. Now this is not to say that any horse on my property is exactly enduring the hardships of a harsh winter. Each of my horses has no fewer that 2 blankets each – one a rain sheet for wet days and the other a heavy, waterproof blanket with fill for warmth at night. And a few of them, like Uiver and Pete also have cotton and/or wool stable sheets. I know, I know, horses have survived for centuries without so much as even shelter, but the horses at my barn that compete are body shaved in the winter and frankly, I can’t sleep at night when the weather is bad if they are not blanketed.

Even my truck looks cold.

Earlier today I was talking with some colleagues in New England and was amazed to hear about the blizzard Nemo and the amazing amounts of snow that was dumped on that area. That got me wondering how horse owners in areas, that really do get real winters, deal with the weather and keep their horses fit, happy and healthy throughout the season. For us, we have to deal with mud mostly but we generally have periods of dry weather in between storms that allows corrals to dry out at least partially. But with the mud and the extremes in temperature fluctuations, we have to worry about hoof issues like Thrush, Seedy Toe and abscesses in addition to colic if they don’t drink enough when it is cold.

How about all of you? How are you weathering the winter.

My dog Morgan's version of hybernating. Very stressed by the wet weather.
(She has a t-shirt on because of a recent minor surgical procedure.)