Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Your Horse Won't Behave

                                    by Laura Crum

            CAUTION—this post may be quite upsetting to those of you who view horse training very differently than I do. In fact, I had almost decided not to do this series of horse training posts. I really don’t need to convince anybody of anything, and I feel nothing but admiration for those of my fellow horsemen who achieve a happy relationship with their horses. I don’t care how you get there if it works for you and your horse. So, yeah, I had almost decided not to rattle anybody’s cage (even inadvertently) with this post.
But…I got an email after I had posted my last blog post (which was about a nice trail ride that I had on my reliable horse). And this young lady very sincerely wanted to know how my horse got the way he is. She loved her horse, but she was afraid to ride him on the trails because he was so unpredictable—and on his bad days he did violent, scary things, which she quite rightly felt were putting both of them in danger. In the course of our conversation I became aware that she didn’t even know that these methods that I planned to write about existed. And, of course, the way all of my horses became reliable riding horses was through this particular breaking/training process.
  So I am putting my experiences out here in case they help someone who isn’t happy with how his/her horse is behaving and doesn’t feel that the methods he/she is using are helping the horse all that much. I was raised (in the horse world) by some pretty handy cowboys, and the horse training methods I learned are, by and large, the methods used to turn out a reliable ranch horse. Those of you who have ridden a good ranch horse will know that this is a pretty dependable sort of critter—these posts are aimed at explaining how we “made” such reliably broke horses.
 Also, the “your” in this title doesn’t mean you. It doesn’t mean anyone in particular. It is a generic “your.” I absolutely wasn’t thinking of anyone when I wrote it. And again, this post is just my opinions. No need for anyone to agree. I have no wish to convince you that my way of thinking/training is right.
If you are happy with how your horse behaves, more power to you. If what you are doing works for you, you should not care at all that I might find your horse’s behavior completely unacceptable. We all have different standards for our horses and different goals, for which we need different cues and responses. As I said, if you are happy with your horse, why should you care at all what I would do?
            That said, I see and read a lot of stuff about ill-broke horses. Horses that grabbed the bit and bolted, or spooked and spun and ran away, or balked and reared and fell over, or bogged their head and bucked their rider off. I hear about people who are hurt, or almost hurt and very scared, or too anxious about their horse’s behavior to want to ride any more, or selling their horse because they’ve become afraid of it, or spending all their precious riding time trying to convince the horse to do the most basic of things. If I know the person/horse, or I’ve been following their blog, I often know exactly what (in my opinion) happened to cause this crap, and, in fact, I’ve often been sitting here at my keyboard shaking my head and thinking “this isn’t going to end well”—months before the horse started behaving really badly.
            Do I tell the person? Short answer—no. I used to do this. It never worked. The people were insulted, and nothing changed. I don’t do it any more. So this post is what I would say if someone asked for my thoughts. If anybody benefits from it, that’s a good thing. If everybody would just like to argue with me, that’s fine, too.
            Anyway, most of these problems that I see were caused by the way the horse was trained—or not trained. The horse hasn’t got a decent foundation. He/she is not (in my vernacular) a “broke” horse. And so, when he/she doesn’t feel like obeying his/her rider/handler, he/she just jerks the reins/leadrope away, or bulls through the bridle, or pushes through the handler, and follows his/her own inclinations. And usually, someone gets hurt. In my view, this is a lousy system.
            (The other common reason for behavioral problems that I see is a basically well-trained horse that has learned he can get away with bullying his particular owner/rider. But that’s another post.)
            My way of training horses isn’t so popular these days. Some people will tell you it is cruel. And in my lifetime I definitely moved into a gentler approach than the one I learned as a young woman. But I still kept the basic principles and steps. You know why? Because they worked.
            Horses trained the way I trained horses do not, in general, come unglued and untrained and hurt their riders. There are exceptions, sure. Some horses will not become solid citizens no matter what method you use. But overall the methods that I used produced horses that stayed broke, even under pressure, even when they were feeling fresh…etc.
            I am (or was—I don’t train horses any more) a traditional western-style horse trainer. This is almost a dirty word in these days of natural horsemanship…etc. But I have not seen results from these newer methods that are anything like as effective as what we could achieve with traditional methods.
            Before I go any further, traditional methods can be abused. They can be cruel. Yes, that is true. Pretty much any method can be abused. And when a horse is trained so ineffectually that he is a constant danger to anyone who handles/rides him or is around him, and he ends up on a truck to Mexico through no fault of his own—well, that is abuse, too, in my book.
            Horses are dangerous. They can kill you. The very first goal of horse training is or should be to teach a horse to be safe for humans to deal with. Safe to handle, safe to ride. We call that a broke horse. It is a fundamental concept that people disregard at their peril. And the peril can be pretty extreme.
            So when I trained horses in a traditional way I did a lot of things that were aimed at showing a horse that it did him no good to resist the human handler/rider. These things were all set up such that the horse could not win. Yes, that is what I said. The horse could not win. Because that is the foundation of a safe horse, a broke horse. Even when the chips are down he will obey your cues—because his training has taught him that obeying is the only answer.
            Let us contrast this to the currently fashionable approach, which boils down to trying to get the horse to do things because something good will happen—like food or a positive response of some sort from his human. The horse learns that if he does what’s wanted he wins. Sounds good right? Until the day the horse doesn’t give a flying you know what about what’s wanted. He’s too excited or scared or pissed off or fresh or what have you. He doesn’t care about pleasing you and he is going to do what he feels like doing. And at that moment you are totally screwed. Your pleasant training system is going to fail you. And every single proponent of this sort of training that I know of has gotten themselves in this sort of pickle (by their own account). Excuses are made, but yeah—the horse kicked them or ran over them or dragged them or dumped them or bolted with them or stepped on them or flat refused to do what was asked…etc. And in my opinion most (not all) of these wrecks could have been prevented if the horse had been given a different sort of training foundation.
            Let’s say you are riding through the woods on a tough trail and your horse sees something that really, really scares him. He spooks and leaps forward, and there are rocks and crap ahead. You pull on the reins to check him (no room for a one rein stop or such green horse stuff) and the horse does one of two things. He gives his head to the pull, because he has been trained in a traditional way and was checked up enough that giving to the pull is automatic and ingrained, and even though he is terrified his nose comes down in response to the pull, and you gain control of him. Or he throws his head wildly in the air in response to your pull on the reins, and keeps running, completely out of control—because he is scared and he has never been shown beyond any doubt that he MUST to give to the pull—under every possible circumstance including terror. Which response do you want? Which response might save your life?
            For those who will say that you can get the first response without checking up and other traditional methods I would say—maybe. I haven’t seen this but sure, it could be possible. But I will bet anything you want that 90% of horses that respond in the first way were trained with traditional methods, including “bitting up” or “checking up.”
            What I have seen (a lot) is that horses that were trained without traditional training will often behave just fine—until they don’t want to. And then, whether scared, mad or fresh, they simply stick their noses out, or up, or down, and jerk the reins through their rider’s hands and do what they damn well please. And you know what? You can’t stop them.
            A horse is much stronger than you. Neither a harsh bit, nor a running martingale, nor a tie down will stop a horse that wants to resist your pull on the reins from running right through the bridle. The only thing that will keep the horse responding to the aids is successful training. Training that sticks no matter how extreme the situation—and this training cannot only be “feel good” training. Because gentle, feel good training only works when everything feels good. When the pressure is on and the shit hits the fan, the horse won’t give a rat’s ass about feel good training.
            I will digress here and say that if you have spent many years developing a partnership with a horse and covered hundreds of miles and been through plenty of tight spots (even if the horse acted like a complete jackass in a lot of those spots), yeah, sure, the horse may trust your leadership—no matter what training method you use, including strictly feel good type training. But I’ll be damned if I personally want to go through all the near wrecks and the years of not knowing how the horse will react under pressure that this system involves.
            The problem with all this is the danger. You are risking your life. You are risking your horse’s life. The only way to be on the safe side when you ride/handle a horse is to be really sure that the horse knows you are in charge and his training has taught him to obey your cues. All the time. No matter what.
            And how you get there is by putting the horse in some tough situations and teaching him that that he cannot win by resisting. He can only win by obeying. I’m not going to discuss all the different methods of achieving this, because I don’t know all of them. Some versions of traditional training are very cruel—and I have seen this. But it is not the methods per se that are cruel. It is the way they are applied. You have to be able to read a horse and know when it’s time to stop and when you must push on. And you have to care about a horse’s well-being. Every single thing that I talk about can be overdone, or done too harshly, and then it becomes abusive. Horses are hurt, or emotionally shut down, or turn into rebels when these methods are poorly applied. I will tell you what I learned to do—and I CAN tell you that, properly done, the methods I used produced reliably broke horses—unless the horse is determined to be an outlaw. (And they do come that way.) 
            The other thing about the methods I use is that they are safe for the rider/handler (if you are not completely clueless). They are ways to teach a horse to give to pressure that are done on the ground. The horse is fighting himself (if he fights) and not you. And the situation is set up so that the only win lies in yielding to pressure and getting the release. This is a very effective lesson (if done properly) and will truly stick with a horse, even when he is scared or mad or what have you.
            Before I go any further I want to add that those who actually know me will say that I am, if anything, too easy on my horses and too protective of them. My horses trust me and they do what I ask willingly. Those basic tools that were instilled in them by traditional methods aren’t really needed any more. But the trust doesn’t happen overnight. There was a time, when these horses were young, that the basic training that was given to them provided the foundation for the trust. The horses obeyed because they’d learned that was the only workable answer, and thus we all stayed safe in the years where they were learning to trust in their rider.
            The other thing about this sort of training is that it’s very helpful if you want to put a different rider on your horse—especially a beginner. The horse will obey, not because he “trusts” the new rider, but because his training foundation is there. If the rider pulls on him he gives to the bit, and stops or turns, which, along with going forward when kicked, is the simple bottom line of “broke.” If a horse is broke he can be sold and passed from one rider to another and he will stay obedient for all of them. (My Henry is a very good example of this.)
            So, how did we achieve “broke” horses? First I am going to refine the definition a bit. In general, what I learned to make was a reliable all around western horse—a ranch horse. The basis of what we did was the cowhorse tradition, which comes from the Spanish/Mexican vaqueros. Such horses not only stopped and steered reliably, they “bridled up,” or collected easily. They took the walk, trot, or lope at a signal; they would stop at a light touch on the reins, even from the gallop. They would “watch” a cow (meaning turn with a cow), and you could rope a cow off of them, and open and close a gate from their backs. They were reliable in any sort of high pressure situation, from wide-open gathers on a twenty thousand acre ranch in rough country, to the intensity of parting/branding cattle in a big corral. (By the way, all my horses can/could do all these things.) These are the skills that are useful/necessary when doing ranch work.
In general, ranch horses are not handled much until they are three. At three they are given ninety days or so of training, which is the foundation for everything that comes afterward, and establishes the “broke.” They are given six more months of riding as a four year old, turned out for the winter, and brought into full use as a five year old. Some time between five and eight (depending on the individual horse and the skill of the rider), these horses are deemed broke. At this point they will obey whatever rider is on them, and can be trusted to do their job under a wide variety of circumstances.
Everybody breaks horses a little differently. But what I will give you in this short series of posts is a very brief overview of some general steps that are often/usually used to turn out the sort of broke all around ranch horses that I’m talking about here.

            The very first thing we did with any green horse was tie him up. This is the basis of everything. If you cannot tie a horse hard and fast and have him stand there as long as needed, your horse is not broke. It is a fundamental part of training that underlies everything else. Some horses have a lot more trouble with this than others. But they all need to learn it.
            It isn’t pretty to begin with. It isn’t fun for the horse. But it is the single best way to get a horse started on the path to being broke. Yes, they can get hurt. But they can get hurt no matter what method you use to train them. If you tie with some thought and care, they are unlikely to get hurt. To be effective, a horse needs to be tied for a good long time. Young ranch horses were fed in the morning, caught and tied after that, taken to water at lunch, and tied for the rest of the day until dinner. Not in the blazing sun, no. But yes, all day. For those of you who think this is cruel, all I can say is that after a week to a month of this (depending on the individual horse—some only needed a couple of days), those horses were much better able to handle the breaking process. They had learned the main thing that they needed to know just from the tying. Fighting doesn’t get you anywhere. And they had learned patience. Two absolutely essential qualities in a broke horse.
            We always tied a colt until being tied was no big deal. We did nothing but tie him until he could be counted on to stand quietly as long as he was tied, in a relaxed pose that indicated he understood that there was no point in doing anything else but wait patiently. At that point he was ready to move on with the breaking process. And it took some horses a good long time to get to this stage. But this is by FAR the best and easiest way to get a young horse into the frame of mind that enables him to accept training to be a reliable saddle horse.
            Tying does some other things that aren’t immediately obvious. It gets the horse used to giving to pressure on his head, rather than fighting it, which helps him with giving to the pressure exerted by the bridle. And it makes him far safer to lead and handle from the ground. A horse that has been taught by tying can almost always be counted on to yield to a well-timed tug on the leadrope, rather than bulling through it. So much better for leading and also for ponying from another horse.
            Tying is useful throughout a horse’s life. Whenever I’ve had a problem with a horse, I’ve always gone back to the tying. Leaving a horse saddled and tied for a few hours will go a long way toward resolving many things. When the horse stands relaxed, with one hind leg cocked, you can often go back to work with him and find that his attitude is significantly more cooperative—and thus a fight is averted.
            I will write about the methods we used to check a horse up in the next post. I’m sure I’ve managed to alienate a bunch of people just from what I’ve already said. The last time I talked about tying on this blog a few people called me “cruel.” But bear in mind—I love my horses and take good care of them and none of the horses I own (including the two of them that I broke as three year olds and rode for their entire working lives—one is 25 and one is 34)—EVER hurt me. They didn’t once dump me, or bolt with me, or step on me, or drag me, or run over me, or kick me. I rode them all on many, many trail rides and gathers and had no wrecks. And they are all living a happy life with me today. So these methods do have a good side.

PS—Please do not take an older horse that has never been tied and tie him solid to fix his problems. Older horses who have set patterns do not always or even usually benefit from such attempts at retraining. When I buy an older horse (older than eight) I make sure that I am OK with him the way he is. Older horses who have a ranch background and have been tied as part of the breaking process will often benefit from some hours of tying—especially if they are showing behavior issues.

PPS—Tying is a very effective training method with a young/green horse, but if you have not done it before PLEASE be sure to get some help from someone who has. It can go very badly wrong. Never tie to something a horse can break. I am not going to try to describe what is and isn’t a safe tying situation—because I am afraid that someone will get hurt trying to follow my ideas without really understanding the potential problems. I learned to break young horses with the help of people who had done it many times, and this is the approach I would recommend to others.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Riding New Trails


by Laura Crum

            Well, I had a post all ready for today about how we started horses on the ranches where I worked when I was a young woman, but I’m not posting it. I think it contains some valuable insights, but to tell the truth, I’m just not in the mood to hear people jump all over me because it’s not “their” preferred style of training. Sometimes I’m up for these discussions and sometimes not. So maybe I’ll post the horse training post somewhere down the line.
            For today, I dunno, words just don’t seem like what matters. Or arguing about horse training styles. I have a good horse and I went for a lovely ride this afternoon through the coastal California hills on trails new to both of us, and we had fun.
            We don’t compete at anything, and our ride was only five miles or so, but the joy factor was every bit as great, I think, as that of any equestrian on the planet. Temps were in the 70's and there was a pleasant ocean breeze. The lack of stress, pressure, and any goal other than enjoying ourselves really added to the pleasure. 
            I am so grateful to my little yellow mule, who was clearly as happy and interested as I was to be covering some unfamiliar terrain. He walked out with his ears up, alert, but calm, and really, in my book there is no greater delight to be had with a horse than this relaxed camaraderie. Nether of us were anxious at any point; neither of us were ever bored or uncomfortable or too tired. We found our way around a nice loop, despite never having been on these trails before, so that was rewarding, too.
            Yes, Sunny got the way he is through those very horse training methods that I wrote about, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For today, here are just a few photos to illustrate a good life with a good horse. (Most that I took were just too blurry--I don’t stop for photos.) Hopefully you can share in our happy ride—if only vicariously. Cheers!


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Scotland, here I come!

By Gayle Carline
Horse Lover and Incredibly Stubborn Woman

When I was 45, I finally arrived at the horse party, and knowing my own limitations, I decided to stick with western-style riding. That saddle is so large and comfortable, I could spend all day in it.

The few times my horse has thrown me, I've really hated to leave it.

This year is a special year for me. It's the Chinese Year of the Horse, which is my sign. And I'm 60, which is some kind of a milestone, I suppose. At any rate, I decided to have a big, fat, horsey birthday year and celebrate for the entire 365 days.

My Swatch "Year of the Horse" Watch!

Part of my celebration is to visit Scotland. I've got Celtic blood in my veins and have always wanted to see the Highlands, the moors, the castles. We made all the arrangements with a lovely travel agent, including a day of golfing for my husband, Dale.

It's Scotland, after all. If you're a golfer, you gotta golf. While he was golfing, what was I supposed to do? An idea occurred to me: go horseback riding.

There was only one problem. I'm pretty sure they don't have western saddles, and I've never ridden English. It's even possible that I told my trainer Niki that she'd never get my tush on one of those little leather postage stamps.

Never say "never," Peeps. It'll bite you in the butt every time.

For about two months now, I've been taking English lessons on my little mare, Frostie. The first day, it felt like I was on a viewing platform. As comfy as I felt in my western saddle, I suddenly had no sense of balance on this little, hard triangle. Over the weeks, I slowly became more used to it, and I do mean "slowly" and "more used to it."

Like my western boots and jeans? LOL!

Here's the thing - I don't HAVE to ride in Scotland. I don't HAVE to learn to ride English. Call me stubborn. I want to ride in the Highlands, and I don't care what I have to do in order to do it.

So I can now two-point (at the trot), post, and even find my diagonal. I doubt if I start riding English for fun, but I'm proud of my new skill and I can't wait to try it out. My only worry is that I'm only 5'2" and I know that Scotland is full of sport horses. I'm hoping there's a pony out there for me.

How about you? Have you ever learned to do something you didn't want to do, just because you wanted to reach another goal?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


                                                           by Laura Crum

            After I asked what people would like to read about (A Question to Readers), I got some interesting responses. Most of the comments were on facebook, so if you don’t go there, you won’t have seen them. The overall consensus was that I should write about both my horse training ideas and how I developed my horse property. Some people suggested alternating, but the two subjects will both require a series of posts, so I think it will have to be first one and then the other. More people seemed interested in the horse training theme (at least on facebook—blog comments tended to favor the horse property theme), and I have a post already written on this topic, so I’ll start with that. And what I’m really going to start with is a disclaimer.
            I am not a “professional” horse trainer. I worked for half a dozen professional horse trainers as an assistant and helped train well over a hundred colts, but horses that I trained solely by myself from start to finish number roughly twelve. Some of these were my own horses, some belonged to friends/family. I rode them all for at least a couple of years in order to take them from not-broke (or less than thirty days previous riding) to broke saddle horses. Three of these I kept as forever horses, the rest were either sold or not mine. But they all made good reliable horses.
            I learned to train horses from some handy ranch cowboys and the professional trainers that I worked for. All of these trainers/cowboys came from a cowhorse background and shared some thinking in common. Over time I refined the methods I was taught and came up with my own basic protocol. Every horse is different and the protocol got modified to fit each colt. But certain steps always were used—some horses needed them only very briefly—others needed a lot of one thing or another. I always tried to pay attention to the individual horse and what that horse needed.
            I can explain my methods in these posts, but I can’t teach anyone how to read a horse. And it is the ability to read a horse that counts the most. Because you must read a horse accurately to know when it is time to back off or quit, and when you must push on. And so I am the first to say that the methods themselves are not the answer. But they are a start.
            These methods may seem cruel to some of you. And they can be cruel if you don’t know how to read a horse, or if you don’t have any compassion for a horse. I have seen these methods used in very cruel ways.
            But…here’s the flip side. I have seen WAY too many people trying to get along with horses that are not truly broke. Basically any time the ill-broke horse feels that he doesn’t want to obey, he simply bulls through the bridle (or halter) and does what he wants. And this just doesn’t work out. People get hurt or killed or very, very scared.
            Horses are dangerous. The number one goal of horse training should be to produce a horse that is reliably obedient and thus relatively safe. This really needs to be kept in mind.
            In my view the rather unpalatable sounding truth is that what makes a horse reliably obedient is not “feel good” training. It’s teaching him in effective ways that resistance doesn’t work—such that the habit of yielding rather than resisting is ingrained. This kind of training isn’t always pretty. It can’t be. If we stick to what’s pretty, we will never have a horse who obeys when things get tough.
            When do you really NEED a horse to obey the bridle? Moseying down the trail on a calm day? No. In the roping box at the start of a run, or at the start of an endurance ride, or when something has truly scared him? Yes. When the adrenaline comes up and the horse really wants to ignore your signal—that is the moment you most need him to stay broke. So that you stay safe. And this is where my traditional “coercive” methods will really pay off.
            By “coercive,” I do not mean hitting or spurring or punishing the horse. I mean using traditional horsemanship methods such as “checking up” or bitting up” that teach a horse that resisting the pull of the reins is futile. This is done in such a way that when the horse fights the pull by throwing his head he only increases the pressure on himself. If done skillfully, a horse will forever respond to the pull of the reins by “giving” his head—even under difficult circumstances. And thus the rider will always have a good chance of staying in control. Horse and rider will both be safer. And that is the goal of training.
            So I am going to begin a short series of posts describing the way I learned to train horses. It’s fine if you don’t agree with these methods and you are welcome to say so. But please bear in mind that though at times this training is not “fun” for the horse, the ultimate goal of making a consistently obedient horse, even under pressure, is something that I feel is truly valuable. Such horses are both far safer to ride and handle, and also far more likely to find a good forever home than their ill-broke, unreliable (and much more dangerous) fellows.

PS—For those of you who wanted to hear how I developed my horse property, I will do a brief series of horse training posts, and then a much longer series of posts about this property and how it came to be what it is. To be honest, it will take me awhile to both contemplate what I want to say about my home and write the posts. Developing this property has been my life’s work, as much or more than writing my mystery series, so there is a lot that I want to talk about, above and beyond what makes for a good horse set up.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chicken Drama and Wild Horses

by Linda Benson

I really enjoy watching animals. I love to watch horses, dogs, cats, and yes, even chickens as they go about their daily lives and relate to each other. I could probably spend all day sitting in a chair outside, just watching.

But alas, I was across the canal with my wheelbarrow, cutting blackberries, when a very big drama played out recently at our house. All I had left was the pictures to prove what happened. But as a good animal observer, it was fairly apparent to me.

"Your rooster," my husband hollered to me, "is chasing Dory all around and pecking on her."

Uh oh. This was the confrontation I had been dreading. The rooster is a new addition to our flock. For a year, we'd had only laying hens, which had all gotten along quite nicely without a male, taking dirt baths in my flower beds, following us around the yard for treats such as left-over fruit and vegetable scraps (they love watermelon) and of course laying big brown eggs.

But since a couple of my hens had become "broody" (deciding to set on a nest instead of laying eggs,) I've had to either: buy fertile eggs for them to hatch, or buy new-born baby chicks and place them carefully underneath mama (and then cross my fingers that she'd accept them - she did.)

But this process would be so much easier if the hens just had a rooster (and then the eggs would be fertile and they could hatch their own.)

So - meet Rusty. He is a Welsummer Rooster (yes, spelled with only one "L") and he was four months old when we got him, just learning how to crow. Now he is five months old, and has pretty much figured everything out.

Our hen Dory (she is an old heritage breed called a Silver Gray Dorking) has been the lead hen for the past year. Similar to a wise old mare in horse herd dynamics, she has made the decisions for the flock, kept watch for predators, made the alarm sound when a large bird flies overhead, and pretty much been ruler of the roost (in lieu of an actual rooster.) And I knew she wouldn't give up that position easily.

So when my husband called out to me, I instantly knew what had happened. And the power shift did not go easily, because both Dory and Rusty had blood on their combs, which means they got into a nasty fight. And Dory (dear thing) had lost. Not only the fight, but her position as leader of the flock.

In fact for one entire day, she was extremely scared of Rusty, and every time she saw him, she'd fly up to sit next to me, for both moral support and safety.

And I watched them both closely for a couple of days, because although the balance of power had now shifted, I didn't want the young rooster (or anyone else, for that matter) to continue to pick on Dory, who obviously got the worst of the fight.

What was interesting was watching Dory's body language that second day. Just as horses will show submissiveness to an older horse, or to the herd leader, by posturing or mouthing like a baby, every time the rooster came near her, Dory flapped her wings slowly in a submissive gesture, as if to say "all right, you're the boss now."

The drama seems to be over for now, and Dory (a very people-oriented hen) is hanging out with the rest of the flock again. They free-range all over our property during the day, so they can basically go wherever they want (but stay in a safe pen at night so predators won't get them.)

But Dory still comes and sits next to me from time to time, as if sharing girl talk. "He's a big meanie," she says.

"Yes, I know," I tell her. "It's a macho thing."

What does all of this have to do with wild horses? Well, this:

Wouldn't you like it if the BLM would release some of those thousands of mustangs they are holding in corrals across the west, and allow them to free-range on some private (or government) property with viewing stands set up so people could watch them? They have wildlife viewing places like this for elk - I have been to several of them.

Would you stop at a place like this and just sit for awhile and watch horses be horses, in natural surroundings? I would. I would! Doesn't this seem like a good solution, at least for some of those horses? Let's talk about it!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Question to Readers

                                                  by Laura Crum

            So today I want to ask for your thoughts. I have in mind two possible writing projects for blog posts. One is a series of posts on different horse training subjects, based on my years of training horses and addressing the many things I see today that I do not agree with. I am quite sure these posts will provoke a good deal of argument, as my views are not currently fashionable.
            On the other hand, I don’t train horses any more, and I don’t really have a deep need to write about the subject. What I do want to write about—for myself—is a piece about the way I developed my own little horse property. This would be a series of posts similar to the autobiographical posts I did a year or so ago about my life with horses. And also similar to the series of posts I did on building my little pond. There wouldn’t be a whole lot about horses in these posts—some horse stuff, lots about garden design and architecture…etc. I feel sure these posts wouldn’t generate much discussion.
            So here’s my question—which would you prefer to read? I would really love it if you would let me know in the comments (either here or on facebook). Thank you.
            And here, just for fun, is a photo of my most recent solo ride through the forest on my good little yellow trail horse. We had a lovely time. I hope summer has also been good to all of you and your equine friends.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What To Do?

                                                by Laura Crum

            I was recently faced with yet another horsey drama. I don’t know about you guys, but I HATE horsey dramas. This is one more reason why I am drawn to gardening and my pond…etc, these days, where the dramas tend to be a little more benign. But last week, I got a phone call from my friend/boarder/horse partner Wally, that pretty much made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
            “I got a call from T today, “ he said.
            “Uh oh,” I said.
            “Uh oh is right. The horses got out on the road last night.”
            “Oh no,” I said, and a nightmare immediately flashed through my mind.
            “The horses are OK,” Wally reassured me, “and the neighbor put them back in the field, but we’ve got a problem.”
            So now I have to backtrack and explain what horses these are. It’s kind of a long, complicated story, so you can either bear with me, or just skip the rest of this post.
            Over the last twenty years I’ve taken care of a motley collection of horses. My older retired horses, Wally’s older, retired horses, and some horses that belonged to friends and uhmm, acquaintances, that I took on because they were sweet old geldings that needed a break. Some of the time I kept these horses at a pasture that I own in the Sierra foothills (three hours from here). But that pasture is not a good place for horses in the summer and fall, when the grass dries up and the heat is severe. Horses that live there year round must be fed and fly-sprayed every day in the dry season. And I had no way to do this. My friend who caretakes the property doesn’t mind keeping any eye on the horses during grass season, but he doesn’t want the job of daily feeding and care that the dry season demands. So we brought the horses home every June and kept them in my corrals for the summer and fall, bringing them back to the pasture in December, when (usually) the green grass comes back.

            But I kept acquiring horses, and I didn’t have enough room at home for all of them. Wally had a friend named T who had been in the horse business all his life. Fifteen or so years ago, he was down to one old mare, whose companion, a pony, had just died. T approached Wally about finding a companion for the mare. And Wally and I decided this was the answer to our problem.
            Because T had twenty acres of pasture that grew good feed year round, due to a hillside that was irrigated by a spring. And T’s place was twenty minutes from us. So we put the three older retired geldings that we had no room for at home out at T’s place for the summer. And they did so well that we left them there year round.
            At first it seemed ideal. T was happy and we were happy. But, as is usual in life, there was a downside. The main downside was the fences. The fences were, in places, really crappy. Like several strands of sagging barbed wire. We picked them up and patched them up as best we could, but truly making the place a well-fenced pasture would have taken thousands of dollars. Both Wally and I preferred not to spend our money on T’s place. And T was not interested in spending money on the fences. So we limped along for many years, patching the fences as needed. Our horses did not get out. We had a couple of minor cuts, but nothing serious.
            We acquired a few more horses that needed homes. We retired a couple more horses. At one point we had seven horses at T’s place. And the field carried them pretty well. We fed them during the dry season, whenever it was needed. Overall the horses thrived and were happy. However…
            The median age of our little group of retirees got older and older. Half of them needed senior feed to thrive. T was not interested in feeding, or really, in anything but looking at the horses. Wally and I drove out there at all hours of the day and night to feed and blanket/unblanket our increasingly geriatric herd. We began to wonder if we were doing the right thing keeping this whole program going, as some of the horses were too thin, even with heaps of senior feed and free choice pasture. Three years ago we made a hard choice, and put two of the old guys down. I brought Gunner (then 31) home to give him the absolute best care I could.
            Both Wally and I were maxed out on the idea of putting our energy and resources and time into caring for horses at T’s place. T’s old mare was dead now. But three horses remained in the pasture. A bay gelding that belonged to me, a sorrel mare that belonged to Wally, and a gray gelding that belonged to neither of us, but that we were effectively responsible for. And we had no idea what to do with these horses.
            None of them were horses that either of us had spent much time riding. The bay gelding, Danny, I bought as a three year old. I rode him for six months and then I got pregnant. I gave Danny to a friend, and he did pretty well, but developed a bucking habit. Still, the friend was getting him through it, when Danny was severely injured in a freak accident (got hit by a truck). The friend would have put him down, but I took Danny back and rehabbed him. He never got completely sound, but he was sound enough to be a pasture pet. And a pasture pet is what he is today, at 18 years of age. Not sound, very sweet. Easy to handle on the ground.
            Wally’s mare is one that he raised himself, out of his old mare, Tiz, and by a good stallion that belonged to a friend of mine. Wally put the filly in training for the Snaffle Bit Futurity as a 3 year old, but she flunked out. He tried to use her as a heel horse, but she flunked out there, too. (I should add that she was willing and athletic but a little too inclined to prop when stopped hard—that was the only reason she “flunked” out.) He gave her to friends to use as a broodmare and she produced somewhere in the neighborhood of seven nice babies, all of whom sold for a good price. But then the bottom fell out of the horse biz and the friends gave her back. Wally found her a home with some other friends who wanted to raise colts, but they got a divorce and gave her back. So now the little sorrel mare is 19 and out in the pasture at T’s. Friendly, not quite sound, and a happy pasture pet.
            The gray gelding belonged to friends who didn’t want him any more. He’s in his mid-20’s, not quite sound, a very sweet horse and a happy pasture pet.
            Wally and I don’t know what in the world we could do with these three horses if we can’t keep them at T’s. Neither of us can afford to board them or “retire” them at a retirement farm. And I’m gonna be frank here. The five horses I care for at home (two of them retired, the others in their 20’s or late teens)-- all of these horses have carried me, or my son, or Wally, for hundreds of miles. All without one wreck, or even a bad moment. They have taken care of us and now it’s my turn to take care of them. They have EARNED their retirement.
            The horses at T’s place are not in this category. Perhaps through no fault of their own, but for a fact, they have not been the horses who carried us safely through so many hours in the saddle. I don’t owe them the way I owe the five horses here. And this is very clear in my mind.
            Also, I have five corrals, and there are five horses here. My small horse property is “legal” for five horses—no more. I absolutely cannot take another horse out here.
            So Wally and I both feel that keeping the horses at T’s, crappy fences and all, is the only option for Danny, Little Witch and Gray Dog. But it’s completely unacceptable to have horses out on the road. Wally went out that morning to find out what had happened.
            Well, it turned out to be the kind of stupid drama that is all too common in the horse biz. Unbeknown to us, T and the neighbor had gotten into a pissing contest. First the neighbor had felled a tree on top of the pathetic fence and flattened it. The neighbor rebuilt the fence, but put it on T’s side of the property line. T insisted the fence be moved. Surveyors and lawyers were brought in. And apparently, sometime in the last week, the pissed off neighbor just took the fence down. This little drama had been going on for awhile (no one told us). And eventually the horses walked through the now non-existent fence, across the neighbor’s property, and got out on the busy road—at night. Thank God no one was hurt.
            Wally locked the horses up in the one corral on the property, and fed them, and we pondered what to do. We really didn’t have any options for these horses, as I have explained. We were both sick of the situation, but the horses were having a good life. We didn’t want to put the horses down, and T was still happy to have them in the pasture. Wally decided that as he is the easy-going one between the two of us (and this is very true), he would try to negotiate between T and the neighbor.
            So this goes on for three days. First Wally talks to the neighbor, then he talks to T. Meanwhile the horses are living in a corral and must be fed AM and PM. We are all frustrated. Eventually (after much talking) Wally is able to meet with both the neighbor and T and get them to agree on where the fence goes. And several days after that the neighbor finally gets the fence back up. We are all heartily sick of the whole situation, but…the three horses are now turned back out in the pasture and are happy. We are hoping they can lead a pleasant life for just awhile longer.
            So yeah, I have no more patience for this sort of drama…but I AM glad that our three useless but sweet horses are still having a good life. Is there anybody else out there who is sick of all the drama that seems to go with horses? At least at my own place I can get it down to the inevitable tragedies that go with loving living creatures, but whenever other people are involved it seems to result in this kind of unnecessary grief. Any thoughts?


Friday, August 8, 2014

Vacation! (Almost There)

Hat, Loads of Lotion and a Good Book
Yes, that will be me soon. We leave for a week at Emerald Isle, NC, tomorrow. I am imagining myself relaxing at the beach even though the forecast is rain. But imagine I will (she said with determination.)

I had to go to Google images and find a photo of me at the beach since I am not there yet, and not one was of a pale, bandy-legged lady. Most were of gorgeous teens in bikinis and hunks in Speedos, and I know you would not be fooled.  One day I will have to change the photo on my website, but right now I am enjoying looking at myself ten years younger.  

As all of you know, getting ready for a vacations is stressful. Our kids are grown (but coming with us with their significant others) and it is easier this year than when they were little but leaving the garden, cat and horses gives me indigestion.   Fortunately the dogs go with us with their beds, bowls and leashes, but the poor cat has to stay home (and he does get lonely!) and of course, the horses, too, since I have not braved camping with them as Laura and others have done.

This year was harder finding someone to 'house/animal' sit, but I am feeling fine about the arrangement.  I would rather have responsible/reliable than an experienced horse person, because responsible wins out for me.  The gals coming are not horse people, but I have made the horses' care almost foolproof.  And of course, I have a horse friend and vet 'on call' in case there is an emergency.   By foolproof, I mean the sitters really don't even need to go in the pasture with the horses.  Water tub will need to be cleaned and grain buckets picked up, but they can do that once the horses have finished eating and moved off.  I always forget how uneasy non-horse people can be around horses, and I wanted this to be stress free for the humans.  My horses are hardy, plus the pasture is lush, there's a run-in shed for storms and trees for shade.

In prep, I bathed Relish and Bell, cleaned all buckets and tubs, secured all gates, put feed in the garage, not the barn, and dabbed the horses with a dose of two week  fly repellent.  The sitters know to call my horse friend if something seems odd, or a horse looks injured. Hopefully, they will recognize either.

So tomorrow my family is off for a week at our favorite beach where I will be relaxing and finally writing my
book . . . but that's another post.

Before you head off for your own vacation, what gives you indigestion? And BTW--enjoy the last weeks of summer!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer Vacations: Disneyland to Del Mar

by Natalie Keller Reinert

Real life? What's that? Summer vacations have me way too busy, running off my feet, to stop and think about real life. I'm just flitting between airports, train stations, hotel rooms, and my desk, catching up on all the work I've missed while on vacation. The bonus of this is that my apartment is nearly always clean, because I'm hardly ever anywhere in it but my office.

Now, most horsepeople do not get to go on vacations, so let me explain how they work. In short, a vacation is when you go somewhere without your horses and immediately seek out other people's horses to look at/pet/mentally compose careful conformation critiques of/take pictures of.

In the early part of our summer, we went to California, where we found horses in all the right places: in theme parks and at racetracks. You know, where anyone can find them. I am a working horse's biggest fan, especially when they are in places where non-horsepeople can get up close and personal and be taken with a horse's startling mixture of strength and gentleness (something that we tend to take for granted after years working alongside them).

Here are some of my summer vacation OPH (Other People's Horses) snaps:

This gorgeous roan Clydesdale at Disneyland had just finished a big slobbery drink from a bucket and was getting ready to head back to Sleeping Beauty Castle.
A lovely Belgian walking the horse-drawn trolley around the Hub and towards Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.
A close-up of the Clydesdale to prove the rumor... Disneyland horses are barefoot! How amazing is that!
Del Mar Racing on the turf. This track makes great use of its infield, allowing for some amazing views like this.

And of course for the perfect selfie. New author photo?

A schoolie in the gorgeous paddock at Del Mar.

I am obsessed with Del Mar's palm trees. What a racetrack. A palace for racehorses.


This gorgeous reproduction of a cavalry recruitment poster is hidden away on the walkway between Frontierland and Fantasyland in Disneyland.

That was Summer Vacation Part 1. Summer Vacation Part 2 starts in a little less than two weeks when Cory and I hop a train for Saratoga. We missed Saratoga last year and I can't wait to get back to the Spa!

So before I sign off and get back to the mountains of work that taking vacations saddles one with, don't forget... you have a few more days to enter to win a signed paperback of Ambition. I'm so happy that Ambition has been hanging on tight to that top three position in horse books at Amazon (right now it's number one!) and that it has been resonating with horsepeople -- because that's who I wrote it for, after all! Please go over to Goodreads and enter to win -- there are four copies up for grabs!

And now... I have to get back to writing!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ambition by Natalie Keller Reinert


by Natalie Keller Reinert

Giveaway ends August 11, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More Adventures With Water (and Dragonflies)

                                    by Laura Crum

            So this post is (once again) not about horses (very much) or about writing or horse-themed fiction. It’s about my little project pond (again). For the back story, look here, here and here. Or click along to something else if ponds don’t interest you.
            I find my pond endlessly interesting—can you tell? When we left off it was about two months old and murky green with algae. Now it is three months old and the water is very clear—but with a green tinge. There is much filament algae growing among the water plants, but the overall clarity of the water is quite good. I actually like the green tinge—it looks mysterious.

            There are so many aspects that interest me. Raindrops hitting the water on a showery day are mesmerizing. As are reflections of clouds.

            Listening to the little fountain make a soothing water sound is very peaceful.

            Looking for new water lilies in bloom every day is exciting (to me, anyway).

            Staring at water lilies from eye level whole floating on a pool noodle is the best of all.

            But perhaps the single most fascinating thing is the dragonflies. I have learned so much about dragonflies. When we first filled the pond with water a red dragonfly showed up almost immediately. We looked him up and thought he was a “flame skimmer.” How romantic. We read that dragonflies lay their eggs on the water. The eggs hatch into underwater nymphs, which turn into dragonflies. Well, OK, then. But this did not prepare me for what really happens.

            The flame skimmer dragonfly haunted the pool. We learned that the bright red version is the male. The female (as so often in nature) was a drabber brownish orange color. We watched the female lay her eggs by dipping her abdomen in the water. We watched the male mate with the female, often while she was also laying eggs. In about three weeks we began to find the empty nymph bodies, which told my husband (who grew up on the lakes of Michigan and knew about dragonflies) that the nymphs were turning into dragonflies. The empty nymph shells had a hole in the back where the dragonfly had emerged.

            It took us awhile to realize that the little darting underwater beetles we saw were the dragonfly nymphs. And it took us even longer to be observant enough to spot a nymph who had just crawled out of the water, and watch it while a dragonfly emerged from its body. But eventually we were able to do this—quite a few times. And I have to tell you, it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It’s not like a butterfly at all. It’s wild.
            So it goes like this. The nymph/bug, which has lived underwater for its roughly three weeks of life, crawls out of the water when it feels its time has come. It needs a vertical spot—perpendicular to the water. A cat tail, reed or vertical rock is chosen. The nymph crawls maybe six inches out of the water. It clings to the vertical spot. And then THIS happens.

            I have watched it from start to finish. Within five minutes of emerging from the water, the nymph’s back splits open and the dragonfly pushes himself out of the nymph body. The dragonfly’s head pulls out of the nymph head, leaving only an empty shell behind (this was when I realized it was not like a butterfly’s process, the nymph has to animate itself out of the water five minutes before it transforms—thus it needs a brain). The dragonfly has his brand new own legs—he leaves the nymph legs behind. Watching a dragonfly emerge from a nymph is not for the faint-hearted. It is a bit gross and messy. Not all of the dragonflies make it. If the dragonfly falls in the water he is done for.

            Eventually, if all goes well, the dragonfly is able to spread his new wings. His empty nymph body may fall back in the water or it may remain beside him. He hangs until he is able to spread his wings and his wings dry—takes about an hour from the moment he pushes out of the nymph. And then, if he is lucky, he flies away. (We have seen this, numerous times.) The dragonfly in the photo below flew away successfully two seconds after I took the photo.

            As you can see they are rather pale and golden at this point. I can only assume that their brilliant scarlet color develops as they age. And yes, this whole process fascinates me. I can’t help seeing it as a metaphor for human life.

            We are born in this human body, as the dragonfly is born as an underwater beetle—it’s all we know of life. But what if, like the dragonfly, our true calling is much different? So different that we can not even imagine it in our underwater nymph form? And when we leave the world we know and go through that messy process called death, what if that is the moment when it is possible that our true being flies free? I can’t help but think these dragonflies are here to teach me something…


            As for my horseback riding life, it’s definitely taken second place to floating in the pool. I still ride at least once a week, often at my uncle’s small ranch, where we gather the cattle for the ropers. Hmmm, no cattle in the woods…

            There they are…

            So the horses do get out some, anyway. I hope you all are having a lovely summer—whether riding, or floating, or watching dragonflies…or whatever pleases you most.