Sunday, December 28, 2014

Horses, Horses, Horses!

All I wanted for Christmas since I can remember was a pony.  Where did that 'obsession' come from? Is it genetic?  My dad liked horses, but even after I started incessantly babbling about wanting one, I do not remember a pony ride or a neighbor with horses. So where did this love come from? For Christmas when I was four, I got a Steiff pony that I still have today though it has no ears or tail left.  That only fueled the fire.  Breyer horses followed until I had a stable full. Finally, my parents relented--after we moved to the country--and my father and I got our pony.

I spent my adolescence, teens, married life and pregnancies on the back of a horse. Lessons and showing morphed into trail riding. Now I am still obsessed with horses, but there is a lot less riding and more care taking and admiring.  Old age, perhaps, or just an evolution of horse fever.

Today one of the things I enjoy the most is finding, selling and collecting vintage horse treasures.  There are thousands of them out there which attests to the popularity of equines.  Since I wrote almost fifty horse books, I snatch up any vintage horse book I can find:  Misty of Chincoteague, Black Stallion, Black Beauty.  I learned to read so I could finish all the Billy and Blaze books. And I learned to draw  because of my love of Wesley Dennis, C.W.Anderson, and Sam Savitt's marvelous black and white illustrations.  Above is an old Linda Craig from the 1960s.  When the series was revived in the 1980s, I was one of the first to write the new books, which were paperback, of course, and not nearly as cool as the old ones.

Recently I bought a big lot of 1970s Breyer Horses with their original boxes.  The price for Breyers has gone down, mainly because they have made so many for so long.  I can't keep all of them, so I am slowly selling them on Ebay and in my booths. But I still admire their craftsmanship and beauty, and I hope that they will remain collectible for a long time.

Fortunately, no matter where I hunt, I can usually find an equine treasure:
books, scarves, figurines (though ceramic ones often don't make it intact), planters, carvings, clocks, and ashtrays. Even old trophies and ribbons, helmets and whips, cowboy hats and boots are getting snapped up for decor or wearing.

Maybe I am not riding as much as I used to, but I am still in total awe of horses and their beauty whether it's a real horse or an artistic one.  Now where did that love come from?  I have no idea and would love to hear some thoughts!  

Happy New Year to all of your and your critters--Best, Alison Hart

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What Do You Give a Horse For Christmas?

by Natalie Keller Reinert

I don't have many Christmas traditions.

In fact, I think the only one I keep up with are the Happy Hippos in our Christmas stockings, and that one is only a few years old!

Source: flickr/vintagehalloweencollector
The thing is, I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas, so it was basically an opportunity to have some time off of school and, once I had a horse to occupy me, extra barn-time. At some boarding stables, every horse got a stocking filled with treats from the barn owner -- that was the extent of my Christmas celebration, and that was fine with me. Hard to miss what you don't have, right? As a manager at an equestrian center, I carried on that tradition, making sure every boarder horse had a stocking full of horse cookies.

Sometime in my mid-teens, I decided I should have a tradition for my birthday and Christmas (two holidays I still didn't celebrate, mind you!) and naturally centered it around my horse. On those days, no matter how bad the weather or how busy my life, I'd have a fun ride on my horse. And for a while, I managed to carry on my personal little tradition, whether I was riding through scented orange groves in Central Florida or around the taxis and carriages of the lower loop of Central Park. No training, no tough work. It was time to hang my feet out of the stirrups and leave a loop in my reins.

Which was nice for both of us, naturally, so I suppose it might have counted as a present for my horse. But really? I never did much by way of Christmas presents for my horses. But I'm getting a little softer and nicer as I get older, so it's possible that someday I'll cave and shower every horse in my vicinity with gifts.

So I decided to ask the Internets: hey, horse-people, what do you give your horses for Christmas? I asked the question on two of my Facebook pages (Retired Racehorse Blog and Natalie Keller Reinert: Equestrian Fiction) and got lots of answers. Presents for horses seem to fall into a few key categories: horse clothes, horse treats, and yay toys!

Here are some responses:
  • "This year it is a new halter, lead rope, horse cookies, angel mints, carrots and apples."
  • "Every year they get an Xmas morning bran mash. Candy canes, apples, carrots, molasses, and banana chips." (yum!!)
  • "About 25 boxes of candy canes as soon as they go on sale after Christmas."
  • "Treats, new blankets- turn-out and fleece."
  • "My gelding is getting some gingerbread cookies, candy canes and a tin of Werthers -- his most favourite treats!"
  • "My horse gets toys, he got a Jollyball sidekick companion, football, stackers and chew toys to go on his crossbar in his stall!"
  • "Starlight mints, of course! Also a new turnout halter, carrots, candy canes, and tub of Nicker Makers. Spoiled much?"
I adore all the love that goes into Christmas for these horses. One horse literally gets toys under the tree like he's a little kid! I am imagining a pony pushing around a fire engine.

So now I want to know: what do you give your horses for Christmas? Or is it just another day at the barn, business as usual (no shame in that!)? Share in the comments or over at my Facebook pages, and if you're running a little late with the shopping, maybe you'll get a few ideas!

Merry Christmas, all you pony people!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

From our horse, er, house to yours

By Snoopy
As told to Gayle Carline

Hello, my name is Snoopy and I am a horse. I live in a barn with other horses, including my mom. I have another mom, Gayle. I call her MomToo.

Every year MomToo gets all of her people and animals together and I hear clicking noises. Then everyone talks about a Christmas picture and asks her about a letter. I guess she writes about us and what we did all year.

Nobody ever asks me to write a letter. Here is what I would say if they did:

This year was fun. I got to eat hay every morning and every night. It was good. Auntie Niki and MomToo rode me. Auntie Niki is better at it. MomToo says that's because she's a trainer. I don't know what that word means, but I know she has real good balance and doesn't pull on my face.

MomToo tries hard, though. Sometimes it's fun to get an idea in the middle of my lesson and try to run. I think it's funny, but MomToo never laughs.

I also think it's funny to grab the halter away from MomToo and shake it. Most things are fun to grab and shake. MomToo gets kinda mad sometimes, but I know she loves me.

This year we went to horse shows. I tried my best, even when there was interesting things to look at, or when I was tired. I like shows. Sometimes I try to say hello to the judges while I'm being ridden around the arena. Sometimes they put trees on the course and I try to eat them. It all makes me happy.

Our last show was a special one. I showed every day for the judges. MomToo and I were very tired, but when I heard the judges say we were Top 20, it was good. I got lots of treats and MomToo got lots of shiny stuff.

The only thing missing was that I wish I had more apples and carrots and peppermints. I never have enough of those.

I don't know much about Christmas and people holidays, but I know that this is the time of year when I get candy canes. So I wish you all Happy Candy Canes Month!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More Fun than Stamps

Riding out last summer
By Francesca Prescott

I’m probably going to come across as super superficial, but that's ok because there are plenty of other aspects of my personality that don’t strike me as such. Let’s just call this part of my lighter side. Life’s too short, and all that jazz isn’t any fun without a little touch of color. Besides, I don’t really like jazz, unless it’s been bubblified by someone like, well, Michael Buble. Ok, so my musical tastes are superficial, too...

"When in a hole, stop digging," I hear someone saying.

But I’m not even digging, I’m just telling the truth. I love Michael Buble. Among other artists, of course (I wrote “Mucho Caliente!” with Ricky Martin in mind). Mainly, I like my music to be musical. Humm-alongable. Sing-alongable. I like a good tune, not a schizophrenic freak-out. But that’s just me. My husband enjoys all that senseless tromboning and bungled double bassing. When he plays it I tend to roll my eyes and go bake a cake. Our terrain d’entente is the ambient chill-out genre, which makes our son roll his eyes and turn up his iPod. You can’t please everyone.

Which brings me back to what pleases me. I’ve always been into clothes and fashion, as well as into horses. Since I spend a good part of my day with my horse, and that I rarely wear anything other than jeans and a nice t-shirt or sweater (depending on the season) when I’m not with my horse, it’s strikes me as perfectly normal to want to look nice when I’m with my horse. And, basically, if I’m not at the stables, I’m either at home or at the supermarket. Which is perfectly fine with me. 

What I particularly enjoy is matching what Qrac wears to what I wear, if only by way of subtle detail. For example, Qrac has an off-white saddlepad edged with a tiny ribbon of leopard print. I think there’s also a touch of gold braid involved in the edging as well. Yep, it’s pretty fancy. It’s Italian. While I don’t think many horses could pull off this look without looking totally OTT, I think Qrac manages it perfectly. Put me into this particular equation wearing my super discreetly patterned brown jodhpurs with an off white techno-top and – tah-dah! – my leopard-print belt, and you’ve got a fashion victim on horseback! So I get teased. And maybe that look is not so subtle. Pff!
Qrac wears Marta Morgan
Note the subtle leopard trim...

The thing is, Qrac has a lot of saddlepads. A LOT. In fact, my horse has so many that my husband says I should open a saddlepad museum, and give guided tours to raise money towards, errr, more saddlepads.

Imagine: “Step this way, madam. Now, on your right you can admire what appears to be a simple white RG competition model. However, if you look closely you will notice a discreet sprinkling of Swarovski elements adorning the bottom back rim. This particular saddlepad can be traced back to Francesca and Qrac’s somewhat diffident, while also memorably explosive, first meandering (incidentally, oh how we exploded and meandered!) in the dressage show ring. 

Our first show, a fiesta of meandering explosiveness.
Qrac wears RG

And on your left, beginning to look slightly worn in, you have the lovely, far more blingy white Equiline show pad, marking the beginning of a slightly more confident, if not altogether successful, period of competing. 

Gaining confidence.
Qrac wears Equiline

Moving on now, let’s admire this fabulous white and black Marta Morgan mega-bling marvel of Swarovski handiwork. Note the intricate design worked into the black Swarovski detailing. This saddlepad represents a milestone in Francesca and Qrac’s showing career as it was worn at the Vidauban showgrounds in the south of France, and, as such, marks the couple’s first foray into the international dressage scene (ah-hum… yeah, well, sort of… It was out of Switzerland, anyway.).”

Our "international d├ębut" in Vidauban, France.
Qrac wears Marta Morgan
You probably get the gist. And I haven’t even touched on all the coloured ones Qrac gets to model. Randomly chosen from my selection, let me show you:

1)   The blue and white gingham. Fresh looking, don’t you think? By RG. Tricky to combine with outfits; stray from blue and white and you’re teetering on the borders of tacky territory.

Qrac wears RG

2)   The brown and hot pink. I think Qrac looks great in this one, it’s easy and fun to match my clothes with. Also, I love pink.
Qrac wears RG

3)   The general purpose grey. Easy to coordinate with just about anything.

Qrac wears RG

4)   The burgundy Swarowski-embellished velvet by Marta Morgan, sometimes worn with matching bandages. I’ve coordinated it with a burgundy sleeveless vest worn over navy blue jodhpurs and techno-shirt. So regal! 

Qrac wears Burgundy Swarovski-embellished Marta Morgan
Regal or what?!

5)   A piled up portion of my saddlepad museum. There are more at the stables… Qrac looks great in red, too. And green. And beige. And ivory. Not to mention multiple shades of grey.

A portion of the saddlepad museum.

So there you have it. Some people collect butterflies. My sister collects porcelain ducks and fish. My friend Victoria collects just about everything. When I was a little girl, a kindly great-aunt once tried to get my pulse hyped-up over stamp collecting. Hmmmm.

I think collecting saddlepads is far more fun.

How about you? What do you collect?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Christmas Buzz at La Ruche

By Francesca Prescott

Photo by Aurore Biron

One year ago, Ecurie de la Ruche*, the stables where Qrac lives, inaugurated its new facilities. Previously a small, cosy village-stable with comfortable but basic facilities for 15 horses, La Ruche 
morphed into a top class, high-tech, super chic, state of the art equestrian paradise for 50 lucky steeds.

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been absent from this blog for twelve months, before finally reappearing last week. Well, the main reason for my absence is that despite the stables being a four minute drive from my house instead of the 45 minutes it took me to get to Qrac’s previous residence, I seem to spend even more time partaking in horse related activities than I used to. It’s now so easy to go backwards and forwards to the stables that I practically live there. Also, I really appreciate being able to check on Qrac more than just once a day, to change a blanket if necessary, to pick out his feet if he’s been in the field, reassure myself that he’s ok if I have the slightest doubt about anything.

Qrac enjoying his terrace. He was lighter in the summer!
Qrac has a massive box with a matching massive terrace, which means his social life is wonderful as when he’s not with me, he’s either discussing carrots and sharing dressage tips on his terrace with his pony neighbour, or he’s out in the field, or, when the ground gets too waterlogged, hanging out in one of the “sand pits (winter parks). All in all, I think he’s a pretty happy horse.

And I’m a happy lady, because La Ruche is a great place for humans, too. The atmosphere is great, everyone gets along, and everywhere is always spotlessly clean without anyone coming across as obsessive compulsive about picking up a fleck of horse poo, or a strand of horse hair or anything. People just get on with things, generally clean up after themselves, and there is genuine mutual respect and friendship in the air. We even have Happy Hour every Friday afternoon as of approximately 5 o’clock until approximately goodness knows what time, with giggles aplenty! I love it! I think we all do.
Qrac gets plenty of turnout and likes to roll in the mud...

So last Saturday, we all celebrated one year of Rucharian bliss (Rucharians being the inhabitants of La Ruche, of course) with a Christmas competition. I think I have two extra wrinkles on either side of my mouth from an excess of smiling all day long. Seriously, it was a blast.

Concentration! Photo Aurore Biron
The festivities officially began at one o’clock with a dressage competition, followed, as of three, by jumping. We had all picked a competition partner: one person rode dressage, the other jumped. Some of the jumping participants proved particularly versatile, partnering twice in order to also take part in the dressage. There were different dressage tests and jumping heights according to everyone’s level, and the scores of each partnership’s dressage test and jumping course were added up, meaning that if you didn’t do a great dressage test, if your partner rode a fabulous jumping round your chances of winning or placing were still intact. Riding as a team made the event even more socially interactive, with everyone rooting for one another. As a dressage rider, accustomed to hushed, poker-faced ambiances, it was wonderful to ride in a lively, fun-scented atmosphere, with louder music than usual, and people clapping and cheering and generally having a great time. There was less pressure of course, but that didn’t mean that we didn’t take our programs and courses any less seriously; I’d worked hard to ride a higher level test than I’ve ever ridden before, and I was delighted with how hard Qrac tried for me in front of the judge, by how relaxed he stayed, and by how well we scored. But best of all, I thoroughly enjoyed my ride.
Me and my boy
Photo Aurore Biron

My partner, Antoine M., later rode a very nice clear-round, taking his time around the course so as not to wind-up his excitable Chicos Boy, and we ended up in 5th place. We were both so happy you’d have thought we’d won the Olympics or the World Games or something, high-fiving one another over and over! A fun detail was that the prize-giving ceremony took place on horseback, which was a first for me, and Qrac and I loved galloping around the indoor arena with our ribbon trailing from his bridle while the crowd cheered. Such fun!
Antoine M. and Chicos Boy going for it!
Photo Isabelle Von Wattenwyl

Did we win the Olympics or something?!


Antoine M. and Chicos Boy

But the fun wasn’t over yet, because one of our fellow Rucharians had prepared an in-hand presentation to music, with her horse doing all sorts of cool tricks, such as Spanish walk, curtseying, and lying down. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch her show since I was already back on Qrac, warming up in the outside arena with my friend Josephine and her beautiful black Oldenburg, Swarowski, for our pas-de-deux.

Josephine and I had hummed and hahed about doing a pas-de-deux at the competition for quite some time. Believe me, if we’d realised how difficult riding side-by-side to music would turn out to be, we’d have done a lot less humming and hahing and a lot more practising. Basically, we finally got it together ten days beforehand, and only practised the choreography four or five times, the first attempt being complete pandemonium, our horses becoming demented with excitement! We considered calling the whole thing off, but since we’d already bought our outfits, throwing in the towel struck us as a bit of a waste. Besides, we liked what we were going to wear, we loved the music we’d chosen (Ricky Martin’s new single, Adios), and the horses looked amazing side-by-side, so on we toiled, prancing and and sweating, determined to produce something vaguely decent and fun to watch. Things went a little more smoothly the second time we ran through our (very basic) choreography, and we enjoyed ourselves, particularly during the final bit where we passaged (or attempted to!) down the centre line side-by-side to Ricky’s infectious Latino beat.

Anyway, so late last Saturday afternoon, Josephine and I wriggled into our red jodhpurs, put on our white shirts with the frilly black-edged ruffles down the front, and our little black cropped jackets. We clipped on our long blonde swishy ponytails, inserted our big gold dangly-jangly hooped earrings, and put on our wide-brimmed, Spanish-style black hats. We had initially planned on wearing bright red lipstick, too, but we didn’t get around to applying it as everything was all a bit of a mad rush. Our friend Aurore, who had drawn up our choreography, quickly threaded red ribbon through Qrac and Swarowski’s plaited manes. Both horses looked amazing. Actually, if I may say so myself, I think Josephine and I looked pretty amazing too!

However, once we were riding around outside, warming up, I soon realised that there was no way my hat was going to stay on, despite having secured it under my chin with red ribbon. It was far too big and kept on flopping down in front of my eyes, preventing me from seeing where I was going. Also, as soon as I asked Qrac to canter, the wide brim caught in the wind and the hat blew off backwards. My husband handed it back to me twice, but I knew we’d have to make last minute adjustments to our presentation. Josephine’s hat was a smaller size than mine and seemed to be staying on fine, so she was a bit disappointed when I suggested we throw them off theatrically when we saluted, but had to agree it was the best way to start the show.

Help! I can't see!!!
Our swishy pony-tails!
What comes next...?!
So we rode into the indoor arena on our prancing black horses feeling fabulous. The music started and off we went, trotting around the arena and down the centre line, our ponytails swishing, my hat falling down over my nose, Qrac shying at the loudspeakers. We halted, bowed our heads, grinned at the expectant crowd and threw off our hats! Everyone cheered, and I’d swear I even heard a few wolf-whistles as away we trotted, parting and coming back together, crossing over in half pass, extending across the diagonal, Qrac thoroughly beside himself with excitement. It took a team effort to remind each other what came next, and we rode the entire thing giggling away about how wonky it was all turning out, while thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Everyone cheered as we finished, and we clattered out into the night all starry eyed as people milled around, showering us with compliments and congratulations. Ooh, it was so much fun!

An excellent cheese raclette for 74 people ensued, with oodles of atmosphere and plenty of wine. As the evening wound down and numbers dwindled, a group of us thought it would be fun to have a bit of a boogie. Driving was out of the question, so someone suggested we go across the road to her house. Off we went, cranking up the music, shaking our booties until we could shake them no more.

What struck me particularly, as well as the rest of the people I’ve spoken to about their impressions of Saturday, was the infectious enthusiasm and camaraderie that buzzed around the place, despite the low-lying cloud and the cold and the bone-marinating humidity. It was a genuinely happy day. Call me mushy, but the entire event seemed infused with love and generosity, both on the part of the tireless and charismatic Kilchherr family who own the premises, and on the part all those attending, be they participants or spectators. Everyone lent a hand, baking, putting up jumps, measuring and laying out the temporary dressage arena within the huge indoor school, poop-scooping, buying food, setting up the sound system, taking photos, cleaning up, decorating, giving riding advice when things weren’t going to plan in the warm-up arena, announcing riders and horses over the loudspeaker, scraping raclettes, scooping potatoes, making desserts. It was a team effort, everyone was really into it, making it a very special day that will be remembered for a very long time.

I hope we can do it again soon!

*FYI, “La Ruche” is French for “the beehive”. Hence the buzz!

PS: The photos of Josephine and I during our pas-de-deux were made by Josephine's husband from screenshots of the video of our mesmerising performance. You see, we were so mesmerising that nobody remembered to take any photos of us!  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Next Step

by Laura Crum

As some of you may know, my husband died recently of a rare and aggressive form of cancer. We were together for seventeen years and had a very happy marriage and a good life and I will always be grateful for that. But this is a time of overwhelming grief for me. 

I've decided to try to keep going with the series of posts about how I developed my little property, because one of the few things that still engages me a bit and brings me some small comfort is tending this place, which Andy and I both loved and which bears everywhere the signs of our devotion to it and our fondness for the process of creating the kind of home that we both wanted. 

I wrote the following installment awhile ago, and have not really finished it or polished it, but I'm putting it up today just as a way to get started again. I appreciate any kind thoughts and prayers sent my way, but have not got much heart for interacting on the internet (or anywhere else) right now, so forgive me if I don't respond.

The Next Step

            Those of you who have purchased real estate will know how convoluted the next step of my process was. I called the number on the old and crooked real estate sign outside the gate of the place I’d stumbled upon. It was not a local office. I described the property I had seen and they said they had no record of it. I said their sign was there. They said they would call me back. They did not. I called them again. This went on for days.
            But eventually they “remembered” that oh yes, they had listed this property for a client. It had been on the market for a year and no one had shown any interest in it. They had just forgotten about it.
            At this point I chose myself a pleasant guy for a real estate agent, and I had him contact the other office. Things went quicker after that. We got permission to walk the property lines and my agent looked up the title. A few problems presented themselves.
            There are always problems when it comes to buying real estate, it seems. I am not going to go into the particular problems we had here, because they are, quite frankly, not very interesting to write or read about. I will just say that it took time to work through them, but we did. I never wavered in my conviction that this was the property I wanted. The price was reasonable. It was also all the money I could possibly come up with. There would be nothing left over for building a house.
            I know that some people would have taken out a loan, built a house, and still be paying off their mortgage, twenty years later. I am not those people. I never wanted to be in that kind of debt. Instead I sat down and thought about what I really wanted to do with the property. I spent time with this. Almost a year.
            I owned my property and I visited it almost every day. Mostly I just sat and stared at it from various vantage points. Should the barn go here? Or here? Where could I have a riding ring? Where should the house go?
            The property was not a blank slate. It was only two and a half acres of land, but there was plenty of topography to it. There was much to consider when siting the house, barn, corrals and riding ring—to name my original primary objectives. A year was not too much time to think this through.
            There is so much that seems to be ignored when many people develop a property. Where will the sun come from at different times of day, what exactly can be seen from this spot or this spot? I paid attention. After a year I understood many things about the land I had bought.
            I knew that I wanted the house site to be at the back of the little cup-shaped bowl that formed the rear acre of the property. This was the most private spot. From here one could not see another house—from any angle. And this privacy was what I wanted. The little round hollow in the hills faced south and would get good mid-day sun and winter sunshine. I knew that the only practical spot for a riding ring was in the middle of the bowl. Thus the barn and horse corrals would be built on the lower slope of the property, in the grove of liveoaks.
            After sorting these things out, the next step was to bring in the bulldozer. Because there was no level ground—just a gentle, constant slope. And houses, as well as riding rings, benefit from some level ground. Not to mention the driveway petered out about halfway up the hill. So the bulldozer was employed to create a house site and a level riding ring, as well as to finish the driveway. Thus we embarked on the creation of my small horse property.