Thursday, December 24, 2009


An inscription at the Kentucky Horse Park reads, “History was written on the back of a horse.” The horse, like no other creature, seems created for the pleasure and service of mankind. Though they are no longer necessary to settle and contain this great country, horses continue to capture mans imagination with their beauty, grace, athleticism, and subtle yet powerful ability to express themselves.

For all their natural gifts and capacity for service, however, a relationship with human beings is something that has never occurred to the natural horse. A feral horse, browsing in green pastures, doesn’t one day suddenly say to itself, “Wow, that bi-ped over there is amazing. I think I’d like to know him, become friends. Maybe he’d like to put a big piece of dead cow on my back and run me around.” Left to his own devices, a horse feels no need, whatsoever, for a relationship with humanity. But the capacity is there. It must simply be awakened.

Human culture and communication have little in common with equids. For starters, we are natural predators, they are prey. Our complicated mental abilities far surpass that of a horse that naturally operates on instinct. Horses are simple. Their communication, based almost exclusively on movement and body language (unnatural to human beings) is simple. But magic happens when a person makes a conscious effort to learn horse language and communicate in ways that are meaningful to them. I was thinking of this yesterday after working Eli at liberty.

As I’ve previously posted, getting out can be tough this time of year. With the cold, holiday crazies, and general instinct to cocoon by the fire, schlepping to the arena and actually working Eli isn’t happening much. But I made it yesterday. After roughly thirty or forty minutes of working him I was pretty much done, even though he’d barely broken a sweat. I took the saddle off and turned him loose to have a good roll while I trudged back and forth to my trailer with loads of tack (breaking a pretty good sweat myself). Eli watched me, had a good roll, and then ogled a pretty mare being led down the barn aisle just outside. When he decided to talk to her I thought it a good opportunity to test his response to me, test his mental ability to “join up” with me at liberty and amidst distractions. And there is never a shortage of distractions for a stallion.

Monty Roberts is a popular trainer who coined the phrase “join up.” It refers to what happens when a trainer successfully communicates with a horse at liberty and it mentally forms a partnership, willing following after the trainer and entering into a relationship. This moment is always moving for me, whether I watch it on TV or experience it with my own horses. Roberts makes it look easy but it takes quite a bit of effort for me to get to the horse’s level, to become like a horse so a connection can be made.

When I kissed to Eli he came right over, big eyes curious. It’s been just over a year since I unloaded this horse and put him in my pasture. Our relationship over the last twelve months has developed into a pretty good partnership. Not totally there yet, but close. He’s come a long way from the stallion that felt pressure simply from me standing next to his shoulder; the horse that flinched and moved off if I ran my hand down his side. From the beginning the look in his eye told me he had incredible potential as a partner, but he is definitely one that would not, on his own, choose to relate to human beings. I had to reach out to him first. Eli has moved from barely tolerating my touch, to lowering his head and hanging it by my side when I scratch his favorite spot. Sometimes he circles his neck around my shoulder without touching me, a gentle and dignified show of affection.

At first Eli followed me willingly around the arena, trotting when I ran yet not rushing ahead of me. When I stopped, he stopped. I decided to see if I could lunge him around me at liberty. This took some doing, some reaching deep into my still (sadly) shallow reserves of equine foreign language skills. Eventually I could send him off with a signal and call him back immediately by moving his hip away. We made part of a circle this way a few times and as he relaxed he started to understand my suggestions. A couple more times of this and I should be able to lunge him with no rope attached.

So I’m finishing this post at ten o’clock, December 24, 2009. Besides waiting for kids to go to sleep so I can “assist” Santa, I’m also thinking about Christ. He’s familiar with the concept I use to build a relationship with Eli. He employed this same sort of method two thousand years ago to reach out and communicate in a way that was meaningful to humanity. All this in hopes of achieving join up. Emmanuel—“God with us.”

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009


It’s been cold. Into the teens at night. The light begins to fade at 3p.m. and the middle pasture retains a sparkling veneer of frost all day. Day break is an exaggerated event, a slow struggle of bleak, blue illumination that feebly turns to sunlight by noon. But how sweet is that eventual sun. It turns the countryside into a brief but sparkling celebration of the season.

I love to watch the horses on clear frosty days. They have no problem responding to the stillness of December. They know nothing of the ridiculous, frantic activities of the human population. The incessant materialism, the stress. Horses understand the wisdom of standing in southern exposure after a good breakfast, closing ones eyes, and doing absolutely nothing. It is enough to absorb the goodness of light and let it seep into their very souls. No wonder horses are stable creatures (pun intended).

I’m having a much harder time navigating the season. My mind is busy and high strung (and not just from the five pounds of cookie dough I’ve so far consumed). I believe writers are called to observe. This is not usually a problem for me—I can quite happily watch paint dry. But lately, as evidenced from my lack of blog posting, I can barely string two thoughts together. Feeling dragged along the commercialized Christmas highway, I am restless and grinchy.

As I watched my horses relax and observe this week—for hours on end—I thought of all the unnecessary stress this season places on people. The unhappiness. It struck me as mind bogglingly sad that this is the case during a season meant to celebrate the Light of the world.

A few nights ago I lit two candles, laid on the couch in the dark, and listened to music. Firelight from the wood stove flickered patterns on the wall as the strains of a favorite carol by Manheim Steamroller filtered through the air—Veni, Veni (Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel). This was followed by another, aptly named, favorite: Still, Still, Still. My mind quieted, my soul sighed, and for a few minutes at least I practiced being equine by absorbing the goodness of the knowledge of Light and inviting it to penetrate deep into my soul.

Maybe it’s not too late for a stable December.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Today's Forecast: Drizzle turning to showers. Heavy rainfall expected tomorrow.

These are the days where even disciplined equestrians falter, fall short, give in, succumb utterly to...a glass of wine and a good book by the fire instead of riding. Those who live in the Pacific Northwest exist under grace these days--have you looked outside? I need a wet suit just to go to the barn.

Here's what riding looks like (when I actually accomplish it): Muster up motivation by the fire, toasting my backside extra long knowing it will be freezing in a few short minutes; capture a filthy beast and work up a sweat scraping mud off two inches of wet matted winter hair; put horse in trailer and drive slowly to the arena, squinting through the raindrops pelting the windshield; tack up a frisky distracted horse and attempt to relax atop an icy saddle (by this point I am already exhausted and ready to return to the toasting backside step); wrangle an under worked thousand pound beast jacked up on alfalfa and oats--rodeo should be a winter sport--for thirty minutes or less before giving up and returning home; clean out trailer and feed beast more rocket fuel for next "ride"; brush soggy turd off of damp wool sweater before entering the house and collapsing in front of fire. Glamorous the winter equestrian is not.

In lieu of doing much riding, I'm catching up on a vital winter activity--movie watching. Besides reading, the television is one of the few things I'm enthusiastic about during weather such as we've been having. Recently I watched, The Soloist.

The premise of this film intrigued me and is "based on a true story." I'm a sucker for anything based on real life, even though I know Hollywood holds a permanent Oscar in "artistic license." Here's the storyline: Robert Downey Jr. plays a journalist in a personal and professional slump. The guy can't seem to find a good story anywhere much less "write" anything inspiring in his own life. Jamie Fox is a schizophrenic homeless man who plays a two-stringed violin while babysitting a shopping cart full of trash. When Downey encounters him by chance on the street one day, Fox babbles something about going to Julliard. Julliard? No way. Dirty, crazy homeless guys don't possess the talent necessary for Julliard. Still, Downey is desperate for a story and has time on his hands. He calls the school, gives the homeless guys name and, surprise, surprise finds that he did in fact attend Julliard for a time. What transpires from there is a journey of friendship between societies trash and a "normal" guy who initially simply wants a good story and professional notoriety.

To be honest, this film didn't capture me right off the bat. Downey (infamous eternally in my mind for his role in the '80s film, Less Than Zero) and Fox are both good actors but the story didn't touch me until midway through. Right about the point where Downey receives an award for his columns recounting his adventures with Fox and Fox begins to utterly resist any attempts to rehab him. In one scene, Downey begs the director of an LA homeless shelter to give Fox a diagnosis (with corresponding medication) while outside hoards of homeless people shoot up, fight with each other, babble incoherently, and guard filthy trinkets. The camera pans repeatedly to signage on the shelter that reads: The wages of sin is death. When Downey cannot get a diagnosis and Fox resists medication, he tries music lessons, a concert he hopes will be "transformative"(it fails) and even puts Fox in an apartment so he'll at least be off the street. All those things are inspiring material for his newspaper column. Fox is not impressed. When he discovers Downey has tampered with his family affairs he throws him to the ground and says, "If I ever see you again I will cut you open and gut you like a fish."

At that point the film grabbed me by the heart. It begged the question, Where is God's grace for the graceless? For the ones for which there is no diagnosis, no inspiring "after," for the many who live among us broken, despairing, and resistant to all attempts of rehabilitation. It's uncomfortable to consider the ones who can't navigate normal society and never will. The ones who can't produce and simply take up space. Those of us who are productive, who are able to hide our brokenness, put programs and medication and rehab before our fellow sinners and shriek as Downey does when they are resistant--"I am a professional person; I have a job!" This apparently validates our space on the planet.

A few things stuck out for me in this film. First, the wages of sin is death. Brokenness exists in every creature in God's creation. Some hide it better than others but no amount of humanist rationalizing can take it away. Only One can do that.

What also exists in every creature is the fingerprint of God. It's more obvious in some then others but we simply have to look for it. In the film, Downey sees it for the first time when he takes Fox to a concert and watches him live the music in peace and utter bliss. He later says, "There's something higher out there and I don't even know what its called."

Lastly, love and friendship is the one thing that is transformative. Downey at first resists friendship with a homeless person and laments, after being physically threatened, "I thought I was going to help someone who had lost their way; now I can't see a belief in anything worthwhile." Instead of fixing he is encouraged to, "show up, just be his (Fox's) friend. You can't fix LA."

What does this have to do with horses? Though I do not put animals on the same scale as human beings, I own a broken horse and think often about the state of God's creation. Sin mars the world but His fingerprint is there if you take the time to look for it. And friendship, with a person, with an animal, can be transformative. I know, I've seen it with my own eyes.

I conclude with Robert Downey that there is something higher out there. It is called Grace.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I wanted my stallion, Eli, the moment I laid eyes on him. Aloof and introverted, he nevertheless had the kindest eyes I'd ever seen on a horse. He is sensitive, intelligent, and possesses a quiet mind and air of dignity. "Still waters run deep."

Though quiet and calm on the ground, swing a leg over this flashy horse and he's all about forward going. He's built to move. In reference to Tristan from Legends of the Fall, I call Eli Brad Pitt--strong, tawny, and full of restless masculine energy. He is a good example of why "horse power" describes a fast car. I'm still learning to ride and manage the enormous stride and energy of this horse, not to mention the challenge of converting his sometimes distracting hormones into useful activity. With my shortcomings in mind, I decided to take some dressage lessons.

"Dressage" comes from a French word that simply means "to train." Rather than bombing around the front yard, oblivious to gravity and the laws of physics (as I did as a child and teenager), a student of dressage breaks down the fundamentals of riding and movement, eventually mastering the subtle influence and language of a good equestrian. A horse well trained in dressage becomes the true athlete he is meant to be. One of my favorite horse trainers is funny Texan, Craig Cameron. While watching him guide a group of students one time he exclaimed in mock frustration, "They call it riding, people, not sitting!" Dressage is all about riding.

While the lessons have been stimulating and enlightening, I find myself challenged: challenged in basic fundamentals, to get rid of bad habits, to stop sitting and get engaged, to correct subtle misconceptions and misunderstanding. On perhaps our third lesson, my instructor made an observation as I guided Eli in a left hand circle. She said something like this:

"Do you feel your butt sort of fall away to the right?"

Um, yeah, and thanks for noticing. Note to self: The new riding tights don't look as good as you thought.

She went on to explain that Eli's right hip is weak and he frequently drops it rather than stride under. This makes my right hip feel as if it is falling. He is strong and balanced with the left hip. This is a fundamental of movement I'd noticed subconsciously but until she pointed it out, didn't connect it to anything. With lots of practice Eli will get better and stronger. As will my...well, never mind.

This dressage journey comes to mind when reflecting on last weekend and my attendance at an apologetics conference in San Diego called, The Case for Christianity. Rather than bomb around, oblivious to the evidence for my faith, it challenged me to study and consider the fundamentals.

"Veritas" is, of course, the Latin word for truth. The longer I live and journey in my faith, the less I'm interested in the traditions and habits of religion. Truth is the only thing worth seeking. May I never be the person described by Winston Churchill: "Most people when encountering truth stumble over it, dust themselves off, and continue unchanged."

One of my favorite movies is The Insider (forget Brad Pitt, I'm more of an Al Pacino girl when it comes to leading men). In the movie (based on a true story), Russel Crowe plays an insider, a scientist, who works for big tobacco. He risks his job, his family, even his life to tell the truth about the dangers of nicotine. Pacino is the truth loving journalist (yes there are some) who loses his job because of uncompromising loyalty to Crowe and the story. I saw the movie twice in the theatre and a couple times on video. I love the ending: Pacino tells his high profile boss what he can do with his lukewarm ethics and censorship then, music pounding, sweeps out of the door in a trench coat (as only he can do) and walks away. Away from compromise, away from lies. The film illustrates dramatically the struggle to expose and live truth. There is a cost.

Of course truth in religion is debated without end in this world. Many are willing to kill for what they think is true. This begs a question: If truth is relative, if it does not exist, if it doesn't even matter, why do people get so upset about it? In America we are a people of apathy and feigned "tolerance;" quick to be offended, to resist examining what might be true. At least one thing can be said about about Islamic extremists, they passionately live their beliefs.

Five years ago, as a novice writer, I learned this word, "verisimilitude." The appearance of truth. Some things that appear true are not and visa versa. In a world of religions that swirl and collide nothing seems more important than discerning truth. If God did create a universe that exists because of highly specific absolutes, does it make sense that he is confusing, vague, easily assembled into whatever form we feel comfortable with? Nobody would be so foolish as to jump out of a plane and say, "Gravity is not my truth." We accept absolutes in science--cosmology, biology, physics--but resist the notion that any absolutes exist spiritually. Why? As comfy cozy as moral relativism appears, nobody wants to go where this belief actually leads--Do What Thou Wilt/Anything Goes.

By definition a belief is something you hold to be true. Hopefully it is something sought not as an exercise in "rightness," but with an honest, transparent heart, willing to be changed if need be. God promises that, "You shall know the truth and truth shall set you free." Not, "You shall accept many truths, and amidst that pudding of confusion, find hope and freedom." God cannot be both personal and impersonal; eternity cannot all at once be dead in the ground, taken up into glory, and endlessly reincarnated.

"When you seek Me with all your heart I will be found by you, says the Lord." This is the only journey I want to take.

They call it riding, people, not sitting.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Experts say--no doubt the elusive board of "they"--that it takes around seven seconds to form a first impression of somebody. I would like to say that I am not that judgemental or shallow--sometimes it takes even less time for me to decide what I think of someone.

In WalMart, for example, (officially my least favorite place on earth) it can take as little as three or four seconds. This split second judgement kicks in when I spy a three hundred pound shopper with a cart containing cheap wine, The National Enquirer, and cartons of Little Debbie Oatmeal Cremes ( which, by the way, are delicious. Something that artificial shouldn't taste good). Or the guy with a feathered mullet and I-Don't-Call-911 T-shirt (for more examples see a fave source of shallow entertainment: .

Notice I didn't say seven second evaluations of people are good or accurate. Only God can determine inner spirit and heart. But to judge is human and, as a member, I err. Frequently.

But can a person come even close to a true (though incomplete) impression of somebody in around seven seconds? I say yes. As long as they're wearing equestrian footwear.

Last week I stood in the check out line at Costco. With nothing to do but wait, I engaged in people watching. It's fun to imagine things about people based on attire or the food in their cart. I can justify this, I'm a writer (characters have to come from somewhere you know). A woman in the next lane proved to be challenging: bland looking, nothing spectacular in her food choices-- peanut butter and tomato sauce, average height, and appropriate, non-descript clothing. Then I looked at her feet. She wore a pair of Ariat paddock boots. Chunks of dried manure and mud clung to the soles. Suddenly I knew several things about this stranger I would likely never meet.

Like other sports, horseback riding has rules, attire, lingo. And while any old person can wear a pair of cowboy boots, only someone serious would invest in Ariat. Someone who actually rides and, more likely, owns their own horse. Here is what I know about serious equestrians:

1. They are compassionate and passionate. By definition a passion is something you endure suffering for. Trust me, this applies to riding a horse.

2. They probably did not spend much time playing with Barbie as a child and likely enjoy manual labor/getting dirty. Girlie girls do not last as equestrians.

3. They do not give up easily. If in doubt, muscle around a 1,000 pounds of horseflesh for a month or so. If you don't give up, you'll discover new levels of will power and determination. I promise.

4. They own other animals--a hundred bucks says the home has at least one dog.

How's that for seven seconds? Now, for an Oatmeal Creme or two...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Without doubt, the hardest thing about the journey of faith is the word, why? I try not to speculate too much on God's ultimate purposes for the things that erupt and collide in my life but the truth is I get very attached to my own ideas. In the case of our little horse, Chance, my idea was an inspiring before and after. Yes, I questioned the wisdom of allowing Haley to ride and train this animal, especially after he bucked her off or shied, for the 92nd time, at an invisible bump in the arena dirt. A gentle nudging kept telling me to keep going so I felt sure there was a spectacular finish in mind. My prayer became simply that God would tell me definitely when it was time to move on.
Haley rode Chance for a year, almost to the day. In fact, her first and last rides were nearly identical--a peaceful, meandering trail ride with me. Two days after that last ride in August, I received the unhappy news of his seizure in the pasture and we decided we could no longer ignore his poor coordination. Chance's days as a riding horse may be over.
When I find myself disappointed, unsure, wavering, the only thing I can do is loosen my little boat of faith from its tightly moored position at the dock of human expectation and preconceived notion. Just loosen that baby and let it float on the great ocean of Grace knowing that no matter what, God has his eye on my position. I know there is purpose in the events in my life; in the details that do not make sense upon first examination.
It was a casual conversation with Haley that opened my eyes to the great blessing we've received because of this little horse. We were discussing the traits we were looking for in a new mount, the specific skills we desired.
I named off a few things then said, "So, what is the most important thing you want in a new horse?" I was pretty sure the word "gamer" would come out first.
"Friendship," she said, without hesitation. "It doesn't matter if you win lots of ribbons; the friendship is what's important."
This from a girl that not long ago couldn't stick with anything that didn't involve pretty instant gratification. Some exciting trade-off. I thought of her struggle with anger and self-control while working with a difficult horse, an animal that didn't make her look good or win lots of ribbons. Yet a horse that soaked up her attention and looked forward to her company. After a year of love and frustration in equal parts, she learned that horses shouldn't exist as pretty accessories. It's about the friendship.
Note to self: Quit giving up on God's purposes.
Recently I was thinking about friendship and how it is the only thing that matters in my significant relationships whether with my horse, my husband, or the Creator. God isn't a good luck charm; an accessory; a tradition; a heavenly Santa. My relationship to Him isn't some cosmic barter system--"Hey, if I'm polite to the !@#*! tailgating me I deserve to find my favorite jeans on sale, or a spare $20 in the sofa cushions."
It's about the friendship.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Last week the seasons officially changed. Around here fall often begins in August, the weather completely ignoring the calendar and my begging and pleading for just one more week of warmth. But this year was different--heat like I've never seen in the Pacific Northwest and an Indian summer to go down on record. It's been heaven.

Yesterday, while waiting for my son to get out of classes, I studied an Oak tree of some kind, growing in the parking lot. Only a few leaves near the center of the tree were blushed with red. It was as if the tree waited as long as possible before giving into fall and cooler weather. I know how it feels.

A sun worshipper to the core, I still favor Fall above all other seasons. I love the way the fog floats in ribbons across the valley with late breaking sun up above burning off the chill. I love the way the sunflowers bow to the earth and become a bird buffet. I love the first fire, the first pot of soup, the harvest displayed in every road side stand. I love the tradition of making applesauce with my extended family. Most of all I love the feeling of hunkering down and gathering precious things close. Fall is a time of turning inward and nurturing ideas and dreams cocooning inside. I feel protective in the Fall.

This Fall is especially bittersweet, and not because the Indian Summer officially lost the battle to the Rainy Season. Last week I drove Tango to his new home and bid a one-time dream farewell. This is a horse I thought I would never sell. But seasons change; plans evolve; needs arise. Most obvious is that my daughter does not have a horse she can use for her dreams--western games, going to fair, trail riding. Chance may never be ridden again and though we love and care for him he is a pasture ornament these days. We do not have room, time, or resources for more than three horses so somebody needed a new home. Tango became that somebody.

Raising and training Tango was a dream come true. He was first for so many things--first gift of a horse from my husband (no doubt a "mistake" he'll never repeat); first foal; first horse I started under saddle by myself. He was the horse that jump started me back into the equestrian lifestyle (and it is a lifestyle, not a hobby). Now he is a dream for another person and I can't help thinking that there are seasons for dreams and always something new to learn when change inevitably comes. In so many ways raising the naughty colt Tango was prepared me for a new challenge--stallion ownership. I am a much better horsewoman because of Tango.

There is much debate and many books written about the subject of animal personality and "soul." Of the ability animals have to communicate and touch us in unique ways. I can't say I believe horses have a soul but I do know that without doubt they touch mine. In honor of Tango I share some favorite memories of him.
Leading Lessons: You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Heck, sometimes you can't even make him lead. I remember well the days of walking to the neighbors where Tango was pastured the first few months after buying him. I'd be anxious for some "me" time; some horse bonding moments away from my two young children. I'd escape the demands of one toddler--my daughter--only to confront the tantrums of another toddler. A 600 pound toddler. Oh was he naughty. I shouldn't have been surprised. The day I went to see the "Beautiful Arabian Colt For Sale" I squatted by the fuzzy faced weanling with the extremely pointed ears and exclaimed, "You are so adorable!" Tango responded by biting me on the knee. I knew I had to have him. A bit of training and in time I felt sure we'd gallop off into the sunset together. I thought nothing of the frustration, the tears, the unbelievable patience that would be required of me first. The dream--true partnership--was a long time in coming.
Trailering Traumas: You can definitely lead a horse to a trailer but you can't force them in. Trust me, I've tried. It took an entire summer, every shred of self-control and every last nerve to teach Tango to load properly. He was adamantly, belligerently, opposed to the idea from day one. Looking back I can see clearly what I could have done differently to accomplish the goal faster but I'm glad I was forced to take my time because I learned a lot in the process. My patience was rewarded in a horse that was finally, completely, trained to load in any trailer, at any time, anywhere. This was confirmed the day a friend brought over her small, dark, circa 1970's straight load trailer. At the time Tango had never seen such a frightening contraption. When I lead him up to it he paused and looked at me with an expression that clearly said, "Are you sure about this?"
"Go ahead Pal, it's okay." I patted his rump and he walked right in. A training desire fulfilled is sweetness to the soul.
Anthropomorphism: As much as I try to be rational, its hard not to ascribe human emotions to my horses. Animals can be almost human at times (there is a great book by that name, by the way). Unlike Eli, Tango is a very expressive horse. You never wonder what he is thinking, its written all over his beautiful face. Still, there were times that I wondered if he had any feelings for me. Feelings beyond that of simply being glad I showed up twice a day with the groceries. Did he enjoy my company? Look forward to spending time with me? Sorry, I'm a girl and these things are important.
I got an answer to that question two years ago when I put Tango in a neighbor's pasture to work as lawn mower. The grass was tall, lush, and green. Horse Heaven. There were horses across the street and a buffet beneath his feet. What more could any equine require? After about a week I decided to visit my horse; see if he was still living or if he'd turned into a great bay blimp and floated away on warm summer breezes. A friend who was visiting came with. When I turned down the driveway Tango immediately nickered and walked to the gate. I entered and looked him over, taking note of the generous layer of fat now covering his ribs. He was the picture of health and glistened like a newly minted penny.
"Aren't you a sight?" I rubbed Tango's chest and he responded by pushing his head against me and lipping the sleeve of my shirt. He reminded me of a big brother, happy to see his little sister so he can pick on her.
"You big oaf, get off me!" I tried to sound stern but couldn't help leaning into his shiny neck and breathing in that good horsey scent--Eau du Summer Horse. It ranks right up there with other wholesome smells--sheets dried in the sun and newly baled hay. I bet I could market that scent.
"I gotta go, see you Pal." I patted Tango's neck and walked back down the road. Instead of returning to his own personal buffet, Tango did a curious thing. He began to trot, then gallop the fence line calling after me.
"How cute; he doesn't want you to go," my friend remarked.
"Silly horse," I said, feeling foolish as tears pricked my eyes. Even after I turned the corner I could still hear Tango's husky calls and the sound of pounding hooves. Anthropomorphism? Maybe....but I don't think so.
Tango, you've been a worthy teacher and a cherished friend. May you bless the life of your new person (congratulations Kasey) the way you have blessed mine. I will miss you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Today I am going to a reining horse show. A friend and trainer will be showing and I'd like to watch his classes. Reining, for those that don't know, is a western discipline. It is a pattern (multiple possible patterns) meant to showcase the skills a cow horse would have. Minus the cow. Fewer and fewer horses actually spend their lives working cattle but the spins, roll backs, flying changes, and spins of a reining horse mimic some of the maneuvers used in a real life ranch setting. A good reining horse is athletic, responsive, and graceful; completely in tune with its rider. Things that spoil a nice pattern include jerky communication between horse and rider, over anticipation on the part of the horse (leading to mistakes), and a cranky attitude. Though not always faulted, a horse that runs a perfect pattern with pinned ears and swishing tail (signs of irritation and/or ill temper) will lose in a tie with a horse of equal ability that appears willing. A good reining horse should appear, "willfully guided."

Some time ago I read an article about western riding disciplines. They included reining, cutting, and working cow horse. According to this author, good reining horses do not anticipate. They are followers that wait for the rider's cue. In contrast, anticipation in cutting horses can be a good thing. The horse that is able to read the cows body language can anticipate its next movement and gain the upper hand. Horses like this are often described as "cowy" and possess a natural ability and interest in moving cattle.

I do not have working cow horses or even own the traditional stock type horses used for these particular disciplines. Though individual Arabians can excel at cutting and reining they are not the breed best suited for it.

My gelding, Tango, is a perfect example of a horse that anticipates. Because of his carriage and movement, I've often thought he would be a good reining horse. However, he abhors routine and boredom and is a clever pupil that enjoys anticipating rather than waiting for a cue. He has many ideas about training methods and frequently shares his "opinions." This does not make for the best reining horse but it does make for an amusing and creative partnership.

When we are doing rollbacks in the arena it only takes one time and Tango jumps into anticipation mode--I know what she's doing; I'll do it before she even asks. That's how clever I am. He is often arched for a turn before I've asked him for the specific direction. This is the time to switch things up on him, ask for something else, do a complete 360 when he was expecting a 180 or visa versa. It's important to mix things up to keep him guessing and, listening. The key word for this horse.

Another maneuver that shows Tango's tendency to anticipate is the counter canter. Counter canter is when a horse canters on the "wrong" leading leg. When going to the right, for instance, instead of leading with the right front leg, the horse leads with the left. Counter canter is used alot in dressage and is an excellent tool to teach the more advanced horse balance. When I began teaching Tango counter canter he immediately resisted. He was very solid on his canter cues and adamant that he stay in the "correct" lead in either direction. An expressive horse, he got down right cranky with my new request, pinning his ears, shaking his head, and, my favorite, pursing his lips. I could almost hear him saying, You are in error, my dim witted rider. When we canter to the right we use the right lead. I had to go very slowly and accept just a few strides at a time. A horse that automatically picks up correct leads is a beautiful thing, to be sure, but most beautiful is a horse that responds to the riders request, when they request it, no matter what the request is. This is the pinnacle of training and fluid communication.

When a horse anticipates they aren't really listening, even if they appear quiet and obedient. They've jumped ahead on their own agenda. I do love to see an intelligent horse's mind work but the best way to deal with a horse like this is to keep them guessing, cuing them in ways that say, Pay attention, I may ask for something/show you something you don't expect.

All these thoughts about anticipation have been especially meaningful to me as I consider my spiritual life and relationship to God these last 2 or 3 months. Websters defines Anticipate: To look forward to; to take care of or use in advance; to forestall; to be ahead of in doing .

So easy to be on my own agenda but God says, My ways are not your ways and my thoughts now your thoughts. I'm on a bit of counter canter training these days; pretty good for spiritual balance.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Time for a problem horse update.

As world famous horse trainer John Lyons says, "When you have horses, you keep having problems." So true. Of my three lovely boys, one is consistently more problematic than the others. I recently learned that much of the time, he truly can't help his behavior. This gives me much food for thought as I consider my fellow man and my own nature.

Some time ago I posted about Chance and our veterinary adventures. Chance was concerned about my "superfluous" spending money and decided to relieve me of this burden. So thoughtful of him; thanks, Pal. It took a mere $500 dollars this summer to assure us his lungs were in ship-shape; time to get back to exercise. I frequently remind Chance, Eli, and Tango that despite how it appears, they actually live here to work as riding horses.

One of the first excursions for Chance, after nearly two months off, was to a friend's outdoor arena. A place he's been many, many times. This means he knows what boogers exist on the property, the other horses that will be there, the routine we follow. I knew he'd be on the fresh side but felt he would soon settle into a, "been there, done that" frame of mind. When it appeared his little brain was still on vacation I told Haley to let me warm him up first. "First" quickly turned into, "I've got you Babe and you've got me until you quit acting like a fool." Haley rode Tango while I wrestled with 14 hands of foolishness. At least it appeared that way.

I'm sorry to say it did not take long to lose my temper. One of the things Chance decided to overreact to was a hose stretched across the lawn. After working him in the arena I worked him by the hose. Over and over again. Besides being worried and needy away from "the herd," he acted ridiculous about a simple hose, splaying his legs, jumping around, and spooking from the sight of it. Since he's had frequent baths and enjoys them more than any horse I've ever known, I found his behavior strange. And headshakingly stupid.

"You are an idiot," I told him, forcing him to stand with the hose between his legs. I'm pretty sure I said some other things involving his mother, breed, and short stature. After riding, I loaded him up and took him home in disgust. I'd worked so long and so hard with this animal. I tell you, I'd had the patience of Job (past tense)! He needed to knock it off and get over it. Change the ridiculous behavior and grow up horse.

Fast forward a few weeks: I come home one evening and see neighbors I do not know. They are parked in my driveway; they want to share their concern about watching "the spotted horse" fall in the pasture. Not fall while running around, fall while standing perfectly still with eyes open. After falling, they observed Chance for several seconds try to find his balance and get his feet under him. He, "looked drunk." I thanked them for taking the time to find me and share this concern. I was concerned, too. Later I paced in the house. Puzzling behaviors--things he's always had--came to my mind: His running into things, difficulty placing his legs, lack of coordination, stumbling, spooking at things he seems unable to see. Recently he'd also begun having trouble unloading from the horse trailer. While he is no longer afraid to load, he takes a long time to unload now, appearing as if he has to think hard how to back out. All these things, added together with his fall/seizure in the pasture add up to a neurological issue. Why didn't I take a serious look at his behaviors before now? Consider something was going on?

We are no longer riding Chance and do not know if he has a tumor, epilepsy, or some other sinister sounding ailment. DNA testing from UC Davis told us he is negative for the more rare neurological disorder, Cerebral Abiotrophy, though he displays nearly all the outward traits for this, including hypermetric action, lack of a blink response, falling/coordination problems, and obvious issues with judging distance and spatial relationships. Next step is blood testing and urinalysis. The future is uncertain.

I cried for a week after being confronted with this dilemma. My heart is heavily invested in this little horse; he has tested my faith from the beginning. Yes, I pray for and about my horses. If God sees a sparrow fall He sees a smallish pinto fall, too. If He cares for His creation to the detail of a sparrow's death I believe He cares now. There is a purpose in this situation; I am simply trying to remain open to whatever that is.

When I think back to that hot afternoon, wrestling with Chance and that dumb length of hose, I wonder now if he wasn't doing the best he could. If there is something hindering his ability to accurately process what his senses take in his behavior that day is no surprise. It actually makes perfect sense. A horse can operate only on the basis of what it knows and what it knows is not only the result of training--conditioned response--but it's natural ability to process that information. Or not.

This recent horse challenge reminds me of my attitude toward other people sometimes. I once was intensely critical of a person close to me and the way they repeatedly handled their life situations and interpersonal relationships. "You are an idiot," I'd say privately--change already and grow up! One night my husband shared with me the facts of this person's early life and inner demons. Things I did not know. Tears pricked my eyes as I thought of the hell this person had been through, the emotional handicaps that hindered their ability to react well to life challenges and maintain stability. Their behavior was a result of how well they could process information and situations. Period.

And so I thank God for grace; grace for all of His creatures in the midst of personal handicaps. Whatever they are. I believe Grace will shine through, somehow someway, in Chances life as it does in my own. May I have more grace for those who share my space in this life, for idiosyncrasies I am unable to understand.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I've noticed New York Times Bestsellers fall into one of two categories: Literary art or fodder shoveled toward the enormous appetite for whatever is the current fad. Often the latter is comprised of knock-offs of a bestseller whose theme/topic continues, ad naseum. An example of deserved NY Times best selling status is Khalid Hosseini's, The Kite Runner. This fictional tale accomplished what a great book is meant to do--it transforms the reader. I've rarely been so devastated, so enlightened, by a work of fiction. Hosseini's passion resulted in a tale that transported me into a culture I'd sadly (and smugly) disregarded entirely. It changed my perception permanently.

On the other end of the spectrum is the overwhelming hit, Twilight, the YA debut by author Stephanie Meyer. I will resist the urge to be snarky and dismantle the hysteria surrounding this title. Other (better) connoisseurs of good writing have already done this. Meyer had an intriguing premise, no doubt, but she broke some kind of record for usage of cliched adverbs and adjectives. I put this Harlequin romance for teens down about 3/4 of the way through.

On my recent vacation in Maui, I had the opportunity to read several books or parts of books (Reading in paradise--what could be better?) and discovered something about pairing horses and writing. Horse keeping lends itself to authenticity, an essential trait in good writing. Horse people tend to be down-to-earth sorts. Perhaps this is because we wrestle with the concept of "down-to-the-earth" more than most and this keeps us humble and honest. Helps us avoid taking ourselves too seriously. Allow me to compare two recently read memoirs--a favorite genre: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Chosen Forever, by Susan Richards.

When it comes to reading I am an omnivore and enjoy buffet style nourishment. I'm not stuck on fiction, non-fiction, or any particular author. I love to be surprised by something new, different, and delicious. Trying a strange "dish" is good; you can't always tell by description or appearance what you'll like. This is how I became a fan of hummus and olive tapenade. Conversely, some things that look/sound yummy can give you a stomachache. This was the case for me with the wildly successful, Eat, Pray, Love. Firstly, let me say Elizabeth Gilbert is a fine writer. She has a good handle on clever technique and turn-a-phrase and uses a personal style of writing I like. There was a reason she was paid, in advance, for a book based on her experiences "finding herself" in Italy, India, and Indonesia. This one fact is at the root of the problem, for me. Payment in advance for a work of fiction is one thing, payment in advance for something meant to be inspirational, "spiritual," is quite another. Let's just say I could come up with something spiritual, too, if I was paid in advance to find it while traveling the world. Not a bad gig for a freelancer. Also flawed for me is Gilbert's premise. Feeling vaguely, yet deeply, dissatisfied with her marriage, the possibility of having children, and a dull suburban life she has a messy affair and, soon after, a messy divorce. I had a hard time dredging up empathy for this woman; a problem in memoir. Good memoir has, at its core, authenticity. While Gilbert's voice was engaging and often entertaining she lacked a certain honesty. Her new agey obsession with self wore thin and by the time she was kissing trees and divulging details about her sex life (with herself and a new lover who-obviously-helped her along her newly discovered spiritual path) I was ready for the Peptobismal. So why did Eat, Pray, Love hit the NY Times bestseller list? It feeds the wildly popular notion that anything goes in the elusive search for self-You're worth it Baby. Spiritually the book is also comfortably vague. Perfect. Look for the movie coming out with Julia Roberts. I'll probably watch it, along with a bag of cotton candy and the Pepto.

In contrast Susan Richards, Chosen Forever, is rich and satisfying. This sequel to her NY Times bestseller, Chosen By A Horse, continues a theme of redemption that began in Richards life with the unassuming love of a discarded Standardbred mare named Lay Me Down. Chosen By A Horse brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me that the experiences and individuals that touch us and change us the most are not the ones orchestrated and paid for in advance. They come as a surprise; involve our deepest emotions; even give us a broken heart. They don't always make sense at first sight. Do yourself a favor and read Chosen By A Horse. The sequel, Chosen Forever, is the story that unfolds in the authors life after the surprise success of her literary labor of love. I was ready to be disappointed but enjoyed it nearly as much as the first book.

Here's to finding oneself--on the back of a horse.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I am home. Mostly sobered up from a lovely Maui "buzz" and back to the land of regular routine (sniff, sniff). I did miss my horses terribly and by the second week an island equine sighting made me homesick. In celebration of my time in Paradise, I must digress somewhat and share something I discovered while learning to body surf.

It was evident early in my life that I would not be an athlete. The fact that I didn't walk until two years of age said something about future athletic ability. My mother says I knew how to walk long before I actually began doing so. Apparently I was content to watch, consider the options, and firmly hold onto the security of the furniture longer then most children. This tendency to spectate far too long seems stamped into my DNA. I hadn't improved much by elementary and high school. With the major exception of horseback riding, I didn't participate in sports. I remember longing to be a gymnast, a dancer, a runner. It didn't help that I was tall and lean. For some reason people assumed this meant I was also coordinated and athletic. I wish I had a dollar for every time I got this observation: "You're tall; you must play basketball/volleyball." Um, not so much. Except on my horse, I felt like an awkward klutz for most of my adolescent years. I avoided anything that would put my lack of coordination on display and made an art form out of observation and spectatorship.

Introverts--particularly writers--can be a rather boring lot. We're content taking in the experiences of others, turning them over in our minds incessantly and looking for truth, drama, human interest. This is all fine and good for writing but its a poor substitute for experiencing life and new things for oneself--getting sweaty/dirty/exhausted.

On our first full day in Maui we ventured to the beach. My hot-blooded, suck-the-marrow from life Portuguese husband insisted we all go body surfing. Um, excuse me; I do not body surf. I immediately decided this was yet another activity to sit out and observe. No doubt I wouldn't be able to do it anyway, plus getting all sandy.....

After watching everybody else dive bomb the surf and putting my toes into that amazing turquoise, 78 degree water I began to change my mind. I felt disgusted. I'm in Maui, for God's sake. I did not come to Paradise to sit and watch. For an hour or more I swallowed salt water, got sand up my suit, AND caught a couple gnarly waves--Cha! On the walk back to the condo I found a toasty warm hill of sand, fine as sugar, and sunk my feet in up to the ankles (I wanted to transport that beautiful heap of sand back to the Pacific Northwest for future rainy days when my very soul needs a warm-up). Salty, sandy, and exhausted I was reminded that throwing oneself into sports and other physical activities fully engages the five senses. I don't have to be a stellar athlete to reap the benefits of sports. As I think of my horses, I realize that one reason I love them so much is they pull me out of my tendency to spectate and give me a means to experience life more fully.

Besides body surfing, I also learned to snorkel while on vacation. On Maui, the Pacific Ocean is a thing of intoxicating beauty and I found myself drawn to it like never before. For fun, here are a few things I did not know about Maui and one vision I will remember always:

1. The ocean really is that color; the island really is that beautiful.

2. Even chickens love paradise. Chickens are everywhere on Maui. My favorite chicken sighting was outside the Maui Dive Shop in a busy strip mall, downtown Kihei. Two chickens perched atop somebodies snazzy SUV (oops).

3. Hawaiians consider Spam a desirable food choice. This was proven by a significant portion of aisle dedicated to Spam products in Costco. Did you know Spam also makes a hotdog? Double "Eeewwwwwww!"

4. It truly is the Land of Aloha. My favorite aloha sighting was hearing an older Hawaiian grocery store clerk address a white male tourist as, "My brother."

5. Maui is a great place to ogle walking art--tattoos. If you have a slight fetish for them as I do, you'll never lack for interest while people watching. I was quite tempted to get another one myself but decided instead to get a temporary henna. However, when I have my midlife crisis I'll return to Maui and get a tatt. Or three. Maybe a belly button ring, too. Never hurts to plan ahead for these things.

Maui Memory

Driving back from Lahaina one evening I suddenly caught sight of the full moon through the sun roof. The road south there hugs the shoreline, winding a slow descent into Kihei and "condo country." But at that moment, all one could see was the inky Pacific, stretching to a midnight sky and disappearing into infinity. The silver light of the moon gilded the surface of the water into rippling pools of liquid platinum. I felt small and insignificant. At the same time I had a sense of being deeply loved by the Creator who spread out His hands and worked together such beauty."...Darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters."

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Chance with his other herd boss.

Mom, how do I look?


Are you sure--this shirt's not too baggy?

Looks great.

Are you just saying that....did you even look?

Life with a teenager is never dull. Besides amusing and frustrating, parenting a teen can be quite enlightening. It's given me opportunity to reflect on my own teenage years (much of which I've tried to forget, actually). In my son I remember my own battle with insecurity and self-esteem at a time when my body seemed to betray me (I would learn this was only the first time; more betrayal was to come). While I have grown out of much of the youthful angst and drama the deep need to be accepted, to be thought well of, follows me into adulthood--"Herd dynamics."
As I've mentioned before, horses are never apathetic about The Herd. They live and die obsessed with this social structure. It's really more necessary to their health than food and water. In the wild the safety of a horse hinges on his place in a herd situation. This makes perfect sense. An attacking cougar, say, is best fended off with the help of a few friends. Especially when one is lower on the food chain. But domestic horses have a different reality, right? It is the faithful Master who feeds, waters, blankets in cold, fly sprays in heat, tends to tender tootsies, trains, loves, and otherwise is obsessed, exhausted, or bankrupt on any given day. But enough about me. This fact should have some relevance for even the most dim-witted equid, right? Wrong. Herd dynamics are no less critical for a backyard pony then they are for a Mustang surviving on the plains. At least from the horse's point of view.
I have found the greatest satisfaction as a trainer when I can affect this equine trait on a deep level; change the horses natural tendency. When the horse and I reach a place where we are first, last, and always our own herd of two. Regardless of whether I ride past a field of attractive horses nickering for attention, ask my horse to leave his best buddy for a few hours, or even trailer to a strange location. The horse remains okay--ixnay on the whinnying hysterically. My horse Tango is this way. He seems to understand, at some level, that I "have his back." This is quite literally true--how could I forget about him when I'm sitting on him! Eli is also coming along nicely in this respect. We aren't totally there yet but he looks to me more and more for direction. In time I feel his trust in me will be complete. Chance is another story. Life with human beings has taken its toll on him. For all the progress we have made this horse's trust remains fragile. And that's on a good day. On a bad day forget about it. His bond to the rider disappears like dust in the wind. In short, the herd--what "they" think and are doing at any particular moment--is a near constant obsession for this horse. When Chance is in this place mentally he can be dangerous. An example of this last occurred last weekend when I took him on a trail ride in the hills near my home. I knew the ride might be interesting but decided it would be good for him.
I was pleased that after some initial whinnying and postering amidst the 30 or so other horses milling around, Chance settled down--Look at me; I'm the man; You like me?; Check this out; Hey, nobody cares.....We left with the first large group and I put Chance in the back, behind a big Tennessee Walker. He was a tad nervous--I wonder what that horse thinks of me; Am I dominant here?--but willing to walk. Then he began hearing the sounds of the other group, just out of sight in the trees behind us. He began to get jiggy, pulling on the bit, jumping in the bushes and mostly ignoring the fact that there was a rider on his back. I waited until the single track trail opened onto a wider road and pulled him out of the ride. At that moment I believe I saw his small brain sprout wings and fly off into the blazing sun overhead. We entered full meltdown as he watched his new "best friends" disappear into the trees again. I wondered how it was that so quickly he could forget entirely about me--his rider and faithful buyer of premium hay, veterinary care and horse treats. Did he recall the hours I spent working on his trailer loading so he could become confidant and not utterly terrified? Did he remember how I quite literally plucked him out of a field neglected and starving? Not a chance, for this Chance.
Summoning what was left of my last nerve, I focused on regaining his attention. Eventually (with much sweat on both our parts) I got obedience and a bit of his brain back. We were able to rejoin a party of riders and finish the ride without further tantrums.
Being herd bound, or herd "sour," is not just annoying it potentially life-threatening for the horse and/or rider. A good friend found this out recently when her herd bound gelding tore out of the trailer she was attempting to load him into, nearly running over her. On his mad dash to get back to his "friends" he ran down a busy highway. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
A person can live their entire life a slave to herd dynamics--hoping to gain favor, respect, acceptance, self-esteem and purpose solely from other human beings. Personally, I'd like to find all that with the Master. A herd of two is security enough for me.
A note to followers and lurkers (I appreciate each and every one of you that bother to read my random ramblings): I am leaving for Maui and will happily neglect this blog for the next two weeks. After which I'll be back, fresh with Aloha and(hopefully) tales of horse culture in Hawaii.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I am an honest person; I like to tell the truth. As a writer this isn't simply a good idea, it's absolutely necessary. Oh sure, I am guilty of social lying--who isn't? By social lying I mean something like this:

Friend at church: Hi, how are you?
Me: I'm fine.
Translation: My latte just spilled on my sweater, I have a headache and just yelled at my husband and kids. I am in no mood to see or talk to anybody, much less worship the Lord--why am I here?!

After seeing the movie, The Italian Job, I now think of Fine as an acronym: Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. Turns out alot of people are F.I.N.E.

But other than that very typical scenario, I like to think of myself as an honest gal. Transparent even. It took two of my horses this week to show me that, in fact, I am a dirty little liar (even a Big, Fat Liar).

On Monday I loaded up Eli and took him to a local arena all by himself. I love this horse. He continues to prove his incredible intelligence and trainability, even under the added stress of being a young stallion with no shortage of hormones. Every stud should be as kind and level headed as this one. But I'm getting ahead of myself.......

I proceeded to warm Eli up and put him through his paces as two friends and their horses rode around, sharing the space. We rode for about 30 minutes with no incidence. I thought it an opportune time to brag about my outstanding equine when my friend made the mistake of asking,"So, how's he doing Catherine?" This was sort of like asking a new grandparent to tell you about their precious grandchild.

"This horse is the finest horse I've ever had," I gushed without shame. "I have never had to discipline him. Seriously. He has such a trainable mind."

I went on and on (the exact details escape me right now). Eli indeed proved his very trainable mind. Able to train his human to be very, very careful about the words that come out of her mouth. It wasn't fifteen minutes later that I moved Eli into a trot, then a canter. He took about two strides before all hell broke loose. Bolting across the arena Eli decided to show off his complete and utter "obedience." He jumped and pitched and while no words came out of his mouth I knew what he was thinking: This is a good time for you to bail off. Remember, pride comes before a fall.

I'm happy to report that I didn't fall off. Instead, I was able to get back the control and change Eli's attitude using a highly effective four letter word--WORK. We ended things on a good note and I, the big fat liar, went home a more humble individual.

I was still assembling my pride that week when, once again, I was proved dishonest in front of an audience. This time Chance decided to teach me a lesson. I can't prove it but I think Eli discussed this with him one night in the barn.

Chance has been struggling with respiratory problems for the better part of two months. I held out as long as I could but finally gave in and signed him up for what I knew would be an expensive veterinary exam. Just to be sure he was really sick, I worked Chance three days before the exam. Yep, he coughed and showed some distress during canter work. Something was definately wrong. I patted myself on the back for being a responsible horse owner and put all other plans on hold the day of his scheduled visit.

We arrived bright and early at the veterinary hospital, a large, clean facility with a charming collection of antique carriages on display out front. My horse would be in good hands. I explained the past couple of months, how Chance was hardly being worked and our worry he had a blockage of sorts in his airways. I was anxious to see his symptoms and how the vet would diagnose it.

"Let's free lunge him in the round pen," the vet said. "See whats going on."

An assistant got a whip and moved Chance around at the trot, then the canter. The day had dawned warm and it didn't take Chance long to break into a sweat as the air thickened with humidity. Additionally, deep sand in the round pen made his going that much more work. I knew it was simply a matter of time before he began coughing.

Twenty minutes later, the only sight to behold was the near perfect form of Chance, easily cantering the circumference of the round pen. Over and over again.

"He's in beautiful condition; what a mover," remarked the vet.

Mover my eye! This horse can hardly keep his leads straight some days. My mood darkened.

"Well, I'm not seeing anything. Let's put a bag over his nose and see what we hear."

We stopped Chance, put a bag over his nose and let him breath out the oxygen. Then the bag was removed and the vet carefully listened to his lungs while he inhaled deeply. Nothing but a tiny wheeze or two showed anything out of order.

"He tolerates exercise very well," said the vet.

"Listen, I know there is something wrong with this horse. I guarantee if I ride him he will show some distress." I fought frustration as I led Chance to the trailer and swung a saddle over his back. Time for a little horsey chat.

"Listen Pal," I pulled Chance's head around to make sure he was listening. "I just think you should know that if you prove me a liar today your work load is going to explode. No more lounging in my paddock over a pile of alfalfa. Got it?"

Chance chewed thoughtfully. Let's see, less work or enjoy making a fool of my owner? No contest.

Sure enough, we lope in beautiful circles in the sandy round pen. Over and over. Chance is a dressage horse, his frame round and athletic, his endurance supreme.

"If this was a prepurchase exam I'd tell you to buy this horse," the vet offers.

Gee, thanks. I'm going to kill this horse when I get home.....

Five hundred dollars later, I am sure of one thing: Horses were created to keep human beings humble (not to mention drive them crazy).

Yet, all is not lost. A new training method has come out of my recent experiences. It is actually not new but one I've used often and with success on my children. It is especially effective on toddlers and teenagers--reverse psycology.

This week I'll chant a new mantra to my beasts: Chance, you are sick ALL the time; Eli, my man, you are the worst horse to work with!

I'll let you know how it works for me.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all because he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before--such was its splendor, majesty, and strength. People offered fabulous prices for the horse but the old man always refused. "This horse is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend?" The man was poor and the temptation great but he never sold the horse.

One morning, the horse was not in the stable. All the village came to see him. "You old fool," they scoffed, "we told you someone would steal your fine horse." You are poor, it would have been better to have sold him and kept the money. Now the horse is gone and you have been cursed with misfortune." The old man responded, "Don't speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgement. If I've been cursed or not, how can you know?" The people contested, "Don't make us to be fools! Great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse." The man spoke again, "All I know is that the horse is gone. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I cannot say. All we see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?"

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn't been stolen but had run into the forest. He brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man. "Old man, you were right. What we thought was a curse was a blessing." The old man responded, "Again you go too far. Say only that the horse has returned with a dozen horses with him. How do you know if this is a blessing? Do not judge, you see only a fragment. You read only one page of a book and can you now judge the whole book on that one page? Can you understand it? Life is so vast, no one knows when all there is is a fragment. I am content with what I know and not anxious about what I do not."

"Maybe the old man is right," the villagers thought. So they said little. But down deep, they knew he was wrong. They knew it was a blessing. The twelve wild horses could be trained and sold for a profit. A profit the old man desperately needed.

The old man had only one child, a son. The young man began to break the wild horses. After a few days he fell from one of them and broke both his legs. Once again the villagers gathered around. "You were right," they said. "The horses were not a blessing but a curse. Your only son has broken his legs and now cannot help you in your old age. You will be poorer than ever." The old man spoke again, "You people cannot stop judging and go too far. Say only that my son has broken his legs. Who knows if that is a blessing or a curse? Life comes in fragments. Nobody knows."

It so happened that a few weeks later the country engaged in war. All the young men of the village were called to fight the war. Only the son of the old man was excluded because of his broken legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the man, crying out for their sons who had been taken. There was little chance they would see them again. "You were right old man," they wept. "Your son's accident was a blessing for because of his broken legs he is with you now. Our sons are gone forever."

The old man once again spoke, "It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only that your sons have gone to war and mine did not. No one is wise enough to know if this is a blessing or a curse. Only God knows."

This parable, from Max Lucado's Eye of the Storm, is so appropriate in my life these days. When I "grow up" I hope to finally and fully grasp this one thing: I am small; God is big. To hold this tightly when something is a blessing; even tighter when it looks like a curse. For I do not know. Life is so many broken, misshapen shards that God is fashioning into a glittering mosaic.

Chance has not been performing well the last two months. And not for lack of trying on his part. Though not distressed when he is at rest in the paddock, he is plagued with a mysterious cough and what appears to be a blockage of sorts in his throat. He can only perform light work and often cranes his neck and does a series of jaw gyrations as if trying to dislodge something. He has an appointment with the vet for a full exam and internal scope. This visit won't be cheap (What am I talking about--they never are!!). I alternate between fear and resignation as my horse girlfriends and I laugh about the "free" horse. Yeah, free comes with a ball and chain--his name is Murphy. Of course all horses are expensive. I know 10,000 dollar animals that can hardly be kept sound. But I can't help worrying about a possible tumor/cancer/outrageously expensive terminal illness. What will we do with an unusable proud little pinto who is deeply loved by a ten-year-old girl? My mind jumps ahead, manipulating circumstances that haven't come to pass. I am cursed.

The above parable came to mind on Tuesday of this week as I lounged in the sun and watched Haley guide my gelding Tango through his gaits at her lesson. He is her horse while Chance is down. The horse I've said isn't suitable for a child. Though highly trained and well seasoned, I've feared Tango's knack for finding trouble and having a laugh (at your expense) would frustrate Haley. I felt protective of them both. But now they are having fun. He is responsive and obedient; she is relaxed and smiling. She wants to take him to a fun show this weekend.

Could all this somehow be....A blessing??

Perhaps I should stick to the facts I know and be content. Because I do not know; I do not see the complete picture in the shards of circumstance.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.--1 cor. 13:12

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Ever notice how experiences that once seemed gross or unpleasant can turn out to be beautiful? Kissing a boy comes to mind (they used to be cooty carriers) and giving birth.

A few weeks ago my pastor was teaching about Jesus healing the man blind from birth (John chapter 9). Whether his eyes were freaky white orbs--think supernatural horror movie, or shriveled like raisins we don't know for sure. Maybe they looked normal. According to scripture the man didn't ask Jesus for healing. Jesus simply notices his dilemma, approaches and....puts mud in his eyes. To be technical, he spits in some dirt. Think about that for a minute: "Hey, sorry about your blindness. Let me spit in the dirt and put mud on your eyes." Yeah, I know he was the Son of God but even divine spit has an eew factor. I like to dig into the specifics in scripture. Not only that, you can't touch a much more vulnerable place then an eyeball. I have a hard time putting mascara on, much less allowing a stranger to put something yucky there. It amazes me that this man (who can't see Jesus at all remember), stands still for this scenario. He had some kind of trust. I'd probably be swinging at the Lord.

Sitting in church I zoned out a tad and flipped to some of the other miracles Jesus performed. Really, this was a guy who could work a miracle with simply a word--or a thought! Like turning water into wine. On these recent hot days I wish I could do something similar. Turn a glass of tap water into yummy Mikes Hard Lemonade, for instance. Then there's the woman who sees Jesus in a large crowd. She has this major medical issue but doesn't want to make a scene. She thinks, "If only I could just touch his clothes I'll be healed." I so relate to this woman. I hate being put on the spot. If I'm suffering in a public situation forget asking for help. I'll just die in the corner quietly, thank you. Jesus would have put his hands on this woman, anointed her with his joy, his healing, in a moment. But she's shy and her problem is embarrassing. Despite her reticence, her faith makes her well and while Jesus publicly makes known his awareness of her needs, he doesn't touch her. The healing is quiet and clean.

So, why the mud for the blind guy? I really don't know. There was nothing magical about that middle eastern dirt. All I can figure is the physical act of anointing did something for that man. Jesus loves to be a hands on kind of guy. The blind man must have had a heart that yearned for a personal touch.

The act of being anointed suggests special favor. It is an act of love and recognition. In the Bible being anointed was closely linked with holiness. The substance of choice was a fragrant oil but perfume and mud were also used. The specific substance wasn't as important as the act itself. So, what does this have to do with horses (you knew I'd eventually get around to it)? Well, these days I have my own nightly "anointing" ritual with Eli.

It started back in May when I noticed he was rubbing his mane and tail off. Literally. Eli is a beautiful animal. To see his chestnut locks frizzled into oblivion killed me. An Arabian with a mohawk? I don't think so. The source of Eli's skin problem is elusive and complicated. Like all individuals, he isn't perfect. Reactive, sensitive skin seems to be his "thorn in the flesh." I began by augmenting his diet. The first step in Operation Don't-Hate-Me-Because-I'm-Beautiful mane hair fit for a Revlon commercial. The flax seed helps with growth, condition, and essential omega 3s. I added garlic to keep the bugs away. They find Eli's smell particularly sweet and drive him crazy. Both dietary things helped but Eli kept itching. A close up inspection of the crest of his neck and tail head revealed skin that was rough, irritated, and excessively dry and flaky--Something Yucky (the technical term). I tried a couple different products before finding my miracle (drum roll please).....Shapley's MTG. Oh my gosh, this product actually works. Owners of sensitive skinned horses rejoice. The active ingredient? Sulfur. Yep, sulfur in oil. It's messy, its smelly, but it stops itching.

At night, usually while Eli is eating, I schlep out my oily sulfur and another great oil, Calm Coat, for his daily anointing ritual. Calm Coat is a much better smelling concoction of eucalyptus, lavender, and tea tree oil. I use it on his belly to soothe any irritation from noseeums--a major problem in this part of the country--or other insect bites.

As I've written before, Eli is a horse intensely careful about his personal space. When I got him he wouldn't eat if I stood next to him. He also got uncomfortable if I entered his stall when he was closed inside. Basically, he was always worried about how his body might be harmed if I got too close. An introvert, Eli doesn't want anybody making a scene. It's taken several months to get him to the point where he enjoys my attention up close. I can now stand by his side, arm over his barrel, and he doesn't flinch. He even gives me horse hugs now and then when I rub his neck and chest--his big arched neck turned my way as he simply hangs his head by my side.

When I first started my oiling up routine though he was less then thrilled. I'd have to halter him so he didn't walk away--Oh boy, here she comes again with that smelly goo. I had to tell him, "You know, not every stallion has a woman anointing them with oil every night for their personal comfort and beauty. You should be so lucky!" He wasn't impressed. But over the last couple of months I dare to say that he often seems to enjoy it. I no longer have to halter him. One night he even stopped eating altogether and simply hung his head in pleasure. As I stood by his neck, my hands rubbing MTG into the roots of his mane, he gave me a nice horsey hug. I began rubbing the soft place between his jaw bones. My fingers found a couple bumpy mosquito bites. As I rubbed Eli bobbed his head, happy as could be I was itching this most vulnerable place he was unable to do anything about. I put a dab of Calm Coat on my sooty looking fingers and rubbed the soothing oil on the bites. He bobbed even more enthusiastically--yeah, put some there! Interesting that it is a problem that gives me the opportunity to bond with this horse in a way he needs. He's learning to trust even if he doesn't understand what I'm doing to him, even if I'm touching a sensitive place.

I'd like to be more that way--"Lord, please touch me where I need healing; oil, mud, I'll take whatever you've got."

Sunday, June 7, 2009


A strange stillness dwells in my eye,

a composure that appears to regard the world

from a measured distance.

It is the gaze from the depths of a desert dream.

(Horses of the Sun--Robert Vavra)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Horses have always been a status symbol. Even today, with cars as "beast of burden," the horse you ride says something about you. Whether its fair, nice or deserved isn't the point. It just is.

A friend and I were recently playing the always entertaining game of What If Money Was No Object. This while watching our daughters take a riding lesson. What kind of horse would we buy for our girls? My friend thought, without doubt, that she would purchase a finely bred, professionally trained, guaranteed-to-win-the-ribbons horse that riders of lesser animals love to hate. As I watched my daughter struggle to perfect the choppy lope of our rescued-mediocre-conformation-does-not-play-well-with-others little Chance I hesitated. Part of me enthusiastically agrees. Wouldn't it be nice to simply show up to play days and 4H fair and collect prizes? Sign me up for that. Horses, after all, are not created equal. Spend a few minutes with a highly talented, well-bred equine athlete and you suddenly realize the huge gap between the have and have nots when it comes to horse flesh. What do I want for my daughter? To have, of course.

At a time like this I can't help reflecting on my childhood and the Motley Crew of "blue collar" (okay, red neck) horses we amassed over time. The horses that, despite their flaws, ignited my passion and honed my skills as a horse woman. My parents didn't have the option of shopping on, happily clicking the skills they were searching for in a mount for their young daughter. With three other siblings there were more important considerations--food, shelter, and clothing, for instance. Our criteria was simple--four-legged horse.

My first mount was a contrary Shetland of unknown origins (see, Ode to a Shetland Pony) who enjoyed scraping me off on trees, among other things. When I survived Sally, I graduated to the neighbors green broke Arabian gelding who had sat in a pasture for two years after being broke to saddle. Oh goody. I must have been about ten when Sunny came to live with us. My first ride on him is made especially vivid because of the stomach turning mix of abject fear and total excitement that marinated my insides as I perched on his prancing back. Equally vivid is the memory of watching my father--a man with no affinity for horseback riding--attempting to break Sunny of his habit of bolting not long afterward. Good times.

After a stint at "the trainers," lessons, and a year of bonding, Sunny turned into my very best friend. We went on to show at local fun shows and 4H, eventually qualifying for the state fair team two years in a row. You'd have thought I made the Olympics. Looking back, I can see that Sunny wasn't really all that special. He was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill kind of guy whose greatest accomplishment was helping a little girl grow up.

Other members of our colorful crew in those days included these gems--Tigerbell and Alla. Tigerbell was a 25-year-old half Arab, 1/4 Appy, 1/4 Tennessee Walking Horse (whose idea was that?). She was a nobby, temperamental gal with a rubbed off mane, and creaky joints. With a wicked old lady backbone and withers, you wouldn't dare ride her bareback. A freebie, Alla was a leopard Appy with a hammer head, sway back, and pigeon toes. Her neck seemed to come straight out of an especially straight shoulder. Her trot could shake the teeth right out of your head. I'm not sure why we named her Alla, only that we couldn't bear to add the "h" at the end. This out of respect, I'm sure, for a religion whose sacred book states that Allah, "took a handful of the southwind and created the horse." Our Alla was more on the earthy side.

Curiously, the "top dollar" Thoroughbred, bought for me as a teenager for the astronomical sum of $2,500 (a huge sacrifice on my parents part), never found a place in my heart. I rode her for barely two years before she was sold. Guess I'm a blue collar kinda horse gal.

But lets be real. Memory has a way of turning things rosy-colored. In the here and now, money no object, would I purchase a fancier horse for my precious 10-year-old or continue with an animal whose talents are definitely mediocre? I cannot tell a lie.

A horse provides much more for a child than simply putting them, "in the ribbons." And the right horse just may be the blue collar animal. I can't help thinking of two girls I knew in 4H who rode geldings named Nacho and Rocky. Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which horse was prettier and more talented. Let that be a lesson to you breeders--names matter. Rocky had a gleaming bay coat that rippled with muscle. He had the perfect Quarter Horse "dopey lope" that won all the pleasure classes and was grand champion in trail. His owner, whose name I have long forgotten (see post, Horse Names), was the girl I loved to hate at 4H fair time. I don't know for sure but I'd be willing to bet money that Rocky's training was done by someone else (not that it matters....I've since matured and am so over that). Nacho, on the other hand, was furry and fat. Utterly forgettable. His neck was nearly as wide as it was long. Let's just say "flexing at the poll" was not something this horse would be doing. In his lifetime. But I don't remember Nacho's owner enjoying her horse any less than Rocky's. They both rode, won (or not), loved their geldings and grew up with sweet memories of life on horseback. That is a gift.

So what might Chance be doing for Haley in the here and now? Of course I've thought about it, as I consider the "perfect" animal on Dreamhorse and the fact that I can use Pay Pal. There are two things Haley is learning and it has nothing to do with competition. First, there is a true friendship building between her and Chance. In the same way of human relationships, not all partnerships--however fancy the horse--become a friendship. Believe me, I know. Chance will leave a field of grass to meet Haley at the gate and soaks up her love like the sun. Second, Haley's character has been honed because of this particular animal. She's learning that soft hands and a deserved rest go farthest in training and that green horses will usually dump the rider who spurs them in a fit of temper. She's learned that victory at a show is a happy, calm horse and rider, not a blue ribbon.

I won't deny I'd love for Haley to win the blues, be rodeo queen, go to the Olympics, be "the best." It is unlikely the abilities of her current mount will take her there (if I win the Lotto find me surfing Dreamhorse). But Chance, with all his flaws, may turn out to be the "sure thing" that helps a little girl grow up. That is enough.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I would suggest that not since the days of Sea Biscuit has Thoroughbred racing been so inspirational. First there was the stunning victory of 50-1 long shot, Mine That Bird, in the Kentucky Derby. This horse's improbable success--he was a mediocre performer--was largely made possible by the intuitive talents of jockey Calvin Borel who guided him to the 6 and 3/4 length win on May second--largest in Derby history since Assault in 1946. At a time when the economy is plunging and moral is sagging, the sport of kings provides inspiring entertainment. Lately I'm wishing for a race track closer to home.

There was no doubt that "The Bird" would make a bid for the Triple crown by running next in the Preakness. Surely nothing would stop Calvin Borel from climbing aboard the bay gelding and collecting another jewel in the crown (not to mention a whole lot of cash).


Borel would become the first rider to leave a Derby champion at the Preakness. In what was called an "unprecedented step," he chose to ride Rachel Alexandra, a horse he calls, "The greatest racehorse I've been on in my life." A filly? Those unfamiliar with racing may not realize the less than favored status fillies get saddled with (pun intended). Colts are overwhelmingly favored for racing, testosterone apparently giving them an edge over most fillies. And the Preakness--at 13/16 mile--is the ultimate challenge. Only three fillies have attempted the Preakness since 1939. Borel knew what he was doing. Last weekend Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. Mine That Bird finished second. Right now I'm singing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T--Can you hear it?? Here's to Girl Power.

My favorite quote from Borel regarding the filly he loves (he rode her to a 201/2 length finish in the Kentucky Oaks-a race for fillies-the day before the Derby) is this: "When you look into her eyes its unbelievable. You win."

What does an 8th grade drop out who can barely read and write know about winning? A lot. He knows that what sits at the core of a winning spirit is something nobody can give, or takeaway from you--Heart. Combine this with a willingness to work and success will come. Borel's skill at recognizing heart in a racehorse must come as a result of this quality in his own life. It has moved him from three decades toiling in obscurity to the highest echelons of his sport. Heart is what made it possible for him to keep riding after a horrific accident as a young jockey; heart is also what motivated a "lesser" choice in mounts for a high stakes race--a choice that seemed largely based on pure love of a horse.

But don't forget the work. Only a stellar work ethic prompts a jockey to wake up early to visit his horses so he can be in tune to their nuances. Work ethic prompted Borel to return to Churchill Downs the day after his victory to ride horses of much lesser ability rather than bask in the glory of his six-figure win. At age 42, this winner of over 4,000 races still mucks stalls for his trainer brother, Cecil.

An "over night success?" Hardly. Calvin Borel has more than earned his place in the spotlight.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


There seems to be no end to the things people collect.--antique farm tools, chopsticks, 50's lunch boxes, milk glass(always a favorite), Mickey Mouse memorabilia, the list goes on. In lieu of having a really interesting collection (say, umbrellas or rhinestone broaches or velvet pictures of Elvis) I collect horse names. Not officially, mentally. They stick in my brain like tacky magnets or running text on an electric sign, refusing to disappear into oblivion as other more important information does on a daily basis. My drivers license number, for instance. Birthdays, wedding days, names of people I do know, appointments, all fodder for my mental Black Hole. But a horse's name? Won't be forgetting that. Yes, I know I'm sick. The first step is admitting I have a problem.

With the recent running of the 135th Kentucky Derby, I had the chance to indulge my love of horse names. What could be more interesting than the names and cooresponding stories attached to Thoroughbred race horses? Elvis has nothing on the dreams, despair, blood, sweat and tears of the sport of kings. And naming a race horse isn't simple. The name is a wish, a prediction, an anouncement, or even a joke. It may stick in history, or inside somebody's head,(like mine) for eternity. If you're lucky. The horse's name says alot about the owner. How about the very unsubtle, I Want Revenge, or more wishful, Hold Me Back. A lighthearted, Chocolate Candy, suggests an owner with a sweet tooth and then there's the simple, get-to-point name of, Run. The filly Regret forever recorded her owners disappointment that she hadn't been born a colt (colts being favored for racing). I think the horse deserved a name change when she became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby.

A name is a stab at immortality, the immortal horses that have gone before reading like labels in an exclusive clothing store (gotta get me that brand)--Northern Dancer, Eclipse, Aristides (first Derby winner), Storm Cat, Sea Biscuit, Secretariet, Bold Ruler, Barbaro. The list goes on. Not simply monikers but titles of a story--somebody's, somewhere. The names suggest attributes shared equally between equines and their caretakers--hope, heart, tenacity.

Breeding the Thoroughbred is as much of a science as man can muster. Imperfect but imperative. For lineage buffs(and other freaks of nature), I suggest the book, Stud: Adventures in Breeding, by Kevin Conley. Fascinating look into the Thoroughbred race horse. This years Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, wasn't conceived by accident. By Birdstone and out of Mining My Own, Mine That Bird did exactly what his father did, upset everyone's best predictions (Birdstone foiled Smarty Jones's bid for the Triple Crown). Many betters at The Downs were crying into their Mint Juleps Saturday when the bay gelding confounded the experts, coming from behind and winning in a spectacular burst of speed. I love when horses do that. But then I didn't have any money on the race. Bravo to the brave souls who bucked the crowds and put their money on the 50-1 longshot. I'm also happy for the horse who, like other long shots before him, decided Saturday was his day.

Mine That Bird reminds me of two other phenominal racehorse geldings whose names, and the stories behind them, are noteworthy. John Henry and Funny Cide. Funny Cide, by Distorted Humor, won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Owned by a circle of middle class friends who never expected to win with the horse they love, Funny Cide has a bit of a Cinderella story. It is detailed in Chicken Soup for the Horselovers Soul, II. But John Henry has to be my all time favorite. Talk about rags to riches, nothing horse becomes a celebrity. John Henry's breeding has been called, "phebian." This means middle or lower class. To be blunt, his owners couldn't afford Nordstrom and settled for JC Penny. Bought as a yearling for $1,100, the horse was named after the folk hero, John Henry, described as a "steel drivin' man." John Henry, the horse, also had a fondness for steel. He enjoyed ripping his steel feed containers off the wall and stomping them flat. With lack of breeding, an ornery spirit, and noteworthy conformation defects, John Henry was gelded, his "label" neatly ripped off and disposed of. This decision certainly resulted in the owner kicking himself black and blue. For the rest of his life. The horse went on to become the richest gelding of any breed in history. Racing until an unheard of age of 9, John Henry won two horse of the year titles and became the first racehorse to surpass 4 million in career earnings. Not bad for an off brand.

I visited Churchill Downs in May of 2007, just a few days before the 133rd Derby. I will never forget it. It was early, before the museum opened, so I followed a few others to the track to watch what was left of warmups. It was chilly but the sun shone brightly, working hard to burn off the early morning mist still clinging to the track. Grounds keepers were quietly hard at work to mulch and prepare the flower beds for the upcoming crowds. What struck me was the almost reverant quiet trackside. As if nobody wanted to disturb a sort of holy effort being exerted--like the hush before athletic events at the Olympics. Then I heard pounding hooves breaking through the fog. Two horses breezed their way around. They ran easily, joyfully. Because it felt good, because that is what God created them to do. I felt my throat tighten. Tears stung my eyes. Why? It was beautiful. That is all. For an instant I experienced the dream, the emotion, the tremendous heart that beats behind the sport of kings.