Saturday, December 4, 2010


The title of this posting is sorely appropriate seeing as I haven’t been visiting the blog as much as I’d like. Holidays, horses, and a highly active family keep me hopping these days. Not to mention a humongous writing project (knew I could fit another ‘h’ in there somewhere). With Thanksgiving just behind us let me say I am thankful for readers who still return here from time to time regardless of my consistent inconsistency.

I’d planned another vehicle encounter for this post. It would be appropriate seeing as…I GOT A NEW TRUCK. But, alas, horses under the hood are not as inspiring as the one under my saddle (see above beauty) so photos of the snazzy, white, diesel powered truck I now have will have to wait till next time. Something else is on my mind.

More than one sport has been called a “metaphor for life.” From running, to rock climbing, athletic pursuits are often said to mirror the journey of life. My favorite is golf. I’m sure there’s a meaningful message in the wearing of pastel colors while driving a cute white vehicle around 18 holes scattered on unnaturally green looking grass. Hmmm…it’ll come to me, I’m sure.

I cannot find an immediately recognized metaphor for life in the equestrian sports. However, life with horses does mirror a person’s style and health (or not) within relationships. Horses reveal us to ourselves; they are a revelation if we allow it. Angry/controlling/inflexible/a push over/highstrung/restless/relaxed/available/emotional/unstable/unresponsive? There’s an excellent chance your horse is, too. An English proverb states: Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are. My horse is at the mercy of my personal awareness and it’s up to me to straighten things out.

For the last month Eli has been at a dressage trainer’s barn. He’d gone as far as I could take him in his training and we were in need of some deeper insight to continue developing both athletic ability and our relationship under saddle. My objective? Helping him progress along the training pyramid with specific goals of strengthening his self carriage and balance. He is so flexible sitting him could be compared to riding a large fettucine noodle. Wiggle this way, wiggle that. A giant stride, weak rear end, and plenty of forward go make for an interesting time some days. We’d come a long way in his first two years under saddle, but I wanted to graduate from elementary school.

Dressage frequently gets a bad rap from backyard owners like myself who make the mistake of dismissing the discipline as something pursued by stuffy elitists who enjoy showing off. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Dressage is worthwhile and challenging for many reasons. It demands focus, attention to detail, and sensitive feel. It demands an understanding of the equine body and mind as the athlete they are created to be.

I was not thinking too much about my own focus and attention or habitual “sins under saddle” when I dropped Eli off. Rather, I was excited someone with a lot of knowledge would shape him up, straighten him out (literally), and show him the ropes. I couldn’t wait to get on and ride a horse with “education.” It would be so much easier.


Today was case in point. Let me just say Eli is looking beautiful. As I saddled him just prior to our lesson I admired the muscle building along his back and wither. Lifting the back and relaxing the neck while driving under in rhythm builds a very pretty equine shape. Our current challenge? Encouraging a state called “contact.” This is frequently a misunderstood term. It is not forcing an artificial head “set” or pulling the horse’s head down with a jerk of the wrist. Like all good communication it involves seeking, sensing, and trust. Rigidity and sloppy riding destroys the horse’s faith in the human at the end of the rein.

Straightness helps contact by enabling the horse to drive under and stay “between the reins.” No bulging inside or out. This has been a problem for Eli and I. We bulge. I felt sure this was his problem. I mean, he’s a big strong stallion. He needs to just use his body better. Then I, the weaker human, will be able to sit on him and look lovely. We’ll have this contact thing down and can start doing cool stuff like flying lead changes and passage.

Apparently we need to fix our bulging problem. This was the scenario today as I trotted down the wall:

Trainer, also known as Yoda (though she is much cuter): “He’s bulging right because you’re crooked. Bring your right shoulder back, squeeze your right knee, and loosen the left rein.”

We are going left so this feels awkward, but I do as I’m told.

Yoda: “You’re still crooked. Look at the wall to your right; pretend you’re a rodeo queen waving at the audience.”

It seems necessary to look where I’m going, but I’ve always wanted to be a rodeo queen.

Yoda: “More. But keep your weight in the left stirrup.”

At this point I’m thinking rubbing my tummy and patting my head would be easier then what she is asking. I have become a tragic victim of scoliosis, my spine freakishly twisted. I stare at the arena wall as we trot along, certain we will crash into it at any moment.

Yoda: “There! You’re straight now.”

Me: “What? This does not feel natural!”

Yoda: “I know. You’ve been sitting on your horse at an angle. When he follows you right, you pull him left. He does what you do. Notice how he’s traveling now.”

Over the course of a few (hard) minutes of correcting my body position a miracle has happened. Eli is rhythmically trotting, his neck long, lovely, and relaxed. He feels round and supple. A moment later he reaches longer into the bit looking similar to the photo above.

Yoda: “He’s seeking the contact. Follow him with your hands and receive it.”

There is only one way to describe the feeling at that moment: Trust. No forcing or pulling just rhythm and relaxation. As dorky as it may sound, I felt rather emotional.

Later I became aware that my crookedness isn’t just in the saddle. I slouch right when I stand, when I drive, when I lean on my kitchen counter. I’m darn crooked! Was Eli crooked on his own or did I create it by my position? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Doesn’t matter. The point is I need to straighten out to improve our communication, even if it doesn’t feel natural. Crooked position causes crooked responses, but a changed perspective invites contact.

Is that like a metaphor smorgasbord or what?!

Monday, November 8, 2010


I’ve got cars on the brain. Generally horses dominate that space, but as you can see from the previous post I’ve had my share of vehicle encounters these days.

Update: After a thorough inspection we opted against buying the F350 described previously. My husband helpfully suggested a new arrangement for hauling my precious hairy cargo around. See above photo.

Ugh. Just say NO to ugly vans.

“I thought you don’t have status issues,” hubby said, a smirk on his face. “That van can easily pull an aluminum horse trailer.”

This is an ongoing joke between us…who has “status” problems. When finances were down and we drove such cream puffs as a 1969 Cadillac (swear it had a hinge in the middle), and tiny Ford Festiva we built ourselves up by saying things like: “It takes a good self image to drive this car; We’re being smart and paying cash; Buying a new car is stupid; Only people with status problems drive a car like that.”

The Van (also known as The Van That Won’t Die: TVTWD) fit nicely into our long pattern of self righteous thrift. It had been sitting for several months when it was bequeathed to us by friends—a freebie! We cleaned out the mold and a dead mouse then invested $600 bucks into the thing—“Good as new.” Sort of. It retained a subtle whine in the engine and a lovely aroma of mildew: Au du Van.

Still, my proudly frugal hubby insisted he loved the van and drove it for a couple years adding several thousand miles to its exhausted engine and an attractive dent in the sliding door. Me? I didn’t want to touch the thing, much less drive it. My self image has been thoroughly humbled by horse power (or lack-there-of), thank you very much.

Its amazing how quickly one can get used to something nice and conveniently forget self righteous smack talk. See lovely red car above. As in the old days when the horse one rode announced a certain status, the horse power under the hood has a mysteriously capacity for enlarging the ego. I found that out when I took our new “ride” on a trip out of town.

A red Dodge Charger with a Hemi is a righteous experience, let me tell you. Or, at the very least, the best sort of therapy. Picture a perfect autumn day with sun toasting the arms through the open sun roof. Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell is blasting over the speakers as I cruise down Interstate 5 about 8—I mean 60— mph. Ah…I may be ordering up a mid life crisis soon.

Speaking of which, Mr. I-Don’t-Have-Status-Issues sported a definite pouty lip when I took Precious for two days. Seemed he’d lost that loving feeling for TVTWD…..hmmm.

Driving the Charger is sort of like riding my horse Eli. Naturally a good mover, I just feel darn good on that horse. Shifting him into a good gallop is a very therapeutic experience and it doesn’t hurt that he’s beautiful. I forget that my horsemanship skills aren’t any fancier on Eli. He might stand in for my ego but all it takes is a ride on Chance to be roughly escorted back to reality: I have A LOT to learn about horses. Riding each horse reveals something to me and in me. I think I need both of them to stay grounded in the truth that I’m not the sum of the “ride” I have on any particular day—horse or car. Which brings me back to the van.

I happened to take TVTWD to the recent Women of Faith Conference. Due to some scheduling conflicts a friend and I found ourselves maneuvering Big City traffic in a cursed dented blimp with nine lives. We pulled up to The Westin in down town Seattle where we booked a room for the night and my heart sank. Valet parking. My friend and I looked across the street and ogled the cherry red Ferrari snugged sleek against a curb. Don’t they have normal, hide-your-head-in-shame parking for owners of ugly vans? I don’t want a valet to see me get out of this van, much less drive it himself. I circled the hotel once, twice. It was valet parking or none at all. Where’s my love Dodge Charger when I need him??

“We’re just two moms in a van,” my friend said upon exiting the vehicle, head high.

The valet grinned, “I love vans. That Ferrari over there can only seat two.”

My friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We listened to the whine of an engine echoing years of childish cargo as the valet drove it out of sight. No Cool award for us this weekend, just four wheels to do a job.

With Eli in training for the next month (my red horsey version of Dodge Charger) I’m enjoying time riding a “van,” my portly pinto, and schooling him with the clicker. My long legs drooping from his sides in an Aussie saddle, I am definitely not looking cool on this horse. But I’m learning a few important things. Hopefully he is, too.

Cranking up the Billy Idol…Righteous.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I was sorely tempted to take a photo of a nice steaming pile of road apples for this post. But why add to the mountain of objectionable content already stinking up the internet? That said, I don’t find poo too offensive. Poo happens. It’s organic. It can even be a personal growth experience. One I’d like to provide, in excess, to a certain gas station owner in my county. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ever have a day, or an hour, or even five minutes of pure contentment? You’re happy and successful; all is right with the world. Okay, I know those situations don’t last long, but let me share one with you:

I’m in the process of buying a new truck, a much nicer one then I’ve had. Let’s just say hot cars have never been a priority in my life. I should own stock in the bumper sticker that says, “Don’t laugh, its paid for.” For the last 17 years my husband and I have valued owning our vehicles outright. You can probably imagine what sort of vehicles can be paid for with cash out of your wallet. The last couple of years though we’ve entered a more comfortable stage financially. We can’t afford Mercedes or Porche, but the general appearance of our cars is improving. The truck I’m trying out now is owned by a friend: F350 Powerstroke with an extended cab. Ten years old. Hitched to my aluminum horse trailer it looks pretty nice. This friend generously gave us the truck to try before we buy.

And so Monday night I make my way, horse trailer in tow, to a 4H club ride night about an hour away. My daughter and I have a wonderful time with friends we enjoy and our horses remain healthy and well behaved. Proud to practice good stewardship of time (a near impossibility with horses), I leave early to get home and spend the rest of the evening with my son. Glancing at the fuel gauge I note that it would be wise to stop at a gas station. I pull in, swipe my card, and begin filling the tank. As it fills I look to the trailer in bliss—I love my horses, my family, the most likely soon-to-be-mine snazzy truck I am driving. I am confidant and content as I check the number of gallons pumped so far. It takes less then two seconds to morph into an idiot.

I am putting gas into a diesel engine.

Truck Driving for Dummies: Never, ever, put gas into a diesel engine.

An ugly, poo related word jumps from my lips. My heart races. I instantly call my BFF who is a few minutes ahead of me on the way home (to a pot roast dinner with her husband). This very thing happened to her F350 not long ago. I wail and moan, rant and rave. Like the best of friends she turns her truck and trailer around and returns to the station to commiserate with me and offer trailer space for my poor equine BFFs who are wondering why we’re stalling when an overdue dinner waits at home.

The first thing I do, after moving the truck away from the pumps, is tell the somewhat suspicious gas station attendant what is happening. I tell him I am sorry and that a tow truck is coming to remove the vehicle. BFF and I discuss what to do with the horses. My husband out of town, I am humble and grateful to have good people around to help. Briefly I consider calling the truck's owner. On second thought, the vehicle will be fine after the tanks are pumped and will rest safely at a reputable shop for the evening. My shame on public display already, I decide to wait until the morning to call and confess the deed.

After roughly two hours of waiting for tow truck, removing horses from one trailer and loading in another, and hitching my trailer to another truck, I’m ready to go home. Whew, what a night. I need to go to bed and rest my wounded ego. But no.

I have scarcely pulled into my driveway when Truck Owner Friend calls. They are wondering if something is wrong. Seems a sheriff showed up (10 o’clock at night) at their door. Supplied with the license number of the truck, the sheriff says a certain gas station owner is appalled that I would leave a few turds on his precious pavement and needed to get the law involved to ensure they are removed. Pronto.

At this point my inner 13-year-old makes an appearance: “Like, OMG! No way!”


I live roughly an hour from the scene of the “crime.” At this point in the evening there is one thing Mr. Gas Station can do with a few turds—Puh-lease! Proving the lengths a person will travel for a friend, Truck Owner takes care of the offending turds littering decent society. I have a feeling I am going to be buying this truck.

After calming down, being reassured the truck will be fine, and mapping the other gas stations I will now be patronizing in that particular area of the county, I pondered the positive side of poo happening.

Besides making one humble, dealing with poo makes one ever so much more compassionate when faced with the mistakes of others. And there’s nothing like experiencing poo to discover who your real friends are. Real friends stand beside you while the embarrassing smell emits from your life; they help you clean up; they remind you to laugh.

Thinking there’s an uptight gas station owner that needs a bit more poo in his life…

Monday, October 11, 2010


Congratulations to Wanda Rosseland--a real Montana cowgirl--who won a copy of Sonoma King. The book is coming your way, Wanda.

Now I'd like to welcome Sonoma King author Gretchen Jones (a real Nevada cowgirl) for a few questions about the book, writing and, of course, horses.

Sonoma King is your first published book, how long did it take you to write, illustrate, and find a publisher?

It took about nine months to write and illustrate. We had over thirty rejections before it caught the eye of Capitol City Books. Then it took nine months or so to publish in book form.

Tell us about owning/training race horses. Are they often like Sonoma King--talented but unwilling to run in the beginning?

I raced both Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds on the Fair Circuit in Utah and raced in Denver, Colorado. Most horses are willing to run but the starting gate scares and excites them because they have to burst out at a full gallop and can only anticipate when the bell will ring. Stallions can sometimes be more difficult to train and run because quite often they have their mind on other things.

How is Arabian racing the same/different from Thoroughbred racing?

Arabian horses are raced at the same distance as Thoroughbreds. Since they have more stamina (they are called "hot bloods" because they have more red blood cells on the skin's surface then most other horses, thus can expel toxins quickly and recover faster. They also have a large, loose hanging wind pipe for greater air intake) they can run longer distances, but normally they run the same distance. Usually up to a mile.

Do you have a favorite horse that inspired the character Sonoma King?

I believe Sonoma King is a composite of most of my favorite horses. He has alot of try--my good horses do--and he is very loyal. I have had some that were very loyal and knew me even after I had been gone for a long period of time; they would whinny in recognition and run over to me. Horses are loyal to their friends and remember them even after years of seperation.

What were your favorite books as a child?

My first favorite books were by C.W. Anderson, Billy and Blaze. I also loved King of the Wind, The Black Stallion Series, Misty of Chincoteague--I guess all the books by Marguerite Henry. I always liked the well illustrated books. I am still not fond of cartoonish illustrations.

Suzanne Graves passed away. Can you tell us a bit about your friend and co-author? Did she get to see the book before she died?

We worked very hard on the book. Unfortunately she passed away before it was published. We did art shows together before we decided to write and illustrate children's books. We had a good time figuring out our plots. She was excellent at editing because she had been a teacher. We both knew little boys and girls dream of horses and the activities they do.

Sonoma King returns in a sequel. Tell us about the next book.

In the next book Robin and Sonoma King are invited to race in the prestigious Ascot Cup in England. They fly to England and get ready to race. There is lots of adventure in this book as well. Researching it was alot of fun and makes a person delve into other parts of the world.

Tell us about your life with horses now. Do you still ride/train?

Yes, I still train and show my Arabians in reining, pleasure and cow horse classes. I usually train for cow work on a flag and I also use sheep to teach my horses how to watch, stop, and turn them. Emily (horse pictured above with Gretchen) and I showed for years in those classes. She isn't too fast down the fence or on the circle but she is a super cutting horse. Unfortunately, there are few shows for Arabian cutting horses so she is mostly ridden on trails. Emily is great over/through any obstacle because she grew up on the Hat Ranch in northern Arizona. This is part of the Al Marah Arabian Ranch.

Thanks so much, Gretchen--best of luck with your horses and we'll look forward to more Sonoma King adventures.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Since they pranced in King Solomon's stables, Arabian horses have captivated the imagination of man. Sonoma King continues a tradition of romance and fantasy that follow an ancient breed. This tale for young readers is reminiscent of Walter Farley's famous world of stakes races and a black stallion that runs like the wind. Illustrations and full color art, a female protagonist struggling with emerging adolescence, and intriguing details about Arabian horse racing make a familiar storyline welcome.

I recently had the chance to review a new book celebrating the majesty of the Arabian horse: Sonoma King. A short chapter book for young readers, Sonoma King has a familiar storyline: A youthful owner struggles to maintain her faith in a black colt of untapped talent that eventually develops into a competitive race horse. Of course, challenges and danger loom at every turn of the plot, but I won’t spoil it for you. Unfamiliar with Arabian horses? Allow me to introduce them before testing your literary knowledge of horse story classics for a chance to win a free copy of Sonoma King.

I have strong opinions about what I like in a horse. Top on my list? Intelligence, beauty, and a personable nature. Horses cost way too much to keep these days and I like mine to function under saddle and as living art. To that end, the Arabian horse is my hands down favorite breed.

It’s fascinating to consider the history of the Arabian—the oldest pure breed in the world. Arabians have danced across the desert since Biblical times and are the original war and race horse. Though spirited, Arabians have a deeply sensitive and intuitive spirit and lived closely with human beings from the beginning. Desert lore says the Bedouins even slept in tents with their horses.

My first Arabian—Sunfire—couldn’t have been a less appropriate mount for a ten-year-old girl. The neighbor’s green broke pasture pet, Sunny was naughty and spirited. I vividly remember my first ride on the seven-year-old gelding the day we brought him home. Sunny danced the length of our quarter mile driveway, his feet barely touching the earth, while I perched on his back, my stomach churning with fear...and absolute exhilaration. He was the opposite of my wicked Shetland pony, Sally, and the epitome of childhood fantasies birthed by reading classics like The Black Stallion. Though Sunny never slept in my room, he became a trusted best friend and soul mate who helped me navigate adolescence. I remain a huge fan of the breed today because of our relationship.

Today I have my own The Black, a metallic chestnut stallion who, despite his coloring, is still a fantasy come true. I can think of no better therapy then turning him loose for a good gallop. Like his ancestors before him, Eli is a drinker of the wind and, for me, the horse of a lifetime.

The following questions relate to these classic middle grade books: Black Beauty, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion, and King of the Wind.

The first person (email me through my website: to correctly answer all ten questions will win a lovely hardback copy of Sonoma King. For everyone else, the book is available through Capital City Books ( for $20.95.

Which book’s author was handicapped and died at the young age of 57, only five months after the book was published?

Which books feature horse racing?

Which book is said to be the sixth best seller in the English language?

Which book(s) is/are based on a true story?

How many of the above books are authored by women?

What are the names of Black Beauty’s best horse friends?

Which books were made into movies?

Which stories begin, or are centered, on an island?

Which book was written to inspire humane treatment of horses?

Which book(s) became a series?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The first Bible verse that tacked itself to my brain cells was memorized at age seven. The daughter of a pastor, scripture had an important roll in my childhood, but I don’t remember being particularly excited by Bible reading. I do remember a certain Sabbath school contest and my small mind expanding to record multiple verses for a magnificent grand prize: a beautiful set of colored pencils. I worked hard to memorize a boatload of verses I cannot recall today. All except one: Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.

Spoken by Jesus, Matthew 7:7 echoed in my cranium long after the colored pencils were worn down to nubs. For me it has trumped other more popularly memorized verses—such as John 3:16—every time. God knew his child of small faith and large fear needed a promise to remember always: Seeking is rewarded.

Currently I am doing much reading/research in preparation for a literary project and recently began Animals Make Us Human by autistic scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin shares fascinating research into the emotions of mammals including discoveries by neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp considers seeking—curiosity, wanting something, investigating—an emotion. Also called the “Christmas emotion,” seeking is is anticipation of good things. It energizes and motivates.

Clicker training is all about seeking. Especially when variable reward is introduced and the animal has to try various behaviors as it seeks the “well done” click and cooresponding reward. I’m pretty sure Chance has avoided much seeking over the course of a largely pathetic existence. His life had been small and fearful and unpredictable. This produced a horse that alternated between lashing out in anger and hiding in fear. How much of his behavior is due to inbred wiring and how much is due to lack of nurturing/care I’ll never know. It really doesn’t matter.
I do know he has lived with me in a state of constant vigilance. Remove him from his safety zone of stall and medium sized paddock and he is on alert for terror of all kinds—a saddle pad on fence, a man jogging down the road, every move of the horses in the field behind him. As a family member said, “He’s scared of his own shadow.” This has not stopped us from riding him, but his mental state makes for an unpredictable horse (and the need for a Velcro butt). Clicker training is a last resort as I cling to a shred of hope Chance’s brain will make new neuropathways and he can develop a thinking habit rather then a reactive one.

Our first clicker sessions of ten or fifteen minutes were not real encouraging. Chance has an extremely short attention span. It took a long time for him to understand the click and link it to a reward. Often he’d lose interest and move away, looking off into space or nipping at non-existent grass with his teeth. The reward of grain or carrots didn’t seem enough motivation to inspire seeking behavior. At that point I’d simply leave and try again later. When one is used to using negative motivation to train it can be frustrating when the animal is unresponsive. Sometimes I wondered about his intelligence.

Without a doubt I have noticed an increase in Chance’s attention span over the last two months of experimentation. The list of behaviors I am shaping in him currently include these: head down for extensive periods of time, come on cue, follow a target, responding to “touch” on various objects and “push.” Most recently we began working on moving his feet calmly, one step at a time, when touched with a whip. He now follows me like a dog and tries various behaviors on his own to see if they will elicit a click. The head down is particularly funny because it is the one he uses most often when he isn’t sure what else to do. He’ll approach, bob his head, then hang it inches from the ground and wait. For a horse that spooks at dirt clods this adrenalin lowering activity is quite useful.

I nearly saw his thoughts the day Chance discovered the difference between “touch” and “push.” I’d set up a white canister and small buckets to practice touch, sometimes insisting he touch several on cue before getting a reward. For “push” I added a hand motion. It took a few days before Chance made the connection between the canister falling over and getting a click rather then just touching it with his lips. I began adding rocks so the canister was heavier and thus took more effort on his part. I didn’t want it to be accidental when he pushed it over. At first he became frustrated. I was encouraged that he did not give up or disengage as before but continued moving the object with his lips while I waited. When it tipped over I told him “good” and clicked. The light bulb blinked on at that moment. When I asked again to “push” he immediately pushed the weighted canister over and even pushed the buckets with wide bases that took more effort. He seemed very pleased with himself. Watching an animal’s pleasure in discovery—something scientists would have mocked a few years ago—is amazing. Seeking simply feels good.

Confident in our training for the day, I stroked Chance’s neck and told him he was a very good boy. Before I could gather up my silly training devices, he returned to the canister and knocked it over again for good measure. I clicked and rewarded. Seek and you will find.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I need to clone myself. I'm thinking three, of me, would be about right.

The wife/mother me: This one would be attentive and always available to the three precious persons who share my immediate space in life. Quality and quantity time would be in abundance along with time for the necessary evils of said job--cooking, cleaning, laundry. This model would never say things like, "Be quiet; just give me a minute," while typing a scene for a work in progress (with her thumb) in the notebook app of a Blackberry while spending time with family at the lake.

The writer me: Though having poor hygiene and social skills (with real people), this model would never lose those amazing bits of inspiration that fly into the brain at the most inconvenient times. During a sermon, for instance (is it a sin to write fiction on a church bulletin?), or while cutting a child's birthday cake. She would tweet, Facebook, and blog regularly to maintain a "viral presence" (is it just me or does that sound very wrong?). She would churn out books every six months and be on the edge of marketing techniques and changes in the publishing industry.

The horsewoman me: This model would never feel guilty about trail riding or telling the lie of "I'll only be gone an hour or so" as she loads horses in a trailer and speeds down the road. Her horses would be in shape and regularly schooled. She would not have a dirty barn, tack, or fence lines loaded with approximately 100 pounds of blackberry vines, thus shorting it out. Her horses would not have tangles in their manes.

It can be exhausting to marry the elements that make up a human being. I think the term would be "balance" and I know I'm still merrily pursuing that state. Some days it comes close to being in reach. Yesterday, for instance. Wrote 1,000 new words on a nearly finished WIP (How can something so vaguely measured in value feel so good?); cut above mentioned blackberries off electric fence lines (and have the scratches, and blackberry cobbler, to prove it) AND rode Eli (over an hour); and spent time cooking with my kids, reciting meaningless yet hysterical movie lines, watching an old movie, and cuddling in bed. It was a good day.

I've been thinking of things that come in threes since going to an insightful workshop using horses in July. One of the many things I learned, and since ponder, is the three part nature that is a human being. Created in the image of a God who is, mysteriously, three persons in one, a human being is three parts--mind, body, spirit-- searching for balance. Even our brains are in threes: cortex, limbic system (amygdala), and the primitive brain stem that controls basic instincts and body functions. This I learned from my new friends at the HEAL center--Human Equine Alliances for Learning--in Chehalis, Washington (stay tuned for a creative literary project between the four of us in 2011).

Our three part nature craves balance and our three part brains need to be healthy to enable an individual to reach their potential. Maslow's hierachy of needs comes to mind. A person struggling to fulfill the most basic demands for food and security may never get to fully develop the cortex--thinking--side. Conversely, a person who lives in their cortex and ignores the amygdala (center for emotions) will fail in relationships. Since we are created for relationship, this part of the brain is critical for mental health and stability.

Interestingly horses also have a three part brain, though not as advanced in the cortex and limbic system as human beings. Chance is an example of a horse with a seriously underdeveloped cortex. Man, that horse lives in his amygdala and it short circuits him to his primitive, fight or flight, brain ALL the time. Forget a "window of tolerance" for stress, this horse has a peep hole. But clicker training seems to be developing his cortex a bit so he can learn to think, not simply react. That is my hope anyway. Only time will tell if if it is effective long term.

Enough of Writer Me. Time to get those other models operational this morning.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


One of the gifts of age is finally, blessedly, accepting the body you were born in. I have two teenagers who regularly lament things like hair/eye color, body size, and the strange idiosyncrasies unique to that body. A typical mother, I say things like, “Be grateful you aren’t handicapped/have enough to eat/are loved/have arms and legs,” you get the picture. I enjoy pointing them to people like this. The truth is, I so get it. I’ve been there, too, and while I’ve accepted my body for the most part it doesn’t take much to flash back to the days of cursing genetics and wish, wish, wishing I had other physical features as I perused People Magazine and Cosmopolitan. Perhaps I can best explain my battle with body image by an encounter at a local grocery store two days ago.

There I was, hunting for a snack in the healthy foods aisle while said teenagers were loading groceries in my truck and driving it around to pick me up (having a chauffeur is a major perk of adolescent children). As I compared the ingredients of several bulk trail mixes I felt someone checking me out. Nodding politely at a man old enough to be my father, I started scooping “energy” trail mix into a baggie. He continues to stare. What is his problem? Wearing a barn outfit of dirty vest/jeans combo—complete with stray stalks of hay, my riding shoes, and no make-up I’m pretty sure he’s not impressed with my appearance. Did I pick the wrong trail mix? What? When I look at him again he smiles and says, “You’re tall.”

Stop the presses. I’ve just been informed of amazing new information about myself. In 38 years I’ve only heard this inane statement from complete strangers about, oh, a million times! I’m never quite sure how to respond to this… “Congratulations for noting the obvious?” I answered with my usual, genius comeback, “yep.”

I’ve always found it interesting when people tell me I’m lucky for being tall. By the age of 13 I’d reached my full height of 5’11. This did not feel lucky, it felt like genetic punishment. Most of my friends were short and petite. And in the eighth grade this included the guys. There was one boy in junior high as tall as me and he wasn’t one of the cute ones. Guess who I had for a partner for square dancing every year? My first “boyfriend,” Sean, came up to about my shoulder. We had a meaningful relationship for several months after I circled “Yes” on the note he sent asking if I wanted to be his girlfriend.

The battle for self acceptance continued through highschool. Blessedly many of the guys began to grow, but I still wished and dreamed of being small and cute with a curvy cheerleaderish shape. Instead, I got “Olive Oil.”

Perhaps I’d have felt differently about my size if it included amazing athletic skill. I could have tried out for WNBA and felt secure in my height every time I made a bank deposit. Then I’d have nodded enthusiastically when I got asked, over and over, “Do you play basketball?” But, no. In lieu of athleticism, God made me a painful introvert who hated sticking out in a crowd. Who says He doesn’t have a sense of humor? Thankfully I had horses. They were the one thing that made me feel graceful and at all talented in the athletic department. Without my horses I’m not sure how I’d have made it through the teen years.

It would make sense to pair my extra height with a big beefy warmblood or, at the very least, a leggy Thoroughbred. Alas, like my first boyfriend Sean, I’m a fan of the shorter members of the equine world. Tall for my very favorite breed—the Arabian—Eli is a solid 15’2. Not huge but on the bigger side of average. Borrowing his energy, drive, and grace under saddle is an absolute thrill and the experience does what riding has always done for me—make me more comfortable in my own body.

While I’ve finally accepted my height with a measure of gratitude, I still look at some of the little breeds with envy. What fun I could have if I were small. I’d gallop away on a wild looking Kiger Mustang, an adorable Pony of the Americas, or, perhaps my very favorite small horse, a Welsh Pony. Check out Northforks Cardi, a simply stunning Welsh stallion.

Oh, the horses I’d ride if I were only five feet tall…

Friday, July 30, 2010


“Are you gonna let me talk?”

During sixteen years of marriage this question has been posed by my husband more then once. In temperament he may be more of a talker, but this hasn’t stopped me from interrupting him, taking over the conversation, or assuming what his thoughts/opinions are from time to time. This is usually where he simply decides to stop talking. And calmly poses the above question.

In the last weeks of clicker training Eli I cannot say he is becoming a genius or more finished in his under saddle work. He can target on things and is responding to spoken words, but I can’t point to anything super concrete, training-wise, that positive reinforcement has done for him. What I do know is that this introverted stallion has become much more verbal. It is delightful to watch.

I wanted Eli for his eyes. Period. Romantic and ridiculous as it may sound, I have never seen such a beautiful spirit reflected in the eyes of a horse. That said, Eli firmly resisted a relationship with me in the beginning. He didn’t want to be touched, he had nothing to say, he refused even to take food from my hand or tolerate me standing beside him while he ate. When I got discouraged with his indifference I would look in those eyes and think, “That is who he is. I simply need to be patient and he will come out one day.”

It took about three months before Eli nickered at feeding times. The noises he made were really not discernible at all but more a fluttering of the nostrils. Outside of screaming if a new horse came on the property (I call it the Elephant Bellow) he was completely silent. I have heard that stallions bond strongly on one person and after several months of handling and riding I began to feel Eli finally giving me his trust and affection. Mostly. He is supremely sensitive to intent and is well aware when manipulated or set up. He tolerates domination with amazing dignity and grace. But I wanted him to blossom and communicate. I wanted to be his friend, not assault him with a one-sided conversation all the time. Hence a strange little device and pocketful of treats. The experiment was on.

I put Eli in his stall the first time I worked with him and the clicker. This was a mistake. He spent most of the time with ears pinned and a worried look in his eyes, seemingly suspicious and slightly resentful at being trapped in his place of sanctuary where “training” would commence. Eli is often waiting for the other (horse) shoe to drop: “What are you really after?”

After that I simply locked Eli’s pasture buddy in the stall and let him decide to play with me and the silly clicker. Or not. He learned to target and to notice the word “touch” as well as “come” when I waved my hand. This he did without losing a shred of his dignity and autonomy. He didn’t want me to touch him at first and made a point to walk away, over and over, before approaching again on his terms and working for the treat. It was clear he wanted to make the choice and was testing whether I would truly allow him to do so. I made sure to be cautious, partly because of his gender, and carefully take note of attitude. I didn’t want to have to discipline him. This whole exercise was about choice, relationship, and willingness. No coercion allowed. This he tested once by coming to me on cue and suddenly turning and galloping back to hide behind the barn. When I didn’t come and get him, he poked his head around the side and trotted over without further issue.

After maybe four fairly pleasant clicker sessions Eli “spoke” to me for the first time when I entered the pasture. It wasn’t just a nicker but a horsey sort of sentence, complete with differing tone and inflection. He seemed happy to see me. For the first time I felt him truly engage in two-way communication rather then simply respond to pressure and release, knowing he has no other option. These little sentences have become the norm and it seems they are directly related to the clicker work.

Those who have horses hold certain equine experiences in a special place that is revisited privately and remains a source of joy and, often, intense emotion. These are experiences where you have shared something amazing with an incredible animal and know in your heart that it is real even while acknowledging others might think it silly or wild anthropomorphizing. One of those experiences came not long ago and I have tucked it away in that special place. I stood on my front steps, contemplating outdoor chores and tasks as I looked into the back pasture. Eli came around the corner of the barn and saw me. It was not even close to feeding time. This did not stop him from beginning the most amazing communication with me to date. He began to string together whinnies and nickers, and strange little noises that sounded altogether like another language. It was more then a sentence, it was a paragraph of words. The introvert has found his voice and I am delighted.

My favorite Bible stories involve the authentic conversations God had with his friends. I love Jonah’s complaining and David’s passion; love Abrahams bargaining, Jobs pressing questions—“why?” and Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received a blessing. I even love the ones that went astray—Balaam, for instance, who enjoyed real communion with the Almighty but wouldn’t listen until God spoke through a donkey. God values relationship, not coercion. He wishes us to come out into the open, blossom into the person He can see clearly inside. And sometimes I think He tires of the one-way conversations, the stale religious laundry lists of “I want/bless this/fix that.”

“Are you gonna let me talk?”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


In the movie Fifty First Dates Drew Barrymore plays a charming sort of airhead with memory issues. Every day is a brand new day as Barrymore wakes up and can remember nothing from the day before. The movie is funny and quite touching. Especially at the end when her boyfriend turned husband, Adam Sandler, makes a video of her life to that point and has it ready in the DVD player each morning so she can watch it and remember who she is and what she's done.

Reminds me of a certain horse…minus the DVD player and compassionate, understanding partner. I did find it funny, in a completely exasperating way, that my post last week used trailer loading as the example of negative reinforcement. I finished that post and walked outside to load horses for a ride with my daughter and discovered life wanted to imitate art. Again. 40 minutes after working Chance into a sweat using (highly) negative reinforcement to get him to load into my new aluminum trailer, I called it quits. Forget it. Forget these annoying beasts who call me to rise to a new level of patience and skill. I loaded up (my new favorite) Cowboy and drove off in a cloud of dust. While Eli would load easily, he’s been testing me recently and I knew I had no patience left to deal with that in the right manner. Instead, I watched my daughter ride and contemplated getting a motorcycle.

Okay, not really. But I did have time to think about the scenario with Chance and how to approach it when I had gathered together any remaining shreds of patience. Good opportunity to try out the clicker and see if positive reinforcement could help him remember he did know how to load and had, in fact, been loaded multiple times in more then one trailer. Did I mention I’ve already spent hours on trailer loading this horse? Yes, nearly all of his experience includes trailers with ramps, but that’s no excuse. We had ended the last attempt to load with one foot in—for approximately two seconds—and Chance hanging his head inside the trailer in total defeat, his eyes broadcasting the fact that he had completely checked out and would be (re)learning nothing else that day. At least that way.

Its important to know that this horse is highly reactive. No cougar would have a chance to eat this Chance in the wild. Trust me. He continually scans his environment for details—no matter how small—that have changed in his tiny comfort circle. Grass growing, for instance. We call him our guard horse. Though he knows his leads, is very light in the face, bends and counter bends, sidepasses, backs, stops on a dime, etc. etc. this is all useless when he gets anxious and something triggers his flight response. Cue Fifty First Dates. This horse is a perfect example of why emotional stability is so important in ones mount. You can get away with a lot of things on a horse with low flight drive or one that is dull/lazy. A reactive horse, on the other hand, broadcasts all the weaknesses in ones horsemanship in blinking neon letters. I’ve decided I will never knowingly purchase a reactive horse. That said, I foolishly enjoy a challenge and like to experiment. Seems I have a horse that provides endless opportunity for both.

I approached the trailer, clicker and treats in pocket, with Chance later that same day. His panic about the new trailer seems to be the fact that it is a step up and the floor moves more then the old one when loading and unloading—environment change alert. At that point Chance had had maybe five sessions with the clicker. He was interesting to work with for two reasons: he took longer then the other horses to connect the sound with the treat and he never went through the pushy stage to get at the treats. Because he disengages easily, he frequently lost focus during the sessions, staring off into space and entering that place in his mind that remains locked. The “key” I’ve used in training is negative reinforcement to get him to accept new things. While this has worked to teach cues and maneuvers, I cannot say it has helped at all in rewiring the crazy emotional circuits.

Once Chance discovered the correlation between the click and a reward he seemed very pleased with himself. We worked on target training and the head down cue. My goal is to get him to lower his head on cue and keep it there for extended periods of time. This lowers adrenalin and seems a multi-useful cue. Alexandra Kurland makes an insightful statement in her book: You are never training only one thing. Just as one behavior problem is multiplied in other areas of the horse’s life, good training in one area multiplies into other, seemingly unrelated, areas.

As for the trailer, it took two days to get Chance standing inside with all four feet. He isn’t completely comfortable yet, but he hasn’t shut down (and neither have I, for that matter). I feel encouraged. My hypothesis (fingers crossed) is that positive reinforcement will be a stronger motivator for this particular horse. The click and new language between us appears to help him stay in the thinking side of his brain rather then the reactionary one.

If this doesn’t work I’m outfitting a DVD player in his stall…

PS. The above picture is of Cowboy (this weeks favorite horse) frisking an empty bag of grain. I haven’t introduced him to clicker training—if it ain’t broke don’t fix it—but I’m sure he’d be an enthusiastic student. This horse would sell his soul (and yours) for food of any kind. Donuts, sandwiches, Cheezits, salt and vinegar chips…Cowboy enjoys buffet style dining.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Though more complex in thought and emotion, human beings share a surprising number of traits with horses and other mammals. We may not have head to toe body hair (with the exception of that guy at the pool…eeewww, tramatized forever) but we are highly motivated by some of the same things: comfort, security, and social and basic needs such as food/water/shelter. Behavior is shaped by the drive to acquire those things and can become incredibly ingrained in the individual.

There are three ways behavior is shaped in human beings and horses: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment. Positive reinforcment in relation to this blog would go something like this: Post in a timely manner and Bill Gates will call and offer to share his fortune. Negative reinforcement: Write a posting OR be forced to keep track of all the friends who have won a chicken, or pirate booty on Facebook games. Punishment: If you don’t post now—and send it to ten friends for luck—a large meteor will fall on the house (thereby destroying the computer and access to Facebook…certain descent into social obscurity).

Though not writing much the last month ( I’ve become one heck of a painter and floor sander, however), I have been reading. One of the books I bought is about clicker training horses and the concepts of positive/negative reinforcement and punishment as training tools. Written by Alexander Kurland, it is fascinating.

I discovered clicker training a few years ago when a friend from Wyoming visited and taught me the basics with my gelding, Tango. Clicker training is exclusively positive reinforcement and uses a marker sound—the click of a small device—followed by food reward to create and shape behavior. It has been used extensively to train dogs, dolphins, and even zoo animals like bull elephants. I used it previously to get Tango to accept deworming and, just for fun, to retrieve. It seemed a useful method for tricks and such but, frankly, I didn’t see much practical application beyond that.

For training horses, negative reinforcement is a very effective method to shape behavior and is probably used most by good horsemen and women. The horse gets to choose its behavior though, admittedly, it is often the “lesser of two evils” if the animal could express itself that way. For instance: “Load into the trailer and stand or move your feet A LOT outside.” The horse would rather avoid both of those scenarios if it had its way.

Punishment, as Kurland points out, is addictive behavior on the part of the motivator, often escalates, and gets inconsistent results at best. It is definitely used to train horses but in my experience rarely successful and, if it is, the positive results are short lived and actually invite worse behavior. I use punishment sparingly and almost exclusively to deal with overt aggressiveness such as biting and striking.

I’m not sure why I have regarded positive reinforcement (using a treat, specifically) as an inferior training method. That darn horse should just do what I want, when I want it, right? A long trail ride and collected work in the arena surely beats lounging in the shade with a flake of hay.

I picked up Kurland’s book because I enjoy experimenting and have been looking for ways to draw Eli out of his shell and invite expression. Though he tests me sometimes with naughtiness, he is overwhelmingly willing to please and has a good work ethic once I get him on task. But I get the feeling that there is just more available in my relationship with him. I don’t know why. Because positive reinforcement is exclusively about the individuals free choice and desire, I decided to try it with him and see what happens. Tune into the next posting and I’ll share the interesting initial results of clicker training sessions with both Eli and Chance. That is, of course, unless Bill Gates calls. In that case I may be gone (to the Bahamas) for another month.

PS. Clicker training horses has enjoyed renewed interest and respect because of the experience of Karen Murdock and her Thoroughbred horse, Lukas. Check out this link.
PPS. The above photo is of 3 yo Tucker, the stud colt I started over the months of May/June. He's gone home now but since he inspired a prior posting I thought he deserved an appearance. Is he a cutie patootie or what? Love that little guy...

Friday, May 28, 2010


I’m frustrated. Had a great picture to go with this post but, alas, my fancy new HP printer does not want to recognize my geriatric computer and share photos. There is no doubt a simple fix for this problem but, if so, I wouldn’t know. Despite the valiant efforts of my 16-year-old son, I remain a techtard.

It’s pathetic to admit that I am, oh, about ten years behind technology. I’m still happy with the simple cell phones that had only one function—contacting people. I’m overwhelmed with the apps offered by Blackberry (which sounds deceivingly old fashioned) and Droid (too Star Trekky). After badgering me for about a year, my husband finally gave me his old Blackberry when he traded up. It felt like betrayal when I relinquished my dated cell phone to my eleven year old daughter. After all, it still worked! Forget being awed by a phone that can GPS somebody’s house or read the bar code off a can of beans, I’m blissfully satisfied and amazed by digital cameras that download the photo you just took onto a computer screen in a matter of seconds. Well, I used to be blissfully satisfied. If only I could get my computer and printer to make amends…Seems, once again, you’re stuck with a picture-less story (that I best get on with).

A few months ago I had one of those overly introspective weeks. My husband was busy reading beside me in bed one morning when I suddenly engaged him in conversation: “Am I a prideful person?”

“No,” he answered immediately. Before I could breathe a sigh of relief he hesitated and added, “Except for maybe with your horses.”

I was first indignant, then embarrassed. “Really?”

“A little,” my wonderful man smiled and leaned over to kiss me. Even when I don’t like what he says, it is still a relief to be married to a best friend that is completely honest. This is a necessity in life.

While I heard what he said, I mulled it over quickly and dumped it in a mental round file. After all, I’ve spent a lifetime with horses and worked really hard for what knowledge I have. It isn’t really pride that I might have, its more like experience.

I’ve noticed that there is a direct correlation to the amount of experience one has and their hearing sensitivity. Maybe its just me but when I feel I have a handle on a topic I can be a pretty poor listener. Yes I know God gave us two ears and one mouth, but I still sense invisible cotton stuffing itself down my ears when someone shares something I feel confident I already understand. One could call it pride, I suppose, and horse talk brings it out in me in the worst way. My husband’s observation was proven true just two weeks ago.

I downloaded my email one day and stared at an unfamiliar address. It took a few minutes of reading the rather lengthy message to remember anything about the stranger who had sent it.

Seems the owner of a horse I looked at once—a year ago—wanted to get a thing or three off her chest. I remembered the horse: small, older mare with a dynamite personality. I forget people, names, dates, directions, you name it, but horse personalities, how they made me feel, obscure names in their pedigrees, etc. stick in my brain like flies on tacky paper. I can see myself when I’m old and senile…won’t remember my own name—or my husband’s, for that matter—but I’ll remember that the grandsire of my child’s bus driver’s horse was Peppy San Badger. Don’t ask me why this is so.

The horse in question, while sweet as the day is long, had a way of going I found odd at the time. It niggled at me during the test ride and I immediately decided there was something wrong, or about to go wrong, with the horse. If I’ve learned one thing about horses it is that when things seem “off,” they usually are. Best to listen to one’s intuition. I knew the horse’s owners were hopeful I’d be writing a check. They seemed nice and I felt bad when they inquired why I didn’t pursue the sale. Since they asked, I decided to spell out (rather nicely, I felt) the reasons I passed on their animal.

I honestly enjoy picking apart a horse in a buying/selling situation. There is not a mean shallow reason behind this, it simply gives me the opportunity to air years of experience and discuss my favorite topic in detail, ad nauseum. I have a couple friends who also enjoy this pastime and we are probably the most annoying people on earth. For the horse in question, I chose a couple of what I felt were major faults and shared them via email. Seven months later, the owner responded. They told me I was wrong, dead wrong, with my observations; the horse was the best thing since cell phones. The various and sundry reasons I was wrong went on for several paragraphs. Further more, they wanted me to know they’d sold the beast to someone obviously smarter then I (or this was the insinuation). Bummer for me. As I stared at the email I heard cotton fibers marching down inside my ears. My brain immediately began humming with the cryptic response it wanted to create—by God, I'm a writer! I would blast the senders of the message with my words, my knowledge. I felt pity for them, stuck as they were, in their ignorance.

I’m not sure what first made me pause. Probably God pulling the cotton balls out of my ears. In a sudden flash of memory (definitely God), I remembered a few things about strangers who owned a very sweet mare; some sadder details that necessitated the sale of an animal they loved. The more I thought of it, the more I could see that not only could I have been wrong, the comments I’d made stung at a time when they were probably extra sensitive. It wasn’t about whether a sale should have happened or not, it was about the way my comments had come across at the time. Without a veterinarian’s exam I couldn’t prove anything at all was wrong with the animal which left me simply with…my own opinions. Rather then blast out an email, it seemed the right thing to do was acknowledge my ignorance and apologize for what had offended. I’d talked when I should have been listening.

Now, if anyone wants to help with my picture downloading issues know I am ever so humble. Seriously, I’m all ears…

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I want to invent a bumper sticker slogan. Something short and snappy like Just Do It, No Fear, or the ever enduring Shit Happens. I am a fan of concise declarations of truth. Once I saw a bumper sticker that said Fear God. For many people, that thought goes over like a lead balloon. More emotionally comfortable is something like God Happens (Hey, I like that).

The Bible, as it turns out, is a fan of four letter words. Love and Fear turn up everywhere. Besides, God is love (politically correct), The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (politically incorrect) is firmly declared in scripture. What’s up with that?

When I think of my relationship with God it doesn’t resemble the “fear” some might have in mind. Fear, say, of dark alleys in big cities, or bungy jumping, or giving birth without pain killer. That’s real fear. I come to God without fear when I’m troubled, confused, sad, happy, or whining (His favorite, I’m sure). I sense His reciprocating grace, love, acceptance and even sense of humor. I fear God in the sense that I am afraid of being without Him and experience awesome humility when I consider my abilities and thoughts next to the Creator of the Universe. This considering of fear, respect, and love and how it all interacts has been on my mind as I work with my newest horse project, a very cute 3 year old colt named Tucker.

Tucker belongs to a friend of mine. I needed a little cash and Tucker needed to discover his usefulness to the human race so we did an exchange. Every time I work with a young horse I consider my own mortality and shocking lack of short term memory. Sorta like deciding to have a second child. How quickly I forgot the pain and exhaustion of child birth and signed up for it a second time! Starting a young horse isn’t exactly the same but it is also full of risk, uncertainty, and potential. Being part of the end result—a trusting and trained horse—is also incredibly satisfying.

Horses seem to pass through two stages before they arrive at the partnership/friend stage: the stage where there is a foundation of training and relationship and, ultimately, reward for both horse and handler. The most danger to both parties lies in navigating the first necessary stages--fear and testing.

Tucker arrived on my property in the obvious first stage of fear. He has had fair treatment his entire life, just not a lot of it. He reacts quickly to the smallest stimuli and is wary and jumpy. This fear isn’t all bad in the sense that it motivates him to respect a safe physical boundary between us. Because he is a stud colt, I appreciated his initial fear of me even more. The last thing I need is a youngster, jumped up on hormones, to shadow me like a bad rash: Fear of the trainer is the beginning of wisdom, young stallion. That said, I don’t want Tucker to remain in fear, but come eventually to see me as a trusted friend and leader.

My first time handling Tucker involved lots of reassurance: I petted and scratched him a lot, spoke softly, and assured him I liked him and thought he was a clever boy. Then I began desensitizing him by throwing ropes around his body and legs. Quickly Tucker decided I was okay, even pleasant, in his world. The first day I left him halterless in the field I was surprised and pleased when he trotted up to me willingly when it was time to be captured. We had the first whispers of friendship. Or so it might seem.Tucker is my sixth horse to start from scratch so I knew better then to trust our budding relationship too quickly.

A few mornings after I entered Tucker’s pen to let him out for the day. I opened the door to find him happy and eager to see me. Not to mention close. I spoke to him and backed him away, out of my personal space. Tucker complied but I noted the look in his eye. It said something like this, I'm not afraid anymore; maybe I don't need to listen to you at all. I have seen this look before. When I tried to halter him, Tucker was antsy and resistant. He did a subtle dance of body language and positioning, testing dominance and refusing to allow me to approach his sides. Not okay. So I made him uncomfortable, pushing him into movement around the pen this way and that. Tucker’s underlying attitude immediately erupted. He bucked and kicked out, aiming blatantly in my direction. I ignored the temper tantrum and reminded him of the invisible bumper sticker on his round pen panels: Shit happens to horses. When he stood respectfully I haltered him without further incidence. Tucker and I will have many more of these “conversations” as he figures out the difference between fear and healthy respect. For a horse there is no relationship without leadership based on respect. This grows into a beautiful friendship, not oppressive domination.

Love and fear are both four letter words with positive and negative attributes. Love, with no truth or boundaries, can be dangerous and manipulative. Fear that isolates and dominates will paralyze an individual. I know of many horse owners who ended up in the hospital because they “loved” their horses inappropriately. Conversely, fear—when it matures into respect—protects both horse and rider. The most dangerous (and future-less) horses are those with No Fear.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Not long ago I received a sad email. “John,” one of my son’s old teachers, is in hospice. Terminal cancer. The email closed with John’s number and the suggestion to call or visit him. John is that magic mix of eccentric intelligence and funny frosted with a genuine love for what he does. I never knew the man well, but admired him from a distance. Staring at the numerals on the computer screen I thought about visiting. Then I vacillated. After all, we don’t really know him; we aren’t close; it might be awkward, etc. To infinity came the excuses. Deep down, I knew the real issue: It is uncomfortable, in a selfish sort of way, to play a role in someone’s journey of death. As I thought about this I remembered a certain pony mare that lived with us for one short year.

I knew I would tell this (unhappy) story eventually. It illustrates something true about writers, at least the writers I know: We write for ourselves. We do not write for riches or fame (though if Rich wants to pay me a visit I’ll be okay with it) or even for readership. We write as a response to an urgent and strange compulsion imbedded deeply in our DNA. We write to sort through life and all its mystery. We write, therefore we are. But back to the pony.

My daughter was eight when we bought her first horse, a snow white Welsh pony mare named, Lady. As it turned out the horse’s given name, as on file with the Welsh Pony Registry, was more appropriate: Goodbye Girl. Lady was an opinionated, sassy old fart who didn’t let the ripe age of 20 stop her from misbehaving. I found it hard to bond with the mare and let her know, frequently, that if she didn’t shape up she’d be hearin’ two words out of my mouth: “Goodbye, girl” (and good riddance).

Over time, however, I developed a sort of reluctant admiration for Lady. In human form, the mare would have been a flamboyant leader in the Red Hat Society, flaunting her gams and bewitching everyone with huge black eyes that shone luminous against a silver coat. She trotted like a carriage horse, kicked up her heels and flirted shamelessly with my (much younger) geldings. Lady seemed to know who she was and didn’t care a fig what anyone thought of her.

One day in early fall, the year after purchasing the pony, I noticed Lady was not herself. A telling look of discomfort replaced her usually sassy expression. When she started limping I called the vet. The diagnosis? Laminitis. This is a metabolic disturbance common in ponies and happens often in spring with a sudden intake of sugar-rich grasses. There was no grass in the nearly dry paddock in which she lived and the vet had no solid explanation for her condition. He left us with dietary instructions and tubes of Bute for the pain. We hoped to keep Lady comfortable and that the inflammation in her hoof walls would subside. If she didn’t pull out of the laminitic condition within the month the prognosis was more serious.

Besides dosing Lady night and day, I had my farrier fashion Styrofoam pads which we taped to her front feet to ease the pressure on her coffin bones. Weeks passed and she did not improve. One morning I entered her stall to find her “stuck” in a corner, unwilling to move her feet and shift position. “Come on Lady Jane,” I said, using my mother’s childhood nickname for me. I pushed in vain on her white rump as tears pricked at my eyes.

Lady continued to spiral downward. She seemed to disappear to someplace deep inside, barely acknowledging my presence when I gave her double doses of Bute. I knew the time had come to say farewell to the Goodbye Girl.

At first I scrambled at ways to avoid making the hardest decision. In all my years of horse ownership, I’d never had to end ones life. I thought of giving Lady away (there was an opportunity) or taking her to the auction, or calling my mother and asking her to deal with it. I lamented the fact that Lady had been born in California yet had traveled many miles, over many years, to arrive on my small farm just in time to die. It didn’t seem fair to be asked to be part of her dying process. But something deep inside kicked me in the fanny and said to buck up, take responsibility. The situation, painful as it was, did not revolve around me.

My friend, T, agreed to do the uncomfortable task of ending Lady’s suffering. Besides being a farmer and female version of Doc Holliday, T has an endlessly tender heart for all animals and once rescued a forgotten kitten from the clutches of a barn owl.

I was already crying when I lead Lady out of the barn, removed her halter, and let her sink her white nose one more time in a patch of greenery. I patted the pony and told her I was sorry—so sorry—for this unfortunate turn of events. I told her that even though she’d frustrated me at times I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I thanked her for 21 years of serving human beings. When T came inside we hugged and cried for a long time. We laughed, too, and remembered a sassy pony who once wore a Styrofoam unicorn horn in an Independence Day parade. We celebrated her life and felt thankful for the generosity of horses and the blessing they are.

I have an aunt that frequently attends to those in hospice when they are dying. She sings, prays, and hold the hands of strangers. I am sure she sometimes cries. Nobody pays her for this service; she is happy to be a companion for those taking their last earthly journey. It is a beautiful and unselfish gift. I wish I was more like her.

Death is something the living wish to avoid. But it is a part of life whether we are ready or not. We can choose to be available to others as we will want them to be available to us when the time comes. Lady taught me that.

I think its time to make a phone call...

*This posting is in honor of my friend T and my wonderful Aunt Jan.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Social networking is a modern wonder. Who knew flesh and blood friends would become outdated? With virtual pals through Facebook, chat rooms, and forums of every sort one can have thousands of “friends” worldwide with no more then a password and an identity. Before you get too excited about the possibilities remember that the concept of “identity” is fluid and infinitely creative in cyber space. Here's a song that gives you a clue. But anyway.

I think forums are a great source of networking and information. And every sort of forum exists. Elvis lover? Marble collector? There’s a forum for that where you can while away the hours discussing The King’s famous hips and the ideal width for white bell bottoms with your “friend” in Norway. Or how about comparing an awesome Tiger Eye with a pal in Chile? Totally amazing. And freakish. But that's another blog posting.

After purchasing Eli I joined a forum for stallion owners. This is meant to be a place where stud owners from all over the world share training tips and stories from a life managing the masculine wonder that is a breeding stallion. This forum has been incredibly helpful, not to mention interesting, and has deepened my knowledge of horse handling. I knew one day it would be time to breed Eli and find out what sort of horse he is jumped up on testosterone. The forum gave me much food for thought prior to breeding and now that I am in the midst of this brand new experience the forum has been there, albeit virtually, as encouraging friends.

Horses have no concept of future change. I reflected on this bit of information shared once via the forum when I went to see Eli this last week, a day or two after breeding his first mare. Because I am a novice stallion handler, and not set up safely to breed him at home, I took Eli to a nearby facility where an experienced acquaintance agreed to help me in this new adventure. All went well until the second day of live cover when Eli got kicked pretty good. Hormonally charged 1,000 pound animals can inflict a lot of damage to each other and some risk is involved, no matter how well you think you know the horses and try to be safe. When I saw my boy the day after the mare had been taken home (hopefully pregnant) he was in his stall a swollen hematoma hanging between his front legs.

I looked at my horse through the bars of his stall and felt…horrible. The injury looked worse than it was but I felt responsible. Don’t get me wrong, Eli didn’t complain about the new job. He performed it quite well minus an embarrassing bit of falling off the mare, but we won’t discuss that publicly (I promised him). Still, this was hardly his idea. I’d loaded him up, driven him to a brand new barn, and facilitated a breeding that got him injured (and also hopelessly “in love”). Now he wilted in a dark stall, pining for his mare, well cared for but alone. In a few short days he’d ventured a lifetime away from the peaceful place that is my house—no visible neighbors, no stall, no mares and their drama, just a bachelor herd of two geldings and an enormous cedar tree under which he naps each day after breakfast. I thought of his horsey lack of concept. He thought I’d left him no doubt; perhaps sold to a new owner. He didn’t know he’d be back with me, and his friends, and his peaceful home in two short weeks. We’d go back to trail rides and, I hope, a lifetime of friendship. I love this horse. I have plans for his life. With me.

Eli looked back at me, a deep well of unique equine emotion visible behind his calm exterior. That may sound dramatic but if you ever meet him you'll know what I mean. I've never seen such eyes on a horse. I entered and began to brush him. He had dried sweat everywhere from pacing and calling and worrying about his mare and, it seemed, the new insecurity that comes with a radical change of scenery. He does not understand. He knows no concept of a future change. I brushed him and brushed him. And also sang the song stuck in my head: Better Then A Hallelujah, by Amy Grant. Soon Eli’s head is hanging by my knee as I brush and stroke his big crested neck (sore, no doubt, from over-arching and showing off). I tell him not to worry. He’s still with me, Baby, and nothings going to change that. I tell him Cowboy misses him and he will be coming home soon. Eli gives me several of his sweet horse hugs, his neck bent around my shoulder. It was all I could do not to go home, jump in the truck, and take my horse home.

Human beings have a concept of future change, but we aren’t all that much more aware then a horse I think. I have such limited vision, such a focus on trivia that frustrates, disappoints and exhausts me. Life is hard. My body is wearing out and dying a bit more each day. My time on earth is short but it demands my focus and attention. I think God longs to reach through the haze between earth and eternity and reassure me that there is a future coming, a much better future. I can rest in knowing the time here is short and inconsequential next to eternity. He will jump on His great white horse someday (That's a tip for you non-horsy types: Brush up on your riding skills) and take me home where I belong. Like Carrie Underwood says in her beautiful new song, This is our temporary home.

PS. Make sure you have a tissue for that last song.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Life is full of expectations. Ever considered how much we operate on what is expected? For instance, I expect to wake up in the morning (always good), be greeted by a husband that still loves me, visit healthy (!) horses awaiting breakfast, ride afore mentioned horses with the expectation they will respond to the training I have invested in them (I’m learning to let this one slide), etc. etc. I race through my small space in life pregnant with expectations; happily, and often ignorantly, placing them on those around me with whom I share relationships. There are expectations on my friends, my children, my pastor. I even have expectations on those I do not know such as fellow Costco shoppers (namely that they will politely allow me to park, not run me over, or flip me the finger…yes, I’ve realized the folly in this particular expectation and have let it go). Expectations frequently slap me upside the head, frustrate me, and poison my relationships with the humans and horses that share my life.

I had low to no expectations of Chance when I got on him recently for the first time in over six months. I hoped he wouldn’t fall on me or do anything weird or foolish, but this horse is straight out of the film 50 First Dates so one can never be sure. What I had done to prepare was lunge him for a month or so to get him back into shape. He was holding his lope pretty well and seemed happy, in his horsy way, to be worked with again.

Lately I’ve realized that year by year I know less and less. Soon I may forget my own name. A life with God and horses is full of mysteries I cannot explain. Last fall I put Chance away convinced, after his fall, that he was damaged permanently in some unknown way—physically, mentally or, most likely, a combination of the two. His Cerebellar Atrophy blood test came back negative, he did not die from EPM or convulse in to seizures. He continues to greet me each morning with a husky nicker. After praying over him in November with my daughter, the only change worth noting were heels that sprouted like seeds from the bottoms of his feet (Uh, Lord, I said healed, not heels). Oh well. God sometimes gives me things I don’t think I need but later discover are vitally important. Though still klutzy, Chance has beautiful feet now. Feet made for walking, says I. And so I jumped on bareback one day, no bridle, and moved him around. He seemed okay, outside of obsessively grinding his teeth in what hints at discomfort. On subsequent rides he vacillated between trying very hard (he has a lovely lope departure and the best stop of our three boys) and emotional outbursts for apparently no reason. Still, I enjoyed myself. I realized later that one reason I could enjoy a klutzy, funky little pinto so much was because I had no expectations of him. He didn’t need to please me or fulfill grand horsemanship goals. I was just along for the ride.

Last month, as my few faithful readers may have noted, blog posting was pathetic. This is in part because I published my first work of fiction, Rodeo Dreams, and was tied up in the excitement of that. Talk about the potential for expectations! Does it suck? Will it hit the NY Times Bestseller list (Okay, I did mention that to God…if He feels so inclined)? Should I sell my soul to promote the thing? After getting jumped up on expectations I was thankfully able to relax again into an attitude of being along for the ride. Why? My expectations rest in God and He’s pointed out specifically what I can expect: He will never leave me or forsake me—He is with me to the end of the age; His care is such that He numbers the hairs on my head and has thoughts for me as the sand of the sea (wow); His gifts are perfect; He takes great delight in me; He directs my steps; He plans to prosper me…it goes on and on. I don’t need to lean on my expectations in this life--or burden everyone else with them-- when I can trust in God’s promises. I can simply enjoy the ride—whether it’s on a funky pinto or the “ride” of publishing for the first time. Good things are in store, that’s all I know for sure (except in the Costco parking lot—oy!)

PS. Check out Jess Simmons, an artist you can expect will produce beautiful portraits of your pets, including the one posted today of Eli and Cowboy. It is called, “Friends,” and makes me happy every time I look at it. Thanks Jess!

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Much to the dismay of my Canadian neighbors (hard at work hosting the 2010 winter Olympics), we had the warmest January on record. February isn’t shaping up to help the situation and worried officials have been forced to haul in snow. Sort of like getting take out and arranging it on your table as if you cooked it yourself. Nothing worse then getting one shot to impress the world and having Mother Nature laugh in your face. At least she laughs in flowers. I know my lilacs are already forming buds and the beds of bulbs sport a good inch of optimistic growth. This may sound insensitive, but I’m doing an El Nino happy dance.

The wonder of a growing bulb just never gets old. There it is, a dead wizened ball of crispy roots in autumn and a few months later, presto, it morphs into a beautiful daffodil, a crocus, a tulip. Bulbs remind me not to get too hung up on exterior appearances and what I take in from my five senses. New life could be lurking deep inside an unattractive shell, just waiting for the right circumstances to express itself.

As followers of this blog know my horse, Chance, is a perpetual problem child—in attitude, in health, in natural abilities. After his mysterious fall in the pasture last August I let him go dormant. I waited, I watched for something to happen—another seizure, a worsening of his ability to move, whatever—so I would know how to proceed. We bought Haley a new horse to continue her journey into barrel racing and grieved the loss of Chance as a riding horse. Outside of a genetic test for a specific neurological disorder, I did nothing. Further testing might lead nowhere but a busted bank account and Chance seemed comfortable and happy. I prayed for him to recover (I mean, why not?) yet planned for a future as a pasture ornament. My unhappy husband scratched his head and calculated how much eastern alfalfa/grass hay he was consuming—“He’s a small horse and doesn’t eat much,” she replied (helpfully).

Because we weren’t doing much with Chance, I didn’t pick up his feet for a good two to three months. I know, that’s bad. Just being honest. After making an early January appt. for the farrier to come and trim The Boys, I decided to mess with his feet a bit and make sure his manners there were intact. As I cleaned out his front feet I saw something amazing: Chance had grown heels. For any non horsey readers, a good hoof shape has an angle to it. The animal should have a heel at the back as if wearing a good one inch loafer that supports the foot. The horse lacking an angle and wearing ballet slippers is not a good thing. Though a terrible “dancer,” Chance wore ballet slippers. The farrier called his feet “stubby.” I called them pancake feet. A side effect from a lifetime of no hoof care. We’d been faithfully trimming them back for two years but his feet still flared mostly flat and he walked very nearly on the bulbs of his heels.

But, lo and behold, as I cleaned around the frog I saw a new triangular shape at the back of the hoof where none had been before—he had heels! They had sprouted from his feet like green leaves from a dried up bulb.

What does it all mean? I can’t really say yet. But those heels give me hope and hope is a beautiful thing. After all, springtime is not intimidated by winter and healing is an inside job.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I used to equate dressage with the snobby clique I knew in high school. All perfect bodies and name-brand clothes. The snobby clique had nothing to share with me that I wanted to know. Or at least that’s what I told myself while begging my mother to buy me a pair of Guess jeans. Not to mention another body.

Certainly I believed dressage had a purpose, but it wasn’t hard to make snarky comments while watching those riders sit their perfectly turned out warmbloods, mouths set firmly in a grimace, white breeches velcroed to a black dressage saddle. They seemed too clean, too serious, too exclusive. I was a western girl. We know how to get dirty and don’t need any snotty cliques to tell us how to do it, thank you very much.

Dressage, of course, is really for everyone. It simply means “training” and you don’t need white breeches, a warmblood, or an attitude to do it. A few years ago I met a western trainer who emphasized the importance of its fundamentals and I became intrigued—secretly at first. I began reading books like Centered Riding and experimenting with techniques. Then I got Eli. A naturally good moving horse he seemed made for the sport. Well over my head with a green stallion, I quickly found a dressage trainer to coach us. I never imagined I would enjoy these lessons as much as I have.

Now, I am Ghetto Dressage (maybe I’ll come out with my own DVDs). Picture a circa ‘80s two horse trailer pulling up to a manicured indoor arena. Outside Lusitanos, Friesians, and various warmbloods lounge in paddocks. They are blanketed and beautiful. From the back of my trailer a scruffy Arabian stallion appears. He has no bridle path, mud on his hocks, and a winter beard under his chin. I put a western headstall over his rope halter, throw a synthetic Aussie saddle on his back and off we go. Fortunately, Eli has natural talent and my instructor is the kind of person who doesn’t care what saddle you have or if you are wearing jeans. I don’t think she was in the snobby clique in high school.

Each lesson there is something new to attempt and I am amazed at the subtlety and finesse that is good dressage. It’s hard work and I am confronted each time with my own limitations and bad riding habits. Let’s just say, We have a long way to go, Baby.

Last lesson, while riding a figure, my instructor told me something that has since captured my imagination in a powerful way. She was helping me understand the concept of being straight and balanced, bending on a curve yet never over bent.

“Imagine you are riding the edge of a sword.”

The edge of a sword? A picture of perfect balance, Zen-like in its beauty and harmony. I am taking instruction from Yoda.

One bulge to the right or left, one stumble, one over correction and I am off that sword and taking my poor horse with me. Right. I can hardly keep my diagonals straight and proper timing on a half-halt.

When I think of life, I also see it teetering on a very fine line—the line between choices big and small that place a person on one path or another; the ideas we cling to that shape us; even the razor thin line between life and death on any given day, in any country of the world. The edge of a sword. If I thought about it too much it might drive me mad.

Striving for balance is a good thing but I spend most of life, I think, falling off the sword. The most I can hope for is spiritual balance—asked (begged) for daily—and relying on God’s promises to hold me when I tumble off the figure.

As for the dressage, I’m keeping the image of that sword firmly in mind. And I’m visualizing lots of time with Yoda.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Happy New Year.

Don’t worry if you can’t come up with a good resolution or two on your own. The grocery store checkout is a reliable source of ideas (albeit a bit redundant), screaming in bold type on every magazine cover: Lose Ten in 2010; Ten Tips for Healthier Eating in '10. I'd personally enjoy more unique headlines: Top Ten Skinny People We Love to Hate; Ten Reasons Fat is Good for You; Make Peace With Your Cellulite in 2010. I’ll let you know if any editors like my ideas.

Last year I was full of worthy resolutions that were (mostly) abandoned by mid spring. This year I wasn’t going to bother until my husband and I had a great talk last week while exercising together (I must admit I am not immune to those screaming headlines). We discussed the tendency to get set in our ways and avoid taking direction, to resist being teachable. As often happens, I thought of life with horses—specifically the training experiences—and how it offers insight into this area.

I’m constantly fascinated with the difference between intelligence and trainability in horses. Highly trainable horses are always intelligent but intelligent horses are not always very trainable. Clinician Richard Shrake has pondered what attributes separate the normal, bomb-around, backyard animal from, say, the (aptly named) Smart Little Lenas or Khemosabis of the horse world. These animals had something extra and almost mysterious. They were special, and not simply because of breeding or outstanding appearance—though they usually had that, too. Uncommonly excellent horses have an uncanny ability to live up to potential. Shrake has developed an easy test that measures not just intelligence in horses but, more importantly, their trainability.

The highly intelligent, resistant horse is, in my opinion, the most frustrating horse to train. I have patience for the dim-witted members of the species; the ones who aren’t particular athletic and just can’t help it. But the intelligent ones can drive you to drink, lose your religion, and pull your hair out. If you thought you had any talent as a horse trainer the extra smart, resistant horse will convince you otherwise. They could be so much more, you think to yourself, as the horse persists in offering his own ideas in place of yours. While super intelligent horses always capture my imagination, with poor trainability it is much harder to get the animal to live up to potential. It has taken ownership of many horses to observe and appreciate trainability and how it trumps intelligence, every time.

I am no doubt spoiled forever since riding Eli. Of course one can scream,“Barn Blind,” (and be correct) but it will be hard to be satisfied with a “normal” horses after having one so highly trainable as well as intelligent. I have had pretty horses and smart horses and enjoyed them all, but never one that is such an overall pleasure to work with. Eli doesn’t need a reason to do what I ask he simply needs to know how and , overwhelmingly, his attitude is, “Whatever you require of me.”

Eli surprised me with the degree of his willingness to please during his first photo shoot last October (see this month’s Northwest HorseSource for some of those pics). To get him to puff up, stallion style, we put him in with our newest member of the herd—Cowboy—for the first time. I was sure he would be all pomp and circumstance, but retrieved my whip to get him to move out in the pasture if I needed to. Instead of puffing up, and focusing on Cowboy, Eli’s focus was on me—What do you want me to do? He didn’t run off, tail flagging, when I swung the whip his direction, but turned and walked toward me, his eyes gentle and curious (see above photo). Though I hadn’t worked him in the round pen for many months the appearance of the whip and my body language triggered a response. He had learned comfort comes from being with the trainer and doesn’t need to try out his own ideas, repeatedly, to be reminded of that lesson.

This year, instead of focusing on my outer appearance (though I have sworn off dip for awhile, and the Bailey’s on ice, and fudge, and…), I want to focus on an inner quality in 2010. I want to be teachable: willing to learn, to change, to grow into my God-given potential.

Here’s to a teachable 2010.