Sunday, October 16, 2011


Recently I’ve been pondering the difference between trust and faith. Though similar (and each can be expressed as a noun or a verb), they aren't exactly the same. Trust is defined in Websters this way: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. Faith is defined like this: confidant belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. It would seem some kind of trust has to develop before authentic faith can occur, the kind that flings itself into the care and keeping of another for no logical reason.

Both trust and faith are elements critical in intimate relationships: a marriage, a best friendship, between a man and his Maker, even that between a horse and rider. Trust is built over time in a million big and small ways that test and refine the relationship. When someone has proven themselves trustworthy a “leap of faith” is possible because the relationship has a “trust account,” sorta like money in the bank.

It is humbling to be the object of someone’s blind faith. I think of my children, when they were very young. They simply believed I had the answers to all things, could find all things, could fix all things. They are now 13 and 18 and, sadly, that sort of faith no longer exists. They know now that I am all too human and prone to mistakes and bad judgment. Like this summer, for instance.

Eli and I had gone out for a “short ride.” This is code for, “I feel somewhat guilty about abandoning my duties to go riding so this will be short.” Short being relative. On this particular day my neighbor couldn’t go so it was just me and one handsome chestnut stallion. It was sunny and humid and the late summer bugs were annoying so we tried to say in the shade. It didn’t take long to decide the mosquitos were intolerable and we’d do well to head home. I chose a particular stretch of trail only usable in the summer for the route back. It is a favorite of dirt bikers and prone to deep ruts, mud, and somewhat technical hills. But it had been dry for weeks and the path was shady and cool.

We’d only been on the trail a few minutes when I noted the bikers had carved an unusually deep, narrow slash in the single track. Eli disliked the deep rut as it was difficult to place his feet without slipping. As we went deeper into the trees we frequently had to go off trail to go around sections that weren’t safe. The ground off the track was brushy and filled with slash, stumps, and rocks. As I removed my sunglasses to get a better look at the footing, that sensible inner voice began speaking: “Hey, this is sketchy; you should turn around.”

“Not much farther,” I told Eli, stroking his sweaty neck and ignoring the voice. “Good boy.”

After navigating a particularly dicey downhill section, Eli and I found ourselves looking up a curving hillside that used to be easily manageable. It now consisted of the ugliest rut I’d ever seen, the width of a dirt bike tire and about a foot deep. On one side of the rut a few inches of space gave way to a steep wall of brush and trees, on the other side about two feet of packed, dried mud dropped into more brush and trees. Ahead the rut ran up the hill and disappeared around the corner that would lead us to the trail head. So close and yet so far away. I dismounted and looked around at my predicament. It was challenging to turn Eli around and I knew the way back, around all those bad places in the trail, would be nearly as difficult as the hill ahead. Eli was sweating profusely in the humidity and stamping his feet constantly as the mosquitos descended. Not good.

I’ve never owned a horse that made me work as hard as Eli has to earn trust. He loses confidence in people easily, is highly sensitive, and, like most stallions, will immediately assume leadership if he senses hesitation. A horse that once didn’t trust me enough to accept hand feeding, we’d come a long way in nearly three years. Still, he wasn’t good about standing calmly and thinking through touchy situations. He likes to rush forward when the going got tough instead of trusting me to tell him when to go or, more importantly, stop. Now I was stuck on a trail with ruts so deep he could break a leg at speed.

I tried a couple of times to get him to walk in the rut but he kept slipping and floundering, swinging his hind end off the trail and becoming agitated when he couldn’t find a way to place his front feet side by side. Afraid he’d fall off the track entirely, I finally stopped and we just stood there, wondering what to do. I spoke to him the whole time, telling him I was sorry and assuring him he’d done a good job, the situation was entirely my fault. Many times in the past Eli had gotten upset and impulsive in similar situations, but to my surprise he had adopted a look of surrender and stood calmly, waiting on my move. After about 20 minutes of staring blankly into the forest around me, I looked up the hill and decided there was only one thing to do: trust him to walk quietly, right behind me, on the edge of the trail and hope the place where it disappeared from view would be passable. He’d have to have faith in my ability to get us out of the situation unharmed and not rely on his own devices which might include stepping into the treacherous rut, leaping over me and up the hillside or, worse, down into the ravine.

“Let’s go son,” I told him and began walking briskly up the hill while he followed.

When we got to the top—with minimal scrambling, my backside unharmed by a stampeding horse—I breathed a sigh of relief and spent several minutes just scratching Eli’s neck and telling him how awesome he was. He loves praise and adoration. Later I thought of our journey of building trust that enabled him to depend on me in a difficult situation. I didn’t deserve his faith, but he gave it anyway.

A few weeks ago I visited a friend who has a mysterious illness—one that gives her intense pain in her neck and renders her entire right side almost useless some days. Only 38 years old, she now owns a walker. While we talked, the right side of her mouth often had difficulty forming the words, like a connection between her brain and the facial muscles was shorting out. Her faith in God during an ordeal that makes no logical sense brought tears to my eyes: “I don’t know why this is happening, but I know God has a purpose in it, somehow.”

I want that kind of faith; the surrendering-of-my-own-devices kind that walks quietly behind God during the sketchy situations in life.

Monday, September 5, 2011


In 2007 I had the opportunity to visit Churchill Downs two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. In Louisville for a two-day writer’s conference, schedules were tight and I fought a bit of jetlag hangover. Still, there was no way I’d miss the chance to see The Downs, a place steeped in generations of equine glory.

Once backside, I followed the rest of the tour group at a distance, satisfied to silently take in the regal spirit of the place. It was chilly and fog hovered over the famous track. It seemed alive with the anticipation of the coming race—The Sport of Kings. Morning exercise was winding down and sunshine glittered at the edges of the mist promising warmth. Still a little sleepy, I gazed at the near empty track, lost in my own world.

The stillness was abruptly broken by the thunder of hooves. I turned to watch two Thoroughbreds breeze by, playfully, or so it seemed, battling for position. They galloped effortlessly by, blowing rhythmically with each stride, and disappeared into the fog. I just stared, goose bumps covering my arms, as unexplainable emotion rose inside. It was breathtaking. Am I becoming a hopeless sap? I thought, feeling the tears prickle. Maybe I’m just tired. The sight is one I’ll never forget.

“Look of the eagle” aside (or perhaps its Eye of the Tiger—still loving that ‘80s culture), the Thoroughbred horse is one breed I’ve been content to admire from a distance. An elite athlete is best kept doing the job it is born to do and that particular breed isn’t known for its every day “livability,” shall we say. That’s why it’s rather amusing to see one grazing in the field right now, a horse on trial for Haley. Even if we don’t buy him, “Poncho” has been an inspiration on the power of identity.

I’m a big believer in names. Animals tend to live up to the moniker we bestow on them. That’s why there will never be a Witch, Jezebel, or Outlaw in my herd. The last choice is actually part of the registered name of our Quarter Horse, Cowboy. Perhaps no surprise the horse had a history of bucking. We took no chances and gave him a more promising handle and he’s been a great guy. Sometimes a horse is given an unfortunate registered name such a friend’s “Voodoo Magic” and there’s not much you can do about it. She calls the gelding by a positive nickname, however, so I say his future is “bright and shining.” Eli’s barn name was acceptable when I got him, but I love the meaning of his registered name Aur Elijah. The Biblical prophet Elijah had an astonishing life on Earth befitting its Hebrew meaning: My god is the Lord. I shortened Elijah to Eli which works better around the barn. The subtle difference in meaning still inspires: Ascend my God.

I’d have never gone to look at a Thoroughbred had it not been for the videos. Cruising Craigslist one day I clicked on an ad and saw photos of a non-descript brown gelding as well as videos of him running barrels and poles. There was something easy, natural, and relaxed about the horse’s performance. He didn’t look crazy or out-of-control. Sure he was the wrong breed…but, what the heck?

My first reaction upon meeting Poncho was, “Oh boy…he looks so Thoroughbred!” And not a particularly pretty one at that. His name—which I thought suggested a fat Mexican cook—didn’t suit the narrow, rangy animal I saw before me. I could count nearly every rib. To make his appearance worse, Poncho’s left eye had a conspicuous cloudy spot and the hair behind both ears was permanently white, evidence of prolonged pressure from…something.

“What’s up with that?” I gestured to the eye.

“A piece of grit got in his eye when he was on the track. It required a drain tube and stall rest with his head tied up for three months.”

I grimaced, from both the details of the injury and the horse’s past life. An off the track gaming Thoroughbred—what could be worse? Full body armor anyone?

We watched the owner tack up the horse and begin warm-up. When Poncho broke to a canter I heard the distinctive blowing unique to race horses begin to punctuate his every stride. He ran naturally, easily, and in the space of a few minutes I’d forgotten about his bony topline and that fat Mexican. It was obvious what he was and what he’d been created to do.

After Haley rode him I asked the owner for more details about his past at the races. She did not know his race history, name, or real age so we looked for a lip tattoo. Sure enough, several numbers found behind the upper lip promised to reveal the horse’s true identity. Curious, I took it down and gave it to a friend with connections to the Jockey Club.

“His name is Tropic Star,” she told me a few days later. “He’s 7 years old. You can watch his races online.”

Haley and I had great fun watching a star athlete win a race early in his career, prior to the injury that eventually dumped him onto Craigslist. He came from the back of the pack on that particular day and won by several lengths.

Later I got to thinking about names and, more importantly, identity. The times I’ve acted the worst and/or treated others badly can all be traced to issues with identity. Too often I’ve believed a lie or thoughtlessly attached labels rather than searching for the truth: Child of God; Greatly Loved; Possessing Unlimited Ability. A King’s Kid.

Embracing our true identity is a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I’ll never forget my first published article, an essay for the now out of circulation Victoria Magazine. It was called Of Horses and Dreams and I received a check for a whopping $100 bucks. It might as well have been a million bucks for the way it made me feel. The piece represented so much—the combination of two passions, the resurrection of a once dead dream of being a *real* writer, and, less romantic, hours of rewriting and numerous rejection letters. Almost ten years later, I’m an editor working with writers and it feels surreal. Along a journey of numerous publications in regional and national magazines, newspapers, and books, there have been many setbacks and a lot of disappointment. I’ve learned some things along the way about the publishing world and am indebted to those--including a few editors--who a became valuable mentors and helped me build writing “muscle.” I’ve only been editor of the Northwest Horse Source for a couple of months, but I’m enjoying being on the “other side” because I know how it feels to want to write so badly and put yourself on the line. Repeatedly. I hope to be an encouragement to aspiring writers in this new venture.

A not-so-fun part of this gig is working with entitled wannabes. Recently I received a note from someone who felt unfairly treated because we did not jump at the chance to use their material. It is for this person--and aspiring wordsmiths everywhere--that I dedicate this post with the sincere hope that genuine writers (and you don't have to be published to be one) will never give up. What do writing, riding, and Jennifer Beals have in common? More than you think.

Know that writing isn’t for wimps, whiners, or the thin-skinned. “Freelance writers” are a dime a dozen and the publishing world owes you nothing. Writing is like any other creative discipline, it takes a lot of practice and a teachable spirit to become good. Not unlike working with horses, actually. Putting a horse in your pasture doesn’t make you a horseman any more than the knowledge of how to write a sentence makes you a writer. Working on your high school paper or producing a nice essay in college doesn’t mean an editor should drop everything to read your work. It takes years of dedication and a good dose of humility to become a true artist—of anything.

One of my favorite movies in the 1980’s was Flashdance. I must have been about 13 when the film came out and watched it several times, each time becoming more and more convinced I should become a dancer. After all, I’d squared danced in elementary school. And if Jennifer Beals could do it, why not me? So enamored was I of the story that I took some community college dance classes around age 16. I quickly learned a couple things: I am a white girl of no rhythm and little coordination (except on horseback) and…it was darn hard! I think I made it through half the class before dropping out. I had leggings and a sweatshirt top that hung off my shoulder, but a dancer I was not. More than that, I simply didn’t have the desire it would take to learn the things that looked so easy in the movie.

I felt strangely happy to learn that many of the shots of Jennifer Beals dancing were actually a double. A real dancer. She didn’t get a lot of fame, but she was the real deal and possessed a dancer’s body honed by hours on the floor and years of sacrifice. I could square dance (badly), but that was a world away from the abilities of the girl in the movie (and that includes Miss Jennifer!).

Many things in life that take serious commitment can look easy, such as riding a horse. To become a proficient horseman you must begin with the fundamental ingredients of desire, passion, persistence, and the willingness to learn. Mix in a little raw talent and a good attitude and, one day, you may discover you have grown into an equestrian artist who makes it look easy. Writing is the same way. If your first attempt(s) at getting published is rejected accept it graciously and practice being professional. You’ll need those skills if you want to be taken seriously in the future. In the publishing world hate mail and an attitude of entitlement never greased the hinges on the doors of opportunity.

That’s all for now. I’m off to buy a new pair of leggings…

Monday, August 15, 2011


Meet Eli's youngest son, River. Recently I visited this sweet, sweet colt and couldn't resist posting his head shot. Ink blot test anyone? Just for fun, here is some background behind this test, officially known as the Rorschach Test after Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach.

The test was developed to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning. In the 1960s it was the most widely used personality test and sometimes used in forensic assessment. Test subjects are asked to respond to ten cards of ink blot patterns--what they think the shape/pattern looks like and what makes it look that way. Unique responses are most often found in creative/artistic types and in people with larger amygdalas. The amygdala is part of the limbic region of the brain and processes feelings. It is especially good at recalling memories with a strong emotional context.

The Rorschach test is believed by some to reveal underlying motive and even thought disorders. I look at River a specific disorder and motivation is clear: I am hopelessly crazy for horses and must have one in my backyard!

Happy Monday.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Usually it makes me feel better to wear my riding clothes. But today nothing helps, even when I buckle on my riding helmet and hop on my bike. Somehow I know I'm doomed. ~ Susan Ketchen, Made That Way

In this family fiction sequel to Born That Way, Susan Ketchen reunites readers with the intrepid young Sylvia, who is challenged by a genetic disorder, wild about horses, and determined to find solutions to the obstacles presented by her life in general. Sylvia wants to be a real horsewoman and she’s excited about getting her own horse, even if the horse is arriving at a less-than-perfect time. Brooklyn is, well, not quite a regular horse. He has big ears, makes strange sounds, and he’s already bitten the transport driver.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading this book by Canadian author Susan Ketchen. The story has many unique elements that make it not your average "Girl and Pony Story." I thought it would be fun to interview Susan about the genesis of the book and her own experience as a horsewoman and writer.

1. The main character in this series, Sylvia, lives with a genetic condition called Turner Syndrome. Tell us what this is and how it became an element in the story.

Girls born with Turner Syndrome are missing an X chromosome. This can result in a number of symptoms, varying from individual to individual, but most people with the condition are short in height and infertile. Treatment with human growth hormone can help girls attain a more normal height, and estrogen replacement therapy can trigger the development of female sexual characteristics.

I did not set out to write a novel about a character with Turner Syndrome. But as I was writing about Sylvia, I noticed that the other characters always referred to her as a small person, and tended to treat her younger than her years. I did some research about possible medical conditions that might account for her short stature, and discovered Turner Syndrome. The developmental and sexual difficulties presented by the syndrome were interesting to me as a writer as they seemed to open a number of doors for discussion and exploration.

2. You are trained as a counselor and spent time working with teens, have you always wanted to write to this audience?

Oddly enough, I don’t think of myself as a writer for teens. I think more that I write for people. In the Sylvia books, I reflect a lot on what it is like for young people, but many of my readers are adults who are either reminded what it was like when they were young, or see themselves as parents dealing with their teens, sometimes in ways that they want to change.

3. One of the especially brilliant elements from Made That Way is how Sylvia comes to understand her peer group (and their reaction to her "disorder") by observing equine herd dynamics. How else have you seen horses support teens, in particular?

Some girls say that their horse is their best friend. They tell their horse everything. Of course the horse doesn’t disagree or offer advice or criticize. The horse stands there and allows a person to lean on it. Adults can have the same experience: I have known women who pointed to their horse and said, “There have been many tears cried into that mane.”

Horses are large powerful animals. I wonder about how empowering it is for a young person to manage and direct another being of this stature, and how this empowerment might influence other aspects of their life as they tinker with increasing independence.

4. The story is inspiring to those struggling with a label, disability, or handicap. Have you had feedback from this sort of reader?

I have had wonderful feedback from people with Turner Syndrome and their parents. What they appreciate is that I didn’t make it a story about a disability or handicap—Sylvia is more than a Turner Syndrome girl. Still, she is different from other girls, with different questions about life. Plus there is an educational component that will help someone who doesn’t have TS to understand what it might be like for someone with TS.

5. What lessons have you personally learned on horseback?

Oh the lessons never end! And the one I will likely be struggling with right until the end is when to accept “conventional wisdom” and when to trust myself to do things differently when traditional methods feel wrong for me and my horse.

I think one of the most important things I have learned is to keep an eye on the emotional source of some of my reactions. Training should not be influenced by anger or fear or frustration. If any of these emotions are present, it’s better to get off the horse and start again tomorrow. Training should be clear, calm and logical; if it’s not, the lessons are confusing for the horse. I think this carries over into the rest of life too, when we’re dealing with each other. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by our own emotions, or the emotions of others, and not see what the real issues are.

6. What were your favorite books as a youth?

I read non-stop. In my teens I went through a long period of reading a lot of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was one of the first adult books I read. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank still haunts me. And John Wyndham’s books.

7. It seems you are living a longtime dream to write and ride, with horses in your backyard. Any advice to others nurturing a passion or creative dream?

I think I’ve been very lucky, so I don’t know how much advice I have to offer. People are fortunate if they have a passion, but it can have a narrowing effect on your life. And not all dreams are attainable, no matter how much positive thinking you do. Sometimes you have to let go. I let go of my early dreams for a while, and pursued other goals, and learned things that I never would have learned if I had focused solely on being a writer who rode. As a result, I have more to draw on when I write, and my life has been richer.

8. Tell us a little about your own horses and your interest in training. I understand some of them can play the piano?

Oh boy I could go on for pages about my horses and my interest in training.

I have two horses out in my field right now. Lollipop is an Arab/Welsh/Human cross. She is the official “companion pony” because she’s not sound. But any time a new horse arrives on the property, she is invaluable to me in helping the new one settle in because she’s very engaged with me. She’s the smartest horse I’ve ever known. I use a variation of clicker training with her, so she knows flash cards and the names of her body parts, and yes, she will play a child’s piano with her nose…if we use the word “play” loosely. She hits the keys. I wouldn’t call it “music”.

This Spring I was looking for a new riding horse, and met Huck. He’s an Arabian gelding. I wasn’t looking for an Arabian gelding, and certainly not a chestnut. So I think he picked me. He comes from a show background, which is not what we do here, and he is very smart, so is learning about his new lifestyle. I ride with a dressage saddle, and am interested in improving my riding and improving the horse’s way of going, but I’m not so interested in competing. I’d like to explore horse intelligence some more with Huck, and see how our relationship develops.

I’m interested in animal training generally, and in how to train positively, avoiding punishment if at all possible. I want the horse to feel motivated, not coerced. Both my horses have a strong desire to please. I don’t want to do anything to diminish that, which means I have to question some traditional methods. On the other hand, horses are big powerful animals and they can be dangerous without meaning to, so some limits have to be put on their behavior.

Thanks Susan! What an interesting person you are.

Made That Way is available for $12.95 from Amazon or local booksellers.

Susan Ketchen was born in Nanaimo, B.C. and had a successful Family counseling practice for many years. She now resides on a small Vancouver Island hobby farm with her husband, two horses, two cats and a flock of chickens. Grows That Way, the third book in this series will be published in fall 2011. Visit Susan at: