Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Review Conundrum

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photo

by Milton C. Toby

Book reviews come with an inherent contradiction that I have never managed to sort out to my satisfaction. We love the good reviews and pass them around shamelessly to anyone who’ll pay attention, while hating and hiding, as best we can, the bad ones. The mostly unspoken assumption is that the author of a favorable review is erudite, intelligent, and discriminating, a literary heavyweight whose opinion matters. A bad review, on the other hand, almost certainly was written by a person residing somewhere south of us on the evolutionary scale, a knuckle-dragger whose opinion can be safely ignored.

But does the perceived distinction between a good review and a bad one actually make sense? Probably not. (I’m ignoring the trolls who surf the internet and post scathing reviews just for the sake of making authors miserable. The trolls truly are the bottom-feeders of social media!)

I enjoy a good review as much as anyone, but the satisfaction is fleeting. The critical reviews, on the other hand, have been far more valuable.

Dance’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, was an award winner with positive reviews—all except one. In a post-Derby epilogue I summarized the career of Hall of Fame jockey Bobby Ussery, who won the 1967 Kentucky Derby with longshot Proud Clarion and who finished first in the 1968 running. Although Dancer’s Image subsequently was disqualified for a controversial medication positive, Bobby Ussery still thinks of himself (rightly in my opinion) as the winner of back-to-back runnings of the most famous race in the world. I named the other back-to-back winners—it’s s short list—but in the process somehow managed to leave out the most obvious one, Ron Turcotte, rider of Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

The 1968 Kentucky Derby            George Featherston/Keeneland Library photo

One Amazon reviewer who happened to be a big fan of Turcotte’s took me to task over the omission. Getting a fact wrong is the kiss of death for a nonfiction author, and I was annoyed and suitably humbled by the one-star review. But I got over it. The bad review hurt, but it gave me the opportunity to correct the error for the book’s second printing.

A "good book, but . . ." review for Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky, proved to be even more valuable. The reviewer pointed out a couple of minor—but annoying nonetheless—factual errors. The review again gave me the opportunity to have the errors corrected, but it also demonstrated a fundamental shortcoming in my writing process.

I needed an independent fact-checker who knew the minutia of Thoroughbred racing and who was willing to pick through a manuscript with an eye for errors that neither I nor my advance readers noticed. I contacted the reviewer, thanked her for pointing out the issues with Noor, and asked her to check the facts in my next book, Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner. She did a great job vetting the facts in Cañonero II and has agreed to serve as fact-checker on a book my agent is shopping around now, a history of racing’s addiction to performance enhancing drugs. I never would have connected with Val if not for a critical review.

In the end, a book review—good, bad, or indifferent—is what it is, one person’s opinion that we as authors can do with as we please.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps said it best:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

If you’re an author, how do you balance the good reviews with the bad? If you’re a reader, how important are reviews to your book selections?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Two Authors, the Man from the CIA and his Horse

What do a Professor of History at Yale who worked for the CIA, Mario Puzo and Graham Greene have in common? Other than the fact they’re all men?

They are all authors of horse and pony stories.

Sherman Kent (1903-1986) was quite possibly the only horse story author who worked for the CIA. A Professor of History at Yale, he pioneered many methods of intelligence analysis for the CIA. He wrote on French electoral procedure, and also, one can only assume as light relief, a horse story called A Boy and a Pig, but Mostly Horses. Published in 1974 by Dodd, Mead & Company, and illustrated by the sublime Sam Savitt, A Boy and a Pig was based on Kent’s own childhood. Like the heroes of his story, he went to the Thacher School in California, where horses and riding were a major part of the curriculum. 

I love the fact there’s a pig in this story – not an animal which crops up a lot in horse stories, unless it’s there to spook the hero’s horse. Simon, the hero of the story, captures and adopts a wild pig called Augusta before going on to have an exciting holiday working on a ranch with runaway horses, a rogue mustang, and the obligatory rescue of a neglected horse.

Mario Puzo’s horse book is a more domestic affair, probably just as well bearing in mind his notorious serving up of a horse’s head on a pillow in The Godfather. The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw (1966) is the story of a boy whose spectacularly vague parents go away, having completely forgotten to tell his grandparents he’s staying with them. Davie decides to make the most of his parent-less state by taking a pony and cart from his uncle’s home in California to New York, meeting his parents on their way back. 

While I was researching the author, I came across a first edition presentation copy of The Runaway Summer for sale at Peter Harrington, the London-based antiquarian book dealer. The dedication read: “For Carol. If you don’t like it, I’ll kill you.”

I suppose we should be grateful he wasn’t threatening her horse.

British author Graham Greene (1904-1991) is far better known for his adult stories than as a writer of children’s books. As a writer whose work portrayed Catholicism in a world which is unrelentingly full of sin and evil, I wondered quite how his children’s story The Little Horse Bus (1952) was going to turn out: just how dreadful will be the fate of the bus and its horse? There’s certainly evil there, in the shape of bank robbers who steal a hansom cab full of cash, and whip the poor horse who draws it unmercifully; and then suggest they leave her to starve to death in the wharf where they stash the cash. Fortunately, for this is a children’s book, evil is confounded and good triumphs.

All of these authors had ample experience of the bleaker side of life, and knew the depths to which humanity could plunge. It’s interesting that for them all, the horse provided a perhaps nostalgic escape to another life where endings were good and evil was confounded.

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For information on many, many more horse story authors, visit my website.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Very Flawed Characters

by Natalie Keller Reinert

I want to piggyback off Kate Lattey's post earlier this week, "Writing Strong Female Characters." If you haven't read this post, and you're interested in the technical side of writing, definitely check it out. Go ahead. I'll wait.

You're back? Great. So, here's the thing: I have a history of writing particularly difficult female characters. Not really on purpose... they just are that way.

Alex takes a lot of flack for not being strong enough
 in The Head and Not The Heart.
But give her time. It's a series.
A lot of female characters are reluctant heroines. Think of Katniss standing up and announcing that she'll stand as tribute (or whatever she said, I only saw the movie, true fact). She didn't want to go be a human sacrifice in a particularly nasty bit of child pit-fighting, she was just aware that she was the one for the job. She was the toughest, strongest, mightiest teenager in all the land, or certainly more so than her little sister, so she did what she had to do.

Or look at the character Kris in Lattey's blog's post: "Kris is a pillar of strength, although she never sees herself that way, and (for me at least), is one of the most inspiring characters I've ever written."

Two young women who stood up and did what they had to do with a minimum of complaint. Admirable. I wish I was that sort of person, but I complain when I have to wash the dishes.

I have two main female characters in my two equestrian series: Alex, and Jules. Alex is trying to define herself in a world that does not respect her, which would be fine, if only she respected herself a little more. Jules is trying to show the world that she's the best rider in the world, which would be fine, if only she realized that she wasn't, not yet, anyway.

These flawed personalities manifest themselves in all sorts of moments that don't fit into the traditional Strong Female Character mold. It makes some people crazy, and I really don't blame them. But for others, it makes Alex and Jules incredibly realistic... sometimes maddeningly so.

As a writer, I really just set out to create characters and situations that I find realistic. Things that could happen to any of us as equestrians -- that's my number one inspiration. I never sat down and said to myself, "Alex is this sort of character and has these sorts of flaws and these sorts of attributes." It's just what happened. And so I've learned from reader reviews what sort of characters I have created.

People say...

Jules' focus on her career and distrust of
others really rubs some people the wrong way.
I look at her as a challenge. Jules, how are we
going to fix you? I'm working on that
problem now, as I write her next book.
"Her characters are so alive that I found myself mentally arguing with them over their choices as I read." - Amazon review, Turning For Home.

"It is beautifully written with strong and flawed characters... I also love how complicated Alex is. You just want to shake her half the time and admire her orneriness the other times." - Amazon review, Turning For Home.

"I became so engrossed in the characters, both human and equine, that they felt very real to me, and I cared about them. Even Jules, the main character, whose behavior at the beginning of the story is less-than-stellar (and who we occasionally want to strangle) is a compelling character, because we want to see her grow, change, and learn to accept advice, criticism, love, and friendship." - Linda Benson on Ambition.

"Our main character Jules plants the seeds of her own destruction, as do so many." - Karen McGoldrick on Ambition.

"I found the main character very unlikable, selfish and irritating." - Amazon review, Ambition.

Well, to be fair, nobody likes everybody.

Are Jules and Alex still Strong Female Characters, despite their all-too-average-human tendencies to make bad choices and completely fail at interpersonal relationships? I think so. They still have to overcome monumental challenges in their lives. They still have to step up and take control when there's no one else to do the job. I suppose they're still Reluctant Heroines… just more reluctant than most. They're growing into their roles -- and that's what the books are all about.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Setting Writing Goals

by Christine Meunier

The idea of writing a novel and getting it published can often appear like a romantic notion:
  • You have an idea and decide to write
  • Words flow and the story comes together easily and quickly
  • You complete the book and celebrate this achievement
  • You publish the book without hiccup and receive success and acknowledgement in the form of many readers and great reviews
Simple, right?
Do horses create a desire in you to write?

Perhaps not that simple.  Indeed, writing about horses is a passion.  It's something I love to do and look forward to doing.  However, at times it can also be difficult.  Not all stories flow and continue to do so until the novel is complete.

It is really important when writing, to try and set yourself a deadline to complete the task.  Make yourself accountable by setting goals to achieve and telling someone about these, so that they can check in with you.

Currently I'm writing the fifth book in the Free Rein series and I'm finding that I have to be deliberate with my writing.  That is, I've set myself a goal of writing a chapter a week, with the view of having the book complete and ready for proofing and editing by the end of April.

A common question to authors is: how do you deal with writers block?  Sometimes for me, I find that I have to just start writing and ideas will flow after I've taken the step to write something.

If you're getting into the world of writing horses, I encourage you to set writing goals and stick to them.  If you find at times that you write more than you'd hoped for - great!  Don't let that stop you from continuing on with your set goals however.  Still aim to write at least a certain amount each day or week.  Following through with writing goals will help you see the task to completion - then you can celebrate!

So what's your writing goal?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

First Horse

by Toni Leland

I never wanted anything more in my entire 8-year-old-life than a horse. 
Not the occasional ride on a carnival pony or camp horse. Or the few-and-far-between rides on my best friend's horse. 
I wanted a horse of my own.

My parents were terrified of horses, and there you have it. End of discussion. But parents don't always have the last word – not when the world around them sees the longing in a little girl's eyes.

To make a short story long, when I was 15, a good friend of my father's took him aside and said, "Look, Toni's never going to get over this passion. She needs a horse and I just happen to have the perfect one."
(I heard about this conversation years after the fact.)

I have no idea how that man convinced my father to let me have that horse, but at the time, I didn't care. My dream was coming true!

At dawn on the day the horse would arrive, I rode my bicycle a mile to the pasture where he would live. It was the longest morning I've ever spent, because grownups don't get started as early as kids. But finally, a pickup truck towing an old blue horse trailer pulled into the lane beside the barn.
Sonny, the most beautiful horse in the world.

I was beside myself. Mind you, I'd never laid eyes on the horse that would be coming off that trailer. Our friend had told me that the horse's name was Sonny, and he was a 16-year-old retired showhorse. Wow! How much better could it get?

The ramp clanged to the ground and a shiny copper rump backed out of the dark interior. Sonny was the biggest horse I'd ever seen.

He was also the homeliest horse on four legs, but I didn't see that back then. To me, he was Walter Farley's Island Stallion.

Sonny and I settled in quite nicely, spending every one of my waking minutes together. This caused no end of problems with my parents. I disappeared with the sunrise and came home just before dinnertime. I was in heaven.

I did not own a saddle, but Sonny came with a good bridle, and we spent many happy hours exploring the trails through the foothills behind my home in Southern Oregon. Sonny was surefooted and always interested in what lay
Parade Day. What horrible posture!
around the next bend. He and my dog, Lucky, were the best of friends and I swear they were the ones who decided what trail we would take. What a great beginning to summer vacation. We even got to ride in the Memorial Day parade. 

Then, disaster struck. While riding through a field with my best friend, Sonny's front foot hit a chunk of wood hidden in the tall grass. He began to limp and I began to cry. We got down off our horses and my friend examined his leg. She'd had her own horse for several years and knew what she was doing. 
She stood up and shook her head. "I think it might be broken."

My world came crashing down around me. Broken legs in horse meant only one thing. We led the horses back home, me sobbing all the way. Late that afternoon, the veterinarian came out and x-rayed Sonny's leg, which by then was huge and puffy. 

"Not broken," he said. "But you shouldn't ride him for the next eight or nine weeks until the bone bruise heals, and then only on soft ground."

Do the math. My summer with Sonny was over. I was overwhelmed with relief
Lucky with a winter friend.
that he would be okay, but devastated at the implications of his injury.

Every day after that, I applied a black, gooey poultice to Sonny's ankle in the morning and again in the evening. I spent my time with him and the dog in the pasture, dreaming of the day when we could ride the trails again.

By September, Sonny's limp had not disappeared, but had grown worse. The nights were growing colder and school had started. One afternoon, my father's friend came to the house and said he'd be willing to take Sonny back home where he could live in a big warm barn and rest his leg. I was devastated, but could do nothing about it. Truthfully, in my heart I knew that Sonny would be better off, but that didn't ease the pain. 

Sonny died that winter in a big warm barn. A horse would not grace my life for another twenty years.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

There's more to horses than riding

by Diana Kimpton

I bought my horse as a project to help with my research for There Must Be Horses. I knew he wasn’t perfect, and I even fell off him on my trial ride. (That wasn’t his fault – I caught my stirrup on the catch of a bridle path gate and was pulled off backwards.) But something deep inside me said this was the right horse for me and we had much to learn together.

Sorting out his problems proved to be much harder than I had hoped. I tried reschooling, calming supplements and numerous saddlers, but nothing worked completely. Over the years, he became much better to ride, but he remained unpredictable – prone to enormous spooks that could unseat the best of riders (which I am not).

After he landed my riding instructor on the floor, I decided to listen to what he was trying to tell me. This was a horse who didn’t enjoy being ridden. He cringed away when the saddle came out and tensed up like a coiled spring when anyone sat on his back. So I put away the saddle and told him I didn’t need to ride him anymore. He visibly relaxed and so did I. Riding had stopped being fun for me and probably never was much fun for him.

That’s when a friend suggested I should call in an equine osteopath. She duly arrived, watched him move and then poked one finger into his back in a “Does this hurt?” kind of way. Poor old fellow – he nearly went through the roof. She’d sussed out the source of his difficult behaviour – an extremely painful sacro-iliac area.

Fortunately she’s been able to treat him so he’s now pain free. But his saddle is still in store because I’ve discovered there is far more to horse ownership than riding. Fun with my horse now consists of long walks side by side, lunge work, obstacle courses and anything else that takes our fancy. We’re aiming towards liberty work which isn’t easy with a food-focused horse in a grassy field. But when I do stop him eating for long enough, it is sheer bliss to run with my horse trotting happily beside me from his own choice. That wonderful feeling of achievement and togetherness gives me more pleasure than anything I ever had while I was sitting on his back.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Amazon Rating Stars Are Like Dressage Scores

by Lisa Trovillion

When my book came out I compulsively checked the reviews on Amazon, tracking the number of stars.   Phew! Still in the 5-star range...that's good.  Or is it?  Star ratings are highly subjective, and like a numbered score for a movement in a dressage test, they are an artificial indication of what the rater wants to impart. You've got to read the narrative.

I've seen star ratings range from very low to five without much written to support the score.  And that's where the real meaningful information is found.  A less than five rating in Amazon may be accompanied by one of the best reviews your book has ever received.  There is something to be said for a book that is receiving ratings that run the gamut; It's more likely they were written by real readers and not just "friends and family."  Like it or not, we can't please them all!

Similarly, I would snatch my dressage test after a ride and immediately run my eyes down to the bottom right corner to check the final score.  Okay, that's human.  But what I was missing was the insightful and often helpful comments accompanying the score for each phase of the test.  Those comments, often complimentary, may have received only a luke warm score.  The horse showed promise and was executing the movement correctly--only lacking impulsion or some other fine point that could be corrected in the next go around or the next show opportunity.  Same as the criticism of a story.  Take heed, because sometimes the more critical comments have something to offer (as much as we all hate to hear it.)

Although dressage judges are professionals who have studied in order to wash away all subjectivity and to produce scores based on a standardized ideal, since they are human we know this standard does not really exist.  How many of us have chosen to show before a particular judge because she likes your type of horse or because she is generous with the "nines"?  I'll admit it.  As for readers, well, there's no real standardized ideal story, but there are elements of each and every novel that a reader will look for: conflict, characterization, pace, setting, making them care, etc. If they don't find it, they might call you out on it, and sadly, we can't always pick our readers/reviewers like we pick our judges.

I'm giving myself this lecture because I know I need it.  I need to grow a thick skin and possess a brave heart.  Putting a novel out there for any and all to review is scarier than riding down center line for a tough judge on a horse fresh off the racetrack.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Writing "Strong Female Characters"

What is a Strong Female Character? There’s a lot of debate and discussion going on about that right now across the internet. What constitutes a Strong Female Character? How do you make sure to write one (or several)? There is of course, no hard and fast rule, but let's start with a definition.

One of my favourite definitions comes from this blog, which quite simply points out that “A female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly of her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we'd enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her.”

This goes for girls too.

Many girls around the world love ponies, and they love to read stories about ponies. The success of the “pony book” genre has hinged for many years on the relationship between a girl and her pony, that unbreakable, magical bond that they share. One of the most popular and enduring pony book series in the English language is Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” series, which contains plenty of wit, charm and realism, and a wonderful protagonist in Jill Crewe. And although written and set in the 1950s, one of the most endearing things about this series is that Jill herself possesses a great deal of agency.

What is character agency? There are boundless definitions, but here’s one that I particularly like:

The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

Anyone who has read any of the Jill books can scarcely imagine their heroine sitting around waiting for everything to work out, and it is Jill’s tenacity and determination to get things done that make these books so timeless, despite being set in an era that many of today’s readers won’t recognise.

As Ada Hoffman succinctly pointed out on Twitter: Agency is not about characters being good or bad characters, it is about what the characters are given the opportunity to do.

As a writer of YA fiction, I am very aware of my target audience. (Sure, the books are read and enjoyed by many adults as well, but that’s not really who the books are “for”. Their enjoyment is, in some ways, incidental to my purpose.) The young women of today are growing up in a tumultuous, unnerving and difficult world that is quite different from the idyllic lifestyle that Jill and her friends enjoyed in Ruby Ferguson's series. Today's girls are hyper-aware of what is going on around them, of what other people think of them, of society’s expectations for them. They are viewing themselves and the world around them through a lens that is at once incredibly narrow and unbelievably wide.

They are looking for characters that they can relate to.

They are looking for role models. 

They are looking for strong female characters. 

So there’s that question again – what is a Strong Female Character? How do you know whether or not you’ve written one?  This blog provides a useful checklist to consider:

1.  Give her a goal and a reason for having that goal

2.  Give her flaws

3.  Let her change

4.  Have her act under her own initiative.

Notice that none of the above has the slightest thing to do with being physically strong. That’s not what it’s about, although it can be an element.

A quick comparison: 

Van, one of the characters in my novel Dare to Dream, is described as physically strong. At eighteen years old, she does the heavy lifting around the family farm, building fences and fixing water troughs and riding horses that others have consigned to the scrap heap for being too unruly and difficult. She’s also emotionally sturdy - stubborn and often tactless, determined and passionate, argumentative and resilient. One of her sisters is warned against ever telling Van that she can’t do something, “because she’ll kill herself proving you wrong” (which interestingly enough, is one of the most highlighted passages in the Kindle book).

Her older sister Kris is the opposite of Van in many ways. She’s physically weak, after a riding accident left her with a back injury that severely limits her capabilities. But more than any other character in that book, Kris is possessed of a great deal of emotional strength. Far more world-wise than her twenty-one years, she has given up on her own dreams to raise her sisters after their parents’ death. She struggles on, day after day, complaining as little as possible, selling the horse that she built her own dreams on in order to help her sisters’ dreams to continue to come true. Kris is a pillar of strength, although she never sees herself that way, and (for me at least) is one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever written.

I want people to read my books and be inspired. Not just because of the way the characters treat their horses, but because of the way they treat one another. In the sequel Dream On, youngest sister Marley is witness to the ongoing bullying of a rival competitor. Marley has ample reason to despise this rival, because the prior actions that she now is being stigmatised for affected Marley more than anyone else, but she believes that this girl has seen the error of her ways, and doesn’t participate in the bullying tactics. And when she eventually sticks up for her rival and helps her out, she is immediately chastised by one of her friends, who calls Marley “naïve” for thinking that the other girl could’ve turned over a new leaf. Marley’s response is, in my mind, one of her greatest and proudest moments.

“Maybe I am,” Marley conceded, starting to walk away. “But I’d rather be that than a bully like you.”

If any of the young readers of this book felt inspired in that moment, if it gave them pause and made them also feel proud of Marley, and think that "I could do that", then I have succeeded. 

It's about agency, and it's about emotional strength, and it's being unafraid of the opinions of others. I do a lot of work with young people and I see a lot of what they are thinking about and worried about on a daily basis. Being an individual, being confident enough to have different opinions and tastes from other people, being resilient enough to keep getting up when you get knocked down, knowing who your friends are and being self-reliant enough to walk away from bad relationships. Teenage girls are not worried about being able to beat up the world, they just want to be strong enough to live in it with confidence.

The people that young women surround themselves with will have huge impacts on their lives, and this goes for the characters they read about as well. Whether male or female, the characters we write do not have to be physically strong in order to be role models. But if their actions can make us smile, make us cheer, make us want to step inside the book and give them a pat on the back, then I reckon that we’re on the right track. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Riding Vicariously

by Meghan Namaste

When I was learning to ride, I always wanted to jump. I romanticized jumping, and as I learned the basics of posting diagonals and cantering and mastering the all-important 20-meter circle, I pictured myself as a show jumper. Tight turns, high speeds and explosive jumping efforts appealed to me.

Finally, once the basics of flatwork were instilled in me, I began learning to jump. I had pictured only the glory of jumping, the sense of flying, and neglected to account for the fact that jumping is a lot of work. I found it wasn't so fun after all when reality set it. I hated the two-point position, the hours spent standing in the stirrups with my calves burning, and when it came time to go over fences, I was a timid jumper. Something about riding down to that obstacle was nerve-wracking for me. I maxed out at about two feet, and I had no desire to go any higher. I soon found I had no desire to jump, period.

Around the same time, I began taking the occasional dressage lesson with an itinerant instructor - a real, classical dressage person able to convey the true heart of the sport - the concept of riding from the seat and leg, the lightness that can be achieved, the art of cultivating balance and beauty in whatever horse you sit upon. I realized what dressage was truly about, and I found my niche. I wasn't a daredevil after all, into cutting corners and pushing the limits - higher, faster, better. That kind of riding didn't thrill me. It made me a wreck. I wasn't a jumping fool, I was a true dressage addict. That feeling, after weeks or months of struggle, when all my aids aligned and my horse and I moved in balance, two beings who looked better, who moved better than before, that feeling was my weakness.

I came to understand two things about myself. I wanted my butt in the saddle (not hovering above it in the hated two-point), and I wanted to learn to ride with lightness.

So, I took several more years of lessons, focusing on dressage, and then I bought my first horse, a $750 grade Paint mare, pony-sized and carting around considerable mental and physical baggage, but with a good heart and the will to try, try, and try some more. I didn't end up with a perfectly sound horse, but it was a sound decision, because she turned out to be my equine soul mate, and 6 years later, we are still trying together. And we recently started taking dressage lessons, taking the next step in our journey.

Sofie and me last summer, dressagin'. Yes, I'm wearing jeans and work boots. Shhhh.

Interestingly enough, dressage doesn't factor too much in my writing. Dressage is training, and there is plenty of training chronicled in my books, but you won't see my characters hanging out at USDF shows (well, except for that one time). My protagonists both specialize in sports that feature a lot of action. My male lead, Lawrence, is a high-goal polo player, and my female lead, Erica, is a hunter/jumper trainer now riding at Grand Prix. Just because I personally don't care if my horse ever moves faster than a collected canter (no, seriously, if you're reading this, Sofie, please don't) doesn't mean I can't enjoy writing a good galloping sequence, or recapping a fast-paced polo match. And just because staring down a two-foot-three-inch jump fills me with anxiety doesn't mean I don't love writing about soaring jumping efforts, tricky courses, and those all-important, nail-biting jump-off rounds.

What is your riding discipline of choice? And what are some of the ways you choose to live vicariously through your characters?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Success with Sarah

by Lisa Wysocky

As both an able bodied and a therapeutic riding instructor, I really enjoy teaching people to ride. But, as most horse people know, there is a lot more to riding than just staying on a horse. In addition to learning to care for horses and the tack, and developing stable and pasture management skills, a rider needs to learn about the horse, and that is best done on the ground. 

This concept was recently brought to the forefront during a lesson I taught a month or so ago. A young teen was having terrible difficulty getting her horse to respond correctly to her cues. It wasn’t that Sarah wasn’t giving the cues correctly, but that her horse, Tramp, was ignoring them.

It was clear that Tramp did not respect Sarah. He was generally a kind and genial fellow who was quite safe for beginners, so he never did anything to put her in danger. His disrespect took the form of making Sarah ask four or five times to move from the walk to the trot, or from the trot to the walk. If she pointed tramp at a trail obstacle, he’d veer two feet to the left or right, no matter how correct her steering was. I could see how frustrating that was for Sarah.

I had to work hard to convince both Sarah and her mother that Sarah getting had a better chance of learning to ride off her horse. But, convinced they finally were. With no round pen in sight, we spent the next lesson doing leading exercises. Walk, trot, turn, stop, move the hips, and back. At first Tramp was sluggish, but as Sarah’s focus increased and her body posture became more businesslike, her giggles and frustration decreased and Tramp's ear focused in on her and he began to respond quickly and correctly.

The next lesson we did walk/trot reining and Dressage patterns on the ground, and Tramp became engaged and responded so well, that by the end of the lesson, she was able to do the exercises without touching the lead rope. When Sarah got back on during the third lesson, Tramp was a different horse.

Most of us are just like Sarah. We love to ride, but do not take the time to do foundation work with our horse. A riding instructor once told me, “if you can’t do it on the ground, you can’t do it in the saddle.” That is so true. Groundwork is consistently a part of my interactions with my horses.

I am so proud of Sarah. I am honored that she trusted me enough to try something different, and excited that she listened and took direction well, even though she was out of her comfort zone. Students like Sarah remind instructors like me why we do what we do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

If you'd like a copy of some of the leading patterns Sarah did, they are a free download on my website. Enjoy!

Monday, March 9, 2015


Riding the train home to Syracuse, NY after a long weekend in NYC, my mind easily wanders to thinking about journeys. Journeys in the typical sense like this weekend – captive on a speeding bullet with multitudes of strangers – most of whom were glued to their phones or napping. Or journeys in the grander sense of the word. As in my life journey. More importantly, my journey with horses, which to me is the same thing.
I was not born into a horse family, but my mother had the equine bug and before anyone knew it, I was infected with it too. I don’t remember existing without horses. Once I hit grade school, I didn't understand the funny looks the other kids gave me when I casually mentioned a conversation my horse and I had had. At the same time, I was writing my own short stories like “The Adventures of Super Fishie”. Animals had always been my friends, why wouldn't I write about them?
Flash forward to me at fifteen.
My half Arabian lost his battle with colic on a stormy July night and almost took my heart with him. Whiskey had been spooky and beautiful and challenging and instructive. In the days after his death, I couldn't help but think – am I a failure? I hadn't achieved the goals I’d set out for Whiskey and I before I lost him. Was it some higher powers way of saying “horses really aren't your thing”? I spent a few months in a zombie-like limbo. I wanted to succeed – I wanted to show and win and have the best equitation (remember – 15 year old) but more than anything I wanted the bond with my horse back. And the idea that it could all just slip away - our time, our effort, our love – I was starting to think that I couldn't have that kind of relationship again.
Enter Took.
Jaklee Mr. T: a seven year old registered Morgan gelding with an incredibly nefarious nature. At the time, he was also very angry. He’d been working and training since he was six months old. He had a hard mouth, previous hock injuries and a stubborn streak that seemed never-ending. To make matters worse, his owner needed to give him up and he happened to be boarded at our barn.
I know what you’re thinking – this teenage kid needs a horse to ride before she completely loses heart in something she loves and this gelding needs a rider that will be his best friend because he is a one person kind of horse. Putting them together will heal them both and teach them to love again. Both my trainer and my mother had that same idea – Took and I would fit together because we could, because we should and for the betterment of both of us – we had to.
Instead, let’s ruminate on what happens when you put two very stubborn individuals together and tell them that despite their pain, they should work together and become a team. I can tell you what happens – battles, epic battles in the practice arena. Neither of us wanted to heal and neither wanted to yield to anyone, much less each other. We viewed each other as a stand-in for the individual we really loved, the one we missed. We didn't want to be better or fixed or together or loved. We wanted our previous lives or we wanted to be left alone.
Our battles continued for a few months. Finally, it was suggested to me by my mother and my trainer that I take Took on an annual trail ride with my friends. I was convinced they wanted me dead. (I don’t know why adults think teens are dramatic???) But being stubborn, I agreed. When “that Morgan” and I battled on the trail and I ended up dead, that would really show them! That day Took was adventurous and energetic and safe as a kitten. He picked his way through creeks and boldly covered ground, easily catching up to the crowd or hanging back and relaxing in the scenery, depending on what I asked of him. As the sun was setting that day, my mother drove into the camp grounds expecting to pick up her sullen daughter and angry Morgan. Instead she was greeted by a smiling, sweaty teenager and a bright eyed, puffed up gelding.  That was the beginning of 18 years of the best friendship I’ll ever have. He’s the reason I fell in love with the Morgan breed. He became my inspiration for creating a soft place for older Morgans to land. Tantius Farm is currently home to eight Morgan horses, two old Quarter Horses and one Anglo Arab.
I lost Took eight years ago this November but I see pieces of him in each of my residents. He makes his way into my stories as a war horse and best friend.  He still runs through my dreams and why wouldn't he? It was on his back that my journey in life really began.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Foaling Season

By Patti Brooks

With New England desperate to leave winter behind, it makes me think back to foaling season on our Connecticut Morgan horse farm. On any given year, we expected five to ten foals.

It was early June this particular year, and all but one old mare, Dutch, had foaled. Because the grass was sweet and the breezes gentle, Dutch spent 24/7 in a small pasture, with a shelter, easily seen from the house and barn. Dutch wasn’t due for another ten days.

About 2:00 a.m., our young daughter, Trisha, knocks on our door.

“What is it?” I ask, hoping it’s something I can solve without fully waking up.

“Nera had her baby and is running all around.”

Well, that was easy because Nera was a very old mare who hadn’t foaled in years. She has free range of the farm.

“Go back to bed, Trisha.”

Unfortunately Trisha comes back with the same concern.

Sigh. Could I check this out without getting dressed?  

I go to the door and sure enough, the old mare is galloping between the house and the barn with a new foal trying to keep up. My mind sorts through the possibilities. Dutch must have foaled early. But why does Nera have the foal?

This would take both getting dressed as well as getting my husband up. Grabbing a halter, we hurry out of the house into a noisy night, what with Nera’s frantic running, other mares calling out in concern and a thunder storm moving in. We hurry to Dutch’s pasture, forming a plan as we run.

I catch Dutch up and head for the barn, with the mare screaming for her foal. Nera is making another pass toward the barn. My husband stands in the drive, letting Nera slip through and tackling the foal. (He later said he had never felt a foal’s heart pound so forcefully.)  He picks her up and follows Dutch and me into a stall. 

Dutch clearly said to her foal:  “Don’t leave me like that.” And the foal clearly said:  “Where’s my mom?”

After a good half hour of convincing the foal that Dutch was truly her mom and her food source, we figured out what had happened.

Nera, making her rounds on the farm, stopped to visit with Dutch and stayed with her as she lay down to foal.  But....when the foal got up, she got up on Nera’s side of the fence and said, “Mama!” Nera took off. Not my kid. She was finished with having needy little foals to look after. And the foal raced after her.

All the Morgans we raised carried the “Trijas” prefix. This little one, who spent the first moments of her life running while a thunder storm brewed, was the easiest to name: Trijas Tempest.