Monday, June 29, 2015

Repurpose

Repurpose. A favorite word of mine. From the time I watched Molly Ringwald’s character stitch two unfashionable dresses into one masterpiece in Pretty In Pink I’ve loved the concept. Perhaps in part because it requires a certain flair of imagination, and because it gives new life to something that might otherwise be retired. Useless. Thrown out.

Yes, I’m a pack rat. A collector. Not quite a hoarder. But more than that, I enjoy giving things a second chance, as if at the end of one life they appear used up, but if you squint and really look at this object, you can come up with a second life for it. A new purpose.

My cousin Sandy lives with me. She is the cook in our family and by that token, she rules the rather large kitchen in my older farm house. Even with a table and chairs in it, my kitchen is too spacious not to have an island. We’ve had several, all of a temporary nature as we weren’t sure what we wanted.  Recently, Sandy purchased a small server that she found on Craigslist. The rest of its fellow dining room brethren had been sold and this little server stood alone. The cherry laminate was starting to buckle a bit on the top and it needed a good sanding and a touch of tong oil, but it was just the right size for my kitchen as a retro-repurposed island. My cousin's friend who is a wizard with woodworking created a butcher block top for the server. It is stunning and unique! Everyone who sees it, falls in love with it. Alone, it was a $25 server that was closer to being kindling than a useful piece of furniture again. Now, it’s a conversation piece, as well as a functional center to my kitchen.

I feel this way about animals too. Five years ago, I was scrolling through pages of photos of horses that were currently on a kill dealer’s lot. The horses had a week to enchant someone over the internet with their pictures and videos before being sent to slaughter. Every week I looked at those faces, some of them being photographed for the last time. I wanted to bring them all home but I had to be realistic.


Until November 2010.
While munching away at my usual breakfast of eggs and toast, I saw him. Liver chestnut, reportedly a Morgan without papers, wide, oddly shaped blaze. I pulled up all his pictures. I watched his video endlessly looking for lameness, attitude – anything that would explain why he was on the lot. Nothing. I thought about him all day. And the next day. And the day after that. Something about this liver chestnut gelding was sticking with me, but what was it? Nothing specific that I could pinpoint. All I knew was that he could not ship to slaughter – my gut told me that I could not let that happen.
And it didn’t. He was christened Galahad. The first time I saw him was after he’d made it safely to quarantine. He’s just a horse, I said to myself, trying to be rational. He won’t have any idea what happened or how hard I worked to save his life. And yet when I met him, he seemed very comfortable with me. He let me wrap his legs and blanket him. He followed me onto a trailer without a second thought. Within the first week, he accidentally opened his stall gate and strolled out. Before I could stop him, he was headed down the driveway toward the road. I thought I was going to be sick. It’s funny to think about it now. I yelled “Galahad!” from the barn and he stopped, turned around and came back to me.

I have no idea what his name was in his previous life, or why he answers to his new moniker but he always has. Perhaps it’s that he knows he’s mine and I’m his. Perhaps he’s just highly intelligent – he is always pulling something new from his bag of tricks. He bows and counts, much to the delight of guests. He neck reins and moves off my leg. He was an Amish buggy horse before I acquired him – his shaved forelock and road shoes gave him away. He has intermittent lameness issues and my equine dentist put him right around 20 years old. I fear one or both of these factors caused him to fail as a road horse and dropped him into the auction circuit.

But there are so many wonderful things about Galahad! He adjusts his mannerisms to his rider and only gives them what they can handle. I assume because of his Amish days, he never thinks to canter under saddle. It’s relaxing to know he’ll never try to take off with a green rider or a kid. Galahad is currently teaching my 7 year old nephew that horses aren’t something to be afraid of, but rather something wonderful and safe. He tolerates multiple sessions of my nephew just sitting on him, learning how to steer. He is patient and solid. Galahad has also taught my niece about herself. At times, he is the calm in the center of her turbulent teenage years.
And for me? Something spoke to me five years ago – something called out to me that this horse belonged on my farm. I didn’t need a driving horse, but then again Galahad’s driving days seemed behind him. I had no idea that he would be the horse I’d climb on bareback just to clear my head. That he’d be the horse I would start riding after I suffered a back injury that required time out of the saddle. That he would help heal the loss of my heart-horse in so many ways. That soon, a once Amish driving horse will be my partner in team sorting.  Something told me that that liver chestnut gelding needed a second chance, a new purpose. I listen to that voice every chance I get. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015


Worth Every Penny! 


In keeping with CNN’s current  series on the seventies, the star of my seventies was a Morgan gelding called Kanes’ Classic.

We had just sold a young, home-bred mare that I was showing for a lot of money and went looking another show horse.  My husband, Bob, and I were at a Morgan show several states away from our farm in Connecticut.  We sat in the stands during the park classes (I wanted a high-stepping park horse) and looked for something we thought was special.

We knew that most likely the horse we  wanted would not be openly for sale, but we didn’t think that purchasing that special horse would be impossible because, after all, we hadn’t planned on selling our special mare.

The first horse we took a shine to was a golden maned and tailed gelding.  Bob followed the horse and his rider back to their stalls and made an offer.  It was politely refused.  It’s interesting to note that this horse went on to win multiple championships at the top shows.  So I guess we at least had good taste.

The next horse that caught our fancy was Kane’s Classic.  Bob made an offer to the owner and it was accepted. We had a new horse!  And to sweeten the deal, we were able to take “Classy” back to our stalls and show him the remainder of the show.

Kane's Classic winning Ladies Park Harness


                                                                             
Happily we went back to the motel that night, looking forward to getting to know our new horse.

When we got to the barn early the next morning, his stall was empty!  Bob stormed over to Classy’s former owner, demanding he bring the horse back to us.  Money had changed hands and a contract had been signed.

“My wife,” the man explained, “said she would divorce me if I sold Classy.”

Arms folded tightly across his chest, Bob fumed. He turned on his heels and began to walk away before he physically hurt the man.

“But,” the man said to my husband’s retreating back, “I can probably talk her into letting Classy go for another $500.”

My husband wanted no part of such unscrupulous dealings. However I was already picturing many blue ribbons with Classy.  I reasoned with him that we were prepared to pay more anyway, so we could afford the extra $500.  It took a lot of convincing, but to his credit, my husband swallowed his pride and forked over the additional $500.

As we walked away with Classy, the man said that he’d return the $500 once his wife calmed down. Never heard from him. That was forty years ago! 

Classy was worth every penny. We won countless ladies park harness classes and he soon earned the reputation of the horse to beat.


Isn't showing fun?!

This picture of me smiling through the mud, was taken after a major rain storm at an outdoor show.  I’m dressing is a saddlesuit and am sitting in a four-wheel show buggy; the typed used for park harness classes.  This particular class was a “Combination Park” class.  Horses worked a full class in harness then lined up.  Grooms came in, removed the buggy and harness and saddled the horses up.  Then the horses did a full walk, trot, canter saddle class. 

Come back next month and I’ll tell you all about the scariest adventure Classy and I had.  


Thursday, June 25, 2015



Giving characters a fair deal
By Carolyn Henderson

One of my best friends is a horse dealer. From the way some people react, I might just as well have said she was a drug dealer.
It’s too easy to think of dealers – and others in the horse world – in terms of stereotypes. There’s the cruel, unprincipled dealer who files horses’ teeth to make them look younger than they are and gives them mysterious substances to calm them down; the spoilt brat who doesn’t appreciate her expensive pony and gets her comeuppance when her poor but talented neighbour beats her in competition on her bargain buy; the rugged cowboy with a broken heart who is healed by a good woman and a troubled horse.
I could go on, but you’ll have met them all before. As writers, we have to be careful not to be lazy: when I wrote Beside Me, in which Luca, one of my main characters, is the son of a Romany horse dealer, I pinned a piece of paper over my desk on which I’d written NO STEREOTYPES in big letters. 
Fair enough, some dealers are awful. Diana Pullein-Thompson created a wonderfully believable one in A Pony For Sale: even her name, Lydia Pike, adds to the shudder factor. Showjumper Lydia and her mentor, the cruel and ignorant Jimmy, nearly ruin Martini, a talented pony.
A single vivid sentence sums up Lydia’s character and attitude: “On a wet May day I plaited her mane, pushed her head into my cheapest and most disreputable halter and sent her to Stringwell Market, where the quarterly Horse Sale was being held.”

A Pony For Sale has a happy ending, because Martini is bought and re-schooled by the sympathetic Lettie Lonsdale (another great name) and you know that they are going to ride off into the sunset together. I admit I find Lettie a bit drippy – the last line of the book is when she says, “And all my life,” I told the sleeping orchard, “I shall paint pictures and improve horses.”
My dealer friend doesn’t paint pictures, but she certainly improves horses. Here's a picture of an unhandled Irish Draught colt she spotted in the rough, taken three days after arrival. A year later, she'd transformed him into a champion show cob.
How’s that for inspiration?








Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Favorite Saddle

by Linda Benson

Most of us ride in a saddle of some kind, right? (Unless you're a teenager, extremely athletic, climb up on anything, and stick to a horse like glue.) But for most people, whether you ride English, Western, or one of those teensy little racing saddles, this piece of equipment gives the rider more security on the horse's back, as well as stirrups for comfort.

Here's the saddle I acquired (somewhat serendipitously) and rode for many hundreds of miles and hours and hours and hours. Yes, it's Western.


If it looks a bit broken-in, well, it is. It was a used saddle when I got it, and was thrown in on a deal with a little bay horse I bought years ago. I sold the horse not too long after that, but kept the saddle because it was so darn comfortable. And I kept it and kept it and kept it. I rode all kinds of horses in it, and logged many, many miles training for, and riding my palomino horse in the Tevis Cup 100 mile/one day endurance ride. The wide stirrups that it came with made it exceptionally comfortable for long days in the saddle.

I had a crupper ring stitched into the back of it, and I put on new saddle strings and latigos, but other than that it is exactly as I acquired it decades ago. I have no idea of the maker, either, but it is certainly a well-made saddle. It held up for me, and I will probably never part with it!

What is your favorite saddle to ride? (We know you have a favorite.) Tell us in the comments!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sefton's Story, or Why I Love Research

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photograph
by Milton C Toby

Writing often is a solitary chore, at least for me, especially with a deadline looming. Researching a book or magazine article, on the other hand, usually is an enjoyable exercise in fettering out minutia and finding links between seemingly unrelated  facts. But more about that later.

July 20 fell on a Tuesday in 1982.

That morning, as they did every morning at the same time, members of the Household Cavalry--Queen Elizabeth II's official bodyguards--were making their way from the regiment's barracks in Knightsbridge to the Horse Guards Parade. The horses and riders were en route to the popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. At 10:40 am, as the procession passed through Hyde Park, a massive nail bomb hidden in the trunk of a Morris Marina parked on a side street exploded.

Thirty pounds of nails were packed around 25 pounds of explosive and the damage wrought by the bomb was enormous. Four members of the Blues & Royals were killed by the blast, and a number of soldiers and civilians were injured. In addition to the human casualties, seven of the regiment's horses were killed.

Sefton, an Irish-bred draft cross which had served with the regiment for several years, suffered severe injuries, including a severed jugular vein and 34 other shrapnel wounds. Many of Sefton's wounds were life-threatening; after 90 minutes of emergency treatment and eight hours of surgery by a team of cavalry and civilian veterinarians the horse's chances of survival were estimated at 50-50. Major Noel Carding, Veterinary Officer of the Household Calvary, directed the emergency first aid for Sefton and the other injured horses. He was said to be the first British military veterinarian in more than a half-century to treat cavalry horses suffering with wartime injuries.

Sefton survived the bombing and eventually returned to duty with the regiment as a national hero. Donations in Sefton's name exceeded 600,000 pounds and were used to construct a surgical wing at the Royal Veterinary College. He was retired from military service in 1984 and spent the rest of his years at the Home of Rest for Horses. His rider, Michael Pedersen, also survived the bombing but ever after was plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder. He committed suicide in 2012 after killing his two children.

The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for the Hyde Park bombing, and for another bombing later in the day at Regent's Park that killed seven members of a military band from the Royal Green Jackets regiment. The attacks were low points in Irish-British relations during the "Troubles." Jonathan Irwin, a prominent Irish bloodstock agent and head of the Goffs Thoroughbred sales organization, was disgusted by the bombings.

"Common ground between Ireland
and England"
Copyright 2009 Milton C. Toby
"I thought it important that England should realize that many Irish people felt real horror at the incident," Irwin wrote in his autobiography, "Jack & Jill: The Story of Jonathan Irwin." He organized a fund-raising effort that raised 47,000 Irish pounds from private donors. The money was used to purchase six cavalry horses for the British military.

"Horses have always been a kind of common ground between Ireland and England," Irwin wrote, "and I thought this would be a quiet, but symbolic, way of joining hands across the sea."  

So what's the connection between Sefton and research?

I came across Sefton's story without actually looking for it. I was in Ireland a few weeks ago doing preliminary research for a book about Shergar, a Thoroughbred stallion that was stolen from an Irish stud farm owned by the Aga Khan in 1983. Conventional wisdom is that the horse was taken by the Irish Republican Army and held for ransom--he never was recovered and no ransom was paid--but I think the story is more complicated. I touched base with Jonathan Irwin in County Kildare, who I knew from my days at The Blood-Horse, which led me to his book, which led me to Sefton.

Looking for one story, I stumbled across another interesting one. And that's why I love research!

  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Show Barn Blues


Wow! I am really bad at editorial calendars! 

You're supposed to decide what you're going to write, write it, edit it, and release it, right? Simple. For normal people.

Here's what I decided to do instead.

Write a novel.

Shelve it.

Write another novel, using characters from the shelved novel.

Decide I still really liked the shelved novel.

Edit the shelved novel to publish first.

Plan on changing second novel to make room for changes based upon the shelved novel.

DOES THIS MAKE SENSE?

Of course it doesn't.

I'm a writer and I don't have to make sense.

I know, I know, excuses, excuses. But this way you get two novels out of it, so I'm not sure what grounds anyone has to complain...

So here's the deal.

I based Show Barn Blues on big boarding stables I've worked at.
I'm working on Pride, the sequel to Ambition, featuring characters and plot lines from Show Barn Blues, a stand-alone novel that I wrote last summer but didn't publish. The thing was (as I wrote at my blog back in May), there were events and sequences in Show Barn Blues that I simply couldn't replicate in Pride. The sub-plot of developing farm land into golf courses, and what drives a trainer to continue in the business long after the thrill has gone, were too big to wedge into Pride, which is really about giving up control. Those two things don't blend at all.

I wanted to release Pride first because so many people have asked for it, and I respect that, but Show Barn Blues really has so much to offer. Grace Carter, a middle-aged hunter/jumper trainer, has given her life to the show business, trying to escape a childhood nightmare that never would have happened if she had stayed in the arena as she'd been told. At the same time, she is preserving her grandfather's old farm, the scene of her happiest memories. She's caught in the middle, trying to save the land that she wants nothing to do with. As developers circle her farm, Grace is trying to somehow salvage her future while accepting her past. Meanwhile, a new trail-riding boarder, Kennedy, is determined to change things for Grace and her arena-bound students.

This is a sample of Grace's point of view:

***

The next day, Colleen cancelled her Sunday evening lesson to take Bailey on a trail ride with Kennedy. I was already furious when Missy Ormond showed up to ride in a pair of jeans, which was strongly discouraged — I liked my students to have a professional appearance at all times — and I nearly spit nails when, while wiping off her tack after her riding lesson, she suggested that we all have a group trail ride in a few weeks.

I had been mulling over a new cancellation fee for all riding lessons. “What’s that?” I snapped, but Missy was so excited, she didn’t notice my tone.

“With a barbecue,” she went on enthusiastically. “We could use that old fire-pit, and roast marshmallows. Or make s’mores.”

“What old fire-pit?” I knew exactly where my grandfather’s fire-pit had been dug and bricked, but nobody else knew about it. Rather, nobody else had known about it. Was Kennedy going to dig out all of my skeletons and parade them around in front of me? I put things deep into closets for a reason.

Missy didn’t notice my sudden tension. She hopped down from Donner and ran up her stirrups. “It’s out by the lake,” she explained. “We could all ride to the lake and maybe the grooms or anyone who doesn’t want to ride can take out supplies and wait for us with the Gator. It’s an easy ride. It’s practically a road. Did you know there’s a road out there?”

“It’s an old Indian trail,” I muttered, and everyone in the tack room started clamoring to see it, unable to believe I had denied them the opportunity to ride on a real live Indian trail. “That lake has gators in it,” I added. “And moccasins.”

“So does all the water in Florida,” Missy said, cocky after a good ride. She’d gotten Donner around a three foot nine course without any dirty stops at all — Donner was known for dropping his shoulder when he did not feel that his rider was paying sufficient attention, sending said rider tumbling into the fence while he went the other way. “I might not have lived here my whole life, but I know that. Have you been to Gatorland Zoo? I held a baby gator there. It had its mouth taped shut.”

I had, but when I was ten or eleven, not when I was forty-four years old and the mother of three. “The gators out at the pond will not have their jaws taped shut,” I reminded her. “And horses don’t like them.”


“Oh, they’ll swim away when we come,” Missy laughed. “Kennedy says they’re afraid of horses.” She turned and led Donner back to the barn, his hooves ringing on the concrete pathway, the one we’d constructed over a perfectly good pathway of sand so that the boarders could keep their boots clean. I’d gone to insane lengths to provide affluent equestrians with a picture-perfect equine utopia, and now they all wanted to do was mess around in the woods and look at alligators. One had to wonder what the point of anything was.

***

This story is uniquely Floridian, and uniquely equestrian (as I hope that all of my stories have been). Whether you've devoted your life to horses or you've been an enthusiast, you'll recognize Grace, Kennedy, and the cast of boarders and students who make up the show barn at Seabreeze Stables. And if you've ever seen a "coming soon" sign go up in front of beloved woodlands, you'll be ready to fight alongside Grace to save the farm and everything that it stands for.

And I promise you, once I've finished Show Barn Blues and you're all distracted reading about Grace and friends, I'll finish Pride. Grace meets Jules. Oh, the fireworks.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Writing to Entertain and Educate

I love horse books. They entertain me because they cover one of my favourite topics; they also often have an educational element. You can never stop learning about horses and I enjoy a story in which I learn and am entertained.






I think this is particularly important for young readers who plan to have horses and for mature readers who know riding and horse care and don't want to read incorrect information in a story - it really detracts from enjoying the story.




I aim to educate in all of my novels and am excited that A Dollar Goes a Long Way, book 5 in my Free Rein series has just been released with the view to educate and entertain!


What book have you really enjoyed and learned from?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The farm at the end of the road



by Kate Lattey

Back in 2004, I filled out an application form for a summer camp programme in the USA. A few days after posting it off, I got a phone call that changed my life forever.

The call was from a Mr Thomas Woodman, of Road’s End Farm Horsemanship Camp in New Hampshire. I spoke with Tom for over an hour (which by his standards, is a short conversation!) and then at his insistence, went onto the camp’s website to have a look for myself and be certain that I wanted to join their staff. Based on my chat with Tom, I was already 99% sure that I was in, and by the end of the next few minutes, I was completely certain.

The herd in full flight (and Hendrix going the wrong way...)


I flew to America and spent three incredible months at the camp, riding some wonderful horses and meeting some amazing people, both young and old. I travelled a bit around the country afterwards with new friends, then flew back to New Zealand, feeling richer for having had the experience.

In 2007, I went back. And in 2008. And in 2009, and 2010. I filled the months in-between with other jobs, working at a livery yard in Epsom, UK between the summers of ’07 and ’08, and at a castle in Ireland between ’09 and ’10. (I returned home between ’08 and ’09 to work as a landscape gardener…not quite as exciting as the other jobs!)

Lately I’ve been posting a few pics on Instagram of some of the farm’s horses. Every horse there has a story to tell, and a lesson to teach us, whether it’s not judging by names or appearances, overcoming past prejudice or conformational defects, finding the right rider to click with a difficult pony, how it feels when you find your one in a million horse, or the importance of having a friend and being protected from bullies. You can follow my Instagram account at http://www.instagram.com/kate_lattey to see these posts, and I also post them on my Facebook page. 

The impossibly beautiful Road's End Oliver Twist

But it’s not just the horses that make Road’s End Farm special. It’s the people. The staff who work there, the campers who come there, and the incredible man who runs it all, although he’d say he doesn’t do anything other than paperwork, and that it’s the staff and children who make the camp what it is. He is, of course, just being modest. His words of wisdom guide us all, not only through camp but on through life.

At the end of each summer, we produced special staff sweatshirts with one of Tom’s favourite maxims printed on the back, carefully selected by committee each year. In 2004 it was We use our heads to save our backs. In 2007, Wake up and die right. In 2008, Live simply so others can simply live. In 2009, You are defined by your choices, not by your circumstances. And in 2010, Any job that’s worth doing is worth doing well.

Wake up and die right (Staff 2007)

These maxims each express one of the lessons we learned at the farm. Using your head before you start, to save your back from extra labour. Waking up now and living your best possible life, so you can die knowing you’ve lived each day to the fullest. Living simply and being grateful for what you have, and understanding that others around the world aren’t so lucky. Understanding that where you come from is part of who you are, but not letting it hold you back from being all that you can be. Doing every job as well as you can, because as Tom also often said, Don’t do a half-tail job.

For the last three summers I was at the farm, I slept in the dorm with the senior girls, on the edge of their transition from child to adult. About to graduate from high school, looking at colleges to go to, trying to work out where their futures would take them. I look at those girls now and I am amazed. I have campers working with the rescue efforts in Nepal, biking across Europe to raise money for charity, sitting outside supermarkets in the freezing cold during winter collecting donations for foodbanks, writing and performing plays about serious social issues, working with underprivileged and immigrant youth in America to get them into some of the country’s top colleges. Studying at Yale, and NASA, and MIT. Living and working in New York City, getting married, travelling around the world, coming to visit me. So much of what they do is incredible to me and I am so immensely proud of each and every one of them.

 
The wisdom left by a young camper in one of our old dorms

By the time you read this, I will be back at Road’s End Farm for a week-long visit. It won’t be long enough, but then, it never is. But any time spent there is time well spent. As one of my fellow counsellors once put it, “I like who I am when I’m here.”

We are as free to express ourselves there as their horses are. Free to be you, free to be me. Free to live life however you wish to live it, as long as you’re doing it to the fullest.

I love my camp. I can’t stay away. I like who I am when I’m there, and I like who I am now, because I have been there.

When I sent in that camp application eleven years ago, I could’ve ended up anywhere. I am so thankful that for whatever reason, my application caught Tom’s eye, and that he pulled it off the stack, picked up the phone, and made the call that changed my life. 

Bittersweet, my one in a million,
who the camp allowed me to treat as if she were my own

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Horse Called Pharoah

Welcome to my constant mental state.
When American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, a friend of mine tweeted that she was rereading Thoroughbred book number 21, Wonder’s Champion, because it was the only book she had where a horse wins the Triple Crown. I immediately fired off a reply: I need to hear all of your new thoughts on this. Please, now, thank you. 

Like many people, I watched the Belmont Stakes through a screen. Mine happened to be on my phone. I was a houseguest among future family members, all of them patient and polite through my attempt to explain the intricacies of the Triple Crown as the minutes ticked down to post time. We sat drinking Arabic coffee, joking that this was very Bedouin of us, as Belmont Park stretched across my iPhone.

Shoehorning a Triple Crown into a family get together is nothing new for me. I started doing it with regularity after my mother put Joanna Campbell’s A Horse Called Wonder in my ten-year-old hands, not knowing that this event would so deeply change my life. I collected the Thoroughbred series religiously, reading about the trials and tribulations of Ashleigh Griffen and Wonder from sickly foal, doomed yearling, fraught two-year-old training, inexplicable/glorious Kentucky Derby win, to the final team up of girl and filly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and beyond. Thoroughbred was a girl power story, but it was also a racing story and I was hooked. Forget about the Saddle Club, I had Triple Crowns to win! Even when I thought I’d outgrown the series, I hadn’t, struck by the sheer appeal of horses going fast, faster, fastest.

The collection of books grew, even when the mystical allure of horse racing fell away the more I understood about the sport, leaving me with the reality that racing can be hard to watch. In my world of Thoroughbred, tragedy was very black and white. The antagonists caused break downs, the protagonists fixed them. It has taken me years to come to terms with horse racing as non-Thoroughbred, and I’ve come to accept two fundamental truths: humans are fallible, and horses are delicate, accident-prone on the best of days. For all the careful, meticulous horse people involved in racing, who love their charges without question and shower upon them the utmost care, there is that one impatient person that makes the bad decision that ends with consequences for the whole nation to see. There is also the uncomfortable truth that in every horse industry under the sun, the best, most careful of plans can end in heartbreak.

American Pharoah runs into the Belmont Park homestretch.
Loving racing is walking a fine line. The morning after the Triple Crown, I woke up to images of the media surrounding American Pharoah, carefully petting the colt and bestowing kisses on his nose as he watched in perplexed curiosity. And I thought, “This is it.” This is the perfect time for American horse racing to seize the day and reform. Because I love horse racing, but I have to push it to be better at the same time.

My Thoroughbred collection is still together, sitting on a shelf if gathering dust. I still love it, and I gain inspiration from my memories of it as I work on my own racing-themed young adult novels. Stay the Distance, which takes place on the New York racing circuit, was released this spring. My next, Finding Daylight, is all Ocala horse country. I’ll always keep my children’s stories, because I’m sentimental like that, just like all the fans who roared and wept when American Pharoah ran past the wire first on a sunny Saturday in New York. 

Mara Dabrishus is an author and librarian at a small college in Northeast Ohio. Horse racing is her first great love, but for the past several years she's ridden dressage, learning how to spiral in, half halt, and perform the perfect figure eight. Her first novel, Stay the Distance, was released in March 2015. For more information, please visit www.maradabrishus.com

Photo Credits: Image of American Pharoah was happily provided by its owner, Ronnie Betor.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Windy Days


by Diana Kimpton
 
Have you noticed how a windy day always puts horses on their toes? That's because, in the wild, the wind blows away the scent and sounds of approaching predators so extra alertness can stop a horse ending up as dinner. Our domesticated horses don't have to worry about being attacked but they still find the world a scarier place when the wind whistles round the telephone wires and sends plastic bags whirling across the road.

A few years ago, I learned that horses are right to be worried about wind. It was blowing hard one day when I was due to have a group lesson at a riding school. I looked at the weather anxiously, but the instructor was sure everything would be fine so the lesson went ahead. At first, everything went well. Although the horses were all more skittish than usual, this was an advanced class so their riders could easily cope with their bouncy behaviour.

There were no problems until we were taking it in turns to work on extended trot while the rest of the calls waited in line round the edge of the arena. Suddenly a loud crack rang out and all the horses raised their heads in alarm, their muscles tense and ready for danger.  

That crack was the sound of a tree breaking in half and it was followed almost immediately by the crash of it falling to the ground. Instantly, every horse in the lesson bolted. None of us riders could stop them - the combination of herd instinct and fear was stronger than any restraining hand and all the horses cared about was getting away from the source of their terror.  

It was one of the most frightening experiences I've ever had while riding. As my horse pounded across the arena, completely out of control, I feared he would try to jump the fence at the  other end. But he didn't. Once he was a safe distance from the fallen tree and the sound had stopped, he calmed down enough for me to stop him, as did all the other horses in the lesson.  

That's when we realised our riding instructor had been knocked over during the panic. She'd been standing in the middle of the arena when the tree fell and had jumped out of the way of one bolting horse, only to collide with another. Fortunately her injuries weren't too serious but it was an object lesson in the need to be careful around horses on windy days. You can never tell what's going to happen.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Picking a Winner

Everyone loves a winner. Fresh on the heels of American Pharoah's win at the Belmont Stakes and capture of the Triple Crown--an honor which has eluded horses for over three decades--that love is stronger than ever.  American Pharoah's name will be captured in the record books, his story will live on, and his image will be instantly recognizable. But amidst the hoopla over what is undoubtedly a great sports history story, I still wonder about the horses whose stories will fade into the mists of history. I wonder about horses like Frosted or Sham, who might have been the winning favorites if they had just not been born in the same year as a super horse. I also wonder about the ones which almost made it--Big Brown, Funny Cide, and Silver Charm-- the ones which carried the hopes and dreams of a fickle public, only to lose in the last leg, their names generally forgotten,  and have faded into the hazy public memory by all except true racing fans. But they all had their stories to tell, winners, near winners, and ones who trailed the pack. Stories about the horses, the trainers, the owners, the grooms and everyone who helped give them a shot at the Triple Crown all have their tale to tell. But these are not the stories the public wants to hear--or what the media thinks the public wants to hear--if they are not the winners.

I can't help but equate this same message to the stories told in books. According to a recent post by fantasy author Ursula K LeGuin in The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/03/ursula-k-le-guin-amazon-bs-machine?CMP=share_btn_tw
she accuses Amazon's marketing approach of sell it fast, cheap, and move on of having changed the landscape of both readers and publishers. Books are offered and promoted only if they are a safe bet commercially, then those books are heavily marketed until their sales wane, and it's on to the next one. Readers are left with fewer choices. This also leaves little hope for the books with slow but steady appeal (and sales) or for ones that don't conform to the model of commercial success.  I'm not sure how the Indy author can or will affect this trend, but I would hate to think that good stories don't ever get a spot in the starting gate just because they don't have the look and feel of a commercial break out novel. Like the horses which aren't the fastest, they all still have a story to tell.

Photo credit: "The horse, the legend" at www.photopin.com; Creative commons licenses.


photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/74031909@N00/1120222622">The horse, The legend</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Benefits of Thinking Like a Horse

by Lisa Wysocky

Predator/prey differences aside, there are many differences between horses and humans. Horses hear higher and lower sound frequencies than humans do, and they can hear sounds that generate up to half a mile away. People, however, can better isolate where those sounds are coming from.

Humans have eight to ten thousand taste buds, while horses have up to twenty-five thousand, to better differentiate safe plants from those that are toxic. A horse can smell his owner up to three hundred feet away, and if the temperature and wind are right, from much farther away than that. Other than food, humans are lucky to smell something that is thirty feet away.

As humans, we try to impose our human experiences onto horses, and that is an impossible task. From the way horses process thought, to how they see, even to how they process touch, theirs is a world apart from the human experience. We then, have to become more horse-like. We have to step up to try to understand the horse’s experience from his or her viewpoint. Horse spook at a plastic bag one hundred yards away? It helps to know that horses cannot judge distance as well as people can. When we start thinking like a horse, our reactions––such as praise, reassurance, or discipline––to their behavior then becomes more appropriate. 


 I find it is the same when I am writing. When I write, I try to think like my readers. How will an average reader interpret a scene, or a character’s line? Will my description of a round pen, for example, make sense to a person who does not know about horses, yet not be too elementary for those who do? As a reader, I would much rather have the comfort of a concise, accurate, and thorough description of an object or a process, than have the “Huh?” experience. So, that's what I try to write.

I have been very fortunate to have my nonfiction books about horses and horse training diligently edited by people who are seasoned horse people, because people who are serious about their equine friends are the ones who will be interested in those books. On the other hand, I am equally as fortunate to have a woman who knows little to nothing about horses edit my Cat Enright mystery series. Even though I try to think like my readers when I write, I sometimes forget that not everyone knows what a fetlock is, or why a character might pull up on a saddle pad so it does not lay down hard and flat across a horse’s withers.

As readers and writers, and as people in general, it probably is a good idea to consider the end user. Whether it is a conversation with a teenager, a report sent in to a supervisor, or a trail ride with your favorite horse, considering their experiences, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, will always make your life experience easier, and more fulfilling.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Footfalls

The cadence of my mare's footfalls soothes me as she trots through the snow, chopping it up with the delicate pounding of her hooves. Two years ago, every stride of hers was a tip toe as if she was in permanent stealth mode. Body abused, mind shaken and weary she slipped through the world, sticking to the shadows that were as black as her coat. Every stride held a hesitation - would this be the moment she was beaten (for surely everyone was aggressive) or would it be the next? She sucked in her breath and held it, tip toeing through the barn, into her stall and into our lives.
Repetition told her that people were brutal. Now, after two years, repetition tells her that she is safe with me. When we ride, I gently navigate, charting our course and she gladly trots along, carefully taking us the safest way. Her confidence builds a castle upon that safety - she wears a surcingle and crupper, side reins flap against her shoulders and although her nerves want to leap away, her mind says she is safe, I am near. Now her footfalls hit a rhythm not unlike pistons in a well oiled motor, or the marching of soldiers in a parade. Her steps are serious and solemn, mindful that her job is important and it is important to her to do it well. But there is a confidence brewing in her, the footfalls are heavier, more specific, wanting to be heard, tapping out a beat that settles my nerves and reassures me that she is content and peaceful, happy to do her job. On this night, she watches me as she trots by, paying no mind to the delicate snowflakes as they touch down on her midnight fur, looking like stars in a far away sky. She carries herself like an equine Audrey Hepburn - long necked, curvy proportions, and delicate features crowned with large, liquid black eyes. She struts with certainty instead of cockiness, each hoof placed specifically  in "the correct spot" because everything has an order for her. When asked to move on from a walk, she tucks her nose a little closer to her chest and raises her head. She steals a glance at me just long enough to convey what she wants to say which is, "I know what you're asking but no thank you. I prefer to walk." She is a please and thank you mare, although her 'pleases' at treat or dinner time turn into more of a "Please!" in her husky mare nicker. Her 14.1 hand frame does not show the wear and tear that five babies have no doubt wrought on it. Her coat glistens and her eyes are bright, making her look much younger than the 15 years that her registration papers recall.
That drumbeat. That unfailing cadence. It has become a signature of hers. We dubbed her the wind-up toy as she'll go and go and go at the same comfortable pace forever. Limbs limber, she goes along as if she were made to trot everywhere and not walk or canter. Ever. Something about that pace - is it the new found confidence that sneaks into each step like an ice cube dissolving in a summer drink? Or is it the dependability of that stride that mesmerized me, settles my nerves until I am a cadence zombie, hearing only her rhythm, riding only to that beat. The ground shivers a little when she trots by, it echoes up through my toes and ankles, up through my knees and into my spine. It alters the pounding of my heart and soon we are just rhythm. That relentless pattern is amplified through us and others begin to hear it. They don't have this pattern, this solidarity - it is terrifying to them. We are not powerful, we don't display cockiness - instead we radiate pure love. We are vulnerable and a little shy but we can not breathe, we can not ride with anything less that pure love in our hearts. And that, is the scariest, most beautiful thing of all.

*Author's note: I originally wrote this eight years ago about my Morgan mare, NLF Tia. This week she'll celebrate her 22nd birthday and although her forelock has a shock of white in it and her face is peppered with gray, she is still my wind-up toy, always pushing for more trot. And everyday she reminds me of the importance of being polite, brave and vulnerable.
Photo taken by Bryan Nigro Photography