Thursday, December 29, 2011

War Horse...the movie review

famous image by Fortunino Matania (1881-1963) owned by the Blue illustrates the extraordinary bond that existed between soldiers and their horses.

Below is an accompanying poem by poet Henry Chappell (1874-1937) called A Soldier's Kiss:

When the movie was husband and I were the last to leave our seats.  The movie credits rolled for almost 5 minutes naming the hundreds of people who came together in the project of bringing to the screen the tale of War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982. 
The play by the same name won a prestigious Tony award.  I have not seen the play as yet, but know it must be an equally powerful statement of the bond between horses and mankind.  

I did read the book beforehand, and did not know how they would be able to tell the tale (as is told by the horse Joey in the book).  Well...they didn't; but the horses were amazingly expressive in showing in their eyes the feelings of trust and obedience that horses can show and give to those who earn that trust.  

What noble creatures horses are, and have been throughout history.  It is about time that people were touched by art depicting what these animals have done so willingly for us.  Steven Spielberg has made a wonderful movie that gave us an emotional ride through the horrific battlefields where so many fought and died, horses and man alike.  

There is a dramatic scene where Joey escapes into "no man's land" ...that hellish place between the two lines of battle.  The fighting stops because both sides can't believe there is a horse running loose in such a terrible place.  I won't spoil it for you, but right the crux of the war thing...where it all boils down to what horses do for the soul of mankind.    

The movie was beautifully filmed and the attention to detail was greatly appreciated.  There was no need for blood and guts to be graphically shown.  There were no animals harmed in the filming, and a few seconds of animation were used in Joey's run through barbed wire.  

There is a happy ending because after all, this is a children's book Mr. Morpurgo wrote.  I just wish that the "war to end all wars" was true.  We seem to forget the terrible cost to everyone and are quick to fight, rather than find other ways to come to common ground with our fellow man.  

I found the movie's sound effects the most horrifying.  I caught sight of my self in a mirror on leaving the movie house and the whole experience was written on my face.  Everyone around us felt the same, men and women alike.  When we got up to leave, there was a man, about the same age as my husband who had waited just to meet eye to eye with my husband and say what a great movie that was.  My husband agreed and choked back sobs for the common emotion that he and the stranger felt.  
Mr. Spielberg was able to create art from all those people and animals in the project and bring together a great visual and emotional experience from Mr. Morpurgo's great homage to the war horses.  Go see it if only for the sake of the noble creature...the horse.

 The Blue Cross organization of the UK has been helping animals since 1897 and cared for sick and injured horses during World War One. They have kindly opened up their historic archives to the public online where you can explore images, memorabilia and stories from the front line…

read about my grandfather's war horse

Blog update: January 24, 2010

War Horse at the Oscars:

Great year for movies....The Artist leads the field of 9 for Best Picture with 11 nominations in the different categories.

War Horse has 6 nominations for:

Best Picture

Art Direction


Music-Original Score

Sound Editing

Sound Mixing

I doubt it will win Best Picture, but am happy a young generation knows of the role horses has played in human history.  I have read comments from some that had no idea, or gave no thought of how horses have served us. 

Joey, authentically tacked, and handler, authentically dressed on the red carpet at premier of War Horse in from the Toronto Gazette

Saturday, December 17, 2011

God Bless us...everyone

My all time favorite Christmas movie is the 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol .
I faithfully watch it every year because for me, it embodies much of human goodness and redemption of spirit.  At this time of the rolling year...I like to reflect on the best of family, and strive for kindness and good will.  I am not religious, but do feel the spirit of being kind and good to my fellow man, woman, child, and all living creatures.  I wish it for all.

In just a few days, Christmas day movie goers will be able to see War Horse.  It is not a Christmas story, but rather a children's story of an extraordinary bond between boy and horse, told through the horse's point of view.  It is set on the stage of World War 1's battlefield.  I'll wait a few days to see it, but I look forward to the tale and will write about it.  I have already told, from my own family story, about my my grandfather's horse that went to WW1.

Riders Aside in their traditional riding habits
In my previous post, I told about training my horse to wear a strap of bells on our annual Christmas drive that was held two weeks ago.  It was a large turnout of horses and drivers and even included a group of side saddle enthusiasts who came dressed in carefully recreated riding habits to keep that tradition alive. I sure would like to try that someday as Romeo is saddle horse bred and would be well suited as a mount for this discipline.  As it was, Romeo did a fine job bucking headwinds of steady 30-40 miles per hour.

String of brass cast bells on an antique lap robe which we were glad to have for warmth
I brought the bells for him to wear but my husband and  passenger outvoted me in having him wear them due to the adverse conditions in which we were going to drive.  As "captain of my ship", I bowed to their apprehension, wanting to make them feel good and not anxious about our drive.  Romeo would have been just fine; and, in looking at the performance of all the horses and ponies that did venture out in the high winds, they all did a magnificent job with no foolishness...just work.

Me on the box seat with my passenger niece Pam...Romeo in his warm fur coat

I talked with Tom Simmons, my horse trainer, afterwards and he confirmed that under adverse conditions, horses are amazing in buckling down and giving what is asked of them.  No fuss...even the 3 year old green driving pony brought by one of our best drivers in the west, happily did his job in his first time out in public.

Romeo's tail being blown horizontally by the steady olive orchard to the left

It makes me again think of war horses, and all the horses through our history that have served mankind.  We have a lot to admire in these fine creatures.  We owe them much respect and kindness.

 So once again...give gentle thought to all creatures this Christmas...and everyday.  As Tiny Tim said:  God bless us...everyone

Friday, December 2, 2011

'Tis the season for bells

Lance wearing the bells in North Carolina

My niece knocked herself out to make a memorable Thanksgiving for our small family; and so in return, I was thinking I'd take her along on our driving club's Christmas drive at our favorite vineyard (it is now an olive orchard) to drive the perimeter ranch roads and enjoy company of others at the high tea that will be served afterwards in the barn.

She asked if we would have bells on the horse and I said: "hummmmm, maybe"...Romeo has never driven with the strap of bells attached.  So, to see if this was possible, I wore the 15 lb. strap of bells around my body as I walked to the barn to feed yesterday morning.  There they were all lined up like curious kids at the closest point of the arena to our house, waiting to see what the noise was all about.  So cute with their ears perked up.  I thought I'd see some horse antics as I drew nearer, but no...they were more interested in the upcoming hay.  I went about my preparations and before entering the paddock with the hay wagon, I grabbed my whip (as usual) to keep them from crowding me.  I really don't have to do anything but remind them by pointing at them if they get in the "no crowd zone".  The three of them at the barn made no recognition of the bells while I continued my chores making passes by the munching horses to pick manure and top off the water tank. 

 Off for another walk to the outside pasture where another three live and the scene was very different.  The spotted herd is composed of a Saddlebred mare, her DHH cross daughter, and an aged pony gelding.  It had rained the day before so the hillside was a bit muddy keeping their antics more subdued.  I went about my usual routine (dang those bells are heavy!) and surely didn't need the whip to keep them from getting too close to me while I dispensed the feed into piles.  I picked their manure in their run-in shed and topped their tank and decided to just go and stand to see if anyone would come investigate my noisy body.  The young DHH cross mare was the first to come and nose the bells.  She is a pocket horse anyways, and after rubbing her a bit and jingling a bit, she ignored the bells and went back to her feed pile.  Her mother was next, but the pony never did want to come see...that's ok...his only job in life is to look out after the girls and run any stray dogs out of the pasture.  

I went back around lunch time to drive Romeo (still wearing those danged bells). I led him out of the paddock, tied him in the sun, brushed a path for the harness and tacked him.  I  brought the carriage to him and hooked as usual.  We make a point of standing for a while with me futzing around making sure all is copasetic.

I had buckled the bells around the back rest with the bulk of them in the boot so I could control the amount of jingle.  Off we went as usual in the arena and when I could see that Romeo wasn't affected in anyway with the noise...I asked for a trot.  No surprise at the increased level of noise (with me giving the strap a good shake).  Good!  Tomorrow, I'll tie the bells onto his surcingle and put him on a lounge line for a trot in the round pen a bit before I drive.  He'll get the full force of the noise as he'll hear it in harness.  If all goes well, the next day, I'll hook him with the bells in their usual place just behind the saddle and run over the shafts and buckled underneath the horse near the girth.  I use a shoe lace to attach to the girth (also to the water hook on the saddle top) so the bell strap does not work it's way back to the flank or a hind foot does not get involved accidentally.  More later...
Romeo (goofus maximus) wearing my scarf

Romeo did fine, by the way, in today's wearing of the bell strap (tied to his surcingle) and on a lounge line in the big round pen. I hand walked him on some of the ranch trails prior to the round pen. I used a lounge line with a chain that went through the side ring on the halter, under the chin, out through the other side ring and then snapped to the start link of the chain. I did this in case he surprised at the full force of the sound of the bells (the biggest of the bells are humongous), I could have enough reminder of "listen to me" and not have him get out of hand.

He was fine with walking, stopping, slow trot, fast trot, stopping, in
both directions. Boy...were those bells making a ruckus in the fast trot! The only reaction I got was in asking for a canter from the fast trot, he did his accordion move and compressed fully, hopping into a canter for a few strides before settling into his trot again. I call Romeo my rubber band man because I have never seen a horse able to expand and compress as much as he can....rubber band man. 

So we are good to go full dress rehearsal tomorrow in the carriage.  Dress rehersal over and successful, it is time to clean harness and shine brass.  Where are my servants?  Sigh...guess I have to do it myself....again.  

Today, my hands show the effects of all the shining of the brass.  We'll look good though even if I am stove up.  I put a shoe lace on the end of my lines so that I can keep a loop on my wrist in case I drop my lines which I am prone to do nowadays...getting old causes one to make adaptations!

Haflinger drivers heading out for last year's tea drive
The good thing about driving is that one can continue to enjoy their horses, with passengers also, well into old age as long as the desire is there.  Don't get the idea driving is a boring sport though... One weekend in 2003 at Fair Hill International in Maryland, the eventers gathered there for their CCI Pan American Games, the drivers were there for an international CDE, endurance competitors were there for a 100 mile international competition, dogs were there for national agility trials, and there was  a massive trade fair and carnival.   The drivers were walking their hazards prior to marathon and the eventers were doing their course walk with coach Mark Phillips...they shouted at us that we were crazy, and we laughingly shouted back that they were crazy...I think we are all crazy.  

Hopefully next post will have adventure report and photos of my shiny brass... 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mule power in hardrock gold mining

My spotted herd overlooking the Mother Lode
I live on top of the Motherlode.  I expect to die either from a big tree falling or the ground opening up underneath me and swallowing me up in an abandoned gold mine shaft.  That happened in our area just a few years ago.  A man heard a noise in the kitchen and when he investigated, fell to his death into a collapsed mine shaft running under his home.  And here I thought the climactic scene in the movie musical  Paint Your Wagon was a stretch of the imagination.

Mules were a major part of the hard rock mining industry that made my current home infamous during the gold rush that began in 1850 and still continues today in some form or another.

 I am not a fan of mining and don't support such a dirty, environmentally destructive way of life.  Today, the mine is a state park where people can come, picnic, trail ride with horses, tour the beautiful grounds of the one time rich owners and have a great place for weddings and photo opportunities.  There are two tours given that show with great contrast the different life of the workers in the mine yard, and that of the wealthy mine owners who vacationed and played there.  It was not as beautiful then, as it is today because all the trees have grown back from harvesting timber to shore up the 367 miles of underground tunnels.  The pounding of the stamp mill that crushed rock 24/7, 363 days a year, that was heard miles now silent.  Exposure to the toxins used to extract gold from the rock, such as mercury and cyanide surely took their health toll and continue to do so today.  State taxpayers are still paying for toxic water cleanup.   Gold fever persists...but not in my veins.

  The Empire mine is the oldest, biggest, and richest of the hard rock gold mines.  In it's 106 year history,  5.8 million ounces of gold was extracted from Quartz rock.  In 1957 the price of gold was $35. an ounce and it cost $45. an ounce to get it the mine became unprofitable and closed.  If one were to envision the size of the total gold extracted, it would be represented in a 7' cube.  It is estimated that only 20% of the gold has been taken, so you see...I really do sit on a motherlode.  I like gold where it solid rock.

I found some wonderful drawings done by my friend Tori Thompson done for The Union
and published on Oct. 7th, 1982 in a section devoted to the history of two of the most forgotten aspects of the mines...the mules who toiled in the mines without ever seeing the light of day, and the miners themselves, many from Cornwall, England who brought their specialized expertise and culture.

The photos came from the Nevada County Historical Society, drawings came from Tori Thompson, and text was written by Evelyn M. Johnson...I made some notes in red from other research sources.

MULES IN THE MINES by Evelyn M. Johnson

As if mining wasn't hazardous enough, miners had to contend with huge beasts of burden that loved to make life challenging for the uneasy.  As many as 44 mules were said to have inhabited the depths of the Empire-Star mines in Grass Valley, and even more were employed above ground and at other mines (though their wage scale isn't recorded).  It was common practice to train those strong, intelligent animals to haul valuable gold ore.

Mules, surprisingly enough, had a good life underground for the most part.  They often outlived many of their counterparts which lived up in the sunshine.  Many a mine mule lived to a ripe old age of 35, thriving on the constant care and relative calm routine the mines provided.  After a mule entered the mine at approximately two years of age, it seldom if ever again saw the light of day.  All feed and any needed veterinary care was taken down to the mules.  The accumulation of mule manure was hauled out of the mine.  ( Air quality was a big issue.  Rotting timbers and mule manure were hauled to surface regularly to minimize explosive methane gas ).
The function of a mine mule, though admittedly not easy, was not as difficult as it might seem for a strong animal.  Mine drifts ( the horizontal passages extending out from the main vertical or incline shafts ) were surveyed and drilled on a slightly upward incline in order that water might drain back down to the main shaft area and be collected. (The Cornish miners brought technology to pump water continually out of the mines).  Mules pulled a "train" of six to eight empty ore cars up the slight grade to the work area.  When the one ton capacity cars were filled with quartz that the muckers had shoveled,  the mule was maneuvered around to the other end of the ore car "train" and then headed the load back to the shaft, usually at a brisk trot, with brakes applied in precarious places!  When the unloading chutes were reached, the cars were tipped sideways to unload their precious cargo.  Mine tailings or waste rock was similarly removed from mine drifts and stopes.  

The care, training and handling of mules was the responsibility of "mule skinners".  It was a specialized job for men who not only could cope with working underground, but possessed the confidence, understanding and respect needed to work successfully with mules.  Not all miners cared to be mule skinners! ( Miners wages were $3 dollars a day and muleskinners made $6 dollars around 1900...wages for miners in 1956 was $10-11 dollars a day ).   In mines as large as the Empire and North Star, several mule skinners, simultaneously performed the same tasks with their separate mules on the various levels of the mine where large amounts of ore deposits were being extracted.   There were reportedly only one or two mules per level.  Mules had to be groomed and checked regularly for harness sores.  Their hooves were subject to fungus growths because of the constant dampness.  Some drifts were much wetter than others.  An old photograph of Fannie the mule shows a hernia she acquired from attempting to pull too many cars for her size.  Mules were said to have counted the number of ore cars clicked into place behind them and refused to budge if the count was too high!  Many mules had a fondness for chewing tobacco and would be uncooperative unless provided their regular allotment of that delicacy.  A mule was a valuable asset to the mine operation.  Abuse of a mule would cost you your job.  Miners were much easier to come by than good mules.

A major cause for concern in the maintenance of these work animals was their eyesight.  In the dim light, or continued absence of light, a mule's eye muscles could become so weak as to render the mule blind and therefore useless to the mine operation.  The mule stalls were located close to the main shaft at the various levels, and because of the mule's need for light, were the first locations to be illuminated when the mine was first electrified back in 1891. Out in the drifts, the miners' lights had to suffice.  It is also reported that some mules wore their own carbide lights on their bridles.  Some mules became so accustomed to their routines that they could have functioned blind.  In fact, routine became so automatic for some mules, they reportedly got a kick out of switching tracks themselves, saving the muleskinners this standard procedure.  Those were probably the same mules that were serenaded by more or less musical mule skinners as they rode the front car down the drift to the unloading chutes.  Frank Knuckey has received acclaim for his rendition of the traditional mule skinner's song. 

(Sung to the old tune "My Sweetheart's A Man In The Moon"), Frank sang:

My Sweetheart's a mule in the mine...
I drive her without any line;

On the front car I sit, and tobacco I spit...
All over my sweetheart's behind!

Mules were kept underground their entire lives if they remained in good health, only being removed from their places of work in unusual circumstances.  One instance, recalled by Cecil Hooper, old time resident of the mine grounds with his family, was the occasion of a strike by miners around the year 1907.  The miners wanted an 8 hour day instead of the usual 10 hour shift and the strike was not going to be quickly resolved.  Cecil remembers as many as twenty mules, all with blinders on to shield them from the sunlight, milling about the surface grounds while being transferred to above ground corrals for the duration, assumably affording their eye muscles a chance to re-strengthen.

Placard at the Empire Mine

Transporting a mule underground was a memorable event for all concerned.  It wasn't until the 1930's that a mule was tranquilized for ease in transport.  Prior to that time, mules were immobilized by tying their feet and securing their bodies with canvas strapping, much like a sling.  The mode of transport varied according to the incline of the shaft the mule was to descend ( or ascend ).  If it wasn't very steep, a mule could simply be walked down.  Mules were often lowered down the vertical shaft a the Central North Star mine on a cable. The mule was totally encased in canvas with only its nose exposed for breathing.  At the Empire, with its 39 degree incline, mules were lifted onto a specially designed wide car, or sometimes an ordinary man car, tied down securely, and lowered to the level where a new mule was needed.  Mules were usually blindfolded for the episode because it calmed them.  It was always necessary to blindfold mules when they were removed from the mine, so their eyes could be allowed to gradually readjust to the bright light of day.

Mules are intelligent and have their own distinct personalities.  Most mules, Like Fannie, Jasper, Duke and Queen, chewed tobacco and drooled a lot.  They also were pampered with treats such as carrots and apples, usually from miners who hoped to be remembered favorably by that mule when next they met, instead of being kicked or bitten!  Queen had a dandy little routine, as recalled by Carl Carter who was rather uneasy around large animals anyway.  Queen's enormous bulk took up the majority of the mine passageway's five foot width.  She took obvious pleasure in leaning against the wall of the passerby's side, pinning him against the wall.  If the miner thought he'd outsmart Queen and shift neatly to the other side, Queen also deftly shifted her weight and leaned against the other side wall.  It usually took a bite of apple to pass by and even then, a swift kick might be the only thanks offered.

Mules performed efficiently underground from the 1880's when mines reached depths which necessitated more than man power.  They were gradually replaced by machinery.  Some mules retired to above ground duty.  Some remained until the Empire-Star Mines closed in 1956.  Florence Mann Keegan remembers watching as the last few old work mules were brought out of the Empire shaft when the vast complex shut down its operations.  ( They sold for $15. dollars a mule ).

Many a miner now recalls events which occurred as a part of his work in the mining days.  It seems that every miner has some kind of comment about the mules in the mines.  Those intelligent, sometimes cantankerous, always respected animals are certainly fondly remembered.  

George Buelah and "May West" ca. 1950 Celebrating the Calif. Centennial - May West was the last working mule in the local Mines. Battery powered trammers replaced the mules and May was retired to roam the streets of Alleghany for over twenty years.

for more information on the historic state park, click on the link...
Empire Mine, Grass Valley, CA

Also in the publication was an original poem written by Winifred Robins in 1982:

Mule Talk

His sire a burro,
His mother a mare,
A mule is a crossbreed
Who lives without heir.

Reactions are varied
Regarding a mule;
Where sympathy's lacking
They call him a fool.

But those who have seen
How the rugged beast works
Have all due respect
In spite of his quirks.

With traces of early
His ancestral roots
Lie in most ancient nations.

Called ass in the Bible,
A donkey's the same.
He's burro in Spanish,
But what's in a name?

From Asia and Africa
Donkeys have come;
With a trip into Egypt,
So bearing a Son.

All larger than burros,
Though equal in charms,
Fine horses served well
In war and on farms.

But the mule led the pack
With strong back and wide girth,
The Argonauts' choice
Since the Gold Rush's birth.

When coaxed by a miner
Over rugged terrain,
A mule carried his load
With frequent disdain.

The streams were traversed
By surefooted mules
While rivers were ravaged
Of gold from the hills.

When the Comstock Lode beckoned
To miners in flight,
Muleteers drove teams
That pulled wagons with might.

Pack trains were loaded,
Made ready to go,
In Marysville, Stockton,
And Sacramento.

With bells 'round her neck
The lead mule or horse
Would beckon a team
To keep it on course.

O'er steep mountain grades,
Across valleys and streams,
That mare led the way
To many men's dreams.

When miners dug tunnels
Their search to fulfill,
They took the mules with them
Inside of a hill.

They lowered the beasts
(Bagging mules was an art.)
There sentenced to draw
For life an ore cart.

With home a rough stable
Two thousand feet down;
Mules never came up
From that trap underground.

Poor Fanny was there
And Jasper the mule,
Who chewed plug tobacco;
He made it a rule.

With Death Valley the site
and Ron Reagan emcee
The Twenty Mule Team
Had a fame guaranty.

But those days are over.
Their condition improves;
Mule shows and fast races
Make the sports news.

With saddle and pack
They exhibit rare skills,
Just racing with barrels,
Loud braying, and drills.

Clubs and societies
For Donkeys and Mules
Encourage fine style 
 With modern show rules.

With racetracks so favored,
The sport of a king,
Pari-mutuel with mules
Becomes the in thing.

While back at the ranch
With fuel priced so high
A mule and a plow
Are again a good buy.

Long live the offspriing,
Colt of two breeds,
Whose strength and perception
Serve many men's needs.

The End.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Remembering a great horse

"one look into that hazel eye"
It has been two years this week that I laid my best horse friend to rest.  I thought I'd reprise an article that I wrote on the occasion of his retirement from Combined Driving in his memory.

Lance, the Wonder Horse
This article appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2003 issue of Carriage Driving World
By Nancy Taylor Rojo

It is very bittersweet to bring an end to a great team member in Combined Driving. Who wants to ever stop doing what they enjoy most? But I will do just that with my pony (horse) Lance after his last competition at the National Pony Championships at the Laurels at Landhope. 

At home, we call him Lance the wonder horse. His registered name as a Morgan horse is Sir Lance-a-lect, which is a play on words from his sire, Petalbrook Sigmalect and dam TVM Gwinever. He was foaled in California in March of 1985, which makes him 18 years. I don't think of him as an older horse because he always rises to any occasion with enthusiasm, willingness, and a strong sense of competitiveness.

One look in his hazel eye will tell you all about him. He is open, curious, bold and my best horse friend. I want him to take life a little easier now and not have to work quite so hard. He is sound as can be and has never been sick a day in his life but I know that it wont go on for ever, so now is a good time to retire my buddy and give him new status as a retired Gentlehorse. 

What is in store for this great horse will be a weekly drive through the countryside, some driving lessons for clients of his trainer Tom Simmons, and maybe an occasional lower level CDE for a family member who wants to experience a great little horse. I hope one day to take him back to his place of birth and gather cattle on him like we used to do before we moved east to compete. Lance is particularly fond of cattle and takes every opportunity to whinny at them when he spies them. 

When Lance was two, he was purchased by Gayleen Worthington from breeder Ann Taylor. Tom did all of his training and he had a varied career before I bought him as a 10 year old. He started his career as a 3 year old in the Morgan show world as an English Pleasure Horse. As Tom's interest in the breed world waned and interest in the carriage world grew, Lance was driven in carriage classes. Tom had his most fun with him at the Woodland Stallion Station in California as a team penning horse. Lance's enthusiasm thrilled the crowd and he even had his own fans to watch him sit on his haunches and just lightly tap his front feet on the ground in anticipation of Tom's command to take off. 

My husband Fred and I met Tom in 1994 at a clinic he was giving at the Woodland Stallion Station and knew then we had found a horseman to help us achieve our desire to learn about horses and to drive. We began taking weekly lessons, attended our first CDE that year as spectators and decided this is what we wanted to do with horses. I asked Tom to select a horse for me since my own previous horse purchases were made purely on emotion and my choices didn't have the qualities necessary for the rigors of Combined Driving. Tom phoned me and said to come visit his stable near Mount Lassen to see the gelding he thought would make me a good Combined Driving horse. I peered in the stall and saw this cute little horse and said yes even though I was not emotionally bowled over by him. That changed quickly though as I became aware of the vast capacity of this horse to learn and want to please. The one thing Lance has always shown to any human he has come in contact with is willingness. He never has resented anything that was asked of him. He just gives and does his best without any complaint or fanfare. He just does his job because that is what he does. 

Three months after I purchased Lance I was itching to drive him at my first carriage pleasure show. It was the 1995 Santa Ynez Valley Carriage Classic, the second largest and best show after Walnut Hill. Tom thought it a little premature for me to do such a big show, but we went anyway and took Lance. I'll never forget the feeling I got when I entered the show ring. Lance took on this "persona" and showed himself to the judges. I was amazed at how he swelled up and went proudly with animation yet obedience to me. We came home with blue ribbons in a huge class of Turnout, and won the Firestone Pleasure Drive Single Horse Lady to Drive. We repeated the same thing the next year in Turnout. What a way to start our driving career together.
Santa Ynez Carriage Classic Firestone Pleasure Drive 1995

Fred and I were having the time of our lives competing with Lance in carriage shows as well as Combined Driving, always under the watchful eye of Tom, who kept us on track and kept advancing Lance. When the opportunity arose to totally indulge ourselves in the horse world and move back east to join Tom and his wife Cathy, we gathered up our horses and settled on our co-owned farm in North Carolina to experience all the wonderful events the east coast has to offer. We traveled up and down the east coast to compete Lance in Preliminary at Metamora, Michigan to Live Oak, Florida and everywhere in between. We even ventured into Canada by invitation to compete at the Can/Am event in 2000 at the advanced, FEI level.

Our most memorable dressage was at our favorite event Live Oak in 1999 when George Bowman as President of the Jury, along with Sydney Smith of Great Britain and Margie Margentino gave Lance and me a 31.5. Lance was so relaxed and rhythmic in that test, that it was commented that he was a pleasure to watch. 

Live Oak 2002 dressage
Fair Hill International, Maryland
We were fortunate to attend a clinic given by Betsy Cowperthwaite, three time National Pony Champion and twice Reserve Champion. We struck up a close friendship that continues to grow. Betsy has given us lessons on the finer points of Combined Driving and encouraged us to move up to advanced level with Lance, which we did in the year 2000 starting with our favorite event Live Oak. That is also the year we discovered that Lance was pony height instead of horse. Everyone was a bit confused and worried that we would be upset with having to compete in the pony division, but it was a great move because the people were, and are great.  There is a special camaraderie amongst the pony pack. In the beginning, the only disadvantage, which really isn't a disadvantage anymore, was the few competitors. We did some winning but what was important was the fact we were steadily improving as a team. Lance, ever willing, did what was asked and never made any mistake or resisted in any obstacle put in front of him. 

I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have a horse that never questions what you ask. He has the confidence built in him by his trainer, to listen to his director and perform. He is always a challenge to his driver though, because if you are not clear with your instruction, he will decide on his own to move. He wants to please so much he anticipates your instruction. I must always vary my workouts and keep him guessing.

As our confidence has built over the last few years, so has our speed in the hazards. One of our most exciting marathon wins has been the challenging Fair Hill International marathon of last fall (2002). There were so many good options designed by Dr. Wolfgang Asendorf that I was still undecided in two of my routes the morning of the marathon. It was exhilarating to be in such a beautiful place with the best in the nation and win the marathon. 
Water hazard at Fair Hill International

Cones at the Laurels 2001
I can truly say that it has been a great pleasure to have a horse like Lance. I can relax even while competing knowing that I have a solid horse that is willing and predictable. I wish anyone interested in the sport of Combined Driving could be as fortunate as Fred and I have been.

Give a good thought to my kind gentle horse and may yours be the same for you. 

Lance at age 24 shortly before can see the inoperable tumor on his right upper jaw

Sir Lance-a-Lect

his hazel eye
his bright attitude
his huge nostrils open to life
his deep heart giving all
his thunderous neigh calling all to witness the glory that he is

read Time to Let Go

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Being on Tom Time

Tom giving young horse time to see where it is being directed

directing into the water for the first time when horse became ready

"let's just stand here and think more about the water and being directed into it"....look at Tom's body language in photos

What, you may ask, is Tom Time? 

Anyone who knows horse trainer Tom Simmons laughs at this question after having learned first hand what it means.  For a means not having to be under pressure to learn quicker than it can.  This is a good thing for a horse who knows nothing about the concept of time, and a bad thing for us who have to be somewhere at a particular time or get a job done by a time frame.   Humans are driven by the clock...except for Tom.  I swear, Tom is part horse.  He thinks like a horse.  I have known the man for almost 20 years and he is NEVER in a hurry for anything.  A great trait that any horse can and does appreciate. 

The best way to train a horse is like growing an onion.  Layer after layer after layer around a good core.  THEY say that time is money.  Who is they?   Tom  trains a horse the only way I think makes perfect sense.  His "ideal" way is to have the horse come live at his farm for a year or so.  Of course it is not a full monthly training fee for that long (usually a flat training fee and monthly board); but, it does allow time for the horse to adapt and think about the process without feeling pressure.  This gives a very successful and solid foundation for whatever specialized training may follow.  Here, is where going slow is actually the fastest way of achieving an end.

The reality is that most people can't leave their horses with the trainer for however long is necessary.  They are on a time frame and money is a big concern.  Instilling a complete foundation can take as little as 3 months, but success depends on how the owner will understand what has been added, and follow suggestion on how to proceed to reinforce and perpetuate the good habits instilled.

 Foundation is everything.  Here is where many folks don't even realize just what it is the horse needs for a complete foundation.  I have never known a horse that Tom has trained give it's owner a dangerous time.  I have seen him work at things that no ordinary person or trainer would think of doing with a horse.  What is added (in the way of another layer) will give the horse a sense of security, a sense of purpose, a sense that he can satisfy the human, a developed habit to willingly obey, a complete job description (if you will) in how to act around humans.  The horse is taught how to reply to discipline.  The horse is given a  "peace zone"  where they have a reference place to go when things become scary or overwhelming for them.  If things go really bad, the horse knows to override the instinct to run and stands instead.  I like that layer!  I have been in a place where I made a bad decision and instead of my horse blowing up to run and get us both hurt, he simply stayed in place until I could extricate us from my driver error that caused a turnover.  Many layers are added with a "soaking in" period in between.  There is no recipe he is the individual horse that determines how to proceed and what is needed and taught. 

Tom does not believe that it is necessary to ride an unbroken horse in one hour.  I actually have seen him do just that pulling a youngster out of pasture and under saddle in less than an hour.  She was unusual though, and even though she was totally agreeable, you could not say she was trained by a long shot. 

After thinking about what horse folk are exposed to on the RFD (rural farm delivery) channel on TV in the way of horse training techniques, I thought I'd give my opinion of what is the best way to train a modern day horse.  I say modern day horse because although the horse may not have undergone very many changes in the last 100 years, the way we use horses definitely has changed.  Except for pockets of religious groups that ascribe to old ways of doing things, aficionados that want to keep tradition alive, and working cowboys, horses have become a luxury item of sport, fanciers and recreational use.  No longer are they used for every day transportation or work. 

Most every horse owner fancies themselves as being a horse trainer and unless they are wanting to do something specialized, most feel there can't be too much to training.  Just watching a few shows of the horse fare on TV will make some feel they can go out there and do it themselves.  It really doesn't work that way.  Modern folk, unless they can devote all day every day working with many different horses, don't have the time, experience or judgement to make a decision as to how to proceed with a horse or even know when a horse has learned and can move on to the next step.

A modern day horse needs to be trained to be able to put up with what is lacking in the human.  Sure, one can send their horse to a professional trainer for a few months and then it comes home to an owner that will be less competent than the professional.  So the horse slowly comes undone. The professional should build into the training of the horse, the acceptance by the horse to the mistakes that WILL be made.  How many horse trainers do this?  Very few.  I find it sad and dangerous to see folks bring the horse home only to have a wreck.  The weekend comes, or they test the horse immediately on arrival home, over facing it with the different feel and lack of consideration for the horse's perspective, firing it up just like they would an automobile come back from the mechanic. 

After all, one plans on having this animal for it's lifetime and build a great bond and possibly achieve great heights in sport, or just have a safe family horse that anyone can safely ride or drive.  Why should training take 30 days...or 3 months? It is a process that lasts a lifetime.  The horse deserves a good foundation.
I reflect on my horse career and see that the really important thing with a horse is to not have an agenda that does not include consideration for what the horse needs in the way of "time" to process.  Time to have layer of success build on layer of success.  Time to react, time to proceed confidently...TIME...ALL in good time. 

Here is a Tom quote: "Don't let where you want to go stampede you"  In other words, take your time for it will be time well spent.

going this fast came as a slow process

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kitty Hawk Beach riding

 Kitty Hawk Beach, NC

Tom loading LH Kitty Hawk to visit her namesake
My annual visit to see my good friends and horse trainer Tom Simmons, in North Carolina had a special treat involved.  Lincoln Hills Farm  is located about an hour north of Raleigh, very near the Virginia border and is home to the Simmons family and their Morgan Horse breeding and training farm.  I love to visit, not only to see good friends, but to see the latest foal crop, see how the young ones are training out, reconnect with the breeding herd and visit favorites that I have known for years...

Crossing the bridge from Currituck, over Albemarle Sound to Kitty Hawk

This year's visit had a special highlight of taking horses to the beach at Kitty Hawk and experiencing the Outer Banks area of the North Carolina coast.  Our visit came just two weeks after Hurricane Irene had done such damage at  Duck and Corolla beaches.  The ocean was particularly beautiful with high surf warnings the days we visited, but everyone was out enjoying the lovely day, surfing, flying kites, laying around under umbrellas, fishing and doing beach things.  We parked and tacked up in the parking lot of a restaurant near the dunes.  The leader of our small group led with her Morgan across a busy traffic road to the almost 20 foot high sand dunes that we had to climb to get to the beach...let alone see the Ocean.

That is where the Pacific and Atlantic can see the Pacific ocean from a distance because of the coast hills that overlook and lead down to the beach.  The Atlantic is just drive right up to it and don't see it from afar.  At least that is how it is from the vantage points I have visited in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Our experienced leader was feeling the responsibility of being our guide and her horse felt the pressure as well, so declined to lead up the narrow path up over the dunes.  That left my horse trainer Tom Simmons (on a young Morgan mare appropriately named LH Kitty Hawk) to take the lead and crest the dunes to get the horses first look...ever...of the big moving water.  Single file, we followed his lead with Cathy Simmons on her young mare LH Bunny Jane, daughter Tori Simmons on  mare LH Bonnie Belle, myself on a Haflinger mare, and finally Robin Young on her Tom trained horse, Kansas Bluestem Ranger.

Haflinger mare and me contemplating the vast Atlantic

How pretty is that?  Robin in lead, Cathy and Tom on their Morgan horses

Simmons family on LH Farm bred Morgan Horses

I must admit I had some apprehension of what might happen when our horses caught first sight of the big moving water, but nary a horse seemed upset with the new experience.  I don't think Kitty Hawk or Bunny had ever been off the farm before. 

We stabled the horses overnight at Grandy and went back to Kitty Hawk to Robin's friend Rob's home where he cooked up the fresh seafood that Cathy & Tom bought from a little fish shack nearby.  Crab cakes, breaded scallops and huge shrimp slathered in Old Bay and butter.  It was my first experience with scallops and I am thoroughly hooked on them...delicious!  So tender and delicate. On the next morning, September 11th, we watched a bit of the ceremony on TV remembering how we were together, and what we felt on that fateful day 10 years prior. 

We had a great time and Cathy remarked that she could check one more thing off her bucket list.  We were all proud of how the horses took all in stride and gave us a great day at the beach...thanks to Tom and Cathy for showing me a great time, and Robin Young for her Kitty Hawk connections. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My grandfather's war horse

A touching memorial at Chipilly, France on the bank of the Somme river shows a WW1 soldier comforting his dying horse on the battlefield.

I have no photographs of, nor did I ever meet my Italian grandfather who had to say goodbye to his farm horse after it had returned from WW1.  What I know of my grandparents came from the stories of their history by my Italian born mother.

They came from the region in Italy known as Marche, what is now a resort town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea called San Benedetto del Tronto.  It is a beautiful town lined with palms, long white sandy beaches and the Apennines to it's back.

My mother's recall of the first world war was as a 10 year old girl in 1915.  Running and playing amid the bombing in the piazza, she suffered shrapnel injury to her leg which the doctors wanted to amputate.  My grandmother said no, preferring to take her to a Russian doctor that lived high in the mountains where he used herb poultices to save her leg.  Some of her tales were pretty horrific dealing with death daily, becoming routine. A very different reality than my carefree golden childhood here in America.

I got my love of horses from my grandfather who loved his farm horse and had to give him up to the army for service.  The horse did come home after the war; which was rare since most of the millions of horses used perished.  I have forgotten the name of the horse, but he did not come home unscathed.  He returned without an eye and ill from injuries.  It grieved my grandfather to have to put him down, but he did.  The grave was dug by hand and the horse covered in lime before covering.  Next morning found the horse had been unearthed by hungry neighbors for the meat.

It is a terrible thing to be grieved enough to bury a beloved horse; and yet, people being hungry from the shortages and ravages of war.  Everyone was hungry and my mother remembered her whole life what it felt like to starve.  She would cry for food until she saw her mother cry for her hungry children, then my mother stopped.  Her fondest memories were of the American soldiers giving up their chocolate bars to the children, and the Salvation Army handing out hardtack to stave off hunger.

Such is war...

War Horse...the movie trailer

Saturday, August 6, 2011

War Horse...the movie trailer

This Christmas moviegoers will have a treat from director Steven Spielberg in the movie version of War Horse.  As a movie buff and Horse aficionado, this should be a "home run" movie for me.  The subject matter comes from the 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo and the Tony Award winning play, both of the same name.

From Huffington Post, here is a synopsis:

 "Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War, "War Horse" begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets--British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter--before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man's Land."

Oh Lord...I can hear it now..."Is the horse gonna die?   I won't watch it if he dies."

 I haven't read the book yet, but definitely will see the movie or play when it is available.   I owe it to the horses that have died in all human wars to watch and know what they have done for us willingly, or by force.  I despise the concept of war.  I won't go into my personal beliefs here, but I do want to see this story come to life on the screen.

Movies are a recent art form.  If artfully done they reflect, often times more powerfully than books, the reality of life and the human condition.

Reading more about the author Michael Morpurgo, I found it interesting how the book came about.  First of all, it is a children's novel. From the New York Times book review page written by Sarah Lyall and published April, 11, 2011, she writes:

Mr. Morpurgo’s novels, set all around the world, tend to focus on some favorite themes: humans’ extraordinary bond with animals, children’s courage in adversity, and the power and wonder of nature. Many have gone on to win awards, and four have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, Britain’s best-known children’s literature prize.
“He’s the most respected British children’s writer working today, whether he’s writing for very young readers or for teenagers,” said Jon Howells, a spokesman for Waterstone’s book chain. “He’s a very powerful, very evocative, very insightful writer. He doesn’t patronize or condescend to his readers, and they really respond.”
“War Horse” is published by Scholastic in the United States, with about 200,000 copies in print, said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for the publisher.
Why has “War Horse” broken out in such a big way? The story resonates now more than when it was written, perhaps because of the era we live in. “In 1982 the only war in Britain was the cold war,” Mr. Morpurgo said. “But times have changed in the last 15 to 20 years. War does seem to be endemic. When it’s possible to do it, we seem to do it. It never ceases to amaze me that we fall into that trap again and again.”
The book, which has been called a great argument for pacifism, is written from the point of view of Joey the horse. It was inspired, in part, by a series of conversations Mr. Morpurgo had had years ago in his village, Iddesleigh, in Devon, with an elderly man who had served in a cavalry unit in World War I. “He told me with tears in his eyes that the only person he could talk to there — and he called this horse a person — was his horse,” Mr. Morpurgo said.
From the Imperial War Museum, Mr. Morpurgo learned that between one million and two million British horses had been sent to the front lines in the first World War, and that only 65,000 or so had come back. He resolved to write about them but struggled to find the right voice.
Then one evening he was at the farm he and his wife run in Devon, where poor children come to work with animals. (There are now three in Britain, and one in Vermont.) He was passing through the stable yard when he saw one of the children, a troubled boy who had a bad stutter and had not uttered a word in school in two years, standing head to head with a horse.
“He started talking,” Mr. Morpurgo recalled. “And he was talking to the horse, and his voice was flowing. It was simply unlocked. And as I listened to this his boy telling the horse everything he’d done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn’t understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.” That became Joey’s role in “War Horse” — observer and witness as much as protagonist.
Mr. Morpurgo’s books have been set in jungles, on islands and in communities torn up by the Arab-Israeli conflict and by the 2004 tsunami. His most recent book, “Shadow,” tells the story of an Afghan boy who flees to Britain, only to be put in a detention center as he fights to stay in the country. One of Mr. Morpurgo’s many campaigns has been to end the practice of incarcerating children in such centers.
He is in demand as a speaker and an advocate for, among other things, libraries, literacy and the rights of children. But it may well be that “War Horse” is his defining piece of work.
“All this should have happened 30 years ago,” he said recently. “It’s all come at completely the wrong time. But better late than never — although I don’t think my wife thinks so, sometimes.” 

Next, I'll tell a family story about my grandfather and his horse that went off to WW1 in war torn Italy.  My Grandfather's War Horse