Wednesday, October 29, 2014


by Laura Crum

My apologies to those who regularly read this blog--I've been overwhelmed lately and have no time for the computer. I hope to get back to posting soon. And for today, here is the next installment in the story of my own little horse property.

            So much went into choosing this land. To begin with, I had hoped to build my home on a much loved family property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But I have a strong sense of place, and also a hard-headed practical streak, and the cabin in the mountains failed these tests. Somehow those mountains did not feel like home, and I wanted a place that felt like home to me.  I also wanted to live somewhere that seemed isolated, but was a convenient drive from town. Not to mention that I had learned my lesson about what could happen with family-owned properties when the family ranch was sold off—against all my wishes.
            So I began to search for a property that met my needs. I began this search in a very pragmatic way. There were only a couple of areas in the county where I really felt at home. The villages of Soquel and Aptos, and the country around them, were somehow “right.” The slant of the light, the feel of the air, the gentle, comfortable look of the land…this was where I wanted to live.
            When I thought about it, it made sense. The Ranch had been halfway between Soquel and Capitola, and Capitola was completely developed by this time-- no place for horses there. And Aptos, well, I had lived by Aptos Creek until I was three years old. It was my parents first home as a married couple. Both Aptos and Soquel were side by side in the hills a little south of Santa Cruz, and north of Watsonville. Aptos Creek and Soquel Creek both drained right into Monterey Bay. And I knew it was in one of these two drainages that I wanted to live.
            It was and is odd, but I dislike the cold lonely light of Santa Cruz proper, particularly the harsh ocean glare light of the west side. I found the San Lorenzo River Valley stifling and claustrophobic. I didn’t care for the industrial/agricultural atmosphere that predominated in the south county, and I thought the mountain areas were too inconveniently remote, as well as inclined to not-useful steepness and unfriendly-to horse-trailer twisty roads. Those gentle smiling creeks in their pleasant hills rolling down to the protected shelter of the bay—Soquel and Aptos-- that still carried their Native American names—my home would be there.
            I refined my thinking further by considering, of all things, freeway exits. Yes, you have that right. Freeway exits. Highway 1 is the main route through Santa Cruz County and each exit/onramp has its own dynamic. Some are very crowded and congested, others more rural. Eventually I settled on the Freedom Blvd exit, what used to be called Rob Roy junction. In the old days, it was where Freedom Blvd connected to Soquel Drive (pre-Highway1). Few people still remember that old name, but it seemed auspicious to me. It is a fairly rural, wide open place to get on the freeway. Very horse trailer friendly—something that was on my mind. And so I began my search for a small horse property in the vicinity of Rob Roy junction.
            I rather rapidly realized I would not be buying a “horse property.” I would not even, it seemed, be buying a house. Because I could not afford a house, let alone a horse property. I was going to be very lucky if I could find a piece of land that could possibly become a horse property. Real estate in Santa Cruz County is very expensive. But I persisted in my search.
            I quickly grew exasperated with real estate agents. They seemed not to hear what I said, and kept showing me properties that cost more than I had told them I could spend, and were nothing like what I had described. After awhile I just drove around, looking. One day I decided to think about exactly where I would like to live if I could pick. And as I drove through that area, I spotted a real estate for sale sign—lying flat on the ground.
            The sign was at the turnoff for an unnamed road. I followed the road up the hill, between a couple of rather standard looking suburban houses, and came to another for sale sign at the very end of the road, leaning crookedly into a shaggy bush. Next to this was a gate, closing off a dirt road that led further up the hill. The gate was not locked. Nor was it attached to a fence. Nor was there a “No Trespassing” sign. The gate appeared to simply block vehicular traffic up that dirt road/driveway. It seemed to me that the “For Sale” sign was referencing the property beyond the gate.
            I walked around the gate and up the sketchy dirt road. The ground was sandy, and the road/drive, such as it was, wound up the gently sloping hill, through a grove of young live oaks. I could see by the light that there was open space ahead and above me. So far I could see no house. I kept walking.
            The road rounded a bend and abruptly died. I was facing a little hollow in the hills, like a cupped hand. This hollow was maybe an acre or so in diameter and floored in gently waving grass. In my memory it is May, and the grass has that silvery sheen that it gets when the seed heads are ripe. In another moment I became aware that in the center of the bowl was a small group of deer bedded down in the grass—including a very majestic buck with a large rack. The deer lifted their heads at the sight of me; a couple of them stood up.
            I froze. Everybody held still. Slowly I turned my head, surveying the bowl-shaped hollow, surrounded by brushy hills on three sides. There was no house in sight. Merely this little deer park hidden in the hills. The deer watched me cautiously.
            The place had an intensely private feeling. Despite the fact that I knew the suburban houses were not very far away, I could not see them—screened from my view as they were by the oak trees on the lower slope. The brushy hills that surrounded the hollow blocked out whatever houses were beyond them. From where I stood there were no people or houses to be seen. The place felt remote and wild—though I realized that this was an illusion, created by the unique topography of the land.
            After a minute more I turned and began to walk back down the hill. The herd of deer remained where they were. When I reached the gate I wrote down the phone number of the real estate office listed on the crooked sign. I was pretty sure I had found the right place.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Achieving the proper balance

By Gayle Carline

I always think of horse riding as a Zen-like activity. Horses like balance. They like their riders to be balanced on their backs. Too much weight on one side makes them move to that side, to get the human back in the middle.

Writing about a subject as specific as horses also requires balance, especially in fiction. Consider a mystery set around horses. Too little detail about the horse world and non-horse mystery lovers will be confused, close the book, and perhaps toss it across the room. Too much detail will explain it all to the non-horsey people and make the horse folks bored, close the book, and well, you know.

I know you can't please everyone, but balance is good.

In Snoopy's memoir, FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH, I could put a lot of detail in, because the book takes Snoopy from his birth to his adult years, so he has to learn about being trained. The trick with his book was to describe training from his point of view. How does a horse see our methods?

Maybe like this:

* * *

Even when I was staying with Uncle Snowy, or with Johnny and Tucker, my humans came every day and taught me things. Either Hilde or MomToo took me out of the pen and led me to the barn, where they brushed me and cleaned my hooves. Miss Tina talked about it being part of my training, but I don’t know what I was being trained to do except stand still.

Before they taught me to be brushed and cleaned, they had to teach me to wear a halter and follow them on a lead rope. At first, I liked the halter and wanted to follow them around. Then, when I was four months old or so, I had a better idea.

Every time MomToo tried to put my nose in the halter, I would throw my head backward, then side to side and keep her from putting it on me. I thought this was a fun game. For about forever one week, we spent a long time wrestling with the halter. I thought we were having fun, even if her face was red and she looked kind of mad afterward.

Then one day, she put her arms around my neck and held the halter out in front of me. I was curious, so I pushed my nose forward. Suddenly I was haltered and our game was over.

MomToo was smart.

* * *

For my romantic suspense, MURDER ON THE HOOF, I couldn't rely on a horse's eye view of the L.A. Equestrian Center. How do you convey the information without a data dump from the mouths of your character-experts?

I solved the problem by making my main character a beginner in the horse show world. She has some knowledge about horses and riding, but her inner dialogue explains what she's doing and how she feels about it.

Here's an example:

* * *

As they passed Emily and Tyler, she heard her trainer say what she dreaded but knew was coming.

“Go ahead and lope her.”

Loping was a gait that seemed faster than it was—it could be choppy if the horse couldn’t keep their rear end pushing forward while their front end contained the energy. Willie took a deep breath, then put her left leg on Belle’s ribs, made a kissing sound with her lips, and hoped for the best.

As before, the horse responded. Willie felt the push of the mare’s rising back end, then the upward roll of her shoulders. In a few strides, Belle settled into a gentle rocking-horse rhythm. Willie kept her butt digging into the saddle, her left hand trying not to pull up on the reins, and her right hand trying to stay on her leg. Every four strides or so, she reminded herself to breathe.

It takes a lot of work to look this relaxed, she thought.

* * *

Writers, do you worry about your readers' level of knowledge in your subject? Readers, do you need a writer to guide you through unknown territory, or are you just interested in who done it?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reasons We Ride

by Linda Benson

We ride horses for many reasons. Some of us like to compete in shows. Some like the kinship and relationship that we develop with our equine partners. For some, training a horse is a thrill.

I haven't been riding much recently, but on a recent camping trip, I hiked with my husband on a gorgeous trail through the northernmost grove of Redwood Trees, in Southwest Oregon. And I realized that the most joy that I have experienced on horseback, and the main reason that I like to ride, is to experience wild places.

Because everyone needs a little wilderness.

Even as a girl with a horse (although I did my share of barrel racing and showing in other classes) my main place to ride was away. Gone for the day, into the mountains, up trails that only my horse and I knew about.

These experiences come out in my writing, too. In my short read called The Summer Cat, fourteen-year-old Hannah rides her mare on the hundreds of acres of forest land behind her house. She has names for trails that she uses, like the Wild Rose Trail. (Have you named the trails that you ride the most? I always did.)

"I pushed her up the Wild Rose trail. We trotted straight up the steep slope which opened onto an amazing view of the valley and the forest and mountains behind our property. Those show horse people never get to see this stuff . . ."

The most fun I ever had horseback was a three-day camping trip with a girlfriend, riding the 100 mile Tevis trail (several weeks prior to competing in the actual race) but doing it in thirds, camping along the way.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day. I hope in all of your riding, training, and bonding with your horse, you are able to use that wonderful creature to take you places you might never otherwise see.

Wishing you all a little wilderness.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Where I Live

       by Laura Crum

Some readers expressed an interest in a series of posts about the way I found and developed my little horse property. I'm going to attempt this series now. I fear it may be boring to most people, and you can feel free to tell me so. I am writing this more for myself than anyone else, and I don't need to put it up on this blog. So feel free to vote yay or nay on this subject.

Also, these posts may have a bit to do with horses, but they also will have lots of passages that have nothing to do with horses or writing about horses. Designing houses and gardens and landscapes, my own whims, my feelings about land and the particular sort of flora and fauna that are found here in these coastal California hills....all this will come into the story. Again, let me know if you find this boring.

So here goes.

                                       This Place
            Here is the story of this place that I live, that I call home.
There are so many strands woven into this little hollow in the hills-- my past, the past of the land, the magical wild world that surrounds me here. I want to braid the strands together and make a plait that shows the whole. Just for the delight of doing it, putting it down in words.
Creating this place, where I hope to live until I die, has been one of the most joyous experiences of my life. And so I begin with my past, the experiences which formed me and caused me to want to live here and to shape this place the way I have shaped it.

                        The Past

            The Ranch. This simple phrase was the magic in the child’s world. She did not live on the Ranch. She lived in a quiet, upper middle class, suburban neighborhood on a golf course called Pasatiempo. As suburban neighborhoods and golf courses go, Pasatiempo was pleasant. Both the course and the neighborhood were older and graceful, with big established trees, and when the girl was young, there were still many undeveloped areas left. But the child found Pasatiempo boring.
            From her earliest memory, she had lived to go to the Ranch, where there was magic. Ordinary magic, to be sure, but magic nonetheless, in her eyes. There were horses, and barns, and barn cats, and piles of rusting junk, and orchards, and crumbling dirt roads, and old wood and glass greenhouses full of plants, and little shacks covered in rambling roses, and everything was ragged and a bit messy. The Ranch was wild, where her home seemed tame.
            The girl could not explain why she felt this way—she just did. Perhaps it was mainly the horses. Her uncle lived at the ranch and had horses, and from as far back as she could remember, horses had moved her as nothing else did.
            The Ranch was a family ranch. Four generations of the child’s family had lived and worked there. Her great grandfather had purchased the land at the turn of the century, coming to California from Indiana, to start a new life. Her grandfather had been born here, and so had her father and his brother. And now her uncle lived here with his children, her cousins. The girl was deeply envious of her cousins, who lived in an old adobe house on the ranch that had been built by her grandparents.

            Both her grandfather and her father still worked at the ranch, but they had moved away to the more upscale environment of Pasatiempo to live. The child’s father would (sometimes) take her out to the Ranch on Saturdays when he went to work, and leave her there to ramble around all day. And she lived for this.
            It wasn’t that she was never bored at the ranch. She often wandered aimlessly, wondering what she should do. It was just that she didn’t mind being bored there—the air always felt alive with potential, as if something interesting might happen next. In contrast the air of her suburban neighborhood seemed still and stagnant. And so she wandered the dirt roads of the Ranch and went in and out of the barns and sheds, and picked fruit from the neglected orchards and wild berry vines, and stared wistfully at the horses—for hours.
            Nobody paid much attention to her. She was quite young, maybe five years old, when she was first allowed to “play” at the Ranch, and the various people who lived and worked there cast a benign eye on her, and would certainly have helped her had she been in trouble, but nobody felt any obligation to entertain her. She was (mostly) left to her own devices.
            In her memory of the Ranch, she is always alone. Wandering and exploring, and later when she was older and had learned to ride, riding her uncle’s horses through the fields. In truth, she was not always solitary. She played with her cousins, and her uncle let her ride with him when he wasn’t too busy, and sometimes she was with her brothers and sister. But in her mind, she was always alone there. Aloneness was part of the magic.
            Besides the magic of the horses, there was the magic of the place. Those particular fields and barns and dirt roads, the hundred or so acres of good flat ground on the edge of the little town of Capitola, itself on the edge of Monterey Bay, which swept out into the far Pacific Ocean—this ranch which had always been her family’s ranch. The girl located herself by the Ranch. The tallest local mountain, Loma Prieta, was visible from the wide plain of the Ranch pastures, and the girl would memorize this landmark—this is my home, she told herself. Just here.
            When she was a teenager and could drive, the Ranch became more of a refuge than ever. She had a part time job out there, packaging flower bulbs, and she fell in love with a succession of boys who lived and/or worked there. She spent as much time as possible out at the Ranch. Warm summer evenings talking horses at the barn while eating apricots and plums, plucked from the trees. Gathering the cattle on horseback, laughing with the young cowboys, with the breeze bending the fields of grass and lifting her hair. Innumerable foggy mornings, huddled in a jacket, walking to the faded red barn to begin another work day. She loved it all.
            She would have been happy to live on the Ranch forever, and often imagined this, but it was not to be. From the beginning, her family had been entrepreneurs, more than ranchers. Her great grandfather had first sold buggies, then farmed strawberries and flower bulbs, and next began a dairy. The dairy of purebred Guernsey cows, producing high quality milk, was the mainstay of the Ranch for years, and then, when high fat milk went out of fashion, the main business of the Ranch became growing and selling tuberous begonias. Under her grandfather, the family began importing all sorts of flower bulbs from Holland and reselling them, and by the time she was born, it was a “bulb ranch.” The horses and cattle were incidental; the cattle kept to provide the family with meat, and the horses because her uncle loved horses.
            Her grandfather and her father, like her great grandfather before them, were not sentimental people. They saw the Ranch as a way of making money. From even before she was born, her grandfather had determined to sell the Ranch at an enormous profit—when development came its way. He had planned for this. And so, when the first shopping centers and banks and housing developments grew up around the Ranch, the writing was on the wall.
            As far as she could tell, the girl was the only one who was saddened by this. Piece after piece of the Ranch was sold off; soon it was just a small cluster of remaining buildings, and a few acres of pasture. Next door was the beginning of a huge mall—the land purchased from her family. The girl, a teenager now, hated this from the bottom of her heart, but even as a teenager she understood that there was no point in fighting and arguing. She had nothing to say about it, and her father and grandfather and uncle were quite determined to sell the Ranch.
            And so, little by little, her beloved Ranch disappeared. The fields and barns and roads were demolished and swallowed up and paved over and built upon until she could not even tell where the horse barn had been, or the old adobe house. It was all gone, completely gone, as if it had never been. All that was left was a giant shopping mall, indistinguishable from any other shopping mall.
            The girl learned quite a bit from this. About not trusting people and not falling in love with a piece of land that did not belong to her, principally. Also about understanding that one could NOT control what happened on the land next door. And these lessons came in very handy later.
            The girl was in her twenties now, and lived in a small house in town, and kept her horses at her uncle’s new horse ranch. She was ready to find a home. The Ranch was gone forever. Her uncle’s little horse ranch was HIS place, not the family ranch, and she did not feel welcome there. So she began to look for a place of her own. And so begins this story.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Three Pages!!!

By Alison Hart

For the past five months, I have been researching and writing  Murphy Coal Mine Dog, which is book three in the "Dog Chronicle" series published by Peachtree Publishers. I have been working on the first draft since the middle of August, it was due Oct. 1, I got an extension, and tomorrow, I will finish it.  All writers who work under deadline know the INTENSE PRESSURE to deliver a solid first draft on time.  I have two other 'jobs' as well as family, dogs, horses, chores--lots of chores--so deadlines can be very difficult.  They are also difficult because of my tendency to do anything that distracts me from sitting butt in chair.  These include:

Tidying up my desk.  Sorting Socks.  Picking burrs out of horse manes.  Patting the cat.
Hunting for treasures on Ebay.  Grading papers.
Sweeping the garage.  Walking the dogs.
Digging weeds . . .

You get the idea.

Finishing a book is especially difficult. I developed my writing skills writing Nancy Drew mysteries-- a dozen of them  Chapters had to end with cliffhangers and tension needed to be created throughout.  They weren't literary masterpieces, but I learned how to plot, plot, plot.

But how to end a story about a dog and a disaster in coal mine?  How to finish it with a satisfying, poignant and realistic conclusion?

I wake myself up at night with ideas.  Some good, some horrible.  Tomorrow, I have to put those ideas on paper, three more pages that will end my book with a bang.  Am I ready?  Nope. Hopefully, the unconscious part of my brain that writes without me realizing it, will suddenly pop out a fantastic finale.  I'm counting on it.

How do you handle endings?  Do they come to you when you are least thinking about them?  Do you procrastinate until you have no choice?  Do you have the ending before the beginning? Please share!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Horse Books That Meant The Most

A few weeks ago, the latest Facebook fad seemed to be "post the ten books that matter the most to you." You weren't supposed to give it a lot of deep thought or anything, just post the ten books that came to your mind first. 

I gave it a shot. And here's the list that happened:

1. Emily's Quest, L.M. Montgomery
2. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
3. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
4. The Black Stallion (most of the series), Walter Farley
5. Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley
6. Light a Penny Candle, Maeve Binchy
7. Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson
8. The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
9. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
10. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis (every single one)

And then I sat back and looked at it. Wow. There were not a lot of horse books on that list. (Although my copy of The Mists of Avalon does have a horse on the cover.) 

Instead I had two fairly bleak turn-of-the-century Young Adult stories, two extremely different Irish novels, a Young Adult horse series and an adult horse book, and a whole lot of magic. (Like, seriously, a lot of magic. Who knew that fantasy was so important to me?)

But in the grand scheme of How My Brain Works, it all started to make a lot of sense. Most of these books seriously informed my writing in some way. Emily's Quest is about a young woman embarking on a writing career and coming face-to-face with the loneliness and self-doubt that such a calling entails on a daily basis. Rilla of Ingleside was about the upheaval and change that The Great War brought to a happy-go-lucky family who already had six books to their name -- it's the last of the Anne of Green Gables novels -- and what an incredibly bold move for a writer to make with such beloved characters! Light a Penny Candle is another big saga, about two best friends surviving all sorts of trauma (they come together through World War II), which, again, it's hard to believe the writer was so willing to dish out to such lovable characters.

Eureka Street, well, that might be my favorite book of all time. I adore everything about it: the vain, hapless, soul-of-a-poet repo-man Jake; the rambling and unapologetic passages exploring the terrible beauty of Belfast; the harrowing and yet lyrical descriptions of violence that leap out of previously tranquil pages as surely as The Troubles could instantly cloud a sunny day--and of course a cast of characters who were as funny and as flawed as any in literature.

And then all that fantasy! I'm still surprised by it. The Mists of Avalon probably is the least important to me as a piece of literature, but was a huge part of my adolescence, so I can't leave it out of any list. The ones that got me: Narnia, The Enchantress of Florence, The Night Circus -- oh, those really got me. Rushdie taught me that prose can be poetry if you decide it can. Morgenstern taught me that reality can be fantasy (and vice versa) if you choose it to be. Lewis taught me to talk to trees and animals without feeling embarrassed, and how many stories of my childhood did that inform? Countless.

What of the horse books, then? What are the horse books that meant the most, and why are they so few?

To be fair, there are twenty installments in the Black Stallion series, so that's twenty books right there that I stuck on my top ten list. Those books were my lifeline as a child, to a world I knew existed and that I wanted to be part of so very, very much. I put on my velvet hunt cap with one hand and I turned the pages of The Black Stallion's Courage with the other, imagining myself on The Black as we came down the long homestretch at Belmont Park; then I went out and used the mounting block to mount a school pony and get down to the business of staying on.

Horse Heaven was a lifeline as an adult, because it taught me a very important lesson: horse books for adults can work. This book was a massive seller. I should know--I was working part-time at the Barnes & Noble in Ocala, Florida when it came out. When HITS was going on, riders in breeches and boots were literally coming in and asking for it by name. We had it stocked behind the counter to save time. Horse Heaven changed the way I looked at horse books. And it changed the way I looked at what I might write someday.

When I started writing contemporary fiction for equestrians, it was with the success of Horse Heaven reminding me that people wanted books like this, about characters they recognized -- adults living their lives with horses.

I've read dozens, or hundreds, who knows, of pony books and horse books over the years, but these were the true game-changers, that helped decide the course of my entire life. From my years with Thoroughbreds to my current career as a novelist, those were the horse books that meant the most.

What are yours?

A short note on giveaways and signings:

I'll be at Equine Affaire this November! I'll be with Taborton Equine Books on Saturday, November 15th from 4-6 PM, and on Sunday, November 16th from 12-2 PM. Come and visit me and the other awesome equestrian authors who will be there! You can add it to your calendar with this Facebook event: 

The Big Giveaway from Equestrian Culture Magazine is on throughout October. I'm so happy to be part of this gorgeous glossy magazine's giveaway this fall, which includes prizes from Goode Rider, Ariat, Dubarry, and plenty of other big names in equestrian apparel and supplies. Check out the website at for details on how to win different prizes, including a set of my paperback novels. And if this is not a magazine you're familiar with -- it's time to pick up a copy! It's for our kind of people!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Early Rides

                                                            by Laura Crum

            This is going to be the last in my small series of posts about the way I learned to break and train ranch horses. I had meant to go on and explain the bitting up…etc, but I’ve run into a snag. A mental snag, anyway. I grew up on ranches and with ranch horses and I understand exactly what these methods can achieve when they are applied with skill by a good horseman. But in writing these posts I realized that I cannot impart this experience into words. As I said in the introductory post, none of this will work unless you can read a horse. No method is much good unless you can read a horse. If you respond to a fearful horse thinking he is challenging you, or a rebellious horse thinking he is fearful, you aren’t going to get good results. And so I find myself at a loss to explain how we knew when to push on and when to hold back. We read what the horse was feeling/thinking and responded to that.
These methods are very effective at producing broke horses, if you are a competent rider and you can read a horse. I learned them from competent horsemen who were good at reading horses. Not from a book, not being told a tale, but working beside these men and women, and under their direction. I learned by working with literally hundreds of horses. And this is the way to learn—not by reading my blog posts. Or by reading pearls of wisdom from horse gurus…etc. Someone posted a little quote from a well known horse guru the other day along the lines that you had to change your demeanor in response to a horse’s emotional state. I will admit that I rolled my eyes and thought “Duh.” Can you say “learn to read a horse?” All good horsemen do this, no matter their method of breaking and training.
I’ve become all too aware that I can’t really explain this to people in a way that translates to real life. I’m also aware that among the people that read these posts there is a small subset that have done quite a bit of breaking and training of young horses and have been around it their whole lives. In this group, no matter their specific background, there is real understanding of what I am talking about and how it might work—even if the person in question has used vastly different methods. But by far the majority of readers have not done much if any breaking/training. They may have ridden a green horse or two, and they may have participated in breaking/training maybe one or two colts. Their ideas about training are largely based on how they work with their already-broke-and-trained-by-someone-else horses. And, in fact, their thinking is often all about what was done wrong in said breaking/training such that their poor horse is not trusting. Sometimes they have a good point. And sometimes they are missing the point completely (in my opinion—obviously). But one thing is for sure, they haven’t been the one putting the first rides on a bunch of colts. Like everyone else, these folks are entitled to their own opinions, and I have nothing but respect for them if they are having a happy life with their own horses. But we can’t exactly discuss breaking and training methods on an equal footing. What works in theory is not always (or even usually) what works in practice. And the things I am writing about here are things I learned that work—and know this because I learned them by actually climbing on a bunch of colts and doing the work to set them on the path to being broke horses.
So I sometimes have a hard time with the sort of discussions that come up with people who actually have not climbed on a bunch of colts, but boy do they think they know how it should be done.  Such people have in the past said/implied to me that these traditional methods are harsh and “kinder/gentler” methods work just as well. All I can say to this is that until you have actually done the work of breaking colts and produced some well-trained horses that stay reliable under pressure, you don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. By all means you should work with your own horses as you see fit and I wish you and your horses health and happiness. 
The other thing that bugs me is the fear that someone will try this stuff in their own backyard, never having seen it done by a competent horseman, not knowing how to read a horse, and with no idea how badly things can go wrong. This haunts me. So I’ve decided not to talk about the bitting up and the later training that we did. There is so much potential for it to be abusive and for a real wreck to happen—even if the horseman means well-- but hasn’t had a lot of experience.
So far everything I’ve talked about is pretty straight-forward, though I will stress again that to get good results you have to be able to read a horse and respond appropriately to what he is communicating. This last post will talk about what we tried to get done in the first month of riding.

We rode a horse in the bull pen anywhere from once to half a dozen times, depending on the colt. But we always left the bull pen as soon as we felt reasonably confident that the horse had accepted the notion of being ridden. It is important to keep moving on and doing new things—it does not benefit a young horse to become bored and frustrated with being ridden. Boredom and frustration can be worked through with more tying. Riding should be engaging and interesting for the horse at this stage.
            So rides are kept short—maybe half an hour if in the arena, and an hour at the longest—if we went outside. We went outside as soon as we thought it would work. Usually with an older horse along as a babysitter. Ideally we found a long uphill stretch and if the colt was “up” we trotted (the long trot is the gait of choice for colts) until the young horse really wanted to walk. Trotting a young horse uphill until he wants to walk is a wonderful lesson. The colt gets to stretch his legs, see some country, figure out he CAN relax, and there is no need to fight with him. The hill does the work. Deep sand will work for this, too. But again, not too long. As soon as the young horse was tired and wanted to walk we went back.
            At this point I want to address a couple of common problems. The first one is spooking. Some horses are spooky—they just are. You won’t train this out of them. The way to deal with a spook remains the same from the beginning of a horse’s training until he is 20 years old. You are riding along with light contact and the horse sees something he doesn’t like the look of and spooks sideways. Some give a warning, some don’t. Some spook a lot harder than others. It doesn’t matter. You ride it the same.
            I don’t know how people who ride in English saddles do it, but here is what we did/do. As you feel the horse begin to spook, or think about spooking, you maintain your gentle contact on the reins. You might increase it a touch, in a steadying way, but you darn sure don’t pull on the horse. You keep your legs out of the horse and very loose. You sit deep in the saddle and you grab the horn if you need to. You ride the spook (if you’d like to see what this looks like, watch a cutting run and observe the rider’s posture—you ride a spook exactly the way you ride a cutting horse), and when the horse is done with his jump, you pick up gently on the reins and bump him lightly with your heels and indicate that we’re moving on now. No big deal. You never make a big deal out of a spook. You more or less ride it and ignore it.
            If the colt tries to throw his head in the air after a spook and scatter, you double him. Initially you just double him until you have his attention, as gently as you can, and then ask him to move on, using your broke babysitter horse to give him a lead. But if, as time goes on, the colt repeatedly tries to throw his head and bolt after a spook, you double him much harder and use the spur to make it uncomfortable. The message should be plain. You may spook, but you stay in my hand and you may not—ever—try to run off. Once again, the tying around that you did is critical here.
            About the spurs—we usually rode colts with our spurs on. There were exceptions. A very sensitive horse, we’d take them off. I never wore them on the first few rides because I wasn’t totally confident that I could keep them out of a colt if he scattered, and it is absolutely the worst thing you can do to spur a colt by accident when he jumps because he’s scared. But in general spurs help to make the young horse light and responsive to leg cues. Properly used they are a blessing to both horse and rider. Most people who have trained horses will understand this.
            And this gets us to the second common problem. The horse that is resistant, or “doggy” and doesn’t want to move out. Spurring such a horse doesn’t work very well. It just makes him mad. As I mentioned in the last post, the approach we used was to “over and under” the horse with the long reins—which had a popper on the ends. This caused the colt to jump forward and in the case of a doggy horse, this is what you want—that “forward.” So we would ask the horse to move out, very gently, with a soft touch of the spur, and if he did not do so, he was over and undered. If this is done consistently in the early rides and the rider does not get in the habit of thumping on the horse’s sides to get him to move, it is very much to the horse’s advantage in his future training.
            We also used this “over and undering” on a horse that wanted to sull up and thought about bucking in a resistant way (rather than a fearful way). These horses were usually a bit “doggy” and when we would feel such a horse “balling up” (hunching his back as if he was thinking about bucking, while resisting moving forward) we would over and under that horse quick smart. The typical reaction to this is to jump forward with the head up, and, though it seems a bit counter-intuitive at first—it actually took a horse’s mind off of bucking pretty reliably. It also works well with a horse that wants to balk and thinks of rearing. It’s important to do the over and undering BEFORE the horse is actually bucking or rearing. You do it when you feel the horse ball up in a resistant, balky way. The idea is not to punish the horse, but rather to get him to move forward smartly in response to the leg cue and not to think about resistance.
            There is one more potential problem—but it wasn’t very common in the QH type horses that I worked with. However I did run across it in a couple of horses I trained, so I’ll mention it here. This is the horse that doesn’t spook sideways when alarmed, but rather leaps forward. The forward leap rapidly escalates into a full on bolt. The trick with this sort of horse is to take his head and double him before he gets that first jump in. So if you even felt him think about making that jump, you doubled him.
            Anyway, we rode outside as much as we could. The object was to get the colt to “line out” in a long trot. If at all possible we had the colt follow a broke horse in the early rides and then take turns taking the lead. The goal was to have the colt gain confidence in being ridden and to learn to carry the rider at steady pace. Following a broke horse on a jaunt through the countryside is overall pleasant work for a colt and to begin with, as the colt is getting used to being ridden, it’s important to keep it pleasant.
            Any time a colt would try to bolt or buck, he was doubled. Any time he sulled up or balked, he was over and undered with the reins and made to jump forward. Mostly we just covered country. Again, rides were only about an hour. We did not want these young horses to feel exhausted or overwhelmed.
            Once a young horse would line out easily and seemed pretty confident in being ridden, we would go back to the arena—if we had an arena—and work a bit on getting a “handle” on him. This would usually happen at about the sixty day mark. Again, if I was working on my own horse, I did things as the horse seemed to need them, with no time frame driving me. But when we were starting colts for a ranch or clients, the typical goal was to put 90 days of initial riding on the colt (usually a three year old) and at the end of these 90 days the colt would be “green broke,” and often would be turned out until his 4 year old year.
            Green broke horses were still in the snaffle (or bosal, if that was your way), but definitely still in the two rein stage. They were supposed to be reasonably reliable about not bucking or bolting, though it was accepted that they would be “looky” as befits a youngster. They were supposed to know how to pick up the trot and lope when cued, collect a bit at each gait if asked, take the correct lead, and stop on a cue. Also back up, and turn easily to the right or left. They should understand how to move off the rider’s leg.
            I’m not going to talk about the way we taught these things, for the reasons I explained earlier. Without watching an actual horse respond to cues, my descriptions just won’t tell you that much. And there is much potential for abuse and/or a wreck. Find someone you like and trust and work with/learn from them. Choose a person who produces calm, confident, relaxed, well broke riding horses that seem content and you won’t go far wrong. Hopefully this brief series of posts has given you an idea how we began the process of making ranch horses that were reliable throughout their lives and a pleasure to ride.