Sunday, December 21, 2008

Press Release: The Book of Mules

The following press release may be used with my permission in your publication:

Donna Campbell Smith newest release, The Book of Mules (Lyons Press 2008) has hit the bookstore shelves just in time for the holidays. Smith launched the book’s debut with a book signing at The Coffee Hound Bookshop in downtown Louisburg, North Carolina with the cover mule, Sadie Mae, in attendance. Many of the book signing’s visitors shared their memories of having a mule on the farm when they were young. Children were allowed to pet Sadie Mae and give her special mule treats provided by owner, Shannon Hoffman. Hoffman is on the board of directors of the Carolina Mule Association.

The book is a celebration of mules, those long-eared hybrids that helped carry pioneers west, till the tobacco and cotton fields of the South, and serve in the military throughout America history. Today, they are still working hard in fields, working as pack animals, as favorite mounts for trail riders and are still used in the military. In fact, any place you find horses you are likely to find a mule whether it is it is the show arena or in the back forty.

While not a mule owner herself Smith has been involved in the horse industry for over thirty years. She interviewed mule experts from all over the country in writing this, her third book for The Lyons Press. Most of the photography is also by the author with other pictures submitted by various organizations and individuals.

The Book of Mules covers the history and origin of the mule and the care, selection, breeding and showing of mules. One chapter is devoted to festivals held across the country that celebrate the mule, an honor unique to the hybrids of the equine world. A list of resources and glossary will help readers who are new to the world of mules extend their knowledge.

Donna writes from her home in Franklinton, North Carolina. She has worked in the horse industry for over thirty years as a trainer, instructor and breeder of Arabian horses. She has an AAS Degree in Equine Technology from Martin Community College, where she also took extended courses in art and composition. She is a certified riding instructor and served many years as a Master NC 4-H Horse Program Volunteer.

Smith wrote her first non-fiction book, The Book of Miniature Horses, published by The Lyons Press three years ago, collaborating with photographer Bruce Curtis of Long Island, New York. Next, Smith both wrote and photographed The Book of Draft Horses.
In addition, Smith has two children’s historical fiction novels in print with Faithful Publishing. Pale as the Moon and An Independent Spirit are set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and were inspired by the wild horses that have roamed free there for over 400 years. She also writes for several regional and national magazines including Our State, Carolina Country, Stable Management Magazine, USA Equestrian, Young Rider, The Chronicle of the Horse, Boys Life, and The Gaited Horse.

The Book of Mules retail 22.95
ISBN 978-1-59921-283-8
Published in 2008 by The Lyons Press, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Book of Mules and Sadie Mae

Yesterday I launched The Book of Mules with an event that was the most fun I’ve ever had doing a book signing. I owe it all to Shannon Hoffman’s mule, Sadie Mae. Sadie greeted folks at the front of The Coffee Hound Bookshop in downtown Louisburg, NC. She endured picture-taking, petting and even gave one visitor a ride, for four hours. Needless to say, Sadie, whose photo is on the cover of The Book of Mules, was a huge hit with everyone, from the youngest to the oldest.

Since writing The Book of Mules I have found that people in the south all have a mule story. Some remember working in the tobacco fields along side mules that could tell time. When it was time to quit and go home there was no stopping the mule from doing just that, or so I was told by a lady who stopped to visit Sadie and buy a book. A gentleman who was just dropping by for coffee shared with me his knowledge of a nearby town that was a mule metropolis in the heyday of mules. Creedmore, North Carolina was a huge mule-trading center in the turn of the twentieth century.

Sadie got a few cookies to reward her hours of patience. She took one look at the books she delivered to The Coffee Hound, but once she determined they were not eatable she lost interest. Shannon shared a little about Sadie’s history. Sadie once worked as a pack mule out west. She now lives with Shannon’s other mule, Seven, a donkey named Chester and a mustang. Shannon told us Sadie was very good on trails and tolerates “borrowed” riders.

My artist friend, Tiger Faircloth, did some sketches of Sadie and several people snapped photos. Children who visited Sadie were shown how to feed a mule treats and Sadie enjoyed several more cookies. Once the day came to an end, and it was dark, Sadie was relieved to hop back in her trailer. We all said our goodbyes and thanked Sadie and Shannon for a fine afternoon of fun and learning more about mules.

My thanks go to Shannon and Sadie, and all the folks who shared their mule stories and bought copies of The Book of Mules. Stay turned for my next event which will be in late January.

If you missed out on yesterday's event you can buy the book any place that sells books. If they do not have it in stock, please ask that they order if from The Lyons Press. The ISBN is 978-1-59921-283-8 and if you are local there ae signed copies left at The Coffee Hound Book Shop. Call Millie at 919-496-6030 to order one.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Got My Comp Copies of The Book of Mules

My comp copies of The Book of Mules were delivered by the Fed Ex guy yesterday just in time – I was backing out of my driveway when he came up the lane.

The Book of Mules, what that all about?” Ronald asked as he came up the walk laden with two big heavy boxes.

“Well, I am a writer, I wrote The Book of Mules and those are my comp copies. You want to see them?” I invited as he brought the boxes into the living room. I cut the tape open with my car key, which was still in my hand.

“Yes!” Ronald said. He thumbed through the pages and began to tell me about mules he’d known in his life. He told me in his home county, when he was growing up, folks used mules for tobacco farming.

I invited Ronald to my book signing. He delivers packages to The Coffee Hound Bookshop, where I’ll be launching The Book of Mules. Sadie Mae, whose photograph is on the book cover, will be coming to this book signing. I am excited. I know she’ll be a big hit.

So, Ronald the FedEx guy was first to see my new release. Later, I took a copy downtown to show Millie Cannon, owner of The Coffee Hound. We discussed how new books smell good.

My next trip was that evening to deliver books and sale sheets to Shannon Hoffman, owner of Sadie Mae and two other mules whose photographs I took. Shannon was an immense help to me in my research in writing The Book of Mules. She loaned me her entire library of mule books, gave of her time so I could take pictures of her mules, and provided encouragement and friendship. I don’t know how I could have met my deadline without her.

Contrary to popular belief, writers do not make very much money. It’s the perks that keep us going. I suppose we writers are rather egocentric because we love knowing people read what we write. My perks also include the friends I’ve made through interviews and photography sessions, book store owners, editors, fellow writers and, of course, my readers. Money is good; don’t get me wrong. But, if it were not for these people I have met in the process writing would be just another job, a very lonely job.

I am fortunate to have a writing niche -- horses. Horses have been a major part of my life for over thirty years. Now that I am entering my “golden” years I no longer run a barn or ride, so my writing help keep me involved in the horse industry vicariously. It is like having grand children that I can love and then hand back over to their Mamas; I can meet all these really neat equines, but I don’t have to shovel their poop and lift their hay bales.

The Book of Mules is my third non-fiction book, but the first one to feature my photos in full color. The design team did a wonderful job putting it all together so it is a very attractive book. It helps to have the one and only, beautiful Sadie Mae on the cover. Sadie captured my heart from day one when I went to Shannon’s farm to photograph her mules. I hope Shiloh and Seven’s feelings were not hurt that I used the most film on Sadie. I have been promised a mule ride, and these old bones might ache a while after, but I am looking forward to it.

You can buy your copy of The Book of Mules anywhere books are sold. If they haven’t stocked it yet give them the following information and they can order it. You can also order it online from or one of the online bookstores like

The Book of Mules
Publisher – The Lyons Press
ISBN 978-1-59921-283-8
Retail $22.95

And while you are ordering you might also want to consider my other two titles with The Lyons Press: The Book of Draft Horses and The Book of Miniature Horses.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pale as the Moon

When I was a child I was fascinated by stories about early explorers and pioneers of America. I was even more intrigued by stories about Native Americans. My obsession was probably first ignited by stories my Daddy told me that he heard from his father and grandfather. Growing up in the fifties and sixties the western genre was popular in TV shows and movies. By the time I was in the third grade I’d read everything our local library had, fiction and non-fiction, about Native Americans and the pioneer days.

While all this reading was going on I was growing up just an hour’s drive from the Outer Banks. My parents loved to fish, so we made frequent trips to the coast with that purpose. I became more infatuated with the history of the area as I grew older.

I was an adult before I made a career of horses. I had already raised three children when the opportunity came for me to enroll in the equine tech program at Martin Community College.

So, it is only natural that I combined those three loves: Native American history, the Outer Banks and Horses, when I wrote Pale as the Moon. Gray Squirrel and Heita Hoonoch are childhood playmates put in a different setting and time, but close friends all the same.

I didn’t know we had wild horses on the Outer Banks until much later in life. I hadn’t even given it much thought that people fished and lived on North Carolina’s coast eons before a white man ever set foot on our shore. I guess I learned that in elementary school when we were taught North Carolina History. It was reinforced the first time I saw the outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony.”

Forty some years later while reading Daniel Barefoot’s Touring the Backroads of north Carolina’s Upper Coast I came across a tidbit of information on page 140 that gave Pale as the Moon its conclusion. As far as I am concerned it is the logical answer to the Lost Colony mystery. In 1956, while I was voraciously reading books about Indians, artifacts of English and Native American culture were discovered near East Lake in a common mound. Forever lost to future investigation in the name of progress, the mound was covered back up and the canal digging carried on. I believe the English colony moved in with a lakeside village, but how did they find it? Someone showed them the way. Why not a young Native American girl who had become close friends with one of the English families?

So, a young Native American girl befriends a wild colt. Together, led by a series of dreams and empowered by the speed and stamina of the horse, she rescues a motley crew of English invaders. Along the way she rides like the wind with the sea spray on her face and the sea gulls laughing with glee. What an adventure, to be the first American to ride a horse. What an adventure to meet a boy her own age who sailed to America from across the vast Atlantic Ocean. Who better than a young child to realize the need for peace between two peoples whose cultures were so different.

I like to picture a much younger version of myself on vacation with her family at the Outer Banks. She sits on the cottage porch in a wooden chair, big enough to curl up in, with a book that will transport her back into a different century. She hears the whinny of a lost foal through the roar of gale force winds. She sees a vision of white sails when she glances up from her book to look across the breakers. Between the screeches of sea gulls she hears the soft voice of a Paspatank girl, just about her age. She turns the pages and joins in the celebration of the corn dance. She dreams. Her heart races with anticipation as Heita Hoonoch stretches his neck to take the ear of corn from her lap. She smells the sun and sea in his mane.

More pages turn, more adventures await. She IS Gray Squirrel. She knows the secret of the Lost Colony.

Order the book at Faithful Publishing

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Writing An Independent Spirit: The Tale of Betsy Dowdy and Black Bess

I first learned the story of Betsy Dowdy when I was doing research for an article about the Corolla Wild Horses. I read about this young girl who, like Paul Revere, rode to warn, “the British are coming” in Daniel Barefoot’s book, Touring the Backroads of North Carolina’s Upper Coast.

I liked this story because it was about one of North Carolina’s many heroic women, a gutsy young woman who passionate about horses. Horses are a wonderful equalizer for girls—they give them strength, speed, and stamina; they make them taller than grownups. I see it all the time as a riding instructor—little girls who may or may not be particularly athletic gaining confidence on a horse. I want girls to know they can do anything they want to do, and if they feel passionate about something they should follow their hearts.

My connection to the Outer Banks is from having a mother who loved to fish. We lived near the coast in Plymouth, about 80 miles inland from Manteo; and made frequent fishing trips to the beach. My other connection has to do with horses. I have worked in the horse industry for over 30 years. I became interested in our Banker Ponies and wrote some articles about them. I don’t know that I have any connections to the Revolutionary War—I’m, not THAT old.

Today’s girls and boys still love horses, but most don’t have the freedom to roam and ride across country like Betsy did. As a parent I would be as disturbed as Mrs. Dowdy was in my book to think my daughter was off doing those reckless and dangerous things.

In my research at the state archives I found documentation that a Josiah O’Dowdy lived on Currituck Banks in the 1700s. He had a daughter named Betsy. We can only guess if she was the Betsy in the legend. I think most legends are based on true occurrences, although some details get changed around in the telling and retelling.

It is the desire of most teenagers to be independent. Through personal experience they learn freedom comes with a price. Even Betsy knew that before she could go ride on the beach the chores had to be done. On a larger scale she nearly paid with her own life for the freedom to keep her home and the ponies on the Currituck Banks. But, Betsy didn’t really concern herself with the revolution until it hit close to home and endangered what she held dear. I am afraid many of us are like that; we live in our own little worlds without worrying too much about what goes on somewhere else. Then we are shocked when we are threatened personally.

I wrote the book in first person, from Betsy’s view point because her name and the horse’s name were so similar that I needed to find a way to avoid the repetition. I wanted to show the mother-daughter conflict, that I was sure my readers would relate to. Mrs. Dowdy’s journal entries seemed the best way to do it. I love reading books written in that format. It’s like being naughty and reading someone’s diary. I hoped it would show readers how parents worry and scold, but all the while the motive is their love for their children.

The Banker ponies have survived for over FOUR centuries, two since Betsy’s story. The thing we can learn from Black Bess is that the horses are an important part of not just North Carolina’s heritage, but also our country’s heritage. They are worth preserving to remind us of our history. Sixty years ago the horses on the Outer Banks numbered in the thousands, now there are only about three hundred left. In the last half a century they have succumbed to disease, starvation, collisions with vehicles and, inconceivably, some horses have been shot and killed by “vandals.” If it were not by the efforts of a few citizens who love the horses like Betsy did, they would be all gone by now. So, what I hope can be learned from Black Bess is that these horses are worth saving; and what can be learned from Betsy is that one person can make a difference.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Paso Finos: Are They Suitable for Kids?

Paso Finos: Are They Suitable for Kids?

Monday, June 30, 2008

Snoopy Was A Good Barn Cat

Snoopy Was A Good Barn Cat

I have acquired an uninvited cat at my house. I’d seen it a couple of time wandering around the farm and decided to ignore it and expected it to go away. That was until one night after dinner and I’d settled down to watch some TV before going to bed, I heard a “meow” coming from my front porch. I looked out the window and there it was. Front paws on the windowsill, it stood on its hind legs trying to see inside I guessed. ‘Meow!” clearly translated, “Please feed me.”

I did.

It’s still here.

Turns out this ugly, yellow, and white cat is very friendly. Most bizarre is Ugly and my Jack Russell Terrier, Barnie, seem rather fond of each other. Of course Barnie is on his lease whenever they are together, but they do a lot of sniffing and the cat rubs Barnie’s face and Barnie wags his tail and all seems to be very amiable.

Ugly has already proven herself as a huntress. She has caught at least one mouse, some creature that by the time I saw it I couldn’t identify, and a squirrel. If I had a barn Ugly would be welcome as a barn cat.

Having a cat around for the first time in about fifteen years brings back memories of other cats that earned their keep as barn cats. One in particular was named Snoopy.

Barn cats are survivors and my Snoopy was no exception. The very fact that she reached adulthood among stomping hooves, farm machinery, and various predators proved it. And furthermore she was the sole survivor of a five-kitten litter. Admittedly, I didn't do a lot for my barn cat, except feed her down in the hay barn and make sure when the vet came to vaccinate the horses that she got her shots.

The hay barn was her haven. She could squeeze in and out of a crack in the bottom of the door, which made it inaccessible to anything bigger than her. The steps to the loft offered an additional fortress. Mama Snoopy made her stand on the third step, snarling and swatting at whatever pest came in reach, including kittens she was ready to wean.

Snoopy was small and black, genetic qualities she passed on to her offspring. She seemed to like me and most other folks. She even tolerated my two-year-old granddaughter, who always wanted to pick her up--by the neck. But Snoopy hated dogs and sent them yelping home for help! The neighbors' Irish Setter didn't dare enter the barn yard he had been humiliated by Snoopy so many times. He just sorta slinked by the driveway, peeking toward the barn to make sure he could safely make his way down the road without being attacked.

Whenever I was tempted to list cat food as a rodent-control expense in my books, a late night visit to the barn would reveal that the rodents were alive and well. Snoopy seemed to have more of a taste for birds than rats. The telltale pile of feathers I often found on the floor attested to that. Occasionally I would find a dead, but uneaten mole at the feed room door, they must have smelled funny to her. And I do suppose she killed some mice; it's just that their population was too much for one cat to control.

Nevertheless, she was a talented huntress and protector. Birds, moles and mice were not her only prey. I once watched in fascination for an hour while she killed a snake. I could tell it wasn’t poisonous, but Snoopy took no chances. Either way, it was a threat to her kittens. She cunningly timed her strikes exactly, always dodging the snake's fangs. Over and over again she did that until finally, she weakened the reptile enough to come in for the kill. She chewed off its head and left the snake lying dead, then went back to her kittens.

I suppose, though, my barn cat's real usefulness lied in the companionship she shared with me on especially lonely or cold days. Then I welcomed her warmth as she sat on my lap, purring. Also Snoopy's consistency managed to lend some order to an otherwise disorderly world. She was always there. She would greet the car when I drove into the barnyard and followed me to the feed room, meowing persistently that I feed her FIRST. She got under my feet, nearly tripping me while I did my chores. She followed me into my office and sat on my desk while I did the books. And eventually she would sit on the book, as if to say she deserved my undivided attention. Many times I had to shoo her out and shut the door before I could get any paperwork done.

Useful or not, I guess Snoopy just sort of fit into the atmosphere of my barn; things were never the same without her. Snoopy died of old age. A miracle considering what a gutsy outdoors cat she was. Next a black and white tomcat named Sylvester guarded my barn. He didn't have as much character as Snoopy. It could be I didn’t really try to get to know him. He did catch mice, presented them to me like he wanted to win my approval. Finally we became friends, too.

But Ugly is not going to win me over. I don’t have a place for another animal here. I don’t have a barn, just a garage. If she wants to hang out around here she is on her own. All she’s getting from me is food, well; I guess I have to get her shots and wormer. And get her spayed (or neutered, I am not really sure about her gender.) But, she’s not coming in the house. I draw the line at that. Well, maybe just if it gets really cold this winter.

Monday, June 9, 2008

So, what is a Presbyterian Doing in a Cowboy Church?

For those who don’t know what a Cowboy Church is I’ll share a little history. In the city of Nashville, Tennessee Dr. Harry Yates and his wife felt led to a new ministry that would serve the thousands of tourists that flocked to the Country Music Capital of the World every year. In keeping with the country/western theme of Nashville, he started the cowboy style services in the Silverwater Lounge of the Holiday Inn. Show business folk in the city found this simple come-as-you-are form of worshiping comfortable as well. Soon Yates’ Cowboy Church outgrew their meeting place and they moved to a larger place, added more services, and from there more Cowboy Churches were organized across the country and internationally as well.

Dress is causal at Cowboy Church and the theology is simple. Salvation is through Christ Jesus the Son of God, the Bible is our instruction book for life, and prayer opens a direct line from us to God. The services vary from traditional protestant to a more Pentecostal style. Either type is still a bit foreign to this lifelong Presbyterian, but I feel perfectly at home sitting in a folding metal chair in a large open sided horse stable worshiping with a small congregation. Our sanctuary overlooks the pastures of large equestrian center where horses meander by during the Sunday morning service. Horses having been a major part of my life for many years, this was an added plus.

I began attending the Thursday night service when I had horses at the stables. On Sundays I flip flopped from going to the huge Presbyterian Church in town where services were held in a new multi-purpose room that seemed more like a basketball court than a church, and a small country Baptist church with stained glass windows and a caring congregation. But, honestly, most Sundays I was not going to church at all.

When I learned Tar River Cowboy Church had added Sunday services I started going with a friend. My visits were sporadic, but I’d grown completely away from the large Presbyterian Church. I grew up in a small town and my home church is a small Presbyterian family-feeling church. I just could not find that family feel in the big church after I moved from home. I felt welcome in the country Baptist church, I not at home.

Again, I have to be honest and say what drew me first to Tar River Cowboy Church was pure laziness. I found myself liking that I could wear blue jeans and not feel out of place. I didn’t have to dress up for church. So, on Sunday morning when out of pure determination to “go to church” someplace, I chose the easy one.

Soon there were other things that drew me to the Cowboy Church. One was music. Their music were the same songs my daddy played on guitar when he'd sing me to sleep at night, and Mama hummed while she did the housework. I also found the prayer part of the service real and personal, like we were talking to God in a person-to-person conversation. Reverend Frank Eatman’s sermons didn’t seem so much like sermons as teachings. There are also some men who fill in and “lay preach” as we Presbyterians call it. Cowboy church calls it helping out Frank. These men are the real deal, too. They speak from their hearts, from God's word, to our hearts.

I have begun to look forward to Sunday mornings and going to worship God with the people that are Tar River Cowboy Church. I have begun to remember names, even if I have to write them down on sticky notes inside my Bible. I feel more and more like Tar River Cowboy Church was where I belong. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you ask me what denomination I belong to I’ll tell you I am a Presbyterian. Its kind telling you I am a Campbell. I grew up in Plymouth Presbyterian Church. I learned my Catechism there, was confirmed, married, had my children baptized, and attended the funerals of my sister, father and mother in that church. Those ties will never break. But, while I am living away from my hometown I think this little Cowboy Church in Franklin County, North Carolina feels right homey. And while I like going to church in my blue jeans, it’s the people that draw me there now: down to earth good people, Bible-believing, praying, loving people who are not afraid to stand up for Jesus even if they are standing in cowboy boots on the dirt floor of a horse barn.

Friday, June 6, 2008

I'm Rooting for Big Brown

I’m rooting for Big Brown to win. I like his name. It’s not a phrase, not clever, or meaningful. They didn’t take part of his dam’s name and part of his sire’s name and try to make a new word. Nope, it’s just plain Big Brown.

I’ve spent the better part of my day Googling to learn just how big he really is; how many hands, his weight, something to do with his size. The only thing I’ve learned is he has a big chance of being the next Triple Crown Winner. And, it’s been thirty years since we’ve had one. Came close a couple of times, but the last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. Two others won the elusive honor in the 70s: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Secretariat in 1973. See those names are nice, but they don’t really sound like a horse. The name Affirmed sounds like a statement, not a name. And although I had the honor of meeting, and touching the great and beautiful Secretariat, his name sounds like a piece of furniture.

Yep, I like the sound of Big Brown. Tells me he is a brown horse, well he’s actually a bay. For you readers who are not horse folk, a bay horse is any shade of brown with black points, meaning it has a black mane and tail and the lower part of its legs are black. And I assume Big Brown is big, as most Thoroughbreds are big, standing at least 16 hands tall. You can tell from his photographs he has long, smooth muscles made for speed and endurance. But I couldn’t find out how tall he is. If you know, please tell me.

I wonder that he may be a little too big for his feet. Several articles mentioned foot problems even before his quarter crack on the left front hoof made the news. They are downplaying the crack. And, since the owners have more money than the average horse owner to deal with this problem it may not be so serious. A quarter crack means the hoof has a crack on the side. In front it is called a toe crack and near the back it is called a heel crack. The severity varies according to whether it starts at the top or bottom of the hoof and the length and depth of the crack, and if it involved the sensitive inner parts of the hoof. Patches and special shoes are common treatments. The staples or sutures used to help Big Brown hold the crack together and hopefully will keep it from getting worse. Bleeding or exudation will warrant such radical procedures like removing part of the hoof wall and further medication and treatment, and rest. Last I read this has not occurred in Big Brown’s case. There is much at stake on the condition of that hoof come race day.

So, I’ll be saying a silent prayer that Big Brown will be the first Triple Crown Winner of the twenty-first century. Go Big Brown! And then, I hope they make sure the crack heals without further ado. He seems to look the part of the invincible racehorse. Reminds me of another legendary horse, “Big Red” nickname of Man O' War, seen pictured above.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Retiring From the Horse Business

As a child I galloped thousands of miles on my imaginary horse, Leafy. He was named that because he ate leaves. I was an adult with children of my own when the first real horse entered my life. Back in those days feed was $2.50 a bag and you could buy hay out of the field for fifty cents a bale.

Our family added a second horse, and then two ponies to our herd. We cleared the three acres of woods we owned with a chain saw and a bush axe. We sunk fence posts and strung fence wire. We build our first barn out of salvaged materials. It was tacky, but serviceable.

The children and I took lessons. We all joined a local saddle club. We had a ball with our horses, riding for hours in the woods and on country roads. The children grew up and I went to college. The local community college offered an equine technology program. By then my barn had expanded. I was boarding horses, giving riding lessons, and had a thriving 4-H Horse club. I wanted to know more. I spent two years going to school sunup till sundown and got my two-year degree in equine technology. I took short courses, became a certified open horse show judge, and was breeding Arabian horses on a small scale. Then came the divorce. I moved from my small hometown and started all over again. I quit breeding and put my heart and soul into teaching. I ended up with a nice little group of clients and school horses. We showed in a few class ‘A’ shows, but most of our showing was at 4-H and small fun shows. I loved every minute of it. And that is what I have done for the past fifteen years. I began writing somewhere in the middle of everything else I did to carve out a living for my grand daughter, who lived with me, and myself.

The other thing that happened while I wasn’t looking was I got older. The physical part of having horses got harder. I know there are sixty-year old women out there that can lift a fifty pound feed bag or bale of hay with hardly a groan. Well, I am not one of those women. The other thing that has happened gradually over the years is the price of horse feed and hay is much higher than it was thirty years ago. The little farm I rented was sold to developers. I have two horses at a nice little place, but it is not set up for a horse business. Expenses are exceeding income.

So, I have decided to “retire” from the horse business, at least from having my own barn and horses. Miraculously, I have found someone willing to give my dear old mare a home. A couple, who are young and full of dreams and goals, and most of all, energy. I am turning over all my “horse junk” to them. They are building stalls, planting pasture, and putting up fences just like we did so long ago. When they have all that done Mira, and her pasture mate Nisha, will go to their farm. I am already feeling sad, and at the same time have a sense of relief that I will be free of that responsibility. I guess it can be compared to empty nest syndrome. Miramar and I have been through a lot together. I’ve sat up with her when she was sick and when she delivered her foals. I’ve been mad at her when she’d fling a fit at the horse show, thrilled when she’d win the blue or even the pink. We’ve been together so long, over the years, we can almost read each other’s minds. But, I don’t feel like I can afford to care for her, and what if she out-lives me?

I am scared of how I’ll manage life without a horse. I know I will miss my old girl. Who will listen to me with those black, knowing eyes? Where will I go to cry when life gets hard? How will I manage without the children giggling in the barn that make me giggle, too? I have Barnie, my JRT, but he just doesn’t understand. He thinks life is about barking at squirrels and everything is so darn exciting to him. He can’t sit still for me to cry on his shoulder.

Well, I guess life is in one of those changing modes and I’ll just have to wait and see what’s next. Maybe I’ll travel across country, go to Alaska, or to the beach. I won’t have to worry who’s going to take care of the horses, and Barnie can come along. He’ll show me just how exciting life can be. Maybe I’ll bark at some squirrels.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Searching for Marsh Tackies

Searching For the Marsh Tacky

Deborah knew where they were. I was visiting my daughter in South Carolina, where I have developed a deep interest in my State’s wild horses. Now, I wanted to see South Carolina’s wild horses, known locally as marsh tackies.

She drove us down long back roads, lined with trees that dripped Spanish moss. Finally we reached her destination, a private road on one of the many islands in Beaufort County. At the end of the road a barbed wire fence ran between the marsh and the road.

Not a horse in sight anywhere. We pondered the idea of pulling in someone’s driveway to ask. But none were “inviting.” So we turned around to leave. That’s when we saw a gentleman walking some dogs.

Deborah stopped along side of him to inquire about the wild horses.

“They don’t exist,” he replied, “And we’re all friends down here, so if we catch anyone trespassing we stick together.” Nope, not inviting at all. Deborah’s smile warmed him a little. He told us that one had gotten mired down in the marsh a while back. It took a community effort to rescue the horses, which then made the news. With that came activists who were upset the horse was “allowed” to wander in the muddy marsh. “They aren’t owned by anyone,” he said in a no-nonsense tone.

“Do you know anywhere else we might find some to photograph,” I asked, and explained I was a writer working on a book about east coast wild horses. That’s when he told us all about the man who had a hundred of them and loved to talk about them and show them off. “The paper ran a story about them just a while back.”

Encouraged by that information we went home and looked the article up on The Beaufort Gazette’s website. Next day, armed with the name, DP Lowther, we drove to Ridgeland, SC. It wasn’t easy finding Mr. Lowther’s farm since the road sign had been stolen, but after asking directions twice we were successful. Mr. Lowther wasn’t around, but a farm worker gave us permission to go look and take pictures.

Mr. Lowther, according to the Gazette article, breeds and sells the Marsh Tackies. His 250-acre farm provides them plenty of roaming room. The horses varied in color and range in size from about 14 to 15 hands. While chestnuts were the dominate color, I spied a beautiful little dun that after inspiring a certain amount of curiosity on his part got close enough to the fence for me to snap some photos. Roans, blacks and one gray also stood out in the pasture.

After taking two rolls of film we went back to thank the gentleman for letting us see the horses. He took time to tell us an amusing story. He said it was a July 4th weekend that the stallion, who was up in the barn for the night, unlocked his stall door, trotted down the lane to a pasture where fifty mares were kept, tore down the fence, herded up his girls and took them down the road and into town.

“The mare’s weren’t that hard to catch, but the stallion hid in the woods for a few days before I found him.” The farmer chuckled. Evidently the little stallion was tired of the game, because he let himself be led home with only a lead rope wrapped around his neck.

I took one last glance at the pastoral scene. The descendants of horses ridden by colonial explorers, bred by English farmers to plow, ride and drive. In the 1950s when automobiles and bridges to South Carolina’s islands made the horses obsolete some horses were simply turned loose to fend for themselves. They ran wild for a few more years, and then were gradually pushed aside for development and progress. If it were not for a handful of people like Mr. Lowther, who saw a reason to preserve this part of Low Country heritage, they would all be gone.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Molly the Guard Donkey

The air was pleasantly cool for May in North Carolina. A light breeze caressed my skin as I walked down the shaded farm lane that led to the cow pasture. I was told the cows would probably be in the shade, guarded by a spotted donkey named Mollie.

Yes, that really is Molly’s job; she is a guard donkey. She protects calves from coyotes, dogs or other would-be predators or aggravators that may wander into the pastures at Lynch Creek Farm.

I found the cows, but did not see Molly among them. I walked back up the path, getting a little short of breath on the uphill trek. From the top of the hill and around the green house I could see the front door of the barn. Molly poked her head out the door to see what was up. I followed the farmer into the pasture as he hopped on a tractor to pull a trailer loaded with bales of straw and a bunch of kids giggling and talking. They were bound for a hayride. I asked if I could walk along. As soon as Molly saw company coming she left the barn and took her post with the cows and calves.

By that time others who were taking the Franklin County Farm tour were taking the walk along the path outside the pasture fence. So, Molly had myself and another photographer inside the pasture to watch, plus a whole bunch of folks standing on the other side of the fence. But she took it in good humor, posed for photographers and let a friendly cow approach me for a head scratching.

More and more donkeys are being employed to keep watch over sheep, goats, miniature horses, and other livestock. Coyotes are becoming more common in the east, and pose a threat to small animals, as do stray dogs. Donkeys don’t particularly like canines and are reported to be very good at escorting them out of pastures. The Texas Department of Agriculture reports on their website that donkeys are being used by many ranchers and farmers to guard their herds of livestock, especially the young. Donkeys work around-the-clock, are widely available, inexpensive to keep, and require no special training. Just be sure you don’t get one that has been acclimated to dogs, otherwise they are naturally aggressive toward all canines.

Bob Radcliffe, owner of Lynch Creek, obviously feels some affection toward Molly. He related how the cows did not like Molly at first. “Well, they didn’t know what she was,” he said. But the cows got used to her and now let her boss them around. Bob says he sometimes sees them playing and nipping at each other. Perhaps Molly pretends to be a cutting horse, as Bob says she will herd the cows from place to place. Maybe she senses they are safer when she can dictate to them their movements. She takes her job seriously and the cows seem to appreciate her efforts.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Plow Day

While writing The Book of Draft Horses: The Gentle Giants that Built the World, I learned draft horse owners across the country are using their gentle giants to plow and work fields, mow and rake hay, even for logging. To share memories and pass on their skills to future generations events called “plow days” are held in rural communities.

I attended a Plow Day at the Jimmy Dozier Farm in Rocky Mount, North Carolina earlier this spring. It is an event that has grown bigger every year. Not only were there several teams of draft horses and mules plowing a thirty-acre cornfield, there were other things from the “good old days” on display. An antique car show, folks making grits and cornmeal with a restored burr mill, and a display of old horse powered farming equipment was spread out over Mr. Dozier’s front yard. Hundreds of people were there to watch the horses and see the displays. Rocky the Trick Mule provided entertainment, and there was plenty of food on hand to feed the crowd.

Jimmy has four draft horses, a pair of Belgians and a pair of Spotted Draft horses, which he raised from the Belgians. With the help of his horses, Jimmy plants corn in the thirty-acre field. He also uses the horses to rake his hay fields. He is restoring a horse drawn hay mower so he can also mow it with his horses.

The plow day was attended by hundreds of spectators. Jimmy doesn’t charge anything for the folks to come watch. It’s his gift to the community, and a way to hand down old traditions to the younger generations. Young people who want to try their hand guiding the horses down the furrows get a lesson from Jimmy or one of the other team owners. There is great value in giving the older generations a place to not only show their skills, but also share their stories and reminisce with each other.

My friend and I were admiring the line of antique cars. She remembered someone in her family who had an old car like the one we were stopped next. A man overheard her and stopped to look, too. Then he told his story of how as children he and his siblings used to rider in the rumble seat of the family’s car, a Model A Ford. “Look in there. You can see it’s not a lot of room, and the one we had wasn’t that nice,” he said as my friend and I peered into the tiny back seat of the car on display. That car had been restored beautifully; its rumble seat padded and covered in fine, smooth leather. “And if it rained, then that was just to bad,” he chuckled. You could see the fond memories dancing in his eyes.

We walked back to the plowing field. I snapped more photos. There was no roar of engines, just the jingle of the harness chains and voices of the people talking and laughing as they watched the men and horses at work.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Age of A Racehorse is Not Really Its Age

The age of a racehorse has traditionally been calculated from January 1 of the year it is born. The original purpose was to try and set a standard for eligibility in the various age divisions of horseracing. Over the years this method of determining age in horses has also been applied to show horses and other equine competitors. Using this aging method means a foal born on December 31, 2008 will be a yearling on January 1, 2009, even though it is actually only two days old.

Of course, no one would breed their mare in order to have a one year old that is really two days old, but there are folks who try to have their mares bred so to have foals on the ground as close to the other side of January one as possible. That is because a foal actually born on January one will be a full one year old the next January first. They call that foal a long yearling. On the racetrack, that is an advantage because the yearling will probably be bigger, stronger and faster than the foal born in April or May, the natural time for mares to drop foals. This reasoning in horse showing is pretty much the same, particularly in halter classes. The long yearling is bigger than its competitors, giving it an edge in the judges’ eyes.

To achieve this January birth mares must be manipulated to come into heat at a time of year not natural to horses. This is usually done by hormone therapy, or using artificial lighting to fool the horse’s system into thinking the days are longer and spring has arrived. The foal is born in the dead of winter when it is cold, and before the pasture grasses are up. Everything about this process is artificial.

The racing industry is over-run with health issues, that in my opinion are largely due to the practices of breeding and foaling too early and racing too young. In the year 2004 alone, the Jockey Club, that oversees Thoroughbred breeding and racing, provided $850,000 to researchers to study a host of health problems including foal pneumonia, fertility abnormalities, bone factures and respiratory disorders. Also in 2004 statistics show 243 track horse fatalities in California alone. Each year thousands of racehorses are retired early due to injuries. Many are sold to slaughter, while a few horses are rescued by organizations that try to find homes for them.

I missed the Derby this past Saturday. I’m glad I didn’t witness Eight Belles crumble on the track while giving her heart and life to running the race.

I read an AP article by Richard Rosenblatt, that was posted on my local television station’s website. Rosenblatt quoted Rick Dutrow, Jr., trainer of the winning horse, Big Brown. "No matter what happens, you're always going to see horses break down on the track," he said, "That is part of this game. It's a very sad part of the game, but you have to go through it.”

I guess so. After all we are talking about a multibillion-dollar industry.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mira's Birthday Party

Nineteen people came out yesterday to help me celebrate Mira’s 34th birthday. The guests were mostly former students who had memories of riding “the crazy Arabian” in their lessons with me. One of those students drove two hours with her husband to surprise me!

We cooked hotdogs, compliments of one of the moms. Others brought yummy party fare. The little kids, who are still riding the old mare in their lessons, played games, and had the music turned up high at one end of the barn, and we grownups congregated at the other end on the patio. We sat in lawn chairs and talked and reminisced. They even brought Mira gifts: carrots, apples, mints and horse cookies.

I don’t know how many riding instructors keep in such close connections with their clients after the business relationship has move on. I feel very blessed to have had so many boarders, students, and training clients turn into good friends. I’ve been advised against it in fact. Not good business. And maybe that’s why I’ve never gotten rich in the horse industry. But, friends are more valuable than gold.

Mira was not that easy to get along with in her younger years. She was, and is, an aloof horse, knowing she is somehow superior. In those early days she had her limits to putting up with inept kids bouncing around on her back and bumping her in the mouth with their uneducated hands. She has grown more tolerant in her old age, when you know with her sway back the bouncing is probably more uncomfortable. I think she likes the little ones. Maybe it brings out her maternal instinct?

I no longer run a real riding school. I give just a few lessons, to help pay the feed bill. I can’t keep lifting hay bales and feedbags, getting to old for all that. But I hope I can keep teaching folks to respect their horses and to treat them, and other creatures, with compassion. That includes human beings.

Proverbs 12:10 tell us good people are kind to their animals, but evil men are cruel to theirs. So, I think we call tell a lot about people by the way they treat their animals. At the same time, we should be careful not to go so far to the deep end that we put their welfare ahead of our families and neighbors.

Miramar’s birthday party was a reunion of people who have in one way or another had their lives touched by a horse, either as students or parents or some who had horses in our care. What good are memories if we can’t share them with someone else? Some remembered getting soundly dumped on the ground by Mira, some remembered winning their first ribbon riding her. Others remember her as an aging pasture mate to their own horse.

Mira has been a good horse, and her humans have been good friends. Yep, better than gold.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Horse and Mule Cemetery

My friend and I picked our way over the ditch and through blackberry brambles, stepping cautiously over fallen tree trunks, and then finally onto what appeared to be an old road bed. All I could think was, “It’s warm enough for snakes and ticks.” But we were on a mission to find the mule cemetery my friend told me about months before I’d finished writing The Book of Mules: Selecting, Breeding, and Caring for Equine Hybrids (The Lyons Press to be released 2008)

We’d planned more than once to find this unusual cemetery but weather, illness, and work kept changing our plans. So, there will not be pictures of gravestones erected in honor of beloved work mules in my book. Even, so, after interviewing many retired farmers about working the land with the help of mules and horses, I was interested in seeing this proof of the value of the horse and mule to their owners before tractors came on the farm scene.

The location is just a short distance from a large apartment complex in Durham, North Carolina. Of course, until the later part of the twentieth century the land on which the apartment buildings stood was farmland. The four-lane highway we took to the site was once a dirt road. It’s all changed now.

We followed the obscure roadbed a few yards, and wondered if we’d understood the apartment manager’s directions. Then my friend caught the first glimpse of a tombstone. We went to the top of the small rise and there they were. Ten testaments to a man’s affection for the animals that helped him earn a living for his family for thirty-some years.

After we photographed each inscribed headstone, my friend asked if I’d like to meet the daughter of this man, Mr. F.H. Page, “who loved his animals so well” as he expressed on one of the monuments. Mrs. Ruth Harris is in her early eighties, and she remembers the all of horses and mules buried on that hill. She very graciously agreed to tell me about them.

Ms. Harris says Nell, the Arabian, was a buggy horse that was also a family pet. “She followed us to the fields like a dog.” Nell was even allowed a good wallow in the warm earth after it was plowed and planted, “and it was alright, because she was a pet and Daddy allowed it.”

Rose was a real working mule, and very gentle, Mrs. Harris remembers. Her oldest son, nicknamed Peppy, was especially fond of Rose and Mr. Page had written on her marker, “Pep’s Mule.” Also inscribed onto her gravestone were the words, “very good.” Mrs. Harris told us a story that showed just how good Rose was. Peppy was only about two years old when he wandered out to where Rose stood, and bite her on the leg. “Rose never moved until I got there,” she said. Rose lived to be thirty years old.

Mr. Page bought a taller monument for one horse. On it he had carved the words, “Best of All.” Dan was a bay, five-gaited saddle horse. He was used for work in the fields, but Dan had another talent. He was a racehorse, at least once a year. Mrs. Harris said her dad always raced Dan on the Fourth of July race that took place on Page Road. Yes, right there on what now is the four-lane highway I mentioned before, horses galloped full speed, helping their riders celebrate their independence. That was back when the highway was a dirt road that buggies navigated from the farm homes to town. Back when things were different. I think Mr. Page erected those monuments not only to the horses and mules that worked at his side so many years, but the ten granite stones also memorialize a time when life was harder, but perhaps a lot less hectic. I am glad my friend and I finally found the time to walk through the woods and see the “mule graveyard.”

Inscriptions on the Ten Gravestones of Horses and Mules Once Owned By Mr. Page

Prince – Trotting Horse, chestnut sorrel, white face. 1930-1945
Ted – Fast saddle horse, dark sorrel, white face. 1920-1945
Nell – Beautiful Arabian, fast driving mare, brilliant sorrel, white face, 3 white feet. 1920-1943
Star – Saddle and driving mare, chestnut, white face. 1904-1939
Dan – (taller than other stones) Best of All, 5 gaited saddle horse, bay, black mane (misspelled balck) 1910-1940. Erected by F.H. page, owner of all the animals he loved so well.
Bessie – Driving mare, brown, white face, 4 white feet. 1903-1937.
Kate- Steel gray mule, very intelligent. 1902-1930.
Lulu – Bay mule, very swift. 1902 age 28.
Maude – Brown mule. Very gentle. 1906-1939
Rose – Pep’s mule (Pep was Mr. Page’s grandson) Black mule, very good. 1916-1946.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mira will turn 34 on Friday, May 2nd.


International Half Arabian Association
Registration Number 1A 134448
Foaled May 2, 1974
Sire: Radamar
Dam: Shalimar
Breeder: Tony Seger
Owner: Donna Smith

When Bob Weston, equine director at MCC, told me to ride Mira that morning in 1984 I got a big lump of fear in my throat. Mira was a lively, cantankerous 10-year-old back then.

But, after one ride I knew she was a good horse, and better yet, a good teacher. I learned to jump on Mira. Okay, so I closed my eyes at every “take-off.” But, the important thing was that we always landed safely on the other side, and soon I didn’t want to jump with any other horse but Mira.

Mira was a beautiful mare, very correctly built. One of our grandest moments was the time she won a halter class at an open show, beating a well-known quarter horse stallion owned by Preston Nixon. We were in quarter horse country, so that was a big deal to us. He was a good sport about it, and congratulated us on our lovely mare. She captivated many judges with her conformation and beauty when she was young.

Bred in Indiana, Mira already had an impressive show record long before she came to Williamston to teach college students. She was winning halter classes from the time she was a weanling in 1974. Mira was Indiana State Reserve Champion in halter as a yearling. There were 20 horses in her class. She was Indiana State Champion Mare as a two-year-old and Reserve Champion as a three year old. When she was four years old, she was named Indiana Half Arabian Mare High Point Champion earning points in halter, driving, English pleasure and western pleasure. She placed Top Five at the Indiana Region 13 Championships in halter, and she also placed Top Ten that year at the Ohio Buckeye Arabian Show, which is considered the pre-world championship show. Mira’s picture appeared in Arabian World Magazine. She won countless ribbon in performance classes: western, English and driving, before I met her in 1984. Mira’s grandsire, Muzamar was a national champion park and halter horse, and her great-grandsire, *Muzulmanin, imported from Poland, was also a National Champion stallion.

Mira produced two beautiful foals while she was teaching at Martin Community College. When I bought her it was because I wanted a nice broodmare and show horse.

Mira was an excellent broodmare. She taught my young, impatient stallion what to do. He fell off a couple of times, until he learned to balance on his two hind legs. She never kicked or laughed at him. Well, maybe she snickered just a little.

She was the best mama in the world. She took good care of her babies, but still let us come in to admire and love on them - Magic Mira and Gemini.

But as a show horse she was a challenge. She didn’t haul well in a normal trailer, so I bought a big stock trailer for her. She did very well at shows in outdoor rings, but did not like indoor arenas. She ran away with her riders a few times, would toss her head and protest the whole idea. One time she ran out of her stall while we were putting on her bridle. She didn’t stop running until she got to the end-gate of the main arena. Talk about humiliated! There I was trudging along with empty halter in hand, with Mira wild eyed from her adventure, and a gaggle of terrified 4-Hers sitting on their horses waiting to be attacked by the crazy Arabian.

Mira, in spite of those antics, was a premier lesson horse. She has tolerated dozens, maybe a hundred or more, adults and kids yanking on the reins, bouncing on her back, and kicking her in the sides over the past 20 years. She rewards them when they get it right by responding instantly. She can make the most in-experienced riders look smart. She can still unceremoniously dump the ones who refuse her the respect she deserves.

And now she is 34 years old. She still is patiently teaching. She’s a little gimpy some days, she’s gotten a little low in the back, and she’s a bit thinner. But, the beauty is still there in her talking eyes, and in her spirit. She is the queen of the barn, and we are mere plebeians, created to be at her service.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let Me Introduce Myself

Growing up just a few miles inland from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in Plymouth, North Carolina on the banks of the Roanoke River, I only dreamed of having a horse when I was a little girl. I wasn’t aware that wild horses roamed free on some of the coastal islands where I loved to visit with my parents on numerous fishing trips.

Becoming a professional in the horse industry as an instructor, breeder and trainer was my training ground for writing. I have relied on my thirty years of experience with horses and children, and my lifetime fascination with the history of the Outer Banks to write two historical novels for young readers: Pale as the Moon and An Independent Spirit. I have also written three non-fiction books, The Book of Miniature Horses (Lyons Press 2005.) and The Book of Draft Horses: The Gentle Giant That Built the World, (The Lyons Press 2007), and The Book of Mules, which, will be released by Lyons Press in 2008.

In addition, I’ve done freelance writing for several regional and national magazines including Stable Management Magazine, Western Mule, The Horse, USA Equestrian, Young Rider, The Chronicle of the Horse, Boys Life, The Gaited Horse, Our State, Carolina Country, and Conquistador.

After getting an AAS Degree in Equine Technology from Martin Community College I took extended courses in art and composition. I am a certified riding instructor and have served many years as a Master NC 4-H Horse Program Volunteer. I still teach riding lessons and keep a couple of old mares. You’ll probably read more about them here. I have begun a side career as a photographer since providing the photographs for my last two non-fiction books.

I plan to share my thoughts on writing, horses, and other things here from time to time.