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.