A Tank Update

February 18, 2019

Today is my horse Tank’s 24th birthday! As a registered American Quarter Horse, he “officially” turns a year older on Jan. 1, but I still celebrate his actual birthday—or foal date, as it’s known in the horse world.

As you may remember, back in November I moved him to a new boarding barn. This was wrenching for me, and I was worried about how he’d handle the change. We’d been at our old boarding barn for all of our 15 years together. Happily, he’s done very well overall.

The new barn was still under construction when we moved, but it was completed enough for the horses to move in about a week ago. It’s a big, airy space (and smells like new wood). Tank seems to really like his new stall.

Especially the way it tastes. (Face palm.)

We’ve faced a few challenges since the move—he developed a case of hives, and then a painful hoof abscess—both things have happened before and aren’t related to his new home. I’m also still trying to develop a routine of care and exercise for him. Most recently, though, he spooked one day while I was riding him and threw me. I pulled muscles I didn’t know I had trying to stay on, but I wasn’t seriously hurt. (Apparently there were horse-eating monsters in the woods bordering the field in which we were riding!)

Tank’s new schedule will involve being stalled part of the time and being turned out into various paddocks the rest of the time. He’s still getting used to being turned out in different areas with different horses nearby—he makes it clear he DOES NOT like being the first one turned out or brought in!

All this adjustment to different conditions can be hard on a horse, just like change can be hard for most people, myself included. I try to help him by going to see him as often as possible and not making any other changes in his management.

And while it may feel uncomfortable at first, change can also be beneficial. For horses, it can provide new stimulation and learning opportunities. For humans, change helps us be more flexible and creative. And, really, we’d become bored if nothing ever changed.

I’m trying to make the best of the recent changes in my life, and Tank is, too (I assume. He seems like he’s trying to understand what’s happening, and communicate his feelings about it!) Eventually, these changes will become the new normal…and then any further changes may feel uncomfortable! 

What changes have you experienced recently? How have you been coping?

Comfort zones

Take a Bow

June 09, 2017

A few weeks ago during a riding lesson, in front of six other students and a couple of watching parents, I made an “unscheduled dismount” from Tank’s back. We were practicing a combination of two small fences called a “bounce”—so named because the horse jumps the first fence then “bounces” over the second one without taking a stride. We’d never done this before and, it became obvious, hadn’t quite figured it out.

On one of our attempts, Tank didn’t have enough impulsion going in and had to make a big effort to get over the second fence, consequently “bouncing” me out of the saddle, where I clung to his neck like a scarf, making heroic efforts to stay aboard. Kind of like this (but with less success):

Tank stopped obligingly while I struggled to stay on, but eventually I slid to the ground, landing on my feet.

When I related this story to my friend Laure, she asked, “Did you take a bow?”

Laure’s question made me think about how some failures really need some form of positive acknowledgment—like taking a bow. After all, when we fail at something, we’re most likely pushing our comfort zones or trying to master something new. A spectacular failure comes from taking a big chance or going hard for something we want. That should be celebrated, even if the outcome wasn’t quite what we intended.

I’ve written about failure before, but coping with it is a lesson that bears repeating. Failing is important. It means you’re stretching, growing, and learning. Instead of hiding our failures, we can at least acknowledge them, if we can’t quite imagine celebrating them.

So the next time you fail, spectacularly or not, take a bow. Acknowledge that beautiful failure, be grateful for it, and move on.

Being present

Life Lessons From the Barn: Presence, Harmony, and Connection

March 03, 2017

Horses, like all animals, live in the moment. They’re in tune with their surroundings—aware of the turkey in the next field, the start up of the truck that brings their hay, or if you’ve got a carrot in your pocket. That presence, harmony and connection is something most of us want more of.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been experimenting with what horsemanship instructor Carolyn Resnick calls the Chair Challenge, “sharing territory” with my horse, Tank. Mostly it involves simply sitting in a chair in his paddock. Some days I read, some days I write in my barn journal. Others, I just sit and listen and look. The theory is that this practice develops a stronger bond between us, by “achieving a companionship experience and connection in the moment in harmony and unity.” We so often only spend time with our horses when we want to do something with them, when we have expectations. Simply hanging out allows us both to relax and become more in tune with each other.

When I first started this practice, my mind scrabbled around like a trapped lizard. I found it almost impossible to sit and do nothing. No matter how much I profess to want a present life, I more often than not careen through my day—racing from checking emails, to working out, to writing a blog post to cleaning the bathroom to running errands.

Tank napping next to my chair
At first, Tank was puzzled. Apparently, he’s absorbed my “we must be doing something all the time” attitude, and my journal entries record that he nudged me, nibbled on my magazine, journal, and pen. He still tries to do this sometimes, especially if he’s bored, and I have to shoo him away. At other times he’s happy to stand in his favorite spot looking out beyond the fence line, or doze in the corner of his shelter. I love it when he stands near me, gives a nice long sigh, and we savor the peace of being together with no agenda.  That’s when I realize one of the most pleasurable of the benefits of this exercise: harmony, living in the moment, the sheer pleasure of sharing space with this beautiful animal.

While I still have to fight my desire to “accomplish something” when I go to the barn, I’ve also started to crave the peaceful togetherness of sharing territory. Of hearing the tap-tapping of a pileated woodpecker, the haunting cry of a hawk. Of seeing sand, sky, puffy white clouds, scrubby woods bordering the paddocks. Of feeling Tank’s muzzle nudging me or resting for a moment on the top of my head. The quiet within the quiet. No one around, no sound of traffic or people.

Yesterday, I even found myself using this technique while waiting for a prescription to be filled. I stopped fidgeting, checking my phone for the time and mentally ticking off the next three items on my to-do list, in favor of sitting calmly, breathing slowly, and observing what was going on around me.

So what does this have to do with you, most likely a non-horse owner? The lesson is: if you want peace, harmony and connection, stop, look, listen, and be. Slow down especially when you feel called upon to rush. Quiet your thoughts, let your body relax. Let the moment draw out as long and smooth as possible.

You don’t need a green plastic chair and an American Quarter Horse. Wherever you are, slow down. Pay attention. Don’t miss the daily simple pleasures that are right there for your enjoyment.


The Horse Days of Summer

August 19, 2016

I complain a lot about the heat and humidity here in central Florida, but if I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have my horse. I think it’s worth it. I board him at a small, family-run barn just a few minutes from my house. One of my simple pleasures is being around all the horses at the barn, enjoying the personalities that emerge. For such large, powerful, and beautiful animals, they can be remarkably silly. Here are some photos of a few of Tank’s friends and neighbors.

Elsa (loves peppermints)
Bella (more than a pretty face)
Sensitive Leo

Remy, playing with the broom

In summer, I ride less and hang out more, and just watching the horses is entertaining. For instance, Tank (right) approaching the geldings’ paddock. Asia pretending he doesn't notice him:

 Asia: “Oh, I didn't see you there. What’s up?”

Tank: “Nothing much, just grazing. Out here. And you’re not.”

Tank: “LOL!”

Asia: [Squeals and stomps his foot]

See what I mean? Silly.

What simple pleasure has this summer brought you?


In Which I Compare Myself to a Horse

August 12, 2016

Photo courtesy Ian Dunlop

I’m sure you’re not surprised that I’ve been watching the equestrian events of the 2016 Summer Olympics. One of my favorites to watch is the eventing competition, which has been described as the triathlon for horses. Talk about some gorgeous, fit athletes! And yes, I am referring to the horses. One of the horses from the Brazilian eventing team has an unusual name: Summon Up The Blood. The announcers calling the competition noted that “summoning up the blood” is quite an accurate image of what is needed for this grueling sport.  Though “Bob” (his much less picturesque nickname) didn’t win a medal, he did complete the entire series of events respectably.  Click here to see photos and learn more about him and his rider, Carlos Parro. 

Eventing horses are cared for and pampered in every way possible: from optimum nutrition and carefully thought-out workouts, to chiropractic care and massage, to liniment baths, “ice boots” to cool their hardworking legs, and any number of high tech therapies. They are valuable partners to their riders (not to mention just plain valuable), and no one expects them to do their jobs without proper care.

Why do we expect any less for ourselves?

Yes, I am comparing myself to a horse. Bear with me.

In July and August, we’ve had punishing heat and humidity, and I admit I’m dragging. The slightest effort outside (watering my orchids, for example), leaves me soaked in sweat and ready for a cold drink. I’m tired. I have no ambition. The idea of keeping after my goals, even my indoor ones, does not appeal. I need to “summon up the blood”—find a way to motivate myself all the way to the finish line. I’d love to skip to November when we usually get some cooler weather and I get an energy boost, but I also don’t want to wish away any of my life, not even the hot, sweaty bits.

At this point in the year, I’ve lost the momentum and excitement of a new year, and the adrenaline panic of a waning year hasn’t yet set in. (“Oh, no, it’s December and I haven’t reached my goals yet!) Until then, how can I “summon up the blood” and maintain my motivation and momentum?

Though I’m not quite as well-cared for as Summon Up The Blood, I am placing more emphasis on self-care right now. Since August is a low point for me, energy-wise, now is the time to sprinkle in treats and rest breaks. August isn’t the time for me to start major new projects. It’s the time to set small goals, and break down larger ones into ever smaller, teeny, tiny (easily accomplished) ones. In the ongoing bathroom renovation (yes, we’re still working on it), I’m trying to do one or two things per week. This week I ordered the replacement globes for the light fixture and called myself done.

Now is the time to use my imagination to make the same old, same old more fun and/or easier and quicker.

To lighten up my schedule to allow for my lack of energy. That energy will return, as long as I don’t overdo it now.

I’ve even visited my chiropractor and had a massage to counteract the effects of stripping wallpaper and priming my bathroom walls.

But I do draw the line at ice baths.

Do you have any tricks to “summon up the blood”?


Summer Rerun: Just Call Me a Tortoise

June 24, 2016

Welcome to summer reruns! About once a month, I’ll be sharing a post from the archives. I hope you enjoy this one, from 2011.

“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”Confucius

I like to apply lessons I’ve learned working with Tank and taking riding lessons to other areas of my life. One lesson I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is “It takes the time it takes,” and the corollary, “go slower to go faster.”

I’m not particularly patient. I want to get things done, and I want them done Right Now. However, especially with a horse, I’ve learned that some things absolutely cannot be rushed. They take the time they take, and you’ll be much less frustrated, not to mention safer, if you relax—and sometimes throw out entirely—your expectations. For me, when I’m learning something new (or teaching Tank something new), things go better when I take baby steps. Sometimes to my embarrassment, I’ve become the poster child for baby steps at my barn as my trainer often uses me as an example of someone who takes things slowly. I am not naturally athletic, and frankly, I’m also a big chicken, so yes, I do take things slowly. When I take a step forward too quickly, I often end up taking two steps back. What works for me in riding is breaking down every new skill into small parts, then practicing those parts until I feel completely comfortable with them. Then I can move on.

Baby steps work great for other pursuits, too: cleaning and reorganizing the house, learning to draw and paint, changing diet and exercise habits and so on. The beauty of baby steps is that if each small step is solid, you’ll find yourself making steady progress. You’ll be less likely to stagger forward then backward in fits and starts. In this way, you will go slower to go faster.

Of course, this is what works for me. Each person has his or her own best method for personal growth—my baby steps may drive some people absolutely mad with frustration. This is where you must listen to your heart for direction. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa, so please ignore this advice if you’re more like a hare than a tortoise. Few things make me crazier than to have someone tell me my way is wrong and I should do things differently!

Sometimes I get frustrated, and wish I could progress a bit faster than I do and I have to remind myself that it takes the time it takes. Overall, this slow and steady method works for me. It works for Tank, who gets anxious when he’s not sure what he’s being asked to do. We plod along, tortoise-like, but we’re going forward. And that’s what matters.


Beyond Black Beauty: My Favorite Books Featuring Horses

March 25, 2016

The real-life dream horse
When I was growing up, there seemed to be no chance that I would ever have a horse. Southern California was not the place to own a horse unless you were wealthy, and we were not. I had to content myself with reading about horses, and an occasional trip to the harness races when I visited my dad. Horse books fed my desire for knowledge about horses and gave me details for my daydreams about them. For a very long time, they were my only real connection with horses, and they made a difference in my life for which I’m grateful. 

Here is a list of a few of my favorite books featuring horses. It includes books that kept my childhood dream alive, books I discovered as an adult horse owner (when, astoundingly, my dream had come true), and a few that sound interesting that I haven’t read yet. Even if you’re not a horse lover, these books are fun and/or interesting reads in and of themselves. They might even help you understand why some people, like me, find horses so irresistible.

The Black Stallion series, Walter Farley. I read many of these while growing up, and like many impressionable-but-ignorant, horse-loving little girls, I dreamed of owning an Arab like the Black. I still have my original copy of this book, and I think it’s time to reread it. 

The Bonnie series, Barbara Van Tuyl and Pat Johnson. I adored these books about Sunbonnet and her young owner, Julie Jefferson. The Sweet Running Filly is the first in the series.

A Filly for Joan, and other books by C.W. Anderson. I especially loved the gorgeous illustrations in his books. 

Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, Justin Morgan Had a Horse (and many more), Marguerite Henry. Henry wrote a whole series of wonderful books about horses. I haven’t read all of them, but that might have to change.    

Airs Above the Ground, Mary Stewart. Romance, mystery, and a horse—need I say more?

My Friend Flicka, Mary O’Hara. I just read this within the last year, and was impressed by the quality of writing as well as the story. 

Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley. Of all the books on this list, this one is the most likely, in my opinion, to hold the attention of the non-horse lover. It’s funny and filled with interesting personalities, both human and equine. 

Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand. The true story of Seabiscuit and the people surrounding him (I liked the movie, too.)

She Flies Without Wings: How Horses Touch a Woman’s Soul, Mary D. Midkiff. Using literature, folktales, myth, and the personal experiences of herself and others, Midkiff explores the spiritual connection between women and horses.

Zen and Horses: Lessons From a Year of Riding, Ingrid Soren. A really lovely book in which Soren “captures the essence of what captivates people so about horses—physically, mentally, and spiritually” as she shares what she learned taking riding lessons and studying Zen Buddhism.

Hold Your Horses: Nuggets of Truth for People Who Love Horses…No Matter What, Bonnie Timmons  A sweet and funny celebration of the bond between horses and those who love them.

You may have noticed two glaring omissions from this list: Black Beauty and National Velvet. I read Black Beauty as a child, and have never quite gotten over the cruelty Beauty experienced, so I never read the book again and don’t count it among my favorites. I have National Velvet on my TBR shelf right now. I tried to read it as a child but for some reason it never clicked for me. 

While researching this post, I added the following books to my TBR list:

The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman the Horse that Inspired a Nation, Elizabeth Letts. The true story of a horse bound for slaughter, purchased for $80, who grew into a champion show jumper. 

Riding Barranca, Laura Chester. A one-year journal of a horsewoman's adventures with Barranca and other mounts.

Other People’s Horses, Natalie Keller Reinert. How can I resist a book described as “The Black Stallion for adults”? 

Death By Dressage, Carolyn Banks. A mystery in which the murder weapon is a horse! The first in a series.

The Dark Horse, Rumer Godden. Dark Invader, a disgraced racehorse from England, seems poised to win the Viceroy Cup...until he disappears. Will he be found in time to race?

I love it when my horse and book obsessions meet. (This list could easily have been twice as long, but this is me sparing you.) Do you have an obsession with books about a certain topic? Share your favorites in the comments!

Dover Saddlery

Field Trip Friday: Dover Saddlery=Horse Lover's Happy Place

February 12, 2016

If you love to read, libraries and bookstores give your soul a thrill. If you’re an artist, an art or office supply store sets all your senses tingling. And if you love horses and riding, a tack store is a little bit of heaven—a horse lover’s happy place.

Last Friday, my friend Marianne and I hit the road to visit one such horse lover’s happy place: the Dover Saddlery store in Winter Park.

Dover is an English rider’s dream. I bought my very first horse items from their catalog almost 12 years ago—and I’m still using them! Dover sends out a couple of fat, drool-inducing catalogs each year, as well as a couple of smaller sale catalogs. They opened the store in Winter Park in 2013 and I’ve been wanting to visit since then. When I got a flyer for a tent sale Feb. 5-7, it seemed like a good opportunity to go check it out. Plus I need a new helmet because mine is getting old…you know, any old excuse! Marianne was willing to tag along and navigate, and she was looking for a new halter for her mare, Glory.

When we arrived, sales girls handed us large, clear plastic bags to toss our loot into, and we entered the tent excited to see what bargains we could find. I was only slightly hampered by the fact that I don’t really need anything, other than the helmet and maybe another pair of riding socks. That didn’t stop me from walking up every aisle and examining tempting items like wicking riding shirts, horse blankets, small mesh hay feeders, and yes, patterned socks.

When we were done with the tent, we still had the store itself to explore. As soon as I walked in the door, I inhaled that leathery scent that makes my blood pressure fall and all my stress melt away. When I tell you that we covered nearly every inch of the store, I do not exaggerate. (Marianne has been there before, but she kindly allowed me all the exploring time I wanted.) Breeches, helmets, horse treats, more socks, grooming tools, leather goods and saddle pads…the store was packed with items to tempt us.

Riding socks are a thing.
Alas, they didn’t have a helmet that fit me properly in my price range, so I’m still in the market. (I did learn that my head shape is more round than oval—who knew?) However, I did find these lovely items:

Socks, gloves, and a purple pad--oh my!
It was a pleasure to spend time with Marianne, and we talked horses to our hearts’ content. The new horsey items were a bonus. I love my socks and Tank looks lovely in his new purple pad.

Where is your happy place? How long has it been since you visited?

Loved this store display.

End of the year

Turning of the Year

December 30, 2015

Photo courtesy winterdove

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Here’s a New Year’s poem by Judy Ray, who lives and writes in Tucson. I like the way that common phrase, “the turning of a year,” has suggested to her the turns in a race track. Her most recent book is To Fly Without Wings, (Helicon Nine Editions, 2009). 

Turning of the Year

We never know if the turn
is into the home stretch.
We call it that—a stretch
of place and time—
with vision of straining,
racing.  We acknowledge
each turn with cheers
though we don’t know
how many laps remain.
But we can hope the course
leads on far and clear
while the horses have strength
and balance on their lean legs,
fine-tuned muscles, desire
for the length of the run.
Some may find the year smooth,
others stumble at obstacles
along the way.  We never know
if the finish line will be reached
after faltering, slowing,
or in mid-stride, leaping forward.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher ofPoetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Judy Ray, “Turning of the Year,” from The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers, (Whirlybird Press, 2012). Poem reprinted by permission of Judy Ray and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2015 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


If My Horse Had an Instagram Account

August 07, 2015

No matter how old you are, every summer needs a little bit of silliness, don’t you think? Back in May, I shared photos that my cat might have posted if she had an Instagram account. Well, it’s a Friday in August (need I say more?) and I’ve had a busy week, so today I’ll turn the blog over to Tank and his (imaginary) Instagram account:

One of my jobs is to stand guard over our property. This is what I see from my post. Sometimes THINGS rustle around in there and I have to sound the alarm by running around and bucking.

This is where I do my work with my human. I like it best when we try something new. Or when we stand while she talks to the other riders. I could do that all day.

We’ve been jumping over this black thing lately. I could do more challenging jumps, but she’s still learning and I have to take care of her.

This is my best friend. We play together over the fence line, and sometimes he takes off my fly mask for me.

This thing sometimes dispenses treats when I spin it (you can see my teeth marks). It appeared in my paddock one year at what my human calls “Christmas time.”

Be it ever so humble, this is my very favorite thing. Im a man of simple tastes.

I am handsome, am I not?

Happy Friday!


Eleven Years Rich

February 18, 2015

Our first day together

Today is Tank’s 20th birthday! In just a week and a half, I will have owned him for 11 years—longer than anyone before me. He is truly “mine” and I am the richer for it.

We rode together yesterday, all by ourselves, while the wind shook the trees and rolled a blue beach ball around the jump field, while a neighbor helped our barn owner move some large items with a piece of heavy equipment. Any one of those situations would have been a recipe for spooking and running when I first got Tank. Yesterday, he didn’t even bat an eyelash. I guess we’ve both matured in the past 11 years.

This quote sums up for me the miracle of a relationship with a horse:

“Riding is a partnership. The horse lends you his strength, speed and grace, which are greater than yours. For your part, you give him your guidance, intelligence and understanding, which are greater than his. Together, you can achieve a richness that alone neither can.” –Lucy Rees, “The Horse’s Mind.”

A recent photo

Thank you, Tank, for 11 years of simple pleasures and everyday adventures. Your birthday “cake” is on its way!


Saturday's Adventure in Horsemanship

December 08, 2014

I love how relaxed these two are
When I bought Tank 10 years ago, I had hazy ideas of what we would do together. I knew I would ride, of course, maybe jump some low obstacles, and I wanted just to be able to hang out with him, to be near my very own horse. My lifelong dream. For a while, riding casually and hanging out was enough. Then I saw a demonstration by a group of people who used the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program—the things they could do with their horses, on a lead line, under saddle and at liberty (with no tack)! Both people and horses looked like they were having fun. My curiosity piqued, I started learning about Natural Horsemanship and my relationship with Tank became infinitely better.

But it’s been a couple of years since the last Parelli infusion and we’ve become too set in our ways. When I’m not planning to ride, I’ve gotten into the habit of only hanging out—pleasant, but not the best use of my barn time if I want to strengthen our bond and be able to do more things together. I’ve become lazy about coming up with games to play with him. And playing with Tank is good for his mental and emotional stimulation, as well as cementing my role as leader. I’m pretty sure right now he whinnies when he sees me because he knows he’ll get snacks, not because he can’t wait to see what we do together! (Hey, it’s a start. At least he likes to see me coming.)

So hoping for inspiration, Saturday I attended the first day of Pat and Linda Parelli’s Future of Horsemanship Tour in Tampa. This was my second time at a Parelli event (see “Mind: Blown”). This event was smaller than the one I attended in 2012, and not quite as packed with information. Most of the presentations were different, however, and this year they had a brief demo of Cowboy Mounted Shooting by Jesse Peters—which he performed bridleless—way cool! The photos aren’t very good because he was going so fast, and yet he was able to navigate the course and slide to a stop on a dime. Amazing partnership.

Jesse Peters
I won’t get all technical with you, but I did come away with some new ideas for playing with Tank, and, of course, some other little life lesson-y tidbits!

“When you take off the lead rope and halter, you’re left with the truth.”
When you take away the external controls, will the horse stay with you or wander off? What kind of relationship/partnership do you have? In my horse world, the truth is that sometimes Tank will stay with me and sometimes he won’t. I’m not yet the most interesting thing in his world. Applying this principle to the rest of my life, I ask myself what would I do/say/eat if I didn’t have external controls? If I were trying to please only myself and honor my deepest beliefs and wishes? How would my life be different?

Ernie following Pat and Slider
Use psychology to improve training.
One of my favorite segments was the one on horse personalities—or horsenalities (since horses aren’t people). The Parellis have broken horsenality into four categories: left brain introverts, left brain extroverts, right brain introverts, right brain extroverts. (Tank is a left brain introvert.) This is important because each type of horse needs a slightly different approach in order to learn. This goes for people, too, however you want to divide and categorize them. Communicating with spouses, children, coworkers, family members and friends can be enhanced by understanding their personalities and choosing the communication techniques most likely to get through.

I want to become a better horsewoman, and in order to do that, I need to put a bit more time and thought into my horsey activities. I’ll have to rebalance my other activities, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable. (For instance: to go to this event I had to miss my library’s annual holiday book sale!) I believe it will be worth it. And now, to the barn!

What do you want more of in your life? What, if anything, will you have to give up or change?

Linda and Hot Jazz



December 03, 2014

Photo courtesy jhusemannde

Introduction by Ted Kooser: I love poems with sudden surprises, and here’s one by Jennifer Gray, a Nebraskan. Will you ever see depressions puddled with rain without thinking of the image at her conclusion?


The neighbor’s horses idle
under the roof
of their three-sided shelter,
looking out at the rain.

one or another
will fade into the shadows
in the corner, maybe
to eat, or drink.

Still, the others stand,
blowing out their warm
breaths. Rain rattles
on the metal roof.

Their hoof prints
in the corral
open gray eyes to the sky,
and wink each time
another drop falls in.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by Jennifer Gray. Reprinted by permission of Jennifer Gray. Introduction copyright © 2014 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


Chillin' Time

September 15, 2014

More often than not, when I go to the barn to see Tank these days I just take him to graze while I read a magazine or simply watch him with nothing particular in my mind. Even our riding has become languid in the sweatbox that is Florida in September. I feel slightly guilty about this—after all, shouldn’t we always be trying to do better, learn more, grow, progress?

Well, no.

There’s a time for pushing and learning and stepping outside comfort zones, and there’s also a time for chilling out, for hanging together with no agenda. For me, that time is late summer. I’m exhausted from nearly four months of unrelenting heat and humidity and all I really want to do is rest. And not sweat.

Surely Tank must appreciate a break as well. I make sure he maintains a certain level of respect and manners, but he’s a good guy and a mature horse. He does that almost automatically. I think he enjoys his work overall, but even when you enjoy it, isn’t it nice to have a break?

So, yes, this is our fallow time. The time we spend doing nothing, or perhaps having a water bath from the hose. The time for me to listen to the cicadas, watch the dragonflies, smell hot horse. The time for him to search for the most succulent grassy patches. No, I won’t feel guilty about this after all. There will be plenty of time for games and longeing, for practicing our jumping or lead changes, when it’s cooler and we both have more energy. For now, we’ll roam the property looking for shady spots to graze, walk up and down the dirt road looking at the cows, slurp down carrots and bananas, and chill (as much as we can when it’s 95 degrees).

Why do we always feel like we have to accomplish something? Tick off a box or cross out an item on a to-do list? Do you allow yourself to have some “chillin’ time”? What do you do—or stop doing?

Tank's favorite way to chill


Paying the Price

April 21, 2014

Fannin Hill, 2012. Photo courtesy Holly Bryan
We did get to go to Fannin Hill on Friday, and it was awesome. Unfortunately, I have no photos to show for it…just some sore muscles and good memories. And , of course, a whole lot of things to clean: my bridle bag, Tank’s shipping boots, my saddle bag and even Tank’s bridle (at one of the water troughs, he immersed his face up to the eyes and shook his head side to side, sending water cascading onto the ground and turning the leather of his bridle into a mucky mess). An outing like this means extra work before and after, as well as stepping outside my comfort zone during. Tank gets excited when we ride off site, and sometimes I feel like I’m on top of a rocket ready to explode. I have to work at communicating what I want in a way that makes sense to him and doesn’t frustrate him:

Tank: “If all the other horses are cantering and jumping over there, why are we over here jumping over this little log?”

Me: “Because those jumps are beyond my abilities and confidence right now—I know you could do it, but would I still be on your back on the other side?”

 Tank: “OK. I guess I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Who would bring me carrots?”

Every time we go to Fannin Hill, we try new things and come home inspired. This time, we practiced going up and down a small bank, which required him to jump up to a higher level while going up, and to step down (into the scary unknown) when going down. He did just fine going up, but was pretty skeptical of going down. We tried several different approaches until he hopped down like it was a non-issue.

Sometimes the best things require effort. In the past, I tended to give up too easily when faced with challenges. Tank is teaching me to think things through, break them down into smaller steps, and to keep trying slightly different approaches. I still find myself avoiding things because I either don’t know what to do, or I think it’s too hard, but I’m becoming more willing and able to pay the price for what I want. And that’s a lesson worth learning.

What dream are you willing to pay the price for?


What Comes After?

March 17, 2014

I recently celebrated another milestone anniversary: 10 years of having my horse, Tank. I find this as mind blowing as knowing I’ve been married for 26 years and that I have a (nearly) adult child.

When I was looking for a horse of my own, and even when I bought him, I was totally focused on the goal of finding a horse. I wasn’t thinking about all the years we had ahead of us, the time we would share getting to know each other, learning to work together. Just like when I was dating and falling in love, or preparing to become a mother—I didn’t think so much about what would happen once I reached that milestone or achieved that goal. The “after” was a blank space in my mind.

What do we do after we get what we want—after we achieve something we’ve longed for? What happens after we fall in love, lose 20 pounds, have a child, get that coveted job, even buy that horse?

Reality sets in. The goal we once desired with all of our hearts is in our hands, and often we find it’s not all romantic dinners under the stars, buying new clothes in a smaller size, cuddling a sleeping baby, kudos from the boss, or galloping like the wind. There’s manure to shovel, diapers to change, compromises to be made and maintenance of all kinds to be done. In many cases, “after” lasts longer than “before.” How can we make the most of what comes after we reach a milestone or major goal?

  1. Appreciate what we have. Stop and look at what we’ve just achieved or received. Take it in. Isn’t it wonderful that we have this thing we have longed for for so long? Bask in the feeling and say a little thank you to the universe. It’s very easy to get caught up in the details, both good and bad, adjust to the new reality, and forget the work and sacrifices it took to get what we wanted.
  1. Don’t make comparisons with others. Since I came to horses as an adult—and a none-too-athletic one—my skills have grown more slowly than the young girls I often ride with. If I compared myself to them, I’d become dissatisfied with my experience, when what I have is all I ever wanted. If I compare my marriage, my relationship with my son, or my career with others’, I can become discouraged that what I have isn’t as outwardly “good.” Every person has his or her own abilities, challenges, lucky (or unlucky) breaks, and so on. And what we see from the outside is rarely the whole story. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
  1. Keep growing and learning. So we have this new thing/relationship. Now what? Is that the ultimate? How can we enhance and improve whatever-it-is? Growing and learning are what life’s all about. To return to my relationship with Tank, over the past 10 years I’ve spent most of my time learning, from the simple things (how to groom a horse or post a trot) to the more complex (how to “speak horse” or use tiny movements of my body to control where he goes and how fast).
If we appreciate what we have, don’t compare it with what others have, and keep learning so we can make it better, what comes after will better than we can even imagine.

What have you discovered about what comes after a big goal or milestone?

Since it's an anniversary, will there be (carrot) cake?


There's No Place Like the Barn

February 17, 2014

During the past few weeks as I’ve worked through a bout of depression, I’ve been learning ways to manage and uplift my mood. I’ve discovered that I wake up feeling fairly cheerful, but crash around 2 p.m., so it helps to have something fun planned or someplace happy to go around then. And while I have several “happy places,” for me there’s almost no place happier than the barn where I keep my horse. It’s a few minutes from my house, but it might as well be 100 miles away from all my cares.

Why do I love it so much? Aside from the obvious (my dream horse Tank lives there), it’s quiet and peaceful. There are lots of animals, both domestic and wild, and I have good friends there. The barn also holds great memories of accomplishment and fun times. When I first started lessons there, I knew nothing about the care of horses or how to ride. Little by little, I’ve learned everything from how to properly groom a horse, to how to jump small jumps.

When I’m at the barn, I’m not surrounded by competing things I “should” be doing. I don’t need to choose between working on an essay and making dinner, reading a book or folding laundry. I’m doing both what needs to be done and what I want to do. While I stand in a cloud of dust and hair as I brush Tank, I’m also looking for cuts, swellings, abrasions, bug bites or the start of any skin or hoof issues. I “need” to groom him—and I love doing it (while not for everyone, grooming a horse is one of my favorite simple pleasures). He loves it too, especially since he gets pieces of carrot as I work my way around his body. 

Once I walk through the gate, I don’t hear the voices in my head telling me I’m not good enough—I hear turkeys gobbling, the snort, squeal or blow of a horse, chickens clucking. I don’t smell the trash that needs to be emptied—I smell fresh air, hay and the warm scent of horse. I don’t see all the chores I have left to do, I see pricked ears, a gleaming coat, and the eager expression of an animal waiting for me.

When I’m ready to leave, I’m filthy, often sweaty and fatigued, but my mind is still. If I’ve been mulling over a problem, I often know the next step to take. If I felt a little icky physically, I’ve probably forgotten all about it. Things have settled and shifted, and I’m at peace and, at least for now, happy.

What about you? Where is your “happy place”?

Everyday adventures

Fall Rerun: A Little Off the Top and Sides...and Belly

October 11, 2013

Note: This week I did my annual clipping job on Tank, so I'm rerunning the post I wrote about our equine spa services on Oct. 1, 2010. It wasn't nearly so much fun this year because I had to do all the treatments by myself--sure do miss my absent barn friends on days like this! Anyway, I'm still recovering from the process, so today's post will be a slightly-edited rerun.

My horse, who was born about five miles from where he lives now, apparently thinks he lives in Siberia. Every year in September he begins to grow a wooly winter coat suitable for life on the tundra. This is unfortunate, because we do not live in a tundra-like environment. We live in a tropical-rainforest-like environment: hot and sticky for much of the year. Once he’s grown his winter coat, he can be covered in sweat just from standing placidly in his paddock. If you add in a ride, he’s one soggy and overheated mess.

 So every year at this time, knowing we have at least three more months of not-so-wintry weather, I pull out my trusty clippers and give him a whole body clip. (He immediately begins to regrow that winter coat, but by the time it comes in completely, he’ll need it for the few cold winter days we have.)

This year before clipping, we added a new service to salon day at the barn: hair color. Since our horses live outside, not in stalls, their manes and tails bleach in the sun. So before his bath and clip, Tank had his mane and tail dyed. (You can imagine how much we all enjoyed this.)

At work on Tank's tail--a two-person job
Pitiful forelock
 After the dye job, it was time to clip. Clipping a horse is one of the less-fun jobs a horse owner has, because to get a good clip without ruining your clippers, you must bathe the horse, let him dry, then clip him. The whole process takes hours. So here, for the uninitiated, is what happens when you bathe and clip horse.

Take horse to wash rack. Spray all over with hose (the horse, not yourself, though you might just as well spray yourself and be done with it). Shampoo horse, taking special care with legs, as the hair there is often particularly thick and hard to clip. If you’re a girly horse owner, shampoo and condition mane and tail. While rinsing off shampoo, try not to let water from hose run down your arm and into your shoes as you spray the taller parts of the horse. Fail.

Are you sure we have to do this?
Squeegee horse with sweat scraper and dry with towel as much as you can to shorten air drying time. Go change your socks and, possibly, your shirt and shorts. (I frequently wear a bathing suit top and quick drying shorts when I bathe my horse.) Take horse for a walk, looking for edible things until you’re too tired and thirsty to do that anymore. (You can’t just turn him loose because he’s sure to roll and dirty up his clean coat.) While he’s drying, spray the hair with a silicone spray, such as Show Sheen, to help the clippers glide through easier. This adds a little to the drying time, but is worth it in the long run.

Tie up horse, and even though he’s still a little damp, you optimistically think there are some areas dry enough to start on. Begin clipping. Keep even pressure on the clippers so you have no gouged spots. Some people clip the legs first because they’re more technical (and ticklish) and it’s good to do them when you and the horse are fresh and your clipper blades are sharp. Some people start on the face. I personally like to see immediate progress, so I start somewhere I can see inroads, like the neck, chest or hindquarters. I also skip around when I get tired of working on one area, so my horse looks like nothing on earth until he’s completely done.

Making inroads
If you’re lucky and you have a cooperative horse, you may finish your horse clipping in one session. If you tire out, your clippers die or your horse decides he’s had enough, come back another time to finish the job. Better to have a funky-looking horse for a day or two than risk either of you melting down in the process.

Horse hair sticks to everything, so when you are done, you will be covered from head to foot with little pieces of hair. In fact, YOU will look like you need clipping. Turn your horse out or put him in his stall and offer him treats for being such a good boy. Go home, take a shower, pour yourself your adult beverage of choice and inform the family that dinner will come from the nearest pizza place that delivers.

The finished tail