Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I grimaced a little when I typed my title for today’s post because I still hope I will own a horse again. But right now, that’s not possible or practical for me. Anyway . . . the last horse that I had the privilege of owning was an Appendix Quarter Horse mare whose registered name was Suntan Suzie. I called her Flare. Think “solar flare. “ “Flair” would have worked as a barn name, too, because this girl was flashy—a brilliant chestnut mare with a glorious blaze down her face.

She dispelled the “temperamental mare” theory because she adored people, loved attention, and was a sweetie-pie through and through. So, as many of you alluded to in your replies to my November 17th post, there is that thing about mares being temperamental, but a lot of it comes down to personality.

I could tell when she was in heat, especially a strong heat in late spring because, if I let her, she’d stop in the barn aisle and pee in front of my gelding’s stall. Geez. But even with the hormonal flux, she was well-mannered, and she was always a willing mount. But most of all, she was a “people” horse.

Did I mention personality? She sure had plenty of that. She also had a thing for shoelaces. Don’t ask me why, but my kids would stand on the fence, and she’d be right there, nuzzling them and smelling them; then she’d tuck her velvety nose between the fence boards and play with their shoelaces, turning them a pasty green.

During the years that I owned her, I didn’t ride nearly as much as I would have liked, being busy with two small boys who were not into horses, preferring go-carts they could hotrod and put back in the barn minus the grooming and mucking out. When it was time for me to get out of horses, for various reasons, I knew I was making the right decision for Flare.

Unlike my kids, I loved the barn work part of horse ownership, so she got great care, but she wasn’t being ridden like she should have been. She wasn’t getting a whole bunch of attention either, since I wasn’t riding much. She needed . . . no, she deserved more attention. I was delighted when I found the perfect owner, a nine-year old young lady who was into 4-H and had two nine-year-old girlfriends.

Flare went to a trainer’s barn for a month before the girl’s mother bought her, and this is a story Flare’s trainer recounted.

She told me . . . the girls had come out to ride one afternoon, and they had Flare cross-tied in the barn aisle while they groomed her. Unbeknownst to the trainer, her non-horsey boyfriend had decided to work on the cement barn aisle. He pulled out a machine (don’t know what kind it was or the job it did, but it resembled the huge wax machines they use on the floors at Wal-Mart). He powered it up and was sweeping it back and forth across the aisle. When Flare’s trainer walked into the barn, there were the girls, fooling around with Flare, and there was her boyfriend, sweeping this huge machine across the floor right under Flare’s nose.

The mare didn’t move an inch. In fact, the machine seemed not to bother her at all. If they hadn’t known it before, I think that one incident was what sold everyone that Flare was the perfect mare for these girls.

So, let’s hear if for mares who are sweethearts!

Happy riding and reading everyone!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Girls . . .

As I reflect on the last two horses that I had the privilege of owning, my post touches on an earlier subject: geldings versus mares.

My first horses were geldings, the last two mares. When I went looking for my third horse, I was well aware of the “rumor” that mares were annoyingly temperamental, but I decided that I’d give them a try. If my future mare was injured and could no longer be ridden, at least I’d have the option of breeding her.

I must admit, now that I’m better educated on the issues of horse slaughter and equine overproduction, I would not have that mindset today if I were looking for a horse. Breeding a horse is a huge responsibility. You need to be certain that there’s a high demand for the resultant offspring, and you need to be willing and able to socialize and train the colt so that he grows up to be a desirable mount or the horse runs the risk of being unwanted and unsalable.

Okay, I can see I’m all over the place topic-wise tonight, but after researching for my next book, the whole, ugly slaughter issue is on my mind. As I look out my window, at my neighbor’s pasture, I’m reminded of the importance of breeding wisely. They have seven “miniature” horses—a concept I have a hard time understanding--and an unknown (to me) number of horses, and they are rarely handled. I never see a vet’s truck and can’t remember the last time I saw a farrier visit the farm. But they had a miniature stud, and for that very reason, they felt compelled to breed their stock. But where will those unschooled and poorly cared for animals end up if they’re sold? They’d have to be extremely lucky not to find themselves in an auctioneer’s lot.

So, if you’re going to breed your mare, please make sure that she’s a quality, highly-sought after animal, and be prepared to put a lot of time and effort into the foal.

Okay, off my soapbox and on to my lovely mares. My first one was a delicate, dark bay thoroughbred who’d raced but was none too fast. She was a little grumpy and didn’t much care for being groomed, but I had some wonderful rides on her. When she was in the mood, she was like driving a Ferrari. Soft mouth, round back, nice easy gait. I swear, I just had to “think” the move, and she’d do it. When she was relaxed like that, she was a dream to ride. Other days, she’d swish her tail and grind her teeth and generally be a pain in the ass to ride.

So, Missy supported the temperamental myth, all right, but I didn’t care. She was special to me. I know some friends couldn’t see what I “saw” in her, but that was okay. Next time, I’ll tell you about my Appendix Quarter horse mare.

Happy reading and riding,

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Rescue Horse . . .

During my last post, I talked about Stoney, my first horse. I just found a photograph taken a few months after I purchased him and thought I'd share it with you.

Stoney--definitely not a rescue horse.

Once I owned my own farm, I was ready for another horse. When I drove out to look at Koby in the spring of ‘85, I didn’t really think of him as a “rescue horse,” but it seems everyone else did. He was extremely thin, but I’d seen horses like him turn around with the right care, so I had full confidence that Koby’s transformation would be no different.

After injuring his left knee on the track, he was sold to a young woman who didn’t have the knowledge or resources to give him the kind of home and care he needed to successfully transition from track to farm life. He was placed in a small, muddy paddock with three other geldings who denied him access to grain and hay as well as the run-in shed. He spent all of that first year off the track suffering under the brutal sun or standing in the freezing rain, scouring the ground for whatever wisps of hay or kernels of grain the other horses might have missed.

Despite the hardships he’d been through, he had a kind temperament, so I had a vet come out to perform a pre-purchase exam which he passed. I had a very strong sense that she was just hoping I would buy him and take him to a better place, especially after she took him into the run-in shed to examine his eyes in a darkened environment. She looked disgusted when she came out. Apparently, the shed was filthy, piled high with a deep layer of manure and crawling with maggots.

A couple of days later, he settled into my barn with my first horse, Stoney. Both horses had roomy stalls that opened to private paddocks, and after the two horses got used to each other over the fence, and Koby became accustomed to eating grass again, I turned them out each day in a ten-acre field.

Routine vaccinations and regular deworming, along with a gradual increase of grain and occasional beet pulp hot mashes, not to mention getting his teeth floated, all combined to put the weigh on and his coat blossomed. So did his personality.

I guess I never really realized just how emaciated he was until, several months later, when my farrier commented on how good he looked and confessed that he thought the horse wouldn’t make it when he first came out to trim his hooves. Here was a guy with undoubtedly lots of horse experience, and he thought Koby would not survive.

But survive, he did. In fact, once he regained his weigh, he was an incredibly easy keeper, and I actually had to watch his diet. He was a broad, bay horse with lovely conformation (this was especially evident once he filled out) and at 16.2 hh, he was an impressive horse. Way too big for me, I might add.

By the fall, Koby had picked up a good bit of weight, though his coat would not look healthy until he shed out.

I did wonder if he’d become difficult under saddle once he began to feel better, but except for a little testing early on, he developed into a wonderful mount. What I do love about ex-racehorses is that they are acclimated to a wide variety of sights and sounds and activities from their time on the track. He was easy to load and handle and was generally a levelheaded horse.

Koby being ridden by my instructor.

I used to load him by myself and trailer him to my instructor’s farm where I took dressage lessons in her indoor. He didn’t even blink when he went into the arena the first time, and I could leg him over to the wall to get a drink and he would stand so quietly. One of the nicest compliments my instructor gave me was when she said something like, “Why don’t I find nice horses like him.”

I remember the first time I took him on a long trail ride with some neighbors. Up until that point, all he knew was the track and my riding arena, but he just took it all in and was so full of confidence. The only thing he did not like, and never became accustomed to, was a herd of Holsteins that we had to pass to get home. He never could get used to the sight of those black-and-white cows.

When I moved to Indiana and had children, I often did not get around to riding until about midnight. This worked out especially well in the hot summer months, but I’d ride in the winter then, too. It was my time to just fool around, with no pressure or distractions. I’d put some music on, and we’d be out in the lighted outdoor arena, just the two of us. And sometimes the snow would come down, spiraling past the sodium vapor lights, and I just loved those nights. Often a herd of eight or ten deer would walk past in the neighboring field, and we’d stop and watch them. They had no fear of us and took their time.

I’m happy that our paths crossed and that we both enriched each other’s lives.

Happy reading and riding,

Monday, October 6, 2008

Favorite Horses . . .

During my last post, “Favorites . . .” (September 23, 2008) I talked about how writers feel about their books and how difficult it can be to answer: “Which is your favorite?”

It’s even more difficult to pick a favorite when friends want to know: “Of the horses you’ve owned, which was your favorite?”

How can I answer that? Each horse that I’ve had the honor of owning was special in his or her own way, and they were all so different, with varied and unique personalities, quirks . . . moods. Lots of non-horse people don’t really get that, either--the idea that a horse even has a personality! But, boy, do they.

My first horse, Stoney, was a 15.2hh, flea-bitten gray Quarter horse/Arab gelding. To read more about our adventures together, check out the post “Riding Adventures . . .” (March 25, 2008).

Stoney was such a hoot! He was personable and ornery and a veritable bulldozer on trail rides (Quarter horse attribute), but he’d spin me right out of the saddle if he spooked . . . at the sight of a deer, no less! Like he’d never seen them before.

He was my “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” horse. When he was good, he was very good, and when he was bad, well . . . let’s just say, he was a challenge.

I remember the day I purchased him and took him home to the hunter/jumper farm where I worked at the time. He looked so out of place: at least five-hundred pounds overweight with a roached mane that was growing out and stuck straight up in the air; his Arabian blood hadn’t done anything to refine his head or thick throatlatch; his back was a little too long, or his legs were too short, depending on how you look at it; and to say he had solid legs would be putting it tactfully. But he was mine, and I was thrilled.

And boy; was he an alpha horse. In short order, he moved to second in command in a field of twenty-five to thirty geldings. Second only to Orion, a Thoroughbred/Percheron cross.

Stoney’s rather sheltered life, before I purchased him at age six, made for an interesting transition. Training-wise, he’d gone Western and had just stepped over a few baby fences. I doubt he’d ever been in an indoor arena. There was much he had to learn about his new world. In fact, I don’t even think he’d seen something as commonplace as a chair.

After he settled into his new stall that first day, I took him out to get him acclimated to the farm’s sights and sounds. We happened to approach a black, plastic chair located in the cut-through to the indoor arena. He lowered his head to take a sniff, and as he exhaled, his breath caused a puff of dust to mushroom off the seat. He flew backwards as if he’d been shot from a cannon.

Despite the fact that he wasn’t the best beginner’s horse, and he may have damaged my confidence at times, I loved him very much, and I swear; he knew it. After months of training and lots of work, he began to fit in and even looked the hunter part, albeit still a little chubby.

If Stoney wasn’t hyper on the trail, with some pretend spooks or healthy bucks thrown in--a barn-sour tactic he liked to employ with the hope that we’d go home early (and when he did manage to dump me, he got his wish)--he was just downright lazy. Normally, I worked for everything I got out of him by using my seat and lots of leg, especially when we worked in the ring on the flat. But one ride stands out from the rest. I went on a trail ride with my boss’s daughter. She was riding an adorable gray pony. A mare. Well, apparently, Stoney thought she was adorable, too, because he followed that pony down the trail in the most collected, elevated trot imaginable. Soft mouth, rounded back, no leg needed on my part. A ride made in heaven . . . but most likely born of hormones.

He was a great guy, faults and all.

Rather surprisingly, keeping his barn sour "afraid to be in the woods alone" attitude in mind, he did very well when I took him to some cross country events. He had lots of GO out in the open. I was the one holding us back. Here's an old picture from 1983.

I find myself thinking of him frequently this time of year, because autumn a few years back was his last. He’d grown arthritic to the point that I could no longer keep him comfortable. Even standing for the farrier was an ordeal, and I made the decision to put him down at the age of 31. But he lives on in my heart and in cherished memories, and he shows up in my writing from time to time.

Next time, I’ll tell you about my first rescue horse, Koby.

Happy reading and writing,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Favorites . . .

One question that authors are invariably asked is, “Which book is your favorite?”

Just as this question would be impossible to answer if someone were to ask it of our children or, indeed, our horses, it’s equally difficult to answer well when talking about our books. Each and every book (four of them, in my case) was a totally unique experience to write, and each has a special place in my heart.

AT RISK is and always will be special simply because it was the first. When I began creating barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline and delved into his story, I was obsessed and enthused and thrilled with the experience. I was writing for fun. I was writing for me.

There were no agents or editors to keep in mind or collaborate with, no reviewers to worry about, no outside influences at all. And nothing will ever surpass the experience of watching my long-suffering UPS man lug boxes of AT RISK, fresh off the press, into my mud room. My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, routinely sends boxes and boxes of books to the author to be autographed and returned because they do a brisk business with book collectors.

AT RISK is essentially a coming-of-age story as well as a highly suspenseful mystery. The mystery element is strong; there’s lots of horse stuff; and there’s a thrilling escape-on-horseback ending.

By the time I got to the third book in the series, COLD BURN, Steve is developing a reputation for “looking into things” and is asked to find out what happened to a man who disappeared while working the night shift on a Thoroughbred breeding farm. A fun relationship develops between Steve and the woman who hired him; the mystery came together exceedingly well; and the climax surpassed my expectations. I was pleased with that book on many levels.

TRIPLE CROSS was a blast to research and write as it is set in Louisville for the running of the Kentucky Derby. In all my books, I have a pure horse mystery and some other mystery going on at the same time, and they are intertwined in some way. In TRIPLE CROSS, they blended so well, I surprised myself.

The whole plotting thing is a strange process, believe me. I start out with various ideas and work on them until they mesh and all the characters are acting in a manner that’s true to their wants and needs, and sometimes, I am surprised by the complexity and the end result. But I really love TRIPLE CROSS because it gives the reader an intimate look at what it’s like to be in Louisville and on the backside of Churchill Downs during Derby week.

But, if I had to pick a favorite, I’d squirm around, then finally concede that DEAD MAN’S TOUCH is my favorite. Why? Because it’s the most emotional of the four. The mystery element may not be as strong as the rest, but it’s plotted well, and it’s a very “horsey” book with most of the scenes taking place on the backside of Washington Park (a.k.a. Laurel Park). But above all, it’s an emotional journey for Steve and, hopefully, for the reader.

And I guess others agree with me. DEAD MANS’S TOUCH received a full and totally positive review from the New York Times.

December 28, 2003

CRIME by Marilyn Stasio

Hidden away from the glittering stage of thoroughbred racing, with its flashing silks and gleaming horseflesh, is a place they call ''the backside.'' In her second stable mystery, DEAD MAN'S TOUCH (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95), Kit Ehrman refers to this behind-the-scenes area – where trainers, grooms, barn managers and stable hands minister around the clock to the needs of their high-strung charges -- as ''a world unto itself.'' Ehrman, who has worked at show barns and breeding farms, strikes a solid claim to this gritty territory with another heels-up thriller that takes up where Dick Francis left off, in the barn.

Steve Cline, the young stable hand who made such a strong and sympathetic hero in ''At Risk,'' searches out the father he never knew, a thoroughbred trainer at a Maryland racetrack, and signs on as a ''hot-walker,'' a lowly exercise worker, when he discovers that someone has been fixing races by tampering with his father's horses. In true Francis tradition, Steve takes plenty of physical punishment as a sleuth. But his undercover role also gives him the inside track on life as it's lived on the backside, a grueling, even squalid existence that pays off in the chance to get close to the magnificent animals that have more character and heart than the two-footed fools who view them as a commodity.

Happy reading,

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


This past week was an interesting one for me as far as reading goes. The sad truth about being a writer is that writing cuts into reading time in a huge way. Lately, I’m lucky to finish a book a month, but I gave in to temptation when a bookseller handed me an advance reader copy of SILKS written by the esteemed Dick Francis and his son Felix Francis. SILKS was a good, solid read--highly recommended for all Francis fans.

Then my sister lent me a debut novel, THE GOD OF ANIMALS by Aryn Kyle, and that’s the topic for today’s post. I was going to hold off reading another book so soon after SILKS, but I opened Kyle’s book--just to read the first page--and that was it. I was sucked in until the very end. This author’s skill blew me away.

THE GOD OF ANIMALS is a coming-of-age story featuring twelve-year-old Alice Winston. She and her family live on a horse ranch in the desert. The Winston ranch had been in the family for generations, and the family has fallen on hard times. Alice’s mother is severely depressed and rarely comes out of her room. Alice’s older sister, Nona, is a natural, gifted rider. Nona’s success in the show ring helped bring in clients, so when she runs off with a rodeo rider, the family has a harder time making ends meet, but more importantly, her leaving deeply hurts Alice. Then we have the father, a complicated individual to be sure. Eventually, he is forced to take in boarders, something he’d never done before. When his father hears of this, he likens it to “prostituting” the ranch.

Okay. What I found so compelling about THE GOD OF ANIMALS is Kyle’s wonderfully descriptive writing and her insight into human nature. The descriptions in this book are absolutely fantastic. Admittedly, there were errors when it came to horse details and a few believability problems, but I happily gave the author a pass. What was very difficult to read, however, was the abuse meted out in this book, the cruel training methods, etc. The abusive scenes were even that much harder to read because of Kyle’s gift for description.

I skimmed the reviews on Amazon, and readers either loved or hated this book. Period. And I can see why. Kyle unflinchingly examines the good and evil that we all possess, and she doesn’t feel she must give us a happy ending, but a realistic one. In a way, that was refreshing because life is messy.

If you read this book, the abuse will bother you. It’s meant to bother you. But this is the kind of read that will stay with you long after you reach The End.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back to Work . . .

I no longer own horses of my own--it’s been a couple of years now--and I’ve got to tell you, I am still going through withdraw. I need a horse fix, and I need one badly.

For a while, writing about horses helped because when I’m writing a “horse” scene, I feel like I’m in the scene. Like every equine author I know, the horses that I’ve known and loved come alive for me then. So, that’s fun. And I love it when I have a “riding” dream. I had one the other night, and interestingly enough, I was paired with my old partner, Stoney--my first horse. We were on a trail ride together, and he was his typical self: fun and a bit mischievous. I was amazed at the muscle memory at play. Everything felt so real. Then, unfortunately, my pesky cat woke me up, and that was that. Man, did I want that dream to last.


What to do? With all the family obligations and the writing job, and the obvious--no horses--getting some quality horse time is going to be a challenge. So, I got to thinking . . . what if I can combine writing with being around horses? I could haul my laptop to the nearest horse show and write while being surrounded by beautiful horses. Nah, I doubt I’d get any writing done. Might as well take my camera instead, enjoy the show, and snap some pictures.

Could I get a part-time job in a stable to satisfy my need? I don’t see how given my time constraints, though as weird as this might sound, I love mucking stalls.

Then, I got to thinking about my all-time favorite job--delivering foals on the night shift.

(See June 3rd and 18th posts for more about that job.)

At this huge (500+ horses) Pennsylvania farm where I worked, foaling attendants were expected to muck stalls or clean waterers between rounds. Then, as morning approached, we would hay and grain about eighty horses before our shift was over at seven. Believe me; I would have been bored if I didn’t do stalls. It pays to keep busy: other employees there had been caught napping.

But, I know some breeding farms work differently. The foaling attendant may only be expected to make rounds and/or monitor CCTV screens and deliver foals with nothing much to do in between, and I can see why. While I appreciated being kept busy mucking out between rounds, I used to feel sorry for the mares in the barn where I was working because their sleep was definitely interrupted.

Anyway, maybe I can bargain with a local breeder. I’d work for a lot less if I can do the rounds and deliver the foals and write when nothing much is going on.

In the meantime, I’ll have to find another way to get my horse “fix.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

After the Finish Line . . .

Today’s post will be short since I’m away from home, using a hotel Internet that’s extraordinarily slow.

In light of the recent topic here, regarding responsible horse ownership and the fate of horses that are no longer wanted, I’d like to draw your attention to After the Finish Line, a website dedicated to caring for racehorses once they’ve left the track. Please visit www.afterthefinishline.org/index.htm.

The tragic deaths of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and this year’s second place finisher, filly Eight Belles, brought the plight of racehorses and, ultimately, the whole slaughter issue to the forefront. Thankfully, changes are being made.

At Suffolk Downs in Boston, sending racehorses to slaughter will no longer be tolerated. Track management will deny stalls to any trainer who sells a horse for slaughter. It’s great to see that the industry is taking action. Certainly, there’s much to be done, but it’s a start.

What’s needed even more, I believe, is for backyard horse owners to be educated, to stop mindless breeding of their stock, to make sure their horses are well-trained and socialized, and to take responsibility for their fates.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How We Deal With Issues In Our Books, Or Not . . .

The posts on the Equestrian Ink blog over the last week or two have been thought provoking, to say the least. I’ve been thinking about the slaughter issue for quite some time, especially since the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) was introduced and is making the occasional headline. And this profound topic was going to be a part of my next mystery, although that has changed, but that’s a whole other story.

But research for that book took me to places I didn’t want to go, mainly to a video that I found on the web of a horse being killed in a Mexican slaughterhouse. I have a pretty good imagination, and this was so much worse.

Then, thanks to Laura Crum’s tip, I spent last night reading the Fugly Horse of the Day where I found examples of incredible human stupidity, laziness, and disregard for what is right and moral, as well as some admittedly funny stuff, too.

One reason so many horses end up on a slippery slope that may very well lead to slaughter is that so many humans breed inferior animals with poor conformation and unsuitable temperaments. They don’t properly care for and train the horses they do own, and they don’t take responsibility for them when they can no longer do their job, preferring to have them take their chances at auction where they are at extreme risk.

I owned my first horse until his death at age thirty-one, when I had to put him down because of old injuries and arthritis that anti-inflammatory medicine could no longer touch. He let me know when it was time to let go.

I am sad to say that, after him, I sold three other horses. They were all gorgeous, well trained, and athletic, and perfectly suited for their new owners, but I’ve lost touch with them over the years. And that was a mistake. If I ever purchase another horse, it will be for life.

Anyway, I have very strong feelings about human responsibility in the human-horse equation, and some of my opinions find their way into my mysteries. I don’t preach. After all, I write to entertain, but my character has his own opinions, and it’s only natural that he would consider them as the story plays out.

In DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, Steve gets his first look at the world of horse racing after working exclusively in the hunter/jumper arena. Here’s a short excerpt:

I flipped through my program and matched names to faces. None of the trainers looked younger than forty. Most were much older. One was a woman, and all of them were white. The grooms were easy enough to spot, wearing numbered pennies over tee shirts and jeans. They were a mixed group. Black, white, Hispanic. Old, young. Male, female.

The horses themselves were not what I was accustomed to. Nothing like the fat, glossy horses, essentially expensive pets, that resided at Foxdale. These animals were lean and hard. As I watched the bettors along the rail study the Form, I realized that the horses were viewed simply as a commodity. If they couldn’t earn their keep, they were out.

A signal must have been given, because the trainers legged the jockeys up onto the horses’ backs, then the grooms took them out onto the track.

The grooms peeled off their pennies and dropped them into a plastic bin as they slipped through the barricade. They walked back on the path I’d taken while the trainers went into the grandstand through a side entrance. A guard stood at a podium just inside the doorway, checking passes or ID’s of some sort. I retraced my steps. As I drew level with the barricade, I turned and looked back at the grandstand. A wall of sheer glass reflected a single line of cumulus clouds drifting across the horizon.

I walked back and leaned against the fence next to four of the grooms, three guys and one girl with halters and lead ropes draped over their shoulders.

A distant bell rang. The horses broke from the starting gate and surged forward in a rainbow of color.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Night Shift (con't.) . . .

In my last post, I wrote about my all-time favorite job: delivering foals on the night shift. I adored that job and have many fond memories such as the one I described about witnessing a mare nickering to her unborn foal.

The mares I dealt with were Standardbreds, and in case you’re not familiar with that breed, they’re the harness racehorses (the trotters and pacers) that pull the sulkies and usually, in my experience, race at night. They’re similar to Thoroughbreds in many respects, but overall, they’re less high-strung, and the wonderful mares I worked with bore this out.

Most of them were extremely easy to deal with and tolerated my presence before and after the delivery with a kind generosity. Only one had a reputation, and lucky for me that she did, because I was warned about her. The woman who trained me had delivered her foals twice before, and she told me that soon after delivery, once the mare was on her feet, she’d try to kick me, and sure enough . . .

We followed a strict procedure foaling-out. Once the mare entered the first stage of labor, if we had a chance, we’d wash her vulva and udder, then braid and wrap her tail, warm two enemas for the foal, and wait as unobtrusively as possible for the mare to enter stage two, when her water broke. During the delivery, we offered gentle assistance if needed and made sure the foal’s nose and mouth were clear of the amniotic sac once he was delivered. After he kicked free of the umbilical cord, we’d treat it with an iodine solution and administer the enemas. (A foal’s first movement is sometimes difficult and can make him colicky.)

But back to my troublesome mare. After the delivery chores were completed, we were supposed to strip and bed down the stall with a luxurious layer of straw that we banked along the walls. I had finished one half of the stall, and was working on the next, when the mare spun around and fired with both hind hooves. I actually had to use the pitchfork to hold her off so I could get out of the stall.

But that was it. The rest of the mares were dreams to work with, even a maiden mare that I had to open up as she bore down to deliver her colt. Her vulva had been stitched partially closed some ten months earlier, to keep containments out of the birth canal after she was confirmed in foal, and the vet had missed opening her up. She was a sweetie; although, when I think about it, she was a bit preoccupied with the contractions when I got to work on her.

So, in and of itself, the job was exciting. Patrolling the barns in a driving blizzard was a highlight, but my nightly patrols took a sinister turn one season when a serial arsonist settled in the area.

Even in the dead of winter, we kept the barn doors cracked for ventilation purposes. One morning, around two-thirty, I was checking a mare to see if her teats had waxed up when I stepped out of the stall and glanced down the aisle. There was an orange glow on the horizon.

I realized the fire was located in the direction of my house. I hopped in the farm truck and drove past, relieved that it wasn’t my horse barn that was burning, but a neighbor’s structure used to house farm equipment.

My boss considered hiring someone to patrol the barns with a shotgun, and I was relieved when he didn’t. I figured I had a better chance being shot by mistake than encountering the arsonist. Eventually, the fires stopped, and the horse farm was never impacted, but I’ll never forget how I felt when I stepped out of the stall that morning and saw that glow on the horizon.

Here’s an excerpt from COLD BURN:

At four-thirty on a bitter February morning, the arsonist struck for the third time.

I’d heard about him from the guys who worked the day shift. So far, he’d entertained himself by torching vacant buildings, and as I stood in the doorway at the end of the barn aisle, listening to the mares moving in their stalls behind me, I hoped like hell he’d stick with his game plan.

I slid the heavy door farther along its tracks. An eerie glow marred the horizon as if a monstrous red moon had tilted on its axis and risen behind a screen of cloud and smoke. Without a reference point, distance was impossible to judge. Six miles away, the Rappahannock River snaked through the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, but the blaze looked much closer, and that worried me.

I had just finished feeding the mares in barns one and two and still had four more barns to work my way through before I was supposed to check seven and eight. They were located on the newest section of the farm, directly to the northwest. Directly in line with the fire.

I decided to ditch the schedule and head over earlier than usual.

When I turned to close the door, the bay mare in the stall to my left angled herself in the corner by her feed tub so she could peer through the bars on the front of her stall. She stared at me with such unnerving intensity, I could have sworn she knew more about what was going on--and what was yet to happen--than I did. But I was letting my imagination run away with me. If anything, her superior senses had provided her with far more information about the fire than I could ever hope to understand. I inched the door down the track, blocking out her image as deliberately as if I’d closed my eyes to her

Happy riding and reading,

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Night Shift . . .

I’ve been doing some spring-cleaning (the worst kind, actually: in the garage) and admittedly a little late in the season. Feels more like summer cleaning. Here it’s already June 3rd, technically wrapping up one of my favorite “horse” seasons: breeding and foaling time.

When I worked at a Standardbred breeding farm in Pennsylvania, our last foals would be hitting the ground about now, and generally, we humans were pretty darned happy that the season was coming to an end, what with the constant and seemingly never-ending chores that revolved around getting five-hundred to six-hundred mares in foal: ultrasounds, palpations, teasing the mares to see if they were receptive, and the actual breeding, itself. Even the stallions were probably happy to take a break. But I was always sad to see the season end because foaling-out was my all-time favorite horse job. My record was four foals on one shift.

The schedule was fairly brutal for foal attendants. We worked alone with only two of us splitting the nighttime hours for the season. I worked the midnight-to-seven shift for five days, then work a double shift (six p.m. to seven a.m.) so my counterpart could have off, then I’d have my day off. The day off would occur every weekend, and somewhere in there, I’d usually be awake for 30 hours before I got to bed – every single week.

Despite the difficulty of working when your body thinks it should be asleep, I loved the job more than any other. I loved being the only person on the farm and loved the connection I felt with the mares, the things I learned and observed . . . the wonderful privilege of being with these animals and getting a look into their lives that most people don’t have the opportunity to experience: listening to a mare snoring; watching one dream; feeling the contentment and peace that settles over the barn around two in the morning; watching a light snow fall when most of the world is asleep . . .

I incorporated one of the most touching things I’ve witnessed, when it comes to broodmares, in the following scene from COLD BURN:

Note: Steve has just returned from a rather racy party at a millionaire’s home and is relieving his partner on foal watch:

Maddie sat sideways on a hay bale with her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms clamped around her shins. Her right shoulder and hip leaned into the stall front, and she’d rested her head on her knees. As I walked down barn three’s aisle toward her, at five past midnight Saturday morning, I wondered if she had any idea just how titillating her pose was. To begin with, she wore jeans snug enough to cut off her circulation, but drawing her legs up as she’d done, tightened the denim even more.

I sighed. Then again, maybe it was the mood I was in. I’d always found that lack of sleep triggered some primal need to copulate, and the party had completely messed up my schedule, not to mention the sensory input overload.

I smiled as I remembered Elaine’s reaction to Hadley’s invite and guessed she hadn’t wanted to lose her ride to an orgy of sex and alcohol. She’d been anxious on the drive home, but I’d been thankful for her interjection and told her so. I liked my sex private.

Pulling my gaze away from Maddie, I glanced toward the dark storage area in the back and thought, as private as a horse barn, anyway. “What’s going on?” I asked.

Maddie jerked her head toward the stall as I realized the mare wasn’t standing in plain view. “I think she’ll go tonight. She hasn’t heated up yet, but I bet you’ll have a foal before daybreak.”


“Yeah, well it’s not so cool for me if they’re all gonna start waiting for your shift.”

I grinned and stepped closer so I could see over the bottom half of the stall. As I looked over the edge, the bay mare rolled onto her sternum, touched her muzzle to her belly, and whinnied. “What’s she doing?”

Maddie slipped off the hay bale and stood beside me, her right arm brushing mine. She whispered, “She’s talking to her unborn foal.”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“Uh-uh. She’s had four or five foals already. She knows exactly what’s going on, and she loves her babies. She’s such a devoted mother, one of the best mares I’ve ever worked with. I’ve foaled her out two years in a row, now, and she’s always talked to them.”

I raised my eyebrows. “But before they’re born?”

“Uh-huh.” Maddie turned toward me and licked her lips. “And now, it looks like you’re gonna have the honor.”


Next post, I’ll tell you about some real-life spooky events on the night shift; one of which triggered the opening to COLD BURN.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

HEX . . .

My sister and I share a passion for equine mysteries which began way back in 1977, when I discovered Dick Francis’s IN THE FRAME--the fateful book that shoved my life’s path off course. After reading ITF, I read every book that Francis had published at the time, quit my government job, and went to work in the horse industry, where I stayed for 25 years.

I also introduced Francis’s mysteries to my sister, and thus began a gift-giving tradition between us. Francis’s books are released in October, so every Christmas thereafter, my sister would give me his latest release. I have to admit, it was sometimes tough waiting those two months before I could get my hands on his next mystery, but the wait was always worth it.

Nowadays, when my sister stumbles upon other equine mysteries, she passes them along to me once she’s read them, and HEX by Maggie Estep was one of those books.

HEX is not your typical equine mystery, though. The main character, Ruby Murphy, eventually goes undercover at Belmont Racetrack; although, the equine element is secondary, story-wise, to Ruby Murphy’s unique life and friends. You could even say that the mystery is in third place--HEX not being your typical mystery. In fact, if no one had been murdered in the entire book, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

What HEX is, is beautifully written, fun, and compelling. The lyrical, intelligent writing comes as no surprise since Estep is a poet. The book’s format is different, as well, consisting of possibly five, first-person, point-of-view narratives.

One horsey aspect that I found quite interesting and unique was the description of a horse stable in Harlem (I believe) near the beach. Okay, New York’s geography is totally obscure to me, so I have no idea if this is even remotely possible, but . . . it sounded cool. I wonder if the place truly exists.

HEX is followed by two other Ruby Murphy mysteries: FLAMETHROWER and GARGANTUAN. I’m looking forward to reading both. For more information, visit Maggie’s website: http://www.maggieestep.com/index.html

Happy reading

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Serendipity . . .

I give a lot of thought to my characters’ names, both human and equine. When I was writing my Kentucky Derby mystery, TRIPLE CROSS, I needed to name several Thoroughbreds who would become characters in the book, and as a necessary component of the mystery, I needed to develop their pedigrees, too. I wanted the pedigrees to sound familiar to the reader, so, I turned to the Jockey Club’s foal registry.

I also wanted to make sure that my story’s equine characters (the ones who lived and breathed in the story and won or lost races, etc.) were not named after horses currently racing. So for those horses, I used the registry to make sure I wasn’t duplicating a real name.

Anyway, Steve’s father was running a racehorse, Gallant Storm, in the Derby. One of his main competitors, and a significant character in the book, was Gone Wild. I liked that name for him because his connections’ wealth came from Kentucky’s oil and gas exploration industry where “wildcat” is a common term. So, once I decided on Gone Wild, I had to find a pedigree to suit him. I decided that his sire would be the very real Gone West.

So, I’m down in Louisville for Derby week, 2005. I stayed Derby weekend at the fabulous 1888 Historic Rocking Horse Manor on 3rd Street. As is tradition, the manor’s guests draw names, and if your horse wins, you win the pot. Well, who should be running that year, but a colt named Going Wild? And whose name did a draw? Yep, you got it. Going Wild.

1888 Historic Rocking Horse Manor in Louisville

Unfortunately, we both lost.

But the names keep cropping up. A couple of weeks ago, I met a dear, elderly woman at a book club event in Cincinnati, the kind of person you feel you’ve known your entire life. She’s eighty-three and only quit riding two years ago! Her current horse is a Thoroughbred who didn’t really care for racing, and guess who his sire is? Gone West! She was so tickled to find a reference to her horse’s stud in the book.

Keeps me wondering what other connections are waiting to be made.

Happy reading,

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Party Central . . .

Yep. “Party Central.” That’s the best way to describe downtown Louisville as the first Saturday in May approaches.

There are over seventy Kentucky Derby Festival events, beginning with the spectacular Thunder Over Louisville (North America’s largest, annual pyrotechnic show). Other events include the Pegasus Parade and some wacky events like the Run for the Rose’ in which servers from area restaurants race around an obstacle course balancing glasses of wine. And these events, along with the actual horse racing, draw over 1.5 million visitors to Louisville.

In TRIPLE CROSS, I was putting Steve in the middle of all this, so I had to check out the party scene myself, for accuracy’s sake, of course. One of my favorite Derby Festival events is the air show and Thunder, the official start of the whirlwind Derby party.

Fairly early in the book, Steve is invited to a Thunder Party by Rudi Sturgill, a wealthy young man who has a runner in the Derby. After the fireworks wind down, Rudi decides to move the party to 4th Street Live! Louisville’s entertainment district. They settle on Sully’s Saloon, and this is where Steve gets his first hint that events have gone horribly sideways.

4th Street Live's pumpkin-colored, steel lattice supports a glass roof that covers an entire city block.

Colorful lighting and an elevator's exposed gears are some of 4th Street's unique touches.

Only in Louisville: Portable commercials in Sully's Saloon! If you can't tell from the photo, that's a laptop screen suspended above the guy's head. He wore a powerpack around his waist.

Later, in TRIPLE CROSS, Steve takes a friend to Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. I just loved this restaurant. Very trendy.

Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge's fabulous 58' bar.

Red-tiled pillars, sheer curtain walls, honey-colored floor.

During my research forays, I was frequently struck by the dissonance between the late night party scene and the early morning work taking place in the barns at Churchill Downs. The men and women who care for and worry over the horses’ health and wellbeing, well, their lifestyle and routine and focus is so far removed from the partying and the money funneling into the town, I couldn’t not think about them.

In any case, I enjoyed my time in Louisville. The party atmosphere was overwhelming and seemed to permeate every aspect of my visit, and I loved discovering the fancy restaurants and party spots, but one of the side benefits of writing is learning about unusual, unexpected places. Once of those places is Wagner’s Pharmacy.

The grill at Wagner's Pharmacy.

I first heard about Wagner’s from an adorable, elderly woman whose husband had been a racehorse trainer. I met her at a book launch for DERBY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, a collection of short mystery fiction revolving around the Kentucky Derby. At the time, I had no idea that I’d ever write a Derby book, but she was so enthused, I couldn’t help but remember her recommendation. And, I’d been curious. What could a pharmacy have to do with horse racing? She’d told me that backstretch workers and racehorse owners hung out there. I had to admit, I was intrigued.

Then I visited Wagner’s. The place is amazing.

Every inch of wall space is covered with racing memorabilia.

Directly across from where I sat at the counter hung a photograph of Secritariat, and I have no doubt that it was carried across the street some thirty years earlier.

If you're ever in Louisville, and if you love horses, don't miss Wagner's. It's located on 4th Street, right across from Churchill's Gate 5. And the food's great, too.

Of course, Wagner's is mentioned throughout TRIPLE CROSS because any backside worker with a pulse would have eaten there. So, here's an excerpt featuring a scene set in this amazing landmark. Steve's trying to avoid the police when he slips inside.

Wagner’s Pharmacy was a misnomer, really, because it was part cafĂ©, part sundries, part liquor store, and one-hundred percent unique. The glass door eased shut behind me, efficiently dampening the street noise while jumbled voices and the sounds and aromas of sizzling food flooded my senses. I’d been inside once before, and I swear, the place was straight out of a forties movie. I looked for an empty seat. Booths lined the wall on my left. Tables and chairs filled the center of the room. A Formica counter stretched down the right-hand wall where customers sat on barstools upholstered with pumpkin-colored vinyl and watched the cook fry up their eggs. I stepped down the sloped floor and slid onto an empty stool at the end of the counter, planted my boots on the runner.

Wooden plaques hung above the grill and featured seriously dated paintings of eggs and bacon, coffee and toast. The damn things had to have been tacked up there before my mother was born.

First impressions are often flawed by preconceived, erroneous notions, and my initial look inside Wagner’s had taken me by surprise. The establishment that so many people talked about and patronized, backsiders and the wealthy alike, was a dump. But it had an irresistible charm, mainly because it could not have existed anywhere else in the world. Everywhere you looked, on every square inch of wall space, hung period photographs of horses and jockeys and the men and women who owned and trained them. Directly across from where I sat hung an eight-by-ten glossy of Secretariat after he won the Kentucky Derby in unbelievable fashion on May 5th, 1973, and I had no doubt it was an original that had been carried across the street and had decorated that space for thirty years.

Pure and simple, Wagner’s was a walk backward through time. And the food was damn good, too.

I ordered bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and was halfway through my meal when my cell rang. I wiped my fingers on a napkin and flipped the phone open. “Cline.”

“Coast is clear.”

I smiled. “Who’d they talk to?”

“Mr. K,” Jay said, referring to Kessler. “Bill Gannon and his employees, couple Hispanic stable hands, me, the guy Kessler was talking to.”

“Know who he is?”

“From what I heard, guy’s an owner. Maybe a potential client.”

“Did the cops interview with the press around?”

“Used an office. Even so, the reporters were buzzin’ round like flies on shit.”

“Apt description, there, Jay.”

He grunted. “Get your ass back here, and bring me something to eat.”

I closed my phone and was scraping the last bit of egg and biscuits and gravy into the center of my plate when someone stepped alongside my shoulder and placed a hand on the countertop. A small, feminine hand. I turned my head.

Detective Bonikowski stood at my side in her fashionable suit--this morning’s choice, a charcoal gray herringbone--paired with a pink silk blouse with the buttons left undone at her throat.


“Mr. Cline.” She swept the room with a practiced glance before her gaze returned to my face. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a break.” I gestured toward my plate. “Eating.”

“You take breaks in the middle of walking a horse?”

I smiled. “Not usually.”

“Did you think we were coming to hook you up?”

“It crossed my mind.”

“And now?”

I glanced at her and sighed. “No. Your shoulders are relaxed. Your hands are nowhere near your weapon or cuffs, you’re unbalanced with most of your weight on your left foot . . . and you’re alone.”

Her mouth twitched. “I wouldn’t need backup to handle you.”

I swiveled around on my stool and squinted at her, wondering if the implied meaning was simply a case of wishful thinking on my part. “How’d you find me?”

“Driving past. Looked in the window . . . you know? Advanced police work.”

I grinned.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Genesis of a Kentucky Derby Book . . .

After I finished writing the third book in the Steve Cline Mystery Series, COLD BURN, which is set on a thoroughbred breeding farm in Warrenton, Virginia, and the manuscript went off to the typesetters, it was time for me to come up with a story idea for the next book in the series. I have to admit, a novel set at the Kentucky Derby was not my first choice.

After wrapping up COLD BURN, I spent three months plotting and researching the fourth book, only to have it rejected on synopsis. So, I had to come up with something, and fast, especially if I wanted to maintain a book-a-year schedule. A schedule I’ve since demolished, I might add.

Anyway, while casting around for a story idea, I considered all the people in Steve’s life, and my focus settled on his father, racehorse trainer Chris Kessler. I decided that Kessler finally had a horse capable enough and talented enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. I pitched the idea to my editor. She loved it, so Steve and I were off to Churchill Downs!

View from the Backside

The Backside

After getting permission from the powers that be at the storied track, I set about researching Louisville and the Derby Festival Events and the backside of Churchill Downs.

Riverfront Plaza

A Gallopalooza Horse on Main Street

I came up with the “horse mystery” quickly, but it didn’t feel substantial enough to carry an entire novel; plus, I generally like to layer a second mystery into the story when possible, anyway, so I came up with another mystery that would complicate the plot in a big way. I started my research online, amassing hundreds of pages of detailed notes that would later filter into the story itself. Then, it was time to visit Louisville and Churchill for onsite research.

Morning workout

Afternoon sun winking off Humana Building

Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to get Steve involved in the mystery I’d designed for him, and it had to be believable. So, I turned to real life. I had taken a Private Investigations course a while back, and one of the topics that we studied dealt with the Public Information Act. Essentially, we learned about the amazing amount of information that is available to the public. And we were given a final assignment: to learn everything that we could about a person unknown to us. Our instructor’s parting words were: “Whatever you do, don’t follow your subject.”

He didn’t want to be called by the police when we screwed up.

Well, those words have stuck with me over the years. I had it in the back of my mind that I could use his sentiment somewhere down the line in a story. So, I decided that Steve would take the same PI course. (He loves working with horses, but he’s interested in investigations, as well.) Steve’s course is wrapping up just as he heads to Louisville. While there, he decides to complete the assignment so he can turn it in when he returns to Maryland.

Unfortunately for Steve, the person he chooses to investigate winds up missing under mysterious circumstances, and the race is on . . .

TRIPLE CROSS: A sinister plot of deceit and revenge unravels beneath the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

Here’s the opening to TRIPLE CROSS:

The assignment was simple enough. Pick a random subject and learn as much as you can about him. Name, address, phone number. DOB, mortgages and property taxes. Car description and plate number. VIN if you didn’t mind being obvious. A simple assignment if I’d been in Maryland. But I was six-hundred miles from home, standing within eyeshot of the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Logistics would be complicated, but nothing I couldn’t overcome.

First and foremost, I needed to select a subject. But on the backside, with all the “Slims” and “Ricos” and “Willies,” figuring out someone’s real name was a tricky proposition at best. Track employees were supposed to keep their photo IDs displayed at all times, either dangling from straps around their necks or clipped to their shirts, but most backsiders found the practice cumbersome and ended up slipping them under T-shirts or stuffing them in back pockets. And whomever I chose needed to have at least a tenuous tie to the community. On the backside, that could be a problem, too. Of course, I could have picked a jockey or a trainer or a local celebrity, but I wanted someone who wasn’t in the news. Someone ordinary. Normal.

Yet I suspected there was nothing ordinary or normal about this place or time. Not in the town of Louisville, and certainly not in the barn area at Churchill Downs. Not fifteen days before the running of the Kentucky Derby.

Even before the sky had brightened, and the lights illuminating the Twin Spires lost their brilliance to the new day, traffic on Fourth Street had increased until the whine of tires on asphalt pushed through the chain-link fence that separated the backside from the rest of the world.

Today, it seemed like that fence wasn’t doing any damned good.

Also, don’t forget the Kentucky Derby documentary that I mentioned in an earlier post. If you’re interested in viewing it, and it’s playing near you, please try to catch it early because twenty-five percent of the box office from the opening week will be donated to the worldwide leader in equine research – The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. If you can, please support the film the week of April 18th. To learn more, visit: http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The First Saturday in May . . .

I spent the afternoon in Louisville today. The magnolias, daffodils, and tulips were in bloom, and naturally, my thoughts turned to the Kentucky Derby. As hard as it is for me to believe, the big race is only twenty-five days and counting.

Time flies.

Statue of Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby.

Considering the fact that my latest mystery, TRIPLE CROSS, is set in Louisville for the running of the Kentucky Derby, you’d think that I’d be a huge horseracing fan when, in fact, I’m not.

I am most definitely drawn to racing, but this is solely a byproduct of my love of the horse, and I have to admit, after Barbaro, my feelings about horseracing are even more conflicted.

Racing is hard on horses, but so are all the equine sports at the upper levels. Let’s face it; as soon as humans are thrown into the mix, our natural competitiveness (and sometimes, greed) causes us to push our horses. So, it’s up to us to do the best job we can to ensure their safety and continued health.

Some will be critical of how we “use” horses, but the truth of the matter is: many of the top equine athletes love what they do.

What happened to Barbaro was tragic, and it broke my heart. But it was an accident. I have admired Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, for decades, having become familiar with him as he competed on the Grand Prix circuit, rode in the Olympics, and later, saved several children when Flight 232 went down in an Iowa cornfield. He is a horseman in the truest sense of the word.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, an independent documentary about the 2006 Kentucky Derby, filmed and produced by two brothers, will be released nationwide later this month, on April 18th. Here’s a clip from the movie:

Banner 2 Banner 1 go!

To learn more about THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, visit: http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/

I found this wonderful clip on YouTube (from the movie) of Michael Matz introducing Barbaro to his son. It's very sweet and really highlights Matz's temperament and horsemanship. Click here.

So, while I'm not a big racing fan, this excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS, sums up how I (and Steve) feel about racehorses:

There’s something about being on the backside of a racetrack just before dawn that is truly magical--standing along the rail when the light’s just coming up, watching the horses move fluidly across the damp earth, their dark shapes silhouetted against a rainbow sky. You stand there, breathing in the clean air, listening to the steady primal rhythm of a galloping horse, and the rest of the world simply does not exist.