Morning meditation

Sparkly sunset on the James.

Sparkly sunset on the James.

My poor, neglected blog! One sure thing about a personal blog: it only gets updated if you update it. I have a backlog of pictures, guest posts, and wonderful horse books to share. But time remains finite, and I guess I always find ways to spend my time other than here.

Back in February, I started a new job. After working remotely for ten years, it’s an adjustment going into an office every day. One outcome of that switch is that I overhauled my daily routine so that I start my days spending my time doing things that I love: yoga, meditating, writing.

That way, every day starts out as a great day! Continue reading

I Want to Be A Rodeo Rider

Cowboy Up!

Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo
by Nancy Bo Flood, Photography by Jan Sonnenmair
Picture book, Ages 8 and up
Boyds Mill Press/Wordsong, 2013
Junior Library Guild Selection

Have you ever opened a book just because you’re curious? Maybe the title or the cover grabs your attention. Isn’t it often a question that makes you open to the first page? Hmmm…what’s this about?

That’s what happened to me with Cowboy Up!

I like the phrase: cowboy up. It’s one we sometimes use in our family to mean something on the order of: stand here and face the true moment. You can’t duck out, but you’re not alone.

When I first opened this picture book by Nancy Bo Flood and Jan Sonnenmair, I was thinking of my family and how we help each other to keep on keeping on. I didn’t expect but found a whole  universe inside that revolves around families and animals and how we can support and encourage each other to do our best.

Cowboy Up! weaves poetry, photography, documentary, and inspiration into a book that unfolds as a day in the life at the Navajo rodeo. From the night-before-nerves to first gathering to mutton busting,  from barrel racing to  midway eats to heading home, Cowboy Up!  is pure joy. – Gigi

Author Nancy Bo Flood on Cowboy Up!

Gigi: How did the idea for Cowboy Up! originate?
Nancy: I was standing along the railing of the “backyard” rodeo arena near our house on the Navajo Reservation watching young women practice racing and spinning around barrels. THAT’s what I wanted to do, gallop full-out and spin around those barrels. The lines of the first poem sang out: “I want to be a rodeo rider.” The words kept jingling in my head. What a fun challenge to write about rodeo, I thought, so each time I was at a rodeo, I tried to capture the rhythm and excitement of each event.

Gigi: All of the elements of the book combine beautifully to give a reading experience that makes you feel like you’re part of a Navajo rodeo: the poetry, the announcer’s dialogue, the prose about each event, and the intimate close-up photos. I really love the structure of the book. It gives kids a lot to explore. Did you know immediately that the book would take on this form?
Nancy: I had no idea what form this book would take. At first all I had was a handful of poems. I took an extra semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts to work with poet, Julie Larios, to learn about writing poetry and creating a collection with “story.” Here on the Reservation, I hung around every kind of local rodeo, arriving early to watch the families, horses and rough stock arrive. I loved roaming around the “getting ready” areas and watch the competitors brush down horses and especially the young bull riders (some are only 12 years old) oil their gear, wrap their wrists, stretch their muscles. Of course the most fun was climbing up on the fence rails with the little kids to watch the 3 and 4 year olds get ready to wooly ride. I talked with worried parents, old-time announcers, and excited young wranglers. Back in my office I searched the Internet for information and came across Jan Sonnenmair’s gallery site. Jan captured with her camera the images I imagined in the book – close-ups that showed the spirit of rodeo – from a little kid practicing lassoing his backyard practice bull, to the courage, excitement, the love of riding one’s horse. My amazing editor, Marcia Leonard, guided the creation of the flow and continuity. When she suggested we introduce each event with voice of the announcer just like at a rodeo, I went back the rodeo arena to capture that unique voice.

Gigi: My favorite spread in Cowboy Up! is pages 10-11. This section is all about the multiple generations that participate in Navajo rodeos. You open with the poem, “That’s My Grandpa.” This sentence, coming along after your moving poem, really choked me up: “Navajo rodeo is a family affair.” Can you tell me more about the family aspects of the rodeo, including how families bond with the horses and other rodeo animals? What roles does the rodeo play in Navajo families today?
Nancy: Many Navajo families are “rodeo” or ranching families – for generations. My favorite part of being at a rodeo is watching everyone arrive in a packed pick-up truck pulling a trailer full of horses and gear and then everyone gets busy helping. Kids hop out. Horses are unloaded. Grandma might begin braiding a granddaughter’s hair; an uncle helps brush down a horse; Dad starts adjusting bridle and reins or tighten up a cinch. Mom carefully checks over the entry cards. One wonderful example, a couple of years ago, 10-year old Faith Holyan stole the show at the 64th Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo. She became the champion women’s barrel racer in the very arena named after her grandfather.
Little ones begin riding even before they can walk, perched atop a horse, riding bare-back, snuggled in front of Mom, Dad or Grandma. The learning of “rodeo skills” isn’t necessarily for competing in rodeo, but learning how to handle and take care of horses, cattle, and other livestock. Navajo grandmothers still go out riding horseback into the canyons or up on the mesas to shepherd sheep or goats. It is a beautiful sight to look across an open mesa and see the lone figure of a grandma on her pinto slowly moving her herd from one grazing area to another. Rodeo is the celebration of showing off one’s skills in handling one’s horse, roping cattle, catching a run-away steer, or taking care of livestock. Rodeo is also the celebration of many values and traditions of the Navajo culture.

Gigi: Cowboy Up! also taught me that at the Navajo rodeo, kids of all ages compete. You even compare the rodeo to little league baseball. Are kids taught and coached in family settings or are there mutton riding and bronc riding lessons? [Is that a goofy question?]
Nancy: Not a goofy question at all! Ranch kids begin learning as soon as they begin walking – how to sit on a horse, balance, interact, not be afraid. By the time they are three they are lassoing each other, chasing after sheep, hopping a ride on a calf, falling off, trying again. But if you are not a ranch kid, there are families that say, “come on over, we’ll be practicing calf roping tonight.” Rob Taylor is one example of someone who understands the healing power of working with animals. Rob works at the Chinle Hospital during the day and then does an afterschool “rodeo school” at his ranch in the evening. He works with students with special needs as well as teens in legal trouble. There is a lot of “therapy” for anyone learning about one’s own strengths – facing fears and gaining self-confidence – while working with animals.

Gigi: What is your favorite event at the rodeo? Have you ever competed in a rodeo event?
Nancy: I have two favorite events: mutton-busting, wooly riding little ones holding on tight, trying to stay on top a bucking, dodging sheep. There is nothing like seeing that great big grin on the face of a successful rider. Second favorite event – two really, watching the skill of young cowgirl guide her racing horse around barrels; and then team roping, such timing and knowing your own horse while racing to rope a run-away steer, snagging the head or the heels, as part of a roping team. The teams are often father and son or a pair of brothers.
My dream as a kid was to have my own horse and be able to ride it bareback, jump over ditches and gallop across an open field. Finally after I was grown up I did just that. I love being around horses, even just give them a grooming or a rub behind their ears. I wish I were young enough, skilled and strong enough to do rodeo. Yep, “I want to be a rodeo rider.”

Gigi: I thought it was awesome how in the middle of the book you took an intermission along the Midway Walk for Midway Eats! Last summer driving through New Mexico, my daughter and I followed signs for frybread but didn’t end up finding any. It sounds scrumptious the way you describe it: “crisp, hot frybread, grease still popping, sweet honey oozing.” Do you remember the first time you ever ate frybread?
Nancy: Frybread – plucked hot from the popping oil – is delicious. The first time I tasted it was at a local rodeo. My favorite is frybread served at the Tsegi Canyon Restaurant, half-way between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, near Kayenta and Tuba City. Their frybread is crisp and light. Add a big scoop of vanilla ice cream….oh my! Slides right down.

Gigi: Did you interview children and families to learn more about the rodeo tradition? What kind of research did you do for the book?
Nancy: I went to a hundred rodeos. Or more. Just ask my husband. He came to most of them and many of the backyard rodeos were a challenge to find – one has to take a lot of wrong turns on dusty gravel roads. Of course, we also had to sample a lot of fry bread as well as Navajo tacos, mutton stew, and in between, talk with the riders, the stock handlers, the grandmas, grandpas, and rodeo queens and often whomever I was standing next to. Seriously, I interviewed everyone I could who was part of rodeo. I watched competitors get ready and then circled around back to watch the broncos and bulls as they milled around in their corrals. Of course I also researched information available both in books and on the Internet. Sometimes information was hard to get, for example, there are contradictory statistics about Bodacious and just how dangerous a bull he was. For sure, he was one bad bull that hardly any wrangler – even the best – rode to the full eight-second count.

Gigi: The photography by Jan Sonnenmair is so striking and personal. I have to say, the endpaper, which is a collage of Navajo rodeo kids, framing your poem, “Rodeo Rider” is just incredible. The images capture the rodeo and deepen the experience of reading your poetry. Did you and Jan work together on shooting the rodeo images, selecting, and arranging them?
Nancy: The endpaper photo gallery was entirely Jan’s idea. She asked young competitors when they were practicing after school or at rodeos after their events for a “special photo opp.” Boyds Mills Press agreed to give the idea a try. The designer put the images together with the intro poem. I agree, I think the collage of faces invites the reader to step right in, get a close-up look, and see the pure excitement on those faces, every one so unique. You just have to smile right back and hopefully, turn the page and hear “cowboy up, ride the Navajo rodeo.”

Rodeo Rider

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Gigi: What are you working on now?
Nancy: One of my concerns is that many books for children about Navajo or other Native Americans show them as “history” rather than who they are as individuals, not stereotyped, and how they live and work today. Native Americans are leaders in every aspect of American life. I am compiling an anthology of biographies of outstanding Native Americans. The first two books in this project acquired by Fulcrum Publishers, Inc., will highlight artists, authors, athletes (including rodeo) and performers. Later books will include statesmen, activists, scientists (including the first Native astronaut), warrior-heroes, educators, and so on.

Thank you, Nancy! I really enjoyed your book and learning more about how you wrote Cowboy Up!

Nancy Bo Flood

Nancy Bo Flood

Nancy Bo Flood lives and teaches on the Navajo Reservation where she hikes, rides her bike and attends local rodeos. She is the author of several award-winning books including Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons and Warriors in the Crossfire. Recent titles are No-Name Baby and Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo. Visit Nancy:

Wonderponies: I’m a believer

Saved by An Angel

Saved by An Angel

Look at this sweet mare reclining in the hay! Her whole name is Saved by an Angel, and last week on the trail she lived up to her name.

Four of us went out for a ride on a cool, cloudy afternoon.  The sky was gray but the fields and the forest popped with every shade of green. Tiny brown sparrows stayed just ahead of us, bathing in the puddles, and hopping away just in the nick of time.

We were a Japanese haiku come to life in Virginia:

Hey, sparrow! 
out of the way, 
    Horse is coming. (Kobayahi Issa)

Our horses were two mares and two geldings. We joked about chaperoning their double date. I can’t remember ever having felt so relaxed on a ride – great horses, fun companions, and one of those sweet Virginia breezes that people like to sing about.

I’ve been riding Angel in my lessons since the beginning of the year. She’s a quiet yet responsive a partner who will carry as much of the load as I ask, or let me do all the work if I really want to. The only time I’ve ever known her to fidget or fuss was for just a few seconds in the cross country field a few weeks back. We cantered up a hill, and at the top she stopped and nosed at her left leg repeatedly. It’s so odd for Angel to lose her focus that at first I wondered if she was hurt. Perhaps, we had stepped in a hole. But, after a minute, she settled down and seemed fine on the walk back to the barn. When I untacked her and took her booties off, I found a grasshopper trapped and squirming to get free there in her left boot. So you see, she’s an honest girl, who only complains with good reason and even then not for long.

But, back to the trail ride where Angel turned out to be an angel.

So on our way home, we had to pass through a field surrounded by a pine stand. There were three ways across: tall grass where we couldn’t see the footing,  a long, wide uninterrupted mud puddle, or soft sand. I don’t think we talked about which way to go but kind of all silently moved right toward the sand. Angel and I went first.

We took a few steps. The ground gave way and pulled us down. Angel picked up her feet, took a step or two forward, and I felt her back legs sink more. The sand that had looked so promising brought her to her knees. I heard the ground sucking around her and around our friends behind us. I remember hearing  horses breathing hard. And, I remember swearing really loud in my mind. Very creative, combo swearing. In my head.

I think I raised up off the saddle a bit. I think I maybe tried to use my legs to help Angel lift, and she did, and then sunk down again to her girth, all four legs buried three feet.  So then I wondered if we would get out. Or, if I would stay on. Or, if she would keep on sinking. I wondered what was happening to the horses behind me because I could hear them sinking, too.

I had run out of swear-words. Breathe. Breathe. Let the pony do her thing. Breathe. I said to myself.

Angel launched us out of the earth that had vacuumed us down. And we were free from the mud or sand or quicksand. I can’t say for how long we were stuck.One minute? Two minutes? Not much more than that, I’m sure.

When I replay the memory I only see Angel’s brown ears, her black mane, and the spot on the trail ahead that I wanted us to reach.

When we did reach it, I could feel Angel thinking about bolting for home. I posted to tell her that she didn’t need to halt, but that I didn’t want to canter or gallop. She slowed to a trot, and then we slowed to a walk. I patted her mane and over and over told her what a good pony she was.

There’s more to the story, of course. And, there are seven other versions: three other riders and four horses went through the same obstacle. I wonder how they remember what happened and just how did we all get out: horses safe, people safe.

The answer is that we got home safely because the horses were amazing and because the riders stayed calm. The horses were amazing. And, my Angel pony. My pony was a wonder.

Look to this Day


My mother-in-law specializes in acts of kindness. I’ve posted about her generous spirit before here and here. She knows I’m worrying about my horse, and this morning she emailed me her favorite poem, by 5th Century Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa. So, now I’ll take my own favorite advice: breathe in, breathe out. repeat.

Look to this day
for it is life
the very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence
the joy of growth
the splendor of action
the glory of power.

For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory
of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day…

Symbol of His Service

Cornell Lab of O Red-headed Woodpecker
Photo: All About Birds, Red-headed Woodpecker

I’m avoiding writing about Albert. Oh, there’s a lot to say. A lot of ruminating to come on questions of health and injury, beliefs and fairness. Some wisdom, I hope, will come from Albert, our family, and our vet. He has survived a medical crisis. Right now, it seems like he has.

And, one of the questions for us is how many more medical crises will we ask him to face? Like many animals I’ve known, if you ask him to accept pain and fight through something, he will do it. Silent and stoic, he surely will.

He’s getting older. That’s probably the real bottom line. He is getting older, and his good, easeful days fewer.

So, I took my coffee and newspaper out to the barn this morning. Just to see him and sit with him.

Something else has been on my mind at the barn. Where is the red-headed woodpecker?

I used to see one all the time when I’d first turn down the drive. After all, this medium-sized woodpecker lives in Virginia year-round. Lately and to no avail, I’ve been scouting for it at the edge of the road, in the fields, and on the trail.

What makes this bird a thrill to watch is its crimson hood. Red-hooded woodpecker seems like a better name to me, really. While the bird is not on the threatened list, its habitat is shrinking fast.

When I first pulled up to the barn today, I heard a bird in one of the two old oaks by the gate. Sort of a cherr-ah or kirr-ah. I made a mental note to try to research that call. But, I didn’t look up because I wanted to look in on Albert first. I nearly wept from joy when I first saw him today. Calmer than yesterday by an ocean. Steadier, too. And he nickered.

So, I pulled up a chair beside his stall door. He poked his over the gate and stood near me while I read him headlines. I didn’t read to him about Boston. I read good stuff: about the history of the James River Park System. I read book reviews to him. We looked at the grocery coupons and perused the open houses, too.

I heard the kirr-ah or cheerr-ah again. “What is that bird, Albert?” I asked him. A few minutes later we heard a dull drumming of a woodpecker against a tree in the woods. I’m horrible at identifying woodpeckers by their drill.

Finally, after fussing over Albert – grooming him good, spreading out his shavings, doing my best to repel flies – I headed home. I sat for a minute in the car, thinking about my horse. One or two of those big questions that need attention sallied out into the open meadow of my cleared mind. Cleared like it always is when I’m out there.

And like these birds just do, sometimes, right then a red-headed woodpecker came around a limb of the oak. Went back up, came back down, went back up. I watched one then two red-headed woodpeckers forage the tree for insects. They didn’t drum or cry, just let me see them.

In The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tells that a woodpecker helped Hiawatha in battle and in thanks for his service, Hiawatha gave the red-headed woodpecker its scarlet hood. Here’s moment from Chapter 9 Hiawatha and the Pearl-Feather:

“Then the grateful Hiawatha
Called the Mama, the woodpecker,
From his perch among the branches
Of the melancholy pine-tree,
And, in honor of his service,
Stained with blood the tuft of feathers
On the little head of Mama;
Even to this day he wears it,
Wears the tuft of crimson feathers,
As a symbol of his service.”

Red-headed Woodpecker Western Soundscape Archive
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Even the red-headed woodpecker helps me consider Albert and his life. How will I thank this horse for his service?

Herons and Shad and Poetry

A dog and her river

A dog and her river

Last night, I dreamed that I was walking at the river, down at Pony Pasture. In my dream, there were Great Blue Herons everywhere!

Not a stretch, really, since there actually ARE Great Blue Herons everywhere on the James. [And lately, I can pretty reliably sight a kingfisher, too. No, not the beer. The bird.] One time I sat on the rocks at Belle Isle and counted 32 herons. It was crazy. First, I had to find the magic eye way of seeing them, but once I tuned in? Well, abundance is the word that comes to mind.

Back to my dream of last night. So, there were all these herons walking around eating and carrying extra food for later under their wings:

Eaglets and eaglet eggs,

Big fish, little fish,

Red fish, blue fish (Not really.)

An abundant James River is not only real in my dreams. There’s no way you could live here and miss the actual living proof that the James is expanding in abundance, in fish and wildlife, and in inspiring people to spend more time outdoors. But, if you need confirmation from outside the region, check out this recent New York Times article about the James River:

In Richmond, Va., Herons and Shad Signal a James River Revival

Even better than sitting at your desk reading about the river, give yourself a day off to walk and write and explore the James using this Poetry Guide to the James River Park System:

Yes, that’s right, our river comes complete with poetry guide!

Find your inspiration from the river, find guidance from river poems by Wendell Berry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Longfellow, and wondrous more. Maps to Belle Isle, Pony Pasture, and Reedy Creek are included in the guide.

So, what are we waiting for?

Pick a park, go there, and follow these instructions from the Poetry Guide:

“Read a poem
Stay still and contemplate the meanings.
Write a poem, reflections or musings using the blank pages or the
style templates provided.”

When you go, remember: be safe and be aware. Let someone know where exactly you’re going and when you’ll return. And whatever you do – do not, I repeat, do not try to ride a floating tree.

As Style Weekly reminds us in Melissa Scott Sinclair’s article “The River Wild,” as alluring and inviting as the James is, our river also wants to kill you. Heed the advice therein from Ralph White, ‘This is not a Kings Dominion ride. This is the real thing. You can die.’

So. Go to the river! Act right while you’re there. Walk around. Write some poetry. Sit down and count Great Blue Herons.

Or count the trees floating by.

One more time: Don’t what?

That’s right. Don’t ride them.

For more about the James go here:

James River News Hub

James River Association

James River Park System


Over on Girls of Summer (a summer reading list blog with Meg Medina, a great friend and beautiful writer), check out our interview with author, Jacqueline Woodson. For Girls of Summer, Meg and I selected 18 of our favorite books for girls. From picture book to YA, these books all have strong, amazing girl characters.

Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson published her first book when she was 19 years old. She has since written more than thirty including the recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, Pecan Pie Baby. Her book, If You Come Softly is one of my go-to YA titles for many reasons. It’s a fantastic love story – very much a modern Romeo and Juliet. Her characters, Ellie and Miah, make me feel like I am right there, living with them. Her writing is poetry. In this interview, she talks about how important it is to her for words to sound and look just right, when spoken aloud or read on the page. She also talks about her writing process and Ellie and Miah.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I hope you’ll check out: