Conversations with the Silent by Katie Cerminara

Katie and Sassy

Katie and Sassy

I met Katie Cerminara through her work with Canine Adventure. We needed someone to care for Biscuit over a string of upcoming out-of-town engagements. And, Bub and I were both working so much that we thought Biscuit might like to get out of the house and onto the trail for some adventure walks.

When Katie showed up that first day to meet Biscuit wearing jodhpurs to go trail walking, I pretty much fell in love with her on sight. And, Biscuit, did, too. Though not because of Katie’s outfit and passion for horses, but because she has a true heart for animals. Continue reading

Pony Power

(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Stephen Leslie of Hartland uses horses to weed an onion field. (Photo link: Valley News – Jennifer Hauck)

Rarely, when reading about sustainable farming, does the discussion explore the use of horses on the 21st Century farm. This week, Nicola Smith, staff writer for the Valley News in New Hampshire featured author-farmer Stephen Leslie, who uses draft ponies instead of tractors on his farm. In her article, Horse Power Returns, Smith describes how Leslie and his team of two Norwegian Fjord ponies live and work together on a 60-acre organic farm. His team of two 950 pound draft ponies (Cassima and Tristan) equals about a 20-horse power tractor. Leslie’s not alone in his preference for horse power over the roar of an engine. In fact, the article estimates that 400,000 U.S. farmers today are using horses.

According to Leslie, the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale, Sustainable Market Grower (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 346 pages, $39.95), some of the benefits working the farm with horses include: less soil compaction, no fuel, and the joys of working with “a living, breathing, intelligent animal.”

The New Horse-Powered Farm by Stephen Leslie

I learned a lot from Smith’s article and definitely want to check out this book. When I first wrote about CSAs and the sustainable food movement, back in 1998, I was just learning to ride horses. What I found so interesting in this article is how much Leslie values his relationship with his two ponies. Even though the setting in this article is a working farm, I think the point is similar to what folks in therapeutic riding and animal therapy know to be true and what every pet owner knows: Human beings benefit physically, cognitively, and emotionally from animal companionship. Earlier this year Reuters published an equally fascinating article about how South Koreans are using horse therapy to help teens unplug from the Internet.

All Things New: Second Chances at James River

TRF Pasture


For three straight mornings, I wake up with this word aglow in my mind. For three days running I’ve planned to spend the morning writing about the rehabilitation and reconciliation going on out at the James River Work Center in Goochland – out at the prison.

Waking up with a single word or phrase outshining all other first-morning thoughts is kind of a habit with me. Like a little writing prompt, lingering from dreamland. I should know by now that behold will stay with me until I attend it.

Barn 4

But behold – my word of the day – doesn’t make sense to me at first. Today, I don’t want to write about glory or angels or faith or hope. I want to write about The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Barn 4, the twenty-eight retired Thoroughbreds in the Goochland program, the offenders who work there, and about the state employees and volunteers who, together, are encouraging quiet, steady change in the lives of horses and men.

Racehorses are bred to entertain and delight us with speed, power, and heart. They’re bred to win. Some TRF horses boast career winnings into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; others may have been dumped from the track before a single start or never showed, never placed at all. Here at TRF these horses get a new start. Here, their every need gets met. Grain, hay, supplements, health care, exercise, rest, companionship, and a new purpose.

Wall of Adoption

Life Behind Barz, Excessively Crooked, Bully Billy, Not a Second Time

These are the names of a few of the registered Thoroughbreds that have been adopted out from Second Chances at James River, Greener Pastures Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). Each horse arrives just off the track or from a TRF program elsewhere in the United States. Nationwide, there are eight such programs operating at prisons and over thirty herds in all. TRF cares for 1,050 retired Thoroughbreds across the country.

At TRF, horses are taught or re-taught how to stand still and wait, how to listen for verbal cues and watch for visual ones, and most of all how to believe they will not be devoured by a wild cat nor by a dark trailer. Here, they’re taught to believe they’ll not be abandoned or destroyed.

Not long ago, I heard that two horses died at a nearby race track this past summer. One collapsed from exhaustion and the other spooked at fireworks, reared up, and hit his head. He was put down on the spot. I think about those two horses when a TRF volunteer tells me, “Our horses have seen so much; they’ve seen it all.” What I hear in that sentence is this: for our benefit and entertainment racehorses sometimes witness and experience suffering at the hands of those they trust the most.

So I wonder, who exactly is getting the second chance, the horses or us?

Ken and Free

David, Bruce, Ken, Ernest

These are the names of a few of the TRF students, all non-violent, felony offenders. The well-being of Happy, Free, Kippy and twenty-five other Thoroughbreds is entrusted to them. The men receive classroom instruction from a pioneer in the horse world, Dr. Reid McLellan, co-creator of the Groom Elite program, and founding Director of the Louisiana State University Equine genetics program, the first program of its kind in the nation.

With classroom and hands-on instruction from Dr. Reid, TRF students learn equine anatomy, horse handling, and horse communication skills. They’re taught how to wrap legs every which a way, for every which reason.

Wrap it Up

Wrap it Up

As with the horses they care for, the TRF students are challenged to grow, to relearn, and to walk right – walk right through their own fears, walk right into the confidence that comes from the daily Barn 4 routine of hard work, patience, consistency, and precise communication. With horses as with life, walking right often calls for walking away from a situation that’s going nowhere fast: A horse that refuses to be caught. A frightened mare that won’t step onto the black wash mat.

Ernest at a lecture

In classroom lectures, TRF students hear practical lessons and tips on handling horses. Hands-on, experiential learning puts theory and science to the test. Sometimes, when handling a frightened twelve hundred pound animal, success is as simple as this: breathe in, breathe out. That pause of a single focused breath might just be enough to help a green horseman in a tense situation recall one of Dr. Reid’s refrains:
“You are never finished.”
“Leadership is based on trust not strength, not power.”
“Bravado and aggression are usually a lack of confidence.”
“Don’t start something when you only have twenty minutes.”
“Get yourself in the right frame of mind; don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself.”

Equipped with knowledge and confidence in themselves, the TRF students get a new start, too.

Bruce and barn cat

Reid, Tom, Jessica, Anne, Polly, Mary
These are the names of a few of the TRF volunteers. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville wrote this about American volunteerism, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. … The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.” TRF is the kind of American association of which de Tocqueville writes.

Their voluntary efforts are grounded in an unwavering belief in second chances. Though the match-making process may take a year or more to find one retired Thoroughbred the right owner, to the TRF volunteers, it’s worth the wait.

Dr. Reid McLellan

TRF volunteers give training time, veterinary care, farrier services, fundraising, and marketing expertise because they love horses, sure. They volunteer because they’ve grown outraged at the disregard shown the noble, loyal horse, and because they refuse to participate in the casting aside of an animal that will give people a second chance and a third, a fourth, and a fifth. I think also somewhere along the way, many of the TRF volunteers have experienced that really caring for a horse makes you a better, happier person.

April, Frank, Kelly
These are the names of a few of the state employees who work with TRF. And here’s the best surprise of all: this creative, innovative, results-based program was initiated by state government. Yes, it was. The Commonwealth makes this program possible through use of the land, the facilities, an on-site counselor, and armed officers, whose presence reminds volunteers and students alike how much is at stake every time the barn door opens.

This summer I heard Dr. Reid describe the mind of a horse in a way I had never considered. He explained in his horse communication lecture that the greatest fear of any horse at every new corner, dark trailer, or misplaced barrel is the fear of being eaten. He also explained that the horse’s way through this fear is confidence and trust. The ever-present question in the mind of an anxious horse is: If I go forward, if I do what’s being asked of me in this moment, will I be eaten? Will I survive?

Who can’t relate to that feeling?

At some level maybe everyone fears being devoured, used up, bowled over, taken for granted, or unforgiven. For people, too, the way through our deepest fears is through confidence and trust – in ourselves, those around us, and, I believe, trust in our Creator. Trust that our Creator has given us what we need to come out of any situation without being eaten – to put it in horse terms. With confidence and trust, maybe we all can make good on our second chances.

So, I come back to this: Behold

When I woke up hearing and seeing and feeling the word behold, I didn’t understand the connection to TRF at all. Now, though, I do. Following behold has led me here, to my most beloved verse from The Bible, one that restores confidence and trust and also describes the work of TRF:
Behold, I make all things new. [Revelation 21-22]

I guess I’ve written about glory and angels and faith and hope, after all.

Barn 4

If you’d like to read more about TRF check out these links:

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation national website

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at James River website

Groom Elite Horsemen’s Education Program

July, 2011 Richmond Magazine article by Nancy Wright Beasley, “Second Chances: Horses open doors for inmates — and touch more than a few hearts”

November, 2011 In & Around Horse Country magazine article by Betsy Burke Parker, “Prison Inmates, Thoroughbred Horses Form Symbiotic Bond Through Second Chances Program”

The Literary Horse: Live Your Legend!

The Literary Horse

Black Beauty lives at the end of Main Street and Pegasus takes wing from the pasture around the corner in a new exhibit touring public and school libraries worldwide through 2012.

The exhibit, Vanessa Wright’s “The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life”, pairs up to 100 photos of today’s novice through Olympic horses and riders with family-friendly, secular, and cited public domain quotations from the world’s great books. Showcasing first-time riders through Special Olympic and Olympic champions, 26 horse breeds, and 29 equestrian disciplines – ranging from carriage driving and show jumping to jousting and mounted archery – The Literary Horse provides visitors with a real-life tour of world classics, such as The Iliad, Richard III, and War and Peace, as well as beloved children’s tales including, Black Beauty, Cinderella, and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

“I hoped these images would help people see themselves in the great books and inspire them to live their own legends,” says Wright. “Heroes aren’t just people who lived long ago – they are our neighbors, our friends, our family members and ourselves. The beauty, heart, and spirit we admire in legendary horses exists in our pasture pets, service horses, and competition partners. Together, we face challenges as thrilling and as extraordinary as the quests of old. After all, every great story, at its heart, reflects the greatness that is already within us.”

Riders Read - Miles

Riders Read - Miles

Gigi: Who are The Literary Horse (and Riders Read) participants?
Vanessa: The Literary Horse exhibit features novices through Special Olympic and Olympic champions. Yet no matter what their background, all participants share three important traits. First, each person must have a love of the horse, and of the equestrian sport, art, or mission they pursue. Second, each horse must be happy, healthy, safe, and sound for the work he/she is expected to do. (A 34-year-old companion horse, for example, is not expected to be in the same shape as a 10-year-old Grand Prix dressage competitor!) Finally, each person must be committed to education – to learning, sharing, and passing on excellence in horsemanship and equestrian skill. These criteria keep participation open to novices through experts, young children to seniors, riding schools, veterinary clinics, and therapy and service organizations, and, of course, to all horses from the shaggiest backyard pasture pet to the most decorated international champion. However, the criteria also emphasize the one thing that links them: the capacity for unnoticed or celebrated but absolutely real greatness in every person and every horse. Riders Read! is a photo series that accompanies The Literary Horse exhibit. In the Riders Read! posters, the exhibit participants are pictured reading on, to, or “with” their horses. It’s a lot of fun – one vaulter is pictured reading while doing a full split on her coach’s horse! – and the images can encourage reluctant readers to give a new book a try.

G: Why horses? What is it about the horse-human connection that is so inspiring?

V: Horses give us the chance to be our best selves. Horses don’t care what you look like, what you have, where you come from, or what grades you get or what job you have. Horses care about – and respond to – who you are. If you can be brave, kind, thoughtful, and patient, you can forge a true connection with a horse, and through that connection – that bond, that friendship – the horse will give you the physical, mental, and emotional wings to fly.

Riders Read - Meaghan

Riders Read - Meaghan

G: How many libraries have hosted The Literary Horse exhibit?
V: More than 35 public, school, and university libraries have hosted The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life. The exhibit began at my home library, the Nashua Public Library in Nashua, New Hampshire, in May 2008. It has visited libraries large and small, from the West Buxton Public Library in Buxton, Maine, a tiny converted one-room schoolhouse built in 1853, to the Lexington Central Public Library, which featured a 50-piece exhibit as part of their celebration of the city’s hosting of the 2010 World Equestrian Games. The exhibit has a “happily ever after” coming up, too. In December 2012, The Literary Horse exhibit will go on permanent display at the Norco Horse Library in Norco, California, also known as Horsetown, USA!

G: What are the most unusual ways libraries have used the exhibit?
V: How about horses *in* the library! Three librarians have invited real, live miniature horses into their libraries during The Literary Horse exhibit. Young (and young-at-heart!) visitors got to learn and ask questions about horses, pet and brush (and hug!) the visiting horse, have their picture taken, and, of course, check out a stampede of horse-themed books! Another half dozen librarians have had ponies and horses visit outside the library. The owners – local riding instructors, Pony Clubs, and 4H groups – gave talks and answered questions about horses and invited visitors to meet and pet the horses, and two instructors offered free pony rides and wagon rides. Still other libraries have organized free horse-themed workshops, ranging from veterinarians giving “Healthy Horse” talks to farrier demonstrations to horse-drawing classes with an equine artist to poem readings and singalongs led by equestrian authors and musicians.

Oh! And one library partnered with a nearby polo academy turned their entire main reading room into a polo tack room, with saddles, bridles, mallets, balls, and all kinds of other tack and equipment on display among the shelves. One afternoon they had a group of young schoolchildren visit, and watching the kids light up as they played with the bridles and brushes made me think a few new young horse-lovers were minted that day!

G: Each library chooses its exhibit; how do librarians select their images?
V: Two months before the exhibit, the hosting librarians browse a private online catalog and choose the images they want. Since I am always shooting new photos for The Literary Horse, this lets each librarian pick from the latest shots! Some libraries, though, get a series of particularly special photos. If a library invites me to their town, I photograph local riders and horses to include in their exhibit. Best of all, these photos are then entered in the catalog so that they can be part of future Literary Horse exhibits, too.

Literary Horse - The Road to Camelot

Literary Horse - The Road to Camelot

G: Where do you store everything? Do you have to keep a special place so the images and posters stay in good shape?
V: I would need a gallery of my own to store all 100+ framed prints! Luckily, though, the exhibit has been traveling for three straight years, and it has never been home for more than a few days. On those days, the prints stack practically to the ceiling in my studio. Any extra, unframed prints – including the free images given away at each exhibit! – are kept in individual sealed bags in a set of drawers built into my drafting desk.

G: In the Riders Read photos, how do you get the horses in the photographs to look like they are reading, too?
V: It’s easy: all the rider needs to do is choose a book her horse likes! 🙂 Seriously, the kids, teens, and adults in the exhibit are the kind of horse-people whose horses turn toward the sound of their voices. The horses, too, because they are given loving care and steady guidance, tend to be happy, confident, and curious, eager to investigate whatever their “people” find interesting. I like to imagine that they enjoy a good story, but I know they definitely enjoy the warm affection of sharing one with their “person.”

Riders Read - Candace

Riders Read - Candace

G: What is the first horse story you remember?
V: My grandparents told me the true, triumphant and heart-breaking stories of racehorses from the first August day I toddled into their home, which sat two blocks away from the famous Saratoga racetrack. I think they would have named me Terlingua or Ruffian if they could have and I think I wouldn’t have minded if they did. 🙂

G: When did you start collecting horse books?
V: All of my books are horse books – whether they’re Anna Sewell’s 1877 Black Beauty or Taylor Clark’s 2010 Nerve: Poise under Pressure, Serenity under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool – because I tend to see fiction and nonfiction through they eyes of a horsewoman. As much as I love reading great books, though, I love sharing them even more. The Literary Horse exhibit has been a fantastic way to share horse books with entire library communities, and so many visitors asked me questions about what books would be best for their children, friends, and loved ones that I also started a blog,, to help kids, teens, and adults find horse books, movies, music, and real-life literary adventures that they’ll love!

G: Do you remember when you first had the spark of the idea for The Literary Horse traveling exhibit?

V: I could never forget: my inspiration is nosing my shoulder right this minute, demanding to say “Hay!” 🙂 Meet my horse, Pegasus, a 17 hand Thoroughbred-Lipizzan gelding, who inspired and began The Literary Horse exhibit. I’ve been reading aloud to Pegasus since I first brought him home ten years ago. The more I read, the more I realized that the heroic horses and people in myth and literature were a lot like the horses and people I knew. Then one day I was taking pictures of Pegasus, and he happened to walk toward me in such a way that a fan of dazzling sunbeams blazed around him, and for a moment, it looked like he really was the mythical Pegasus striding out from the sun.


The idea blossomed instantly. I’d find and photograph novice through Olympic horses and riders – those who exemplified the kind of courage, commitment, joy, and connection that have enriched human life and history for thousands of years – and pair them with quotations from classic books. The exhibit would honor the roles horses have played in human history and inquiry, celebrate the “new” legends that are arising among our horses and horse-people every day, and invite the greater community to join us in the learning, delight, and inspiration that the art of horsemanship continually offers. Of course, it would also celebrate and support libraries, and promote reading and community literacy.
My greatest hope, though, then and now, would be that The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life exhibit would help young and young-at-heart lovers of horses and epic adventure see themselves in the great books and inspire them to live their own legends. Best of all, finding themselves in a library, visitors could then borrow the books and seek whatever assistance they might need to begin their own journeys, horse-powered or otherwise. Every Literary Horse photo, quote, and biography shares that same message: Go on, live your legend!

G: Thank you, Vanessa. What an inspiring exhibit. I would love to see it and hope one day I will! Did you know that the name Chancey for the main horse in Chancey of the Maury River came from an appy I met in New Hampshire? I hope I get to meet Pegasus one day!

Elizabeth Taylor & Horses

Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy of American Saddlebred Museum

Joseph Papa’s new book, Elizabeth Taylor: A Passion for Life, takes Taylor fans through a wonderful exploration into the life of a great actress, a huge philanthropist, and one of the world’s most glamorous horsewomen.

The book is full of photographs and includes quotes from Taylor’s reflection on her life. In her own words from Papa’s book, here is Elizabeth on horses and riding:

“My happiest moments as a child were riding my Newfoundland pony, Betty, in the woods on 3,000 acres of my godfather’s estate near the village of Cranbrook.”

“From the age of nine I began to see myself as two separate people: Elizabeth Taylor the person, and Elizabeth Taylor the commodity. I saw the difference between my image and my real self. Sometimes [as a child] when I was out riding, I would pretend to be part of a fantasy high school or campus scene, but a few hours later I would be back on the set creating the public Elizabeth Taylor.”

“Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.”

“National Velvet was really me.”

“I thought we would get married, live on the farm, raise horses…Shit, man. It was going to be my dream.” [On John Warner]

I recently got to interview Joseph Papa for Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog. We talked about his writing of the book and his love of Elizabeth Taylor. I also got to reminisce a little about the time I met her when I was fourteen. How fitting that I was riding a horse when we met – okay, a mule. But still!

You know what’s weird? At a different time, I also met Elizabeth’s National Velvet co-star, Mickey Rooney. In college, I waited on him at the restaurant where I worked when he was in town for a play. Mr. Rooney did not offer any advice on life, but he did leave a twenty percent tip.

Here’s the link to my guest post:

Out of the Past ~ A Classic Film Blog: Guest Blogger: Author Gigi Amateau interviews Author Joseph Papa.

Thanks to the American Saddlebred Museum for permission to use this gorgeous photograph!

Most of All the Horses: Summer Camp in Vermont by Judith Amateau

I admit. I’m pretty enamored of my guest blogger today. She’s sweet and funny and sooooo devoted to horses. Thanks to her, I learned to ride about thirteen years ago. She was five; I was thirty-three. I had been on a horse only few times in my life, but watching my little girl in her lessons just looked so much fun! So, I started riding with her; it’s an activity we’ve shared now for most of her life. These days, I mostly ride around in circles or just sit on Albert and walk wherever he wants to go. But Judith has grown into quite a horsewoman. In this post she reminisces about summer riding camp in Vermont.

As our car, packed full of bags and boots and helmets and towels, began its winding ascent into the mountains that engulf Vershire, Vermont (population 730), I watched the car’s thermometer closely 70…63…57…54. As the numbers shot down, so did my confidence in my Virginia wardrobe consisting primarily of tank tops, shorts, lightweight breeches, and a poncho. I gulped as I thought back to my one thin blanket that I would soon shiver under, along with all my towels and clothes.

Vershire Riding School

Vershire Riding School

When Caroline and I arrived at Vershire Riding School, we were greeted by a friendly woman commenting on the pleasantly warm weather. This, however, was not the first difference we had found in Vermont. Nor was the one, lone cell phone tower disguised as a tree, nor were the rapidly increasing signs warning of wandering moose.

It was the tea. Or lack thereof.

Somewhere in the middle of Connecticut, or possibly Massachusetts, our deliciously comforting sweet tea disappeared. Soon we deduced that Arnold Palmers are a phenomenon not yet fully embraced by our Northern neighbors. Caroline and I later set out to change this with a box of powdered instant sweet tea and MinuteMaid pink lemonade out of a juice box. However, I digress.

The first day there we were in the saddle.

At VRS, they bring out two, sometimes three horses, and match them up to each individual. Based on the multi-page forms and evaluations filled out by each camper about their riding experiences, the head instructor, Judy, carefully matches horse and rider that will best teach and support each other for the seven days of intensive riding. Some of the more advanced riders, which included Caroline and me, would be assigned two horses for the week; one to ride in lessons, and one to ride in late-night schooling sessions. For my main horse, I was assigned to Magic.

Magic is petite and fine-boned, energetic and alert, sensitive and a little moody. We are very similar, and he was a challenge.

As we motorcycled around turns (that’s what we call it when you have only speed and strength, no real control and impulsion), he was on his forehand, occasionally snatching the bit, and I was tipped forward, not considering or using nearly all my aids as a rider.

As weird as it may sound, I was ecstatic. At the moment we splashed up mud in our oblong, uneven twenty meter circle, I realized the possibilities my horse offered for learning technique in dressage and for enlightenment in my approach to riding.

Each day at Vershire, we rode six hours a day. By the second two-hour ride on my second day, Magic and I were gracefully maneuvering a Training level test. It was by no means perfect, nor without vast room for improvement, but I had begun to utilize my legs, seat, hands, balance, and voice aids and our dressage had transformed from a jerky, stop-and-go pattern into a fluid, giving dance.

That ride changed my life; it reminded me why I rode and proved to me, during a precarious place in my life, that with resolve and open ears, any renovation was possible.

My second night at VRS, I was assigned Seneca. He is grey, almost 18 hh, and gorgeous. An ex-Grand Prix jumper just recovered from a hoof injury, Seneca has a nasty habit of exploding into rodeo-worthy bucks, rendering most riders horseless soon after mounting. Or so, I heard.

Great, I thought.

However, as I tacked up, the animal I had been warned about through the campers’ whispering rumors batted his gentle brown eyes and sighed a big horsey sigh right across my face.

I was in love.

His sensitive skin had breakouts from flies and gnats and horseflies, as happens to many hot-blooded breeds. Taking ten minutes longer than my peers to get ready, I broke out the Swat and the fly spray and the triple antibiotic ointment. As we finally walked out to the ring, ready to mount, my helmet tightly double checked, Seneca’s huge stride seemed a little stiff but calm. Two instructors held him when I mounted, then sent me off to the rail with warnings to keep my guard up, easier said than done when I already fancied myself aboard a colossal puppy.

Then it was time to trot. I gently squeezed my legs around his barrel (hardly reaching over halfway down), and clucked. With all the grace of a blue heron taking off from a quiet riverbank, Seneca was trotting; huge strides carried us past our fellow pairs, but we were far from out of control. His head reached and stretched for the bit and my legs encouraged his already astounding impulsion. I finally understood what my friend and once riding instructor Paul had meant by “Impulsion! Not speed.”

Due to his long recovery period from the hoof injury, our clear lacking point was bending, something we dutifully practiced until by the week’s end we could jump a serpentine of jumps in horizontal line, standard to standard. During the seven or eight times I rode Seneca that week, I never experienced his rumored rodeo sprees. The closest we came was a well foretold buck as we practiced flying changes the first time we cantered. Unlike the alleged random fits of bucks and rears, Seneca, several strides before, began shaking his head and wiggling. He popped up in the air once, caught the right lead, and we continued on our way.

(For the record, I will confess had he not warned me of this buck, I may very well have come unseated.)

When my mom picked me up from Vershire, I eagerly introduced her to both horses, and she dutifully met them and reassured me of their beauty and intelligence. After saying goodbye to my camp friends, I went into Seneca’s stall and did the same. And that sweet horse licked my hand, rumpled my already dirty polo with his massive nose, and leaned into me. My week at VRS – the people, the instruction, the mountains, and most of all the horses – changed me.

And leaving, I cried all the way down the mountain.

Vershire Riding School

Vershire Riding School

Eatons’ Ranch: Books, Horses, America by Teresa Rolfe Kravtin

Through Glacier Park in 1915

I discovered the first clue that lead me to Eatons’ Ranch, in a book. I found Through Glacier Park in 1915 by Mary Roberts Rinehart, at a gift store during one of my visits to Glacier National Park in the late 1980s. I was intrigued by this historical work of a woman traveling by horse pack through the newly designated Glacier National Park, and how that compared to a similar horse pack trip I made through nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness, early in my discovery of Montana and the west.

It turns out that the original title of the book was Through Glacier Park: Seeing America First with Howard Eaton, now out of print but available online. Howard Eaton was the guide for Ms. Rinehart’s trip. Seeing America first appropriately described their journey; a mere five years after its establishment, by horse pack was the only means to see the park.

I mentioned this book to a friend, who shared with me that he had visited the Eatons’ family ranch many times. I was amazed to learn that it existed, and I marveled that there was this thread through the past that still connects the present to the history of the American West.

A book and a friend. Two clues.

Years past. I married, we had a son, and life continued, until an unexpected exchange between colleagues reminded me of Eatons’ Ranch. He and his family had visited the ranch and had met guests there from my current home in LaGrange, Georgia. What a coincidence! This friend and I shared a love of literature of the west, and he encouraged me to take my family to Eatons’. He assured me the trip would undoubtedly be a memorable family milestone.

Third clue. I knew I must go there.

So as my son neared an age when he could begin riding, my husband and I embarked upon a plan to introduce him to horses and begin traveling to the west. Then the summer arrived when the choice was clearly upon us: do we go?

I have always been up for an adventure, but having a husband and child in tow is another thing altogether. We would be traveling somewhere we’d never been, putting ourselves in an unfamiliar landscape.

Eatons' Ranch

Eatons' Ranch

What if they hated it? What if it all went wrong?

Isn’t this what we typically worry when embarking upon the unknown? I asked them to talk amongst themselves and let me know if they were up for it. I couldn’t take responsibility for the entire decision. We had to reach a mutual agreement. They decided to go for it. With reservations made, we planned a trip to include Eatons’ Ranch along with other Wyoming destinations.

Eatons' Ranch

Eatons' Ranch

On route to the ranch in Wolf, Wyoming, we stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument where I picked up Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose, a sobering stop along the path of our nation’s history. Reading the book during our week’s vacation was especially meaningful, since we were experiencing a landscape still similar in nature to the near past of history.

We arrived at the ranch and lodging was a rustic two-bedroom cabin. During our stay, we were assigned our own horses and saddles, and if we needed boots, there were plenty in the office basement from which to choose. My son was immersed in video games, so we found it appropriate that his horse was named after a Pokemon character. He was won over.

There was riding twice a day: after breakfast and in the late afternoon. Mid-day the horses rested. There were daily activities, trips into nearby Sheridan, or dips into the spring-fed pool to occupy our non-riding hours.

We were newbies, and didn’t know the trails, of course, and guides accompanied all our rides. One of the attractions of the ranch, is riders are welcome to explore the 7,000 acres on their own, if they so desire.



Food was varied and delicious, and we had the opportunity to get to know other guests during meals. A family from Britain was assigned to our table: the Shakespeares. Really! It was lovely sharing our experiences and getting to know them during our stay. A personal touch was the inscribed napkin rings at our place setting. It had our names and our horse’s names, and when we departed, we got to take them home with us.

We had a marvelous adventure. The riding was scenic, exploring trails and creeks, riding up and over passes, and to the top of overlooks. We enjoyed the time spent together, and my son grew more confident in his riding. The ranch can accommodate almost every age rider, and the care they take to create a memorable experience is exemplified by all who work there. There are overnight rides, rides with meals on the trail and even rodeo riding for those so inclined. There were lovely wildflowers along Wolf creek, wildlife, and a pond stocked with fish for fishing. We had interesting conversations with the wranglers, fellow guests, and employees.

Horses at Eatons'

Horses at Eatons'

The ranch has a rich tradition, and we sensed we were experiencing a continuation of a unique part of American history. The Eaton family began dude ranching in America. Howard Eaton, along with two brothers, established their first ranch in 1879 in North Dakota. As friends from “back east” came to visit, sometimes staying for long periods, the visitors suggested the Eatons charge room and board to offset expenses. The Eatons moved the ranch to its present Wyoming location in 1904, to offer more varied riding options. It’s nestled at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. With over 200 horses and 7,000 acres, one is unlikely to grow weary of the scenery. The ranch is still family owned, with subsequent generations running the guest and cattle ranch operations. For more than 100 years, families have traveled to Eatons’ Ranch to share their lives with succeeding generations of the Eatons’ family. As the ranch will tell you, once you’ve visited, you become a part of their ranch family.

It was a poignant moment the night before we checked out, when our son was clearly grieving with thoughts of leaving. He had grown so attached to his horse, that he couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye. I knew then that taking the risk of a new adventure, paid a generous reward in the heart of my son.

Riding All Day

Riding All Day

We will certainly remember our Eatons’ Ranch visit forever. It encompassed all that makes for a remarkable adventure: a willingness to experience something new and different, a unique sampling of American history and culture, and the opportunity to grow together as a family. We intend to revisit Eatons’ Ranch, and become a member of Eaton family in the broadest since, for generations to come. Books, horses, America, landscape, history, adventure, friends, and family are all threads that when woven together provide for an interesting life.

Generations of Families Return to Eatons'

Generations of Families Return to Eatons'

Teresa Rolfe Kravtin currently resides in LaGrange, Georgia with her husband Billy and her fifteen year-old son, Taylor. She’s loved horses her entire life and began exploring the west as a single twenty-something, and earned her saddle cred during a 10-day horse pack trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana in 1988, the year of the Yellowstone fire. Teresa has been a publisher representative in the southeast for over twenty-five years. She earned her degree in music education from Columbus State University.