Still Life with Knee and Flowers

I always thought a fall from a horse would take me down. Heaven knows I’ve fallen enough times—as recently as three weeks ago, when I tried cantering Mystic bareback. I didn’t have a balanced seat and he wasn’t in the mood, so he lowered his head, gave his neck a vigorous shake, and ducked his inside shoulder. He ejected as me as neatly as a toaster pops out a piece of nicely browned bread.

Now here I lie, crutches leaned against the wall, sutured knee buffered by a mega-size ace bandage and wrap-around ice pack. I’m in recovery from arthroscopic surgery for a meniscus tear on my left knee.

I sent a photo of my left leg to my parents the day after surgery. My dad, who never met a photo he couldn’t Photoshop, sent back this framed version, titled “Still Life with Knee and Flowers.”

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The fact is, my pants—not a spill from a horse—took me down. Specifically, the palazzo pants that I sewed myself and wore for many years. My coworkers back in Massachusetts jokingly called them my “killer pants” because I tripped on the hem so often—once in the middle of a road with oncoming traffic.

Never use this sewing pattern!

Never use this sewing pattern!

Apparently my body was more elastic in my 40s. When I tripped on my pants and fell in a parking lot last October, I unknowingly tore cartilage in my knee. It took me five months to admit that my knee just wasn’t working right. An MRI proved the point a few weeks ago, and I hustled into surgery on March 20 so I could be back to horseback riding as soon as possible.

Now I’m happily on the mend, with my surgeon’s initials on my thigh as a reminder of the great time we had together. I managed to drive my car yesterday, and I hope to get out to Flintrock to see Mystic tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’ve learned a couple of lessons, along with a new definition of fashion victim:

1)   Never make, buy, or wear wide-legged pants. If people start referring to anything you wear as a “killer” item, throw it away.

2)   Stop worrying so much. The things you think will get you won’t, and the rest you can’t predict, so just enjoy the ride. But do remember to keep a balanced seat.


The Road to the Road

I made a road trip last week to Lexington, Kentucky, with a different kind of road as my destination: Road to the Horse 2013.

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This was no ordinary spectator experience. I got a backstage view and a front-row seat, thanks to Wild Card competitor James Cooler and his wife, Kate. I came as their self-appointed communications director, student, friend, and true believer.

James’ mom came too, all the way from Lewistown, Montana. There were dinnertime reminiscences about James’ late dad, who got him started on the road to the Road. There were hopes-and-dreams talks about Cooler Horsemanship, which strikes me as the equine equivalent of The Little Engine That Could.

I got to spend three days steeped in horses, natural horsemanship, a crowd of 8,000 horse lovers, horse demonstrations, and horse-gear vendors. The only quiet spot was the building where the horses were stabled, including James’ horse, Sebastian. It was fun to see the headliners’ horses (plus Obbie Schlom’s zebra) calmly munching on hay, looking nothing like the rearing, leaping, galloping stars they transformed into in the arena.

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For us Cooler Horsemanship fans, Friday was a nail-biting day: James and the other Wild Card competitors drew from a playing deck to determine pick order for their colts. James pulled an ace, which gave him top choice. He picked Career Cat, a muscular bay with a long white streak on his head. James soon renamed him “Deuce,” in honor of his father’s penchant for declaring deuces wild in poker.

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The four Road to the Horse competitors—Dan James, Guy McLean, Obbie Schlom, and Sarah Winters—performed amazing demos. I took a gazillion photos; my favorite shows Dan James leaping into the air above his horses. For me, it captures the zeitgeist of Road to the Horse: wild risk, soaring dreams, extreme talent.

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Watching the competitors start their colts was like trying to track a four-ring circus. You knew something big had just happened when the crowd clapped or went “Oooooh!” Dan James and his broncy horse, aptly named Bucky, got a lot of oooohs.

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The obstacle course was the final challenge on Sunday. Guy’s horse, Mate, rode pluckily through the course and mounted the “mystery obstacle,” a wooden platform. Guy couldn’t resist standing on his horse on the platform and cracking a couple of stock whips (seems to be an Aussie thing). They looked like winners—and they were.

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After the show we meandered down to the arena. James mingled and shook hands with some of the greats of the natural horsemanship world. I felt proud just to be in the vicinity.

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James squeezed in his first session with Deuce in the corrals adjoining the arena. He approached Deuce with the utmost respect, never hurrying him. “If I’m doing this right, it should look like paint drying,” said James of the careful, delicate session.

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After watching Deuce and James for a while, I hit the road for home—exhausted, exhilarated, and excited about the next 12 months. On Friday, March 14, 2014, James and Deuce will be back in that big arena, competing with the other Wild Cards for a spot in the 2014 Road to the Horse.

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What a road to travel.

For more pictures and information about Road to the Horse, visit the RttH website and Facebook page.

Jonnie’s Gift

Sometimes things reappear in your life so suddenly, so surprisingly, that they cause a kind of whooshing in your head and stomach. That’s what happened a few days ago, when my sister Liz reached into the back of her car and handed me a painting. “This was in a storage unit that I’m cleaning out. Do you want it? I know it was originally yours.”


For the first time in 35 years, I looked at the long-lashed palomino with the solemn gaze who used to hang on my bedroom wall. My maternal grandfather, Jon Gnagy, painted him for me as a Christmas present in 1970. He was a fictional horse—much as I longed for a horse, I didn’t have one—but his halter, printed with my middle name, “Duffie,” allowed me to claim ownership.

I barely knew my grandfather; I’d only met him once, when I was six. He and my grandmother lived in California and didn’t like to fly, especially not across the country to New Hampshire. But my mother kept Jonnie and Mary Jo posted on their grandchildren’s passions and accomplishments, and together they cooked up the idea of a horse painting for me.


This was no amateur outing for Jonnie. He was the nation’s first television art instructor: his show, You Are An Artist, began on the NBC network in 1946 and continued in syndication until 1970, holding the world’s record for the longest continuously running show on TV. His Learn to Draw kits are still sold today.

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I was 12 years old when I received the painting, and not particularly aware of its stellar provenance. Mostly I loved having that wistful palomino within my sights, with its promise that a real horse might materialize.

And I did get a horse within the year, a bay pony, whom I’ve chronicled in my blog. I outgrew her and—rather foolishly—gave up horses for boys. When I went off to college, I left Jonnie’s painting behind. I graduated, married, had a son, divorced, moved from New England to North Carolina.

At various points, my parents said, “Do you want us to send you Jonnie’s horse painting?”

“No,” I always answered. It didn’t match my decorating style. It was a dusty reminder of my distant past. It didn’t fit.

My parents passed the picture along to my sister Liz, whose daughter Margaret went through a horse-crazy phase. After Margaret lost her interest in horses, the painting went into storage for almost two decades.

Until it resurfaced in Liz’s car this week.

Now it sits in my living room, a direct line to those days when I doodled horses on the edges of my school papers, read every Marguerite Henry book, and dreamed of my someday horse.

How apt that the painting has come back, now that I have Mystic, the horse of my dreams.


I also have a thousand times more appreciation for the grandfatherly love that went into creating a painting for a faraway, horse-obsessed granddaughter. I appreciate the sly artistic touches: my name on the halter, Jonnie’s name “carved” into the stall boards, the upward dreaming cast of the horse’s eyes. I appreciate Jonnie’s ability to look into my 12-year-old heart and know exactly what it held.

Thank you, Jonnie, for giving me a horse that will last forever. This time I won’t let it go.