Horse Bling

I learned the power of costume at an early age. Although I played the role of tomboy to keep up with my brothers, I also loved to rummage in my mother’s jewelry box and drape myself in fake pearls and shiny brooches. When family portrait time rolled around every Thanksgiving, I wore smocked dresses from London, hand-me-downs from my worldly New York cousins.

Costumed for Thanksgiving: from left, my siblings Liz, T, Sam, and me

Costumed for Thanksgiving 1963: from left, siblings Liz, T, Sam, and me

As I grew older, I became ever more fascinated by clothes, jewelry, makeup, and hairstyles. I plucked my eyebrows until they were nearly indiscernible and sprayed Sun-In on my hair, turning it brassy orange. This was the ’70s, mind you.

What eyebrows?

What eyebrows?

I took summer courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology, flirting with the idea of a career in fashion. I danced at Studio 54 a few times, bumping elbows with Sylvester Stallone and Liza Minelli. I thought I was pretty cool and tried to dress the part.

Dressed up for a night out in New Orleans with a friend, 1979 Lousiana

Dressed up for a night in New Orleans with a friend, 1979

Then I settled down: I got married and had a son. I soon discovered that I could channel my penchant for costumery into my son, Gabe, who was too young to argue (that would come later).

Just like dressing a doll!

Just like dressing a doll!

I even managed to play costumer to my then-husband, Rey. He uncomplainingly wore a feather-patterned shirt and red suspenders to match pint-size versions I’d bought for Gabe.

Good sports, Christmas 1990

Good sports, Christmas 1990

I also made Rey and Gabe a pair of matching shorts out of vegetable-patterned fabric. Rey quietly put them aside after being told one time too many, “Nice cucumber.” Then our marriage ended; Gabe decided he’d rather wear jeans and faded T-shirts; and I became less willing to try the latest fashion trends on myself. No more harem pants, humongous shoulder pads, crimson lipstick, or spiral perms. Those days were over.

Fifteen years later, I bought a beautiful gray horse named Mystic. A horse I could call my own. A horse I could adorn.

It started with a saddle. Not just any saddle: a custom-fitted, handmade County Perfection. It cost the equivalent of a semester’s tuition (I was in graduate school at UNCG at the time). Thanks to an unexpected tuition reimbursement and a huge helping hand from my parents, I was able to purchase this extraordinary saddle.

Beth Peters of County Saddlery fits Mystic for a dressage saddle, 2010

Beth Peters of County Saddlery fits Mystic for a dressage saddle, 2010

Then came the saddle pads, one by one, accruing like a drift of flower petals. Black (my perennial favorite), gray, red, green. Piped, adorned with fleur-de-lis, contoured, quilted.

A plethora of saddle pads

A plethora of saddle pads

Last spring I learned about “rhythm beads“—horse necklaces that create a rhythmic jingling sound, handy for keeping time when trotting, and just plain pretty. I bought a set, then designed my own, using beads left over from craft projects and bits of old jewelry.

My homemade rhythm beads on Mystic

My homemade rhythm beads on Mystic

My latest passion is fancying up Mystic’s rope halter. I like to order horsehair tassels online, then attach them to the halter with a  sturdy key ring. I throw in something dangly, like a few links from an old necklace or those giant ’80s earrings that seemed so normal at the time.

Horsehair tassels and some old bling from the jewelry box

Horsehair tassels and some old bling

I’ve also discovered Handcrafted Jewels, where James and Kate Cooler get all their rope gear. You can create a customized halter, choosing from a huge range of rope colors, braided elements, knots, tassels, and even studs. The halter below with the turquoise and black noseband is my first custom order from Handcrafted Jewels. I’m already plotting my next one.

Custom halter from Handcrafted Jewels

Custom halter from Handcrafted Jewels

So far Mystic has put up with my fashion choices for him with good humor. I have promised him that I will never use Sun-In on him, nor will I pluck his eye hairs. He is entirely perfect the way he is—most beautiful, really, unadorned and running in the pasture—but I can’t help looking for the equine equivalent of my mother’s jewelry box, where I discovered so much joy.


Boots, Poetry, & Cowboys

Alan boots

I snapped a photo of these well-loved cowboy boots at Shangrila Guest Ranch during a lazy morning on the packhouse porch. They seemed to merit a poem, so I searched the Internet for something appropriate.

That’s how I learned about cowboy poetry, an oral tradition that got its start in western trail-driving days after the Civil War. After a long, dusty day of driving cattle, workers gathered around the campfire and swapped stories, poems, and songs. As folklore professor David Stanley writes in his essay “On the Trail of Cowboy Poetry”:

…some eclectically minded cowpokes with extra time on their hands took the ballad tradition from the British Isles and mixed it in with the poetry and songs of soldiers and sailors and lumbermen, threw in a dash of popular Victorian poetry that they might have heard recited in school or the front parlor, added a lot of their own true-life experiences and a little bit of romanticized cowboy adventure from magazine articles and dime novels, stirred it all up and produced cowboy poetry.

To my delight, I discovered that the cowboy poetry tradition is alive and well. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering website introduced me to a slew of modern-day cowboy poets and songsters, both male and female. I listened to snippets of all 50 individuals and bands who performed at the 2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Here are three favorites (click on the poem title to hear the poet read it):

“Black Mornings” by John Dofflemyer

“Passing the Mantle” by Vess Quinlan

“The High Country” by Jesse Smith

I doubt I’ll make it to Elko for the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2014, but it sure sounds like a lot of fun.  When the gathering started in 1985, people described it as a gathering of tribes and a “Class A” drunk. Twenty years ago, Glamour magazine called it one of the best ten places in America for a woman to find a real catch. Who could resist?

While you ponder the idea of cowboy poetry, listen to the Quebe Sisters Band—which performed at Elko in 2013—sing “Roly Poly.” Guaranteed you’ll start tapping your toes. And then you’ll want some cowboy boots. And before you know it, that’ll lead to something else.