Monday, December 28, 2009

Connecting Through Art

Cassidy recently graduated from Texas A&M with a graduate degree in Equine Sports Physiology and Nutrition. In this difficult economy, her preferred career of teaching at a university has been put hold. So, out of necessity and with what seems to be a family spirit of entrepreneurship, she is continuing her artistic passion for creating custom designed jewelry and offering it both through private showings and on the web. During the holidays, Cassidy invited friends and family to a holiday showing of her custom designed jewelry here at the ranch and was then invited by the owners of our local farm and feed store to offer it at their special evening Christmas sale.

As I watched, whether individuals purchased a piece of jewelry as a gift or for themselves, there was usually a story behind the purchase: the turquoise hoop earrings were perfect for a tall niece; the unique light green turquoise necklace and bracelet set looked fitting for the hair coloring of a son’s girlfriend; and the varied dark green stone necklace complemented the autumn color range of a daughter who just had her first born child. And in the spirit of surprise, a young married man arranged to pay for and leave with a beautiful white necklace with crystal pendant for his wife, an employee of the feed store, while she assisted customers during the special Christmas sale. The smile on his face had the spirit of Santa written across it as he slipped out the store’s front door.

While I know Cassidy was pleased with her sales, I couldn’t help but think the theme of relationship wound its way throughout each evening---whether it was the meeting and greeting of people we’ve know over the years or the stories of thoughtfulness and caring of those who purchased a piece of jewelry for someone they knew---the warmth of the community and connection to others enhanced Cassidy’s entrepreneurial venture this holiday season.

If you are interested in seeing Cassidy’s custom designed jewelry, please visit her website at: If you don’t see something you like, please contact Cassidy. She has a number of new pieces in her inventory that are not currently online.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part I - Sit and Wait

Little did I know when I picked Emma, my Boston Terrier, out of a litter from South Dakota, that I would be reminded so much about the importance of discipline in life.

From my readings, I understood that Emma had three basic needs: discipline, work, and affection. Over time I’ve watched Emma seek these out. Emma is happiest when the world is ordered and predictable; she is fulfilled when there are tasks to accomplish, like going for a run or learning a new trick or chasing after Griz in the cottonwoods; and she is most content when she sits with me on the couch after the day is done, her place by my side secure.

When I think of my own life, these three basic needs are deeply present as well. Discipline is essential for a purposeful and successful life no matter what the endeavor; work provides the material and focus in my search for meaning in the world; and affection fulfills my deepest desires for connection and is essential to my sense of well-being.

In creating a foundation for a disciplined life for Emma, we began early with puppy obedience, then the basic skills necessary for dog agility, and finally the training for her Canine Good Citizen Test. When I looked at the basic commands that she eventually mastered, I found they easily provided metaphors for living that applied to both her life and mine.

My list of metaphors for her basic obedience commands goes something like this:

Emma’s Commands --- Metaphors for My Life
• "Sit and Wait" --- Patience and Forethought
• "Stay" --- Internal Control
• "Here" --- Life Calls Us
• "Leave It" --- Healthy Relationship Boundaries
• "Off" --- Respect for Relationship Decorum
• "Out" --- Independent Action/Individuation
• "Down" --- Submission/Humility

I think fondly of Emma as an Alpha Female. I’m not alone in my thinking. Others have nicknamed her “Little Terrorist” and “Bossy.” So, when she was a puppy, my obedience instructor insisted that I train her with a clicker to make sure I had her attention. When I first began teaching her sit and wait, she had a mind of her own. But once she learned the command, it was ironclad.

I still love to watch Emma sit and wait. It’s like she’s in the military: she snaps to attention hoping she’s the first one and the best one. The command “Sit and Wait” requires her to be patient and trusting. When I tell her to wait at the beginning of an agility course, she must be patient and trust that if she waits she will also be released and in this case, released to enjoy the fun of an agility course. The discipline supports her success and I think it supports mine as well. When I tell myself to be patient while listening to someone else speak or when I sleep on an important decision or when I corral angry feelings and wait until I can actually think about them, I benefit from the discipline of waiting. I benefit from the discipline of creating space between unbridled action and the creation of forethought and a purposeful response.

As much as I realize this idea of waiting in life is important, I know Emma and I will always be challenged with the discipline inherent in waiting: there will be times it’s easy for Emma to stop and hold still and there will be other times when the challenge will be too great, like when Griz keeps running or when the treat hasn’t yet been earned. But I will encourage both of us to strive for managing the moment rather than acting impulsively, for it will be in the stillness we will find our direction.

Next, watch for the wisdom to be discovered in Emma’s “Stay” command in Part II of The Wisdom in Emma’s Discipline.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Deep in Quarter Horses

I’m frequently asked how many horses we have here at the ranch. I smile slowly and reply, “A lot: anywhere from thirty to thirty-five.” The curious look back at me in surprise and I say, “Yes, we’re deep in quarter horses at my house.”

Pete’s been actively breeding quarter horses since he was nineteen. He selected our main herd sire, “Dudley,” officially, Zan Bar Freckles, for his stunning appearance and versatility. Dudley is a great ranch versatility horse and roping horse competitor. He has produced athletic and very well dispositioned off-spring throughout his breeding life. In order to emphasize athleticism and cow sense in our breeding program, Pete next selected , “Riggs,” officially Hesa Stylish Pepto, as our main sire. Riggs has competed in the Snaffle Bit Futurity, the NRCHA Reined Cow horse event at the Colorado State Fair, and several smaller competitions. He demonstrates great athletic ability and the same calm and even disposition so characteristic of the quarter horse and important to our breeding program.

The development of the American Quarter Horse began long ago. In the 1600s, American horses in the East were of Spanish descent with bloodlines rooted in Arabian Barb and Turkish stock. When the colonists began importing English horses to Virginia, they were bred to this native stock of Spanish descent and used for farm work and transportation, marking the beginning of the emphasis on horses that were versatile and practical. At the same time, horse racing became popular after the farmer’s physical labor was done. As the pursuit of racing progressed, so did the desire to breed a quicker, faster horse for short distances. These horses were the precursors to the modern day quarter horse.

As America expanded west, horses provided transportation and help with driving large cattle herds across long distances to railheads and developing areas of pioneering settlement. Today, the American Quarter Horse is still highly valued for its ability to move and cut a cow. Its versatility, athleticism, and even disposition are hallmarks of the foundation horses that first made up the registry of the American Quarter Horse Association beginning in 1941.

I recently visited with my neighbor, Jo Semotan. As she drew her hand over the soft cover book, torn ever so slightly on the spine, she said, “This book’s never been out of my house, but if you’d like to look at it, I’d let you take it home.” That book was the original registry of the American Quarter Horse, printed in 1941 when the foundation horses were identified and registered for the newly formed AQHA. Jo’s family had been at the heart of developing some of the early bloodlines of the American Quarter Horse association while living in Deep Creek just over the aspen covered ridge to the west of our ranch. Her father, Quentin, and her mother, Evelyn, were pioneers in the development of the foundation quarter horses using bloodlines like Ding Bob, Mary McCue, Saladin, Star Duster, and Mary Nile.

As a young man, Quentin was hired as a trainer by Evelyn’s uncle, Marshall Peavey. Marshall settled in Deep Creek in the early 1900s and began raising commercial Herefords and race horses from quarter horse bloodlines. While training for Marshall, Quentin met and married Evelyn and the two went on to shape and promote the quarter horse breed. Marshall and Quentin help establish the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association. Quentin and Evelyn’s Star Duster, purchased as a yearling in 1945, went on to win Grand Champion at the National Western Stock Show in 1948 and the Champion of Champions at the Southwest Livestock Exposition Fat Stock Show also in 1948. In his career, Star Duster won 46 out of 47 showings. Quentin and Evelyn’s ability to match sires and dams was evident in the success of their breeding program: their horses often topped the National Western Livestock Sale and word of their fine horses resulted in many tourists and interested buyers stopping by their ranch on the weekends to either purchase a horse or simply appreciate the animals they had produced.

Star Duster left the Elk River Valley in 1957 after being sold to Ralph Bell in California. He was sold four years later to Thane Lancaster of Idaho who used him as a breeding sire until his death at 31. Quentin and Evelyn’s fine eye for horses continued to pass down into our own breeding program: from a gray gelding called, Smokey, to Dudley, who both go back to Quentin and Evelyn’s Star Duster.

Yes, we’re deep into quarter horses here at the Kurtz Ranch and enjoy being a part of a great quarter horse tradition in North Routt County.

Please click on this link: for further information on Riggs, Dudley, and our breeding program.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Update: Kitty Settles In

Pete recently came out of the laundry room and said, "You'll have to update your blog."

I said, "What do you mean?"

"Kitty's asleep in her bed."

And there she was. How had she transformed her protest? The idea of re-claiming her bed had for some reason slowly became tenable and the steadfastness of her routine returned.

Next time I'm faced with what feels like untenable change, I don't know if I'll be as proficient as Kitty in making an adjustment to it, but I'll remember it's alway possible.

*If you missed the original post, "Protesting Change," please see my post dated November 22, 2009.

Running Late

My husband and I were drawn to the community of Steamboat Springs over thirty years ago largely because it was a small town. We wanted the easy familiarity of friends and neighbors and a slower pace and a smaller scale to our day to day living. At that time, the stable population was around 5000 residents. Today, the population has more than doubled, but in many ways, we still consider it a small town. Compared to navigating city traffic, it’s still relatively easy to run errands in town, unless it’s the middle of winter or summer tourist season. On the east end of town, the grocery store, doctor’s offices, post office, and bike path are all within one mile of one another.

During the quieter months of late October through early December, it’s not unusual to see many old friends in the grocery store. Recently, I found myself in the produce section looking at my watch. It said 1:45 PM. I was fifteen minutes away from a dental appointment and not yet finished with my grocery shopping. I’d bumped into Holly, the wife of the doctor who delivered my children. Her son is now a water lawyer and her daughter a professional dancer on the east coast. I’d talked to a fellow Cattlewoman, Charlotte, and learned that she and her husband had shipped out their final semi-load of hay and she was ready for a vacation. She wasn’t sure if her husband had heard her make the declaration. I’d visited with Georgianne, the mother of a soccer player I had coached. She said she hoped her daughter would find a real job one day when the economy improves. And I’d talked with Jan, whose son, Tommy, grew up with Andy in 4-H and now works on the family ranch. She’d just returned from taking her mother south to Arizona where she spends the winters. With a smile, Jan said, “It didn’t look too bad. I may be down there myself because I don’t think I’ll ever get Dean to stop working.”

The conversations had taken up my usual hour in the grocery store and my list wasn’t yet complete. That meant I’d have to come back to the grocery store after my dental appointment. But on this day, when the pace and season slowed, I found myself relinquishing the list and the schedule to the spontaneous remembrances and reconnections with friends from the past. In our meeting it was easy to feel immersed in the past and the future all in one conversation.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Protesting Change

When the snow covers the mud and the muck, I throw everything in the washing machine: the rugs, Kitty’s bed cover, the dog bed covers, the quilts, and the polar fleece throws. Not that I don’t wash them any other time of year, but it’s like shaking out the fall mud season from the house and breathing in fresh air.

This year after I replaced Kitty’s bed cover, she didn’t crawl back in. She slept on the stairs, in her favorite living room chair, or tucked away under a banister in Pete’s office. Each time I walked in the laundry room where her bed sits next to her food, it was empty. I even put her in it one morning to see if she could reconnect. No luck. Then a few days ago, I walked in after my morning coffee and found Kitty asleep in the laundry room sink. I hadn’t recalled ever seeing her sleeping there. I’d watched her from time to time balancing between the two sinks to drink out of the faucet, a few drips and drabs at a time, but I’d never seen her use the sink as a bed.

Kitty did fit perfectly in the stainless steel sink. She was safe there: up away from the dogs and any other traffic through the room and when I approached to take a picture, she barely took notice. Somehow, Kitty was at home. Although, I’ve washed her bed cover before, I wondered what loss she was protesting: the dirt, the matted cat hair, the fleece perfectly contoured to her body, or the very special smells that made her bed deeply familiar.

It was a mystery that reminded me of how profound unannounced change can be. I know some years I wouldn’t invite winter to arrive so soon. But it never asks. It comes without my consent and resets the season, changing the inner and outer landscape of my life. I, like Kitty, bristle and protest the intrusion, but then over time my books open, paperwork unfolds, and chores of a different kind invite me to sort and simplify. I know how unannounced and unplanned for health issues of family members can create a new physical and emotional landscape for each member: each person faced with adjusting and dealing with the unexpected; each faced with accepting the reality of a new place in the family landscape and finding something of comfort within that place.

Kitty never asked me to wash her bed cover. I came unannounced and, for reasons I do not understand, dislocated her, took away the personal and the familiar. I keep hoping she’ll adjust and return to the familiar. I keep hoping her protest will end and she will dare re-enter the comfort of her bed and recreate the scents and smells and the contours that were hers. Then, can she, as we all do when we give up protesting change, transform the untenable into the tenable?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Seasons Turn

Each year, as October nears its end, we mark Halloween as the potential dividing line between the fall and winter seasons. Snow that arrives near this spirited celebration could stay on the ground for the rest of the winter season. Psychologically, this is a little like the wind and rains and slush of April carrying on into May when we long for the warmth of spring: it pushes us to endure an unusually long winter season. We always hope winter waits off stage for just a few more weeks and this year it did.

We relished the warm and dry days of early November by treating ourselves to a brief lunch outside and working in the unusual warmth of a late fall afternoon. Pete had begun feeding the horses a bit of hay: a normal ritual for the first part of November. But two weeks into November, the seasonal clock turned within twelve hours: eight inches of snow fell, the roads turned to ice, and the meadows fell beneath an early winter drape.

With winter’s arrival, I sensed, as I do every year, its competing invitations to retreat and to engage. While I relished sitting peacefully at my desk for a few hours the first day the snow fell, I knew I would later step outside to touch winter, to take in its return. I tightened my snowshoes down as Emma and Griz quickly sprinted ahead of me through the green gate and onto the meadow: Emma’s head just peeking out beneath the snow; Griz darting, racing, his joy filling the cool overcast afternoon. I ducked beneath the snow laden aspen branches to follow and soon witnessed winter’s art resting on the fence line and a thirty-year-old ladder rescued from my children’s tree house. I found the irrigation ditch still running, its pace slowed, the first ice flows forming; soon to coalesce and remain silent until spring. The horses stood at the feeders luxuriating in its bountiful hay. I found the hitching post now at ease; a rope hanging on the arena gate, frosty and forgotten; and a wagon wheel, a still and receding visible remnant of a time long ago.

Back home, I shook off the snow from my snowshoes and placed them on a hook in front of the garage. Winter eventually calls. Once attuned, I answer the call, both at my desk in reflection and later as I stride out across the meadows with Emma and Griz: the chill, a call to awaken and know myself in relationship to the world in which I live; and the landscape, an invitation to experience that which arises in the still and the quiet of its fold.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Equine Dentistry

The dental health needs of horses are often one of the last things an owner thinks about in terms of their horse’s care. However, just as with humans, it’s one of the most important basic health issues to be considered in terms of their overall health. A horse’s dental health can impact their nutrition, head and facial comfort, attitude toward work, effective bitting, and, or poor overall movement and ability to collect.

Cassidy recently had difficulty with her barrel horse prospect, Vegas. Although he was good minded and physically in good shape, he frequently turned his head to the side, struggled with the bit, and had difficulty collecting himself as he moved out. She didn’t know whether to suspect an old splint as the problem because head and bitting issues can be a result of problems with feet and lower legs; or if it were a dental health issue which creates the same problems with his head, his cooperation, and busyness with the bit.

In hopes of finding an answer to Vegas’ inconsistent behavior, Cassidy made an appointment with a local vet, Courtney Diehl, who also does equine dentistry. In addition to being trained as a veterinarian, Courtney trained under Jack Easley, a well known veterinarian from Shelbyville, Kentucky, who is a leader in equine dentistry. Courtney first evaluated Vegas for outward signs of confirmation problems or apparent lameness issues. She then asked Cassidy to ride Vegas in the arena in order to determine if the gait and collection issues might be structural or true lameness issues. After watching him stride out, Courtney concluded the issue was most likely a dental health issue.

Horses’ teeth grow continuously during their lifetime. When horses graze on foods, such as hay grasses, the high content of fibrous tissues naturally grind their teeth down and keep pace with their growth. If a horse is eating a less fibrous diet or has genetic dental issues, the surfaces of its teeth can be become uneven with points or sharp edges developing on the perimeters of the teeth. This impacts the ability of the jaw to move smoothly laterally and the problem becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The points prevent correct movement and the incorrect movement adds to more uneven wear and greater development of the points.

In order to work on Vegas’ teeth, Courtney gave him a sedative and then put a speculum into his mouth to keep it open and make it safe for her to work. She said if you don’t, it’s the easiest way to break an arm if you’re not careful. Once she began the oral exam, she knew immediately there were multiple points on his teeth and found ulcers on both sides of his cheeks created by the constant irritation of the points rubbing against them. Cassidy also examined Vegas and was shocked to feel how sharp the points were: sharp enough to cut fingers if rubbed just right.

Courtney began her work by using hand rasps, called floats, hence the term “floating teeth.” She used a combination of hand rasps and a power drill rasp to file down the points. She was very careful to file just enough and not too much. She felt the combination of the hand rasps and the power drill rasp offers her the best control in her work.

When Courtney felt satisfied with her filing, she re-examined Vegas and asked Cassidy to do the same. She thought there was a pretty good chance that floating his teeth would resolve Vegas’ bitting, gait, and collection issues. If it doesn’t make a significant difference, it’s important she completes a further evaluation.

Cassidy certainly hopes Vegas’ movement, behavior, and general comfort improve. Bred to the AQHA World Champion Barrel Horse, Designer Red, and Mighty, our all-time favorite Jet Deck mare, Cassidy is looking forward to training him to be her next top barrel racing horse.

For more information on Dr. Diehl, go to:

For an interview with Dr. Easley on equine dentistry, go to:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Powerful Petroglyphs

It’s difficult to get away from the responsibilities and dailiness of the ranch. But earlier this month, Pete and I knew that it was time to make time after a full and productive summer season. Our decision about where to go was made easier after viewing Ken Burn’s recent documentary series on the National Parks. Pete and I decided a trip to the nearby southwestern region of Colorado and Utah to visit some of these national treasures would be a satisfying time away. Of particular interest was Capitol Reef in south central Utah.

Established in 1937 as a National Monument by President Roosevelt and then later a National Park in 1971 by President Nixon, Capitol Reef’s rugged canyons and expansive desert lands invite one to explore not only the visible but one’s personal interaction with its grand landscape and the history it holds in its canyons and red-rock formations.

I felt quite drawn to the history of the earliest humans who occupied parts of Capitol Reef. The earliest human inhabitants belonged to the Fremont Culture, which existed around the 9th century. The Fremont people lived in pit houses and natural rock shelters. They hunted and gathered and supplemented their diet by farming the Fremont River bottom where they grew corn, squash, beans, nuts, rice grass, berries, and tubers. As a part of their art and culture, petroglyphs, carvings etched in rock surfaces, and pictographs, art colored onto rock surfaces, still survive and can be seen on the many canyon, boulder, and rock wall surfaces in Capitol Reef National Park.

Bruce Hucko, author of Art on the Rocks: Stone Wonders, writes that petroglyphs and pictographs, the symbolic art of the Native American people, are thought to communicate and record a variety of significant events, thoughts, and religious experiences. Frequently seen and repeated images include the bighorn sheep, the shaman, the coming of the horse, the spiral, the flute player, a universal spiral, shield-like designs, handprints, and stylized or masked faces. Each Native American Indian culture interprets the historic imagery according to their specific tribal beliefs.

In Hucko’s book, he says the Navajo believe that when the Holy People decided it was time to leave the material world, “they cast their images upon the rocks thereby leaving the Navajo people with their prayers, songs, and guidance for living imprinted on the land.” The Navajo ritually return to these symbols in order to remain connected to their people and receive guidance for their own lives. As we continued down the road to Arches National Park, Mesa Verde, and Monument of the Ancients, I wondered if there were similiar symbols within my own landscape providing me and others with the memory of and guidance from those who have gone before us.

Interestingly, in the Elk River Valley there is the story of a Ute Indian woman whose face can be seen in the contours and seasonal colors of Elk Mountain. I can see her most clearly when the colors reach their fall peak. As you search her face, you realize there’s a tear coming down from her left eye and across her cheek. The story goes that she is mourning the loss of Ute Indian lands to the white settlers in the late 19th century. This woman continues to remind me of change and loss in our valley. The rural way of life fades with each generation as families leave the ranching life. Our nearby forests are being descimated by Beetle Kill at a staggering rate and will take a generation and a half to be renewed. As the Ute Indian woman watches over the valley, I imagine she will continue to offer anyone who is watching a reminder to value the inter-connectivity of the landscape, its natural resources, and the communities within.

After remembering her story, I turned toward my own landscape for the “petroglyphs” left by my ancestors and the place I call home. I first found a few personal reminders: the photo on my bookshelf keeps me close to my maternal grandmother who taught me about devotion, humility, and family; the Christmas card from a man I knew as a child reminds me how important it is to listen for joy; and a red football helmet reminds me of a brother who taught me to believe in the power of possibility. Then I recalled, as a part of a larger inspiring landscape of the Elk River Valley, the hillside outside my window also faithfully beckons me to commune with the oak brush, aspens, and a larger view of my life no matter what the season.

Our journey to the Southwest was renewing. I returned home not only rested but enriched by the Native American belief in the power of images. Carved or painted, printed on a card or photo, or those experienced in the natural world, they do act as comforting reminders of the long held connections to those who touched my life and are now gone and to the importance of protecting what’s of value in my daily living, both in the personal and the natural landscapes of my life.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lessons From My Potato Patch

My potato patch struggled this year. Each time I’ve taken my shovel out to the garden to dig up a strainer full of potatoes for dinner, I find it necessary to dig up more than the usual amount of plants to fill the strainer. Most of the plants produced fewer and smaller potatoes. Even though I’ve never had a crop quite like this---our country is perfect for potatoes---I imagine our very wet and cool June delayed some growth as well as the more moderate temperatures in July.

As I dug for just a few more the other evening, I also discovered a twist to the summer’s minimalist crop: a rather large red potato with a crease in the middle causing it to conform into a rounded fetal shape. How odd, I thought.

Its uniqueness and the unusual nature of the rest of the crop quickly reminded me of how my gardening life is full of imperfection. In the spring, as I plant my first rows of spinach and lettuce I imagine my returning to the raised bed in a couple of weeks to plant successive rows so we’ll have spinach and lettuce throughout the season. I never returned this summer to the lettuce patch. The yellow beans I planted as companion plants to the potatoes barely germinated. The whole summer’s crop produced enough for three servings one night for dinner.

When I tangled with errant meadow grasses along the western border of my largest garden bed early in June, I thought I’d won. I didn’t. It came back up through the newspaper and mulch barrier. My perfectly placed arctic blue willow bushes have been unfortunately damaged by the dogs running from the back door to the outside; the path the shortest distance from the house to the open spaces. I let the raspberry patch invade what I refer to as my meditation garden and never made time to turn it back. Every time I walked by I felt the peace disturbed.

So, as I pruned, weeded, and made room for spring bulbs yesterday afternoon, I worked at allowing myself room for imperfection both in the unknown of the growth of the potato patch and in my imperfect attention and work in my gardens. I will continue to allow myself to imagine a perfect gardening season and when the air chills and the season slows, I’ll try and fondly remember both the bloom and inherent imperfection in the gardening life. For the minimalist potato patch with its large fetal-shaped exception and my failures in tending to my gardens appear to be an outcome of life naturally living itself out: perhaps hope with its ideals of perfection and the natural anomalies of imperfection are simply not one without the other. I am gratefully reminded, as autumn brings a vibrant gardening season to a close, that life is clearly rich in both its perfection and imperfection.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

International Horsemanship Camps

Cassidy recently returned from a three-week trip to Sweden and Germany conducting horsemanship camps with Texas A&M University. The annual camps are sponsored by the AQHA. On this particular trip the camps were hosted in Sweden and Germany by the SQHA and the DQHA respectively and presented by Cassidy’s student group from Texas A&M. The teaching group included Cassidy, three select undergraduate students, and Texas A&M faculty member, Dr. Clay Cavinder. The AQHA also sponsored additional student groups from numerous American universities that presented at other European locations.

Cassidy’s group flew to Stockholm, Sweden and traveled to Sala, Sweden for their first camp which was held at a riding school. Each horsemanship camp was four to five days long and consisted of teaching the fundamentals of horsemanship, reining, trail, and pleasure riding. Their students ranged in age from youth to adult and from beginner to intermediate.

After their camp in Sala, the Texas A&M team presented camps outside Malmo, Sweden at an arena as large and beautiful as Cassidy had ever seen. After a few days in Copehagen, Denmark and London, England, they presented a final camp outside Hannover, Germany at a private riding facility in Wenden. She says, “The horse world is different (over there). It’s a real privilege to own a horse and only those who can afford the horse, the trailer, and a special licensing for the trailer can afford to participate.” Another often added expense is the importing of performance quarter horses from America. The quality breeding is highly valued and preferred. So, the world of horses, at least in Sweden and Germany, is understandably suited to those who can truly afford it.

Sharing her teaching experience, Cassidy said the most difficult obstacle was communication. If the translator understood both the language and the fundamentals of riding, the communication between teacher and student succeeded. If not, as a teacher you were apt to lose the “teaching moment” to confusing communications. While she was quick to say she learned it was important to keep it simple, she more importantly learned not be afraid to challenge people—“they are capable of more than they think they are.”

As Cassidy looked back on her experience, she found traveling to be one of most valuable experiences: to be immersed in a new environment—the sights, sounds, and differing cultural and social mores that make each country unique. She wishes to return to Stockholm and Sala where she felt a fondness for the land and the people. Cassidy also hopes to continue teaching. She felt the excitement of that teaching moment: the instant the learner, when focused on the task, is able to master the challenge and in this case, experience success in partnership with his or her horse.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pearl Goes to Work

When Andy spotted Pearl as a puppy, he imagined the day when he would take Pearl to a working dog trial and watch her work with a refined quickness and ease. He named Pearl after the pirate ship, the “Black Pearl” from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. The “Black Pearl” was a mythic figure in the movie known for being the best and the fastest ship on the high seas. He hopes one day, through disciplined training, he and Pearl will demonstrate a similar competency in a working cattle dog trial, one in which the partnership exhibits both finesse and a deep unspoken trust.

Now six months old, Andy has begun training Pearl for that event. Her instinct to work or herd is so strong, her early experiences around stock must be controlled in order to prevent Pearl from being kicked or otherwise hurt. So, recently Susan, fellow working dog owner and sheep rancher, brought three lambs for Andy to begin working Pearl on in the round pen. The space is secure and small so Andy can manage Pearl from a short distance.

In a working dog trial, the owner and dog are asked to move a small group of cattle or sheep across an open area and through various obstacles including gates, passage-ways, and even pushing them onto a trailer. Andy begins by teaching Pearl “down,” “come by,” and “away.” “Down” is the most important command in the beginning and throughout Pearl’s training. At the moment Andy says, “down” Pearl must obey for the partnership to be effective. Without the discipline of “down,” Pearl may push too hard, run out of control, or make the wrong decision about her position in relationship to Andy. “Come by” asks Pearl to move in a clock-wise direction around the herd and “away” asks Pearl to move counter-clock-wise.

Early in her training, Andy will teach Pearl to position herself opposite him or in what is called, the “balance point.” From this position it is easier to teach her the basic voice commands. As Andy and Pearl work the lambs, they will work toward maintaining the balance point while at the same time keeping control of the herd and its movement.

After six working sessions Pearl shows the strong instincts of a working dog. She naturally herds and is quickly learning to obey Andy’s “down,” “come by,” and “away” commands. Andy is also pleased to see Pearl’s intense eye develop as she herds the lambs. Prized among dog handlers and trainers, a dog with an intense “eye” is capable of intimidating cattle or sheep simply by their gaze on the herd. In addition to their movement and position, the eye becomes another powerful tool with which to move stock.

Watching Pearl work in the round pen is a study in the effects of select breeding for behavior and temperament. Her instinct in combination with her willingness to work for Andy provides a rich foundation on which she will master her very useful and historic purpose in life. As I’ve observed the two of them working together in the round pen, I know I am not only watching a work in progress but a work of art.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Essay Published in Farm and Ranch Living

My daughter replied, “When I see one of those envelopes, I know what’s inside.” She was right. When you receive a business sized envelope from a magazine you have submitted an article to, you know a sample copy is inside. In this case, I knew it was coming because I had been in email contact with an editor. But, it’s always exciting and satisfying to see the envelope sitting on the counter.

I was pleased my essay, “Gifts of the Harvest,” from my manuscript, At Home in the Elk River Valley, was selected for publication in the October-November issue of Farm and Ranch Living. If you have a chance to pick up a copy of Farm and Ranch Living, either at your local store or library, please note that it has been re-titled, “Meditation on a Hay Rake.” Also look for a downloaded version of my essay, soon to be posted on my website. I always appreciate your interest and support as readers. As a writer, the process wouldn’t be complete without you!

For more information, visit Farm and Ranch Living's website at:

Historic Steam

One recent morning, both Andy and Pete wanted their new straw hats shaped to their liking. Andy turned away from the cupboard and asked, “Mom, don’t you have a tea kettle?” I said, “No, I never use one anymore.” And then Pete said, “But what about that one up there?” Pete was pointing to a large copper kettle I had inherited from my mother when she moved from her long-time home in Western Colorado. It had been one of my favorite iconic objects from my childhood home. It was never used in my mother’s kitchen but always sat in a prominent place in the living room.

A tea kettle is essential to the art of home steaming and shaping of cowboy hats. Andy is well versed in the technique of holding the hat over the steam and bending and drawing his hand over the brim and crown to achieve the perfect crease and fold. So, after retrieving the kettle from above the kitchen cupboards, Andy set the kettle on the stove and began heating the water for the first hat.

As Andy worked, my mother, who was visiting the ranch, sat on a stool in the kitchen watching her grandson hold his straw hat over what was once her 200 year-old family heirloom. We all wondered about the journey the kettle must have taken, from a prominent place in daily use in a Swedish-Finish kitchen to my paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Loveland, Colorado and then to my childhood home. I tried to imagine the 200 hundred years of the kettle’s existence and the importance it held for four generations of my father’s family.

The copper tea kettle had come to the United States with my paternal great-grandparents, Beata Mattsdotter Ramus and Walfrid Julius Bjorkland, who lived in Swedish Finland. My brother, Dutch, who has done extensive genealogical work for our family, had fortunately tracked down Beata’s and Walfrid’s histories, including a copy of Beata’s Swedish Lutheran Church membership. I was curious about the reference to their residence as Swedish Finland. Historically, from the 1500s all of Sweden and Finland were under Swedish control. In the late 1800s a number of Swedes lived inland from the West Coast. About 30% of the inhabitants of the area between Vaasa and Turku, where my great-grandparents lived, emigrated to America in the late 1800s. So, it was truly remarkable to me, that from their hands to my father’s and now to mine, the copper tea kettle sat on my stove ready to provide steam to soften the straw in Andy’s hands.

While the tea kettle never heated water for tea or cocoa when I was a child, looking back, it’s presence continues as an enduring touchstone to family lineage and memories of childhood. In my mind’s eye, it’s indelible shape and color has always drawn me into the living room where I can still hear my brother playing Exodus on the piano under the window; where the brick fireplace provided the backdrop for a Christmas card in 1956; and the black rocker my mother painted and decorated with a gold leaf stencil sat off to the side near the kitchen door.

As Andy shaped straw cowboy hats and his grandmother watched that morning, I quietly imagined the moment tying him, not only to a copper tea kettle, but to a precious memory when he and his grandmother experienced one another as part of a long and rich family history.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Missy Under Saddle

For those of you who have followed along with Missy's injury and recovery, I think you will be amazed to see the accompany slideshow of Dawn and Missy riding in the round pen a few days ago. Her injury, a severed extensor tendon, occurred just 3 and 1/2 months ago. Not only has Missy healed enough to be ridden, but she is demonstrating her wonderful and easy disposition for training.

After Dawn completed some basic ground work with Missy, following up on work she had done last fall, Pete helped by riding Missy for the first time without any difficulties. Dawn then rode Missy on just her third ride and the results are evident in the accompanying photos. Dawn plans to take it easy with Missy: just an easy pace with a watchful eye for any swelling or irritation after her exercise. She recently had a little swelling, but Dawn wasn't sure if it was her exercise session or just a sharp movement while out with the other mares.

So, after a little rest, Dawn will ride Missy in the arena to see how she handles a larger space including sights and sounds she hasn't been used to. Missy will gradually be allowed greater movement and speed in the arena and then out in the meadows.

We all can't help but think that Missy has made a remarkable recovery.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From My Bookshelf: Bone Deep in Landscape by Mary Clearman Blew

As I rake my way down one row of hay and then another, I am held in the hands of small hillsides, ancient volcanic mountains, and the distant peaks of the Continental Divide. My path north and south follows the contours of the Whistling Ditch and the cottonwoods securing the banks of the Elk River. The grass hay consisting of Timothy and abundant clover bends ever so softly to a southerly breeze mesmerizing in its rhythm. I comfortably sidle up to this landscape as I work.

I remember the day, twenty-five years ago, when I stood on the top of Hahn’s Peak with my newborn daughter; I know where the first aspens turn on Elk Mountain; I remember riding horseback beyond Round Mountain passing cabins where friends once lived thirty years ago; and I think of the one-time family ranch covering rich meadow land at the foot of Pilot’s Knob and beyond. The Whistling Ditch directs water from the Elk River to our hay meadows and my garden where the sugar peas and French potato fingerlings have begun to mature and await harvest. This familiar landscape provides both a backdrop to and a complex texture to my life in the Elk River Valley.

Although I realize I am steeped in my landscape, I’ve found myself wrestling with what the relationship with my immediate landscape means to me. In Bone Deep in Landscape, Mary Clearman Blew suggests that “…place affects our innermost selves.” She continues by referring to Barry Lopez, author of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, who “believes that our minds are shaped by landscape…interior landscape is a metaphorical representation of exterior landscape…”

I reflected on Lopez’s belief as Pete and I recently traveled through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, nearly a 1000 miles of mountains, desert, farm land, ranch land, river bottoms, arroyos, as well as small towns and cities. I tried to imagine how it felt to be in differing landscapes. How did my heart feel as we drove along the interstate in Amarillo? How did I feel driving through Windthurst, a small dairy community just north of Fort Worth? Did my pulse rate go up or down? Was I drawn to a particular landscape emotionally and if so, why? Did I feel a sense a home in any given setting? I found the arid landscapes uninviting as I always have. But I know arid landscapes are appealing to others. I found the rural areas peaceful and the expansive ranch lands challenging in their scope. And I found myself feeling workman-like driving through cities: simply a necessary means to an end. Even though my travel through these landscapes was transitory, I tried to imagine my life in each one.

If, as Barry Lopez suggests, the “interior landscape is a metaphorical representation of exterior landscape,” how do the small hillsides, volcanic mountains, distant peaks, rivers, and meadows that make up the landscape in which I live express themselves within? I do feel held in the hands of the surrounding mountain landscape. I feel nourished by the waters of the Elk River. The open and protected lands of the river bottom offer an intellectual sense of openness and possibility. The more I contemplate being present in the landscape the more I feel as though I am not a part of the landscape but the landscape is a partner in my daily living, both nurturing and challenging. The landscape provides encouragement, comfort, and an enduring steadiness. It is also a challenging partner—one in which I labor to create a soothing garden landscape and Pete patiently oversees the seasonal hay harvest; and one in which Pete and I are tried mid-winter when January’s harsh chill and deep snows close off the bustling activity of milder months.

I believe Mary Clearman Blew is correct: “…place affects our innermost selves.” Geography becomes personal when we find the place we feel at home whether it’s in the city or on the plains or the hillsides or in the southwestern deserts. And as we create our history in that home, our story within a living landscape, we are naturally, intimately, and forever tied to the landscape in which we live: one to the other, from within and from without.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Daily Life

While I made mental notes of the things I needed to do today, I was reminded of drying dishes in my grandmother's kitchen. Drawn to the warmth of their modest 1930s home, I often visited my grandparents in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I remember my grandmother turning to me after pulling the plug from the kitchen sink, sponging down the counter for the last time and saying, "If only life weren't so daily." And with the reflection, she quietly laughed and smiled. My grandmother was like that: she knew it was helpful to use humor in acknowledging life's little struggles.

I needed to be reminded of her today. The dailiness of life, the tasks and chores I do everyday and then turn around and do again tomorrow, felt wearing. Whether I clean the kitchen floor after five dogs and three pairs of cowboy boots travel through and know it will need it again tomorrow morning; or finish the laundry and know I will start all over in a few days, the work remains the same: it's done, it vanishes, and it needs to be done again.

Perhaps the question at the heart of any daily human activity is, "Does this have meaning? Do I have meaning if what I do simply disappears?" Whether I clean a floor or weed a garden, my efforts are temporary. Dirt will always gravitate toward my kitchen floor and weeds will always flourish in my garden.

Several years ago I came across a quote that went something like this, "It doesn't matter what you do, it matters how you do it." When I remember the thought, I always find it helpful in re-focusing my efforts when I feel as though I disappear in the dailiness of life's chores. If I focus on how I go about my chores, I slow down and begin to feel present with the reality of everyday life. Once present, I begin to value the order I create, whether folding the towels or creating a clean kitchen or pulling Canadian Thistle out of the garden. Yes, I do chores that disappear, but they also create an ordered existence in which I find comfort.

My grandmother created this kind of order. I know the warmth I felt in her home was due in part to her attention to life's daily chores. Whenever I was there, I felt a deep sense of grounding in what I realize was actually temporal order. Whether she was in her kitchen washes dishes, making rolls, or layering her crips sugar cookies in a tin, those simplest and most temporal of moments provided a hearth for me or anyone who sat at her small kitchen table.

To read more about my grandmother, click on this link and download the excerpt from my manuscript titled, "Mabe."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Missy Heals

I was recently asked by a friend and blog reader how Missy was doing. I realized it had been three months since her injury and I hadn't updated everyone about her progress.

Thanks to Dawn's dilligence and patience, Missy's tendon injury is healing well. Dawn cares for her daily with feeding, grooming, dressing the injury, and tending to her as anyone would a family member. Missy has flexion in her foot and while she walks with a slight hesitation in her left rear leg, full function of the tendon is apparently returning.

The next step in Missy's recuperation is thirty days of controlled walking with small increases in distance. In the photo above, Dawn and our friend, Leelee, are walking Missy down the driveway and back. While the photo shows a happy threesome, shortly after I took the picture, Missy tried to turn loose by rearing and kicking. Leelee's husband, Tim quickly took the lead ropes so she couldn't get loose and my son, Andy, who was nearby, came over to calm Missy down by setting some firm limits. Missy's behavior was dangerous and discouraging to Dawn.

This summer Dawn had hope to get starte with Missy's training, something she'd looked forward to since last year. After the injury, Dawn not only couldn't begin her training, but she had real concerns about her full recuperation. Now she was face with another bump in the road toward Missy's recovery: a new development in her behavior that would make it difficult to continue and help her heal well. Dawn worried that the aggressive behavior might continue.

After nursing along many confined foals and other horses, we've found that confinement can easily breed agitation and aggression in any horse. This doesn't necessarily last a lifetime. Once they're turned out they settle down and return to exhibit their original personality. We believe this will be the case for Missy. Three months of confinement is as difficult mentally for a horse as it would be for any living thing. The need to be out and about and to be with other horses is critical. So, we can imagine Missy being as frustrated and aggressive as she was as she tried to get free.

Throughout her experience, Dawn is gaining a sense of resiliency in dealing with the ups and downs of Missy's recovery. She views Missy's aggressive behavior as a bump in the road and while it was upsetting to see, it must and can be dealt with in a practical way by continuing with their controlled walks with Andy's help. Dawn's commitment to Missy's full recovery has yielded good results after the first three months and will most likely result in a good outcome for Missy long term.

Missy's next step will be work in the round pen. I'll keep you posted!

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Happily Confess

Perhaps, it's the week I wait for all summer: when the gardens are settled-mulched, weeded, and in bloom. I relish the peaceful retreat provided simply by the presence of the lupines, petunias, bleeding hearts, lavender, potentilla, nasturtiums, roses, green peas, and raspberries finally coming into their summer maturity. The work and growth in the gardens of late spring and early summer makes itself evident.

I do labor freely in my gardens and at times to physical exhaustion. And I admit to feeling addicted to the process of tending the soil and imagining a perennial grouping or color combination for an annual pot coming to fruition. Our summers are precious and the work of gardening must happen in what I think of as "prime time." Depending upon where one lives in our county, the average growing season is ninety days. I usually think of it here at the ranch as sixty-five to eighty days. In order to maximize the growing season, I do find myself in a kind of hyper-mania for a few weeks in June. But it is joy-filled with color wheels in my head, dirty fingers and toes, a tired body at night, and the greeting from a friend at the nursery with same knowing smile, "Well, what are you after today?"

I feel in good company though. It's commonly know in this part of Colorado that those of us who love gardening are a little bit crazy. We wait so long for the opportunity in the spring that we go berserk when the annual flats arrive and new perennial possibilities surface at the local nursery. We justify our expenditures by saying, "It's a short summer, we deserve it, and we persevered through six months of snow and cold and ice." And we fill our carts to the brim and know that we may repeat our visit to the nursery many times in June in order to set the season in motion. We may even return in July to buy replacement plants to fill in where others already failed in our overall plan for a pot or window box.

So, I guess it's easy now in the bloom of the season to look back and happily confess to my addiction. I understand each July the comfort I feel in my partnering with all those plants-the annuals, the vegetables, and the perennials. I understand the fulfillment of that yearning in the spring to grow and nourish life: to feel the soil, to cradle the young plant, to fill the canvas of a pot or a garden bed with my own design, and watch life take shape. No wonder I come back to the soil after winter's deep sleep. I am unfailingly offered comfort and joy from both the labor and the relationship I find within those various pots and garden beds.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ladies Bring Their Riding Britches

Andy offered his first riding clinic to women believing that women find a certain comfort in being with one another and therefore, the group itself becomes an inherently supportive and advantageous learning environment. He also wanted the clinic participants to know that, while it would be a safe learning environment, they would also be put to work. He advertised his Women’s Only Riding Clinic by saying: “Bring your riding britches because this is going to be a riding clinic.” And that’s just what this intrepid group of ladies did for three full days.

It all began in the round pen first thing Friday morning with a discussion and demonstration of the active parts of a horse and the technical aspects of how to move them. In order to know how to change movement and behavior in the horse, the rider must understand how the horse moves and why. After demonstrating these dynamic movements in a horse and how to train them, Andy analyzed each rider in the round pen and in the arena. Each participant was video-taped while riding providing each rider with an understanding of what skills they needed to focus on during the remainder of the clinic. Some of the focal points included rein management, focused guidance, and correct seat and leg position. Once participants were able to see themselves actually riding their learning easily took a leap to the next level.

Even in the rain Friday afternoon, the ladies continued with drills to work on guiding their horse and building consistency in their position whether in a turn or during a transition from a walk to a trot, from a walk to a lope. The work was challenging because the skill of riding is a complex one, especially when the rider must know exactly what to communicate to the horse and at the same time keeping track of what she is doing in the saddle, with her reins, and with her legs. It is a pure multi-tasking challenge.

The second day, the sun came out and stayed as participants worked on walking through obstacles in the arena in preparation of their trail ride Sunday morning. From tarps to jumps to backing through the L, everyone worked on making their horse comfortable and correct through each challenge.

On Saturday night participants gathered around for a grilled salmon dinner and had a chance to relax and visit with one another and friends. The evening allowed for the camaraderie that had begun to develop to settle in and the talk of horses, trail rides, and hopes for continued develop as riders circled the shade beneath the aspens.

Sunday morning’s trail ride took riders through brush, up and down hillsides, over logs, down ravines, and through chest-deep water. Both horse and riders were challenged by the natural obstacles found out on the trail as well as a stray yearling steer or two. In fact, just as they began their return, a group of yearlings sat at the gate waiting to be brought back home. So through the gate the riders and yearlings went. Watching from the front lawn I watched as both the sure and the tentative participants eagerly brought the yearlings to home ground.

By the end of the day Sunday afternoon, horses and riders gradually headed for their trailers. The walk was slow but somehow sated. The body and the mind had both worked and run free: had faced fears, frustration and confusion and also delighted in the mastery of a new skill, a horse running freely under saddle, and the satisfaction in the horse and rider successfully herding cattle. With reins in hand, riders headed home.

Had they experienced a deeper sense of connection to a powerful partner? Had they felt a deeper connection to self? Had they come across a part of their selves yet undiscovered? I can’t help but think so, for our relationships are our teachers, whether it’s with a horse, a child, a pet, a partner, a family member. Others reflect back to us what we cannot see. When a horse is confused or afraid or simply young, the rider as observer has the opportunity to stand back and understand his dilemma. In doing so, she too, comes to understand how fear, confusion, and naiveté challenge learning and mastery and in doing so her view and own personal experience as a learner is enlarged.

Andy’s next clinic is a Beginning Cutting and Working Cowhorse Clinic, July 24-26, 2009. Please see our website for further details.

Friday, July 3, 2009

White Space

As I recently finalized the garden beds for the season with fine mulch and an eye for errant grassy stems that needed a firm pull, the spaces I had created in between the perennials reminded me of the artistic concept of white space. At that moment I didn’t have to understand it completely to know it was powerful. It was natural to feel the emptiness inviting me to relax and breathe. It was effortless to feel the emptiness say, "Take it easy. All is well with the world."

Reading about the use of white space in art and design, I found a partial description of my experience suggesting that the space allows the eyes to rest and my body to relax. Also, just as I clearly viewed the oriental poppy, the white space enabled the object, the poppy to exist. For even though white space is nothing, it gives meaning by contributing to the context of the painting, the graphic design, the garden bed—by providing a place of rest for the object to be appreciated for what it is. Without the white space, I would lay my eyes on a whole garden of mixed perennials standing one on top of the other without any demarcation. I would know only a canvas amassed in variations on a theme in green.

Reflecting on the act of creating a momentary retreat of out of nothing, I wondered, “Can I create other momentary retreats? In my office? In my thoughts and in my conversations? Running through a litany of errands?”

I believe we can and do. Each time we stop to breathe or to think, we are creating white space in our daily life. When we clear the counter or re-do the overstuffed file, we create the space or room to see clearly what we have in our possession. When we make the effort to listen to others, their thoughts come more clearly into view: we become rational observers. When we remind ourselves in the grocery line that we are fortunate to have a cart full, we create a pause in the hurry. In that space we find a quiet and still emotional geography where we find clarity and hopefully peace.

It was a lot of hard work to clear out my gardens this year. I’d let the meadow grasses have their way with my perennial beds last summer without fighting back. This year my will was greater. Through the physical labor of pulling and digging weeds and grasses, pushing back overgrown and wild perennials, like an artist, I brushed white space, a rich nothingness into the gardens and rediscovered so much. . I also find it a lot of hard work sometimes to simply remember to take a deep breath in the middle of the rush to finish the list or to interrupt my thoughts long enough to listen to a friend. But it’s through my conscious labor that I place my self next to nothingness, at rest and fully present.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Exciting Times

With the summer season now in full swing, the Kurtz Ranch has a couple of exciting debuts to announce.

Andy Kurtz Horsemanship
Women’s Only Clinic

June 26-28, 2009

Andy will be conducting his first clinic of the season, a Women’s Only Clinic, on June 26th-28th. This three- day clinic will offer women a stimulating and safe learning environment tailored to their needs. Andy will include rider evaluations, round pen work, arena work, trail riding, individual problem solving, and an afternoon of trying one’s hand at cutting or cow horse work. Whether learning the nuances of groundwork or the intricacies of rein management, clinic participants will appreciate Andy’s wealth of experience and kind approach to people and horses. Please see the ranch website at for more information on Andy and his training experience and schedule.

Mary’s New Website

I’m excited to invite all my readers to my new website at There you’ll find links to my blog, excerpts from my manuscript, and additional photography of the beautiful landscape where we live. The link for my blog is called, “The Ranch Journal.” I will continue to write regularly here on my blog and hope you'll also continue to follow the comings and goings on the Kurtz Ranch.

On the new website, the link to my memoir, “At Home in the Elk River Valley,” will give readers an overview of my manuscript and provide links to a number of excerpts I hope you’ll enjoy reading. Of timely interest, I’d invite you to read the excerpt, “Lilies and Rhubarb.” This essay reflects on motherhood, loss, and hope. As I travel by four-wheeler to the old homestead garden of a pioneering family, I retrace a memorable spring ritual of collecting rhubarb with my daughter. At the homestead I am reminded of one of the daughters who grew up there and the tragedies she overcame in her life of eighty-six years. I am fortunate to learn from her life.

I’d love to hear how you like the new website. If you have comments or suggestions, please leave a comment after this posting or email me at:

I want to thank Kathryn Britton of Rocking RB Enterprises who worked very hard constructing and designing my new website. Besides being easy to work with, I think she created a beautiful site that’s easy to navigate and enjoyable to use. Please visit Kathryn at: for more information about her and her husband, Randy, who offer horse training, horse evaluation, hay brokerage services, as well as Kathryn’s website, advertising, and marketing services.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Kurtz Ranch Gang

Just as the snow recedes by mid-April, revealing dormant meadows and a pot-holed driveway, the activity of the early summer ranch landscape also reveals other changes to the Kurtz Ranch. Before this summer season, one might see Griz out and about first thing in the morning. Then, after Emma had her morning nap, she too might be out traveling down the path to the barn or out to the mares and back home again. And Gunner, a twelve-year-old German Short-Haired Pointer belonging to our renters, could be found resting in the barnyard while the horses were being fed. But now, in and about the aspens, the cottonwoods, the corrals and alley-ways, the lawn and meadows, one tracks five black and white dogs plus Gunner, all moving as though there’s something exciting just about to happen. It’s apparent that Griz, Emma, and Gunner have company this summer. Boogie, Pearl, and Brute have come to play.

Cassidy recently brought her dog, Boogie, an Australian Shepherd, home from school in Texas. It was increasingly difficult to care for him in the heat of the south and with a busy graduate school schedule. Boogie stays outside as much as he can and helps work the horses and the roping steers as well as guarding his new home. At night he sleeps in Cassidy’s room. The climate and active environment are just what he needed, but we know he misses his side-kick. Once Andy arrived back at the ranch to train horses and conduct his horsemanship clinics, he of course brought his pals Brute, an eight-year old Boston Terrier, and Pearl, his new working Border Collie puppy.

Looking in on this scene, one might simply see a piece of an idyllic ranch landscape: pets free to roam and explore; pets playing tug-of-war, racing down the drive, or curling up under the shade of a tree. While it is truly an idyllic environment for the dogs, the gang is not without its' needs for maintenance. This spring and early summer have been the wettest in memory. The rains persist and while the West always needs water, the mucky wet that travels in and out of the house on dog hair is daunting. The question of assigning them as “outdoor dogs” was long ago abandoned. This is our life: mud season and all. Sneakers, cowboy boots, and irrigating boots come and go and while there’s an unwritten word that they come off at the front door, somehow the policy isn’t perfect. So, I am desperately seeking a doggie shower and am willing to give up a desk area in the laundry room to do so.

In addition to daily dirt, some members of the gang have medical issues. Pearl recently had surgery to wire her jaw shut after a Boxer crushed her jaw when she was just twelve weeks old. She must wear a muzzle, which she frequently rubs off joyfully, and a “lamp shade” to prevent her from pawing at her jaw and muzzle. Because she will be trained as a working cattle dog, she cannot be allowed to follow her herding instinct on cattle or livestock until she’s about a year old. So, she can be out and about, but she can’t be in the mares’ meadow, she can’t chase the horses or the steers, and one always has to be on the look-out for a missing muzzle.

I give Boogie his thyroid medication twice a day rolled up in a small piece of turkey or bread. It’s very easy to treat Boogie and he’s looking healthier every day. Boogie roams the ranch far and wide. He loves to travel the meadows and help out at the barn. When it’s time to bring the horses in or out, he helps push them down the alley and back again. When he comes in the kitchen, I know he’s looking for food and sometimes for the closeness he had with Cassidy. This morning after the thunder and lightning, he was at my feet looking for that reassurance he was used to finding so easily with Cassidy.

Pete and I look at each other every now and then and wonder, “Are we good parents or crazy parents? Who would take in such a crew of canines?” We’re probably a bit of both. While we're open to the needs of family, we also feel at times the boundary envelope gets stretched when the rowdy group flies through the kitchen or wrestles in the evening at our feet. So, when Boogie needs closeness, the boundaries fold. When the tug-of-war amongst the crew escalates, the gruff leader of the pack disperses the crowd.

In our wondering we realize it’s a motley mix of work and pleasure, of frustration and joy causing us to wrestle with both the flexibility of openness and the rigidity of boundary setting not unlike the rest of our relational lives. For now, I guess the Kurtz Ranch Gang – Emma, Griz, Boogie, Pearl, Brute, and their friend Gunner –is at summer camp and we’re all just be happy to play and sleep, get dirty and then clean, and at times, ruffled around the edges as we find our way to peaceful co-existence.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Harrowing Experience

Harrowing or raking the meadows in the springtime is one of the priorities on a ranch. Stirring up the meadow grass, spreading the manure, and scratching at surface of the ground beneath helps the hay ground begin its growing season. The hard earth is disturbed enough to open up to the rains and the dead grass is also disturbed enough to let go of its hold on what’s beneath, the smallest of grass shoots just looking for the light and warmth of the sun.

Our renter and ranch hand, Dawn, first tried her hand at harrowing last year. She found that running the 16 foot-wide harrow around and through the meadows wasn’t hard. The difficult part was transporting the harrow to another pasture, through a gate, or perhaps down the county road. In order to do so, she had to detach the harrow from the tractor and turn the tractor around and pick up the harrow with the front-end loader. As she lifted the harrow up off the ground, it would immediately begin to swing side to side and front to back. She quickly realized that the slower she performed this operation, the slower the swing and the slower the swing the less likelihood she would crash into the gate or fence.

I asked Dawn recently, what worried her most about the balancing act of moving the harrow through the gate. She said, “It’s that phone call to Pete. Kiddingly she gives life to the imaginary call, ‘Hey, Pete, are you busy?’” She laughs in a way that it’s funny but downright serious at the same time; something to be avoided at all costs. And then Dawn revisits a similar scene from her childhood when she had to tell her father she’d broken something. She said, “It’s one thing when it’s your father, it’s another when it’s the boss.”

Listening to her talk about learning how to do so many new things on a ranch in the West, I wondered out loud where she got her “can-do spirit.” “So, Dawn, not a lot of women in their forties would take on learning how to drive a tractor, fix fence, or help with regular ranch work. How is it that you’re not worried about learning new things?”

“Well, you know Mary, I lived on my own for a year (in Michigan) when Robert was in Colorado. And when something had to be done, I did it. Just like last winter here on the ranch. When it snowed like crazy, I had to plow when you were gone and Robert was working. It had to be done, so I did it.”

Still curious, I asked, “But you had some confidence in your abilities. Where did that come from?”

“You know, I competed in gymnastics, baton, and shooting sports as a kid and I always wanted to win and I always wanted to give a 110%. I also know other women do ranch work. So, why not me?”

There was my answer. Dawn, although anxious when she works to master the skill of moving the harrow through a gate, continues to believe that she could master whatever task was put before her. She was willing to live through the “harrowing experience," tolerating the worry of making a mistake in order to accomplish the task.

Dawn has embraced not only her work on the ranch, but the spirit of the West. From her independent mindedness that moves her to find what needs to be done, to taking a risk and tolerating a “harrowing experience” in order to get the work done, she doesn’t let fear pull her away from the opportunity that awaits any of us if we remain open to the world each day.

Update: Whoopi Adopts Monkey

Whenever we told the story last week about feeding Candy’s foal every two to three hours, anyone who knew much about horses would ask, “Why don’t you find another brood mare to put her on?” It’s not an unusual to put an orphaned foal on another mare, but this year we only had one other mare with a baby by her side and we felt it would be too much to ask of her. So, we abandoned that possibility and realized we would be the filly's parents. Meantime our renters, Bob and Dawn, also christened the filly, “Monkey” because we had been feeding her out of a wine bottle from the Monkey Bay Winery and she was a bay roan.

By happenstance, Pete had to take another horse to the vet to be treated. There he encountered a friend, Shane Baker, whose mare, Whoopi, had a seriously ill foal. Sadly, Whoopi’s foal passed away and Shane graciously allowed us to use Whoopi as an adoptive mom. Suddenly, we had a brood mare who could take on Candy’s foal.

Grafting a foal onto another mare is not a simple procedure. Whoopi wasn’t keen on the idea of a new little one bothering her, so Pete kept her close but separated from Monkey and with some help hobbled her and helped the foal nurse. Afterwards, he supplemented the foal with formula. Each feeding was a little more successful and eventually last night the mare stood on her own and allowed Candy’s foal to nurse. The two are now inseparable.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Spring Loss

The brilliant energy of spring has a way of denying any thought of death and dying. As I imagine the four seasons, loss easily takes its place as a powerful metaphor central to autumn’s arrival. But I live on a ranch where we anxiously await the arrival of new life every spring and with that unfolding there’s always an inherent risk of death. We just don’t find ourselves thinking about that. Instead, we gladly embrace spring’s invitation to hopefully expect the safe arrival of a new little one.

This year we anticipated both Lena’s and Candy’s foals. Lena had a beautiful sorrel filly in early April and mom and baby now run with mares. Candy was due the end of the month but historically she’s foaled about ten days early. So, this last week we began our watch. When I looked out the window to the west just after dawn yesterday I found Candy standing in the corner of the paddock with a baby by her side. I figured she’d foaled just before six a.m. She’s been such a good mare; we don’t worry too much about her. So, there they stood. The baby looked like a bay but its hind end looked like a roan; a bit of her sire’s coloring and a bit of her dam’s coloring. Candy had handily managed another foal at the age of eighteen.

The spring morning lapped the mare and foal with warm and soothing light. The baby nursed with legs wobbling beneath her and Candy patiently standing so she could learn to drink her fill. The first day of a foal’s life is critical to their survival. In those first feedings the foal takes in colostrum, a miracle of a mother’s first milk that gives the baby a boost to its immune system.

About noon, Andy rode nearby and saw both the mare and the baby down in the grass. The scene did not seem out of the ordinary; a bit of rest after labor and delivery. But later on when Pete and Andy went out to check on the mare and baby, they found Candy dead, her foal by her side. Pete walked into the kitchen and said simply, “Candy’s dead.” The moment was surreal: part of the intellect registering the information, part of it denying it. Candy, self-sufficient Candy always sailed through foaling. I said, “That’s so sad.” And I repeated it over and over again wondering why I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Once the reality of the loss settled into the thinking and doing part of the brain, Pete and Andy brought the foal into the barn and began feeding the baby a powdered formula out of a wine bottle. The only nipple we had on hand was for a calf and was too much for the newborn. Our vet suggested a lamb nipple and so we contacted a local sheep rancher and asked if he could loan out a few nipples. And he did.

Our first chore was to get the foal to simply suck. So Pete put his finger in the foal’s mouth and rubbed her tongue and the roof of her mouth. After several attempts, he tried the warm formula and while the going was slow, the baby began to suck in fits and starts. After about ten minutes, she had a pretty good handle on a new avenue for survival.

That night we didn’t feel assured of her ability to survive because we didn’t know whether or not she had received all her mother’s colostrum. If Candy's foal didn't get enough colostrum, death could have very easily visited her too, within the first few days of life. So, the only choice we had was to continue to nurse her every 2-3 hours.

Thirty-six hours later, she’s doing well enough that she began to run about the stall and stand for a back rub and nuzzling. Dawn, our hired-hand and renter, feeds her several times a day and Pete and I take night and early morning shifts. Now that there’s a thin shaft of hope, we begin to imagine what she might look like as she matures; her cute head and beautiful bay and roan coloring making her perhaps an outstanding filly and mare.

After speaking with our vet, we understand Candy may have died from an inter-uterine arterial rupture which occurs occasionally in older mares. From what we know, we do not believe we could have saved her nor had a vet present in time to perform an emergency surgery. However, we will continue to ask ourselves the question as we process an unsettling reminder that life is as precious as it is transient.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gardening Green

A late spring often means the work on the ranch and in the gardens needs tending all at once. Whether it’s the fencing or harrowing the meadows, the time to get it done is now. With the gardens, the window of opportunity to freshly mulch the raspberries, weed the raised herb garden, turn over the perennial beds, fertilize, and mulch also demands timely attention.

What surprises me is just as the wait to get into the gardens is over, they are suddenly filled with grasses that need to be pulled along with various weeds, like dandelions and Canadian Thistle. Where did they come from? One such area is the garden on the west side that adjoins a meadow along its entire length. Over the years I’ve abandoned ideas like burying a wall three feet down in order to defeat the grass because of cost. I’ve opted instead for roto-tilling, mulching, using weed barrier and so on, but without much consistent luck. Some years I've been drawn to the big guns of herbicides, but I waiver each time. However, when I’m overwhelmed with the project, I have Pete mix up a sprayer load of herbicide that he uses on the meadows. In addition to my concern for the issue of herbicide toxicity, I can barely manage the patience it requires to wait two weeks before the grasses actually give up and die.

So, this year, along with opting for organic fertilizer on the lawn, I remembered in a moment of quiet while driving to town that I’d tackled a decade and a half of grass in the raspberry patch about four years ago. At the time, I contacted a woman I knew in our CSU Extension Office and asked her for some help. When she called me back, she said she found only one person who reported having success with getting rid of grass in a raspberry patch. She was a seventy-year-old woman from North Park, near Walden, Colorado. Debbie, the Extension staff member, reported that this woman put down layers of newspaper around her raspberry plants and then mulched the whole patch heavily. I couldn’t quite believe this would do the trick. The grass was so thick. But, by the end of the summer season, the raspberry patch was impressively clear of almost all grass.

My moment of quiet while driving to town had led me in the right direction. I knew this would require that I round up stacks of newspaper which I knew were available only if I were willing to dumpster dive for them at the newspaper office. Fortunately, the dumpster was nearly full and I had only to put my hand into the container. I made sure I had ample mulch from the feed store for it would be my big gun this year. No scrimping allowed. The grass was already six inches high in places.

In about two hours I had the newspaper down, the mulch piled high, and the grass-filled backsplash to this year’s tulip display appearing well-cared for and satisfying to my gardener’s soul.

*Newpaper ink today is almost entirely soy-based and non-toxic. For those interested in the safety of newspaper ink for composting and gardening use, please visit the following links.

Monday, May 11, 2009


While making my first spring visit to our local nursery, I ran into an old acquaintance who runs the Wolf Run Ranch with her husband. After inquiring about my family she asked, “Well, how’s spring at your place? Got all your fencin’ done? We’re in good shape. We’ve got the fencin’ done, but now I need to get some fertilizer down.”

I was surprised to hear their fencing was done. I tell her we’ve got a good start on the fencing but we weren’t done. The winter was hard on our fences: the harsh winter snows stack up deep and lay across the wire pulling it until either the staples come out, the wire breaks, or the fence posts collapse and snap off at the ground.

Pete goes out every morning, just as he has in previous years, to take on repairing the fences. It’s an important ritual to the life of a ranch. Calving herds, yearlings, and bred heifers all need to be put out on grazing land as soon as possible in the spring. After being fed hay all winter, they need to be moved to grazing ground to make practical use of the free feed and the ground they were wintered on can be harrowed, irrigated, perhaps fertilized, and then hayed later in the summer.

The ritual Pete follows, building and maintenance boundary fences, has a long and interesting history in the West and is well told by Laurie Winn Carlson in her book, Cattle: In Informal Social History. In the mid-1800s, the West was grazed largely by great bison herds, originally supporting the many Native Americans tribes inhabiting the plains and the grasslands of the West. However, in 1870 a new technique was developed in Philadelphia for tanning hides. Buffalo hides could now be hunted and harvested year round. For four years, shooters and skinners harvested over four million bison hides, delivering them to the railheads for use in the burgeoning shoe industry back East. Eventually, between dwindling numbers of bison and the dislocation of Native American Indians, who relied on the animals for their way of life, the large prairie and grasslands were left largely ungrazed.

In 1875, two important events occurred. The refrigerated rail car made its appearance and a surge in interest in Western lands, both by Americans and the English and the Scottish, for grazing land for livestock. It didn’t take long until the ranges were overstocked with animals. As settlers moved in, there were competing interests for the land and settlers soon found it necessary to establish boundaries in order to protect their land, crops, and small livestock herds.

The original boundaries set up to protect pastures and property lines were creatively made out of hedges, the most popular, Osage Orange, in addition to prickly pear, mesquite, and wild roses. Soon to follow was the rush to patent the barb wire fence. Between 1886-1888, 368 fence patents were filed.

Barb wire fences moved Western agriculture forward. Containing livestock prevented overgrazing, better control of breeding genetics, and prevention of the spread of diseases found in free roaming cattle. However, the development of barb wire fencing was not without its opposition. Battles were fought between subsistence farmers and small ranch operators, who wanted to protect their stake, and large urban and foreign cattle investors who saw large cattle herds grazing open lands as a viable and profitable investment. As settlers continued to move into the West and the fencing movement gained momentum, the era of cattle drives and cattle barons came to a close.

Today, barb wire is still vital to most cattle operations. In addition, a rancher may use the next generation of fencing, the electric fence, sometimes solar powered, for small areas of containment or pasturing for other livestock. Pete uses electric fencing to more efficiently use the horse pastures through intensive rotational grazing.

Pete will breathe a sigh of relief when the fences are fully resurrected because the season can’t get underway until he does. The mares can’t be pushed out into the larger meadow and he can’t push the yearlings across the road until their pasture fencing is restored and sound. When it’s done, and the horses and yearlings are where they belong, he will feel a new season of growth begin again on the ranch.

For more information on barb wire, click on the following link:
To read more about author, Laurie Carlson, click on the following link:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Missy's Springtime Misadventure

Once the snow clears from the meadows, the horses’ spirits seem to lift. Surrounded by open space, they often turn loose and run freely, filled with the pleasure of movement and a sense of play. They may also socialize, visiting across fence lines: yearlings saying hello to two-year olds and mares saying hello to the geldings. In the exuberance of springtime, sometimes the excitement of greeting and meeting or in the flirtation between young fillies and colts, a horse can put a hoof in a wire or back up into another horse and get kicked in the middle of springtime play. Unfortunately, Missy, a two-year old palomino filly, recently flirted with Hustler, a yearling colt, from across the fence with more than just springtime exuberance.

As Pete and Dawn went out to spread manure, Dawn, our renter and Missy’s owner, spotted Missy near the fence line across from the yearlings with what looked like blood on her hind legs. Dawn approached carefully but with the sense of urgency a parent might display when finding their child injured. Dawn found Missy with smooth wire wrapped around her hind legs in a figure-eight. Both legs were lacerated, the left hind suffering a gaping wound which appeared to be a severed extensor tendon. Dawn grabbed a halter out of the Gator and remained with Missy; Pete went for the truck and trailer, and then called me to take Missy and Dawn into the veterinary hospital.

Watching Missy negotiate the horse trailer for the first time in her life after such a serious injury, I understood why Dawn cared for Missy so much. A horse, who in crisis, remains calm and cooperative and loads without hurting herself further, is worth a million dollars. Missy demonstrated a good mind and perhaps an instinct for survival in allowing us to help her.

Ever so carefully, we transported Missy to the vet’s. Once there, she stood quietly, and allowed Dr. Mike Gotchey to treat the extensor tendon laceration just below her hock in her left hind and thankfully, just a laceration on her right hind leg also just below the hock.

Dr. Gotchey explained there are a number of ways to treat a severed extensor tendon partly determined by the disposition of the horse. In most cases, it is very difficult to actually re-attach the tendon because one end usually draws too far up into limb. So, on some horses he sutures the wound and casts it and with others he simply cleans the laceration, then wraps and casts it because a restless horse usually ends up rupturing the sutures anyway. As the wound heals, the tendon groove granulates, scar tissue forms where the tendon once was, and over time a functioning artificial connection is created between both ends of the tendon. Truly a miracle.

Missy proved to be a good candidate for suturing and casting because of her calm disposition and sound mind as she stood for treatment. She also demonstrated it when she loaded into the trailer and calmly swung her casted left hind leg up and around as she stepped into the trailer. At that point, Dr. Gotchey said, “Now that’s a sign for a good prognosis. Some horses would fight loading and ruin the sutures and, or cast.”

Missy looks to be doing well. Now stalled in the barn, she will be kept quiet for 7-10 days when Dr. Gotchey will come out and take the cast off and treat the wound. He’ll then cut the cast in half and use it to support the next phase in Missy’s recuperation. Dawn will keep Missy stalled for three months providing her with hay, a feed supplement to aid healing, and companionship until she can be free to move in a larger stall area. Dr. Gotchey believes her prognosis is very good and that she’ll be able to perform in whatever way Dawn wishes: whether it’s on the trail or in the arena.