Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Wild Heart for Horses

Most horse people have enough empathy to find a movie set intimidating.  As much as we love horses, we all pretty much agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s assessment of the equine as, “a jittery, glassy-eyed dinosaur.”  The predatory response in horses is strong and immediate, so imagine putting one in a completely foreign environment that consists of all kinds of potential monsters:  Huge, swiveling lights on leggy tripods.  Miles and miles of thick electrical cords.  Tarps.  Equipment that raises and lowers cameras, and people pushing more equipment around on wheeled dollies.  Oh yes, when it comes to equines, a movie set is not a place for the faint of heart. 

Here is where Hollywood’s wranglers come in, the unsung heroes of over a hundred years in motion pictures.  They are the stunt riders who risk their necks to make an actor look good, to make a scene come to life, to tell the story that began in the imagination of a writer and director who maybe have never even seen a real horse.  The wranglers are the nitty-gritty, get-your-hands-dirty, real life equestrians, the overworked and underpaid, often unnoticed and sometimes not even acknowledged in the glamorous collaboration that we see on the big screen.

Along with the wrangler comes a very special creature:  A trick-trained horse.  This miracle of nature, when asked, will overcome all his innate fears of horse-eating monsters and jump into icy the river, or look with ears up into the glaring lights and gaping lens, or run over miles of rugged terrain, toward a stack of metal scaffolding laden with panning cameras and moving seats and turning wheels, time and again, when he would rather be running away.

I was fortunate enough to talk to movie horse trainer Tonia Forsberg last night.  She was instrumental in providing the horses for the upcoming Hallmark Movie, Our Wild Hearts.  Premiering March 9, the film is about a wild mustang and stars Ricky Schroder of Lonesome Dove, Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue fame.  Ricky, who also wrote and directed Our Wild Hearts, created the film as a vehicle for his daughter Cambrie Schroder to try her hand at acting.

Cambrie and Ricky Schroder on the set of Our Wild Hearts

Tonia grew up with horses and began trick riding at age 12.  She hung out with such notables as Glenn Randall, trainer of Roy Rogers’ Trigger and the Ben Hur chariot Andalusians.  Training came second nature to Tonia.  “I grew up not knowing that I was learning something.” 

She was most influenced by trainer Bobby Lovegren, who has a long history in film, including the soon to be released The Lone Ranger. Tonia describes Bobby with great respect.  “Of all the trainers I have worked with, his methods are among the most humane.”

I warmed to Tonia immediately when it became obvious that humane training methods were a priority for her.  She said that in her experience, most horses really want to please.  It’s when they get confused, or don’t understand what is expected, that a rider or trainer meets with the most resistance.  Gentle repetition is the key to trust and cooperation.

She said that one of the most difficult things about training horses for film is when a director expects a new behavior within a week, or sometimes even on the spot during a shoot.  She has to explain to the director and crew then that a horse’s learning process takes time, and it is best if new behaviors are taught gradually and with patience.  A horse who has learned something at a slow pace will usually retain it better.  A behavior that is taught methodically will be performed more reliably.  “The longer it takes to make, the longer it takes to break,” she added.

Tonia and her husband Todd, who is also an accomplished trainer, have their own herd of equines that they use for film work.  For the Our Wild Hearts mustang, they used Tommy, their black gelding of unknown lineage.  Tommy is sixteen and Tonia has owned him for ten years.  “He’s very trustworthy.  He has good animation and is a good liberty horse.”

Tommy demonstrates what being a movie horse is all about!

As she spoke of Tommy, Tonia's affection for him was very obvious.  “He had a couple of doubles, but when it called for a scene where I rode bareback, he was the one for the job.  I rode with no bridle and Todd was calling him from a distance of about three football fields.  Every time we shot it, he always ran right to Todd.  We tried it again later with some of the doubles, but that didn’t work out so well,” she laughed.

And Ricky?  I knew that it was often the unlucky job of wranglers and trainers to teach actors how to look convincing on a horse.  I thought with Ricky this most likely wouldn’t be a problem.  He had surely spent many months in the saddle with the role of Newt in Lonesome Dove.  Even though the miniseries aired in 1989, he must have retained some horsemanship skills.

“Oh yes, Ricky was easy!  He was very natural.”  Tonia added, “It took me awhile to warm up to the fact that he is a real person.  They are a very nice family.  Good people. “

At the time of filming Our Wild Hearts, the Schroders didn’t own horses.  But as work on the film progressed, they started talking about buying some.  I think that when it comes to helping someone feel comfortable with a horse, and helping a horse feel comfortable on a movie set, that tells you all you need to know about Tonia Forsberg.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Puppy Tricks

Most people don't realize this, but little puppies can learn tricks faster and with more panache than adult dogs can.  There's an early learning window lasting until a dog is about 5 months old, making their brains like little sponges.  They process all kinds of information during this time, and it's stuff that stays with them forever.  That's why it's important to socialize them during these months.  House training can be slow due only to their physical (read: bladder) limitations.  But the mind of a puppy is a thing of beauty.

Here's a video of Til showing off, at nine weeks, some of the behaviors I am teaching in my trick training workshops. The last one was a big success.  Our next one is scheduled on March 14 at BorderHauss kennels in Howell Michigan. 

Meanwhile you can get a few trick training tips for puppies in my handy booklet, "25 Ways to Raise a Great Puppy."

Happy tails!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

25 Ways to Raise a Great Border Collie

Terrible Til once again had a successful run in the Disc Dogs of Michigan Frisbee competition.  This one was held in Grand Blanc, Michigan and we placed third in the novice toss-and-fetch, against about 30 teams.  Til is pictured (against an ugly plywood background, don't ask me why I did that) with his trophy and other prizes.  He's wearing his uniform that was lovingly hand-sewn by our friend Jerrie from Doggone Bandanas

Can I just say what a joy this border collie is?   "Terrible Til," my Dad jokingly dubbed him when he was a puppy, for his high drive, into-everything, non-stop busy-ness.  People have complained of his nickname, but as I explained, one definition of "Terrible" is, "causing awe".  So it's kind of like calling him, "Awesome Til".  (How's that for a bail-out answer?)  Til has made friends everywhere we go, and in true border collie style, he doesn't know the meaning of giving up.  He gives his all in every task and always with good humor.  "He's like the guy you always make sure to invite to the party," I told someone.  The "Court Jester" will keep the whole crowd laughing all night, but this one sticks around to help clean up the mess!

Til is well socialized, and I started early when he was only eight weeks old.  Here's an excerpt from my book about puppy training that pertains to socialization:

5)  Make New Friends

Puppies are a natural magnet for attention out in public.  Happily, this is the best thing for them.  After your pup has had his first vaccinations, it is best to take him with you everywhere, exposing him to as much stimulation as possible.

The early learning window closes at about four and a half months of age.  Before that time, even if you have a pup who is shy, you have the opportunity to turn this around by saturating him with new people and places.  You can’t overdo socialization!  If you are headed out for a quick trip to the store, take him with you!  Don’t think that you can’t be bothered.  Grab the pup and a leash and take an extra few minutes just to walk him through the parking lot.  Even short excursions will pay off big time in the long run.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Best Cat

MY BEST CAT - a Furry Murder Mystery.  While this book is a departure from my usual work (read: adult humor), it is by far the funniest, and one that I wish had garnered more attention.  Maybe it would have if I put more effort into promoting it.  I'm in the process of making it available on Kindle and so it's gotten something of a facelift, with a new cover and all.  The cover illustration is a watercolor I did called, "The Blue Curtain".  Some people will recognize the breed of cat as a blue Abyssinian, which is featured in the story.

There is something deliciously naughty in writing fiction (adult humor) about people whom you have known.  In MY BEST CAT I have combined some of the most horrendous qualities from a few real-life despicable characters in the deranged hobby known as the cat fancy.  Writing can be a cloak-and-dagger form of personal protection.  Karma is in your hands.

The characters shall remain fictitious, but here is a short teaser passage from an early chapter, just to give you a taste.  Oh, and did I mention there is some adult humor?

“Hold still!” Roxanne barked.  She stood with her butt sticking way out while she groomed my Somali.  She would bend over while she combed Kenya’s britches, then grab the tip of his tail and shake, shake, shake the hair so it fell down backwards.  It made his tail real fluffy, and made her butt shake at the same time.  Kenya’s back feet would be lifted off the carpeted grooming table, but he didn’t care.  He just kept right on purring and smiling that kitty smile.  He was that dumb.

The real goal in Roxanne’s grooming yoga was to get Jack, the guy down the row, to look at her ass.  Jack was married to a giddy, heavy-set blonde named Tracy.  But he and Roxanne had been carrying on for a few weeks, and were fresh in the throes of new lust.  Jack pretended to be oblivious to Roxanne’s grooming efforts, but it was only pretend.  He rattled the newspaper he was reading, but I saw his eyes roll briefly toward the target area as he turned the page.  It made me want to gag.  Nothing more nauseating than being witness to someone else’s foreplay.

I didn’t think Jack was all that attractive.  He had pasty skin, a fading mustache, and overall he looked sort of used and dull.  But he was one of the only straight guys in the cat crowd who was over eight and under sixty.  And he was great with the cats, handling them gently and with adulation.  As a result, he was object of perpetual crushes of various cat fanciers.  While other husbands scorned the cat shows, Jack came weekend after weekend, trundling the grooming carts, fetching litter and water, and pinning up lacy cage curtains.  I could understand why.  In the real world, Jack was a dork.  In the cat world, he was a god.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What's In a Face?

Native American girl holding a baby owl, acrylic, 8x10".  The painting is still available for sale.  This is from an old photo (I mean really old, like from the early 1900's).  I was compelled to paint her because I was captivated by her expression.  She is clearly dressed up -- maybe to have the photo made.  But I would really love to know what is happening here.  What could she possibly be thinking?  I invite your thoughts!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Talking With Dogs

Til shows off some of his prizes from a Frisbee competition.

As I am moving back into my role as teacher, not only through an upcoming Tricks class at Borderhauss Kennels but as a certified CATCH trainer mentor, I'm realizing how much nonverbal actions and consequences go into my daily routines.  My thoughts are constantly on reinforcing behaviors that I like, eliminating ones I don't like.  There are very few random treats I give my dogs.  I am in the mode of thinking that no cookie goes wasted.  I am, in essence, a training machine.

While this might seem kind of sad, it puts communication on a whole new level.  I have had to reassess this, too, because now that I have my first border collie, I realize that I haven't made full use of the wonderful cognitive skills in dogs.  I no longer use the grunts and broken English reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie.  I use full sentences.  "Til, Nikita stole your toy and hid it in her cage.  You can find it in there.  Go get it out and bring it to me."

And he does.

I am talking to the border collie much more than I have to others, and the overflow extends to other dogs around him.

Now in house sitting for my friend Cindy while she's away, and caring for her two dogs, I am back to Square One.  The dogs, a Labrador named Nikita and a spaniel mix named Maggie, are both "amateurs" when it comes to the ever evolving "Bailey Method".  Nikita especially is completely clueless.  She is a big, tan, smiling, good-natured oaf, awkward and pushy in her affections.

I hold up a cookie.  "Sit."  I KNOW she knows this cue.  She just stands there grinning, ears flattened, whipping her tail back and forth.

At this point, I have another revelation that with rescue dogs, and dogs who have been randomly reinforced, it is better not to talk.  Their lives are filled with meaningless noise.  They tune it out.  So I revert back to my old nonverbal ways and simply hold the cookie back over her head.  She sits. I toss the cookie and she clumsily snaps at it.

With Nikita I would be back to Tarzan Talk for a little while, using the barest of verbiage, while she begins to grasp all over again that language really does have meaning, and to listen intently for more complex instructions.  As she got to know me, she would eventually start to pay more attention.

Perhaps even more importantly, I would have to learn how to listen to her.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Owl Totem

The owl is the universal symbol of wisdom and insight. Perhaps that is what I am seeking since I have been painting owls all weekend. Today's subject is a barred owl. He sits amid branches that are orchestrated to repeat the arches and angles of his wide-eyed orb.

I envy some of his qualities, most of all his focus. I am scattered in a thousand directions and my body is manifesting the emotional disarray. Mom's illness was just the beginning. When she died on the New Year's Eve that ushered in 2011, Dad not surprisingly went downhill. The first year after her death, he required emotional support and attention. Then last year in 2012, his health began to fail.

All summer, I was plagued with a persistent cough as I delivered him to one doctor after another, in a vain attempt to find the source of his back pain. It was a rough year. I had very little time with my horses, as they were boarded a half hour away. We didn't get to go to Drummond. Dad became more and more crippled with his pain and my frustration levels rose. It was so hard to watch him suffer, while dealing with the never-ending bureaucratic red tape of the medical community.  He had a new pacemaker installed, surgery for bone spurs in his neck, and pain injections in his shoulder. The pain would not quit.

Though I have a huge family with seven siblings, the others were of minimal help, choosing to immerse themselves in the details of their own lives. As seems to the be the wont of many families, they were quick to criticize everything I did. My cough hung on as Dad finally began to have trouble breathing. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I knew this was wrong, and I made an appointment with his cardiologist. Dad became very angry with me when I insisted on having him admitted, but then under the care of a pulmonologist, we finally found the source of the pain. There was a tumor capping the upper left lobe of his lung. It had been hiding behind the pacemaker, so didn't show up in the many x rays we had ordered over the months he had suffered with it.

Dad couldn't stay up in the far north and have treatment for lung cancer. A brother stepped forward to take him in. My dogs were not welcome in the brother's home, so Dad's care shifted to him.  When Dad started radiation treatments, my cough immediately stopped. I was convinced that it was psychosomatic, connected to Dad as I was. After all, my bond with him was the closest of all people I had known.

But the cough was replaced with terrible pain in my right shoulder. I realized that somehow I had torn my rotary cuff.  I couldn't remember doing it, and it brought home the fact that I had not been caring for myself.  At this point, after two years of being consumed by worry and care for a sick parent and disabled younger sister, I realized that I had to find my own life again, spiritually, physically, economically and in every way imaginable.

My faith had been shaken, not only by the experiences of the past couple of years, but by the religious zealotry of siblings who didn't help. I realized that life would never be the same. I could use some of Owl's wisdom and insight now.

A good friend let me stay in her house while she went away for a few days. I knew I had to recover. I decided to begin with the outside. I started lifting weights again and took walks in the snow. I drank lots of water. I sat in the tub for a long time tonight, letting the heat soak into my shoulder, clearing my mind. I noticed the shower curtain nearby had some text on it. It was a Bible verse:  

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. -Isaiah 58:11

Printed on the shower curtain was a picture of an owl.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Traditions with Equine Art and Lunch!

When you live in one place for a long time you develop traditions with people and places that are sweet and sort of comforting. Since I have been displaced due to caring for sick parents over the past couple of years, most of mine have fallen by the wayside. My best friends have made the effort to keep things rolling so I don't feel too out of touch.

This drawing stems from one of them. Muriel Herrick and Dianne Dervin help organize the Michigan Morgan Futurity Stallion Service Auction every year. Muriel owns Century Oak Farm, home of her ever-youthful grand stallion, Gradell's Wild Magic.

Every year now, one day in January for the past seven or eight years, Muriel and Dianne take me out to lunch! I deliver a piece of art and usually a Clifford book, and we sit and eat and talk. We talk about friends we know in the Morgan world. We talk about dogs. And we talk, talk, talk about horses -- especially Morgan horses.

In my current state of upheaval, with Mom being gone and Dad having been so ill this year, the farm lost and struggling to feed Clifford and Trudy this winter, I find moments of comfort in my friends, and in the things we have always done together. My heart is grateful.

Here's a picture of my donation for this year's Michigan Morgan Futurity Silent Auction: Oil Pencil and Conte, approx 9x12"