TSB author Heather Smith Thomas and one of her ranch horses: a mare named “Ed.” Heather says that even now in her twenties, Ed is one of her best cow horses.
TSB author Heather Smith Thomas and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho. Heather writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications. She has sold more than 11,000 stories and articles, and published 20 books, all while keeping the family and ranch in working order. We recently had a chance to catch up with Heather following a busy calving season, and we asked her about her new book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS and whether or not she was planning a vacation from her very busy life anytime soon. We loved her reply…read on:
TSB: You have published more than 11,000 articles and 20 books on various aspects of horse and cattle management. What makes your newest book, GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, a worthwhile addition to that list and to every horseman’s barn or bookshelf?
Heather: There are no “perfect” horses with perfect manners and training. Every good horse can become better. Nearly every “bad” horse can be improved. Horses often develop what we call “bad habits” either through neglect (not taking time to be consistent or to insist on good habits) or mistakes in how we handle them. If we can find ways to improve their behavior we can have a much more satisfying relationship with those horses. A horseman may not encounter every “bad habit,” but if this book can help a person work through even one challenging situation to where it results in a satisfactory outcome (and a better relationship with that horse), it will be worthwhile.
TSB: GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS features over 130 common behavior and training problems. How did you choose which issues to include? What do you think is the most-asked-about issue in the horse world?
Heather: I tried to cover the most common (and some of the less common) problems encountered with horses, whether in the stable, handling on the ground, or under saddle. One of the most asked-about issues I’ve found is the case of a pushy horse that doesn’t respect his handler’s requests or personal space.
TSB: One common theme that appears in your book is that of keeping horses as best suits their nature, with plenty of grass/hay and turnout, and opportunity for socialization with other horses. You assert that many problems with which we are faced today are solved when these basic needs of the horse are met. Can you tell us a little about how your ranch horses are kept? Do you find that they are, for the most part, content in their work and less prone to vices because of their management?
Heather: Our ranch horses are kept outdoors in large paddocks or at pasture. They are never indoors, and this simplifies or resolves/avoids some of the management and health issues that arise when horses are confined too much or kept indoors. Yes, I think they are more content in their work because they have more chance to just be “horses” when they are not working. They definitely do not develop “stable vices” because they are never kept in a stall.
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TSB: You and your husband raise beef cattle on a ranch in Idaho. What is your favorite thing about ranch life? What’s the hardest thing about it? Are you finding that your family is committed to preserving some or all of the ranching life traditions for the children/grandchildren in the years ahead?
Heather: My favorite thing about ranch life is being able to work outdoors with animals, to put their needs first in the daily routine of chores, feeding, etc. My favorite tasks are working with the cattle and being able to use our horses to check cattle, fences, water sources on the range, and move and work cattle. The teamwork we develop with a good horse is very satisfying.
The hardest thing about ranch life, as my husband and I struggled to pay for a ranch, is making a living at it (that’s one reason I’ve done a lot of writing—it’s the equivalent of my “off-farm job,” but I can do it at home in between the outdoor jobs with the cattle and horses). Ranching is a poor way to make a living, but it’s a great life, and a wonderful way to raise children. One reason we still have cows today (after selling most of our cows to our son and his wife a few years back) is because they are a great learning experience for our grandchildren. Our daughter’s children are growing up here on the ranch and enjoying the pleasures of working with cattle and riding horses. We do want to continue to preserve our way of life for our grandchildren.
TSB: If you could be sure that readers take away one lesson from GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, what would you hope it would be?
Heather: Flexibility. Be open to new ideas; new ways to deal with a difficult challenge. Be open to the horse’s mind and emotions. Be in tune with that horse. If something isn’t working in your relationship, try something different. Find a way to draw out the best response from that horse and avoid/head off problem behavior.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.
Heather: Actually it was a Forest Service pack mule, when I was very young. I had accompanied my father to meet a friend of his who was coming down out of the mountains from a fire lookout, with his pack mule, and I got to ride it down to the road, sitting on the empty pack saddle, as the mule was led.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.
Heather: I was about 14 years old and a couple friends and I were riding our horses at a friend’s ranch. We were riding bareback and switched horses. As we came galloping down across the field, the mare I was riding jumped a ditch and gave a little buck, and I went off over her head—and I was grateful that she was agile and didn’t want to step on me. She jumped over me after I landed in front of her.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
Heather: Honesty, along with understanding.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
Heather: Athletic ability/agility (catty enough to work cattle and sure-footed enough to do it in difficult terrain and never fall down) was always number one with me, but as I get older I also appreciate a good mind and a kind, willing attitude.
GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS was a Practical Horseman Magazine Editor’s Pick for the month of May.
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback or with a horse that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
Heather: I’ve done enough wild riding chasing cattle in rugged country that I don’t need to try being a jockey or a steeplechase rider, and I’ve had athletic horses that gave me a taste of dressage along with endurance feats, so I’m really not sure what it would be.
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
Heather: The breed is not important as long as it’s a good horse, though my preference might be Anglo-Arab just because my very best cowhorse was a Thoroughbred-Arab cross. Not sure about the book—probably any really good book that I hadn’t read yet. Or maybe the Bible.
TSB: What’s in your refrigerator at all times?
Heather: Milk and leftovers.
TSB: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Heather: Riding a good horse all day in the mountains checking cattle or moving cattle.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?
Heather: Beef roast (home raised), potatoes, and gravy.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect vacation?
Heather: I don’t have any ideas about vacations. My husband and I have never taken one. Our work is our pleasure; our vocation is our avocation. Our passion is our family, our cattle, our horses, and working on the land. We feel blessed to be able to do what we love to do, right here at home, without having to go anywhere else.
Perhaps if we lived here, we wouldn’t want to leave, either. The lower part of Heather’s ranch in Idaho.
GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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