If we are lucky, we find a way to construct our lives around the things we love most, and if we’re blessed, we get to do those things for many, many years. Heather Smith Thomas, prolific writer and author of GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, illustrates this ideal so well–at 70, she is still at her desk typing in the wee hours before chores need to be done, and in the saddle moving cattle a large part of each day. Hers may not be an “easy” life in comparison to some, but it is one filled with the joys of family, beautiful landscapes, and of course, horses.
As part of the TSB “Horseworld by the Hour” series, Heather shares with us the details of one typically busy, but utterly satisfying, summer day.
A TYPICAL SUMMER DAY IN IDAHO
5:00 a.m. At this time of day I am usually at my typewriter, typing a phone interview taped the day before, or creating an article or story about horses or cattle. I write for several horse magazines and a lot of farm and livestock publications, so I am often doing phone interviews with people all over the country, on various topics.
5:30 a.m. I have an assignment to do an article for The American Farrier’s Journal on the value of apprenticeships and mentoring programs, so I send e-mails to a few of my favorite farriers around the country, to see if I can line up interviews with them on this topic.
6:30 a.m. If it’s winter, I am still typing at this hour. If it’s early April, I may be heading out to check on the calving cows if I see one in labor (looking out the window with spotlight and binoculars, checking the maternity pen near our house). Right now, however, it’s summer, and daylight enough for me to go out and feed my horses. We have 7 horses. Rubbie (27 year old ¾ Arab mare) and Veggie (28 year old 7/8 Arab gelding) are now retired, as of this year, after putting in many years and miles as ranch horses and then kid horses for my grandchildren. Breezy, a 23-year-old Morgan mare, has been my daughter’s best cowhorse for nearly 20 years. Ed is a 20-something grade mare (part Arab) that has been a good cowhorse and now a mount for my 9-year-old granddaughter. Sprout is an 8-year-old Quarter Horse mare that my daughter rides. Dottie is a 4-year-old Morgan mare that I’m riding and training, and Willow is a 2-year-old Morgan filly just starting in training.
7:00 a.m. When I get in from chores I grab a roast out of the freezer to put in the slow cooker. The roast is from an old cow named Freddie that we butchered last fall, and the meat will be much more tender if it cooks all day. I also quickly make some Jello—adding a can of fruit and a couple bananas.
7:30 a.m. A quick breakfast (mixing 3 or 4 different kinds of dry cereal, with a banana on top), then back to typing.
8:00 a.m. If it’s winter, my husband Lynn and I are out doing morning chores by this hour, and then feeding the cows (me driving the feed truck and him feeding off the hay). Morning chores start later because it’s dark so long, and take longer in winter because we are feeding the horses, feeding the group of heifers in the field below the barn, breaking ice out of the horse’s water tubs and refilling them, breaking ice on the creek for the cows, etc.
8:30 a.m. At this time of morning I am often hurrying back to the house to do a phone interview. Sometimes I’m doing an interview earlier than this, if I’m talking to someone back East (2 hours ahead of us). I may be talking with a researcher at a university for an article about the latest findings on a horse or cattle disease, or reasons for early pregnancy loss in mares, or ways to collect semen from injured bulls. I might be talking with a farrier (this week I’m doing an article on club foot in horses) or a rancher (I’m writing an article on the benefits of low-stress cattle handling, and another article on various weaning methods for calves). One of the most interesting things about being a freelance writer is the many topics I write about and the things I learn from all the people I talk to.
9:30 a.m. My daughter and a couple of my grandchildren have driven down to our place from their house on the hill above our hayfield, and are now getting their horses brushed and saddled, to ride with me. Nine-year-old Dani is proud to be able to catch, brush and saddle Ed by herself, and clean out her feet.
10:00 a.m. We are riding through our hill pasture, checking our cows and calves. We’ve found most of the cows but are missing a bunch of calves. When we get to the top of the pasture, Dani is delighted to find that her favorite cow, Maggie, is babysitting 11 calves while their mamas are on the other side of the mountain, grazing. Dani tells me the ear tag numbers of all the calves so I can mark them off on the list in my little “cow book” that I always carry in my back pocket.
10:30 a.m. We’ve seen all the cows and calves, to make sure they are all there, and healthy, so we go out through the top gate onto the range to make a loop through that range pasture to see if we can find some stray cows.
11:00 a.m. Our range neighbors gathered and moved their cattle a few days ago, but missed a dozen pairs. We’ve found them at “Antelope” trough, so we start moving them around the hill toward the pasture where they belong. We let 11-year-old Samantha (riding Breezy) follow the cows on the main trail, and the rest of our horses scramble through the rocks and brush to gather the outlying cattle.
Breezy has only one eye, but manages very nicely in the mountains. She developed a cancerous growth on her left eyeball last fall and we opted to have the eye surgically removed so the cancer wouldn’t spread. Our vet removed the eye in late December and we spent the next weeks changing bandages as it started to heal. We kept it covered and protected from the cold weather for several months, using a fly mask with 2 layers of denim sewn onto that side to cover that part of her face. It was fully healed by this spring, and we started riding her again. We’re hoping that by removing the cancer (a growth that would have metastasized and killed her) she will have several more good years and can continue to be a good horse for Sam.
Breezy knows all the trails in our mountains after checking and chasing cows out there for many years, and has always been an agile cowhorse. In handling Breezy this summer, Sam has become more conscientious in her horse handling and riding, and is learning how to think ahead and be careful to not get close to obstacles on Breezy’s blind side. Watching that pair, you’d never know the mare had only one eye.
11:30 a.m. My daughter Andrea trots on ahead as we bring the little herd around the mountain, so she can hurry down the steep slope to open the gate into the middle range pasture. The kids and I bring the herd. This is good experience for the green mare that I’m riding; she hasn’t had much interaction with cattle yet. The grandkids are proud to be able to help hold the herd together, learning how to be good little cowgirls. Dani trots Ed through the tall sagebrush to head some wayward pairs the right direction, and the cattle funnel down the steep trail to the gate—where Andrea keeps them from going on down the canyon and heads them through the gate.
12:00 p.m. Now we are trotting toward home. On another day we might take a lunch and make a longer loop through the middle range pasture, checking gates, fences and water troughs, but today I need to get home to do a couple more phone interview this afternoon, and the girls want their mom to take them to town to the swimming pool.
12:30 p.m. We are putting the horses away in their pens, except for Sprout and Ed. We’ll let Sprout “mow” the backyard for a while first, and Ed is grazing the tall grass by my hay shed. Rather than mow the tall grass (that would soon be a fire hazard after it dries out), we’re letting the horses eat it. This serves a double purpose because we are running low on hay and won’t have our new crop baled and stacked until late July. I’m currently letting the two retired horses (Rubbie and Veggie) graze the pens around our calving barn. This is saving hay and is good for the old horses (with their old teeth they do better on green grass than on hay), and utilizes the tall grass around the barn and in the maternity pens. Later, I’ll move these old horses to our ditchbank “pasture” above the house, to let the grass regrow in the barnyard pens—so it will be lush and green when we put our calves in there to wean in October. We wean them there, right next to their mamas in the field below the barn, where they have fenceline contact with their mamas and are not as distressed.
1:00 p.m. My husband and I have a quick lunch (leftovers from the pot of chili I cooked yesterday). I usually cook a big meal in the evenings so we can have enough left for an instant lunch the next day when everyone is too busy to cook. We can grab lunch whenever it’s convenient—whether it’s 11:30 a.m. (maybe after I finish a phone interview and my husband gets done irrigating, and before he drives to town–12 miles—to get the mail and groceries and tractor parts) or at 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. after I get home from a range ride. If I’m too late getting home, he can help himself to the leftovers!
1:30 p.m. I lie down for a quick rest. At age 70, I don’t have the endurance I used to, and it’s hard to get everything done unless I take a little break after lunch. Sometimes grandma doesn’t get a nap, however, if I’m out riding range with my daughter or grandkids through most of the day.
2:00 p.m. Another phone interview, this time talking with a veterinarian in Virginia who has done several years’ research on back problems in horses, looking at better ways to diagnose and treat them.
2:30 p.m. My oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas, age 23) arrives to work with Willow, and I watch out my window while doing the phone interview. I bought Willow as a weaned foal 2 years ago this fall, along with her half-sister Dottie (then 2 years old), to be future horses for Dani and Sam. Andrea and I spent time that fall and winter gentling the two Morgan fillies and leading them a lot. Last summer young Heather started Dottie under saddle for me and then I rode her for 5 months–until it got too icy in December. Now young Heather is working with Willow. She’s done a lot of groundwork with this filly and has started riding her. At my age it’s nice to have a granddaughter help start these young horses!
3:00 p.m. One more interview, with a family that has a pasture dairy in southern Idaho and sells their milk products (including fresh-made ice cream) through their own farm store.
3:30 p.m. I talk with my granddaughter Heather about Willow’s progress.
4:00 p.m. Typing interviews. I usually spend 6 to 10 hours a day at my writing—during whatever time I am not working with the cattle or horses. My writing has become a full-time job that I can do at odd hours. My husband and I had 180 cows for more than 30 years, but during the past dozen years or so, we’ve sold most of our cows to our son and his family to help them get started in ranching. Now my husband and I have just a small herd, and depend more on my writing income than the cattle income.
4:30 p.m. If it were winter I’d be going out to do chores before dark, but right now I can keep typing.
6:00 p.m. I peel some potatoes to cook while I’m doing the horse chores.
6:30 p.m. Evening chores are simple and quick, just feeding the horses in their pens, since I watered them during morning chores.
7:00 p.m. Supper is roast beef, gravy and potatoes, with Jello and green beans.
7:30 p.m. My son Michael comes down here from his house on the upper place, to put new shoes on Sprout in the cool of the evening, and I hold her for him to shoe. Sprout is a horse we bought 2 years ago, and when we got her she was very resistant to having her feet handled, let alone shod. After a season of working with her (and my son shoeing her for me), she became much more at ease and better behaved, but I still prefer to have my son shoe her. If Ed or Breezy’s feet get a bit long I may reset their shoes myself because those horses are easy to shoe. I’ve been shoeing my own horses since I was 14, but now it’s kind of nice to let my son do most of the shoeing!
8:30 p.m. We finish with Sprout and I put iodine on her soles (to toughen them up so she won’t become tenderfooted traveling through the rocks tomorrow when we ride) and put her back in her pen.
9:00 p.m. To bed, even though it’s still daylight, since I always get up early. Once in a while my husband and I watch a movie in the evenings (we enjoy a good drama, romance, suspense or comedy if it has a good plot and good acting), but tonight it’s too late and we’re too tired.
4:00 a.m. At my computer again. I like to do a lot of my typing in the early mornings before the day’s activities. There are no interruptions this time of day, and also my brain is MUCH fresher than it is in the late afternoon or evening!
Heather Smith Thomas’ new book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
And check out all the top riders, trainers, and equine experts we’ve featured in our “Horseworld by the Hour” series: