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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Horses and Me with Author Judy Alter

Horses and Me—a Non-Relationship

by Judy Alter

I’m embarrassed to write this because there are so many mystery authors whose lives—and books—center around horses. Truth be told, I am not a horse person. Put me in front of a dog, and I generally make friends, slowly but easily. Not so with horses. I rode maybe three times as a pre-teen in Chicago—at a stable where you rode nose to tail around an indoor ring, English style. I was okay with it, not wildly enthusiastic. Then I had to miss a couple of lessons and when I went back I was uncomfortable. I think the only other time I’ve been on a horse was once in my twenties when a ten-year-old niece led me on a pony—bigger than most Shetlands (my brother denies knowledge now of what kind of pony it was). I felt like I was slipping and sliding off first one side and then the other. She kept assuring me not to worry. “I won’t let you fall, Aunt Judy.” I found it cold comfort.
Yet I’ve written a lot of books with horses a major part of the action, especially during the days when I wrote fiction for adults and young adults about women of the American West. One of my first projects was a young-adult trilogy about a girl named Maggie, whose mother wanted her to be a lady. She wanted to be a cowgirl, and she alone tamed the wild horse named Devildust that the men at her papa’s Texas ranch all shied away from. With a fancy that would I hoped appeal to ten-year-old girls, Maggie and Devildust go from the ranch to Hickok’s Wild West and Madison Square Gardens, with an episode of thievery and disguised horses thrown in.
There was Cherokee Rose, a novel loosely based on the life of Lucille Mulhall, the first woman to compete with men riding and roping professionally. She rode for the Miller 101 Ranch Wild West Show, then formed her own company and eventually produced a rodeo herself. Among Mulhall’s skills was roping several horses at one time. I learned about roping by asking good friend Joyce Roach, author of The Cowgirls, a thousand questions until she finally said, “Enough about roping, Judith. Get on with the novel.”  But always, when writing about things I hadn’t done or known personally, I asked people who had.
Libbie Custer was no slouch on horseback either. When her husband, General George Armstrong Custer, would quirt her horse until it bolted on the prairie, with her clinging to reins, mane, whatever she could, she generally stayed with and on the horse. Libby detailed her horseback adventures in three biographies, so that research was there for me when I worked on my fictional account of her life, Libbie.
Other than that, I guess I’ve lived in Texas long enough, gone to enough rodeos, and been around enough horse people that I picked up sufficient knowledge to get by. No one ever criticized my horse knowledge in reviews or comments, though they criticized a lot of other things.
My four children had an adopted uncle who helped me, a single mom, raise them, and one thing he taught them was how to ride. I was grateful that I didn’t transfer my fears to them, though I think only one of my daughters rides these days—and that maybe once a year on a dude ranch. I remember one time, though, being in a pasture with a whole lot of horses. That same uncle had taken me to visit a friend, a horse trainer, and I so trusted both of them that I walked among the horses.  Uncle Bob was impressed and kept telling his friend, Alan, that I would never do that for anyone but him.
I haven’t missed horses in my life, maybe because they showed up in so many books. On the other hand, I’ve always had dogs in my life—collies, an Irish wolfhound, cairns, labs, Aussies, a bearded collie or two, and now a bordoodle (border collie/poodle cross). I could not live without a dog in my life and my house, but strangely they rarely show up in my fiction and then in only minor roles. Go figure!
See Judy's earlier posts on Writers & Other Animals~

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of five books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, and Deception in Strange Places. She also writes the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café and Murder at the Tremont House. 
Before turning to mysteries, Judy focused her career on writing about women of the American West, both for adults and young adults. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.
Judy is retired as director of TCU Press and the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. She and her Bordoodle, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.
Watch for Deception in Strange Places, the fifth Kelly O’Connell novel, due out in late July. Alas, no horses in that one either, though a dog has a minor part, almost walk-on.


  1. Judy, I like horses--or at least I feel totally comfortable around them. Never had a chance to ride much. So imagine my surprise when my protagonist informed me that he doesn't like horses--has no use for them. I sort of ducked, because I know there are a lot of horse people out there. I can understand not being comfortable with horses--they're big and can be unpredictable. Of course, most people never have much need to be around them unless they want to be.

    1. Terry, I never feel comfortable around them, but unlike your protagonist I admire them, love to watch them. And, yes, I felt a bit hesitant about the blog because I know there are a lot of horse people--including many mystery authors. But maybe they don't understand my affinity for dogs, even my current rescue who would just as soon bite everyone he considers a stranger.

  2. I have never ridden, but my daughter competed for years. So as I write about riding I use her experiences, not mine! She's also great on helping me write it correctly!! Will definitely read your stories. I enjoy reading about riding, but will never ride myself!!

    1. Shirley, I'm absolutely with you. I don't want to ride, but I admire people who have an easy, comfortable relationship with horses. Okay, I envy them. I'd like to be as comfortable with horses as I am with dogs--but it ain't gonna happen.