Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on: The Year of the Horse, Part II

Scroll Down for Part I

Natural Horsemanship is practiced by many different trainers and horse owners around the world. Though practitioners differ in their techniques, there is a basic set of principles most agree on.
  • The horse is a prey animal, who feels safest in a herd. Horses live in communities with a clear hierarchy and communicate primarily through body language.
  • The horse/human relationship is based on mutual respect and communication, not through fear, pain or intimidation.
  • Humans have to understand a horse's language, because horses aren't going to start speaking ours.

How then, is that like grammar?
  • Readers and authors communicate through a common language. 
  • The reader/author relationship is based on mutual respect and communication.
  • Writers must understand a reader's language, for while readers might be willing to explore outside their comfort zone, they are unlikely to learn an entirely new language just to decipher your book.

Knowing the rules of grammar, story structure, and genre helps the writer communicate with the reader, just as the rules of Natural Horsemanship helps the horse owner communicate with the horse.

The more advanced the writer, the further boundaries can be pushed and new avenues explored. Cross-genre, breaking grammatical rules, bending traditional story structure, these are all possible in the hands of an experienced writer, but done by an amateur, bad outcomes are almost guaranteed.

When I first started working with Chance, walking him from the paddock to the barn wasn't safe. Not for him and not for me. He was tall, strong, and in his prime. Horses may be prey animals, and more likely to run than fight, but that doesn't mean they won't run over the top of you or throw a back leg in your direction.

 A whole lot of work went into getting this traumatized animal to trust walking to and from places wasn't a sign he was going to be abused, permanently removed from his herd, or loaded into a trailer to take back to the kill pen. He also had to learn he's not the one making decisions, I'm in charge. (We're still working on that, but we're getting a little better every day).

Chance and I went back to the basics. Learning mutual respect and communication on the ground before we try it from the saddle. He's a completely different horse than when I first met him. And the changes in his behavior in the last six months have been overwhelming. He'll stand quietly, come when I whistle, and walk calmly by my side.

I'm often asked if I'm riding him yet, as if that's the most important thing I can do with my horse. I understand the question. It's what most people "know" about horses. If you own one, you ride them. 

It's very similar to being a writer. Everyone asks, "Is your book published yet?" As if that's the most important thing you can do with your work.

For me, the most important thing I can do with my horse, is have a relationship. Getting him to let me pick out all four hooves was a huge accomplishment. Maybe bigger than riding him one day. From the outside, it appears small and inconsequential, from the inside, it's taking a horse who would not let anyone touch him, and have him trust me enough to pick his feet up, one at a time, and pick them out with a metal object. Now that he trusts me, getting on his back is a small thing. The groundwork that came first was infinitely more important.

As writers, publication is a big accomplishment, but it's the last little step after the 1000 steps that came before it. Learning "the how" of writing a story, discovering one's voice, and writing and rewriting draft after draft after draft is the important part. Because it is that process, which allows one to get the publishing contract. The big accomplishment is finishing the book in the first place.

I will ride Chance one day, probably soon, but that won't be the most important thing we do together. It won't outweigh the 1000 steps that came before or the 1000 steps that come after.

My advice to writers working towards that first publishing contract is enjoy the 1000 steps before you publish. Do your groundwork without worrying about riding. That will come, but it won't be the most important thing. It will be logical next step. And you will be ready for it, because you earned it.

Spotlight on: The Year of the Horse

In April, 2014, an emaciated horse came into Serenity Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation. He was brought in with another horse from a kill pen in Enumclaw, where he was destined to end up transported across the border to Canada and turned into dog food.

He was so wild and so far gone physically, the vet feared he would not survive. This tall bay refused human contact, attempting to kick that same veterinarian through the back of the barn. This is what he looked like when he came in…

Hard to believe an animal this skeletal could still kick, but his anxiety level was so high, and his startle reflex so reactive, he would overcome his physical limitations to lash out at the world that had almost killed him.

My first meeting of this 12-year-old Arab gelding occurred that very first day he spent at Serenity. I worked on Tuesdays, cleaning paddocks, filling waters, then at the end of my shift, feeding and moving horses into the barn. On this particular April afternoon, I discovered the two new horses in a paddock at the top of the rise. When new animals came into Serenity, I would let them decide how much we'd interact. I'd come quietly into their area and begin to clean up. If they came over and wanted interaction, I'd pet them, if they stayed away, I would move carefully around the space, giving them all the room they needed so as to not feel chased. If they became aggressive, I'd get the hell out of the way.

The gelding came over fairly soon after I started. He walked directly toward me, but with his ears high, eyes soft, and with no aggressive actions. I paused to see what he would do. He leaned his forehead against my shoulder and breathed out, as if to say he'd found his home.

It wasn't until much later I learned this horse was considered aggressive, potentially dangerous, and that he didn't want anyone to touch him. I thought at first people were joking, because that wasn't the horse he was with me. I'd spent almost thirty minutes that first day scratching his neck and withers, while he stood quietly, leaning into my hand.

We named him Second Chance and I adopted him four months later.

In October, I moved him to his new home. Here's Chance today…

What, you might ask, does this have to do with writing?


Adopting Chance started one of the most amazing years of my life. I (mostly!) stopped worrying about my ability as a writer, Chance didn't care. I stopped worrying about success, because no matter what, I could go over to the stables and play with my horse. But, the same month I moved Chance to his new home, I got the call that my first novel would be published and it was being contracted as a series.

I don't believe in coincidences.

One of the lucky lunar months in the Chinese Year of the Horse is April. It was lucky for me last year. It was lucky for Chance. With the help of two experienced followers of Natural Horsemanship and the support of my husband, I've spent hundreds of hours working with Chance. He now walks calmly from the paddock to the barn. Stands while I pick his hooves and groom him. Responds to requests in the round pen and the arena. He's not so excited about moving sideways, we're working on that. I have not yet ridden him, but we're getting close. It's a lot like writing. Some days everything goes right. We pick up where we left off the day before and move forward in our new "draft." Other days, we both muddle around, not quite in sync, and we have to rewrite the work we've already done.

But here we are one year later and I wouldn't change one single thing.

Check back next week for the next installment on the Year of the Horse. 
How is Natural Horsemanship like grammar?