I write romantic suspense and warm, family relationship type novels, often with a touch of humor. Many of my books have featured animals as key players--dogs, cats, llamas, cockatiels, horses...even our son's pet albino corn snake, Sssssid, who appeared in my first Superromance back in 1999.

Animals have been a big part of my life since I was a child. How about you? I hope you'll become a "blog follower" here (see the right-hand column for a place to click) and will come back often. So...let's talk about our pets!

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Old Horse Trader #5: HOW TO TRAIN A ROPING HORSE--NOT!

Verne Upmier looks back over his lifetime as a horse trader with a sense of satisfaction, and is sure that he wouldn't have exchanged his career for any other. "The horse business treated me pretty good," he says, "and it sure gave me some interesting experiences."

Years ago, Verne and his friends enjoyed roping. The roping part went okay, but the horses that worked well at home often forgot their job at rodeos,while taking an inordinate interest in all of the surrounding festivities. One day, Verne was at a rodeo and noticed a roping horse that worked to perfection. It never wavered as it faced the calf and kept the rope taut.

Verne approached the owner. "How do you do it?" He asked. "My horse just wants to stare at all the people in the grandstand."

The man's answer was memorable. "Well, I get on a horse and rope a good-sized bull. Then I get off the horse and go to town and play cards."

"What?" Vern asked in surprise.

"Well, if I stayed home, I'd be watching and worrying, and I'd want to go out to rescue the horse. So I leave. By the time I get home, that horse will have figured out that the only way to stay safe is to keep that rope tight, and stay as far from the bull as possible. If he's got any sense, he'll have turned into a darn good rope horse. And you can bet he'll never take his eyes off of anything at the end of a rope!"

It goes without saying that Vern never tried this system for tuning up of roping horse, and that this method will never make the pages of a book on training. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, to me too!

Verne may have owned a few horses that didn't show much interest in a useful career, but he remembers others with an amazing amount of heart. "I had one little gelding that was the handiest, toughest horse you can imagine," he recalls. "He'd been injured in a trailer and one of his back legs had permanent damage. The weak leg barely supported any weight at a walk or jog, but on three legs he could still run and buck all over the pasture, and he never seemed to be in any pain. He worked better than most any horse that had all four wheels."

The disability wasn't apparent at a lope, so that's how Vern would enter an arena for reining classes. The gelding could do flying lead changes, slide, and spin with the best of the competition, and did very well at shows. "It must have been disconcerting to judges, though," Verne adds with a smile, "To see their first-place horse gimp into the ring on three legs to pick up the trophy and blue ribbon!"

Friday, August 28, 2009

I know, I know...this blog is about things with fur, feathers, fins, hooves...but I just have to ask.

Not being a gardener since I failed miserably at it years ago (great at growing weeds, never got any produce--not even zucchini, and that's a monumental testament to having a black thumb) I now have a small terrace with tomatoes and green peppers. Such fun! But...some of the veggies out there look, well, just plain weird.

Does this tomato look like anyone you know? I swear, it's the image of my organic chemistry professor back in college, when he was trying to get through to the class...poor man.

Except maybe his hair wasn't green....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rain, rain, rain....

Has anyone seen Noah lately? I'm thinking that he is going to appear at our door any day now and say, "Grab the animals--it's time to get on the ark!"

I just ran outside to take a picture. Can anyone tell me why Tucker is standing in the middle of puddle, over fetlock deep, instead of heading for higher ground?!

My rain gauge was at 5 inches yesterday morning. It has rained buckets since then, and even now, on Thursday morning, the sky is dark, rain is falling, and the Doppler pattern on the local news channel's internet page doesn't look promising for the rest of the day. We've gotten another 3 inches in the rain gauge since last night!

Which means it's a "Cat in the Hat" day for the two dogs, who have to stay inside and who are looking exceedingly glum.

And the barn cats are Not Happy. They parade up to the house every morning and plant themselves in my Hostas to stare at the door, as if magical thinking will make me appear faster. Once I appear, they happily wind around my legs to see which one can send me to the hospital instead of down to the barn to feed them--which could only make sense to a cat, but there you are.

But today--they were a bedraggled, damp, flat-eared lot, their soft little mitten feet muddy, their fluffy, upraised tails sodden. And from their narrow-eyed glares, they seemed to hold me personally responsible for the weather.

We all squished across the lawn together, six wet cats winding around my ankles, me slipping and sliding across that waterlogged green sponge...and then across the slick-as-silcone sloppy mud in the barnyard. Luckily, I didn't fall and flatten a cat, but it was close.

But ahhhh, the barn. The lovely sound of rain spattering on the roof. The cozy smell of new hay, and cedar shavings, leather and horse. Is there a better constellation of scents anywhere? When I was young, nothing was more perfect on a rainy day than to go out into the barn with a stack of Black Stallion books, and stretch out on the back of a horse in a box stall, or to go up and sit on the hay to read. So this dreary day brought back golden memories.

How about you--are you part of this crazy, heavy rain pattern as well? And what are your best memories of rainy days?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Do you remember the 1930s and 40s, the glory decades of silver screen westerns, when our heroes were cowboys and simple justice always prevailed? Or, if you're a bit younger, do you remember hours spent in front of an old black and white TV, following the adventures of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and all the others who thundered across the prairies in weekly pursuit of the latest desperados? Maybe you're younger yet, and remember the old re-runs.

Many a holster-clad young fan of that era would have traded his (or her) favorite six-shooter for the privilege of meeting one of those stars. Most would have been green with envy had they known of the friendship between Verne Upmier and Roy Rogers.

During the early 1940s, Rogers, accompanied by Trigger's trainer Glenn Randall, traveled throughout the country performing at rodeos, state fairs, and major expositions. Often, the distances between performances were too great to manage in a single day, so Roy established various locations for overnight stabling. Iowa was an ideal midpoint for both his east-west and north-south routes.

Rogers and Randall contacted a friend of Verne's, Roy Gaddis, for stabling in Cedar Rapids, and the men usually went out for a "night on the town" whenever Rogers came through the area. Verne remembers several times when Trigger was brought out to entertain the foursome with a sampling of his amazing number of tricks, after they returned from late-night dinners.

In 1944, there was a 65-mile competitive trail ride through Iowa. Roy was in town at the time, so Verne took him to the trail ride dinner. Roy politely declined when asked to sing, saying that his contract prevented him from singing in public unless he was backed by The Sons of the Pioneers. Instead, he entertained the audience with a long and colorful talk about his experiences in the movie industry.

"Rogers said he wasn't an experienced horsemen before becoming a movie star," Vern recalls. "He had grown up on a farm, and went to Hollywood to try to break into the movies. His agent recommended that he become a singing cowboy, since this was very popular at the time, but for that he needed a horse. So, he found a well-broke palomino and then hired Glenn Randall to continue the horse's training."

During the early years, Randall would cue the horse from beyond camera range. Verne is quick to note, however, that Roy eventually became an excellent rider, and also learned to give the trick cues himself. There were a lot of cues to learn, for the horse had been trained to do to dozens of tricks.

Some of the tricks were quite dramatic. Those who watched the 1950s television series may remember how Trigger often "rescued" Roy from the bad guys by racing a considerable distance with his ears pinned and teeth bared. He would appear to bite and stomp the hoodlums he caught, but of course he never actually touched them.

One of Trigger's more unusual abilities was that, prior to performances on stage, he could be cued to eliminate, thereby avoiding any awkward moments during the show.

Trigger occasionally appeared on stage with a flaxen-maned pony owned by a distant relative of Verne's. The pony appeared as a diminutive sidekick of Trigger's, and would mimic Trigger's act. "He knew at least 30 or 40 tricks," Verne says. "Cued by a subtle hand movements, he could pull the correctly numbered card from a rack to 'answer' math problems, he would lay motionless on his back, with all four feet in the air until cued to get up, and could do just about any trick you could think of."

Though children of that era repeated and pondered the incredible rumor that Trigger was--gasp!--a mare, the horse was indeed a stallion. There were, however, five "Triggers" who were used for filming. The original, who traveled with Roy to all the rodeos and fairs, was the horse who had the vast repertoire of tricks.

This Trigger was used for all of the close-up shots in the movies and TV shows, and was the one mounted for display in the Roy Rogers Museum after the end of his long life of stardom. He was a Tennessee Walker, but his gaits were never seen on the screen because his stand-ins were used for the action shots such as running, falling, and racing down steep slopes. It wasn't easy for Rogers to find the other four palominos, Verne says, because horses with the necessary wide blaze often have glass eyes, and the blue color wouldn't photograph well.

Even at the height of his stardom, Roy was a very likable guy, according to Verne, and never seem to let his fame affect his easy-going nature. One year, Verne and a number of friends took a trip to Mexico. En route, they noticed a show bill announcing a performance by a world champion cutting horse at a State Fair, and decided to stop. They didn't have advance tickets, and the show was sold out, so they decided to wander through the fairgrounds before continuing their trip.

They hadn't walked far before noticing Roy Roger's large trailer. "Let's see if he remembers us," joked Verne.

Roy did remember, and when he heard that the Iowa group couldn't get tickets, he promptly arranged for a set of the best seats in the house, then offered seats for the next show as well.

To childhood fans of that smiling, singing cowboy on the flashy Palomino, it must be gratifying to hear that Roy was just as congenial in real-life as he appeared on television so many years ago, and that even in real-life, he deserved to wear a white hat.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


We've all seen pickup trucks going down the road with a faithful dog sitting nonchalantly next to the driver. Perhaps you have one of those heart-and-soul companions who happily rides with you to your every destination.

Verne fondly recalls the years when he had a horse that rode shotgun in his pickup--though he admits with a grin that the horse didn't quite fit in the cab.

"He was a gray, part-quarter horse," Verne says. "I needed weight in the back of the truck if the roads were bad or if I had to be in and out of the fields, and every now and then it was handy to have a horse available. So on those days, I just loaded that gelding in the morning and he rode around with me all day."

Verne had more horses than stalls at the time, so each night he parked his truck in the barn. After the little gelding was fed and watered, Vern would untie him and the horse would trot back to the pickup, jump in, and settle down for the night, content to use the straw-filled bed of the pickup in the most literal sense. In the morning, the gelding would jump out at feeding time and then be ready to go down the road once again.

A horse buyer from Chicago stopped at the stable early one Sunday morning. He bought a few horses, and then lingered to shoot the breeze for awhile. The man told Verne that he enjoyed showing his horse, a pretty palomino, but he sometimes missed a horse show because the horse was so difficult to load.

Verne couldn't resist.

"I reached over, unsnapped the gray's lead rope, and gave him a swat on the rear," Vernon recalls with a grin. "Then I told him to go get in the trailer. He trotted clear across the barn and hopped in the truck, and waited for me to shut the gate."

The visitor was stunned. "How did you do that?" he asked in disbelief.

"I told him to," Vern replied, and then added thoughtfully, "Maybe your horse doesn't load because you forget to tell him to get in."

Vern offered to demonstrate on the man's horse if he would bring it to Iowa, but the guy never did show up. And for all we know, Verne says, the guy is still in Chicago, and still can't get that horse to load.

Friday, August 14, 2009

If you like animals....

Save the Last Dance, my August book release (for the Everlasting line, shelved with the Superromances) is in the stores now--Barnes and Noble, Walmart, Target, KMart, you name it! Or, you can find it online at www.eharlequin.com by simply typing "Rustand" in the search box. Actually, all three of my 2009 books are available there...and you can read the back cover blurbs to see what you think.

This story involves a veterinarian, a romance, suspense, and the most...unusual...hero I've ever done. :) If someone here reads it, I would love to hear what you think!

I just helped unload a hundred-twenty bales of hay into our barn tonight--and tomorrow, get to clean stalls. Ahhh, the glamorous life of a writer!! :)
Animals are a big part of my life, along with the writing, and a love for our four-footed family members made writing this book, involving a veterinarian's life, a lot of fun!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Old Horse Trader #2: A Trail Ride to Remember

Verne Upmier was in the business of training and trading horses long before many of us were born. He was one of the early distance trail riders, too--he rode on many of the first 65 -100 mile rides held in Iowa back in the 1940s. You'd think those rides would be memorable mainly for the sore muscles afterwards, but Verne says that some of them proved unforgettable in unexpected ways.

In 1944, fifty-two riders came out to his stables and saddled up for a sixty-five mile round trip ride between Cedar Rapids and Marengo. The day was pleasant and all went according to plan--until the final leg of the trip. The fateful moment came when the tired riders were served a nice trailside lunch near the Amanas before continuing their jaunt back to Cedar Rapids.

Vern was in the back third of the group. "It got to be kind of strange," he recalls. "We kept coming across horses tied to trees and fence lines, with no riders in sight. The closer we got to home, the more of these horses we saw. We figured the riders were just worn out and had quit."

When Vern finally got home, he discovered that the missing riders were suffering from problems far more acute than saddle sores. "There were people laying all over the yard, and cars were taking load after load of them off to the hospital," he says. "The riders had tried to get as close to home as they could on horseback, but once the illness hit they were soon too miserable to continue."

Nearly all of the fifty-two riders were sick to some degree with food poisoning, and twenty-four were hospitalized. The ham served for lunch was later identified as the cause. "There weren't too many of us who weren't sick, so it took quite a while to fetch all those horses tied along the trail route," Vern remembers. "I didn't mind a bit, though, because the alternative was so much worse. I was just happy that I hadn't felt like eating lunch!"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Old Horse Trader.....

I got my first horse at the age of six, and have never been without one since. I first had an ancient bay mare, and then as time went on, I would ride down three miles of Minnesota gravel roads to visit the local horse trader. He and I would dicker, and I gradually "traded up" to younger and better horses. He was an honest horse trader, but when I got into my teens and could earn money from part-time jobs, I got into registered quarter horses... and then I started to encounter people who were not quite as honest as old George. "Buyer beware" was certainly a phrase to take to heart!

So when I eventually got married and moved to another state, I wasn't nearly as trusting as I'd been in grade school...but then I met a busy horse trader in the area. Verne Upmier was one of those rare, good souls who was truly honest, and who stood behind every deal he made.

If a match between horse and new owner didn't work out, he would go out with his trailer to pick up that horse, give a refund, and take the horse. Not many old time horse traders were like Vern! And going to his farm was exciting business, to be sure. In his heyday, he had horses coming and going in a constant stream, because everyone knew about him. And if you went out there, saw a good horse and thought you wanted it, you had to be quick! If you didn't take it, you could bet that it would be gone in a day or two to someone else.

Verne was not only an experienced horseman, but he was a wonderful storyteller with a wry wit and a delightful twinkle in his eye. Back in the mid 1990's I wrote a series of articles about him for The Horse Show Times, a Midwest regional horse magazine, and never ceased to be charmed by the stories he told. He died a few years ago, and his passing was a true loss to the horse community in our part of the state.

I was cleaning out my office closet this afternoon and came across a stack of those old magazines, and found myself caught up in his stories once again. They were written on a Packard Bell computer--a wonderful gift from my friend Judy, who owned the magazine--and on with Wordstar (anyone here remember that one?) Those computer files on the giant floppies are long gone. I'm going to start posting some of his stories here, as I get them re-typed, so those of you who are horse lovers can enjoy a taste of an old-timer's recollections of days gone by as a horse trader. So stay tuned!