book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

The Perfect Horse
Elizabeth Letts

Summary: The simultaneous story of the Nazi fascination with pureblood horses, the US Cavalry’s transition away from horses, and the exile and then rescue of the Spanish Riding School’s Lipizzaner herd.

I picked this up for a few reasons. I have long had a fascination with the Spanish Riding School (thanks, Marguerite Henry!) and in particular with its precarious position in World War II (see also, The Miracle of the White Stallions). Alois Podhajsky is one of my favorite equestrians of all time – if you haven’t read his Complete Horse and Rider or My Horses, My Teachers, they are both superb.

I am also reading a lot of equine nonfiction right now as I think about my own research & writing on the Morgan horse. I’m reading particularly popular nonfiction, as that’s where I’m aiming. It’s a very particular thing, to write about animals in general and horses in particular; how do you tell the story of a creature without its own voice?

Like Letts’s previous book (The Eighty Dollar Champion, about Harry de Leyer and Snowman), this is much less about the horse itself than about the people swirling around it. So it suffers from some of the same things that often frustrate me about nonfiction horse books: they are about everything but the horse, in some ways. (Not the case for all of them, and I should do a post someday about the ones that I think really get it.)

It’s a problem particular to nonfiction (really, third-person nonfiction, not memoir) and maybe especially to historical nonfiction, because you are relying on second or third-hand accounts to describe an animal. If you never met the animal yourself, or had direct conversations with people who met the animal – how can you really characterize its personality? It takes a gifted writer to convey that in the first person, and it’s doubly hard when you’re translating it again into another context.

With that caveat, there were a lot of things to like about this book. It did a nice job covering the cavalry’s transition away from horses and toward mechanized transport. It did a nice job presenting Alois Podhajsky (though he is most definitely not an unknown character, and I would have appreciated more about him given how prolific a writer he was and how many other sources talk about him). It really shone in delving into the Nazi ideology around animals, something I’ve been particularly fascinated with for a little while now. (In short: Nazis extended their fucked up ideas about purity to animals as well, and that meant both preserving certain bloodlines and also “breeding back” animals that were perceived to be more natural and/or authentic such as direwolves, aurochs, and primitive horses. Read the Wikipedia article on Heck Cattle and proceed from there.)

The book bogged down, actually, when talking about the purported thing that it was actually about: the American rescue of a large collection of Lipizzaner and Arabian horses from a stud farm in Czechoslovakia ahead of the oncoming Russian Army. It seemed to me to be a two-part problem. First, in pacing; everything was moving briskly and nicely until then, and it slooooooooowed dooooooooown so we could appreciate everything hour by hour. It’s a tough thing to change your pace so abruptly but it was still awkward. Second, the author had worked intensively with the families of several men involved and sometimes when that happens, too much of it comes through. It gives an unbalanced narrative, when you can see the cracks like that. Again: a tough balance! But when it’s wrong, it really shows.

One small nitpicky thing that also made me a little nuts was the absolute obsession and over-fixation on the Arabian stallion Witez, who, okay, sure, was super nice! But nice enough to justify the endless, endless, ENDLESS gushing about him every time he appeared on page? Reader, I think not.

Overall, I would recommend it if you’re looking to learn more about equine history in general or this topic in particular.

black stallion series · book review · Uncategorized

Final Black Stallion Recap

Remember how I asked everyone to vote on the craziest Black Stallion moment of all time, before I succumbed to the plague?

Well, I’m finally back with the results AND a linked list of every single Black Stallion recap, in case you’re trying to avoid your family on this Christmas Eve. (No judgement. Wish I could join you.)

So, drumroll please…

The craziest Black Stallion moment of all time, as voted upon by you, the readers…

…is Alec and the Black at the end of the world, from The Black Stallion Legend.

For me, the jury’s still out on this one: did the world really, truly end at the end of the book? Is that the most brilliant or most depressing way ever to end a 20 book series?

Finally, if you want to re-read that recap, or any of the others, there’s a list below. You can also always find this list on my book reviews page. (For disclosure: that page contains affiliate links to Amazon, if you decide to buy any of the books for your own reading pleasure.)

The Black Stallion. [review]

The Black Stallion Returns. [review]

Son of the Black Stallion. [review]

The Island Stallion. [review]

The Black Stallion and Satan. [review]

The Black Stallion’s Blood Bay Colt. [review]

The Island Stallion’s Fury. [review]

The Black Stallion’s Filly. [review]

The Black Stallion Revolts. [review]

The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt. [review]

The Island Stallion Races. [review]

The Black Stallion’s Courage. [review]

The Black Stallion Mystery. [review]

The Horse Tamer. [review]

The Black Stallion and Flame. [review]

The Black Stallion Challenged. [review]

The Black Stallion’s Ghost. [review]

The Black Stallion and the Girl. [review]

The Black Stallion Legend. [review]

book review · Uncategorized

Review: Tredstep Medici Field Boots

I have been looking for a new pair of tall boots for some time now. In 2011, when I last needed to buy a pair, I tried on over a dozen pairs in my budget range, and somehow ended up with Saxon Equileather Field Boots, which – well, they’re made out of plastic. But for all that, they held up stunningly well, and only started to fail last fall when the zipper started to slip. That’s a better track record than many high-quality leather boots!

Still, it was time to retire them. I had my eye on the Mountain Horse Sovereigns, in that beautiful two-tone brown, but every time I got close to buying them, something else intervened financially.

About six weeks ago, I took my birthday off from work, and it happened to coincide with Strafford Saddlery’s huge tent sale. I dragged my husband down, and really only had the intention of buying some Sore No More, maybe a shirt or two, and maybe a belt. I was mostly just looking to spend a fun day looking around the clearance items.

They had out a small pile of tall boots in various sizes and brands. Maybe 8-10 boxes total, and truly random – a men’s pair of polo boots, kids’ dressage boots, a bunch of “lifestyle” boots from Ariat and Dublin. I sorted through the pile more out of idle curiosity than anything.

There was a pair of Tredstep Medicis in what was probably my size. 50% off. I hesitated only briefly, pulled them out, and tried them on. I was wearing fairly form-fitting skinny jeans, so I figured they would come close to mimicking breeches, and if not, there were plenty on the sales rack I could grab briefly.

Well, they fit perfectly. So perfectly that as I zipped up I made some kind of small weird noise that caused the sales clerk to ask if I was okay. I was simultaneously delighted and angry. I walked around in them for a while, chewed my lip, and finally threw caution to the wind and bought them for $200. It was way less than I’d planned on spending, they were beautiful, and they fit me like a glove. The only nitpicky quibble I could make is that perhaps – maybe – in some far-off perfect world – they could be an inch taller.

Since then, I’ve been riding in them, and apart from the problem I’m having where they show up one of my position flaws (rolling my ankle/foot to the outside of the stirrup), I adore them. They’re beautiful. They are simultaneously supportive but comfortable. They make me feel happy and put-together every time I zip into them.


I’m still taking them in and out of their box to wear every time, because I haven’t had a chance to make a boot bag & boot trees for them yet. I have the fabric and just need to make this a priority.


I love the light detail on the top – slightly Spanish-y, but not over the top. That little lozenge is the only branding on them.


Here you can see two things that I particularly love: the lower zipper protector and the elastic in the calf. You can barely tell it’s elastic. It’s really smooth, and it matches the look and color of the books really well. It means a nice snug fit without looking awful.


There’s also a zipper protector at the top.


They have gel-like inserts in the footbed, which makes them legitimately comfortable to stand in.


You can see what I mean here by being maybe an inch lower. When I’m standing they’re close to spot on, but when I really drop my heel they’re maybe a tiny bit low. I’ve filed that on “things I’m not going to worry about for gorgeous clearance boots.”

I’ve put maybe 20 rides on them so far, and they’re holding up just fine, but I’ll try to update when I beat on them more thoroughly.

black stallion series · book review · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Island Stallion’s Fury

It’s that time again! Today is officially the first day of summer, which means it’s time to restart my summer series reviewing the Black Stallion books. We have some really good ones this year. First up, we’re back to Azul Island.

Image result for island stallion fury

Steve and Pitch return to Azul Island for an entire summer of “archaeology” and horse-watching. But Pitch’s stepbrother Tom is back and meaner than ever, and when he discovers the island he threatens to destroy it. (If you need to revisit the backstory, here’s my review of The Island Stallion.)

First things first, we are reminded in long, loving, lavish detail that the geography of Azul Island makes no fucking sense.

Its precipitous walls rose naked from the sea, rising a thousand or more feet in the sky until they rounded off to form the dome-shaped top of Azul Island….

High up on the wall at the southern end of the valley an underground stream rushed from blackness to sunlight, plummeting downward in a silken sheet of white and crashing onto the rocks of a large pool two hundred feet or more below.

Steve is back for the summer! Two whole months! Who knows what he’s told his parents (and how old he is, exactly? this was a running debate in my head through the whole book and I’m going land on ~17-18, or about Alec’s age in the early Black Stallion books). Steve’s parents might be even more negligent than the Ramsays.

Other things I spent a lot of time pondering in this book: the homosocial overtones of Steve & Pitch’s relationship, and the weird toxic masculinity / homophobic blend that Tom represents and was Walter Farley actually trying to make a useful statement about the different ways to Be A Man or was he just writing and continually surprised at what happened next?

Or is Steve just weirdly sexually into horses?

Steve swept his hands across the muscled withers. He leaned a little on the stallion’s back, and the red coat beneath his hands quivered. “Oh Flame,” he said. “It’s good…so good to be back.”

…gross, Steve. The words “caress” and “quiver” are used way more often in conjunction with horses than I feel comfortable with in this book.

The Azul Island herd (remember, the weirdly genetically superior Arabian-yet-Spanish-ex-Conquistador horses who somehow look terrific despite 300 years of inbreeding and about a mile of grazing) now numbers over a hundred. Pitch’s hard-on for the Conquistadors continues unabated.

“Horses who faced the battles and world-shaking adventures with the men of Cortes, the Pizarros and DeSoto in their conquest of the Americas!” Pitch’s eyes were bright with his enthusiasm.

I mean, if you think imperialism and genocide are “world-shaking adventures,” I guess.

After a brief comparison to the poor hapless horses out on the sandy spit that’s the only part of the island the outside world knows about, we return to the herd, where it’s foaling season. Steve notices one bay mare in particular.

From her size and actions he knew she’d be giving birth to a foal sometime during the afternoon or night.

Here’s your reminder that Steve knows basically nothing about horses. He had a pony in his backyard. That’s it. Yet he is magically now able to tell at a glance that a mare is close to foaling.

I suppose now is the time to mention that the bay mare is the only female character of any species in this entire book. Which is also the time to mention that an underlying theme of this book is Pitch’s rampant misogyny.

“Finish your beans, Steve,” Pitch said a little sternly, “and stop watching that bay mare. She won’t have her foal during the daytime. Mares are just like women; they have their babies at the most unreasonable hours of the night…just to make it hard on you,” he added, smiling.

FUUUUUUUUCK YOU, Pitch. He continues to say that he used to live in a boarding house and the woman who ran it had three children all born “between three and five o’clock in the morning.”

“Mr. Reynolds and I often discussed how unreasonable it was of Mrs. Reynolds.”

That is a whole series of creepy-ass conversations, right there. That poor woman.

Then we get a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing about Pitch’s brother Tom, who featured briefly in the last book. He owns a plantation on Antago (the main island) and has the government license to round up the horses on Azul Island. Tom, if you’ll remember, is a violent man who adheres to old-school domination techniques. We learn all this over again in the context of examining a somehow miraculously intact cat’o’nine-tails whip that Pitch found in the Spanish caves. Because sado-masochism is a weird and yet very real undertone of this whole book.

Pitch has also been playing archaeologist some more, by which this book seems to mean he is exploring the caves and yanking things out of them and he spends a lot of time “making notes” whatever that means.

“I don’t believe there’s a finer private collection in all the world,” Pitch said proudly as he put the things in the box.

I get that you’re proud of the stuff you’ve found and removed from its context and manhandled, Pitch, but there is absolutely zero chance that you have the best private collection of Conquistador junk in the world.

The two explore the caves for a while and – look, basically this whole section is some really ham-handed foreshadowing. The caves are dark and twisty! Tom likes whips! Pitch has hidden away a whole bunch of food in the caves! Tom is super crazy! If Tom finds the valley, everything is ruined!

(You get zero points for guessing how the rest of this book goes, but buckle up, we’re going to recap it anyway.)

The bay mare does indeed have her foal overnight, but wait!

Turning quickly, he saw the other foal. Twins! The mare had had twins! He knew the odds against such  thing happening were one in ten thousand. And the odds were even greater, a hundred thousand to one, against twin foals living.

Because I am nothing if not a diligent recapper: the first set of odds do seem to be correct, but no one has put actual odds on the second. And yeah, twin foals are really bad news.

The second foal is a colt, and he looks like Flame (in that he’s chestnut, I guess) so Steve immediately leaps into action, helping the colt to its feet and trying to get it to nurse. The mare, somewhat predictably – being a wild horse, after all – takes one look at Steve and nopes the fuck out of there, and just like that, the foal is orphaned.

Now, raise your  hand if you expected a good chunk of the plotline of this book to be about raising an orphaned foal. Anyone? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Steve has some momentary self-doubt for interfering, but don’t worry, he gets over it quickly.

Why hadn’t he left the mare alone? Why couldn’t he have stayed away from the clearing? If he had not been there to pick up the colt, to confuse the mare, she might have accepted both her twins. He knew nothing about a foaling mare. It would have been so much better if he had just left her alone!

“But she might have abandoned the colt anyway,” Steve said aloud in his own defense. “I know that…I read it somewhere….or someone told me.”


That’s not really what these books are about though, so not only does Steve reassure himself that it’s not his fault, Pitch gets in a few weirdly anthropormorphic misogynistic side-swipes at the mare: “Why won’t she accept him? She’s his mother, isn’t she?”

Then Flame arrives, and he is not thrilled. Pitch and Steve convince themselves that a) Flame understands the situation and b) he is angry with them and then c) he feels protective of his son. None of that is remotely realistic or possible. There is zero chance he gives a single fuck about this foal; in fact, there’s a decent chance he feels the exact opposite way from their assumptions. This is, after all, a foal who has appeared (to Flame) out of nowhere, and wild stallions have been known to kill foals that were sired by other stallions.

After, I don’t know, a few hours of flailing and debating, Pitch and Steve realize that the foal hasn’t eaten anything. Nothing. Nada. Definitely not colostrum.  So they redouble their efforts to reunite the foal, which prove increasingly desperate and increasingly stupid and increasingly weird.

“The band means nothing to him without his mother to guide him,” Pitch said in a low voice. “He doesn’t even know they’re his kind. He doesn’t belong.”

Okay, I know that orphaned foals can get mentally not okay and not learn basic horse skills and manners, but this foal is only a few hours old. I guarantee he doesn’t think he’s not a horse.

Cue an awful lot of process story. Like 50 pages of “should we sterilize everything? what’s the best way to get this into the foal?” and on and on. Frankly, it got super boring for a while in the middle, aside from some additional weirdness in which Pitch and Steve try to capture that poor bay mare and force her to re-adopt her foal. They try to rope her and tie her to a stake and…that will make her amenable?

Steve knew that Pitch was very nervous, even frightened. He’d had no experience roping any kind of a horse, let alone a wild mare. But he was going through with his plan just the same.

Yeah, it ends REALLY badly, with Flame trying to murder Pitch. Steve has to talk Flame out of it, and we get one of the few nicely thoughtful bits in the book, in which Pitch compares his brother Tom’s style of horsemanship to what he sees with Steve and Flame. Sections like that are why I really do wonder if Farley was trying to make A Statement about toxic masculinity.

Really, though, the whole Black Stallion series is a lot about refuting brutality and finding softer gentler ways to work with horses. We’ve seen similar plotlines over and over – it goes back to the very first book, with Alec taming the Black. It just gets even more explicit and melodramatic in this book, contrasting Steve and Tom.

Pitch and Steve realize they have to go back to Antago to get more powdered milk and to check in with a vet about what they’re doing with the foal. While they’re getting ready for the trip, the foal follows Steve into some dangerous circumstances, and badly injures his right hind leg. So they bring the foal back to Antago to get seen by the vet. On the boat ride over, Pitch tells Steve that Tom has been acting extra-strangely the last few months, and though he’s supposed to be in South America, both of them are worried that if he sees the colt he’ll know it can’t have come from the other horses on the island.

They get to the island and to the vet, whose diagnosis is just batshit.

“It’s a complete fracture of the proximal end of the tibia. We’ll use a modified Thomas splint of light aluminum.”…

“Don’t you worry about him,” he said. “Within three weeks that leg will be completely healed, and you’ll forget he ever injured it. And so will he.”

WHAT THE FUCK. Seriously though, WHAT?!?! Three weeks? A splint? AUGH. (The Thomas splint is still a thing, though, and is kind of fascinating; here’s a whole long article about it and its history.) So, yeah, the vet splints the foal up and puts him in a cast and tells them to basically let him do whatever he wants: he can walk around, even.

I just. Good grief. This is where the pacing of the book starts to move like lightning, though, so we don’t dwell on the fact that this malnourished orphan foal will recover from a tibia fracture in three weeks. No, Pitch and Steve are focused on the real, final problem of this book: Tom.

Pitch confesses that he thinks Tom may have finally gone around the bend. He’s gotten extra-bonus abusive to the people working his plantation, and then he took off in his boat for South America for reasons. But…what if he’s back? At this point, both of them become utterly fixated on the idea that Tom will be back and that he will discover Blue Valley and the secret of Azul Island.

Even though it makes zero – zeeeeeeeero – logical sense for Tom to be a) back in the area and b) to see them, you know what happens next.

The chase had entered its final stage. He would follow his stepbrother, the boy and the foal to wherever they were going and then…

And then…? That’s the end of a chapter, so who knows. Also, it’s important to me that you all know that the lack of Oxford comma in that sentence is Walter Farley’s fault and I am just faithfully retyping for you.

The whole rest of the book reads like a weird fever dream. Tom follows them to the island but he’s so far back he doesn’t really get it right (also he runs out of gas. and food. and water.). So he finds the original climbing entrance, and gets lost in the caves that Steve and Pitch found in the last cave. You know, the ones that Pitch kept saying were super-duper dangerous and twisty.

His whole being was consumed with hatred for those who temporarily had evaded him. “Fools! Fools!” he said in a hissing whisper. “To think you can get away!”

Let’s just stipulate that Tom-as-villain is a definite low point in the entire Black Stallion series. He has no real motivation – Farley writes his motivation as sheer power and dominance. He’s a cartoon villain on steroids, and though Farley tries to dredge up some sympathy for him by somehow sort of characterizing him as mentally ill, it doesn’t work.

Pitch finds Tom half-dead in the caves, feels bad for him, and brings him food and water. They’re both terrified that Tom will wake up and discover the valley, so they hatch some bizarre plan to move him from the caves while he’s still out of it and return him to Antago which is such a weird and terrible plan and they spend so much time agonizing over it that it just shreds any semblance of pacing or enjoyment of the end of the book.

It was at this point that I started rooting for them to just shove Tom back off the cliff and into the sea and wash their hands of the whole thing.

Tom, of course, escapes the caves. He discovers Blue Valley, Pitch’s “archaeology,” and the band of horses. He falls in hate-love with Flame. The whole book has been building toward this last third, which takes place over the course of only a few hours and is unsettling and poorly paced and weird and still somehow effective at conveying how disturbing the whole experience must have been.

The first thing Tom does is throws all of Pitch’s archaeology collection off a cliff, piece by piece – using his bull whip. He snaps it, picks something up, flings it off, one by one. It’s like some effed up, endless sado-masochism thing.

“You’ll do anything I want to do, won’t you? I can say kneel and you will kneel, crawl and you will crawl. I’m a little god, Phil, aren’t I? I have power, absolute power. There’s nothing I can’t do here. And no one would ever know.”


…then Tom had the cat-o’-nine-tails in his hand. Fondly he fingered the whip with its nine hard leather cords.


Pitch and Steve, try, unsuccessfully to escape. Then the real trouble begins: Tom meets Flame.

Tom actually gets Flame’s attention when, for some reason, he starts whipping the new little filly – the twin of the orphaned colt. Literally for no reason. Understandably, Flame is ripshit, but sadly for him, Tom is somewhat adept with a rope and he manages to lasso Flame and tie him to a stake.

There follow many, many pages of Tom beating the shit out of Flame while Pitch and Steve watch. It’s awful, honestly. It’s brutal and bloody and vicious and I skimmed a lot of it because why are there so many pages of it???

“I’ll break you yet, you stud horse!” he shouted hysterically, repeating the words over and over as he sat watching the stallion in all his terrible, but to him, beautiful fury. His hunger for the time being was completely forgotten as he made his plans to beat this horse that knew no master.

Steve suggests that maybe Flame will kill Tom for them – finally, some sense! – but nope. Pitch is all “we need to get him to a doctor!” Which I guess is an admirable thing to say, compassion and forgiveness than all that.

The Flame torture – and the psychological torture of Steve and Pitch – continues for hours and hours.

Flame screamed again. And the sudden shrillness of it broke forever the slightest aspects of sanity which Tom had been fighting to retain. Now the mental fight was over. He screamed back at the stallion. He raced about the ledge, pawing the air with his hands, laughing, crying, shouting with no pause, going from one phase to the other, hysterically, madly.


Eventually, Flame turns the tables, chases Tom up a trail into the cliffs, and then right off the side of a cliff. Conveniently, Tom falls onto the same sandy spit where the other wild horses are. Flame is the real hero of this book, despite hardly featuring at all. (Seriously, I think Steve rides him like twice?)

For some bizarro reason Pitch and Steve are both really upset about Tom dying, so they get really dramatically upset about it (fainting, sobbing, throwing up). They rally quickly, though, and the rest of the book is a big fast-forward.

Pitch calls the police out, they investigate and declare the death an accident. Steve makes arrangements to bring the (miraculously healed!) foal back to America with him.

The cast and splint had been removed a week before, and there was no evidence of the fracture either in his appearance or movement.

From fractured tibia to 100% sound and not even marked in 4 weeks! Also,

Not far from Steve’s house were a barn and pasture where this colt would live and grow, with Steve watching him, caring for him

Ah yes, the Alec Ramsay school of boarding: those poor neighbors.

Aaaaaaaand that concludes The Island Stallion’s Fury and my way way overwritten review/recap/snark of it.

Do you have any memories of this book? Any thoughts on the most batshit part?

book review · giveaways · Uncategorized

Brain Training for Riders: Your Questions, Andrea’s Answers

51892rNSrWL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_In Part I of this series, I reviewed Andrea Waldo’s book Brain Training for Riders. In Part II, she answered some of my interview questions, and in part III, she answers your questions!

Before we get to those, the winner of the giveaway for a copy of the book is…

L. Williams of Viva Carlos! Congratulations, I’ll be following up by email.

Now, your questions and Andrea’s answers.

Q: i’d love to hear more about how Andrea encourages riders to go about the act of “making better habits.” in other words, how to continue translating some of these thoughts, practices and perspectives into unconscious routine.

We have to consciously practice our riding skills in order to improve; our mental skills require the same conscious, regular practice. I go into all my rides with a plan–to practice flying changes today, for example. In the same way, if I’m working on eliminating mental chatter, I’ll plan to practice saying “delete” every time an unwanted thought comes into my mind. Rather than trying to change everything all at once, choose one mental skill to work on for several weeks at a time, which will help it become something you do automatically.

Horse Riding GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Q: I have a hard time with the sports psychology side of things. I like the positive visualizations and prep work, but it seems like as soon as I get into an actual competition environment I forget to even think about those things.

Make sure your prep work includes preparing a plan for using your psychological skills at the show. Write down exactly which skills you want to use and when. For example, plan to put on your Performance Self as you get into your show clothes. Then, post reminders for yourself in your show environment: on the truck dashboard, on the lid of your trunk, in your grooming box. Write a one-word trigger on your wrist, or stick a piece of colored tape discreetly on the crown of your horse’s bridle to remind you to use your skills. You can even set alarms on your phone as triggers: “2:45–BREATHE!”

Show Jumping Horse GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Q: I had one bad fall that sent me to the emergency room and it has been a struggle at times. It was scary. Because of what happened, my fear doesn’t really fit into the “dying” or “embarrassment” column. I don’t want what happened to me before, to happen again. It’s a specific fear. I wonder how she would address that.

As far as your Lizard Brain is concerned, this fall does, in fact, fit into the “dying” category: it believes you could have died, and it wants you to avoid getting into that situation again, because THIS time you just MIGHT die (from your Lizard’s point of view). Approach the situation gradually: for example, if you fell because your horse spooked and bucked on a windy day, start by riding inside on a quiet day. Imagine that you’re in the outdoor and he’s distracted, and practice skills for getting his attention again. Work on your seat so that you are less likely to come off if he does buck, and learn emergency procedures such as a pulley rein. Work your way up to being outside, then being out there while it’s breezy. Keep practicing your skills for coping with the situation. How do you know how much to challenge yourself? Rate your anxiety about your planned activity on a scale of 1-10. If it’s between 4 and 6, it’s challenging enough; below 4 is too easy, above 6 is too hard and you won’t be able to think clearly. Ride until your anxiety drops by 2 points, then call it a day. Keep doing this until your confidence recovers. If you backslide–something that was a 4 is now a 6–don’t worry, this is normal. Just start wherever you are at this moment, and you will get back to where you were.

Show Jumping GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Q: My question would be dealing with a psychological issue that has a physical underlining. When I broke my back falling off, I developed both a physical and a psychological issue. Now I will seize up in self-protection if my back gets hurt while riding. Bucking is really hard for me as the second my back hurts (physical) my brain shuts down (psychological) and then I often go to protective maneuvers (pulling the horse up) instead of what is actually needed (pushing the horse past the buck).

This kind of self-protection makes total sense. Your Lizard Brain is trying to protect you from further injury, which is exactly what it evolved to do. Thank it for protecting you; that way, it knows that you’re listening and paying attention to your body. Once you’ve done that, start noticing when your brain is shutting down–maybe when your horse is threatening to buck–and stop for a few moments. Take some time to breathe and let your fight or flight response slow down, so that you can think clearly again. You can’t “push past” Fight or Flight, because it literally shuts off the rational-cognitive part of your brain; you need to slow it down until you can think rationally. Then, make a plan for what you are going to do next–put him on a small circle and ride him forward past the buck, for example. Talk it through out loud while you’re doing it, if you can; this helps you to breathe and to stay in your rational brain. In addition, practice slowing your mind and body down when things are going along just fine: stop for a moment, take a few breaths, and make sure you’re present in the moment. Doing this when things aren’t at a danger point can help make it more of a habit, so it’s easier to do it when things are escalating.

book review · stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Brain Training for Riders: Interview with Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

Previously, I reviewed Andrea’s terrific book, Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniques for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm. In Part II of this three-part series, I asked Andrea a number of interview questions about her book and about some things I was curious about that she didn’t address in the book. (In Part III, coming on Friday, Andrea will answer questions from blog readers as long as they’re posted as comments or emailed to me by midnight on Monday, February 12.)

Remember: you can enter to win a copy of the original book! Just check out the original review post for the entry instructions.

Interview with Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

Q: A lot of the situations and emotions you describe are ephemeral or inside one person’s head. How did you find the process of getting all those thoughts out into written form? Was it difficult, or did it just flow?

Many of those things came from inside my own head, so those were easy!! Others were from my students, and I’m used to getting people to describe their emotions in detail, so it flowed pretty naturally for me–it’s the language I use all the time.

Q: You write very honestly and thoughtfully about your own struggles with Lizard Brain and getting over a bad fall. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what drives people to keep doing risky things even when they get nervous about them. Really, all equestrian disciplines have inherent risk, but you’re an eventer – a sport that arguably has higher risk than most. Do you have any thoughts on what keeps driving us to do these things even when our brains are screaming no?

I heard someone say once, “Anxiety is excitement without breath.” Those two emotions are two sides of the same coin. Human beings seem to have an inherent need to challenge ourselves; the quest for growth and learning appears to be built right into our DNA. Some people have this drive more than others, and for those of us like this, the reward of the thrill overrides the power of the fear.

Q: You’ve taught a lot of clinics, both on riding and on your StressLess program. What would you say the most common fear that people have is?

There are two biggies: death and embarrassment/rejection. Often these are divided by age: people under 30 tend to fear looking foolish, while people over 30 more often fear serious injury. When you’re younger, you haven’t lost the invincible feelings of adolescence, or the self-consciousness of that phase, so you are less concerned about the physical risk. As we get older, we have more experience with the consequences of danger, both our own and other people’s; we also have more responsibility, so we worry about things like how to pay the mortgage if we are injured badly enough to be out of work. Having children is a significant game-changer too: many women tell me that they became much more cautious once they had kids of their own. Fear of embarrassment or failure is still there as we age, but it’s usually less powerful.

Q: A lot of the challenges you describe are problems of action: you can act to change them, or at differently, or apply work to get through them. What advice would you give for riders facing problems of inaction? In other words, what the brain gets up to when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing. I know I’m not the only one who has turned around halfway home from the barn to go and make absolutely sure I latched the grain room door securely, or turned off the lights, or gotten the blanket changes right, or other, similar weaselly thoughts. How do you recommend easing the brain through those kinds of anxiety moments?
 At that point, it’s practicing anxiety tolerance, or getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have to do nothing, then discover that everything turned out ok, before your brain will allow you to do nothing without the intense anxiety. This SUCKS, btw!! To make it a tiny bit easier, it helps to give your brain some crutches, or something else to focus on. You could write yourself a note when you close the grain bin: “Hey, I closed the grain bin today, Jan. 28th. You don’t have to check again.” While you’re riding it out, give yourself something else to focus on–practice leg-yielding while you’re hacking, keep your horse on the bit, talk to yourself about your goals for the year–anything to keep yourself occupied while you wait to see that everything turns out okay. Getting past any anxiety, though, is all about learning to sit with the discomfort and realize “I’m anxious, it feels awful, and I’m still okay. I hate this feeling, and I’m still okay–it’s just a feeling, and it will pass.” Our Lizard Brain needs to recognize that every anxious thought isn’t true, and that anxiety isn’t fatal. It doesn’t know this on its own; we have to train it to listen to our Rational Brain.
Q: I personally tend not to worry about my own skin. I guess I’m lucky in that. I figure if something bad happens to me I made my choices, and I have pretty high pain and embarrassment tolerances. But I do worry about causing harm to my horse. If he bolts outside, the panic in my brain is not “what if I fall off and die?” it’s “what if he keeps running and never comes home and gets trapped in the woods and colics and dies or gets hit by a car or…?” Yells of “loose horse” at a show scare me almost more than the ambulance does. Any thoughts on overcoming that niche fear?
I think this must be what parents deal with on a regular basis when they send their kids out the door every day. The fear of loss is the flip side of love. To a certain extent, we have to do the same thing we do with the danger of riding: accept that there is inherent risk in dealing with flight animals, and that sometimes they make bad/downright stupid decisions, and that we can’t control every single thing that happens. In the moment, though, what we need is action: never mind what *could* happen, the question is, what do you need to *do* right now to prevent those things from happening? He’s loose-grab a halter and grain. Also, remember what you know: “What if he never comes home?” Remember that horses are herd animals, if he gets lost, he’ll do his best to find buddies–so put the word out that he’s lost. And remember that you’re not alone–horse people come together in crises. We look for lost horses, we hook up a trailer as fast as we can to get someone’s horse to the surgery clinic when they’re colicking. We can’t 100% rid ourselves of the anxiety, but we wouldn’t want to–it’s the thing that reminds us to buckle throat latches on halters, to do night check when we don’t feel like it, to notice when a step sounds a little bit off when they’re walking next to us.
Q: Horse people are not always the easiest to get along with. There’s a reason we chose a sport in which we relate to one-ton animals instead of other humans. Are there any StressLess techniques you’ve found useful in applying to barn drama?
Haha I think you just handed me my next book subject! First, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves: what role do we play? No one thinks that they create drama! Notice whether you join in group bitching sessions, or get worked up when that person does the annoying thing she always does (my biggest habit–why am I surprised when people are who they have always been?), or roll our eyes behind someone’s back. Second, I live by the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If it’s not my problem, I try to find something better to do.  If it *is* my circus–it’s happening in my barn–that doesn’t mean they’re my monkeys–it’s not necessarily my job to solve it or get involved. If they are, in fact, my monkeys–two of my students are sniping at each other, or I’m pissed off at one of my business partners for something–then it’s time for me to deal with it, and deal with it directly, not by complaining to someone else to let off steam and then not do anything to change the situation. Like I said, I could write a whole second book on this one!
Q: Your section on how to transition people on from a horse that’s not a good fit for them was fantastic. I’m starting to think about retiring my partner of over a decade. I was in the same position as the young rider you described – I chose him over a specific discipline or specific goals. I hope my next horse will be a bit more competitive and ready to event, though. Any advice on transitioning from a longtime, beloved-but-not-easy partner to a new horse?
It’s a bit like dating someone new after you got out of a difficult but meaningful relationship. You have to let yourself grieve for the old one, no matter how right the decision to move on is. Next, be sure you’re not getting the old guy in a different package–we all have a type we gravitate towards! Bring along a friend who is willing to say, “Stop picking the bad boys in leather jackets!”  I can’t emphasize this one enough, because we’re comfortable with what’s familiar, and we gravitate toward it. I’ve always had challenging horses; when I was shopping for Chauncy, I tried a horse down at Sue Berrill’s. She told me to stop picking at him and just soften the rein on the way to the jump. I did, and he sailed over it. I looked at her and said, “I could be a monkey up here and he’d jump.” She just said, “Yup.” I said, “But it doesn’t count unless you suffer for it!” She just about fell off the jump she was sitting on, she was laughing so hard!
Once you find a new horse, then you have to be aware of the baggage you’re bringing to the new relationship. When you get into familiar scenarios with the new guy–you’re working on going through water, and your last horse was allergic to getting wet–it’s really important to remind yourself to ride the horse you have now, not the one you used to have. And you have to give yourself the same patience that you give your new horse: it takes time to get used to a new horse, even when the last one was easy, and getting over “baggage” always takes longer. You’re going to make mistakes, but you’d be making mistakes anyway, right? A good trainer or any good set of eyes on the ground is really helpful at this point. After I sold my ditch-phobic Dutch mare, my business partner Mary came to the start box with me at every event and said, “Remember, ride Sizzle out there–don’t ride Lizzy.” The first time I jumped a ditch on Sizzle, I separated the poor girl’s ribs with my spurs. She was like, “WHAT?!? I’m going already! What’s your problem?” Fortunately she jumped it, instead of bucking me off, which was what I really deserved!
Thanks SO much to Andrea for taking the time to answer these questions – I think you can all see through her interview answers that she’s just as terrific as she comes across in her book!
Now: make sure to enter the giveaway to get your own copy, and comment here (or email me, beljoeor[at]gmail[dot]com) with your questions for Andrea by midnight on Monday, February 12 and look for Part III with Andrea’s answers on Friday!


book review · stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Book Review: Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

51892rNSrWL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniqus for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
$12.88 on Amazon

I think it’s nearly impossible to be an equestrian and never to have experienced a moment of fear, or worry, or self-doubt. In fact, I might argue that if you sail through all horse-related endeavors with perfect confidence and ease, you’re doing something wrong.

Andrea Waldo is an eventer and trainer based out of Charlotte, Vermont. (Full disclaimer: I’ve known her for years and did an eventing clinic with her many years ago. She’s just as terrific in real life as she comes across on the page!) She was also a practicing psychotherapist for nearly two decades, and holds an MA in Counseling. So she is uniquely positioned to write a book about the brain demons involved in horse sports.

Andrea has also graciously agreed to be part of this three-part review of her book. In this part, today, I’ll summarize and review the book itself. In part 2 (next Monday), I’ll do an interview with her, and then in part 3 (next Friday), she’ll answer your questions.

I’m also hosting a giveaway for a copy of the book. SO. At the end of this post, ask any questions you might have for Andrea – and be sure to enter the giveaway widget when you do so!

The book has five major sections, and I’ll go through each.


Sometimes, book introductions aren’t terribly useful, but this introduction actually sets the tone of the whole book. Andrea is really aiming for a full system in this book, and so she starts by laying out a few of her baseline assumptions and theories, as well as what she’s trying to do as a progression through the rest of the book. She also confesses to her own stress and anxiety issues to show that no one is immune.

The most useful takeaway for me from the introduction was her firm argument that relaxation is not the “ideal performance state for riding.” Such a simple and overlooked idea! Trainers so often talk about being “relaxed” like your mental and physical states should be the same whether you’re sipping fruity drinks on a beach or galloping toward a cross country fence. Andrea blows that myth up right away, and the book is immediately better for it.

Equestrian GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Brain Training

The progression for the book is to start by laying out some concepts and exercises to get you in the habit of using simple techniques, then to apply those techniques to everyday riding situations, then really difficult riding situations, then show a variation on them that can be useful to trainers, rather than just riders.

In this first chapter of the book, she introduces the idea of the Lizard Brain: that primordial part of our brains that is responsible for self-preservation and stress responses. She points out that the Lizard Brain does not distinguish between an actual tiger and an imagined tiger: it floods the system in response to both. In understanding that, we can start to take a step back and simply acknowledge the feelings flooding through us without getting towed under by them.

Jumping GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

She writes a lot about negative self-talk and how to work through it, the differences between bragging and assertion of competence, and advises us to “make a habit of noticing when things go well.” The best thing about her discussion of these things is that she actually lays out a compassionate, straightforward, well-written and well-argued way to go about it. She’s not talking down to her reader: she’s taking the reader’s hand and actually coaching them.

The entire book is chock full of exercises that serve as building blocks for working things through – hence the “training” part of the book’s promise. There are a lot of them, and even if you don’t have the time to physically write out your answers, I found just closing my eyes and thinking them through to be enormously helpful. They complement and add to each other as you go through.

I found one directive from this chapter particularly useful: “If you need to air your anxiety to relieve some stress, make sure you also talk about what you are going to do to address it.”

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Focus, Confidence, and StressLess Performance

Once you’ve internalized the training lessons of the first section, Andrea starts to put them into practice in achieving good mental states while riding and competing.

There are a lot of different things you can do to help; the first is to establish a good sense of focus. If you’re totally in the moment, you’re responsive and not worried. I love that she pointed out that focus is not some magical personality trait – it’s a learned, repeatable behavior. I also loved that she suggested an exercise for practicing how to transition your body and mind from tense to calm.

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Practice is also highlighted: what quality practice looks like, how to manage the mistakes you’re going to make, and how to start to ramp up the outside stressors. She writes about how to give yourself intentional exposure to mental and emotional risks, and shares the story of a student who had a bad fall and then wrote out a multi-step program for how to move herself past it.

Plans are really important – and setting good goals is a cornerstone of making a good plan. If you don’t know what a successful show season or ride looks like, then you’re always going to feel like you’ve come up short. It’s important to be clear and honest with yourself – Andrea writes that “luck favors the prepared.”

One of my double-underlined notes from this chapter was a summation phrase that really hit me: “you don’t have to feel okay to be okay.” Your Lizard Brain lies, and you need to recognize and work with that.

Horse S Cross Country Jumping GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Battling the Big Demons

We’ve all had at least one really Big One – a fall, a failure, an injury, something that has taken over our brain to an outsized degree. This section moves all the techniques of the previous chapters past the everyday worries and into tackling problems that take up residence in your brain and just. won’t. let. go.

One of the best things about this chapter, for me, was how Andrea balanced things you can do yourself with when to know you need more help – from a trainer, from other people in your life, from a therapist. Books can’t do everything!

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are some things you can do on your own, though. First, it’s important to think about psychological injuries in the same way we would a physical one. She points out that we would never put our horses back in work right after a bad injury, and we shouldn’t tough out a brain injury either. Acknowledging the emotions that come up is important, and letting yourself feel it all is the way through.

I’m sure we’ve all had people in our lives ask us why we keep doing these crazy things, and Andrea has a bit about how to work with your family and friends who ask all the frustrating questions you can imagine. I admit, I’ve fallen into the trap of getting snippy and angry right off the bat with people who ask me those things, because I have people in my life who are assholes about it, but Andrea’s methods here are much better!

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

StressLess Techniques for Trainers

Technically this section is for trainers, but trust me, it’s useful for riders too. Basically, Andrea works through different types of challenges that students might present, and how to teach them. I particularly liked her statement that “every emotional, relational, and social issue in a rider’s life eventually shows up in the riding arena.” I thought “how true!” and then “yikes, my poor trainers.”

Now that you’ve read the summary of the book, I’m sure you want a copy of your own! Check out the Rafflecopter giveaway below; I’ll be drawing the winner on Friday, February 16.

And if you have any questions you’d like to ask of Andrea, comment away or email me: beljoeor[at]gmail[dot]com. She’ll answer questions in Part III of this series, on February 16. You can comment with questions up to midnight on Monday, February 12.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

book review · reading

Summer Series: The Black Stallion Series Re-Read

I’ve wanted to do this for a while now, and if anyone would like to join in and make it a blog hop, I’d be delighted.

In short, on Fridays this summer, I’ll be re-reading the books in Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. I’ll try to match up what I read with my childhood memories, point out absurdities, revel in nostalgia, and raise some bigger picture questions.

So here’s the list of the series according to Wikipedia:

  1. The Black Stallion (1941)
  2. The Black Stallion Returns (1945)
  3. Son of the Black Stallion (1947)
  4. The Island Stallion (1948)
  5. The Black Stallion and Satan (1949)
  6. The Blood Bay Colt (1951)
  7. The Island Stallion’s Fury (1951)
  8. The Black Stallion’s Filly (1952)
  9. The Black Stallion Revolts (1953)
  10. The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt (1954)
  11. The Island Stallion Races (1955)
  12. The Black Stallion’s Courage (1956)
  13. The Black Stallion Mystery (1957)
  14. The Horse Tamer (1958)
  15. The Black Stallion and Flame (1960)
  16. Man o’ War (1962)
  17. The Black Stallion Challenged (1964)
  18. The Black Stallion’s Ghost (1969)
  19. The Black Stallion and the Girl (1971)
  20. The Black Stallion Legend (1983)

They span 42 years of publishing; Walter Farley wrote the first book while still in high school, which explains a lot. There are some real highs (no joke, I still get choked up thinking about the end of The Black Stallion and Satan) and oh boy, are there some lows that I bet we’ve all repressed together. I’ll get to them all. Obviously, this will take me past the summer and into the fall – I’ll decide in September or so whether I want to keep going or save the second half of them for next summer.

Next week, I start with The Black Stallion itself, the OG. I started reading it earlier this week and my most pressing question so far is what exactly does it mean when a horse whistles? Can someone help me puzzle this out? It’s clearly not a high pitched screaming whinny, because the Black also screams CONSTANTLY. But he announces every.single.thing. he does with a whistle and it’s making me crazy.
book review · equestrian history · mustangs

Book Review: Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston

Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston
by David Cruise & Alison Griffiths

If you’ve read Marguerite Henry’s Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, then you have some passing familiarity with the story of the American mustangs and with Velma Johnston, the Nevadan housewife who made it her personal crusade to save them.

If that’s all you’ve read about the preservation battle behind the mustang, then you’ve only got a quarter of the story. This book is a superb way to get the rest of it.

Velma Johnston was born in small-town Reno, Nevada. Stricken with polio at an early age, she grew up solitary, smart, and driven. She spent her entire life in pain from post-polio syndrome and facing a world that judged her harshly for the hunched back and misshapen face that polio left behind.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is its unflinching, compassionate look into Velma’s life, achieved through a deep dive into her personal papers – tens of thousands of pages of letters, primarily. The Velma you get to know through this book would have initially said she was happiest as a successful executive secretary to the owner of a real estate business and a ranch wife.

The trajectory of her life changed when she followed a truck dripping blood to discover that it was full of badly injured and dying mustangs. She and her husband Charlie were gradually drawn into a life of activism as they started finding and releasing mustangs that had been rounded up for dog food, then networking to stop roundups before they started. Soon, Velma was the central figure in a widening campaign to ban mustang roundups by airplane.

The book doesn’t shy away from the cruelties inflicted on mustangs, and it does a good job of dispassionately presenting the various arguments for and against the mustang. It’s perhaps a bit light on the history of the mustangs (a little more time spent on parsing the difference between “wild” and “feral,” and the different emotional weights to each, would have given context to one of the main points of disagreement between mustang activists and cattle men), but gives a pretty decent overview of the ecological challenges of the Western ranges.

As someone who knew the broad outlines of the story, I found this telling of it to be superb. It was tightly and engagingly written, well-researched, and had a strong narrative and tight focus on Velma herself. Nor did it shy away from Velma’s failings and character flaws, particularly in her dealings with photographer Gus Bundy and then in her relationship with Marguerite Henry (which began warmly but grew overly emotional and difficult). The section dealing with Henry was actually one of the best in the book, since it allowed both for a grounding of the broader story and for a reflection on Velma’s life and character.

While it presents both sides fairly, the book can probably be said to have a point of view that is pro-mustang. The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t come off terribly well, though all of the most damning material is simple statements of fact and quotes from BLM officials. (The authors acknowledge this in a note at the end.)

University of Reno – Nevada, Special Collections

Ultimately, the last chapter after Velma’s death is the most unsatisfying; she passed away just in the midst of the architecture of wild horse management as we know it today, with its inherent contradictions and fatal flaws. It’s especially depressing because she fought for a comprehensive scientific range management from the start, and never saw that urgently needed piece of the puzzle realized. Without thoughtful, objective study, it was inevitable that we get to the place we are now, where no one can even agree on the number of mustangs in the West, much less how they actually use the range and how to effectively balance the needs of the flora and fauna.

In that last chapter, Cruise & Griffiths bring the fight quickly up to date and touch on the process of adoption and the regular Congressional attempts to round up mustangs for slaughter again. They also point out how deeply unsatisfying Velma herself would’ve found the holding pen system, in which thousands of mustangs are rounded up and simply transferred from the range and pastured on private land, paid for by tax dollars.

Despite its muddy ending, this is a really terrific book. I’m very picky about my narrative nonfiction: the writing has to be good, the interpretation deft, and the research solid. This ticks all of those boxes. I generally have even less patients for topics I already have a background in, but this holds up to that test as well. I genuinely couldn’t put it down.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful read about horses and history, I strongly recommend this. If you want to understand more about mustangs and how we’ve reached this point in our national discourse about them, it’s essential reading.

book review · giveaways

Giveaway: Stablekeeping by Cherry Hill

If you’re not familiar with Cherry Hill’s work, you really ought to be. She and her husband, Richard Klimesh, have co-authored some of the most useful and informative books out there for horse owners. I own probably 10 or 12 of their books, and each one has terrific information, well-organized, well-illustrated, and sensible.

There’s a school of horsekeeping thought that is all about the Ideal and the Perfect and then there’s a school that has well-thought out reasons for everything, takes workarounds into consideration, and gives you things to consider you never realized would factor in. Cherry Hill’s books are in that latter category. I have learned something every time I’ve picked up one of her books.

In unpacking my books into the new house, I discovered that I own two copies of one of her best books, Stablekeeping. Here’s the book summary:

Learn to design and maintain a high-quality barn with this complete stablekeeping reference. Expert Cherry Hill draws on decades of horsekeeping experience to help you provide a safe, efficient, healthy living environment for your horse. Instructive text and more than 250 photographs cover topics such as stalls, tack rooms, work and storage areas, sanitation and pest control, feeding practices, safety, emergencies, and more.

Even if you just board your horse, there’s something here for you to help your horse. And who hasn’t spent hours and hours designing their dream farm? Get more imagination fodder here.

SO! I’m going to give away my extra copy of the book to a blog reader. You can enter via the Rafflecopter below. The giveaway will end on Friday, November 20. There are a bunch of ways you can enter the giveaway; pick just one or all of them. The easiest is to leave a comment on this blog sharing your best organizing tip for around the barn, in the spirit of the book. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway//