The pretty good books of Susan Larson

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Tir Na NOg

tirnanogTir Na NOg:
Musings while locked in a garage

Peaceful here. Dark. Dry. Feeling all that pressure slowly going down. Just hanging on the wall. No worries.

Where is she, I wonder. It’s been a while.

The last time we went out, September I think. Rolling hills, a few big-bitch steep ones. One stretch of fresh-laid asphalt still soft, it kicked up a lot of icky. We got around all the potholes and cornersand, the damn broken glass on the shoulder.

She and I hardly ever clash; no clunking gears, no crisscrosses, no dropped chains. We get along good.

She gave me a bath after that ride, and a wax job. She worked some lube into those parts I like. She shampooed the icky off my power train, using that cute gizmo that kind of tickles, then lubed and wiped it clean. Ahhh, feels so good after.

She hoisted me up on the wall, made sure I was settled.

“Tir Na NOg,” she said to me. “Tir Na Fuckin NOg.”

She hasn’t been back since.

It’s autumn now. Acorns. Slimy leaves and slick pine needles gathering at the corners. But still the best time to be going. Into the hill country, the apple country. It’s spinning fast and easy, no noise but whooshing wheels and, on the big bitches, she does some groaning and panting.

I help her be Tir Na NOg because I am really energy efficient and she is not. Though we are both made largely of carbon, my design is perfect and she has structural flaws. She is a much older model. But together we slip along like a silverfish.

Maybe her frame is cracked. Cables corroded. Or she just needs to be trued up. I’m good with that. I pass the winter here, remembering the fine summer we had, even though no autumn. Maybe we will get pumped up again for Spring. In Spring it will be Tir Na NOg again. Tir Na NOg, always.

Dang, I miss her.


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Biophilia and its Cure

You and Me 4 Evah, Darling Dear!

You and Me 4 Evah, Darling Dear!


I miss my dog. His name was Gandalf the Grey, and we loved each other. He went to Doggie Paradise in 1991. He was my last dog, because my increasingly severe allergic asthma does not permit me to have another one. This is very hard on me because I love the company of other mammals, except maybe shrews.

I have an incurable case of Biophilia: that itch to reach out and pat something furred, feathered or scaled. I have exchanged kisses with a friendly wolf, hung with a fruit bat, scratched a tapir’s itchy back, persuaded a wren to perch on my finger as I escorted him from my house; and– oh, enchanting childhood moment!– had my face washed by the tongue of an orphan fawn.

On the domestic side I have cuddled with the usual suspects: dogs horses, cows, goats, chickens, cats, and one fancy rat. The rat peed on me a lot. It’s what they do. But we stayed friends.

But right now it is dogs I miss. Or Dog. The bounding joy, the endless good nature of Dog; the eye contact that says “It’s you and me, 4 Evah, darling dear!”

Dogs have this wacky willingness to go along with whatever whim we might entertain. Walkies? Anytime! Pick up that thing and bring it to you? Sure! Bunch up those woolly critters and put them in that pen? You betcha! Guide you around obstacles? No prob! Let’s play!

When that terrible longing for Dog engulfs me, I go to one of the best Walkie spots in my town, where there are vast public hayfields and orchards, with a pretty river running alongside. I go and pretend to walk and birdwatch there, feeling vaguely creepy, like a pedophile lurking outside a kindergarten, because I am really there for the dogs. Yes. I hit on other people’s dogs.

Yesterday’s bag: two fox-colored Pomeranians, a lissome Doberman still in possession of his ears and tail, several wet Labs, and a standard poodle who barked an initial challenge, then sat on my feet leaning against me as I fondled his ears and chatted about dogs with his owner.

I watch dogs play with each other, or chase down their tattered Frisbees, in the sunny meadows. I ask their moms and dads if its OK to greet their pets. If yes, I scratch their, hips, ruffle their ears, and look into their bright eyes while they look right back into mine. And my heart is satisfied.

Thus do I deal with my Biophilia. No, “Biophilia” sounds to much like a disease; let’s use the Anglo Saxon word. It’s love. Thank you, dog parents, for loaning me a bit of the total goodness of Dog. When I put my hand on somebody else’s dog I am changed down to the toes; I feel their love, and that bond between creatures, and with the world. Dogs make me proud to be a mammal. “It’s you and me for this moment, darling dear.” As the nice English gentleman said, “Only connect.”

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A Click and a Goodie

Two Ways of Being With Your Animal

So how would you like it if your boss at work tied you to your desk? If he made you wear a corset and poked you with a stick when he thought you were not working hard enough? If when you asked for a coffee break he swatted you with a rolled-up newspaper and said he’d tell damn well tell you when you could stop? What, on top of all this, if you didn’t get paid?

Would you be happy in your work? Does it matter if you are happy in your work? Plenty of systems in human history worked just fine when people were not happy in their work. Feudalism, Serfdom, Sweatshops, Slavery, all got the job done. Or else.

Aversive conditioning. Many of us trained our animals– and our children– like this. Many still do. Do this or I’ll make you do it; and if you resist or avoid, or develop an attitude, there will be escalating discomfort for you.

Positive conditioning. We say to our dog or horse, ‘If you want to do this thing I like, I’ll pay you.’ No coercion. No whips, spurs, choke collars, tie-downs, electric shocks, rolled-up newspapers, yelling, cursing or defaming your pet by calling her lazy, stubborn, or stupid.

Guess what? It works just as well as the other way. Actually, it works better, faster, provides is more fun for human and animal, and certainly less degrading and soul-killing for both.

I have just been watching a video of the positive-reinforcement training of a seeing-eye horse! She is learning to guide the blind, in downtown Boston traffic no less! She is a mini, about two feet high; but she can lead her person around obstacles, up and down stairs, and into buildings; at the end of the day she can climb right into the back seat of a taxi. At the time of the filming she was ten months old. See for yourself:

These and many other training feats with horses and dogs etc., are the result of a revolutionary idea that has been getting more attention lately: the animal works for pay. It starts with food, but eventually can be a scratch, a pat, a word of praise, with the promise a treat coming later. The trainer clicks a cricket, which the horse soon realizes means ‘yes!’, and then offers up a goodie. The horse gets the connection in about two minutes. His brain starts whirring as he tries to figure out what he needs to do to get another click and treat.

Do not believe horses are dumb. They can figure out seventeen ways to get out of real or imagined unpleasantness in a second. Why waste their brains teaching them avoidance when you both could be doing something useful and fun?

Some folks are really hostile to the idea of animals working for rewards, calling it bribery and holding fast to the traditional aversive-conditioning pressure-and-release methods (don’t do that or you will be sorry; all the reward you get is that nice feeling when I stop poking or swatting you). But really, what’s the problem with working for rewards? You work for rewards, don’t you?

I had never heard of clicker training when I rode the back country on Old Sam. Although I think my communication with him was not entirely terrible, I feel like a total moron when I see little kids doing clicker training with their ponies; the learning curve is astonishing (for both species), and there is no frustration, no avoidance behaviors or acting out, and best of all, trust, respect, and playfulness. I so wish I could have done this with Sam!

This kind of training started with dolphins. Trainers at Sea World and other aquaria had to figure out how to get dolphins to pay attention to them, since you can’t halter a dolphin, or tie up a dolphin and you can’t beat on a dolphin and force her to knuckle under and do what you want. But. Give her a stake in the game, and your dolphin will get interested, learn things joyfully and invent ever-more-imaginative moves on her own to get bonus pay. As would you.

This strategy is used on movie animals, zoo animals, dogs, cows, chickens and horses and many other of God’s creatures. Lots of the trainers seem to be women, who perhaps are culturally less invested in the threat/dominance paradigm. But there are lots of men doing it too.

You can use this fine method on humans, too, rewarding desirable behavior and making work into play. A person in authority doesn’t have to ‘show ‘em who’s boss’ with bullying, as much as some perhaps fearful, perhaps psychopathic persons crave doing this. A good boss is, may I add, still the boss– and one must be the respected, trusted leader of your horse or dog or chicken– but you are the boss who hands out the paycheck, who gives his happy employees room to think, grow and increase in accomplishment and confidence. What’s not to love?

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Further Adventures of Sam

Sam Goes Over the Mountain


I feel I must disclose to you that riding Sam was not always a bed of roses. When we were young and innocent, he had us at his mercy and he knew it, but he kept his wilder passions in check. As we became bolder riders though, Sam began to put in requests for more excitement in life. Our darling horse could be obnoxious when he decided that it was time for a serious run and we wanted to saunter along looking at the scenery, or we had just eaten a nice picnic lunch, or there was an unskilled rider behind us on Ms. Lynde.

Sam made these requests, or complaints, either by humming or by popping his lips, a sound we called “mupping.” “Mup!” clearly meant ‘Oh for Pete’s sake, can’t a little horse bust loose every now and then?’ On his very worst days he would mup and if that didn’t work, tense up and jig– a vice so unspeakably vicious that horses have been shot for doing it–we eventually figured out how to stop him jigging, but it was not an easy task.

But Old Sam was usually honorable, even at his crankiest. He never ran away with anybody. Well. Except for once. And I admit I was his accomplice.

I was in college, and was up at the farm for a summer visit, when our terrible transgression occurred. Summer people were moving into the area, and with them came a fad for competitive endurance riding. People invested in long-distance gear; they began feeding their horses high-protein diets and submitting both man and beast to a regimen of longer and longer rides.

Of course, with one thing and another, the summer people went back and forth to the city, or over to Saratoga or fishing or whatnot, so what they ended up with was a bunch of horses all ginned up on loads of grain and not quite enough exercise. But I thought endurance riding was great, and certainly better than the crazed gymkhanas I saw at the county fair, which looked to be mostly a jerk-and-spur competition.

So when a trio of summer people on very classy-looking quarter horses stopped in our dooryard one day and asked if I would like to ride up and over Argue Mountain, as far as I wanted, I accepted. Sam was on the shady side of 30, but he was still fit, and he loved that long ride on the mountain. So I caught him, brushed him down and tacked him up while the three waited.

Not exactly waited. They took it upon themselves to comment on Sam’s odd conformation and speculate how many yards he could limp before collapsing. The man in the group called out to me that his mount was ‘very much a stallion, and I had better keep my old nag far away if I didn’t want something bad to happen.’ Neither Sam nor I enjoyed mirth at our expense, and both of us work working ourselves into something of a sulk.

As we started down Lovers’ Lane I found that ‘keeping away’ from Mr. Stallion was not easy to do, because he was everywhere at once– skittering sidewise, rearing, backing up, whinnying and doing everything naughty that he knew how to do. He and the other two horses were in a lather and kind of spooky also; and their riders were doing a lot of cussing and yarning and booting to make them go forward, with no results that I could see.

But I said I was going to go, and go I did. I dodged around them when we got to the road, went to the front, and put Sam into his famous slow canter. The stud and his harem, after a few crowhops, settled down to lope behind us. Sam kept a steady cadence as we cantered for a mile or so up Hollow. I think he was showing off; setting an example of dignified pleasure horse behavior for the folks at his tail.

When we halted at the turnoff to the trail that wound up the back of Argue, the endurance horses were breathing hard. The man cussed at his stud horse; I talked goo-goo baby talk to Sam and gave his poll a big noisy kiss.

We started up the sloping trail at the walk, much to Sam’s disgust. He loved to charge up hills and stand on top of them, looking down his dromedary’s nose at the world below. But the endurance horses were in need of a break, so I kept him walking. He started humming and growling “Oh, come ON! We have a HILL here!” He pressed his case further with a long string of angry Mups.

As the grade got steeper, I could feel Sam rocking back on his hocks and making tentative cantering motions, but I nixed him again.

“Mup. Mup, mup, MUP,” he said. He fiddled with the bit, making his curb chain jingle.

“Mup, mup, mup, jingle jingle jingle, these weedy nags can do what they want, permission to swarm up this hill, mup Mup. MUP!”

“No, no, no,” I replied.

Onward and upward we walked, complete with sound effects. We halted again where a sweet little brook crossed the trail, to give the horses a drink and a breather. I slid off, loosened Sam’s girth and cooled his face and neck with my bandana dipped in the brook, as he meditatively rubbed his cheekbones on my shoulder.

“I’d whip him good on the head when he does that,” suggested the man.

How dare you, I thought. You make fun of my horse. My horse shows you all how it’s done. Now you suggest I hit him in the face? Why is it that the folks on the rankest horses feel compelled to offer you training tips? Now I know why they call these things Endurance Rides.

As the stallion jigged around and tried to step on his boots, the man added, “Got to show ‘em who’s Boss.”


I climbed back on Sam; the instant my rump hit the saddle I knew Sam’s heart and he knew mine. We waited for the others, who were hopping around yelling with one foot in the stirrup, to seat themselves, pick up their reins and firm their crash helmets down on their heads. Then I turned Sam over his haunches and took the rest of the hill at a dead run.

We reached the top in nothing flat, then pounded along the ridge of Argue Mountain at an angry extended trot. As my indignation began to cool a little I tried to slow Sam down so that the gasping herd could catch up and we could properly enjoy their sufferings. But the horse would no longer tolerate their company. The crazy pace had gone to his head and he was hell-bent on running them all right into the ground.

Without even the sportsmanlike Mup, Sam tensed his neck, lowered his head and for the first time ever, he bored; going into his terrible try-and-stop-me trot and then into a furious run. Across that ridge we bolted, crashing through creeks, jumping fallen logs, while the gasps and wheezes of the field sounded fainter and fainter behind us.

Pieces of skin flayed off my fingers, as in my last efforts to preserve a sense of decency, I tried to rate my runaway steed. I pleaded with him to stop or slow down. He paid no attention. He was out for blood. I could come along for the ride, or I could get off, if I wanted.

Finally we ran out of level ground as the trail began to slope downward off the ridge. Sam’s stampede was over. He proceeded down the other side of the mountain still grumbling, but at a decorous flat-footed walk, which was not easy for him with his straight shoulder, but he knew it would be easier on me. I let the reins slip to the buckle, and told him that if he wanted to run this show, he should feel entirely free.

As we descended into our hollow, I neck-reined Sam into a meadow, got off, loosened the girth and let him graze with his bit on, just to make my lapse from proper horsemanship complete. Together we strolled around, waiting for the appearance of the arriere garde.

We saw them as they came out of the woods. They were blowing, black with sweat, and bless me if they weren’t staggering. They turned into the meadow, the riders dismounted, and the three endurance horses lay down.

Sam had raised his head high and had been glaring fixedly at them ever since they appeared. Now he inhaled. Then he whinnied. That a noise! From deep within his mighty soul came that yell of triumph, pride, and utter contempt.

“Wieners! Dog Food! Who is the horse in this field? ME, that’s who! Ha, HA, HA!”

Nary a word nor a whicker in reply. I tightened the girth, mounted, lay my reins on my horse’s neck, and together we turned towards home. I dangled my feet out of the stirrups. I sang a little tune. The sun shone, the little clouds rolled by, and the birds sang sweetly in the trees. Life was very, very sweet.





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The Old-Fashioned Ways

My old hoss Sam, hero of his own book “Sam (a pastoral),” was broke and ridden The Old-Fashioned Way in his early life. Breaking a horse meant coercion and  do-it-or-else:  being hauled on, tied up, beat, cussed, hobbled, thrown, and other such stuff that has now fallen, thank heaven, out of fashion.

Sam did not take kindly to this; despite his common looks he was a sensitive horse, and a smart and generous one. How he would have enjoyed modern-day methods that didn’t exist when he was alive: like target training or clicker training, which make an amusing game out of learning.  A horse is invited to figure out what his human wants, offers a behavior and then he gets paid for offering  it. The horse gets really interested, because there’s something in it for him. Both the horse and the trainer get really good at reading one another,  and there is no punishment or confusion involved for either party.

Confidence, calmness, happiness, and trust between human and animal increase rapidly.  With this sort of training the horse can work at liberty. Over time, the horse follows you anywhere without a rope or strap on him, walks willingly into trailers, stands without being tied, does not mug you for food, waits at the gate for you instead of high-tailing it to the far corner of the paddock. No, he is already thinking about what he can do today  to get paid some more. He will, in fact, learn to do just about anything you want or need, and have fun on the way.

I hope some of you saw the equine extravaganza “Cavalia” when it played around the country last year. Dozens of horses whizzing around the arena, most of them without a strap on them; they were all energetic but calm, focused on their people and doing the most amazing stuff. Don’t kid yourselves, they did their jobs and worked hard for the goodies, because there was something in it for them.

Some folks still get hostile about clicker training and other positive-reinforcement methods: it’s just bribing the horse, treating the horse, not subduing the horse to your will, they say. These folks don’t much care if there is anything in it for the animal or not, as long as they have ascendancy.  I don’t want to have that relationship with an animal, or a human being either. Full disclosure: I got high-handed a few times with Ol’ Sam and blamed him and called him names and hauled him around; and he let me know firmly that my fits of temper and impatience were  not going to get us anywhere. I felt sorry, I still feel sorry; remorse should count for something, right?

In the book, Sam and his child fumble around and mis-read each other at first, but they both do enough right things to forge a strong friendship. The kid figures out how her horse likes to be touched, and how to talk him down from his head-shyness, how to watch him for signs of his discomfort or mistrust. She manages get the horse on her side, to the point where he forgives her occasional lapses magnanimously. Considering that Sam was abused in his past life, and that he is big and strong enough to kill her and then eat her, or at least dump her in the grass and bolt for the barn, he is very nice to her.