On horses, goats, and writing

On horses, goats, and writing

By Sue Weaver

Scroll to Article Content

My mother swears my first word was ‘horsie’. When other little girls were playing with dolls, I was snipping pictures of horses from newspapers and magazines, pasting them on poster board, and taping them to my bedroom walls. I lived to be driven past the Amish parking lot in my hometown of Bremen, Indiana. I’d lean out the open window and whinny at the horses.

Then Bremen got its own municipal library. Books! Books upon books about horses—fiction and nonfiction, I read them all. My school reports and essays always starred horses. My art teacher cried in exasperation, “Sue, stop drawing horses!” But I was besotted. I couldn’t stop.

When I was 12 and had amassed what seemed to me to be a small fortune babysitting, raking leaves, mowing lawns, and hawking pints of wild blackberries to all and sundry in our neighborhood, my long-suffering parents said I could buy a horse if I could find a place to keep one.

I did, and from then on my life revolved around horses. Oh, I loved other animals, certainly, but…HORSES! Eventually I bought and sold, trained and bred them, all the while devouring every word I could read about them.

In 1969 I was a stay-at-home mom taking care of my baby daughter. One day the new issue of The Western Horseman appeared in my mail box and as I was, as usual, devouring it cover to cover, a thought popped into my mind, “I could write better articles than these.”

So off I went to the public library where I cleared the shelves of books about freelance writing. A week later I mailed off my first two submissions. Both sold, one for more than I earned in a week at the job I was doing before my daughter was born. I was smitten.

Our farm currently includes a number of geriatric and otherwise special needs horses, sheep, and goats, most of which require special feed and care. Many are former strays and rescues. Once an animal becomes part of our menagerie, either through birth or adoption, it’s here for life. It isn’t always easy to balance my writing career with animal care, yet I’ve been an animal writer since 1969. Here’s how.

My husband of 47 years and I live on a 29-acre plot of hilltop, hollow, and woods deep in the heart of the southern Ozarks where not much grows but native plants and rocks. We’re isolated with no family and few friends nearby in an area where reliable farm sitters are nonexistent. One of us has to be here for morning and evening feeding and to milk the goat if we have one in milk. This puts a huge cramp on traveling, even for book tours, a fact that caused a parting of the ways between myself and one publishing house that couldn’t understand why I’m unable to travel more than 100 miles from home.

That said, I’m a homebody at heart. I’m 73 years old and traveled widely in my youth, so I’m happy to stay home, feed the animals, and write books.  

One of the things that make this possible, of course, is the internet. In my early days as a writer in rural Minnesota, I spent a great deal of time at our nearby regional library where I ordered a lot of specialized material through interlibrary loan. I thought of that and smiled while writing The Goat: A Natural and Cultural History for Princeton University Press. A quick Google search allowed me to download research papers like “Self-enurination in the domesticated male goat” and “Ancient DNA evidence for the transition from wild to domestic status in Neolithic goats: a case study from the site of Abu Gosh, Israel,” items I’d have waited weeks to obtain via interlibrary loan—if I could’ve gotten them at all.

A disadvantage of working from home—or at least my home—is that my fingers don’t meet the keyboard before the animals are seen to for the day. Because of our layout and the fact that we separate animals into compatible groups, each of which requires separate feeding and watering arrangements, this mean between two and three hours of active on-the-go effort before my writing day begins.

Yet there are so many benefits to this arrangement. If an animal is feeling peaky, I can take a break and check it easily enough. If one is sick, I can tend to its needs. While working on The Goat, my laptop and I spent considerable time in our milk goat’s stall as she contemplated (over several nights, it turned out) delivering her kids. It’s convenient to be right here where things are happening and still be able to turn out considerable work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And the perks! When I’m feeling tetchy because the words won’t come, I grab a handful of animal crackers, and because some of the special needs sheep and goats have ready access to our yard, I can step out the door and have all kinds of fuzzy friends to hug.

And they inspire me. Over the years, among other small farm subjects, I’ve written about poultry, all sorts of equines, llamas and alpacas, pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle. We have no cattle at the moment but we do have a passel of dogs, a feral cat colony, a flock of chickens, 17 sheep, 33 goats, 6 horses, a donkey, a llama, and a pet razorback hog. I gaze out the kitchen window at them grazing down in the hollow and my heart swells. And their needs keep me writing. Feed for these animals (well, except for the goats) doesn’t grow on trees!

Sue Weaver is an expert on goats and sheep and the author of many books on livestock and poultry, including Mini Goats: Everything You Need to Know to Keep Miniature Goats in the City, Country, or Suburbs. She writes for the magazine Hobby Farms and lives in Arkansas, where she keeps goats, sheep, horses, chickens, a donkey, a llama, and a pet razorback hog.