Winter drags on


Vanille just grinning for the joy of a tummy scratch.
This has been a winter to remember. Week after week the sun hides behind a dense cloud cover and the days begin and end with a selection of rain, fog, snow, ice and battering winds. I spent Christmas and New Year in the hospital with pneumonia, 2 weeks in all. Just as I arrived home, Mark was held hostage in the Clinique for a week with an in depth look at his heart. I was dramatically reminded how precious friends are as everyone came to my aid. I was also reminded how blessed I am to live in France. Now Vanille has hurt her back leg. It doesn't seem serious but it worries me just the same.

So…that's why I have been silent on this blog. I'm dreaming quite a lot though and I know spring will come, flowers will bloom and I will be busy in the longed for sunshine.

Winter scratches are so appreciated!








I was ecstatic to be able to spend a few moments outside as Mark has taken on all the outside work and insists I stay warm inside. Vanille makes me happy, just to be near her and I have missed our walks together. She has a heavy coat to keep her warm and even though I make a nice deep straw bed for her in her “cave”, she prefers to enjoy the snow. Tòti is sleeping through the winter. Vanille's harness is inside all cleaned and ready for spring.

We recently watched a very well done and interesting DVD, Trait de Vie. It follows several people in France who are using horses for work in the forest and small and large gardening. It can be ordered online at

I wish everyone a very Happy New Year 2019! May we not forget for a moment to enjoy this marvelous world we live in and do everything we can to protect it and all the creatures that we share it with. Let's be kind and loving, no matter how busy we are or how fed up we are.


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Where Dreams Lead us


I'm sure everyone dreams, wide awake dreams, dreams of places to go, things to do, loves to live. Dreams are wondrous things. In my dream I was seated in a horsedrawn wagon slowly moving through the countryside. This has become reality thanks to a few words of encouragement by a dear friend and four years of learning, lots of help and also lots of work. Yes, it became reality this dream of mine, but it has brought me so much more. There have been many surprises along the way. I could never have expected the door to life that would open, a very different life than I had known. I could never have imagined all the beautiful people that would come into our life because of the dream, or the amazing horse that we would spend years loving and caring for, and the moments of pure bliss we would experience as she pulled us in a small wagon through the forest. I never dreamed of the hours I would spend sleeping and healing in Toti's magical space resting under a huge tree with Vanille looking in the window to comfort me. What I dreamed of, the horsedrawn wagon traveling country roads, has happened and those days have been ecstasy. Of course there have been difficult moments and setbacks along the way but they have faded in my memory. The beauty is what shines brightest in my mind.

We didn't take a trip in Toti this season and I can't hide my disappointment. We were blocked by weather, injuries, and finally a nasty virus. I haven't ridden Vanille very much either. Nothing tragic has happened, just small things that have stopped us and forced us to just relax. However we have taken numerous three hour trips with the small wagon which is more adaptable to narrow dirt paths through the forest. These trips have been incredible and we have been able to share them with friends. November marks a year since I had my third total knee replacement and finally I am feeling stronger. November will be my 77th birthday and I feel so blessed to have lived this long. November will also be the third anniversary of Vanille's arrival here.

Lately I have discovered the fun of simply taking Vanille for a walk. She clearly loves this moment in her day as she comes at a gallop when she sees me and almost puts on her halter herself. Over the past three years we have established a very gentle relationship and there is a silent communication between us. Bella comes along and we just walk down the road all together, stopping at a tasty green spot or two. The three of us seem to enjoy the quiet of walking under the towering trees, watching the leaves drift down and simply enjoying the peace of the moment. We have been noticing how Vanille chooses certain plants to nibble and I have begun researching the nutritional properties of these plants. That she knows instinctively which plants are beneficial and have a high nutritional value becomes more and more interesting as I continue my research. Did we humans have the same capability long ago? Of course we did! I could never have expected that Vanille would teach me a long lost art. These are her favorites:

Beech tree leaves (Fagus) (French / Hetre)

From Wikipedia:

Fresh from the tree, beech leaves in spring are a fine salad vegetable, as sweet as a mild cabbage, though much softer in texture. The young leaves can be steeped in gin for several weeks, the liquor strained off and sweetened to give a light green/yellow liqueur called beech leaf noyau.

Plantain (genus Plantago Major) (French/Plantain) (Waybread, Dock, Fleawort)

One of the most abundant and widely distributed medicinal crops in the world. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds, stings, and sores in order to facilitate healing and prevent infection. The active chemical constituents are Aucubin (an anti-microbial agent), Allantoin (which stimulates cellular growth and tissue regeneration), and Mucilage (which reduces pain and discomfort). Plantain has astringent properties, and a tea made from the leaves can be ingested to treat diarrhea and soothe raw internal membranes.

Broadleaf plantain is also a highly nutritious leaf vegetable that is high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. The young tender leaves can be eaten raw, and the older, stringier leaves can be boiled in stews and eaten.
















Wild Chamomile (Matricaria discoidea) (French, Camomille)

Chamomile tea has long been used, as a traditional folk remedy, for a wide range of health issues. Nowadays, researchers are increasingly exploring its effectiveness in managing illnesses, including cancer and diabetes.

The flowers are dried for herbal tea. Vanille just eats the flowers.


Mallow (Malva neglecta) (French/Mauve à feuilles ronds)

People use the flower and leaf to make medicine. Mallow is used for irritation of the mouth and throat, dry cough, and bronchitis. It is also used for stomach and bladder clmplaints. To treat wounds, some people put Mallow in a warm moist dressing (poultice) and apply it directly to the skin, or add it to bath water.










Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica) (French/ Ortie)

The German army used nettle fabric to make army uniforms during World War I. Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Today, many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH).











Burdock (Arctium) (French/Bardane)

The root is sometimes used as food. The root, leaf, and seed are used to make medicine. Some people take burdock by mouth to increase urine flow, kill germs, reduce fever, and “purify” their blood. It is also taken by mouth to treat colds, cancer, anorexia, stomach and intestinal complaints, joint pain, gout, bladder infections, diabetes, high blood pressure and skin conditions.









Vanille also loves a vine that is growing wild over a stone wall but the leaves are gone now and I am not yet able to identify it.

This is just the beginning of my study. If you are interested, read more on the internet. All of the above is taken from internet searches. AND, watch what your horse likes to eat

Imagine, Vanille is teaching me about wild plants! When we go for a walk I point to areas of grass that I think look appetizing so we are working together. I recommend taking your horse for walks!

Have fun! Enjoy all that nature offers us!


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The days of August have been hot, sweltering hot and dry. This morning we were blessed with a soft mist but a little rain would be nice. Our life has been quiet and gentle. It has been a month of reading, friendly visits and afternoon naps in Tòti under the trees. Vanille passes by, stops and pokes her head over the fence to say “Hello”. I have noticed that she talks to me much more as time goes by. There is the loud whinny in the morning when she hears our door closing which means I'm on my way. There is also the very soft sound, much like a mare reassuring her foal. This is the sound I hear often now. I always speak to her when I'm approaching and I talk to her, touching noses, looking around together, stroking her neck before asking if she wants to go out. She talks back very softly and lowers her head for the halter. This is our early morning time together when the remainder of the day is too hot. We walk around together looking for the tastiest grass. Since I must ration her grass, in the afternoon she follows my every step as I enlarge her pasture and she talks to me about it most of the time. It's quite a difficult balance to give her enough food but not too much and it changes with the seasons.

We had one accident, a sort of comedy routine. Vanille was giving me a nuzzle and her lip grazed my glasses sending them flying. I'm blind without glasses so I was crawling around looking for them and there they were just behind her front foot, the one furthest from me. I managed to grab them but the cable temple was gone. These were precious glasses to me. My daughter had found the frames in an antique shop and I had lenses made for them. Finally Mark came to my rescue and found the temple, put it in my pocket. I don't know how but I lost it before getting back to the house. This was just one of those days! So Mark managed to find a place in the states where he could order a temple that looks like it will fit the glasses.

We have been taking Vanille out a couple of times a week with the small wagon. Some of our trips have been pretty exciting. We've traveled over some rough terrain in the forest, avoiding ditches and fording small streams as well as some difficult uphill grades. Vanille is impressive. We pay close attention to her weight and she can do a 3 hour trip without overheating. When we arrive home she is dry. We don't push her however. We allow her to find her own pace and after a difficult climb she slows down to her recuperation pace. We call her our diesel energy. She attacks a hill as if we were shifting into a special climbing gear. I feel that she loves the challenge. Often on the internet there is the question, “Does a horse enjoy working?” and there are many opinions. I know that we are extremely gentle with Vanille and when she is harnessed and ready to go, she really wants to go. It's a bit difficult to teach her patience. We allow her to look all around when she is pulling and we allow her to stop if she wants which is seldom so we check to make sure everything is OK. We pay attention to her breathing, the bothersome flies, and that her boots are properly adjusted. Our trips are just pure pleasure, time to talk and enjoy the magnificent scenery. We often invite friends. This is an important aspect of driving a horse rather than riding. It is very social but still there is the special contact with the horse.

AND, the most exciting for me is that I pushed past my fear and got on Vanille, not once but several times. Here I am, granny on her horse.

Thanks to Jean François, I have the use of absolutely the most comfortable saddle ever and a bridle without blinders. Vanille just plods along slowly which is perfect for me. I'm trying to give us both time, time for me to feel confident and time for her to become accustomed to my weight on her back. We don't have a ring to work in so it is a bit different to just take off down the road, but we're building confidence all the time.

So, when will we take Tòti out for a trip? We plan to take a trip here in the mountains around the end of September when the weather is a bit cooler and another trip down our mountain and in flat country for a few days to arrive at a protected winter home for Tòti. Everything we do now builds strength for Vanille. The idea is not to rush into anything but enjoy the time it takes to arrive. It is all important!.

As always, I invite you to comment if you are reading my journey. Much love to all and happy trails.

My email address is

or use the comments button


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Buckminster Fuller said ” Love is metaphysical gravity”

Our loving friend Samuel


I belong to several groups on Facebook. One of the groups is Aging Horsewomen and there are over 40,000 women in the group. The other groups are interested in Comtois horses, draft horses, barefoot horses and horses that are ridden without a bit, some with only a neckrope. I realize that Facebook is often criticised but for me it has opened up a huge world of information. Recently someone asked a question on one of the groups that at first seemed like a bit of nonsense, but it stayed with me and brought up lots of thoughts. The question was “How do we know that our horse loves us?” Quite honestly I don't ask the question. For me it is just a feeling. How do I know my husband loves me? How do I know our dog loves me? I just feel loved. How would you answer that question?

What is love anyway? Is it totally different for each person or each animal? Do we truly believe that animals have emotions? How can we not believe it? Why does there need to be scientific research on the subject?

I wake up at 6 every morning, kiss my hubby, have my coffee, throw on jeans and a shirt, grubby shoes, and head out to see Vanille. If I'm not rushed to go somewhere I take her out for half hour or so to eat in a lush grassy spot, I check her over and at this time of year put a non chemical fly repellent on her, then I clean her stall and fill it with bedding, and fill up her water. By this time the sun is high in the sky and I'm in need of a good shower. When she sees me arrive with the halter she talks to me in a soft voice, slowly comes toward me and lowers her head for the halter. We spend an hour or so together, just being together. She is careful and gentle with me. We are just quiet and peaceful. For me it is a loving moment. No one enjoys picking up manure and cleaning a horse's stall but I do it without complaint. When I ask Vanille to work she does it willingly, I might even go so far as to say she does it lovingly and happily. For me this is love. People who see her always say she is so beautiful but she is beautiful because she is loved. I feel happy when I am around her, I smile, and I have energy because she is so eager to please. This feels like love….to me.

What feels like love to you? Do you feel loved by your horse or dog or cat? Why? Why not?

You can comment in the comments section of this blog or email me at

A wonderul young woman came to trim Vanille's feet. We are continuing to improve her feet with the absolute decision to never use iron shoes. Yes, it's complicated but we're seeing results and she has boots.


This amazing British woman, Daisy, 73 years young is traveling to Scotland and back for the Brain Tumour Charity. She's doing it ALONE with two strong and beautiful horses.






When I have the time I'm still long reining Vanille without a bit using the Zilco Flower. We're doing great!


Dana tried out the saddle on Vanille. There was no problem and my dream is to eventually ride her.

Ahhhhh…these sweet summer days. Long hot afternoons spent snuggled on the bed in Toti, a cup of tea and a biscuit, birdsong, soft breezes.










Our fields are being transformed into huge rolls of hay for winter.

Summer is not all laziness. I had to repaint the flowers on the sides of Toti and repaint the trim on the doors after an endless winter of rain and fog and snow. Monster mildew! This year our challenge is to find a place to put Toti under roof.




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Sleeping in Paradise


Such a beautiful image in words from my daughter Dana Ecelberger


It is June in the Black Mountains of France, in the Tarn District, in the heart of this very passionate country. The skies are very emotional at this time of year, especially this year. Everywhere I look nature responds to the pull of life’s longing. Grass grows as you watch, trees are unfurling their neon leaves, the peony unfolds petal after petal in a reckless fervor. Bees are drunk on nectar; they weave and careen under the heavy load of pollen they carry. Lambs cry across the hillside, “Moommm. Mooommmm.”


I sleep in the warm embrace of Toti Bleu. She sits delicately in the backyard, between the chickens and the two black sheep. There is a palpable calm inside the colorful arches of her ribs, shoulders and back. As I climb into the cave of a bed, it is like entering a womb. Here I sleep as I never sleep in my life in America. The hooting owl, the mewling doves, even the awful craw of the peacock high in the Maple tree, these sounds lull me to sleep. The unbroken black of night so profound here that I forget to worry. I close my eyes and it is as if I cease to exist, as if I join the deep, still night in a seamless absence of definition.


Morning comes early. Like a Satie piece, the birds start slowly and quietly to discuss the day. “Where are you? Did you survive the night? Shall we meet at the feeder? Isn’t the coming of dawn a miracle today? Every day?” The sound builds and is quickly a cacophony of trills, whistles, chirps and chips. Now the lambs join in with their bleating and calling. The peacocks, from their high perch, sound the alarm. The shepherd has arrived to lead the sheep to pasture. Suzanne goes out to feed Vanille. Mark is here to feed Pivoine and to release the chickens from the coop. The dog, Bella, barks at Beau, the cat. The day begins. Gently, but insistently.


I cling to this moment of peace. Savoring the golden glow inside Toti. Let my eyes wander over the flowers and curlicues my mother has so artistically painted onto every surface, marveling again at her inexhaustible creativity. Snuggled down, three quilts deep, I am as happy as I have ever been. Safe inside my mother’s beautiful dream.


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Life with a Comtois horse, Vanille

Vanille's shelter is a vaulted ceiling “cave” built in the 1800's for storing root vegetables. She just fits through the door!

Spring has kept me busy. After a very quiet and extremely grey winter, the grass and weeds are wildly growing. So many jobs that waited through all the months of winter suddenly become possible. However, this spring is wet, wet, wet so a bit of frustration sets in. Tòti Bleu has damp problems on the exterior that must be repaired, nothing serious. However Vanille came through the winter in top condition. Bravo for the Comtois breed!

However, although Vanille is what is referred to as “an easy keeper”, I'll take a minute to explain just what that means to us and our love of Vanille. She puts on weight by breathing, it seems, so her hay has to be weighed out and she is fed small amounts 4 to 5 times a day in winter. If not, she will eat it all at one time and then be hungry. An overweight horse is a dangerous predicament. I won't explain all the problems but if you're interested, look it up on the internet. We are surrounded by acres and acres of gorgeous pasture but her pasture must be limited, especially in spring. I have devised a way of extending her pasture metre by metre as needed. In the winter she has more to eat than in the spring or summer as she needs the food for heat. I read an interesting article on the fact that hay ferments in the intestines of the horse producing heat in the winter. So the seasons are another consideration. It seems every day or so we are talking about just how much food she should have. Weather permitting, I take her out every day on a lead line to graze and walk about. If I have the time, I turn her free and we just spend some time together in freedom. Believe it or not, I will say that she tells me when she's really hungry by telepathy. Also when she is hungry she is in an agitated and lousy mood so there is a balance to maintain.

Aside from food, she is checked for any problems every day, several times a day, carrots are always in our pockets and lots of scratches and hugs. Her upper lip extends and she shows bliss when I scratch just the perfect spot. She also shows me where to scratch. Spring, of course, with shedding, means grooming every day to aide shedding and rub off dead skin.

Then, the hooves…this is mostly Jean Francois' job. He is constantly studying hoof care, trimming, boots, etc. We made the decision to never put iron shoes on her hooves but although her rear hooves are like rock, the front hooves are very sensitive. So, with regular trimming, walking her on hard surfaces and gravel a short time every day, never confining her to a stall, and putting boots on her front feet when working, slowly her front hooves are becoming strong and tough.

So there it is, life with an easy keeper, one who is totally loved and who works for us with calm and eagerness when asked.

Here are a few photos I took yesterday after she had a sudsy spring bath. Notice her friend Bella who is always with her even though sometimes far too bossy. Bella the Border Collie has taught me so much about love, mostly about loving no matter how difficult. It has been a life lesson for me!



This photo shows me that she is not too fat, not too much stomach extending on either side. I also love her big strong butt and pretty tail. Looks like Bella is admiring her, doesn't it!


We are working Vanille slowly at the moment. We try to go out at least once a week and usually for 3 hours or so at a walk with a short period of trotting. She is pulling the small wagon only for now. When we feel she is muscled up sufficiently we will begin short trips with Tòti. Here is a photo of Vanille taking Jean Francois and me down the lane to the neighbor's farm delivering two cartons of excellent organic wine. We are in France, after all!


I have begun a facebook page, roulotte/gypsy wagon Toti Bleu If you're interested, I have posted a couple of videos on it.

Also, our book is for sale on Amazon

Be happy! Enjoy! Love!


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Tòti Bleu’s Book

My daughter, Ashlyn Brown, has taken her precious time to edit and design a book from the 4 years of my blog postings. I am in awe of her patience and many talents. I haven't been able to look inside yet, but am just so excited to see it posted on Amazon. After a long and very dark winter, recuperating from a knee replacement in front of the woodstove, and waiting impatiently for spring, Tòti's book is finished just as the daffodils bloom. What could be more perfect! My hope is that it will give others courage to follow their dreams. As I have said many times, this has all happened because of my talented husband and many wonderful people.

As the weather improves, we have been long reining on the lane and around the barns with Vanille in a halter, no bit in her mouth. This does not mean that we will hook her to the small wagon or Tòti without her proper bridle, bit and all. We are practicing bitless to become more and more successful with voice commands. It is also a lesson for me as I tend to use my hands too much. I'm constantly learning how soft my voice can be and how totally gentle my commands for her to respond. It is interesting to me to know how unimportant the bit is for her. She is doing great! I believe this practice will make the use of the bit less and less necessary but when traveling we will always use her bitted bridle in the case of an emergency. I believe riding and driving a horse bitless is fantastic but I do not have the expertise to feel comfortable traveling on the road with all sorts of dangerous situations. I am just in awe of the videos I watch. Using the bitted bridle is a safety consideration for Vanille as much as for me and Tòti.









We'll start traveling soon but this has been a nice early spring project. It is fun and helps my new knee to strengthen. I have to walk briskly to keep up. Hopefully it will help me to shed a few kilos as well.

Thanks to a check that arrived in the mail…much to my surprise…..from a friend who wanted to donate to Tòti, I bought a Zilco Flower hackamore and bridle. We tried it yesterday for longreining and it seems great. Vanille seemed quite surprised that her new bridle did not necessitate her opening her mouth to take a bit. This is just for longreining and I hope to go for much longer walks this way once I'm able. I now have two titanium knees and I can feel the possibility of long walks very soon.

I was invited to Paris by a dear friend. It was freezing cold and snowing, but Paris was a real treat and spending time with my friend was very special. We went to the Salon d'Agriculture which was too crowded but fun. We were there just at the perfect time to see the Comtois horses in the ring. Not just any Comtois horses, but the five top stallions in France. Quite an array of gorgeous horses.



So Spring will be officially here in just a few days. Life in the country, the daily chores close to nature, reminds me constantly that Spring always arrives. There is that incredible moment when the earth takes a deep breath and wakes up. I wish you all flowers and sunshine after the darkness and difficulty of winter. Breathe it in deeply.


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