Thinking Out Loud


Autumn in all its beauty has arrived and we have been enjoying it! We have had bright, crisp days and lovely trips with Vanille pulling the caleche. Delicious mushrooms sprinkling the grass along our trail, the Pyrenee mountains in the distance, even a few exciting gallops initiated by Vanille. We won’t take Tòti out again until spring and I hold in my heart the lovely days we spent traveling at 4 km an hour, and the nights we spent sleeping in Toti under tall trees.

When I walk down to Vanille’s pasture I call out to her and she answers and comes trotting over. On warm days I put on her halter and lead her to a green patch of yummy grass, turn her loose, and spend an hour just being with her. She loves these moments and it is a meditative time for me. If I call her and walk away, promising to have found an even better patch of grass, she follows. She has learned that when I call her, I have something pleasant to share. We have succeeded in trimming her down to the perfect weight so her intake of grass is limited and we weigh out her hay which she has four times a day. I always thought an “easy keeper” would be easy to take care of but regulating the diet of Vanille takes a lot of study, thought and careful feeding. We are surrounded by beautiful pastures but they are dangerous for her. Since she has lost weight, she moves better, she does not overheat when working and her hooves are much improved.

Speaking of hooves, we began over a year ago to study barefoot trimming. Jean François is constantly researching the newest advances in hoof care, boots, and plastic shoes. With the work that Vanille does we found that it was not possible for her to be barefoot, except when she is not working or at the beginning of the season when the trips were short. We then tried boots but found that putting them on and off was time consuming and if they got wet, they tended to slip sideways. However they are also useful at the beginning of the season. The next thing was Duplo composite shoes which were very good but with Vanille’s weight and the amount of work she does, they wore out much too fast. Now we have ordered Hoof-it plastic shoes but we will not use them until next year. In a week or so the blacksmith will pull the Duplos and Vanille will pass winter with frequent trimming but no shoes. Jean François is the expert among the three of us concerning hoof care so hopefully he will post on this blog this winter sometime.

I have joined a facebook group, Aging Horsewomen. It’s great! I find it inspiring, friendly and full of information. I would prefer it to be called Ageless Horsewomen but I’m happy to have lived to this age. The stories are amazing. There are women in their 80’s and one woman in her 90’s still riding, women in wheelchairs who have devised a way to be lifted onto their horses, a young woman born with no legs who has won medals in the paralympic games, and on and on. There are so many beautiful, brave people in our world. It gives me hope to read their stories.

I received a beautiful gift, a treasure, from my neighbor. It was made around 1900 in Paris but seems to have been made for the British as there is one container marked “butter”. There is even a bottle for whiskey and a small stove to boil water in the tea kettle. I have a book, The Land Yacht Wanderer, that was written in the late 1800’s by an English man who traveled extensively in England pulled by two horses. I imagine he must have had something similar with him in his Land Yacht.

Today there is a blazing fire in our woodstove. It is a misty day. Beau the cat is stretched out in front of the fire and Bella our Border Collie is snoozing in the chair next to me. I have so many precious memories of the past months with Mark, Jean François and Vanille that light up my thoughts on this lazy day. There has been much hard work and much joy! And, there is always Bella to challenge my patience and remind me not to be too serious.

When I am driving Vanille, everything else disappears except the beauty passing slowly by and the calm rhythm of her hooves upon the earth. I am surrounded by nature. I am attached to Vanille by the thin cord of the reins and I am constantly thinking of her safety and comfort as she calmly leads on. We have developed a bond, an understanding and a great trust. She knows when I ask something of her that it will not hurt her, and I trust her to be gentle and careful with me. It was not like this at the beginning. It has taken 3 years to really know each other. We humans are such fragile creatures. When we are working with this enormous animal we feel dramatically our fragility. We have so much to learn in their company! A turning point in my relationship with Vanille was the day she managed to get one front leg over a fence that was chest high. She stood waiting for me. I couldn’t believe it when I saw what she had done. There was no one to help so I had to trust her to stay calm while I crumpled down the fence (I had no tools), lifted up her foot and moved it back and over the wire which was still higher than her knee. She had to trust me to do whatever necessary to free her from her predicament. Trust is a big word. There can be no love without trust.

We won’t be traveling this winter but Mark will take good care of her while I’m in hospital and as soon as possible I will be spending time with her in the pasture. On sunny days I’ll hobble out and enjoy the peacefulness of gazing at the sky and just being.



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Tòti’s first long trip

I will let the photos speak for themselves with the exception of a few details. We left home on 20 September 2017, around 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Home is at an altitude of 750 metres and during our 4 day, 3 night trip we climbed to 950 metres and then back home again. The first day was 8 1/2 KM before stopping for the night. The second day was 15 KM (with a long lunch break) and the same for the third day. The return to home was again 8 1/2 KM for a total of 47 KM in 4 days. We had chosen small paved roads winding through beautiful forests. However, we overlooked the fact that the weather was perfect for finding mushrooms and the forest was filled with mushroom hunters and of course their cars. Most people were patient and it was good training for Vanille and me to make way for cars and trucks coming from all directions. The first night was very special as neighbors and friends came to meet us and have dinner with us to celebrate our first trip.

So here are lots of photos…….












Vanille was amazing. We never force her. We stop for lunch and a good rest. She is unharnessed and a grassy paddock is prepared with plastic posts and ribbon. When she has a hill to climb, she just finds her best rhythm and goes to work. At the top she slows down and recuperates in her own way or sometimes we stop and pour cold water over her neck and withers. When I turned her loose at home after 4 days of work, she kicked up and took off at a gallop.

Thank you to Mark and Jean François for all of their hard work and their climbing hills on foot to lighten the load for Vanille. They were fantastic!

Thank you to friends and neighbors who came and celebrated with us on our first night.

Thank you to André who invited us to stop at his house the second night and prepared a delicious dinner while Vanille found lots of apples in her paddock.

For me this was simply bliss. I realized what life is like when we adopt a pace that fits with our heart. I cannot explain it, I can only feel it. On the way home we found lots of delicious mushrooms alongside the road. Because we were moving so slowly, we saw them. Many cars had passed with avid mushroom hunters heading to the forest to look for mushrooms but they were moving too fast to see what was just in front of their eyes.

Now I must focus on entering hospital and having a knee replacement. I will be rolled into surgery with visions of all the beauty I experienced on this trip dancing behind my closed lids, and I will dream of next year and a much longer trip.

If you have any questions or comments just send an email to


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Closing the workshop

We're closing the workshop, Toti Bleu is finished….well, there will always be little things to do, and additions, repairs, etc. The end of the construction has arrived. Now our thoughts turn to traveling! The turtle in the rear window holds its head high and strides off with confidence. It knows its pace is slow but it is not afraid, not worried and it is waiting for a new adventure.

We haven't used Tòti all summer. Instead we hitched up Vanille to the small wagon each week for training. We felt it necessary to focus on finishing the work and then take a trip in the autumn. Last week we hitched Vanille to Tòti and went out for about 3 hours. There were no problems. Vanille pulled Tòti easily and Bella came along. Next week, if the weather permits, we will take a trip for a few days.

Imagining Tòti, going after the dream, and finally the realization that dreams can come true has been an enormous event in my life. At this moment I am sitting in Tòti. I have pulled the table out from under the bed, set up my iPad and keyboard and begun to type. In front of my eyes there is a view through the window of a field sprinkled with flowers, and enormous trees with their branches shading the lane leading to our home. The sheep are resting in the shade and Bella is running around with a stick in her mouth, a ball of excited and ecstatic energy. The only sound is of the wind through the trees. I want to write about how I feel at this moment, knowing that the next step will be when we actually begin to travel. Even with Tòti just resting in this field, she is a wondrous place to relax, to dream and to think. She shelters my being with softness, with memories of her construction and love for the people who have entered our life and helped to bring her alive.

This has not been an easy project. We began with no knowledge of building a gypsy wagon or of driving a horse and we had no money in the bank. How everything happened is a sort of miracle, a belief in daring to dream, and by simply putting one foot in front of the other at turtle speed. Encouragement, energy, gifts, information, and more has come from new and old friends. Without all these generous people, Toti would never have been completed. We were never alone! This project has left me with a belief in the magic of life, of our interconnectedness and the amazing generosity of people.

These two men were simply incredible!

My husband Mark, who has done all of the research and choice of materials including using epoxy and fiberglass, and all of the construction….with his annoying perfectionism. In addition he now harnesses and drives Vanille and has won her confidence and complete trust. Previously he had no experience with horses so this is enormous!

Our friend, Jean François, who appeared at the beginning and who has stuck with us through it all, always smiling. It is he who brought Vanille into our life, who helped with many stages of the construction and who has taught us enough to fill a library about horses, the feeding of draft horses, hoof care, driving a horse and so much, much more.


There are my wonderful daughters and many, many more friends who have been angels. Their names are written on Tòti's wall and in my heart.

My job has been brushing color on and lots of it. I also take care of Vanille. I have a passion for horses and she is an amazing horse!! I have also learned to harness and drive. I enjoy it but I am just as happy riding along while the men are in control.

At the beginning, this was my idea. I drew the plan on paper and together Mark and I made a scale model. Mark just wanted to sail across the Atlantic. Perhaps that will be the next project. Or maybe we will sail together in our land yacht.

Before I close, here's a book that Mark found for me. There are very few books about gypsy wagons and I have tried to mention them in this blog as I discovered them. Here's the latest which I love. It was written for children in 1910. I feel lucky to have found a copy.

The next time you hear from me, I will have traveled and cooked and slept in Tòti Bleu.


The impossible just takes a little longer.


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Ready for traveling

As autumn approaches we are finally “mostly” finished with building Toti. There are a few pieces left to glue on but we are planning to take a trip in September. I have been struggling all summer with a knee that must have a total knee replacement, so the past weeks have been difficult. Mornings have been bearable and I have been able to take care of Vanille. She gives me energy. My mood lifts and the pain diminishes when I am with her.

We have continued to take Vanille out with the “caleche”/small wagon at least once a week, usually for 3 hours. Mark's driving is great so with he and Jean Francois in the front seats, I just relax in the back. I call this my time to be a princess. There is no use fighting what is and I know that after the surgery I will regain my strength, so I feel very lucky to have two men in control.

The following are photos taken today and a brief explanation of what we've done and why. If you are interested in building a wagon and have questions, just contact me by email:

We opted for shutters that slide so that there is less danger of them catching on a branch when moving. The window hardware was difficult to find but Mark finally found a company in India that shipped it to us UPS one day delivery. That was a surprise! On opening the package, we found the following note:

Thanking Note

We would like to thank you for placing your confidence in our work and for allowing us to supply the goods to you. We hope that you had a wonderful blessed experience with us. God Bless You Abundantly! Warm Regards, Adonai Hardware

Here's the little bell given to us by the Roulotte Papillotte family. It has a lovely tinkling sound.

I kept the decoration on the back rather simple. The turtle window is so beautiful that nothing else was needed. Eventually we will put shutters but with the back roof overhang it's OK for now.

If you're interested in photos of the interior, there are some on previous postings.

We have spent hours studying hoof care and feeding of our powerful horse. She is a french draft horse and little by little we are learning just how different her needs are to those of a smaller breed of horse. She is not especially tall but she is massive. The difficulty is keeping her strong, in top form both mentally and physically, but not too heavy. Although draft horses are larger than other breeds, they do not need more food. Overweight is a constant problem with Vanille. There are masses of information on the internet and this has been very helpful. There are new and interesting boots and composite shoes being developed and new information on the trimming and care of the horse's hooves. This is also available on the internet so there is plenty to learn, very helpful and intelligent information. Jean Francois is constantly studying and transmitting information to us. So far, Vanille is in even better shape than last year. She does not heat up when working, her energy is great, she is calm and very happy to be harnessed up for a ride. We are using Duplo composite shoes on all four feet. So far they have given no problems. We change them every six weeks. Our blacksmith is an angel. Vanille is fidgety and his patience is amazing.

We have had lots of compliments from visitors. My main contribution has been the artwork and when I step back and look at it now, I have such mixed emotions. I wonder where the ideas have come from. It's not like anything else I've ever done. Some people say it looks Polish or Russian. My grandfather was Polish. Was he helping? It has a happy feeling and I hope it will make people smile. That's the most important thing for me.

NOW…….let's go traveling!


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Tòti Bleu`s Roof

Tòti’s roof has been a major job! After all, the roof protects and shelters everything. First of all, weight has been a big concern. Tòti is pulled by our dear Vanille, not a 4×4. The roof is a huge surface and considering how to make it strong, able to withstand wind, rain, hail, and of course the low hanging branch while keeping it lightweight has been a brain teaser for Mark from the beginning. The shape of the roof was also important, not only from an aesthetic point of view but the overhang on the sides couldn`t be too much so as to avoid catching on branches, but enough to allow rain to drip off without soaking the sides. It had to be possible also that Mark who is 6 ft 2 would be able to stand up staight inside. The curve of the roof shouldn`t allow puddles of rain to form on the top. How much overhang front and back was another discussion. Then there was the color discussion. White is reflective and a possible choice but I imagined that to be just plain ugly. So we settled for a creamy yellow, the same as the trim on the sides.

The roof construction has been in progress for 3 seasons already and we are finally at the end. Whew, what a job! Following are photos that we took at the different stages. This summer, with help from Jean François and the use of the hay barn, thanks to Benoit, we were able to fiberglass the roof. We used a special linen cloth and 3 coats of West system epoxy. I’ll explain a little with each photograph but if anyone reading this would like detailed information, we are happy to share anything we have learned.

Mark made a fixture that we stretched 7 strips of 6 mm Paulownia wood over, gluing each to the next with epoxy. They were then clamped together and left to dry. We did 10 of these, one each day. Only Mark knows how he came up with the curve, but I saw him staring into space a lot before we began.

Here you see the roof beams already laminated and stacked up on the work table with the fixture beside them. Against the wall are the frames for the sides and the doorway which are complete.


Now the roof beams are glued to the front and back walls.

Now the walls are in place and the divider for the sleeping area is put in place with a roof beam glued to the back.

These photos show the roof beams glued in place in preparation for attaching the 5 mm plywood which becomes the roof covering.

Here`s our team of roofers, our dear friends and neighbor who were invaluable! With epoxy there is no time to lose when working. What a great team!

Here the plywood is glued to the beams. The screws and clamps keep it in place until dry. When totally cured, the screws and clamps are removed and holes are filled.

Finally the interior is painted. It is not obvious in the photo but the beams, being laminated, were just too beautiful to paint so I varnished them.

There are no photos for all the hours of sanding, fairing and scraping that Mark did but he was on the roof a LOT! This is the fiberglassing crew feeling enormous relief that it all went well. Having watched the weather and waiting for just the perfect couple of days…….not too hot, not too cold, not too humid, it was perfect. I mixed the epoxy while Mark and Jean François slathered it on.

The final photo was taken today. We have rolled on 3 coats of acrylic exterior paint after much sanding.

Oh My Gods, we are almost finished!

If you are new to this blog, welcome. This has been an incredible voyage and we have not yet truly started travelling. This all began as a dream. Our knowledge of gypsy wagons was non existant. I am now confident that we will actually finish and we have a wonderful horse that can take us where we want to go. So much has happened during this building part of the dream that I will soon try to post a reflection.

As I have said before many times, if you have a dream, pursue it. Life is full of miracles.


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June news and photos.

Summer is here, hot and sunny and bright. The flies make life difficult for Vanille. We have convinced her to spend the hot days in an ancient root cellar that is cool and dark. It's a big space with a vaulted roof. Many years ago potatoes, carrots, and apples spent the winter there. We created a paddock in front so she can go in and out. At night she can romp in her big pasture. She has had lots of admirers in the past few weeks. A group of people came up to watch the yearly sheep shearing and wandered over to visit Vanille. Lots of smiles and compliments! Friends from Toulouse with a little girl 3 years old went for a nice long ride in the caleche and afterwards we had a barbecue.

The side windows and sliding shutters have been fitted and now I am painting them. The shutters are painted red and once painted the Z isn't so obvious. They're beautiful. I'm waiting impatiently (my middle name) to finish all the painting but I have to wait until Mark is finished with the roof. The windows and shutters were a lovely gift from Jean Francois.


Mark has been fairing the roof and studying how to fiberglass it. The plan is to do this last big job next week.


The sunflower gussets are fitted but not yet glued.

We're still taking nice long rides with Vanille and the caleche. She's doing great and I'm becoming much more relaxed about driving. These hours slowly rolling on forest trails are pure pleasure.

I've been very careful about her weight and we can see a big difference in her fitness this year.

She always gets a shower after working and I have been braiding her mane for fun.


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Wind and Rain

Sandwiched in between the April days of wind and rain, were beautiful days of sun and bright blue skies. We grabbed those precious moments to hitch Vanille to the caleche and wander the nearby trails.

The first of May saw Mark setting up the scaffolding and starting work. Gods willing, we will finish Tòti this summer and take a trip in the autumn. The dream!

Photos by Mark Balogh unless otherwise noted

I began the decoration on the front wall and seats. Choosing a color and design was difficult and I`m not sure I like what I`ve done. I`m hoping that once the sunflower gussets are in place, the shutters on the side windows are painted the same red as the door and the design under the side of the roof is lime green and gold to match the design around the door, it will all make sense. Tòti is quite a complex canvas! We are lucky to be able to work under a roof for the months of May and June. The West System epoxy has arrived. Mark has assembled the scaffolding and started sanding the roof in preparation for the fiberglass cover and paint. We are waiting for our friend Joel to install the side windows and shutters that he has finished. I will have plenty of painting to do. We are praying for warm, sunny weather.














I’m reading a wonderful book that you might enjoy if you have a horse:

HORSE SPEAK: An equine-human translation guide: Conversations with horses in their language, written by Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel

I have a loving and respectful relationship with Vanille, but this book is full of important information. I am reading and rereading it slowly, and trying the exercises a little each day. It is easy to understand and the photos add even more information. I highly recommend it!

I have had a few fantastic afternoon trips with Jean François, Mark, and of course, Vanille power. The luxuriant green of our world, sprinkled with many brightly colored wildflowers is heavenly. It’s as if Mother Nature has thrown confetti from the skies to celebrate the spring. Our pace is turtle pace which is calming. When we are clopping along, life outside our small bubble seems to disappear. We wanted to know how Vanille would react if another horse joined us, so our neighbor came along on her lovely endurance horse. Vanille was not at all bothered, she perked up her ears even more than normal but that was all. It was a good test. Each time we go out there is another new encounter. Sometimes there are enormous double trailer logging trucks, groups of silent cyclists or motorcyclists revving their motors and doing wheelies, a couple of very quiet people who just appear out of the forest, chainsaws, etc. For Vanille these are all things to become acquainted with and calm about. She’s becoming quite experienced.

We had the blacksmith’s visit last week. He put Duplo composite shoes on Vanille’s front feet. Her back hooves are very solid and she is fine without shoes on those feet. However she is still sensitive in front. The boots we bought last year have proven to be a bit awkward and they take time to attach so we have decided to use the Duplo again since our trips are becoming longer and longer. We are traveling in the caleche for the moment while Tòti is having her roof finished.

You can see from this photo that it was raining and Vanille was wet. We tried putting her in a stall for a couple of hours before the blacksmith arrived to dry her, but she hated it, really hated it. I won`t try that again.

photo by Nancy Norton

Oops, caught hugging Vanille. Yes, I do hug my horse. I breathe deep, feel her soft strength and relax

and so does she.

I’m always happy to receive comments or information. My email address is:


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