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.


Posted in Art, attelage, barefoot draft horse, Community, Comtois horse, Gypsy wagon decoration, Gypsy wagon/Roulotte construction technique, Horse drawn vehicles, Lifestyle, Roulotte, Small living spaces, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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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Sun and showers


photo Mark Balogh

We`re continuing our weekly “get fit rides” with Vanille. As you can see, Bella brings her sticks with her. We don`t always let her come along as she still gets too close to the wheels and makes me nervous. I love the trips with the caleche. It is relaxing, but if I must watch Bella every moment, it is difficult to enjoy the moment. As she grows into adulthood, she becomes wiser and wiser but she is a Border Collie and thinks she knows best. I don't want an accident to prove to her that she doesn't.

So far our longest weekly outing has been 14 km. Vanille has been barefoot with the exception of our last trip, 14 km, when we put her Easy boots on her front feet. Jean François examines her feet weekly and trims them regularly. I keep a daily check on her as always; feet, legs, and general overall condition. We are studying everything we can find on the care and trimming of barefoot horses. If you are experienced with a barefoot draft horse, please share your experience with us. (

Vanille did an amazing stunt last week. She managed to put one front foot over the fence of her pasture. The fence is chest high and there was no evidence that she had pushed it down. When I went out to check on her, she was just calmly standing there. I had to approach quite close to see that she was in trouble. I still have no idea how she managed to get that foot over the fence! I unlatched the fence, stomped down on the wire and stood on it close to her foot. I asked her to give me her foot which she did. I calmly lifted it and asked her to back up just a little which she did. I was able to place the foot on the inside of the fence with no trouble. She stayed totally calm through the whole maneuver. The fence is not barbed wire but it is what we call here sheep fencing. It is wire squares but not big enough squares for a horse to catch a hoof in. This all occurred because the grass looked greener on the other side of the fence! I am very happy that she trusts me enough to allow me the time it took to help her. I did a lot of deep breathing and she watched carefully with her nose close to my maneuvers.

Tòti Bleu is parked in Vanille's afternoon pasture. It is still covered with a tarp but I can pull it back enough to spend time inside. We have attached the doors but there is some adjusting to do before they will close properly. We now have a bed for Bella and a small heater that sits on the campstove burner. In May Tòti will be moved into the big hay barn and work will begin on fiberglassing the roof, painting the seats and trim, attaching the sunflower gussets and placing the side windows and shutters. I'm hoping we will take a long trip in the early autumn. Meanwhile I am enjoying short siestas in Tòti when the weather permits. I can hear Vanille munching nearby, Bella running around, and just languishing in the silence of the place. It feels much like a boat when the wind blows. There is a gentle rocking that I love.









There is a wonderful video on youtube: Bridleless in Norco

AND soon to be available, an absolutely beautiful book with text in Spanish, Dutch, French and English:


You can contact André and Judith for a copy at:

I am always happy to receive comments or emails from readers of this blog. You can contact me at


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Sunlit days


Photo by Ashlyn Brown


Isn`t she/he beautiful!! This lovely animal is fortunate enough to live in a town where no one hunts. The wild animals run free and humans fence in their gardens or plant unappetizing plants. Yes, they are a nuisance, but I feel strongly that we need to learn to live with the wildlife. I spent a beautiful month in this town. Sometimes it seems the world is going mad and the stories of cruelty abound, making me want to stay in my corner of the world. I am so very happy that I pushed myself out, and onto the airplane. Although I was uneasy about traveling, especially in winter, my joy in spending time with my daughters and friends overshadowed all else. They live in an absolutely heavenly place! And, of course, a huge thank you to my sweet husband who took care of everything while I was gone.

I came home to my own paradise where very little had changed other than the results of a tremendous wind storm that blew down ancient trees. Mother Nature had been cleaning house with a vengeance! We took Vanille out for a long ride, mostly just walking and talking. It was the first time Bella accompanied us. This was a training session for her as she must stay behind the wagon. When we were on the paved road, she hopped aboard for her safety. She loved it and she did great! She has unlimited energy and although our outing lasted 3 hours, she still had plenty of energy to spare and was not in the least tired the next day.

Notice the gravel road. Vanille showed no sensitivity which is a big improvement over last year. Notice also her “side window”. Jean François clipped an area on both sides to help her not to overheat. The Comtois has a difficult time with heat and this was a very warm day for the month of March.

We had one small bit of excitement on the way home. Just before arriving at the entrance to our lane, while we were very relaxed and Vanille was practically dozing, a horse in the nearby field came to the fence just beside the road. We saw the other horse and it seemed Vanille had seen it also but something happened, we`re not sure what. Vanille bolted violently and took off at a gallop. Jean François grabbed the reins out of my hands and we finally came to a stop but it was a rocky ride. Mark was in the back and used his weight to balance the wagon as we went up on a slope for a quick moment. Mark says his experience in sailing dingys was helpful. Jean François explained that it is not good to tighten up on the reins in this sort of instance so I learned a valuable lesson.

We`re starting our training rides earlier this year than in the past. It is such a huge pleasure to be out in nature after the winter. There are tiny wildflowers and buds on some of the trees. The birds are singing of spring and there is a haze of green over the fields. Nature always gives me such hope, especially at this time of year.

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