I met Liz on Twitter and immediately fell in love with her story, Barney The Lopsided Mule. As a fellow author and lover of the outdoors, she’s someone I can relate to and I think you will too!
Liz Hughey is a single mom to one, and an outdoor, equine, canine, feline, and bovine loving, life enthusiast. Also, a self-published writer and poet to a series of children’s books, highlighting mules and mule packing, the first being Barney the Lopsided Mule. Her twenties were spent working as a trail guide, packer, and sometimes cook, for outfitters in Northwest Colorado. Now, 38 years old, she is a mom to a four-year-old son. Also, the grazing manager of her family’s grass fed/finished Red Angus beef ranch in Southeastern Indiana, Blue Creek Cattle Company, LLC. Hughey & Son ride their mules and horses as much as their schedules permit and are love living life in the rural Midwest. But still, Liz’s body and mind dream of the horseback riding, mule packing, and mountain exploration of her twenties.
You work on your family’s cattle ranch that raises Red Angus. Tell us a little about what your daily life is like.
Well, it really depends on the day and the season. I’m a full-time mom to a four-year-old boy and plan my ranch life accordingly. I am very lucky and blessed to have a family that makes this possible. Most of our days are planned around an animal activity, or rather, many animal activities; feeding horses and mules, taking care of laying hens, dogs, cats, moving cattle onto new pasture, riding horses and mules, etc. There are also many dog hikes and creek adventures, lots of fort building. I’m a believer and a follower of a holistic lifestyle and the slow food movement, so most of our meals are prepared at home. The typical day for me starts around 7:30AM, 30 minutes of yoga/Pilates, multi-tasking of cooking breakfast (my son loves sunny side up eggs and homemade sauerkraut for breakfast) and morning animal feeding of cats, dogs, chickens, and horses/mules….my son has taken over the feeding of cats and chickens for an allowance of TSC toys. On days that we are feeding/moving cattle we try to be with them by 11AM, weather permitting. Obviously, in the winter things need to happen earlier, and they do. But in the SE Indiana summer while grazing cattle, moving them to new pastures is best after the morning dew is off the clover, this is my rule anyway. I’ve been mentored that dew on clover can cause bloat.
Moving cattle consist of running lines of electric fence with fence reel, stepping in post, moving water and mineral into the new section, portable shades if we’re in the heat of summer, and picking up the section from the previous day. I usually try to set up a few days at a time. We do all of this with the help of a Polaris Ranger. My son either helps me by hooking up the water skid to the Ranger or carrying posts. Or he has an assignment of looking for and catching tadpoles, frogs, toads, box turtles, grass hoppers, etc. depending on the season. He is also the Official Mineral Mixer, mixing kelp and diatomaceous Earth in the portable mineral feeder with his toy excavator. Its so cute to see his little legs in there. Add the garden in the spring and summer and firewood in the fall and winter, along with lunch and dinner, snuggle and story time, and you have yourself a full day.
Previously the family ranch was a conventional cattle operation. What changes has the ranch made and what are the plans for the future?
My family and I, Blue Creek Cattle Company, LLC., manage our pastures with a herd of Red Angus cattle. In 2010 we started moving the cattle to a new smaller section of pasture every day. We section off our larger pastures and hayfields, after the first cutting, into smaller sections, giving the cattle new high quality and desirable forage every day. To prepare for this we added infrastructure of water lines to fence rows, making water accessible to the cattle though out the pasture. We also added water trough skids, portable mineral feeder, and portable shades to the equation. Having these tools allows us to manage where the cattle hang out during the day, spreading their valuable nutrients and giving back to the pasture. We keep the manure out in the middle of the pasture instead of under the oak tree on the perimeter. We also invested in a bale unroller so that we can unroll bales of hay on our hayfields in the fall and winter instead of feeding in a lot, adding organic matter to the soil. Doing all of this has increased our grazing season by over a month and added much diversity to our ailing pastures and hayfields. Our cattle now work for us doing a job that they love, grazing.
You also work with horses and mules. Tell us a little bit about getting to do that and how that influences that stories that you write.
I love working with horses and mule, it is a passion and hobby that I have had for many years. Nothing better than taking a ride, and someday, riding will again be my main daily activity. However, Horses and Mules are not part of my primary job of moving cattle, so they unfortunately take a back seat to bovine. At some point in time I would love to teach myself and one or two of our hoofed friends to reel and unreel fence and pick up posts with me in the saddle. That mental photo paints a great image in my mind and brings a smile to my face. But now, with a four-year-old in tow, it’s just too much for me to bite off. Currently, my work with the mules and horses is centered around caregiving, weekly riding, and giving my son a foundation in horsemanship. My son will have memories of digging in his sandbox while equine graze the surrounding yard. I ride as much as possible and one of my son’s chores is to ride his mule Ben once a week. We do driveway rides. I sometimes have my own steed, but am on foot most of the time while he digs through his pommel bags for snacks and juice boxes and enjoying the ride. I am happy to report that my son took his first mule ride last week without me touching the lead rope. I can now ask him to independently lead the two old men, one at a time, to the rail for their daily senior feed. He ties a good knot too; must run in his blood. In the winter months we visit the barn twice a day for feeding, my son tossing flecks into stalls and manning the nylon fork, building piles of loose hay to catch himself as he jumps off the stack. I don’t want to force this life on my son, he doesn’t need to love farm/equine/ranch life. But he does need to know this type of life and be comfortable in the saddle. I feel that these skills will be used, consciously or subconsciously, no matter what path he chooses in life. Giving him this foundation is a major influence and inspiration in my writing.
Do you write full time or part time?
I write part time. I cannot choose the exact times though, I must be flexible. Writing tells me when it needs to be done. It’s funny, I can have endless months of writing….then it just runs dry. Sometimes it comes at 2am, I have to get up and write down the thoughts or they may be lost in sleepy dreams and gone by sunrise. I do not feel like I’m alone in this. If inspiration were constantly firing, it would lose its magic. I love to write mule, horse, and cattle poetry; lights me up, makes me laugh. My current publications are children’s book’s, inspired by wanting to share equine experiences and memories with my son.
Spring 2017, we self-published Barney the Lopsided Mule, introducing children to a pack mule with a relatable problem and the lesson of healthy eating habits. Barney has earned an Amazon Best Seller and an “Honorable Mention” from the New York Book Festival. Barney the Lopsided Mule will also be up for a Will Rodgers Medallion Award, created to recognize quality works of cowboy poetry that honor Western Heritage, in the children’s book category.
The second in the series, Pack String Hang-up….A Mule Trail Tale, introduces children to an entire string of mules and the different personality strengths and weaknesses that accompany them, with a lesson in forgiveness and teamwork. Pack String Hang-up….A Mule Trail Tale will be available for purchase by Thanksgiving 2017. Both books are available on Amazon, author signed copies available on my website, http://thecowgirlpoet.com/shop.html
One can occasionally read a bit of my equine philosophy in Western Mule Magazine, a fantastic monthly mule publication, filled with stories of the trail and training recommendations. http://www.westernmulemagazine.com/
Tell us about your books. Are the characters based on people and animals in real life?
My current work is inspired by people and animals in my life. If my close friends and family read my writing they may see themselves or relive experiences that we have had together, but I rarely mention names. They wouldn’t mind though, I don’t write painful memoirs. The mule books are all about the pack mules that I worked with in my twenties. With them, I do name names. My memories of packing and outfitting are so fond that I feel it’s important to immortalize the mules and freeze the time with their names.
How do you think your stories make an impact in today’s world?
I want to take kids back to nature, let them know it’s OK to get dirty, and enjoy a life without constant screens. I say this as I type and look at my laptop. The world of mule packing and outfitting is slowly fading away. That is not my assessment, but the assessment of many packing and outfitting friends. Finding people that want to work hard and do a tireless job is hard. Packing/outfitting is not for everybody. Owning an outfitting business is for a select few. For this life to survive, kids need to know that it exists. With so many young adults taking “Gap years” and time to reflect on life after they have earned an education, it seems to me that the perfect way to spend this time, summer breaks too, is on horse or muleback exploring our nations beautiful National Forests. I have a dream that one day two dude wranglers will be sitting in a barn between rides, talking about what influenced them to spend their summer or fall riding and packing, and Barny the Lopsided Mule is part of the conversation.
What are your biggest challenges when it comes to creating stories?
Finding the time to do create them. I have a note pad with a list of stories and poems to be written, many started and not finished. I just need the time and a rested mind to get there.
What are you biggest joys in writing?
Creating a story and rhyme that is simple enough for a child to understand and funny enough to make an adult laugh. I love the feeling of all cylinders firing while writing a poem. When its flowing, it flows out of me like water. I have no idea where it comes from, my brain, my heart. Wherever, it makes me, an adult, laugh.
If you had to give advice to an aspiring writer, what advice would you give?
Write it down. If you think of an idea or a line at 2:30 in the morning, get up and write it down, because it may not be there in morning. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to cold call or send a note to your favorite writers and heroes, the worst thing they can tell you is “NO”. You will never know until you try. Use social media, I know its scary to put yourself out there, but you can reach the world with your writing in one key stroke.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged Angus, Author, author interview, cattle, childrens books, Cowboy Poetry, equine, horses, Indiana, interview, kidlit, kids books, mule, mules, New York Book Festival, packing, picture book, poetry, Ranching, western, Western Heritage, Will Rodgers Medallion Award, Writer.
After the last blog post with female bronc rider Kaila Mussell, author Heidi M. Thomas contacted me about doing an interview. I won’t spoil the surprise, but Heidi’s background is a perfect follow-up to a bronc riding story, especially since the NFR 2015 has just started! Not only an award-winning prolific writer and editor, she’s an author with a strong western heritage that I think all of us horse lovers can relate to.
I loved the sense of freedom of living miles from a town, being able to run and play with no restrictions as a kid. Working with my parents taught me a sense of self-reliance, strong work-ethic and independence. Being around cows, horses, dogs and cats gave me a love for animals. And being without “technical amenities” gave me a love for reading and writing.
You also had a grandmother that rode bucking stock. What was it like growing up with a grandmother that rode roughstock?
I knew she loved riding and being outdoors more than anything in the world and we rode horses together numerous times. But I didn’t know she was a rodeo cowgirl until she passed away when I was 12. My dad and I were going through photo albums and he casually remarked, “Did you know your grandma rode bucking stock in rodeos?” Whoa! How cool was that! I filed that away in my brain until many years later when I was ready to write about her life.
I wish I could’ve asked her questions about that, but through stories my dad told me and my research, I learned that many girls naturally gravitated toward that sport. They, like my grandmother, grew up on ranches, riding with their dads, brothers and later, husbands out of necessity. Then when the men got together and decided to see who could stay on the back of that bucking bronc the longest, the girls said, “We can do that too!” Many started competing around age 14. Their families sometimes were accepting and sometimes not. It was socially unacceptable to wear men’s pants, travel and compete with men, and it was dangerous. The “old-time” cowboys didn’t think “girls” could ride and they didn’t like it when they were outridden by a woman.
What impact has your grandmother, and growing up on a ranch had on your writing?
It’s had a huge impact. From that casual remark by my dad have come four published books! Her life and my growing up on a ranch gave me a love and a first-hand feeling for the setting, which I think is an important part of my writing.
When did you start writing, and what were some of your challenges you faced when you started?
I like to say I was born with ink in my veins. I’ve been writing since I could form letters. I did get my degree in journalism from the University of Montana and worked for the newspaper in Missoula, then did several years of freelance writing for other publications. When I started writing fiction seriously, I found that although I had a good foundation through journalism, I had to learn to “show, not tell” and not to write so spare in the “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity” mode. After I’d written and polished my first manuscript to the best of my ability, I started to send it out and collect rejections. In that process I learned that I needed to study and practice my craft more, so I took a two-year certification course through the University of Washington in fiction writing. Then, it was a matter of finding a publisher once I was ready to submit. It took ten years from the time I started the book until it was published. I now have four published books: Cowgirl Dreams (1920s), Follow the Dream (1930s), Dare to Dream (1940s), and the nonfiction book, Cowgirl Up: A History of Rodeo Women.
What was your first book that was published? What was it like to finally see your work in print?
My first book was Cowgirl Dreams, the first of my “Dreams” trilogy, based on my grandmother. It was such a huge thrill to hold that first book in my hands! I was so excited and felt validated, that my dream was coming to fruition after all the years of hard work.
Are you a full-time writer? (If so, tell us how you got there, if not tell us your writing goals)
Yes, I consider that my vocation (as well as my avocation), along with freelance editing for other authors. I didn’t start writing books until after I had “retired” from a “regular” job, and I had a husband who was extremely supportive in all ways—my number one fan and cheerleader.
When do you do your best writing, and why?
I’m not a morning person, and I don’t have a set schedule, although I keep telling myself I need to! Mid-day and early afternoon are my best times. Also, I think from my journalism background, I find I write best with a deadline! I belong to a critique group that meets once a week, so that gives me my motivation!
You have written several books that have won awards. Tell us about those & the inspiration behind them.
They are a part of my “Cowgirl Dreams” trilogy. Cowgirl Dreams won an EPIC (Electronic Publishing) award and was a finalist in the USA Best Books competition. The sequel, Follow the Dream, won the coveted WILLA (named for Willa Cather) award from Women Writing the West. And of course, both are based on my grandmother’s life.
What is your latest book project?
I’m working on “the next generation” trilogy, based on my mother who came from Germany after WWII.
Any words of wisdom for other writers and those that aspire to write?
From my own experience, I’m glad my first novel did not get published when I first sent it out. Today, it’s become much easier to self-publish and it doesn’t carry the stigma it used to. But don’t be in a big hurry to publish your book. Learn and practice your craft. Take classes, read how-to books, and join or create a critique group. And when you’ve rewritten it for the 50th time and polished it to the best of your ability, hire an editor to go through it. Above all, perseverance is key. Don’t give up!
If you want to keep up with Heidi you can find her on social media –
Facebook: search Heidi M. Thomas, Author
Publisher buy-link: www.rowman.com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged AQHA, author interview, Authors, books, broncs, cattle, editing, ERA, Heidi M. Thomas, history, horses, interviews, National finals rodeo, NFR, PRCA, ranch, Ranching, rodeo, roughstock, Saddle Bronc, western, westerns, WPRA, writing.