I typically stick with interviewing speculative fiction authors and the like, but as you know from my mission statement, its important to me that people live a full life. That’s why I was so impressed with today’s interviewee. I met Lynn Reardon at the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference in June. Not only did she have great advice for writers, but she was also a warm and funny individual working for a good cause. Lynn, with her Texas based organization LOPE, helps to find good homes for retired racehorses. She started this organization after leaving a cushy job in Washington D.C. She wanted something more than money out of life. When you meet someone like that, you just have to share.

Diaz: What did you do prior to founding LOPE?

Reardon: I did accounting and office administrative work for nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC. It was a well-paid, respectable career path, but not very interesting or adventurous.

Diaz: You’re finally living your dream, enjoying the life of a cowgirl. What attracted you to that lifestyle and how did you make the transition?

Reardon: I grew up in the suburbs and never really fit in there. My favorite childhood activity was to wander in the local woods, following creeks – and hoping I’d run into a horse grazing somewhere nearby. The first time I saw a western film (The Magnificent Seven), I was hooked – I wanted to ride horses out in the open range, squint at people and look tremendously tough.

My transition to the cowgirl lifestyle was not particularly smooth or Disney pretty. I didn’t learn to ride until I was an adult. And, as several instructors pointed out, I was not exactly a natural at it either (I was a tense, overly cautious rider). Even though horseback riding lessons were hard on my ego, I kept at it – trading barn work for lessons, exercising polo ponies for free, whatever I could do to improve my skills on a budget. One day, I was given a tour of the stables at a racetrack. I fell in love with the racehorses, with their big hearts and competitive spirits.

Eventually, my husband and I decided to move to Texas to pursue our particular dreams (I wanted to be a cowgirl, he wanted a creative career). Within two years, we had managed to acquire a small ranch, open a nonprofit racehorse adoption program and launch into our current lifestyle of horses, farm management and perpetual dishevelment.

Diaz: What about the lifestyle surprised you most?

Reardon: First, running a ranch requires much more skills and physical strength than I realized. I had to become competent in a hurry – on a ranch, you don’t get any points for simply trying or for saying, “I’m sorry” when you drop a ball (or giant tool or hay equipment). Ranch tasks must be completed and done properly – otherwise, the horses (and wildlife) will have to take the consequences of your carelessness. It gave me a whole new perspective on what frontier life must have been like in history and greatly increased respect for farmers and ranchers today.

Second, I was stunned by how much wildlife our 26-acre ranch contained. It doesn’t seem wild or untamed here – there is a gas station across the street! But we have encountered rattlesnakes, deer, wild pigs, a mountain lion, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, possums, road runners, vultures, hawks, owls, herons, lizards of all types, enormous spiders, scorpions and (most memorably) a giant, prehistoric-looking tortoise creature that crawled from the creek to our deck, sunbathed for ten minutes and then slunk back into the water. Very Stephen King.

Diaz: How does your organization help animals?

Reardon: Our organization is LOPE (“LoneStar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers”) and we help ex-racehorses find new careers and homes after their track careers are over. LOPE helps the horses through our adoption ranch facility and online services. Racehorses are like NFL athletes – they have tons of talent and heart. When they can no longer race, they excel at all kinds of other careers (trail riding, jumping, ranch work, roping or just being a great pet).

They just need a transition between their racing career and their second life in another endeavor. LOPE provides that transition – we rehab their sports injuries, give them an outdoorsy, natural herd environment, assess their personalities and restart them back into riding (a less speedy version this time).

There are many negative myths about ex-racehorses. In the horse adoption world, they have similar reputations as pit bulls in dog adoption. So, LOPE also does a great deal of public education, to let people know that ex-racehorses make great riding horses and are fun to retrain.

Diaz: What has been your greatest triumph during this new chapter in your life?

Reardon: It’s hard to think of one great triumph – but there have been many small victories. I am finally learning to be a calmer, less nervous rider. I still have a long way to go, but the ex-racehorses are excellent teachers. I can now drive a big truck and pull a horse trailer without frightening me, the horses or other drivers on the road. When I started this work, I was hugely squeamish about any vet tasks. While I’m still not super excited about blood, I have learned to give shots, assist at equine tracheotomies, treat lacerations, clean out abscesses and stick a gloved finger into a puncture wound to determine its depth and severity.

When you add all of those up, I guess my biggest triumph is that I’ve become a much gamer, hardier person – and a more worthy steward for the ex-racehorses.

Diaz: What has been the greatest defeat?

Reardon: I can’t think of any true defeats. You’re not defeated until you say so – and I’m a very stubborn (if non-traditional) competitor.

Diaz: You wrote a book, Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve learned from Saving Horses. What made you decide to write?

Reardon: During the first two years of the adoption ranch, I felt like an imposter all of the time. I had no credentials or skills to be running the ranch and working with these horses. So, I tried to hide that from everyone (horses, race trainers, adopters) and secretly searched for horse training mentors to help me become more of an expert.

The horses kept coming and coming – a total of nearly 40 horses were donated the first year alone. My adventures were not always funny – I made many (literally) painful mistakes. Several times I considered backing out of the whole enterprise – but the idea of working with spreadsheets again was too horrific.

I had a very moving experience at an equine expo – and realized for the first time why I was indeed qualified to do this work. After that event, as I walked out of the arena, I knew that a significant arc and lesson had just ended in my life. And I wanted to write a book about it.

I studied writing in school, but never wrote anything after graduation (other than entertaining emails to friends). Working with the ex-racehorses has taught me so much about stoicism, courage and passion. They gave me something big enough to write about – for the first time ever.

The subtitle of my book is “What I’ve Learned from Saving Racehorses.” But the reality is that the horses saved me – from a dull, ordinary life lacking  purpose, adventure and growth.

The book is my way of thanking them.

Diaz: How has the book affected your organization’s efforts?

Reardon: The book has really helped get the word out about not only LOPE’s work, but also about ex-racehorses in general. Our adoption and placement rates are up. Plus I get emails every week from people all over the US – they tell me how much they loved the horses in the book and that they are now considering adopting an ex-racehorse or volunteering for a horse group.

The book was finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, a very prestigious equine literature award given in the Thoroughbred racing industry. Because of that, I was invited to contribute to the New York Times racing column – and that boosted LOPE’s efforts with national funding groups.

Diaz: What advice do you have for someone thinking about a life change?

Reardon: As a former accounting professional, I understand being afraid or uncertain about major life changes (especially if you are feeling economically insecure). There are no guarantees that a big change will pay off in traditional ways or be a gently self-actualizing experience.

But this was the best advice I ever received:

“Let me respectfully remind you –

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost,

Each of us should strive to awaken, awaken!

Take heed. Do not squander your life.”

–Buddhist prayer

(taped to my accounting office desk back in DC)