I grew up as the clichéd horse-crazy, city kid. Aside from doodling horse heads on my English papers, I wrote copious short stories about wild, red-haired girls and their faithful steeds. When I graduated from high school, I diverted off of the normal college-bound track and became a horse trainer.
For five years, I traveled North America and Europe working at training barns, showing horses, and earning very little pay – but great job satisfaction. At least until 2000 when my world came to an abrupt halt.
A skittish horse and bad luck left me sitting on a spinal board for ten hours in the emergency room while doctors debated just how badly my back was broken. Two compressed vertebra and some very stiff muscles convinced me that a career change was in order.
I languished for a year, hovering in the no-man’s land of career transitions, taking some admin jobs and writing off and on for myself. Marriage was followed by a baby, and soon I was a stay at home mom with no formal education and a shaky employment history. (Try applying for an admin job with ‘breaks and trains horses’ as past experience!)
On a lark, I submitted an article to a start up, non-profit magazine that covered a specific niche market in the horse industry. It was accepted hungrily and, for the first time, I saw my name in print. Gradually it began to dawn on me that there weren’t that many writers in Canada who wrote specifically on the western horse industry. Hold on there, Tonto, we have a niche market here!
I was very pleasantly surprised one evening when the editor of Canada’s largest western horse magazine contacted me to offer me a column. She’d seen an the article I’d written for the non-profit. After I dusted myself off, I coolly responded with a professional query about the terms of payment and specific details. The negotiation lasted a very short time, and I came out of it ahead of the game with a set amount each month in addition to advertising credit within the magazine.
From there, my confidence grew. I queried, I wrote, I edited. I knew the horse industry inside and out from the five years of ‘informal education’ I had previously dismissed. Nothing in a university or college could have taught me the slight nuances that can make or break an article on horses. Terminology is key. And improper use can label a writer as a ‘greenhorn’ in no time.
Today, while I still maintain a full-time job, I write regularly for four different magazines, and am consistently given my assignments of choice. And gradually I’m diversifying into other markets of interest.
Heather McCutcheon is a single mother, writer, and salesperson in Calgary, Alberta. Her credits include the Northern Horse Review, the Quarter Horse News, the Reiner, and Canadian Cowboy Country. Her motto remains “when life bucks you off, sometimes it’s okay to stare at the sky and take stock for a while”.