Remembering Diego: Who Trains Who


Last month we said farewell to our fourteen-year-old faithful companion, Diego. Here is a story I wrote about him published in “More Than Best Friends – An Anthology in Support of Guide Dogs for the Blind,” by Kevin Morris. Diego was a special dog and lives on in our hearts and memories.  

I had decided to get a dog because my husband mentioned he wanted a dog. Since he was on a business trip, I decided I would go visit the county pound. That visit resulted in me bringing home the best dog I’ve ever had. I can’t say I own him because it’s more like he owns me.

Sitting in a cage, nose on the cold floor, the dog in front of me was quite the contrast to the surrounding others who were yipping, barking, and craving attention. His sad brown eyes looked up at me, his tail thumped, and he licked his dry lips. Something about this particular dog drew me in.

Dull black coat. Nasty cut across the nose. No excitement. There was nothing about this dog to make him stand out among the two hundred others up for adoption at the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter—nothing except those tired, soulful eyes begging me to give him a chance. I marked him as a possibility on my piece of scrap paper and moved to the next row.

I found an adorable female black Labrador retriever puppy with the enthusiasm of a typical puppy. The attendant brought her out of her cage to the play room, and she jumped and licked and wagged her tail saying “take me home!” I looked at a tawny Chow Chow puppy resembling a living stuffed animal. I realized neither of these dogs would have trouble finding a home. In fact, they both had several applications in on them for their adoption already.

I thought I’d take another look at the lonely, sullen pup. His cage tag read: “Labrador mix, 1 year, stray – Capitol Heights, Md.” I noted the date of his pick-up: 14 days earlier. This wasn’t a no-kill shelter, meaning his days were numbered. He didn’t have a single application in on him. The attendant took us to the play room. The poor dog was so exhausted he laid down, a vast difference from the last puppy. I petted his head. He lifted it, sat up, and put his head in my lap. My decision was easy.

I’d had dogs most of my life, but never a lab; although I had always wanted one, due to their disposition. This new pup was black, scruffy, and seemed eager to please. He came willingly with me to my car and trembled the entire ride home, likely recalling where he ended up at the end of his last vehicle ride. When I stopped, he hesitated, but trusted, and came with me into our house. Once inside, he explored and sniffed, navigated the stairs, inspected the rooms, and plopped on a rug by the back door. He was home.

A visit to the vet confirmed he had kennel cough, treatable with medication and rest. This explained his listlessness. The vet guessed the puppy was closer to six months old than a year, but overall was in good shape. A good bath, grooming, medication, good food, and lots of love were the prescription he needed. Within weeks, I had a happy, healthy new member of the family. My husband was surprised by the new addition, but realized I had made a good choice. We named our dog Diego, after San Diego, California, where we had met.

As Diego matured, his mix looked like he might have some Rottweiler or pit bull in him. If that was the case, I wanted to know. During our vet visit, I had read about dog DNA testing. I ordered the kit, swabbed his cheek, sent off the sample, and waited. It’s not like Diego would go anywhere no matter what he turned out to be, but I’m a curious person.

When we received the results, my husband said, “The card on Diego’s cage should have read laboratory mix instead of Labrador mix.”

Diego’s canine heritage revealed at least five breeds in his background. In the days of designer dogs, there couldn’t be a better mix. Loyal, protective, smart, handsome, silly, and fun. He talks like a miniature schnauzer, protects like an Akita, herds like a Border collie, struts like a Chow Chow, and loves like a Shih Tzu. We chuckled at the Shih Tzu, wondering how our 70-pound puppy had a toy breed in the mix. But it made sense. The Shih Tzu is also known as the little lion, and one of its characteristics is the expressive eyes. We had already nicknamed him Mufasa, from The Lion King, because of the way he rules his yard kingdom. And those eyes….

Diego showed me right away how easily he could be trained. Housebreaking was a snap. We purchased an underground fence system. And when the installer spent a few minutes showing how to train the dog on the system, even he remarked how trainable my puppy was. What I didn’t know at the time was the talent Diego would also have in training me.

Not that I could stop it if I wanted to.

And so Diego trained me that once I have my running clothes on, I cannot get in my car without him. In the morning, he follows me into the bedroom to see which attire I choose. If it’s work clothes, he takes his position on the porch, still watchful, but not anticipating his run. If I pull out Nike shorts, he turns in circles, speaks like a schnauzer, and hops like a small child, telling me he’s ready to go. I cannot get in my car without him.

Yes, Diego trained me just as easily as I had trained him. “My” run has now become “our” routine. And the other dogs? They get it. My husband and I take the three together about once a month. But the girl dogs seem to understand that if it’s only me, it’s only Diego. Diego has trained them, too.

My mom says dogs never forget who rescued them, and she should know, having rescued her fair share herself. Every day, while the other two dogs bound out of the house to go chase squirrels, hunt moles, or lay in the sun, my Diego stays behind to make sure I am protected. He maintains his station, turns his eyes up, thumps his tail, and licks his lips, as he did on our first meeting. I, in turn, scratch the top of his head and tell him how special he is. We both know how lucky we are that we found, and have, each other, no matter who is training who.

Christmas painting by my mom, Flo Ormond, who instilled in me a love of dogs – Diego at the Beach.

Returning Freedom to Those Who Fought for Ours

In honor of the final day of Veterans Month, I share a story I wrote that appeared in the Inside the Gate magazine last month.

Veteran patients from Walter Reed Medical Center didn’t know horses would help them. Gold Star Mothers didn’t realize how equine relationships would evolve. And military families weren’t aware of local horse facilities and the joy they would bring their children. Horses Help Heroes marched in and made a difference.

Dean Tracy, a service-disabled U.S. Marine Corps veteran, established the Maryland-based 501(c)(3) non-profit Horses Help Heroes in 2016. His goal was to enrich the lives of veterans and their families through equine-related programs in safe environments. He offers all programs at no cost to veterans and families.

Horses Help Heroes works with licensed stables in Maryland including Great Escape Stables in South Bowie and Clarity Riding in Davidsonville. Tracy works with the farms to develop events ranging from veteran encounters with horses to family days including pony rides.

A Walter Reed veteran program participant said, “This is the best therapy there is. I never want to miss a visit.” The U.S. Marine Corps gave him a five percent chance to live following his combat-inflicted traumatic brain injuries. And now, the horses are helping him heal.

Social worker Claire McCawley supports the Horses Help Heroes mission as one of its all-volunteer force. She said, “There is so much research that supports animal-assisted therapy. One of the problems with people undergoing serious medical treatment, like many of the people in this program, is the isolation for them. Bringing them out to connect with the animals in a non-intrusive way acts as a medium for more social interaction. This is such a great program.”

Horses Help Heroes is unique in that it also supports Gold Star families. Gold Star families are those that have lost a family member during conflicts. One of Horses Help Heroes’ champions is Janice Chance, President of Maryland’s Gold Star Mothers. She is the proud mother of fallen Captain Jesse Melton III, U.S Marine Corps, killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. Chance rallies other Gold Star Mothers and families to attend events and support the program. She even rides herself, choosing her namesake pony, “Chance.”

“We are all blessed to be here,” she said as she smiled wide and enjoyed Chance’s peaceful, rocking ride around Great Escape Stables’ arena.

Elizabeth Ratliff, an active duty U.S. Coast Guard member, saw a Horses Help Heroes event posted on Facebook. She and her husband Curt, a Marine Corps veteran, brought their 2-year-old daughter, Emilee, all the way from Glen Burnie to come meet, pet, and ride a horse at Great Escape Stables.

Young Emilee didn’t fear the animal six times her height. She reached up to pet his nose and giggled when the pony snorted at her. Emilee rode for the first time and learned much from the day including, “The horsey says neigh.”

Emilee’s mom said, “I never knew there were places like this, and it’s such a joy to get the family out in the country and experience this. We will be back.”

The owner of Great Escape Stables, Stephanie Hedlund, said, “I really like working with this program. It’s great to see people click with the horses, and it’s such a positive experience for everyone. I’m glad we can help, and I look forward to hosting more events in the future.”

For more information about the program, to donate, or to volunteer, please see www.horseshelpheroes.org, and https://www.facebook.com/horseshelpheroes.org/. Founder Dean Tracy can also be reached at info@horseshelpheroes.org and 240-696-1732.

by Valerie Ormond

A Lucky Call to Serve

So excited to share this story featured in the beautiful Sidelines magazine. I had the opportunity to write this story about inspiring young Jessica Groen, her road to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and her special connection with our horse, Lucky. (Click above for full story.)

Lucky also happens to be a central character in books Believing In Horses and Believing In Horses, Too and has appeared in this blog frequently over the years.

Thank you to the Groen family and the Sidelines editorial staff for helping tell this story.

Benefits of Horseback Riding


Please welcome guest blogger Mike Shortridge –  all the way from Australia!

Horseback riding is an enjoyable pastime for all ages and can be a fun hobby. But it also comes with amazing benefits including offering good exercise and helping to strengthen your muscles.

A ride provides significant exercise, but also offers benefits including improved balance, coordination, and even a meditative effect, helping riders forget about everyday stresses for the duration of the ride.

We caught up with Russ from horseseller.com.au and asked for his top ten ways in which horseback riding can benefit your overall health. Here they are. [Read more…]

Carly Kade Creative


I had a chance to visit in person with Carly Kade during the American Horse Publications 2018 Conference, and I don’t think I know of anyone with a more appropriate business name than “Carly Kade Creative.” She does it all – writes, creates videos, does graphic design, takes photographs, and has amazing marketing talent.

I first met Carly virtually when I featured her post on book reviews, which then led me to learn more about her award-winning equine romance novels. Here is my review of her first book, In the Reins. [Read more…]

Creating and Managing Successful Internships

Maryland Horse Council Intern Holden Rafey interviewing Olympian Joe Fargis (photo courtesy of Holden Rafey)

I landed my first professional job at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Md., after serving as an intern while a student at Towson University. At 21-years-old, I became the station’s assistant Public Relations Officer with real duties and responsibilities and had the opportunity to work with industry icons like Oprah Winfrey. I owe that job and experience to my supervisor during my internship, Joyce Kashima. [Read more…]