Eighteen years ago on a late summer’s afternoon, I stood at the sleek concrete counter in the kitchen of my friend and business mentor, David, and poured a set of Caesars on the steel grey surface; the Calgary steak house-invented variety, made with vodka, clamato juice, spices and a few dashes of hot sauce, the wet rim of the glass dipped in celery salt, and finally garnished with olives and a pickled asparagus stem. His home was in Britannia, an upscale neighbourhood of Calgary built and still inhabited by a high culture of movers and shakers of the West. With modernist architecture, powerful ties to the historical West, and home to some of the province’s boldest thinkers – just a few doors down, the leader of the former Reform Party of Canada was searing a couple of steaks on his barbecue – Britannia symbolizes the individuality, self-reliance and affluence that followed the 1947 Leduc crude oil discovery in the province.
My mentor was the consummate archetype of the quintessential rags to riches westerner narrative, having shaped up a sizable commercial construction fiefdom from a humble, if not penury start. As a still somewhat freshly minted magazine publisher, I found myself pointing the nose of my truck often to his corner of the West, inhaling the common sense acumens he belched out: Throwing yourself at it harder won’t magically make it successful, kid. (In reference to an ill thought-out new publication we kicked off). You gotta think about creating a demand, don’t wait for it! (This translated to a more viable trade publication we were lucky enough to bring in to our fold). Take a loan if you must, never lease, unless you like lining someone else’s pockets. (A practical observation that led to owning our own office space).
Somehow, being there, in that scene, listening to him reminded me that some things could and must be cooked up from scratch, and that these things were sometimes the most worthwhile, and that possibly, anything was possible. Back then, the fear of failure was potent within me, and after a week of pounding my head against it, I often craved a stiff reminder – in the form of Caesars and Davidisms – to that notion.
On this night we sat on the front porch, with our faces to the West watching the sun set into the Rocky Mountains, the peaks glowing peach-golden and the layers of range nightshades of bruised aubergines and blues. We clinked our glasses and picked the food out of our drinks, my dusty white dually that David liked to poke fun at, parked on the street in front of us reminding me – amid the curbside appeal of the resident Beamers – of a shy and big-hipped country girl at the debutante ball. We chatted about business and life, our usual small talk. I was idly musing over an intern hiring decision I had the weekend to mull over. I had narrowed the field down to two – I liked one over the other, but I worried my preference was overloaded. “She has her schoolwork, a part-time job and she’s a polo groom. I like her, David, but I mean, she’s already buried. Don’t you think?”
He shot out the classic old-school counsel I loved him for: If you want to get something done, give it to someone busy. It’s as simple as that, kiddo.
And so I hired Jennifer Schneider MacRae. After a successful internship, and completing her Equine Sciences Business Management diploma at Olds College, she came on fulltime as assistant editor, and rose up through the masthead (mag-speak for that ego-column of contributors and staff that falls in the first few pages of an issue). In the manner of a heady young filly she grew each year just a little bit more, coming into herself as a writer and finally, evolving into a real thinker of the western horse industry. She stepped back for a break, married a man the rest of us at the magazine collectively and wholeheartedly endorsed–trainer Clay Webster–and a few years later, made her own little contribution to the western world, a bright set of twins. She’s been Managing Editor for the past several years, and last week, we signed the papers that completed the sale of the magazine to Western Performance Publishing. Clay and Jennifer Webster now own Western Horse Review.
The truth is it feels much more like a succession plan, than a sale. Working with the Western Horse Review team has always been a privilege. I can’t begin to name people, there were simply too many, and we were all a part of the publication’s energy and chronicle. Over the years, we penned the stories of so many horses and people. We wholeheartedly went to bat for all the nuances of diversity in the western way of life. We championed the diamonds in the rough and heralded the grittiest competitors. We honored the builders and paid our sincere tributes to those who left our midst.
Sometimes I felt a little like the girl in the dually back in Britannia, a curious observer parting the tall grasses and peering into the backyards of a world I was still just beginning to comprehend the true significance of. Over the years of studying the people of the West, I gradually pieced together for myself just how unique and extraordinary our western culture, amid this open space and endless sky, and the horse central to it, truly is.
Throughout my tenure, I kept a single piece of paper stuck to the inside of my desk drawer, on it the quote of an editor I idolized–Tina Brown: Always have something–be it a little or a big piece–in each issue that shocks your readership. That advice seeded some of our most poignant pieces. We didn’t always follow conventional magazine rules. We rather evolved into a set of our own, and frankly sometimes did just what we wanted, harboring a sort of quiet confidence in our ability to read the horse industry, and the magazine’s readership. I’ll admit it didn’t always fly with everyone. When we wrote about Canadian equine slaughter plants, readers renounced their subscriptions, wrote vehement letters, and called us irresponsible and swayed. We raised the ire of a particular eastern-based national equine association, when we leaked the news of their national horse identification plot, intended to be shoved down the throats (my words) of all Canadian horse owners. We mustered up our attitude, calling it a money-grab and un-western, likening it to the now infamous gun registry. We like to think the floodgate of protesting response was at least a teeny bit culpable for the stalling and eventual decline of the program.
These journalistic perks nurtured our creativity, but on an everyday basis it was a nose to grindstone attitude that finished off and sent to press each issue on deadline. It was a lot more about sweat and tears than it was about glory, but then the magazine also became simply a part of our extended families, on our kitchen counters, discussed late at night across the wavelengths, tossed into the mix of our everyday lives.
Western Horse Review now has a sagacious and dedicated new publisher. I can’t wait to witness what Jenn and her team will scheme up and pursue. The western horse world is in a wildly interesting period of reinventing itself, out of necessity and driven by a new generation. I have no doubt the writing the WHR team will do in the future will eclipse anything we’ve done in the past, as it should.
Thank you, all of you, for being a part of a neat and bright magazine. In a sometimes frighteningly homogenized world, thank you for continuing to embrace the western code of independence, attitude, grit and identity we at the magazine have become so proud to align with. I know you’ll continue to enjoy the ride.
Later this afternoon, I will take the dogs out for a walk, down the blind road to and along the backside of a small lake south of my log house, this time of year noisy with Canadian geese and other waterfowl on the run south. Quite possibly, Jake the cow boss from the nearby Hutterite colony will pass by in his black Ford truck, and he’ll stop and we’ll talk a bit – cattle and hay prices, horse ailments, the new neighbors, the ever-encroaching city – the usual roadside topics. Invariably he’ll get around to the magazine – he’s a fervent reader, and in his unruffled way likes to let me know he’s keeping up – and comment on a story from the past issue. I’ll tell him I’ve passed it on, and I imagine his pragmatic response will be something along the line of, “well, you’re gonna miss that for a while, I guess you will.” Yes, I will, and in my mind then, as I have often, I’ll mentally acknowledge the debt owed to having been a part of such an incomparable journey.