California-based cartoonist and graphic designer Jody Livak Werner recently won first place in the Equestrian Social Media Awards for her advice column Dear Murray.
The humor column, which swept onto the Facebook scene and attracted 20,000 fans in a few short months, offered a horse’s perspective on all those silly humans who ride them. Via a clever collaboration with her beloved off-track Thoroughbred Murray, Werner used humor to get at the nub of life with horses.
In the Dear Murray column, frustrated horses would “write” to the all-knowing ex-racehorse, whose Jockey Club name was Phantom Writer, asking for advice on topics such as “nervous human” riders—to which Murray often advised administration of a “calming agent” — a.k.a. beer.
Five days a week, Werner and her equine partner of 20 years hammered out funny, quirky columns to an adoring fan base. And, even after Murray died suddenly, in the peak of health, after a stall accident in August 2012, Werner continued the column for an audience that is helping her as much as she helps them.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, on what would have been Murray’s 26 birthday, Werner discusses her phenomenal Murray—the horse she never fell from, who took home more blue ribbons than she can count, and who was the best life partner she ever had.
Q: How did Murray come into your life?
He literally just fell into my lap. I had just found a wonderful home for my older Appendix Quarter Horse, and I was looking for my next horse on a zero budget. Not everybody with horses has deep pockets, and my trainer at the time, Dawn Casey, had heard about a horse who’d been starved and abused, and they sent me a little videotape of him.
Q: The video showed you his desire to please people, even after suffering at their hands.
Here was this horse who was shaggy, his tail chewed off, who was 300 pounds underweight, and he was free-jumping five-foot square Oxers for them. They waved their hands around and he was clearly choosing to do this for them.
Q: And then the horse in the video arrived at your place.
It was January 1, 1994 when they brought him in my trailer and left him. They said keep him for a while, and see what you think. He stepped off the trailer and he looked like a train wreck.
His personality was pretty crusty at first. He’d pin his ears and he chased me out of his stall. Clearly he had a lot of baggage. But, once he figured things out, after about a week, he started to follow me around like a puppy.
Q: From those humble beginnings, a show horse was made in no time.
When he arrived in January, he could trot and gallop. By November of the same year, we were winning 3-foot amateur adult hunter classes. We were winning championships within several months of me getting him.
Normally I would not rush a horse in training, but he was such a fast learner. I’d show him something and it was if he would say, “OK! OK! I get it. I’m bored.”
He was the most incredible horse that I ever had the pleasure to sit on. We went on to do the 3-6, and you asked me about highlights of our career, and I realized that everyday was such a highlight. He always came out of the ring with blue ribbons and championships. And yet, he was the laziest Thoroughbred you’ve ever seen. I could barely get him to go. But when he entered the ring, he’d perk up and turn it on for two minutes, win, and then go back to sleep.
Q: How did the Dear Murray column materialize?
At one point, I changed barns, and we decided we should do a barn newsletter. You know how this is, everybody said they’d contribute, but in the end, it was pretty much up to me. So I decided to give Murray his own newsletter. I made up the letters to him, and the answers.
And the newsletter went up on the barn’s website, and I started to throw my cartoons and a couple of Dear Murray columns up on my Facebook page, and my fans loved it.
I gave Dear Murray his own Facebook page in May 2012 and it took off. The sad thing was that I lost him in August 2012.
Q: At this point, the Dear Murray column and fans became even more important to you.
After I told his Facebook fans that Murray had “gone over the Rainbow Bridge,” I got emails from compete strangers who’d lost their horses. These complete strangers got me through it.
Murray died in perfect health, in the safety of his stall. Somehow, in the middle of the night, he shattered his leg. It happened eight months ago, but it feels like it just happened.
After he died, people flocked to the page. They shared some really poignant stories of their own losses, and the page became a support system for people who have lost their horses. I don’t know where else I would have gotten through this except on his page, and through the kindness of strangers.
Q: Although Murray is gone, it seems his spirit lives on in Dear Murray.
The column has become something bigger than I ever imagined. By using his voice, it comforts others, and it helps keep him alive for me. I’ve been asked by fans to write a book, and I have every intention of doing it, it’s just a matter of finding the time.
Q: In the meantime, you recently won the Equine Social Media Award for Best Talking Animal. That must have been quite an honor!
Dear Murray was a finalist in two categories, the talking animal and best newcomer. After a two-month voting period, the winners were chosen by a combination of the public vote and an expert panel. The public vote accounted for 25 percent of the final score, and the expert panel, which was made up of 30 professionals, accounted for the other 75 percent.
Based on that, he won Best Talking Animal.
It was really a nice icing on the cake for me, and all I could think was that Murray won everything when he was here, and now he keeps on winning, even though he’s in horse heaven.