The youngsters that adore the Rusty the Ranch Horse children’s book series would say the books are about a sweet, playful horse and his friends living and learning on a Wyoming ranch.
Mary and Roz Fichtner, the mother-daughter author-illustrator team of the series would agree … sort of. The books certainly feature their beloved Rusty, a real Wyoming ranch horse, but the books aren’t really about Rusty.
“They’re about the Code of the West. Courage. Integrity. Counting your blessings,” Mary said.
Rusty and Roz grew up together, Mary said as she poured Rusty’s breakfast oats into his feeding bucket one morning at their home near Casper. Their family bought Rusty from his original owners in Laramie. Rusty was Roz’s 4H and rodeo horse as a kid. Roz even learned to ride English-style with Rusty – a phase that didn’t stick.
Rusty was Roz’s favorite horse to round up cattle, Mary recalled.
“Roz would just jump on Rusty bareback and be gone,” she said. “He’s just that all-around great horse that you look for your whole life.”
These days, Roz is off at college studying to be an art teacher, her three older brothers are living with their families, and Rusty is peacefully retired from ranch work. An injury – probably sustained while playing with another horse – left him with a subtle limp that meant he could no longer be ridden.
So Rusty is simply a beloved pet now, and still a gentle soul, Mary said. She feeds Thunder, Rusty’s mini-horse friend (and a character in the newest Rusty book) separately because Rusty will let the little guy nudge him out of his own food bucket.
Even though Roz and Mary can’t ride Rusty anymore, they can put him in their books.
Mary started writing the Rusty stories – at least, in her head – when her kids were young, and they would read so-called Western books together.
“We’d laugh because we could all tell they were not written by people who really knew or understood the West or real ranches and cowboys,” she said.
So, Mary started writing her own stories about the genuine Western way of life, featuring their real working ranch horse. Each rhyming story tells a simple tale and teaches an important life lesson.
At first, she struggled to find an illustrator for her stories. One person she tried lived in California and couldn’t quite get the horse’s proportions just right. At that point, Roz started to demonstrate a real talent for watercolor, Mary said.
“She’s been around Rusty her whole life, so she can paint him perfectly,” she said.
Roz’s bright, colorful style breathed life into Mary’s stories and the two began a working relationship.
“I can’t believe how much the books have taken off,” Mary said. “People love them. They love the back-to-basics concepts. They love the West. There’s something about the lifestyle that’s addicting. It’s just magical.”
The relationship she’s built with her daughter has been one of the best parts of this experience, Mary added.
Recently, Mary started working with another Wyoming youngster who handmakes stuffed Rusty toys and has been saving up since she was 3 years old to buy a horse. Mary buys the stuffed toys from the 15-year-old and sells them alongside the books.
Mary reported her young colleague recently bought her own horse.
Mary could have gone overseas for mass-produced stuffed horses, and saved some money doing so, she said. But besides writing about the Code of the West, she does her best to live by it. And that means spending a little more to help a friend.
“It’s the Western way,” she said. “We love and support our neighbors.”
Remember to look first for Made in Wyoming products this holiday season, and check out our Shoppers Guide for more unique, giftable items that support your hardworking neighbors.