“My mantra is I’m living the dream,” said Laine Sklar. “My horse in my backyard.”
In early October, Sklar moved her dressage horse, Paladin SF, or “PJ,” home and acquired two rescued miniature donkeys, Tanner and Amore, to keep the 10-year-old Arabian/Trakehner (Aul Magic—Padua Go) company. Not every upper level dressage horse can claim best friends of the long-eared persuasion, but PJ gets jealous when the donkeys pay more attention to her than they do him.
“What amazing little creatures,” Sklar said of the donkeys. “I had no experience with donkeys before I got them, you read about them and how they are such soulful animals, and you are like ‘whatever.’”
But she said, the billing is accurate, and they really are quite soulful.
Sklar’s animals and riding are respite from a fulfilling but stressful job as the town magistrate of Marana, Ariz. Sklar is the sole judge for the Marana Municipal Court, and she deals with issues such as criminal misdemeanors, civil traffic violations, injunctions against harassment and orders of protection.
People don’t think of misdemeanors as a big deal, but Sklar notes they have a big impact on their lives.
Injunctions against harassment and orders of protection are often a result of felonious criminal behaviors, such as stalking and assault. “You certainly hear some horrendous factual situations,” she said.
Sklar laughingly calls herself a “typical dressage person” in that she is a self-described perfectionist and control freak. She graduated college in only three years, then went to law school, graduating from the University of Arizona in 2003. By 2006 she was Marana’s assistant town attorney, then later senior assistant town attorney, supervising the Marana’s Prosecutor’s Office. In the fall of 2015, the Town Council appointed her magistrate, the first female to hold the position in Marana’s history.
In addition to her work as a judge, Sklar fits in hiking and volunteering with her riding schedule. And she gives frequent talks on diversity and implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias. Implicit bias comes from associations in the subconscious that cause people, even people who strive for impartiality such as judges, to “have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance,” according to Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute, which studies the phenomenon.
An example of implicit bias would be pediatricians who are more apt to prescribe painkillers to white patients rather than black patients, as seen in a 2012 study.
As part of her position before becoming a judge, Sklar was a police legal advisor. At a conference she attended on policing, the topic of implicit bias arose. Once appointed to the bench, she thought, “This would be a really good time for me to learn about myself and how I make decisions.” Sklar then read the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and took the tests in the book to learn what her biases were.
“Because it’s unconscious,” she said of implicit bias, “the best way to tackle it is to know more about yourself.” In her own work she uses this knowledge to make extra sure she uses reason and rational thought in her decision-making and not make kneejerk reactions.
The reception to Sklar’s presentations on the topic have been good, she said, even in Arizona, a state the national press portrays as a hotbed of reactionary politics. She’s spoken on the issue before prosecutors, civil litigators, women lawyers, judges and court staff. “I hope, and I think legal scholars in general want to make decisions for the right reasons,” she said.
And Sklar’s found that even if there are one or two people in the room who think “this is a hoax, this doesn’t apply to me,” those people often tend to ask a question or make a comment and that becomes a jumping off point for discussion about common experiences.
But once she leaves the judge’s bench and gets on PJ, Sklar’s focused on riding. “You can’t focus on anything except for you and the horse. It takes you to a place where you forget the troubles in the world, and you don’t have to worry about the pressures of everyday life and what’s waiting for you back at the office,” she said.
Since moving PJ home, Sklar has traded the commute to the barn for stall cleaning and barn responsibilities. Working an 8-5 job means getting up 4 a.m. to do stalls and ride before work, then stalls again and taking PJ for a walk again in the evenings after work. Sklar does it on her own but also has a good community of people to support her in her dream, something she stresses is really important.
She lessons once a week with Jennifer Parker of Agape Dressage, who Sklar said is not only her trainer, but one of her best friends. Parker’s been part of Sklar’s journey with PJ from the very beginning.
Sklar purchased PJ as an 18-month-old and started him with groundwork and then later under saddle, doing all the work herself. Originally, Parker and Sklar worried that PJ might be a little small for her—he came in at around 15 hands when she got him—but now standing a towering 17 hands, his size makes it hard to believe his sire was an Arabian.
Sklar and PJ count among their accomplishments being Arizona adult amateur state champion at first, second and third level. The pair has competed successfully through fourth level and are now shooting for Prix St. Georges and the FEI.
“Aside from few lessons on schoolmasters, PJ is the most trained horse I’ve ridden,” she said. Previous to PJ, Sklar had shown through second level and done one show at third on a horse she had borrowed.
Sklar makes sure PJ’s weekly training regime includes trail rides. She laughs that the chestnut gelding’s Arabian/Trakhener breeding, make him “hot and hot,” and she said while the gelding can be “pretty tense in an unfamiliar environment, I’ve had him so long he looks to me for confidence.” He has an overachieving nature, she added.
Moving PJ back home has meant the gelding has had some new adventures. “He’s fairly convinced he’s been deposited in a wild animal park,” Sklar said.
The quail they run into on rides, “are like self-fulfilling prophecies for a nervous horse. They make a lot of noise on the ground, then don’t fly away until you are right on top of them.”
And not long after moving PJ and the donkeys in, a herd of javelina (similar to wild pigs) figured out how to get into the grain can and were “having parties after dark.”
PJ and his donkey pals had been greeting Sklar in the mornings with a whinny and a bray, but she got there one morning, and they were huddled together. “The pigs were gone, but PJ is like, ‘I know they are coming back!’” she said.
She reassured him, “PJ, they are herbivores and scavengers; they won’t eat you.”
Thanks to moving PJ home and working to build the barn and arena as well as put lighting in, Sklar won’t show much this season, but looking ahead, and past the marauding wild javelina’s, Sklar has set her sights on taking PJ all the way to the Grand Prix and getting her silver and gold U.S. Dressage Federation medals. “I’m doing this all myself,” she said. And since she’s brought the gelding along herself, “All PJ’s problems are my own.”
And his successes, too.