Today’s Sunday Book Review is written by Jennifer Montfort.
If you’re around the horse world long enough you’ll meet her. She’s naturally independent, seems to live and breathe horses, is constantly hustling—for others and herself—and more often than not has had a less than successful personal life. She’s your trainer, or the person everyone knows at the horse shows, or there may even be shades of her in you. She is forever scraping together money; working with old but impeccably turned out equipment and arriving to shows in a beat-up truck and trailer. Most of the time she just can’t seem to get it together—except when she’s working with horses. There, she has an innate ability to work with the hardest horses, to move as one with them and to jump on horse after horse and find what makes them shine. In the nostalgic Renegade Champion: The Unlikely Rise of Fitzrada you meet her in the form of Jane Pohl, who rose to the highest ranks of the show circuit in the 1940s.
When I was looking for a book to review I read the description for Renegade Champion: The Unlikely Rise of Fitzrada and it seemed on the surface a perfect read. Small reject Thoroughbred is discovered by determined female rider and together they reach the pinnacle of the post World War II American horse show circuit. Yes, please, and thank you, I would love a Thoroughbred success story! But as I eagerly dove into the book I found that the title is a bit misleading. The book, without being too sentimental, is really about the once-in-a-lifetime bond that can form between a horse and rider.
Richard Rust writes this book, first and foremost, as a loving tribute to his mother, Jane Pohl. He quickly sets out the major themes of the book early and repeats them often. Jane was a horse crazy army brat; trained to ride on military bases logging hours riding with no stirrups and learning to care for horses herself. She showed on her own without the backing of a trust fund and competing in jumper divisions when women were expected to only show docile hunters. Her success started the push to allow women to compete in international competition after the US Calvary Olympic team was disbanded and civilians competed for the first time on a world stage.
The horse who carried her to such great heights was Fitzrada. Bred by the cavalry, he showed early promise as a standout of the program; despite his small stature of 15.2 hands and rangy appearance. He showed such talent and versatility he was well on his way to being selected for the 1940 Olympic team; but the intelligence and desire to perform that brought him to that pinnacle soon soured him to the repetitiveness of the training regimen. He developed a reputation as a dangerous horse, dropping riders and causing havoc and was scheduled to be destroyed. Enter a teenage Jane Pohl, with whom Fitzrada embarks on a long and bumpy road to jumping success.
Although the author takes us through his mother’s personal life, the book is best in the retelling of the exceptional bonding moments between Jane and Fitzrada as he taught her to be a sensitive and responsive rider and she taught him how to trust in a human to take care of him again. I chuckled at the frustration she sometimes showed at her quirky horse—we can all relate to just wishing the horse wouldn’t pick the worst possible moment to be ridiculous; I’ve uttered more than once “can you please just behave already!” many a times, and Fitzrada provided plenty of those moments for Jane. The book really shines as it takes the reader to Madison Square Garden for the first National Horse Show after the War. Here we experience the tension of going into the ring but also the exceptional stage that was the Garden. I was right there with Jane as she ran the course over and over in her head, noting problem spots, hoping her horse wouldn’t spook at something unfamiliar and taking deep breaths as she waited for her turn.
The horse and rider ahead were announced by the loudspeakers and entered the ring. Jane and Fitz move forward a length. Inches in front of Fitz’s nose and attendant latched the gate closed. They were next. Jane felt small looking between Fitz’s ears at the big entrance gate to Madison Square Garden’s arena. Fifteen thousand people were on the other side. The longest minutes of Jane’s life crept by while the rider ahead completed his round. Jane saw the gate swing open as if in a dream. She pushed her dark glasses higher up on her nose and squeezed Fitz forward. “Number twenty-two, Fitzrada, ridden by Jane Pohl,” the loudspeakers boomed, and the gate closed behind them.
Renegade Champion: The Unlikely Rise of Fitzrada is a fitting tribute to Jane Pohl and the horse that propelled her to the top of the male-dominated jumper circuit of the 1940s. It’s an extraordinary treat to go back in time when prized show horses were actually working hunters, to a world where Thoroughbreds were exalted, and to big indoor shows being covered nationally in newspapers. But more than that readers will easily relate to her frustrations and triumphs of a horse crazy girl, showing on a shoestring budget, rubbing and grooming herself and training a horse that doesn’t have a blue-blooded pedigree—it’s all there in vivid detail as if Jane wrote the book herself.