Love and Lessons at Bittersweet Farm

Horses heal what pains you. Except when they don’t.

Sometimes they make things worse.

Mounted: Barbara Morgenroth

Bittersweet Farm #1: Mounted, by Barbara Morgenroth.

The fact of the matter is: horses make poor containers for our hearts. Over and over, we put our happiness into their safekeeping. And over and over, they find some way to trample on it. They age more quickly than we do. They leave us before we are ready for the separation. And every time they are lost to us, whether through retirement or death, we have to deal with all the trauma that made us to turn to them on the first place, all over again.

In Mounted, Talia loves Butch, her old equitation horse, to the exclusion of every other horse on her father’s posh private farm. It’s easy to see why no other horse rides like Butch, jumps like Butch, asks for head-rubs like Butch. And why she gave her heart to him and him alone.

There was no one else to give it to.

Talia’s half-sister, Greer, despises her. Her father is an absent businessman. Her mother, sick for so long, once the object of Talia’s care and attention, is gone. She lives on a beautiful Connecticut estate, but it’s never been her home. Life might appear beautiful but…

It was more like being on an extended excursion with people you didn’t know very well, didn’t want to know and just wanted to go home.

And living on the picture-perfect equestrian paradise has its drawbacks: Talia is expected to compete, like her half-sister Greer, on the A-circuit. It was no skin off Greer’s nose: all she was after was attention and blue ribbons.

She held no allegiance or affection for any horse and could switch them every season for a newer, shinier model. I was still riding the same horse given me the year my mother died. If I had to attend the shows against my will, at least I wanted to do it with my best friend.

And by best friend, Talia isn’t talking about Greer.

But I didn’t have to tell you that.

So we have Talia, alone and lonely except for her horse, who spent her younger years caring for her sick mother and her teenage years being overshadowed by her Malibu Stacy Maclay Medal Edition of a sister. Tired of showing, tired of the parade of trainers who file through Bittersweet Farm, lured by money and good horses and trapped into quitting or sacking through the machinations of Greer (in and out of the sack) when she doesn’t win her favorite color ribbon. She just wants to be left alone to ride Butch.

And then the new trainer, a hot-shot ex-Junior champion who has been roughing it with the eventing crowd for the past few years, tells her Butch isn’t moving quite right.

Just like that, Talia is without a mount. And her best friend is put out to pasture.

The horse who held her together, the horse who held her heart, is slipping away from her. And Talia, who needs to care for someone, who cared for her mother, is, once again, left with no one.

But then she sees someone who needs caring for: Lockie. A promising young trainer who put all his eggs in one basket, and let the basket come tumbling down. He’s a man on the edge of disaster, but only Talia can see it.

And Lockie sees in her a talented horsewoman who was just riding in the wrong discipline. Talia wasn’t born to pose and look pretty. Talia needs to be active, doing, nurturing. Working in partnerships, teaching.

“What do you know about dressage?” Lockie asked as he gave me a leg up on Wing.

“Nothing.”

Lockie didn’t reply.

“No, in all the years I’ve been taking lessons, not one teacher ever mentioned the word dressage, until just now.”

Talia’s first dressage lesson reminds me of my own, at age thirteen. I’d only ever ridden hunters. No one had ever suggested that riding could be more than walk, posting trot, two-point canter. The height of sophistication, for me, was a flying lead change.

In a way, I felt as though I had never had a riding lesson until that afternoon. Nothing had ever been analyzed before. All the trainers had ever done was to stand in the middle of the ring and tell me what to do. Walk, trot, canter. Head up, heels down, back straight. Year after year, it was the same thing until I was as picture-perfect as I could be and bored out of my head.

I remember that feeling… that Why has no one ever told me this before? feeling. That there is so much more to this than I ever realized feeling. We’ll call it That Dressage Feeling and leave it at that.

There is romance to this book, of course, and it’s a good time watching it unfold, but I’m just as excited to see Talia’s equestrian experience change as she is finally mounted on the right horse, not Butch, but another horse that can take her further and help her understand more about the mechanics and emotions of horsemanship, as I am to see what happens with the sexual tension that builds steadily through the book.

And yes, there is sexual tension. The characters are teenage females on a horse farm. There are sexy horse trainers everywhere. Everyone’s wearing tight pants and getting sweaty and emotions are running high over horses and placings and… well, sexual tension is the reality for a lot of horse show girls, I’m just sayin’. No less for Talia and Lockie, who are engaged in a very Victorian game of snappy retorts and double entendres while Greer just sort of rages around in Tailored Sportsmans and tight t-shirts.

“Now I have to teach Rogers who is afraid of her horse and has a crush on me and Greer who wants to… God, I don’t know what she wants to do to me.”

“Isn’t that the exciting part for men?”

Lockie finished his dessert and pushed back from the table. “Yeah, no. What do we have to do to get Greer to keep her pants on?”

“Worry about keeping your own pants on.”

The equestrian details are outstanding, the characters are lively and fun and described beautifully (” ‘I need a horse,’ Greer said all but stamping her feet and demanding Cocoa Puffs.”) and the dialogue is particularly snappy. The exchanges between Lockie and Greer, Lockie and Talia, Talia and Greer… everyone, really… are the real stand-outs of this novel. I’m happy to categorize this book on the very exclusive “Made Me Laugh Out Loud On a Crowded Subway” shelf.

Get it at Amazon!

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