Sunday Book Review: Two Novels by Mary Pagones

Here’s a rare experience for me: reading a book so intensely personal, I was literally nodding my head “yes, yes,” along with the narrator’s internal dialogue. Here’s a rare experience for me: finishing a book, reading the teaser of the follow-up book on the next page, and immediately downloading that book so I could continue the journey I was on. Here’s a rare experience for me: the next book was completely different in every way, from voice to characters to motivation, and it still affected me as much as the first one.

Pagones THINWI’m talking about the work of Mary Pagones here, an equestrian writer who Gets It. She’s one of those rare breed of writers who can get inside the head of a horse-person and lay bare our hopes and dreams, our ambitions and fears.

And she does it in a clever way, too.

Pagones starts her two-book (so far?) equestrian series with The Horse is Never Wrong, a totally non-conformist Young Adult horse story. (When I think about this book and how far we’ve come from The Saddle Club and Thoroughbred, I am just amazed and grateful for the gifts of independent publishing.) Narrator Heather isn’t impressed with her Asberger’s diagnosis — a crutch her teachers seem to love pinning her social anxieties and occasional academic blunders upon, but which might not actually exist, since Asberger’s has been folded into the Autism spectrum. All Heather knows is, everyone else is weird, and she is just doing her own thing. What’s wrong with that?

Heather discovers riding and riding is good for her… but it isn’t a Cinderella Goes To The Olympics story. Heather as a character is beautifully written — she narrates without self-pity, without (intentional) humor — she’s a just-the-facts-ma’am reporter. Her voice is unerringly true to herself. Not particularly flowery, even stilted at times, and always pretty sure something is going to go wrong. Here, Heather sums up her biggest challenge in life: dealing with herself.

“I’m just going to have suck and up and deal with the me I have been given, just like I have learned not to complain about a horse’s behavior. Change your behavior; it’s not the horse’s fault, I’m told.”

I got Heather. I totally understood Heather. I felt an almost alarming connection to Heather — she took me back to ninth grade (which was not a place I particularly wanted to go, but… I did some good riding that year, and I met some cool people at the barn to make up for the people I didn’t even remotely understand at my high school).

And that’s what makes Fortune’s Fool so interesting.

Pagones FFSimon, who makes his first appearance in The Horse is Never Wrong, couldn’t be more different from Heather. It’s several years in the future and Simon has gone from the local barn’s resident bronc-buster, that teenager who will get on anything, to a high school senior about to embark on his life’s dream. He’s going to be a working student at an eventing barn (clearly inspired by Tamarack Hill) and take life by the horns. He’s going to make a living as an eventer. He’s going to ride horses forever and ever and no one can stop him.

Simon is brash, arrogant, proud, hot-tempered, know-it-all… and yet he’s totally lovable. He listens to 80s punk and New Wave, worships The Killers, and is dying for a pair of Doc Martens if only they didn’t cost as much as a new pair of paddock boots. No one can tell Simon a damn thing… Simon knows best, thank you very much, especially about his riding, especially especially about his hell-for-leather cross-country style and his possibly-psychotic horse, Fortune.

Oh boy, did I get Simon.

If Heather took me back to my awkward “only my horse understands me” freshman year, Simon took me back to my post-high-school “I’ll sleep/earn money when I’m dead” years. (I’m still kind of in those years, except I give in to sleep way more often. I still don’t really earn any money, though. I write horse books.) But seriously… listened to 80s punk and New Wave. wanted a pair of Doc Martens but couldn’t justify the cost. knew that my parents and my teachers and life and everyone were wrong — there was no need to waste time on so-called intellectual pursuits, not when I could ride a horse, take care of a horse, clean up after a barn full of horses…

As truthful to writing from Simon’s perspective as she was from Heather’s, Pagones does a total 180 shift in her writing. Simon’s sentences are jagged, his observations are hyperbolic, his language is very, very salty. Simon cusses like a sailor, but what 18-year-old working student doesn’t? I used to boast that I only spoke English but thanks to fellow working students and foreign grooms, I could swear in five languages. (I don’t remember them anymore.) Simon thinks in bursts of emotion and long moments of introspection; what some people see as editing misses are more likely the workings of his mind. No one thinks in perfect sentences.

The aching truth behind Simon’s rough swagger is that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen and that’s scary as hell. He doesn’t have money, just talent. And he’s just as plagued by thirty under thirty lists as I’ve always been — of course, now my pet peeve are forty under forty lists. Could people stop being so accomplished, please? Here’s Simon, telling it like it is:

The sense of motionlessness is particularly strong when I read about about someone my age winning an international event. This seems to confirm everyone’s opinion that I’m making some sort of horrible mistake with my life.

He’s eighteen, he’s in a state somewhere between elation and panic about the future, and he’s in very deep waters, not just professionally, but romantically.

Been there.

What it all comes down to: The Horse is Never Wrong and Fortune’s Fool are not your average horse books. I’ve never read two books by the same author that were written so differently, and yet so genuinely. I’ve never identified with two characters so completely opposite in every way. These books are challenging in structure and story, completely honest to the equestrian life, and by turns both soft and gritty. Non-traditional and utterly readable, these are wonderful new entries into the growing equestrian fiction niche.

Click to find The Horse is Never Wrong and Fortune’s Fool at Amazon in Kindle ebook and paperback.

(originally published at NatalieKReinert.com)

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Talk Derby to Me. If You Must. I Have No Idea.

I have a co-worker who enthusiastically starts asking me all kinds of questions about the Kentucky Derby the moment he sees me. He’s been doing this for at least a month. He leans in with what he apparently thinks is a suave backstretch-insider smirk and starts talking about works and post position win statistics and how much he’s going to put into his exacta box. And every time I smile really politely and remind him that this year is not a Derby year for me.

I got a media request for an interview regarding this year’s Derby and my thoughts on the dwindling popularity of horse racing for the general public, and I had to politely decline.  (I should’ve just referred the reporter to this guy at work. They might not have gotten the perspective they expected.)

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Me at a racetrack: “Let’s stand by the hoses so we can see the horses get showered off! Best part of the race!”

I’ve been paying absolutely no attention to the Kentucky Derby. Oh, I went to the Tampa Bay Derby and saw one of Saturday’s starters win that day. But I was still so star-struck after seeing champion mare Tepin win, I actually forgot who won the feature race and had to be reminded later it was Destin! Sorry, Destin!

The reason is two-fold: one, I have been really focused on eventing this year, because that’s the subject matter of the novel I just finished, and two, I prefer summer and fall racing. I particularly love the big summer races at Belmont and Saratoga. Maybe it’s just that I really love summer, I don’t know. The Travers Stakes is my derby.

But I know a lot of equestrians get this level of May-Day enthusiasam at work and they never, ever, have anything to say about racing because they just aren’t interested in it. What pleasure rider hasn’t had a picture of her horse pinned to her cubicle wall that garners absolutely zero interest 51 weeks out of the year, but in the first week of May, suddenly finds it has marked her as ground zero for conversations starting with, “So, who do you like in the Derby?”

It’s kind of crazy that the number one event non-equestrian people associate with horses, is probably one of the least popular events for the general population of equestrians. I know I have plenty of readers who don’t like horse racing. Or who don’t mind the concept, but can’t abide with the execution. Or who are completely indifferent. Even if you come to this blog because you love your retired racehorse and you’re proud that your OTTB was once a warrior on the track, I’m aware that probably more than half of you just plain don’t like horse racing.

That’s okay. There are plenty of reasons to not like racing, or just to insist that the industry hold itself to a higher standard and fix itself, for goodness’ sake — just like there are opportunities for any other equestrian sport to do better by its horses and by its people.

I just wish that other sports could grab hold of the American imagination as whole-heartedly as horse-racing, and more to the point, that other single competitions could enter the line-up of great American sporting events, as well as the Kentucky Derby. My big equestrian moment of the year isn’t tomorrow, it was last weekend, and it wasn’t even on television, but live-streamed: Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. For other riders, it might be World Cup show-jumping, or dressage, or reining, or… or… so many disciplines, so little market share.

I love horse racing because I think at its heart, racing is the most pure form of equestrian sport: My horse is faster than your horse.

But at the same time, horse racing isn’t a fair representation of what the horse means to us in America. The Kentucky Derby isn’t the symbol of our collective horsemanship. It’s just one drop in the bucket of all of our love and hard work and passion and drive and sweat and tears. (But hopefully not blood, to quote Grace Wilkinson in her new eventing novel A Perfect Stride.) It’s a part of all of us, whether we like it or not, because we’re horseman and at our core we know only endless labor and endless love can produce good horses. But we all add up to more than fast horses: we add up to strength, endurance, scope, elegance, precision, sensibility as well as speed.

What’s the point of this ramble? I wish horses were more popular, and less insular, I suppose. I wish more kids got to be working students at a barn a bike-ride away from their neighborhood. I wish there was a barn in my town. I wish Pony Club was as normal in a suburban town as soccer or gymnastics. I wish horses were more of a way of life and not mistaken for a status symbol, since I daresay most of the horse-owners in the United States would laugh heartily if you accused them of being rich (or possibly even middle-class).

I wish someone would ask me about who I liked at Badminton this weekend.

(It’s Michael Jung, of course. We all like Michael Jung.)

 

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Never Watch Rolex if You’re on a Horse Break

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break.

Oh, the internet makes it so easy for you. A hot weekend morning, too sticky to bother going out for a walk, too sunny to bother making any plans that don’t involve a slow stroll to the pool and back, why not just sit and watch horses on your television? Can’t hurt to look in on the old sport.

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break.

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Photo: Boyd Martin, Rolex 2011. Photo: Flickr/FiveFurlongs

Kentucky isn’t just beautiful, it’s stupid-beautiful. Look at those black-board fences weaving meticulously through emerald-green hills! Look at the bright new leaves sprouting from the tops of those massive, mysterious trees! (What are those trees?) Look at the horses, horses, horses, horses everywhere! The palm trees are waving outside your window, the blue sky is sparkling and suggesting you slip on your swimsuit and take a dip, but you’re remembering the feel of hot horse under your hand and the slick of dirt left behind when you take your palm away doesn’t sound distasteful at all.

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break. Remember going to events with advanced riders and knowing everyone there? Remember driving home on I-75, your horses behind you pulling at their hay, while your colleagues drove all around you? Oh there’s the Carter horse van — shouldn’t we get a horse van someday, they’re so much better than horse trailers — oh there’s the O’Connor jeep, haha look at her license plate frame: Make Way For The Princess. We should get one of those, hahaha. There was a time when you were part of this spectacle, and on your way, remember when you were that groom, catching that horse, towel streaming from your back pocket and Gatorade in hand, ready to pass it off to your rider, knowing that some day you’d be that rider, passing off your horse in turn.

Emma Winter in 2005. A ghost from my eventing past, found on Flickr. Photo: flickr/katnetzler

Emma Winter in 2005. A ghost from my eventing past, found on Flickr. Photo: flickr/katnetzler

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break. The early morning alarm that was contemptible then be remembered as a shrill reminder of just how lucky you are, to spring out of bed at six in the morning so you can be dragged around the property by fit horses and drive a rattling golf-cart around a pot-holed road as the sun rises, bits and spurs and feed buckets littering the ground so you have to stop after every turn you took too sharply to pick up your mess. The spring rituals of one final clip, and show-ring ready bridle paths and fetlocks and plucking tails and pulling manes, and sweeping up piles of errant hair before a priceless foolish horse lipped it up like indigestible hay. All the things that annoyed you will slip away — memory is kind and cruel like that. Faced with the gleaming beauties of eventing’s elite, you’ll only remember that you loved every minute, and all those tears will be forgotten.

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break. You’ll swan around the apartment adding up numbers in your head and plotting out the years to come and considering the exact wording of the Yard and Groom listing you ought to place. You’ll come up with a rational explanation for uprooting your entire life and know that it’s completely irrational but hey, I’m only dreaming, haha but just for a moment, or a morning, you believed it, you know you did.

Never watch Rolex if you’re on a horse break. Or maybe do, and once you get past the initial flush of excitement, and you’ve had time to think, you’ll just have a clearer idea in your head of who you are, and what you want, and the map in your mind’s eye, however long and far the road might have to be, will get a little more clear.

 

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This Site is Moving to NatalieKReinert.com

Hello, Retired Racehorse Blog readers!

This site has a long history under this name, but domain changes and the loss of our .com title have really taken its toll on the links, pictures, and stories. In the interest of keeping all of my writing in one place, I’ll be slowly migrating important posts over to my personal website, nataliekreinert.com.

In particular, most of the book reviews will be stored there so that readers have a definitive database for equestrian novels and non-fiction books.

So please visit nataliekreinert.com, find me on Facebook at facebook.com/nataliekellerreinert, or on Twitter at @nataliekreinert. I’ll keep you updated!

With thanks,

Natalie

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Open Letter to Those with Available Homes for the NYC Carriage Horses

It’s a tragedy to me that people are so willing to jump on bandwagons, at the peril of causes and lives that truly need help. While NYC carriage horses are privately owned and cared for by a staff of grooms, as well as their owners and drivers, there are people who have offered to “adopt” them, as if they were somehow horses in need. Meanwhile, horses like these two Belgians, who have no jobs and are genuinely in danger of being put down, go without offers of adoption.

You ever hear of the shelter initiatives, when animal shelters beg people to adopt animals who AREN’T in danger of being put down, but are just languishing in a shelter, with no family or future, for months or even years on end? That’s the kind of situation draft horses in the Northeast are facing right now. The work horses have work, complete with mandated working hours, conditions, living requirements, and vacations. Other horses, without the protection of the government, live in squalor and poverty, overworked or never trained at all… and somehow that’s considered more humane.

If you have a horse who works for a living, you have to support the rights of owners and working horses. If you don’t like the way they live, you can work to change the way they live… but you can’t simply agitate for an outright ban. It’s a slippery slope, and one day you’ll be seeking to defend yourself for “forcing” your horse to jump fences, run barrels, or simply to live in a box-stall instead of running free in the green fields like some sort of calendar photo.
In the meantime, let’s hope one of the nice people who are so happy to “adopt” carriage horses who have already have names, jobs, owners, and people who love them, will step up for these poor Belgians who truly need help.

Blue Star Equiculture Blog

An Open Letter to Those with Available Homes for the NYC Carriage Horses

SPECIFICALLY: Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Allie Feldman, Steve Nislick, NYCLASS, Elizabeth Forel, PeTA, Donny Moss, P!nk, Alec Baldwin, Lia Michelle, Jillian Michaels, Win Animal Rights (WAR) and any others claiming to have available homes for the Famous NYC Carriage Horses!

Please HELP!

My name is Pamela Rickenbach and I am the Director of Blue Star Equiculture, and I am requesting your help. Before I explain what I need help with, let me give you some background on our work.At Blue Star Equiculture, we provide a retirement home for urban working horses and help educate our community on their behalf. We aim to help enlighten and inspire our communities to reconnect a vital part of their shared history with horses and to participate in caring for our country’s horses in need. We have developed several programs that are helping shape creative, loving and…

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Ambition: The New Novel Explores Eventing

Ambition - available May 20, 2014

Ambition – available May 20, 2014

It’s been more than a year since my last equestrian novel — too long! But I’m happy to announce that on Tuesday, May 20th, I’ll be releasing my newest novel, Ambition, to readers everywhere.

Still set in the rolling hills of Florida’s horse country, Ocala, Ambition leaps over to the sport-horse world and the sport of eventing.

Jules Thornton didn’t come to Ocala to make friends. She came to make a name for herself. Twenty-two and tough as nails, she’s been swapping stable-work for saddle-time since she was a little kid — and it hasn’t always been a fun ride. Forever the struggling rider in a sport for the wealthy, all Jules has on her side is talent and ambition. She’s certain all she needs to succeed are good horses, but will the eventing world agree?

Getting back into the eventing scene was a real pleasure for me as a writer. I spent my teenage years eventing in Florida and Maryland. I haven’t been over a cross-country course in more than ten years, but I still day-dream about it. Someday, someday…

As for the characters: I love Jules, but she’d never believe me if I told her that. Jules isn’t used to having friends. She’s used to being the low man on the totem pole, after what seems like forever as a working student in a show barn full of her own wealthy classmates. It’s just Jules and her horses, against the world — or so she thinks. But there are still some people on Jules’ team.

And since I like to think that the horses and the setting are just as important as the humans, you’ll find that several horses, including Thoroughbreds, and the heart of Florida horse country are well-represented. Just as Other People’s Horses and The Head and Not The Heart explored Ocala, Saratoga, and New York City in depth, I couldn’t help but celebrate Ocala once again, drawing upon years and years of memory and deep, deep affection for that chunk of the state called “North-Central Florida.”

So watch out for Ambition, available in ebook and paperback beginning Tuesday, May 20th. I think you’ll find it to be a very, very interesting ride… and check your stirrup length and girth. There may be a few bucks thrown in when you least expect them

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Horse-Crazy Doesn’t Look at A Calendar

I’m often struck by how much we share with the equestrians of the past. Our tack, our boots, the very way we sit our horses — whether we ride English or Western, we are very much in contact with our riding roots every day. Horsemanship is horsemanship, and, by the same token, the deep genetic need the truly horse-crazy feel to keep horses close to them probably hasn’t changed much in the past millennia or two, either.

ImageBut in Maggie Dana’s powerful new drama, Turning on a Dime, we’re asked to stop and consider what the modern horse-crazy life might look like in another time — one that isn’t quite so pretty and permissive as today.

Sam might be vying to become the first African-American member of the United States Equestrian Team, but really, race is the last thing on her mind. The horses don’t notice, and neither does she.

Caroline is too busy ducking away from crinolines and corsets to worry about her future role as a Southern Lady. And the war with the North is getting close to home, certainly, but as long as she can sneak out for a gallop on her mare, life is good enough.

They’re one hundred fifty years and a world of prejudice apart. But Sam and Caroline have a lot to learn about one another — and themselves — when one turn of a dime throws their lives together, and they learn how deeply their fates are entwined.

What happens when you throw a 21st-century teenager — who happens to be African-American — into an 1863 plantation house? Well, you’d think nothing good. Luckily, Caroline has a good heart, and a definite interest in Sam’s 21st-century toys. Every teenage girl wants an iPhone, even if they have no idea what it actually does. (That’s design for you.) And that iPhone will come in handy. Because Sam and Caroline are about to find out that there are more important problems than just getting Sam back to her own time, and sometimes video proof is all a person will believe.

In Turning on a Dime, one truth becomes clear: horsemanship has nothing to do with the date on the calendar, or the roles society has granted us. For those of us who proudly bear the title “horse-crazy,” horses are in our blood, and no silly laws or rules can change that. Our horses come first — everything else is just details.

Get Turning on a Dime at Amazon here (ebook here) and at Barnes & Noble here.

Visit Maggie Dana’s website for more on her books at maggiedana.com.

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