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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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Taking Chances: Equestrian Writers Who Collaborate Instead of Competing

The first Timber Ridge Riders novel had me hooked.

The first Timber Ridge Riders novel had me hooked.

I’m a huge proponent of indie publishing, not least because it has allowed horse books to enter a whole new level. Gone are the days when I could choose between a $5.99 paperback from the Thoroughbred series or a $35.95 hardcover tome on dressage principles if I wanted to have a little horsey reading time.

(And on a side-note, whoever decided that horse training books should be published on expensive glossy paperstock and with beautiful slipcovers was probably some accountant reading a report about the 35-55 married female with disposable income demo that represents the majority of Dressage Today’s subscribers, not a horse-person who knows a training book is best perused in the rather dirty and disheveled confines of the tack room immediately before or after a training session.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… Indie publishing lets horse-people publish horse-books that I actually want to read.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve reviewed Barbara Morgenroth and Maggie Dana books quite often at Retired Racehorse. That’s because they’re not just excellent writers, they’re horsewomen, and they write horse books that make sense. No one is going straight to the Olympics after they went to a summer riding camp, taught an unbroken Mustang to jump logs in the woods by moonlight, and subsequently won the Grand Prix at the National Horse Show. (Any old Grand Prix will do.)

Instead, Maggie writes about tweens who are going about the very difficult business of growing up and working really, really hard to improve their riding because they know nothing else really matters in life.

Bittersweet Farm's 1st novel, Mounted

As did the first Bittersweet Farm novel, Mounted.

Meanwhile, Barbara writes about teens who are going about the very difficult business of growing up (in a much more edgy manner, because teens) and working really, really hard to improve their riding even though they’re not entirely convinced that it’s the best way to spend their time (because teens).

The books lend to one another beautifully: As Barbara said, “Maggie’s books are a gateway to mine.”

And, I’d like to think, Barbara’s books lead to mine, which are written about adults in the horse business.

No more skipping from Thoroughbred to Mary Wanless in one not-so-easy step. Horse books have a progression now.

And indie publishing isn’t just wonderful because it allows us to read books we might never get to enjoy otherwise. Indie publishing also provides for a spirit of collaboration and friendship between authors who realize that by working together, they can provide the best possible reading experience for fans. Recently, they sent me this wonderful article:

How Two Rivals Came Together to Make a Team

How Two Rivals Came Together to Make a Team: YA & Tween horse book authors Barbara Morgenroth and Maggie Dana

The 3rd Bittersweet Farm book from Barbara Morgenroth, Wingspread

The 3rd Bittersweet Farm book from Barbara Morgenroth, Wingspread

In the world of traditional book publishing, Barbara Morgenroth and Maggie Dana would be rival authors, both vying for the same limited space on bookstore shelves devoted to children’s and YA fiction. Very likely they’d be monitoring one another’s sales ranks and rejoicing if the other author dropped a few points.

“Hooray! Let’s break out the whips and spurs!”

But when it comes to indie publishing, all that has gone out the window. Independent authors are totally open about sharing resources and information and helping one another. Some have edited and/or proofed another’s books for free; other indies have provided their fellow authors with professionally designed covers, formatting, and typesetting (again, for free) because they believed in someone else’s book and wanted to help.

Six months ago, Barbara and Maggie only knew each other from their Amazon listings, but thanks to a chance encounter on a well-respected indie publishing industry blog, they connected in real time.

And they are loving it.

After getting to know one another via phone and email, they swapped information: Maggie has taught Barbara how to format her books for ePub and Kindle, and Barbara (whose multiple talents include writing for daytime television) has helped Maggie broaden her writing horizons. They’ve also swapped characters.

The latest Timber Ridge Riders release, Taking Chances, by Maggie Dana

The latest Timber Ridge Riders release, Taking Chances, by Maggie Dana

Lockie Malone, Barbara’s enigmatic horse trainer who stars in her Bittersweet Farm series, makes a guest appearance in Taking Chances, the seventh book in Maggie’s Timber Ridge Riders series for mid-grade/tween readers.

At some point, one of Maggie’s Timber Ridge characters will show up in Barbara’s Bittersweet Farm YA books.

And who knows where this will lead? All bets are off as these two writers set aside any hint of competition and work together to make their genres the best they can be… and they’re having a boatload of fun while doing it.

About these two horse-crazy authors …

Maggie Dana, tween horse book author, shows us how it's done.

Maggie and Smoky show us how it’s done. Photo: Maggie Dana

Maggie Dana

Maggie Dana’s first riding lesson, at the age of five, was less than wonderful. In fact, she hated it so much, she didn’t try again for another three years. But all it took was the right instructor and the right horse and she was hooked for life.

Her new riding stable was slap bang in the middle of Pinewood Studios, home of England’s movie industry. So while learning to groom horses, clean tack, and muck stalls, Maggie also got to see the stars in action. Some even spoke to her.

Born and raised near London, Maggie now makes her home on the Connecticut shoreline where she divides her time between hanging out with the family’s horses and writing her next book in the Timber Ridge Riders series. She also writes women’s fiction and her latest novel, Painting Naked, was published in 2012 by Macmillan/Momentum.

Visit: maggiedana.com

Barbara Morgenroth, every bit as intense as her characters in the saddle. Morgenroth writes edgy YA fiction for horse-lovers.

Barbara Morgenroth, every bit as intense as her characters in the saddle

Barbara Morgenroth

Barbara was born in New York City and but now lives somewhere else. She got her first horse when she was eleven and rode nearly every day for many years, eventually teaching equitation, then getting involved in eventing.

Starting her career by writing tween and YA books, she wound up in daytime television for some years. Barbara then wrote a couple of cookbooks and a nonfiction book on knitting. She returned to fiction and wrote romantic comedies.

When digital publishing became a possibility, Barbara leaped at the opportunity and has never looked back. In addition to the fifteen traditionally published books she wrote, in digital format Barbara has something to appeal to almost every reader—from mature YAs like the Bad Apple series and the Flash series, to contemporary romances like Love in the Air published by Amazon/Montlake, along with Unspeakably Desirable, Nothing Serious, and Almost Breathing.

Visit: barbaramorgenroth.com

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Sunday Book Review: Keeping the Peace

Keeping The Peace cover imageOh friends! This week Sunday Book Review is back and I have a very fun romance for you! 

Keeping The Peace is the first of a series built around a National Hunt racing stable. I’m utterly in love with the main character. I’m just going to say it: this book could be called Bridget Jones Goes to the Races and it wouldn’t be far off the mark. Luckily, I love both Bridget Jones and racing, so this was a match made in heaven for me.

Sweet, lovely, and impressively creative with bad language when she’s pissed off, Pippa Taylor is going through the motions. She’s got a job, she’s got a flat, she’s got a sort-of actor boyfriend who is just bound to get discovered one of these days. She has the requisite bad-girl best friend, she has the requisite lost dream of being an artist — she has everything you need to be a another cog in the machine.

But nothing throws a machine out of whack like a horse. They’re pre-Industrial Age, they defy all logic, and we love them without reason. And while Pippa is no horsey girl, when she inherits a pair of Thoroughbreds from her uncle, she’s struck by not just the inherent promise in a horse, but by the dream that her uncle had for one of them.

That’s Peace Offering, and like every horse, he comes with baggage. His racing history is rubbish, for one thing. His trainer is a bad-tempered Horse Racing Ken Doll, for another. Peace Offering immediately starts changing Pippa’s life in all sorts of crazy fashions, as horses do.

Hooton’s evocative imagery and crisp writing sets this story apart from the competition. Here’s Pippa meeting a yard of racehorses for the first time:

She stopped at the first stable and peeked inside. Suddenly, half a ton of horseflesh came hurtling towards the door, teeth bared, ears pinned back. Pippa gave a startled yelp and jumped out of harm’s way. She yelped again as she collided with a neat cutlery set of pitchforks and spades leaning against the wall.

I loved the National Hunt racing setting. Like most Americans, I know about Cheltenham and the Gold Cup and the King George V in a sort of abstract fashion: they’re steeplechases in England. I know that… that… um… well, they happen. I’ve sat up at odd hours watching the jumps racing and I absolutely love it… riding a steeplechasing course is definitely on my bucket list. (Some might say it ought to be the last item on my bucket list.) I know about Kauto Star. If pressed I would say Haydock is a horse and not a place but I’d have to Google it.

Despite holding an exercise riders’ license, when it comes to jumps racing, I’m kind of a Pippa:

“Who’s Virtuoso?”

Jack shook his head helplessly.

“We won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with him earlier this year. Won eight Grade Ones on the bounce. He’s a bit of a celebrity.”

“I know Cheltenham!” Pippa cried, excited that she knew something to do with horseracing.

The new-to-me setting gave this book a particular charm, especially the very thrilling racing scenes. Thrilling, terrifying, you know — just think how stressful you find it watching your favorite horse (to say nothing of your own) running a six furlong race. Now imagine a three mile race. I wonder if Americans as a society would even survive if we were suddenly forced to watch NH instead of flat racing. Our poor over-taxed hearts would just give out after 2 minutes.

Imagine poor Pippa urging on her horse, only to see a horse fall on the other side of the fence, right in their landing path, that Finn, the jockey can’t possibly know about.

Peace Offering stretched higher and wider to clear the yawning ditch and wall of spruce. Pippa could almost see the surprise register in Finn’s body language when he caught sight of the fallen horse on the landing side.

“Please God, help them.”

They touched down a stride away from Corazon. Peace Offering took half a stride and took off again, hurdling the half-risen faller.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Pippa babbled. She wondered how many other repented sins God would allow her. Another fifteen fences’ worth?

Fifteen fences. At this point I’m sweating and I’m just reading the book.

But that’s one of the many pleasures of Keeping the Peace. With exciting racing scenes, a slow-burning romance, and the delightfully creative swearing (yes, two mentions in one review) that the British have truly mastered, Keeping the Peace is one of my favorite reads this year.

Get it at Amazon!

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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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Sunday Book Review: A Kid’s Guide to Getting a Horse

Well, not exactly as listed in title.

As much as fun as A Kid’s Guide to Getting a Horse would be to write, and please excuse that glaring light as I try to adjust the lightbulb that has just materialized over my head, but think of what it could be, a Happy Horsemanship for whatever generation we’re up to now, the Z Generation or the Annoying-As-Crap Generation or whatever we’re calling the kids these days, with suggestions on how to utilize SEO websites and Kickstarter in order to procure your VERY OWN HORSE, crowd-funding movies you can write, direct, film, and post to your own YouTube channel in order to pay board and show fees… it’s getting very digital age of ponies in here.

BUT ANYWAY.

Wish Upon A Horse. Barnes & Noble would like you to read it instantly. INSTANTLY!!!!

Wish Upon A Horse explains a more sure-fire way to procure a horse, if not how to pay for it. Surely you can still mow lawns and baby-sit in this enlightened age. Figure it out, kids. And read this book.

When I was a kid, I read all of Maggie Dana’s stories about Timber Ridge over and over. But the one that I read the most was the original version of “Wish Upon a Horse.” It was my personal Guide to Getting a Horse.

You see, as fun as the other books were, none of them really offered a concrete way to get me off my bike and into a saddle.

I checked the classifieds daily, but there were never any ads seeking young girls to move into a trainer’s house to act as a companion for another girl. And I doubt my parents would have been impressed if I’d actually found one. My parents were most definitely not in the absentee butterfly-scientist category. No sir, I was going to need good old-fashioned money to find a horse. And that seemed even more difficult to find than a nice convenient gig as a pre-teen companion.

But an auction, now… an auction! Cheap horses, and even better SAD looking horses, because nothing was more apt to open a recalcitrant pocketbook than a pair of soulful brown eyes blinking out of a muddy, skinny, neglected body.

“Wish Upon a Horse” gives us more adventures with Kate and Holly, who are more determinedly than ever best friends, despite their different personalities: Kate is still wary of Chapstick, and Holly still wants to give her a Glamour-Shots-style makeover. (Kate and Holly prove that horses can bring anyone together.) That’s delightful enough. But as I could have told you when I was thirteen and the proud owner of a cheap, skinny, dirty, soulful-eyed Thoroughbred, “Wish Upon a Horse” is also a great Guide to Getting a Horse.

Parents beware.

Kids, take notes.

WISH UPON A HORSE is HERE:

And HERE:

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Anything for her own horse: Riding for the Stars

Riding for the Stars book cover, black horse

Hollywood calling!

Oh, teenagers. Tweens. Young persons. I don’t know what to call them anymore, but “consumers” seems like it might fit the bill. Whatever the moniker, they are the new rulers of media and advertising. Their whims dictate what is produced for nearly every age group. And when they decided that they really liked vampires, then everyone else had to like vampires, too. Unless, of course, you’re a person completely checked out from the world outside the riding arena.

In most lesson barns, you’ll find that there are a couple of deeply focused teens who don’t actually realize there is an outside world. There are books, but they are written by either Walter Farley or George Morris. There is music, but it’s whatever the battered radio held together by fluttering strands of orange baling twine is able to pick up in that day’s particular atmospheric conditions. There are movies, but they’re all horse movies and horse movies never get it right anyway.

Then there are girls who actually manage to strike a balance between the horse world and the “real world,” much to the befuddlement of the diehards. They ride horses and they read Seventeen. They know how to braid complicated patterns into manes and into their own hair. They know the top five show jumping riders in the United States and they have some idea who all those guys are in the movie commercials.

I don’t know any of these girls but let me tell you, they’re out there.

In Riding for the Stars, Maggie Dana‘s third release in her tween horsey series, Timber Ridge Riders, we meet up once again with Kate and her best friend Holly. And Holly is being all fan-girly, for reasons beyond true-blue horse-obsessed blinders-on Kate’s comprehension, over some vampire horse book. 

But even if Kate can’t be bothered to read the damsel-in-distress time-warp vampire-horse novels that have Holly and the rest of the tween universe in palpitations, she’s definitely interested in the movie version of the book. Because the vampire horse will be a Timber Ridge mount, and the damsel in distress stunt double will be a Timber Ridge rider. Vampires schmampires, Kate McGregor wants the big fat check that comes along with the gig.

Kate wants — needs — her own horse. To make that happen, she figures, she needs this job.

Resident rich girl/Kate-hater Angela, who is mayhem in a tennis skirt, doesn’t need anything but the complete and total worship of everyone in the universe. To make that happen, she figures, she needs this job.

Riding for the Stars is a tribute to all those horse-obsessed girls who can’t see beyond the front gate of the farm, and who will do anything to have a horse they can call their own. Anything… even, as in Kate’s case, step far, far out of her comfort zone and into a world of make-up, wardrobe, and teen idols with “real” names and “working” names who might, maybe, possibly be just a little bit into her. Not that she’d notice. Boys are Holly’s department. Holly with her magazines and her lip gloss and her horse vampire books. Weird.

The book romps along at a break-neck pace. Along the way, Angela’s cruelty and deceptiveness provide embarrassment, tears, and outright life endangerment. But while she still has her posse of minions to take care of the menial tasks like grooming and tacking her horse for her, a few more members of the narrative seem to be hip to Angela’s two-faced nature, providing some welcome allies for Kate in the barn. And when one of Angela’s own attacks on Kate’s attempt to win the stunt double role back-fires, you can’t help but laugh at her sputtering defeat.

Riding for the Stars is available as an ebook from Amazon, along with the first two books in the series, Keeping Secrets and Racing Into Trouble. Read the Retired Racehorse reviews of these books here:

Old Friends, New Classics: Keeping Secrets

Stable rivalries, explosive results: Racing Into Trouble

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“Personality Plus” — Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races”

If there is one thing that I would like to take up with author Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer) it is his introduction into polite society the very term “horse whisperer.” It is annoying, if only because it comes up any time any lay person mentions anything about any horse.

We’ve all had this conversation with a new acquaintance:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I train horses.”

“Oh… are you a horse whisperer?”

“No… I’m not that good, so I have to shout.”

Or some variation on the above. But let’s face it, as horsepeople, we have all been sorted into two groups by the Outside World: those who are Horse Whisperers, and those who are Not.

And so when I was doing a little research on animal communicators, based upon the conversations that author Jane Smiley related in A Year at the Races, wherein she was able to have Q & A’s with her assorted herd of racehorses, broodmares, and saddle horses via one of these fascinating people who claim to engage in interspecies-chit-chat, I found it hard to get past the first line in this article in The New York Times.

“Horse whispering? Too loud.”

Argh.

Thoroughbred racehorse in shedrow

Not whispering so much as getting a kiss.

But, I suppose, every little piece has its place in the puzzle. When you study horse training, you have to go into it with an open mind, and then shuffle around all the conflicting bits of information you receive in order to arrive at your own philosophy. Horse trainers, I explained to a girl at her therapeutic riding lesson the other day—a girl who had serious doubts about the riding instructor’s decision to stop the lesson horse from showing affection to the girl, who was on the ground, while another girl was on the horse’s back—are only alike in that they all have very different and very steadfast opinions on how to train. She, the girl who wanted to stroke the horse being ridden by someone else, was clearly a girl with great empathy for horses; the instructor, who stopped her from stroking the horse, also had great empathy for horses; unfortunately, they had different ideals about what the horse should be doing with his time.

She wasn’t impressed by my explanation, of course, although I thought it very reasonable and well thought out, and I think that is usually the case when two horsewomen who are not avowed allies of one another differ on their training strategies: we listen, and disagree, and continue on our chosen paths. We’re very fundamentalist that way.

But I have to admit that I’ve never been completely bound by any one philosophy. I dislike gadgets, but I use side-reins, for example. I believe in the prey mentality of the horse, and establishing oneself as dominant, but I’m fascinated by discussions of equine personality.

I don’t have a lot to say to people who insist on anthropomorphizing their horses, but I do think horses have opinions, and individual character, and, in varying degrees, ambition, drive, and desires.

A Year at the Races cover image

"A Year at the Races" is so much more than that

And after frantically flipping through the pages of A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck, I can tell you, the next time I really want to know what is on a horse’s mind, I’m totally going to call up an animal communicator.

That’s really not me, of course, but at the same time, why be closed-minded? When I was having absolutely no progress in connecting with Bonnie, I consulted a book I found at the library, Ride the Right Horse: Understanding the Core Equine Personalities & How to Work with Them by Yvonne Barteau. This is a book I would not have picked up were I not absolutely desperate to create a relationship with a horse who was not interested in me. And trying to create a relationship with a horse was not a problem I had thought about since I decided that the prey social model was the most logical approach to horse training.

Now, to be perfectly honest, the book did not salvage my struggling attempt to build a partnership with Bonnie. What it did do, however, was show me that it was probably a lost cause. We just weren’t compatible. She just wasn’t that into me. And, I guess, I wasn’t that into her. You just can’t be compatible with every single horse. And that’s because, sound the alarm bell, let the anthropomorphizing begin, horses do have unique personalities, and drives, and desires, and they’re not always going to sync up to yours.

It’s the same reason you just don’t like some of your co-workers.

(And you know you don’t.)

Smiley gets that some horses will simply never love you.

The goal of horse training is to mitigate equine idiosyncrasy and to give every horse some fluency in the common language required to get along with people. There are always horses for sale and always buyers, and a trained horse is supposed to function reliably, to walk, trot, canter, jump, gallop across country, stand, cross-tie, be groomed and bathed, ride in a horse trailer, go to a few horse shows, and even foxhunt, or to do similar things as a Western-style horse.

But there are horses who show affection, who share a bond with the owner, who do more than perform functions. They actively seek to please. Until you have owned a horse who seeks cooperation and behaves warmly toward you, you don’t realize how many horses were just passing time in your company, half ignoring you or barely putting up with you.

I paused after I read that, to take stock. I have had horses like that, haven’t I? Of course. But how many? I thought I could name them. Rillo, my first Thoroughbred. Final Call. Maybe even Rapidan, although I don’t think Rapidan sought cooperation and behaved warmly towards me. He sought something from me: to rile me up, mostly. I don’t think he was half-ignoring me or barely putting up with me, so much as seeing how far he could push me. Playing with me. Masochistic, always hoping I’d yell at him, that was Rapidan.

It bears thinking about. And it makes you think about the personalities you have been in contact with.

My greatest take-away from A Year at the Races was a deeper understanding of the equine mind. Smiley has studied human psychology and the nature of love and affection much deeper than I have ever had any inclination to, and she has been able to turn this inquisitive nature into a fresh and fascinating exploration of How Horses Think.

I will say this: A Year at the Races is an extremely misleading title for this book, just as “book review” is an extremely misleading category for this article. This book could have been called My Horses, My Teachers except that Alois Podhajsky already took that one, or Talking With Horses, except that Henry Blake already took that one, and anyway, both texts are mentioned within this one. This book is a fascinating exploration of equine psychology, what makes horses tick, how they manifest their brilliantly defined personalities in every day encounters, how they tell their riders and handlers and fellow horses what they are thinking through reactions, movements, and vocalizations, and if the stories of Hornblower and Waterwheel, Smiley’s babies at the track during this particular “year at the races,” are neat little bookends and good for anecdotes, the real power of the story is in the explorations of who horses really are.

And as for her frequent communications with her horses via animal communicator Hali Jones? Yes, I’m a believer. It makes just as much sense as whispering.

 

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