Friday, February 27, 2015

The Books that Crossed the Pond

When I was growing up in Britain, there was no such thing as an ebook. No one had computers. Amazon hadn’t been thought of. I didn’t even have a book shop. I had to rely on toyshops (never a hardship to go in, of course), Boots the Chemist, who then had a large toy and book department, and the library.

I was lucky with our library. When I first started going there, it was quite obvious that many of the children’s books had been there for decades. It hadn’t yet been pruned of the old and familiar (that was to come). There were rows of blue Chalet School books and tatty Dr Dolittles. Enid Blyton had an entire bookcase to herself. And there were rows of American books too. The Bobbsey twins lived in a whole new exciting universe. Maple syrup! Who knew such a thing existed? It certainly didn’t in 1970s Britain, where a new flavour of Angel Delight was a major excitement.

The library also had Rutherford G Montgomery’s Golden Stallion series. They lived tucked out of the way behind a stone pillar, on the bottom shelf. No one else in our town seemed interested in them; no one else ever stopped me from sinking into the world of Charlie, his stallion Golden Boy, and the Bar L Ranch. This world was just as far away from me as the Bobbseys and their maple syrup, but the horses made it connect with me on a completely different level. I may not have had the faintest idea what it was like to round up cattle, who round us lived calmly in hedge-surrounded fields, but I knew what it was like to ride, and through Rutherford G Montgomery I lived in that world.

Walter Farley’s world was a whole new level of exotic. Boots provided where the library failed; a British publisher, Knight, issued a few of the Black Stallion series in paperback, and I bought them. I longed, more than anything else, for a pony, and I read book after book where girls managed to get hold of one, generally through considerable sacrifice, or sheer, blinding, luck. Alec got his horse because they were ship wrecked together. And what a horse. Like Golden Boy, the Black was no scruffy riding school pony, slopping round the ring half asleep on his third lesson of the day. The Black was hot stuff. He was dangerous. He raced. 

Even where American books did involve ponies, like Marguerite Henry’s Misty series, there was still the environment to contend with. In Britain we are lucky in having weather that is generally pretty benign. Epic floods are thankfully rare. The Chincoteague and Assateague Islands and their dramatic floods again had that gloss of the alien and exciting. But the hero and heroine here, Paul and Maureen Beeby, led a life much more familiar to me. I sympathised with their longing for a pony, and cheered when they got one. 

All these American series fed that great desire so many children have to have a horse or pony of their own, but their settings made them almost impossibly exotic. New York, the Bar L Ranch and Chincoteague were as far away from my small, muddy Midlands town as it was possible to be. I now know that there were many, many American horse stories written in the way I was familiar with. A fair few were published in the UK, but they never made it out as far as the Midlands. It was the gallopingly exotic that seemed to sell here. And it still does. The Black Stallion and Misty books are still in print, enchanting new readers with a world to which the horse provides the key.

~ 0 ~

You can read more about the authors I've talked about on my website:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Almost Double Digits: My 9th Equestrian Novel Arrives

by Natalie Keller Reinert


Next week, I send my ninth book into the world.

My ninth. Book. What? That's madness. But there they are, lined up on my author pages at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, my own website... nine books!

Turning For Home - my newest release
I started this craziness in 2011 with the publication of The Head and Not The Heart, but of course there were years worth of books written before this. Notebooks and floppy discs and CD-Rs full of other books. From the moment I could put words down on paper, I was writing stories. I remember writing a very detailed anthology of Black Beauty family stories in a pair of three-subject notebooks. That might have been fourth grade? I remember writing a full-length novel set on a farm in Virginia in a heavy early-model laptop that subsequently died, taking my first novel with it. That was the summer I turned sixteen.

I'm so lucky -- we're all so lucky -- to live in an age when publishing's gatekeepers are falling to the wayside, and anyone who wants to tell a story, can tell a story. I don't know about you, but I was getting pretty tired of what passed for horse stories not too long ago. In mass-produced fiction, horses always seem to be background noise to a love story or a murder, and they always seem to be doing the same thing -- colicking, foundering, winning the Triple Crown despite incredible odds.

Now we have a thriving world of equestrian fiction written for equestrians, where horses are stars in their own rights, not some pieces of landscaping in the background. This is exactly where I want to be -- right smack in the middle of a publishing revival, writers writing about what they love, connecting to readers who feel the same way.

Telling stories is my greatest pleasure. I don't try to write difficult, trendsetting, culturally subversive works that make readers change the way they look at the world. I'm not going after literature prizes here. Don't get me wrong -- I like literature. I like difficult, trendsetting, culturally subversive works. But my job is to tell stories, mainly about Thoroughbreds, because I love them, and I want everyone else to love them too. (Is that so much to ask?)

I guess in that, I'm riding a trend a little bit. After all, retired racehorses are coming back in a big way! Look, they're even getting their own magazine!

Photo: Retired Racehorse Project
Retired racehorses have always been my passion, but this is the first book I've written about the actual moment of retirement, and the question of "What do we do with this horse now?" Turning For Home centers around Tiger, the horse that gave Alex new hope in The Head and Not The Heart, and the challenges surrounding his retirement from the track.

Turning For Home also takes a look at the good, and the bad, in both racing and Thoroughbred aftercare.

I don't know if Turning For Home answers any questions, or if it is culturally subversive, or any of that previously mentioned literary gobbledegook. I do think it's a good story, and a story that so many equestrians like me can relate to.

What happens to our horses? Where do they all go? How can we protect them? When Alex asks those questions, I know she's not alone. I know there's a chorus of us out there, those words echoing in our brains.

In my acknowledgements, I thank a couple of retirement organizations for their help, whether they inspired scenes in the book, or have been an integral part of my writing career. Here's a shout-out for them now:

The Retired Racehorse Project, who seemed to rise up just as I was getting out of the training business, and their Thoroughbred Makeover. I want to do a Thoroughbred Makeover so bad. I have to be content with inventing one for Alex.

Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa (T.R.O.T.), who helped me with my very first author event, right at Tampa Bay Downs. Their volunteers inspire me every day.

Hidden Acres Rescue For Thoroughbreds (HART), whom I see a lot less often than I would like. Just a few miles from the woods and fields where I used to ride my first Thoroughbred, they're busy bringing in Thoroughbreds who need help, teaching them manners and jobs, and finding them forever homes. I promise I'll be back really soon!

And before I go, a shout-out to my wonderful cover designer, who created Turning For Home's striking cover image, and asked that I make a donation to an equine charity in lieu of payment. You're amazing, and I'm making that donation to HART, my hometown's Thoroughbred aftercare heroes.

Turning For Home will be released in digital format everywhere you buy books on March 3rd is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Page Foundry, and elsewhere, with a paperback edition coming soon. You can read the first chapter here at my website, and order a Kindle edition at Amazon from the link below.

I'm so excited to share this one with you! Be sure to keep in touch and let me know what you think. I'm writing these for all of us. And I'm about to get busy on book number ten...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing Educational Horse Books

by Christine Meunier

Horse Country by Christine Meunier
When I was a young girl, I loved to read any horse book I could get my hands on.  I loved to read, period.  But as someone who didn't yet have a horse, I was learning horses via my reading.

Today I try to provide the same for readers of my books.  My debut novel Horse Country - A World of Horses, explores the lives of four women working in the horse industry - two as instructors, two in the thoroughbred breeding industry.  The book is very factually based, as I wanted readers to recognise what it is like working with horses.  I also wanted them to learn about these two equine related careers.

This was able to be written as I travelled North East Victoria in Australia, working on thoroughbred studs, as well as at a couple of riding schools in Melbourne, Victoria.  A stint overseas at the Irish National Stud increased my horse breeding knowledge and practical skills.  This knowledge went into my debut novel.

New Beginnings, by Christine Meunier
The same can be said for my Free Rein series.  Although aimed at younger readers (8 - 12 year olds) and a lot more fiction than fact, it is still factually based and contains realistic information with regards to keeping ponies, their care, and riding them.

I struggle when I read a horse book that isn't correct factually, so it's my hope that as horse crazy readers journey with me by reading one of my novels, that they will enjoy the storyline, but also enjoy the learning that comes with reading about horses.

For me, it's important that books although fiction, are realistic with any facts, whether they be about history, animals or a particular career.  I realise that even in horse books, terms can be misunderstood or different depending on the country the author originates from: my first horsey reads were the Saddle Club and once I joined pony club, my Australian riding mates were surprised to hear me talking about posting to the trot! (In Australia, it's known as the rising trot).

In a way, this is another thing I love about reading horse books - learning new terminology!  I needed to learn quickly in Ireland that the horse box was the vehicle we used to transport horses (a float in Australia) and not a stall that we house them in for a time!

What horse book or series have you read and learnt from?

Friday, February 20, 2015

I don't want to be somebody who used to ride

by Kate Lattey

I have always loved horses. As far back as I can remember, I had pictures of horses on my walls, read book after book with ponies in them. I even strapped a pillow to the bannister of our staircase for a saddle and tied a rope around the upright to create a bridle, and the unimaginatively-named “Brownie” and I headed off on many adventures.

My first taste of the real thing came when I was about seven years old, at a Kindergarten fundraiser that offered pony rides. “Pony” wasn’t the most accurate description of the huge Clydesdale mare, but I dutifully paid my 20c and perched up on top of her as she ambled around the park. The pony books I’d already devoured went flying through my head, as I imagined myself on par now with those heroines and heroes who galloped recklessly across the countryside, the smell of fresh air and heather in their nostrils. I took a deep sniff myself, wanting to have a personal experience to apply to such descriptions, but all I got was (as later recounted to my mother) “a sort of poo-ey smell coming from the horse!”

I began riding lessons when I was ten, presumably to prevent me from wearing the bannisters out completely, and two years later my parents agreed to buy me a pony of my own. A palomino mare turned up on trial, and it seemed as though I’d tumbled headfirst into my daydream. My very own perfect golden pony out in the paddock, visible from my bedroom window…it was like something out of a book! I was lucky enough to have grown up on a farm, although my parents weren’t horsy folk, and I’d spent the past year working at the riding school every weekend, leading scruffy ponies through the mud and learning how to tack up and untack and pick out hooves and avoid being bitten, so although I was still very green, I had a solid foundation to start from.

As it turned out, that palomino mare was not my dream pony. She was extremely moody and stubborn, I could barely get her to trot let alone canter, and when she bit me while I was out talking to her in the paddock one afternoon, we decided we could probably do better for a first pony. She was sent back, and the search resumed.

It didn’t take long. After one disastrous attempt trialling a beautiful dark bay pony who bolted on me, I learned to judge by more than appearance, and we found a pony just down the road from us who was apparently as quiet and safe as can be. For the nervous child that I was back then, he seemed to tick all the boxes, and as soon as I sat on Whisper’s back I knew I was in safe hands (or hooves, as the case may be). Dutifully purchased and ridden home across the neighbouring paddocks, my life with ponies and Pony Club began.

Early days at Pony Club on Whisper (left)

Whisper was followed quickly by Tessa, about six months later, who came from just a little further down the road, due to Whisper’s unfortunate health problems. (He stuck around for another couple of years, but passed away in the paddock about three years after purchase. He was the sweetest pony though and I was very lucky to have had him.) Tessa was a solid-built chestnut mare with a heart of gold but no great enthusiasm to go any faster than absolutely necessary, and she gave me an immense amount of confidence.

My first One Day Event on Tessa

Two years of Pony Club went by, and I went from being the nervous kid who was barely brave enough to canter, to one whose reluctantly cobby pony was holding back her ambitions. And so Tessa was put on the market and we started looking around. A local family were selling a gorgeous pinto pony with the wonderful name of Mr Mistoffolees, but he was deemed by my parents to be “too expensive”, and we shortly afterwards bought a mare for half the price, after travelling for 2 hours to see her. (To this day, it’s the furthest I’ve ever gone to buy a horse!)

Minnie was a feisty, hot Anglo-Arab mare with a shining bay coat and a pretty head with a white star. She loved to move, hated to stand still, loved to race, and hated to jump. Unfortunately we had bought her as a jumper, but my ambitions to compete in eventing and show jumping competitions were quickly scuppered as she refused to jump, again and again. And as I fell off, again and again. I was eliminated at the first fence in most competitions we entered – in fact, in the ten years that I owned that pony, we only ever managed to jump two clear rounds (they were so rare that I remember them both clearly!).

Minnie warming up for a XC round -
we had something like 20 refusals this day!

It was a bitterly disappointing time, and sometimes I still look back and feel regret that we had bought a pony who had not been what she’d been sold to us as – a bold jumper who would never refuse. A bit of investigation post-purchase revealed that she had a reputation for refusing and had been doing so for many years. A harsh life lesson to learn about believing what you’re told!

I did discover, however, that Minnie’s strength lay in mounted games, and we started competing seriously at gymkhanas, raking in the ribbons. Flag race, barrel race, bending, tin can, potato race…you name it, she'd win it - and when she didn't, it was usually my fault. Now it was me letting my pony down, and we practiced hard to reduce the chance of that happening! We still crashed and burned in the jumping events, but we won almost everything else.

Then one of my friends who was grazing her stunning grey Arab pony at our farm turned 17. In those days, the day a rider turned 17 was the day they could no longer compete on a pony in most New Zealand competitions. (Here, almost everyone starts out on ponies and only moves on to riding horses when they are either far too tall, or have turned 17 and aged out of pony classes. Ponies are highly valued and can go for a lot more money than a horse of similar age and ability, and we have some exceptional ponies competing in this country.) My friend offered me the ride on her pony until he was sold, and said I could take him to a show on the weekend.

A hasty last-minute entry and I turned up to Levin Sports with two ponies in the float, feeling quite serious and professional. Minnie turned her usual tricks, refusing most of the jumps and getting us eliminated in every class, but Caddie was quite the opposite. Although we didn’t manage any ribbons, he jumped four clear rounds for me that day and I went home on cloud nine. It wasn’t my fault that my pony wouldn’t jump. It wasn’t because I couldn’t ride, or didn’t want it enough, or wasn’t aggressive enough, or any of the other myriad reasons that I (and other people) had given me for why I was failing so spectacularly with my other pony. It was not my fault. I think I’d known that, deep down, or at least had wanted to believe it. However those doubts had already instilled in me a determination to be the best, most accurate and balanced rider possible, to give my pony every opportunity to excel, and that determination still carries me through today.

Breezing around the XC on Caddie the day after I bought him
 I wanted to buy Caddie then, more than anything. His owner wanted me to have him, knowing it would be a good home. My parents said “But we already bought you a pony. It’s not our fault that she’s no good at jumping.” So we brainstormed a solution, and it was this – they would buy Caddie, and I would pay them back by working at our family plant nursery every weekend for the next year.

So I did. I got up early on Saturday mornings and washed pots and potted plants and weeded gardens and hated every minute of it. Then I got up early on Sunday mornings and we trundled off in the horse float with Caddie (and sometimes Minnie too) to One Day Events and show jumping competitions. The day after we bought Caddie I took him to a show, and finished 2nd in the Pre-Training (80cm/2’9”) eventing class, with the first clear cross-country round I had ever jumped in my life. One year later, at the same event, we won the Training (95cm/3’) class with one of the best show jumping rounds I’ve ever ridden in my life. 

Caddie was sold shortly afterwards before I went to University, and went to a loving home where he lived well into his 30s. Minnie stayed with me – nobody else wanted her – until she broke her leg in a paddock accident almost ten years to the day that I bought her. No matter the heartache she’d caused me over the years, it was one of the worst days of my life when I found her in the paddock with one leg held up, looking at me with such relief that I was here now and would fix it.

After I graduated, I was supposed to get an office job and live in the city. This was my mother’s plan for me, and what was expected of me, and I did both of those things. But I also got a job teaching riding on weekends, and for a year and a half I commuted back and forth every weekend to trudge around the paddocks chasing reluctant ponies, and stand in the middle of the indoor school chanting “Up, down, up, down” at small children. It was hard work, but it was rewarding and it was fun.

When I decided to go to a summer camp in America, half of the appeal was the chance to go over there and ride. Pony Club Camp was always the highlight of my year and the thought of three months of pony camp instead of just one week was an intoxicating one. My first summer in New Hampshire set the tone for what was to be a huge part of my life. I returned to the camp four more times, have visited twice since, and am currently planning to return in a couple of months’ time. It truly is my home away from home, and is where I met the horse that I will always remember as my soulmate.

Bittersweet, the best horse I've ever ridden

After camp, I started going on to work somewhere else - but still not far from horses. No point in going to England to work in an office when you can work on a livery yard, right? I spent nine months living in a trailer in Epsom, working 10 hour days looking after other people’s horses for a pittance of a salary and a day and a half off a week, learning about dressage, and hacking around the Common in the frosty mornings.

Riding Kaneel, one of our livery horses in England

Later, I worked in Ireland for nine months, in a tiny village on the outskirts of a castle, taking tourists for rides around the castle grounds on homebred Connemara ponies, and spending hours drinking mugs of strong tea in the kitchen of the family home (the only warm room in the house!).

A rare sunny day in Ireland with Connemara pony Spruce
 Since returning to New Zealand, I have bought myself a lovely Welsh Cob x Thoroughbred gelding, who originally came to me as a greenbroke six-year-old who just needed some mileage. He’s now a serious prospect in Show Hunter (Hunter Jumper) competition, and with his cheeky personality and “pony brain”, he’s a blast to have around.

My current horse JJ (Fox in Socks)
I have always read pony books and have been writing pony stories since I can remember. I used to cut photos out of magazines and paste them into a special blue hardcover notebook that I had. Each page belonged to a different character, and showed all of the ponies that they "owned". Some of those characters (and their ponies) are still around in my stories today - Brad & Pip Harrison, Pete & Susannah Andrews, Steph Marshall and Abby Brooks all had their origins in that old notebook.

Writing is hard, and time consuming, and infinitely rewarding. I write the books I want to read, the stories that I couldn’t find as a pony-mad child. Books that reflected my own experiences, about people growing up in New Zealand, riding down the beach to get to Pony Club rallies, and camping out in their scruffy old horse trucks at shows every weekend. Chasing sheep and jumping gorse bushes and riding with just a piece of baling twine around their pony’s neck, dumping each other in water troughs and riding in gumboots and shorts, building jumping courses out of old metal drums and spindly tree branches. Being responsible for their own ponies, learning from their mistakes, getting knocked down and getting back up again. Not always winning, not always succeeding, but learning to put their pony first, no matter what.

Horses are inescapable. They get into your blood and you can’t walk away. There’s a line in my first novel “Flying Changes” that I wrote many years ago, when I was battling to continue working with horses instead of spending my life in an office. They are words that I’ve lived by since, and hope to continue to live by for the rest of my life.

I don’t want to be someone who used to ride. 

Check out my books Flying Changes, Dare to Dream and Dream On on Amazon, and visit my website at for reviews and upcoming releases!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Turning a Passion Into a Penny

by Toni Leland

My love affair with horses goes way back, just like most of the horse-lovers in the world. The difference for me is that I was able to take that passion and use it to earn a living!

In the beginning, there were horses in my mind and on my walls and in every sentence I spoke. This is the plight of an 8-year-old horse-crazy girl. Eventually, I actually got a horse and that was even better. But the affliction is one that can get in the way of futures and plans that others (parents) have for you, and so, many years passed before I was able to return to my first love.

In the mid-eighties, I realized the dream of having my very own horse farm. Arabian Horses, to be exact. Of course, the mid-eighties was exactly the wrong time to be getting involved in Arabians, but hey, I was on a roll. Along the way, we acquired a beautiful Morgan Horse mare and expanded our breeding program.

Our first little filly,  Pizazza
Fourteen horses (several of the mares expecting babies) equates to a lot of feed, hay, horseshoeing, and veterinary services. Horses – even really good ones – don’t always earn their keep right away, and the prospect of those yearling sales was a long way off. Time to get a job, but I wanted to stay on the farm, so I began promoting my graphic design capabilities to horse farms and breeders. Soon, I was bringing in a modest salary designing commercial advertising and writing copy for stud services, horses for sale, farms for sale, and promotional pages in breed magazines. That work led to more work and, soon, I was spending less time in the barn. But the horses were eating well!

Fast-forward to the mid-nineties. Much as I loved them, raising horses wasn’t working for me, but serving the horse community was. My beautiful horses found wonderful homes, and I focused on building my business. I continued to write and design well into the New Millennium, and in 2002, I expanded my vistas and dipped my toe into the waters of creative writing. About horses, of course.

Now – eight novels later – I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. My first book, Winning Ways, was born of nostalgia for the horses I'd been privileged to own. The books that followed brought many issues into play, as well as creating human stories about the people who love horses. Yes, they are like anyone else – they fall in love, they have accidents, they lose loved ones, they follow the wrong path – but the common denominator is an undying love for that wonderful creature, the horse.
Eight and counting...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How I Started Writing Horse Books?

I wrote my first pony story when I was ten years old. It wasn’t well received. My teacher declared that he was sick of stories where girls on ponies won red rosettes and went home tired but happy. I can’t remember if he threw my exercise book across the room, but he might have done. He had a habit of throwing things when he was annoyed. He particularly disliked Enid Blyton so her books often took flight. On one occasion, he actually threw a desk, although it didn’t go very far.

Strangely enough, I loved being in his class. He may not have been very PC, but he was an inspiring teacher. And he taught me a very important lesson: don’t write trite stories.

Still smarting from that first experience, I didn’t write about horses again for quite a while. But when I did, I was more successful. My first ever fiction success was a story about Pegasus that was published in Horse and Pony magazine. I was thrilled to see my words in print but less thrilled by the illustration. The “horse wearing a rug” from my story looked like a horse with a fireside rug strapped to its back.

Over the next few years, I tried unsuccessfully to expand that short story into a book until my agent told me to stop writing about those wretched horses. So I abandoned fiction for a while and concentrated on non-fiction on a wide range of subjects, including a couple of books about horses.

Then Anne Finnis got in touch out of the blue. She was the editor of the very first children’s book I ever sold, and she was looking for someone to develop one of her ideas into a fiction series for young readers. She already had a publisher interested, and she wanted me to write the books because she knew I liked horses.

I was so flattered to be asked that I said “yes”, even though I had doubts about the idea. Would little girls relate to a princess with four ponies or would they be so jealous that they wanted want to claw her eyes out? Then I remembered  Three Ponies and Shannon by Diana Pullein-Thompson which was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I had had no trouble relating to the spoilt, rich kid who was the main character because her life wasn’t that perfect and because she made so many mistakes when her groom wasn’t there to help. Maybe I could take inspiration from my namesake to make The Pony-Mad Princess work.

After some headscratching, I created a lonely princess who doesn’t like having to follow royal rules, finds waving lessons boring and hates the colour pink. I also invented a scenario where Princess Ellie could only ride her ponies if she booked with the elderly groom, just as if she going to a riding school, and where she wasn’t allowed to help at the stables because “princesses don’t”.

In the first book of the series, I turned that situation on its head by getting rid of the elderly groom and introducing Meg, a new, young groom one who introduces Ellie to the fun side of ponies, and Kate, the pony-mad granddaughter of the palace cook who becomes Ellie’s best and only friend. By the time, I had done all that I had fallen in love with Ellie and, judging by the success of the series, lots of young readers have done the same.

I’ve written thirteen Pony-Mad Princess books now, but Princess Ellie has never won a red rosette or gone home tired but happy. That might be because I’ve never competed much myself and prefer to just enjoy the company of horses. But maybe it’s because I still remember my teacher’s response to my very first pony story and I don’t want anyone to throw my book across the room.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Make Readers Care by Lisa Trovillion

Ideas.  Where do they come from? I maintain that all creative ideas spring from one’s own experience. Whether you are a writer who dreams up imaginary worlds full of fanciful creatures and apocalyptic events, or a writer who drops characters into a precise historical setting, the story you create comes in part from your own experience.  What we hope to do as writers is make the reader care. Care about something! In order to do that, you have to reach down inside and find that thing--maybe hiding in a dark corner of your memory--and drag it out for all to see.  It can be hard. It can be embarrassing.  Maybe even a bit painful.  But if we’re committed to making others care, we have to rely in some measure on our own truest emotions and experiences. And that doesn’t necessarily have to mean unpleasant experience. There are writers who lift us up, make us laugh, give us a sense of hope and inspiration. But to do so they are still stirring the embers of their past experiences, no doubt.  So now, while reading a book, I often wonder how much of it was “true” for the writer.  I suspect it was the portions that touched me the most.  How much of your novel is true?  How “true” is your story and where do your ideas come from?  Below, a picture of my Oldenburg mare, Dorrie, pondering whether she'll feature in my next novel. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Feels Like The First Time

My first novel went through many forms over the years of development, as first novels do. Initially, it only existed in my head. That's where most first novels start and end. They never make it onto a hard drive.

I was still young when I began the writing process, but I was in my later teens, and so my original concept of a YA series had shifted to a more adult perspective. Many things changed. The concept became edgier and more complex. My intended protagonist was demoted to a bit part, a walk-on. New characters took the scene and made me fall in love with them. This was a commitment I would keep.

When I started my novel, I didn't even have a computer of my own. I wrote at the public library as time allowed. The process took years, but when I got my own laptop, I wrapped up the book in a comparatively timely fashion. I had a novel, and a monster of a novel at that. Over 700 pages of character development, drama, romance, and equestrian sports. Over 700 pages that represented the road to growing up.

I never wrote for a specific audience. I wrote for myself, and I tried to write as well as I could. I tried to keep it fresh, and convey emotion. Then I looked for an audience. Finding an agent can be difficult, and I wasn't willing to compromise my story to fit the mold. When the traditional route failed to pan out, I took the reins and self-published my debut, Training Harry. Surprisingly, there was a market. Not everyone appreciated my very adult, very contemporary equestrian saga, but the majority of the reviews were encouraging. I had achieved my goal of writing an entertaining, edgy read full of the true heart of the horse. Some critics complained about the strong language or argued that the book could use editing - what first novel doesn't? - but the consensus was that I knew what I was talking about it when it came to horses.

Blame it on my lack of the internet. I grew up off the grid, and horse magazines were my version of time-wasting on Facebook. Instead of whiling away my hours on BuzzFeed quizzes and clickbait, I read articles. Case Reports, training articles, recaps of the Olympics and the WEG. I was an equal-opportunity horse nerd, and all that reading served to make me an all-around armchair expert. Coupled with my physical knowledge, the muscle memory gained from years of riding, my magazine binge-reading gave me an excellent knowledge base. My research was practically done before I ever started writing.

There's nothing like your first novel. No outlines, no expectations, no clue what you're doing. Even if the end result is a little raw, even if there's work to be done, even if it doesn't work out exactly like you wanted, at least you can say you have achieved something. Because at the end of the day, you are one of the few whose first novels actually made it onto paper.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is it About Horses?

by Linda Benson

What is it about horses that stirs us so deeply in our souls? Is it their beauty and grace, coupled with power and sensitivity? Or some intrinsic connection humans have with horses, after so many thousands of years of being together?

While horses have benefited mankind throughout modern history for transportation, warfare, hunting, and farming, today's horses are mainly used for recreation. No other animal, though, wild or domestic, seems to evoke the feeling of power, strength, and vulnerability that we feel in our relationship with horses.

Perhaps this is why horses have been successfully used in prison programs for rehabilitation of inmates, and to lower the rate of recidivism. And in therapeutic programs nationwide to help treat returning soldiers who suffer from PTSD as well as combat injuries.

For those of us who ride horses, there is just nothing like the empowering special connection you feel when you develop a relationship with the animal who responds to your every cue, and seems to understand what you want and are thinking.

But horses have the power to inspire us even from the armchair. Just watching horses gallop or frolic, whether they be jumping, racing, in movies, or even in advertising can stir us in unimaginable ways. Not to mention the joy we get reading about horses.

So even as society is rapidly changing, and our relationship with horses changes also - it amazes me how deeply horses can still inspire us, touch us, and make us feel.

What is it about horses, anyway?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bylines, Books & Blogs

                                                                     Copyright Milton C. Toby
Memories of a first byline, like those of a first love, tend to linger.

My first job out of college found me as the number-two staff writer in a two-person sports department at the Standard, a small daily newspaper in Aiken, South Carolina. We covered the Masters golf tournament because it was next door in Augusta, Georgia; high school sports; the University of South Carolina Gamecocks and the local community college teams; an astonishing number of bowling leagues—and, thankfully, horse racing. Aiken was a major winter training center before the advent of year-around racing, and good horses like Palace Malice still show up there from time to time to recover from a hard campaign.

Early on a Thursday, my fourth day on the job, the sports editor motioned with a hand in my direction.

“We need an article about the horses running in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, the ones that wintered in Aiken,” he said. The deadline was 10:00a.m., three hours away. I had no clue which horses those might be or how to track down their trainers on the backstretch of a race track that in pre-Internet days was so far away from Aiken that it might as well have been on another planet. My problems were compounded by a couple of obvious shortcomings for a reporter: I had not the slightest idea how to write a newspaper article—I’d heard of the “Five Ws,” the basics of information gathering, but my undergraduate degree was in animal science, not journalism—and I lacked even a basic ability to type.

Against all odds, things turned out okay.

The article with my first byline ran on page 1 that day, albeit below the fold; Greentree Stable’s Ruritania, an Aiken-trained longshot, ran a creditable second in the Belmont, seven lengths behind winner Riva Ridge; and 44 years later I’m still writing about Thoroughbred racing. With the help of, a research tool I use almost daily, I tracked down the article. It’s good, not great, but better than it had any right to be.

I left Aiken the next spring for a 12-year run at The Blood-Horse magazine, where I covered racing in the United States and made trips abroad for the Grand National Steeplechase, the Japan Cup, and the Caribbean Classic in Panama. My first of 125 magazine covers for The Blood-Horse was an image of Secretariat’s first foal.

Bill Straus photo
I wrote about racing in Asia (I was at Sha Tin in Hong Kong for Lester Piggott’s last ride) and Latin America during six years living abroad, and I continued freelancing after a return to the States for law school. My eight nonfiction books include national award winners Dancer’s Image and Noor, a biography of the champion filly Ruffian, and The Complete Equine Legal & Business Handbook, which is used in several college undergraduate equine law courses, including the one I teach at the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program.

After a break from three years’ weekly blogging about equine law at, I’m excited about joining my colleagues, and learning from them, at Horse Crossings. I’ll be sharing my thoughts about writing nonfiction (because that’s what I do, and because editors and agents haven’t recognized the merits of the two novels gathering dust on a shelf in my office), new projects, research, publishing contracts, copyright, finding an agent, racing, and horses.

And, no, I still haven’t learned how to type without staring at the keyboard.

Friday, February 6, 2015

How it All Began

What I really love writing is non fiction. Horses as a species haven't altered a great deal over the past hundreds of years, unlike dogs, but the way we treat them and ride them changes all the time. That's reflected in literature about horses, and it's fascinating seeing the way things change.

My book, Heroines on Horseback, looks at the history of children's pony books in the UK. It was a very, very different world in the 1930s, when the first pony books as we know them appeared. Children didn't bother with hats. They often rode bareback. They frequently set off on rides without leaving detailed instructions about where they were going, and couldn't rely on mobile phones to summon help if they got into trouble as mobiles were decades away from being invented. In Joanna Cannan's A Pony for Jean, published in 1936, Jean rarely, if ever, wore a hat, and when a burglar appeared one night, had to gallop up the nearest track to get help from a farm, because the only phone was downstairs, where the burglar was.

Look! No hat!
Joanna Cannan herself was in the vanguard of change. She was one of the earliest British writers to tell a horse story from the rider's point of view. If she'd been writing a decade or two earlier, Jean's pony, Cavalier, would have told us all how he was born on a windswept British moor, had an idyllic foalhood, was rounded up off the moor and sold, and then broken in, before he was sold to a family who didn't like him much, appeared not to feed him, and called him The Toastrack before giving him to a cousin, whom they didn't much like either.

Jean kept the pony, whom she renamed Cavalier, at home, as the family's cottage conveniently had an attached paddock. In the 1930s, the livery yard (or barn) wasn't the normal place where people kept horses and ponies in books. You tended to keep them on your own land, or on a nearby field you rented from a friendly farmer. This did mean that the writer didn't have access to the emotional stew that is livery yard life, and so they had to find other means for their characters to experience other children and their ponies. This happened via riding schools, the Pony Club, or through riding clubs children started up themselves.

There's no way a child could start up their own riding club or riding school now, but children really did then. Authors the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Diana and Christine, set up their own riding school during the Second World War, when they were in their mid teens. Their mother, Joanna Cannan, fortunately didn't insist on her children going to school, and so the girls were able to combine their rather sporadic education with earning a living. They started their riding school when the German Uboats patrolling the British Channel meant shortages of animal feed, which rocketed in price. Faced between having to sell their ponies, or work to keep them, they worked, and built up The Grove Stables into a solid and successful business. And did they work. It was endless, grinding toil. They collected grass for hay for a stableful of ponies themselves from road verges, and walked miles keeping ponies living in far distant fields watered and fed.

They reflected the world they knew in their books. Horse boxes were few and far between. Your wealthy cousins (whom you didn't much like) might have one to waft their expensive horses and ponies to shows, but you hacked, often miles. Christine Pullein-Thompson's A Day to Go Hunting features a whole gaggle of children who hack as much as ten miles before they even get as far as the actual meet. And that's all before they hunt for the day, and then ride the ten miles back.

It's a different world now, and that's reflected in today's pony books and horse stories. I'd love to leap forward thirty years or so and find out what future authors regard as quaintly old-fashioned, and what they look back on with nostalgic regret.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Writing about racehorses, and their retirement

Retired Racehorse: 19 year old broodmare Wicket
by Natalie Keller Reinert

I started writing about racehorses in 2009, living on a farm surrounded by retired racehorses.

Their past lives fascinated me. Every retired racehorse, young and old, calm and spooky, silly and mature, carries with them a remarkable story. I mean, have you been to the races? Have you seen the massive scale of the architecture, the tracks that dwarf humans, the tunnels lined with windows that horses march through on their way out to the race? It's about as far from farm life, the life we associate with horses, as anything could be. And racehorses, from a young age, live with that kind of crazy every day.

And they just live with it. They eat their hay and they beg for peppermints and they go out for rides just like any other horse, in any other place, in any other life. Some thrive on the fast pace; some are just waiting until they can slow down on the farm again. But they are capable of great tolerance for things that many horses would simply freak out over.

As horsemen we ask our horses to do things that make them react as if we're delusional fairly regularly.

- Step up on that rubber mat for a bath. What, are you crazy? That mat is obviously going to eat me! 

- Hop over this cross-rail of plain brown poles. And risk being devoured by a cross-rail of DEATH?

- Stand still for a second while I run these tiny buzzing clippers around your ears. UM LOL ROFL!

- I swear that tortoise up ahead isn't going to hurt you. Can't hear you running the other way too fast!

Seriously, horses are all about every day drama. Even retired racehorses. And they're really just playing with you, because they've seen it all, and done it all. They've stepped on rubber mats and they've stepped over poles and they've been clipped and...

Well, they probably haven't seen any tortoises.

Although they may be pretty familiar with goats and pigs from their racetrack lives. And with roosters, and cats. With bicycles and motorbikes. With rumbling commuter trains and crackling loudspeakers.

It's a funny life, the racetrack life.

So I sat and I thought about their past lives, and wrote about them, for years. I wrote The Head and Not The Heart, which goes from the sweet country life in Ocala to the gritty racetrack life in NYC, then Other People's Horses, which takes place in that happiest of happy mediums between farm and races, Saratoga Springs.

Maybe it was inevitable that after writing those books, and living in NYC myself, I started craving a slow-down. Time for a lay-off, a little time back at the farm. I wrote Ambition, about eventing with retired racehorses, about farm life, about working hard for what you want, come whatever odds.

And then I decided to concentrate on those uncertain days between a horse's last race and a horse's new career. The retired racehorse, at the moment he's retired -- that's the subject of my new book, coming this spring: Turning For Home. 

How does a racehorse feel, when he's suddenly taken home and turned out? How does a racehorse react, when he's laid off from the only job he knows? How does a trainer feel, when her horse leaves her barn? What does the horse do next, and who is going to teach it to him? What happens to a retired racehorse?

First ride off the track on an OTTB.
Alex is retiring Tiger -- you might have met Tiger and Alex in The Head and Not The Heart, a few years ago -- and nothing about it seems simple. He knows everything about being a racehorse, and nothing about being a riding horse. Together, they have to figure out how to live and work in a new world.

I wrote about retired racehorses long before I wrote The Head and Not The Heart. Before I was writing back-stories, I was writing their current stories. In my old blog Retired Racehorse (archives are at, but with lots of broken links - you've been warned), I wrote about retraining a racehorse, fresh off the training center, into a successful sport-horse. I also wrote about my broodmares, themselves retired racehorses, and all their quirks and sillies and moments of brilliance.

Turning For Home is a return to those retirement stories. What happens, when you retire a racehorse?


While I'm preparing Turning For Home for publication, I'm sharing retired racehorse true stories at my Facebook page, Retired Racehorse Blog. Have a horse you're prepping for the 2015 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover? Share your website or FB page with readers there. Have an OTTB with a story you've just got to tell? Post over at Retired Racehorse Blog and share your story. That's

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What's Your Book About?

Whenever someone learns I’ve written a novel, usually the next question out of their mouth is, “So, what’s your book about?”  I have met that question with much trepidation and fear.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m delighted that potential readers want to hear more, but I find it so hard to sum up “what it’s about” in the course of a casual exchange. 

And that is exactly what we are asked to do as writers—to provide a one-sentence synopsis of the story, to boil down all the themes into a tag line or a pitch.  So, I go for the obvious and throw out a few bare bones facts concerning the plot: “There’s this girl who wants to qualify for a prestigious, big horse show against incredible odds.”  With this, the literary agents, small publishers and maybe even a few readers stifle a yawn and think, “Girl and her horse story. It’s been done to death.” 

We might all have faced that dilemma—striving for a fresh way to tell an old tale.  Seeing that I’m losing them, I quickly add, “But this girl’s horse may have at one time been a world class show horse that ends up in a cheap auction’s kill pen.”  Perhaps a few readers prick up their ears with some interest.  “But more than that.  It’s really about the girl facing her own limitations, her fears, her insecurities.”  I see some lights come on in my listeners’ eyes, which encourages me to press on.  “You see, it’s really about the nature of desire.  How what you want in life can either twist you up and make you miserable, or liberate you and fill the void in your life.”  The thing is, the book is about many more things: family dynamics and how wounds perpetuate themselves, its about fear of failure, its about finding one’s calling, it’s about how to let go without giving up. 

Now, how do I get that all into one catchy line?