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Find more A Sport of a Different Color
I’ve been riding horses, hunter and jumper style, for most of my life, and I’ve lost track of the number of times people have told me that my sport is not a sport. “The horse does all the work,” they say. (Patently untrue. Also, talk to me about race cars.) “The judging is too subjective,” I’ve heard. (Well, sure, but how about gymnastics?)
First and foremost, competitive riding is a team sport (the horse is an athlete, but he’s not the only one). But it’s not just a single sport. Three separate events appear in the Olympics alone—dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping—and horse racing is a discipline unto itself. Although the idea that this is a high-cost sport available only to people with generations’ worth of money is a misconception, it is a sport that people invest in, which means there’s usually a lot of money—pardon the pun—riding on competitions, practically demanding a seedy underbelly. Adult novels in particular take advantage of the glamour and the grit of the horse world, manifesting it as scandals that range from extramarital affairs and insurance scams to arson and murder.
In children’s literature, however, this dark side is less literal. Nearly always, the emphasis is placed on the bond between horse and rider, with the horse elevated to a full character. It’s a conceit that’s more effective in some books than in others. Christine Kendall’s debut, Riding Chance, centers on Troy, a 14-year-old African American boy who finds himself working community-service hours at a local stable. He’s not expecting to enjoy it, and certainly not expecting to fall in love with one horse in particular, Chance, and begin learning to play polo, a sport he always assumed was only for rich white kids.
Somewhat less successful is Cecily von Ziegesar’s Dark Horses, a YA novel that splits its focus between Merritt, a troubled but talented show jumper, and Red, her problem horse. Although this particular narrative provides an intriguing look into the dark machinations of the competitive riding world, the choice to give the horse its own first-person narrative—a concept that worked in Anna Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty, but not much else—perhaps takes the idea a bit too far.
It may surprise some readers that what connects these two books, both with each other and with many other horse books for young readers, is a thread of desperation. Riding is expensive, difficult, and dangerous (I have suffered numerous broken bones, nine different tailbone fractures, and at least one concussion), and success requires a healthy amount of strength and determination. But people who fall for it fall hard. In so many of these stories, riding becomes the lens by which we look at difficult topics: it’s the thing that saves or inspires a younger person reeling from tragedy or struggling with a difficult life.
Riding is expensive, difficult, and dangerous.
Equestrian books have established themselves as the home of the underdogs (Seabiscuit, anyone?). They’re an ideal combination of an exhilarating sports story and a heartwarming human-animal tale: Chris Platt’s Willow King (1998), Jane Smiley’s The Georges and the Jewels (2009), Ginny Rorby’s The Outside of a Horse (2010), and Jennifer H. Lynne’s Catch Rider (2013) are all enduring examples of girls wrestling with difficult home lives who find safety with horses. It’s a timeless focus reflected in historical fiction—Diane Lee Wilson’s I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998) and Firehorse (2006); Victoria Holmes’ The Horse from the Sea (2005); and such titles for reluctant and struggling readers as Nikki Tate’s Venom (2009) and Shelley Peterson’s Jockey Girl (2016).
Equestrianism has bled into fantasy as well, where the rules of the world may change but the heart of the story remains the same. The highest-profile example is Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (2011), which blends all the elements of a successful horse story: characters dealing with loss, a high-stakes race, and the ties between horses (mythical or otherwise) and the people who love them. Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl (2003) highlights those ties as well, while other elements of the classic horse story are explored in Veronica Rossi’s Riders and Victoria Scott’s Titans (both 2016).
On a final note: it’s worth mentioning that although there are plenty of male-driven narratives on this topic, the majority of the barn rats here are female. The boy-and-his-dog story might be a classic, but when it comes to horses, move over, Billy Colman: it’s a girl’s world.
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