A Sport of a Different Color:
The Dark Side of Competitive Riding in Kidlit
I’ve been riding horses, hunter and jumper style, for most of my life, and I’ve lost track of the number of times peo- ple 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 (review, p. 106),
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 (p. 104), 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.
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.
Horse stories are prevalent in books for kids. But it’s not all interspecies friendships
and hoisting trophies.
BY MAGGIE REAGAN