What to Read (Besides HN): A horsey book review column

Editor’s note: HN does not condone the practice of reading while riding backwards without a bridle, saddle or helmet.

Like horses, love to read? HN Contributor Erin McCabe pens her first in a weekly series of horsey book reviews.

From Erin:

Good Reads: More elusive than a good spot?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve pretty much read every single Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley book. You’ve plowed through The Saddle Club ad infinitum. You used to pore over Horse Encyclopedias, marveling at obscure breeds (the Knabstrupper? The Noriker?  The Gelderland?). Sure, you’ve got a few obscure favorites (Everyday Friends, anyone?). But what, pray tell, is the horse crazy GROWN UP supposed to read? I mean, of course, after we’ve read Xenophon’s On Horsemanship and everything Jimmy Wofford recommends here and Debbie McDonald’s Riding Through and Pippa Funnell’s autobiography and all the practical, theoretical, hands-on, how-to books good horse people are supposed to read, especially when it’s too dark and cold and rainy to ride. But fiction! What about fiction? I mean, once you’ve read The Horse Whisperer (1995) and Horse Heaven (2001) what else is there?

And so, it was with great eagerness that I picked up Horseplay:  A Novel by Judy Reene Singer. The plot, in a nutshell, is that after her husband cheats on her, our horsey protagonist, also named Judy, runs away to be a groom for an Olympic level dressage rider (complete with German accent, of course). While there she meets the horses, the Jack Russels, the other grooms, the barn diva, and, of course, her future romantic interest.

The story is, well, kind of predictable. But that’s the way of romance novels, right? And that’s essentially what this is, just set at a dressage barn (where I thought eligible straight men were mythical creatures). It’s chick-lit to the extreme—light, breezy, funny, romantic and horsey. The horse stuff is well done, although it sometimes verges on too much explanation if the intended audience is really grown-up horse girls.

But really my main beef with this novel was that it bordered on caricature. I mean, yes, we are all familiar with snooty dressage queens and the older women whose horses stand-in for children. I mean, I worked at a barn where one woman (whose horse had a French name, of course) posted temperature readings at which her horse should wear his various blankets. But that’s exactly the kind of particular detail that’s missing from the characterizations here.

Horseplay ultimately disappoints if you’re looking for something deep.  It skims the surface of the emotions we have about our horses and our goals and our dreams and the relationships we have with the people who populate our barns. If you want to know what happened when the girls from The Saddle Club all grew up and went to work at a dressage barn (and hey, I’m not knocking i–I liked Carole too!), then Horseplay might just make your weekend. If you’re looking for the horse equivalent of a beach read (what is that? A I’m-a-spectator-at-the-Florida-circuit read?), then this is a fun book that will fit the bill. If you want something more literary and intellectual (say, like, The God of Small Things or anything that’s won a Booker Prize) and horsey, well, I’m still on a quest to find that book.

About Erin McCabe: I earned an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) in 2010 and am currently working with an agent to sell my novel (it’s historical fiction set during the Civil War so there are horses in it, but it’s not “horse-y”). I also taught high school English for seven years and several semesters of college composition. On the horse side, I own three OTTBs (one semi-retired, one competing BN eventing, and one green broke prospect), have ridden for over 20 years, and have taught many beginners to ride. 

Top photo credit: Horse-books-pony-stories.com

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