Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe checks out the first book in Maggie Dana’s new Timber Ridge Riders series.
When I was a kid, it seemed like there were never enough horse-y novels to keep me in books, especially during the years I was incessantly begging for a horse and yet did not have one. I plowed through the classics and the Saddle Club series, and then… nothing. Or, not nothing, but lots of single books for which I had to scour the bookstore and library shelves to even find (ah, life pre-Internets…).
If it had existed then, when I was in 4th through 6th grades, I would have raced through the new Timber Ridge Riders series, by Maggie Dana. The first book, Keeping Secrets, follows Kate McGregor as she begins her new job as companion to Holly Chapman, who is confined to a wheelchair after a car accident that left her father dead. What Kate doesn’t tell anyone is that she used to ride, until her favorite horse died after escaping from the stall Kate was blamed for leaving improperly latched. Kate is still grieving Black Magic’s death and combined with her guilt, she decides she can never be around horses again. Except Holly’s mom just happens to be the head trainer at Timber Ridge Stables and Holly desperately wants to ride again, which means Kate must help her get to the barn each day for her therapeutic riding lessons. When an accident forces Kate into action and reveals her riding skills, everything changes, except the friendship that’s grown between Kate and Holly.
It’s this friendship that I liked most about the story. Kate is earnest and talented, while Holly is spunky, honest, and generous. Of course, they have a lot in common (being raised by busy single parents, loving horses, being good riders), but that doesn’t always make for a good friendship. What author Maggie Dana manages to do is portray a relationship that is based on mutual respect and support, but also has a chemistry of its own that makes it feel real. It’s the kind of friendship every HorseGirl should be lucky enough to have—where you cheer for each other whether you’re competing in the same division or not, where your friend’s successes feel as wonderful as your own, where you love your friend’s horse because you know how much she does. It’s also the kind of friendship that is not often portrayed in a well-developed way in horse-y novels for girls, where the focus is frequently on dealing with jealousy and foiling the arch-nemesis horse snob. Granted, there is one of those kinds of girls in this book too. Indeed, the tension between Kate and Holly and resident arch-nemesis horse snob Angela feels a bit predictable, although some depth is added when author Dana introduces Angela’s mother and we see the pressure Angela is under to do well. Speaking of the parents in the book, I had some questions (which the target audience probably wouldn’t even consider) about Angela’s mother’s bad behavior and even more about Kate’s absent father and aunt, who allow Kate to spend the summer living with strangers. I would have liked to see these characters dealt with in a more complex way, but that’s probably beyond the scope of a book for this audience. In any case, the friendship between Kate and Holly makes this story worthy of a victory gallop.
The novel is also a super quick, easy read (for an adult, anyway) with hints of romance (there’s a—gasp!—cute boy at the show that the Timber Ridge Riders compete in). Plenty of accurate horse action will please the HorseGirl in your life and yet the horse-y bits are explained well enough to serve as Horse indoctriNation for the uninitiated. And the story, with its universal themes of guilt and responsibility, honesty and determination, individual aspirations and teamwork, has enough going on outside the horse world that any pre-teen can appreciate the book for dealing with issues she faces.
If you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for your younger horse crazy niece or daughter or granddaughter, this novel could be just the thing– assuming you aren’t going to give her an actual pony. Plus, with a total of eight books in the series thus far, it’s a gift you can keep giving!
Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, is forthcoming from Crown Publishing in January 2014. You can learn more at erinlindsaymccabe.com.