Barn Aisle Chats: Writing and Riding with Merwie

Barn Aisle Chats is a series where we’ll meet equestrians from all walks of life and disciplines. Today, we chat with Merwie about how her love for horses inspired her novels.

I’m not sure when or why exactly Merwie and I met. I played polo and she was writing about a hot guy that also played polo in her book, Blaze of Glory. Maybe sometimes that’s all it takes.

Over the next decade we exchanged emails and texts, talking about big, important stuff, like rating the sexiness of various male model forearms (I think a hockey player won), to more trivial matters like, you know, maintaining work/life balance and raising our kids.

We recently had a chat about how her love for horses inspired her writing. Here are the highlights.

Amanda: How did you get started in riding/loving horses? Break down your childhood barn rat years.

Merwie: I think I was born loving horses. My parents were completely baffled because they didn’t particularly like horses and didn’t know anyone who rode or was involved with horses in any way. They didn’t want to encourage it, either; in the fairly typical immigrant family way, they wanted me to focus on school and “normal” hobbies. My mother often reminded me that riding was for rich people. But I used to collect everything that had a horse on it. In Canada, we had these commemorative quarters for a while with a Mountie on them — I kept every one I could get my hands on until I had a whole jar of “horse quarters.”

The first time I can remember being on a pony was one of those rides at the fair where the ponies all walk around on a sort of hot-walker. My pony’s girth was loose, the saddle slipped and I fell and skinned my knee. I was about five. I cried, but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. When I was nine, I went on one of those by-the-hour trail rides and I was hooked.

Photo courtesy of Merwie.

I started hanging out at that trail ride barn a lot. It was miles away from my house, on the edges of a suburban area, but I’d ride my bike there several times a week. Anyway, I’d be there all day, probably making a nuisance of myself while trying to help, and at the end of the day, they’d sometimes let me get on a spare horse. I trotted, cantered, and galloped on those trails before I ever had a single lesson. The idea of proper lessons didn’t really enter my head, probably because that barn didn’t offer them.

When I was 12, my family moved to the far north, like, near the tundra line north, and there wasn’t a horse for hundreds of miles. I went through a very dark time that year; I was discriminated against and bullied; there was hardly any daylight in winter, and I really, really missed horses. When my depression got alarming, some family friends convinced my parents to send me to riding camp for a month.

Horses are so calm, so present, and so generous, you know? Their energy is a balm.

Anyway, it was the happiest month of my life, and a turning point for me. Since I’d spent so much time reading about horses, I already knew a lot of theory. I knew what posting diagonals and leads were, how to groom, and what different breeds looked like. So even though my total experience consisted of maybe a dozen trail rides in a western saddle, I caught up quickly and by the month’s end I could canter a small course. I fell head over heels in love with the horse I rode at camp, of course. He was a small TB from Argentina, a flea-bitten grey with a big heart, and I’ll forever be grateful to him. I guess he was the first of many TBs I’ve loved!

Photo courtesy of Merwie.

A: So how did that play into writing Blaze? Why did you become an equestrian author? Is that a thing? Equestrian Author. I want it to be a thing.

M: It should be a thing! So, riding camp was a turning point. When I was 13, I babysit for close to a thousand hours, and when we returned from the Great Horseless Wastes of the Far North, I found an amazing coach, Debbie Cox. She let me work off some of my lessons and she gave me rides to and from the barn. I turned into a total barn rat; I mucked stalls, cleaned tack, and I would’ve slept there if that had been an option.

I started competing regularly and loved it. I got the best OTTB in the world and at one point, competed at the International Intercollegiate Equestrian Games. It was another life-changing experience, a much better one than the one that followed soon after — a serious accident that resulted in back surgery.

After the surgery, my life working with horses came to an abrupt end. In hindsight, the trauma from having to make such an abrupt, unwanted change made me cut horses out of my life completely. But eventually I had kids, and they liked ponies, and before you know it I had opened the floodgates to the full horsey experience again, and all that love had to go somewhere, so I combined it with my love of books and started writing stories that featured horses I’ve known and loved.

That’s the long-winded answer to how I became an equestrian author.

Photo courtesy of Merwie.

A: Are any of the horses in your books based on real life?

M: So after I graduated with a degree in Equine Studies, I managed a boarding/lesson barn. When I was outside teaching in the main ring my horse, Jamie, would casually pop over the four-foot fence of his paddock, hop into the ring, and trot over to see me. I used that little quirk for my main horse character, Blaze, in Blaze of Glory.

We also did have a little palomino school horse named Schweppes who didn’t like being a school horse, same as in the book.

And my friend’s POA — Picasso — was an equine vacuum cleaner. He’d eat anything including hot dogs and other non-horse-friendly foods. I borrowed heavily from my friends’ horses for the story, too.

Pretty much all the horses that appear in my books are based off my actual horses or friends’ horses.

“Schweppes.” Photo courtesy of Merwie.

A: And Blaze won some pretty prestigious awards?

M: Blaze of Glory won an award for best fiction at the Equus Film Festival in 2018, which was so much fun. It was also very well reviewed by Sidelines Magazine and Chronicle of the Horse.

“An addicting guilty pleasure of a novel with a level of steam and scandal that is way over the top – and oh so enjoyable to read. – Erin Gilmore, Sidelines Magazine

M: Publisher’s Weekly didn’t seem to appreciate all the horsey stuff. I remember they thought I should have focused on the main character’s equestrian ambitions or the romance. But we can’t parse out our lives like that, can we?

The whole Blaze series was optioned for TV/film … twice, in fact, and I actually get a lot of interest for Awesome Possum to come to TV as well.

Photo courtesy of Merwie.

A: That’s exciting! So we have just a few more questions. Coffee, tea or soda?

M: Coffee aaaaaaall the way .

A: Summer or winter?

M: Definitely summer, because I live in Canada — although spring is actually my fave.

A: Sunrise or sunset?

M: I’ll go with sunset, even though I’m a morning person, because there’s something satisfying about being able to relax at the end of the day. Not that I get to experience that since having kids, but you know … in theory.

A: Cats or dogs?

M: Dogs, because I’m very allergic to cats.

A: Black Beauty or Black Stallion?

M: Although I’ve read both multiple times and loved the Black Stallion movies … I’ll have to go with Black Beauty for its positive messages about treating our horses with kindness.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.