Barn Aisle Chats is a new series where we’ll meet equestrians from all walks of life and disciplines. Today, we chat with Erin Lindsay McCabe about her new steamy polo rom-com.
This series first spoke to Erin back in March about Thoroughbred rehabilitation. At the time, she (very secretly) divulged she had a writing project in the works set in the horse world. She used a lot of my personal trigger phrases, including “fake dating,” “he falls first,” and “polo ponies.” I begged for more information, but she stayed true to her word (and publishing contract) and said I’d just have to wait like the rest of the world. Now, finally, the wait is over. Her new book, Gift Horse, cowritten with Kate Pickford under the pen name Katherine Avery, is available now. And, as of this writing, it is free with a Kindle Unlimited membership.
Amanda: Tell me about your book.
Erin: GIFT HORSE is about what happens when Lolly, an aspiring polo player, agrees to fake date Mariano, an Argentinian polo pro who’s run out of money. She thinks being associated with him will boost her career, and he’s hoping some arm-candy will help him attract a wealthy patroness — except neither of them plans on the sparks their arrangement ignites between them.
It’s the first book in a series that my friend Kate Pickford and I decided to co-write together. We’ve been sprinting and critique partners for years, and our publisher wanted to branch out into romance, which sounded like a ton of fun to us. This was in the middle of the pandemic, and we’d each been working on Very Serious, kind of dark projects (historical fiction and post-apocalyptic novels) and we both jumped at the chance to write something lighter, and with a guaranteed happy ending. That impulse to laugh and find joy turned into this rom com series which has just been an absolute blast to create, and now we’re excited for readers to finally get to laugh along with us.
A: What inspired you to write this story?
E: In addition to what I said above about wanting to read and write stories that were happy and fun and focused on bringing people together, I’d been talking to another author about a new series she was working on, which featured a hockey team. I got to wondering about what equestrian discipline would allow for the comaraderie of an actual team — not a team of riders who compete individually (like say, an Olympic eventing or dressage “team”), but a team who all take the field together — so that the series could follow all of the players … which of course, led me to polo. I’ve always wanted to find a way to link my love of horses with my love of writing, without necessarily writing a story that was completely focused on horses, and so combining polo with romance felt like a great way to have a story that was focused on love between two people, but also get to incorporate the love of horses too.
A: And what initially drew you to polo for the setting?
E: It was initially just that idea of being able to write about a team of people who are passionate about their horses… but I also had in the back of my mind some of the, frankly, pretty wild stories that a couple of my friends who play polo had told me over the years. The more we dug into it, the more it just seemed like there were so many opportunities for drama in the world of polo — there’s the glitz and glamour of big tournaments sponsored by luxury brands, the celebrities who attend events like Snow Polo in Aspen, the various exciting locations where polo is played, the horses who are being cloned, and then there’s that contrast to the grooms and riders working with the horses behind the scenes. All of that seemed ripe for the kind of tension and excitement and situations that make for good stories and have lots of opportunity for hijinks. We also wanted to create stories where readers could live vicariously through the characters — especially since we were writing during a time when travel and excitement was really limited.
A: I know you took a polo lesson and you reached out to a lot of former and current polo players for research. Tell me a little about that process and what you learned.
E: I think the biggest thing I learned was how much I don’t know! One of the things I love about writing is that I have this great excuse to go out and learn new things and have new experiences. At the time we started writing this book, my sole real-life exposure to polo was one exhibition match I watched probably fifteen years ago, in Golden Gate Park. As we got into writing the books, while I knew I could get the horse-relationship stuff right, I discovered more and more places where we wanted to write about something that happens on the polo pitch or an experience the characters might have and I just didn’t know how it would play out. I mean, I still have barely scratched the surface, but I really wanted to try to get the polo stuff “right.” So, what grew out of these anecdotes my polo playing friends had shared over the years, turned into me watching games of matches on YouTube (sometimes one play, over and over again, to try to understand what was happening), to reading the actual USPA rule book (so many rules!), to following various polo players on social media, to sending my polo playing friends long lists of random questions and then finally to deciding that I really just needed to actually go take a lesson and experience the sport for real. Which I totally recommend — I’m kind of mad that it took me this long to find out how fun polo is.
A: What surprised you the most?
E: Aside from how fun it was to play polo, I think what surprised me the most was something that Erik Wright, one of the instructors I took a lesson with said, which was that most people think polo is like how it’s portrayed in Pretty Woman, but most of the time, it’s more like a bunch of guys playing a pick-up game of basketball. We portray a little of that in our books, but mostly we lean into the glitz and the glamour.
A: Are any of the characters inspired by real people?
E: Bahahaha! I’m not sure I should say. Lol. But yes, there are a few characters who are inspired by real-life people. All very loosely, of course. So for instance, I watched a bunch of interviews with Nacho Figueras and the way he talks, how he sounds, really inspired how I thought about Mariano in Gift Horse, even though what happens to Mariano in Book 1 isn’t at all based on anything I know about Nacho Figueras’ life. We have a character inspired by Sunny Hale (first American woman professional polo player to win the U.S. Open Polo Championship). And you can’t really have a story about polo without mentioning royalty, so there are some royals who appear, who are definitely inspired by real royals without actually being them. But beyond that, there are friendships we portray in the book that are absolutely inspired by real relationships, and the like. And of course, the horses in the books are all inspired by my personal horses or horses I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Same with the dogs and cats.
A: Have you reached out to anyone in the polo world to see what they think of the book?
E: Oh god, no! Too scary! I mean, I really hope we’ve done a good job with our research, and that there’s enough horse and polo action to satisfy our equestrian readers, but we also really hope that these books will appeal to any reader who loves rom coms in general. Hopefully we’ll inspire some people to find out more about polo.
A: I know there’s a sequel in the works! When can we expect it to hit the shelves?
E: We have a six book series planned, and Book 2 (Bridle Path) lands in September. I’m not sure authors are really allowed to have favorites (just like I have my favorite bright bay mare and my favorite chestnut mare and my favorite dark bay mare…) but it features a Hero who Kate and I both just ADORE. We can’t wait for readers to meet him.
Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian, and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.