The Girl on the Dancing Horse – a Book Review

One Monday evening in March my Mum and a friend had booked tickets to go to a book signing by Charlotte Dujardin, to promote her new autobiography “The Girl On The Dancing Horse”. Unfortunately for my Mum, her granddaughter decided to arrive the day before so she never got to go.

This week I’ve had the chance to read the book, so thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it’s very readable. You can pick it up and read two pages, or you can settle down for an hour and just as easily read a few chapters.

It’s very much written as the words come out of Charlotte’s mouth. Or how I would imagine they’d come out of her mouth as you chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of Charlotte’s childhood in enough detail, without telling you about her third cousin once removed. It’s all relevant; talking about her ponies and showing days with a couple of anecdotes added for good measure.

The book is very honest. Charlotte is quite critical of showing and it’s politics, which I’m fully aware of and was why I never fully enjoyed it as a teenager, despite the educational benefits of it for young horses and riders. However it’s good to see her voicing this opinion and being honest.

The book spends a lot of time explaining how Charlotte transitioned from showing into dressage and started with Carl Hester. Quite a few big names are dropped, but not in a bad way, they just make the story clearer. If you knew nothing about dressage then the names could start to get confusing. But then again, if you knew nothing about dressage would you pick up this book? Most probably not!

Dressage terms are used frequently, so if you aren’t au fait with dressage movements, levels or terms then you may need to put the book aside and consult Google. The good thing being that, as I said earlier, the book is easy to pick up and put down.

Probably the main reason people will choose this book off a bookshelf is to learn more about Valegro himself. And there’s a lot of the book devoted to his and Charlotte’s career together. This section is very matter of fact; it must be hard to find the balance between accepting compliments and acknowledging world records without coming across as egotistical or arrogant. I think Charlotte has managed this really well. She describes her experiences and emotions simply, and uses the facts and figures to illustrate their successes.

There’s also a side of the book which brings up criticisms of herself, by her trainers and herself, which highlights why she is successful – because she is so driven to achieve perfection – and also doesn’t make light of the negative effects of suddenly being thrown into the media spotlight and the pressure of being at the top, pressure to prove she’s not just a one trick pony (excuse the pun), as well as competition nerves and how to deal with them. Which is important for us “normals” to know, I think. That being a top professional rider has both its highs and lows.

The Girl On The Dancing Horse is definitely one of the best biographical books I’ve read, as it balances professional life with childhood and personal experiences whilst keeping relevant to the reason we equestrians picked the book up in the first place – to discover the Charlotte and Valegro story.

Old And New

Whilst watching some reruns of QI I learnt that there is such a thing as a “half life of a fact”. Which is the belief that what is now a fact will be disproved and considered to be untrue within twenty years. This is because science and technology are always advancing so experiments will be more accurate and take smaller measurements. Take for example, the commonly known recent change in space science. Pluto is no longer classified as a planet, but is now a dwarf planet. This is because scientists can now study Pluto and the surrounding Kuiper Belt in more detail, which lead to the discovery of several similar sized objects and the term “planet” was redefined in 2006, meaning that Pluto is no longer a planet.

Which means the rhyme we learnt at school is wrong.

Moving onto my original reason for writing this blog. My Mum left me some equine books that she had when she was a child. Now that I’m spending quite a lot of time sat down feeding and cuddling Mallory, I’ve had chance to flick through the first of the books, wondering how much has changed. This book was published in 1972.

The first thing which jumped out at me was an example of a receipt which valued a 15hh, sound, vice-free, quiet to ride six year old at £300. Yes, I know it’s not an actual horse, but it would be a fairly accurate guesstimate and just goes to show the effect of inflation. The book was published after decimalisation so that isn’t a complication in the issue. Nowadays you’d be looking at £3000 for a similar stamp of horse. And if a horse was for sale for £300 you’d be asking what’s wrong with it!

In all honesty, the chapter about teeth and ageing horses was as accurate (although we know it to be an inaccurate art) as the way the BHS still teach today. Of course I’d say that our knowledge of the horse’s mouth has improved ten fold, but the lay man’s method of ageing hasn’t changed.

The next chapter is all about stables and fittings. Now, I know that our expectations of stables has changed because we now have purpose built facilities and equestrians are generally more affluent (at least before they purchase a horse). But I didn’t expect to read the sentence “asbestos is good (as a roofing material) from the point of view of reducing fire risks and extremes of temperature, but it cracks easily.” And is carcinogenic, but that link wasn’t discovered until the 1980s.

However, the general consensus about the building materials, stable size and minimising stable fittings, still rings true today. The book favours stables made from brick, stone or concrete, ideally with a slate or tiled roof. It emphasises the importance of ventilation without being draughty, and considering drainage carefully. Having as few a fittings as possible that the horse can injure themselves on is discussed, as well as the hygiene implications of different mangers. The book dislikes hay racks because of the risk of seeds falling into a horse’s eye. Of course now we know the respiratory impact of using hay racks which further supports the book’s standpoint.

There’s also a chapter on stable routines, which is similar to what I’d expect in the army. It would be impossible to maintain this routine with a full time job – I think the book assumes you have a full time groom. Furthermore, the book doesn’t reflect the natural lifestyle of the horse (in the suggested routine the horse was stabled permanently) and nowadays horse owners place a lot more value on the psychological welfare of horses; for example, maximising turnout and providing company.

Perhaps one area in which a horse’s stable has really changed is the bedding. In the 1970s straw was the only recommended option, with peat a close second. However advances in sawmills and an increased demand by the equine industry means that shavings are now dust free, absorbent and of high quality, compared to the shavings described in the book – “shavings are not very absorbent … large chips of wood may be found in them … at best a poor substitute.” We are spoiled for choice with the variety of shavings, wood pellets, straw, paper, or flax to name a few.

There’s also a big change in the contents of our grooming kits. Nowadays you can get brushes of every colour for every part of the body, and various shampoos, whiteners and detanglers to help keep our horses in tip top condition. In the ’70s there was only the dandy brush, body brush and water brush (not forgetting the infamous and vicious metal curry comb) and you relied on a wisp and good old elbow grease to put a shine on your horse’s coat.

Believe it or not, I’m not even halfway through the book – I’ve not reached the breed pictures marking the midpoint of the book. However, as far as I can see, the basic aims and regimes of horse care hasn’t changed much, and although increased knowledge and science and technology has led to some changes in the way we care for our horse (don’t mention feeding and nutrition as I haven’t reached that chapter yet but I know it’s changed) the general knowledge and reasoning behind horse care was the same in the 1970s as it is now.

I will leave it here because little person needs putting to bed, but expect another comparison post in the near future. In the meantime, a question for the older riders among you. What do you think are the biggest changes in horse care between when you were a child and now?

Chasing The Wind – a Book Review

Some of you may remember last year I reviewed the fourth book in the Aspen Valley series, Making the Running, by Hannah Hooton.

Well, a couple of months ago I was asked to be a beta reader. This means that I was one of the first to read the book, compare the alternate endings, and provide feedback. 

Now the book is officially finished and available to buy (links at the end of the post). I can provide you guys with a review and recommendation.

  
Chasing The Wind is the final book in the Aspen Valley series. Set in Somerset, the series revolves around racehorse trainer Jack Carmichael, his family, his horses, his staff, and his career. The book got off to a gripping start, with the tragic death of Jack’s two-year old daughter, Gabrielle, in the hands (or hooves) of a racehorse, Shenandoah.

Simultaneously, young journalist Lucy Kendrick, arrives on Jack’s doorstep. Already the reader can smell a rat, as we see the edges of her web of lies in her shadow, suggesting that all is not what it seems.

The book follows Jack as he tries to come to terms with his loss; tries to make amends with his devastated wife; battles the horse racing authorities when his reputation is threatened;  finds the perpetrator within his closest; solves the enigma that is Lucy; and all whilst planning his revenge on the unbeatable Shenandoah at the upcoming Grand National.

I would class this book, as with the others in the series, as a romance book, with the backdrop of the horse racing industry. It’s got plenty of witty, comedic moments, memorable and instantly recognisable characters, and is easy to read and to pick up, making it perfect bedtime reading with a mug of hot chocolate.

It is also definitely part of a series. Whilst it can be easily read on it’s own and thoroughly enjoyed, previous protagonists pop up throughout.

What I particularly liked about this book, compared to the previous ones, is that it brings in a few technical elements – having a horse x-rayed for kissing spines, a common complaint of the racing industry, and jump schooling to improve a horse’s technique. To me, it makes the books more realistic and well researched, if not slightly idealistic.

The book has many sub plots, and a couple of traps to fall into, and I was kept guessing until the end. When I thought I knew who Lucy the journalist was, another suspicion was raised. 

I will admit, that when I read the ending -which I will not reveal – in the beta version, I was slightly disappointed. It took me from the highs of reconciliation to the lows of retribution. For the end of the series I felt there was something missing. I voiced my opinion in my feedback, and I have to say I was thrilled by the improvements.

In the final version of Chasing The Wind there is an epilogue, which cleverly ties up the series whilst leaving the door ajar if Hannah Hooton decides to revisit Aspen Valley in the future.

The books are available from AmazonNookiTunes, and Kobo

My New Book!

One of my recent journeys of self discovery has led me to learn that I’m not very good at self promotion and selling myself. So here is a shameless blog about my new book.

  
This is the fifth book of the Awelon Tyn series, and focuses on the run up to Christmas and all the fun horsey activities involved.

Scratch that, I’ll try again.

The Awelon Tyn Stories are a series of books about a small riding stables in South Wales. Awelon Tyn means “windy farm” or small holding to be more precise, but I chose it in the hope that non Welsh  people can pronounce it (ah-well-on tin) and it rolls off the tongue nicely. 

The protagonists of these stories are a group of ten year olds – Tilly, Emily, Isla and Calvin – who learn how to look after their ponies, learn to ride and have lots of fun on the way. They’re helped by their instructor, Sian, and her teenage helpers, Gemma and Millie.

It’s wintertime in the fifth book, Festive Fun at Awelon Tyn, and the younger children learn how to help with lessons and how to look after horses in winter. At the beginning of the Christmas holidays the girls go to London to watch Olympia to kick off the festive season. That weekend it’s the famous Christmas gymkhana at Awelon Tyn so all the children, helpers and ponies get involved with the fun and games.
Anyway, the childrens books are available from Amazon – Here.

I think the reason I find it so hard to blag about my books is that my imagination has always been mine, and I never realised how private it is. When I had a bad day, or felt lonely or troubled, I would retreat into the sanctuary of my imagination. When your thoughts are written down you suddenly feel naked.

Awelon Tyn is loosely based on the yard that I grew up on. Small, friendly, and run in the old fashioned way, with the influences of the modern, more industrious riding schools that I’ve encountered. Yes, the stories resound my memories, such as our annual gymkhana, but I think they mainly draw of my professional experience rather than my childhood.

I think exposing your inner thoughts also puts you in the firing line for criticism. Which I’m not very good at taking! Someone told me today about a friend who had been slated by a book critic. So please, if you don’t enjoy my books or blogs don’t tell me!

Even when I get a poor dressage score it takes me ages to get up the guts to read the judge’s comments. The idea of failure or not living up to expectations horrifies me. Hence the lack of self promotion in business and in life. I try to ignore blemishes on my record and not discuss it – like that A in English literature…

In retrospect perhaps I should’ve created a pseudonym to give myself some anonymity. This blog started off anonymous, and you get a certain amount of freedom. You get confident and discuss sensitive issues, such as the horse meat scandal, with antagonistic views to raise a debate. Kind of like  Jeremy Corbyn. 

Enough of a ramble. Please feel free to check out my books, and if you enjoy them I would love feedback (you can throw in an odd piece of constructive criticism if you want). 

The Value of Books

I was in the tack shop over the weekend and found a handful of books that looked interesting.

I love books; I love the ability to reference things, the chance to gleam ideas and hints for lessons, different explanations which can fine tune your own knowledge and explanative skills.

One of the books which caught my eye is a behavioural book, but not in the usual way. It discusses problems owners and riders may encounter and lists potential reasons for it and how to overcome it. It is called “My Horse Rears”.

One of the chapters dealt with rearing; reasons, consequences, sitting a rear, and overcoming the behaviour. Another dealt with the ins and outs of catching horses.

We were talking at the yard about books and it`s quite interesting the difference of opinion. I like being able to get another view. If you`re having problems with your horse you can sometimes miss an explanation – you can`t see the wood for the trees. For example, you may struggle to catch him but when the book, or a knowledgeable bystander, tells you that it may be because you approach him in an aggressive manner – marching across the field, arms crossed – then the answer  is obvious. Yes, you have been stressed at work recently, and have been briskly hurrying across the field, anxious that your horse may not let you catch him. You`re radiating angst, so it`s not surprising he runs away!

To those brought up around horses, and those knowledgeable in their field, often the reason for bad behaviour on the horse`s part is obvious. But to those newly entered in the equestrian world, they may not have the knowledge or experience to link actions and behaviours. It`s hard to remember this – I try to keep telling myself that – and take time to explain what may seem obvious to a horsey person.

Sometimes it is easier to accept the hard, cold, truth from the pages of a book rather than from a friend, instructor or stranger.

One chapter that I thought was very blunt and forthright was the chapter that dealt with aggression. It began by explaining that biting and kicking are warning signs that the horse doesn`t like his situation, and how this aggression is shown in wild herds, and how older horses will put youngsters in their place. Then the book illustrates behaviour that is liked by horses – calm demeanour, gentle but competent handling, slow, easy movements, a firmly confident touch, friendliness, safety – and how an incompetent or inexperienced person may put them on edge.

That would be a hard pill to swallow – you may think your horse loves being kissed and cuddles in a loud manner, but actually his nipping is telling you to stop treating him like a cuddly child, shut up and groom him quickly so you can get on and ride!

Anyway, although books should not always be read blindly and taken for gospel, they provide useful pointers and opinions, as well as new information, which can then be talked about and considered to see if they apply to us. Horses are a practical area of expertise, and hands on experience is invaluable, but it is not always possible to physically observe all areas of the horse world, which means we should utilise written records and share our knowledge.

Tomorrow I`m going to start reading the book on laminitis – very topical for the time of year!

Making The Running – A Book Review

Some of you may remember my blog a couple of weeks ago where I alluded to having some exciting news – My Childhood Library – and now I can reveal all.

I recently received an email from Hannah Hooton, author of the Aspen Valley books, asking me if I would be willing to review her new book, Making The Running, on my blog. Now, this was quite exciting for me. Firstly, I love reading so to be given an excuse to read even more is brilliant. Secondly, I had already heard of Hannah Hooton and had enjoyed the books I`d previously read, so it was a win-win situation.

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It was about three years ago when I first came across the series of Aspen Valley books, when I was off work injured and filling my days reading my kindle and doing jigsaws. Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I`ve read the rest of the Aspen Valley series to satisfy my OCD for reading books in chronological order, and so that I was fully prepared for the latest instalment this weekend.

To me, one of the signs of a good book or series is when you remember the characters and plots. Despite reading the first book “Keeping the Peace” more than two years ago I could still remember the protagonists` names and the basic storyline, which means that the subsequent books make much better reading, as the background and histories of the characters are familiar to the reader.

This Aspen Valley series centres around Aspen Valley Racing Stables and are, I guess, classified as racing romances. Now, I don`t know much about the ins and outs of horse racing, which is why I never started reading books by Dick Francis – probably to my Mum`s great relief as it means her bookshelf is still intact! However, Hannah Hooton keeps technical terms to a minimum, whilst explanations are succinct and clear. The books are light hearted and witty, making them easy to read in an evening,  and have plenty of modern associations – Fifty Shades of Grey makes one of two appearances…

Anyway, I`d better get on with this review! “Making the Running” starts in a different way to the previous books, in that the main focus initially is on romance and the horses take a back seat. I would describe the other books as horse racing with a hint of mystery and a dash of romance, whereas “Making the Running” starts as romance against a backdrop of horse racing, before the racing world steps into the limelight half way through.

The book follows Kate, a stable girl at Aspen Valley, and her relationship with racing manager, Nicholas, and his race jockey brother, Benedict. What I really liked about “Making the Running” was how, despite new protagonists the loose ends from previous books are tied up. For example, Jack and Pippa met in the first book ” Keeping the Peace”, and by this fourth book we learn that they are now married and have a toddler. This makes Aspen Valley a more believable place as, much like a soap opera, characters continue to play an important role in other plots.

As Kate discovers her feelings towards the two brothers, the closet skeletons of her teenage years come back to haunt her as she tries to help her younger sister and brother make the transition into independence. Meanwhile, to give the reader a good equine storyline Kate`s favourite Aspen Valley horse, d`Artagnan, is embroiled in some race rigging. Angry that d`Artagnan isn`t allowed to do the best he can at the races, Kate investigates the motives of Nicholas and Ben, as well as their relationship with each other and herself.

“Making the Running” has many more exciting racing scenes than in previous books. The fast paced descriptions made my heart race as I imagined the horses fighting it out over famous racecourses. The balance between the simplicity of describing the race and giving my imagination enough fuel to see the horses jumping the hedge, pecking on landing and jockeys scrubbing their hands was perfect. I was riding those races and, at the same time, jumping up and down on the siderail as my favourite passed the finish line.

As with all good novels, Kate builds bridges with her family, works out who she loves, and helps d’Artagnan in his racing career. The plot had a couple of extra twists though, which kept me on the edge of my seat until I had read 99% of the book and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, I assume so, but I guess Book Five will tell me that!

I can`t resist putting in my favourite quote. It, along with several others, made me giggle out loud – much to the amusement of the xBox-playing-other-half.

Saskia looked doubtful. “Maybe I shouldn`t encourage him. I don`t really fancy dating a Welshman.”
“Why?”
“Have you seen their language? It looks like a dictionary sneezed.”

As a reluctant Welsh-learner at school, I can fully relate to this!

Making the Running can be purchased through Amazon by clicking here, and I`m sure many of you will be interested to know the the first book, Keeping the Peace is currently available to download free.
P.S. if you don`t know the first thing about the world of horse racing then Keeping the Peace is the place to start, as it`s protagonist, Pippa, comes from London and doesn`t know one end of a horse from the other!

Hannah`s website is here if anyone would like more information about her or her books.

Creative Writing

As many of you can imagine, I enjoy my writing. Most of this blog is non fiction; be it a story from my hectic equine-centred life, or a discussion point, new concept or idea. However, this year I have also dabbled in children’s fiction.

I loved to read when I was young, and devoured book after book, but used to get frustrated with the numerous pony books which used incorrect terminology – such as calling the grey pony white. I decided that using a combination of my childhood, instructing experience, and imagination, I should try my hand at writing a series of children’s books. And so, the Awelon Tyn Stories were born. The series centres around a little riding school in South Wales, hence the Welsh name. Awelon Tyn means Breezy Farm, and I chose it because the words are easily pronounced by the non-Welsh but still have an unusual ring to them.

Today, the third book in the series was published on Amazon and Createspace. This book is much more exciting than the first as I now have an illustrator to bring my ideas to life.

The books, in chronological order, are:

Tilly Takes Up The Reins
Emily Goes Showjumping
Isla Picks Herself Up

Please have a look online for the books – they’d make great stocking fillers for any pony mad girls!

I’d appreciate any sharing of the books via social networking sites or reviews on Amazon – thanks!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/s/ref=is_s_ss_i_2_5?k=susy+stark&sprefix=susy+

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Nostalgia

When having a moment of nostalgia not so long ago I started thinking about my favourite horse-related books. As a book-worm child books like The Silver Brumby, of which I am devastated to find that only the first book is available as an e-book. The first book is fab, but I loved the continuation of Thowra`s life. I had hundreds of horsey books; I remember Mum taking me to Hay-on-Wye every summer where we would scour the bookshops for second hand books to occupy me through the holidays. Some were better than others; a timeless classic is My Friend Flicka, but did you know it was a trilogy, closely followed by the Thunderhead books, and finally Green Grass of Wyoming?

I think the classic we all know is Black Beauty; the film adaptation makes me cry every time. That part when Ginger`s body goes past Beauty … 😦 I also had the little-known volume by the Pullein-Thompson sisters about Black Beauty`s family and descendents. One of the Pullein Thompson sisters books, Save the Horses, I think it was called had a line at the end about the tired riders returning with their rescued horses, being dog tired, but saying “we should always make sure our horses are happy, comfortable and fed before seeing to our own needs” Or words to that effect. But it is a mantra I`ve always remembered and abided by. The Pullein Thompson sisters books, along with Pat Smythe`s Three Jays series were inherited by me from my Mum. Also on the book shelf were the K.M. Peyton books; a Swallow`s Tale and the rest. I`ll be honest, these books didn’t inspire me because I didn`t like the thought that you could fall in love with a horse, but not be able to ride it as well as your friend. I think that rang quite true when I was growing up and aspiring to be as good as my older friends. I also had the two books about Misty of Chincoteague, of which I recently found the film version; at the time I was intrigued in the idea of horses swimming across the sea, but a quick look on youtube showed the real round up happening! My Mum`s favourite books were by Ruby Ferguson, about Jill; I don`t really remember them that well except that in one book they had their own riding stables at the age of 15 or something! If only it was that easy in real life.

A more modern few books that I had growing up were Sandy Lane Stables, Half Moon Ranch, and of course The Phantom Horse. How I dreamed about having a palomino horse from them on! I still wouldn`t turn one down… The other book which really sticks in my mind, after making me shed bucketfuls of tears is Ashleigh`s Diary, from The Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell. I feared an epidemic for months after that. Another horse that I wouldn`t have turned down is Polly, from Wendy Douthwaites series, which I am gutted to find is no longer in print, because I fear I leant one of the books to a friend and never got it back.

 

My favourite Narnia book is The Horse and His Boy; again I dreamed that my pony would suddenly start talking to me and could teach me everything about them!

I think I`ve covered most of the horse classics, but if anyone would like to tell their favourite book or story then just comment below, it will probably spark more memories for me!