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Growing Reader


On Finding a Connection with Horses in Kids’ Literature and Beyond

by Jane Smiley

Photo credit: martinedouce, E+ Collection/Getty Images

When I was young, say, ten, I was obsessed with animals. I loved to go to the zoo, and our city had a good one. My favorites were the big cats and the giraffes. I didn’t grow up in an animal-loving family, so when I did get a dog, a blonde Cocker Spaniel, I was on my own. I had to train her, and though I read a book about it, I did a terrible job. She ran away, she bit me, she made messes in the house. That was my first lesson, not that I didn’t want a dog, but that not every dog was Lassie, that every dog was herself, a puzzle, and that I had to have patience, pay attention, and try to understand.

But my real obsession was horses, and what I learned from TV was that a horse was a bigger, more spectacular dog, because he would be your best friend, but you could also gallop on his back over the hills and far away. Except, no. Horses are not dogs, they are way more interesting and mysterious.

I’ve written a lot about horses, both fiction and nonfiction, but Ellen, in Riding Lessons, is the first character I’ve written about who has the obsession I had when I was her age. She is not like me in many ways — she’s more opinionated and more independent — but, like me, all she wants is a horse. What is the source of our obsession? First, beauty. Energy. Then, when we at last get to ride, the pleasure of movement combined with a sense of connection. Until you fall off. And then you get back on, and it’s more fascinating than ever, something that never stops triggering your curiosity.

Is every ride a pleasure? No, but many are, and the pleasure is the energy of the horse becoming your energy, but also, your attention becoming the horse’s attention — you are cantering, you turn your head to the right, your horse smoothly bends to the right, her ears pricked, and between those ears you see where you are going now. The horse is with you. You sit up, tightening your knees, and the horse slows to a walk, drops her head, takes a deep breath. Simple as it is, there is nothing like it. You pet her neck. It is smooth, silky. That is a pleasure, too.

When I started taking riding lessons, at eleven, trainers talked about position and technique — they had to, for safety reasons. As I got better, I competed in shows and went on delightful trail rides. I enjoyed the travel, the outdoors, and the exercise. But still no one talked about connection, the thing I wanted, the thing Ellen wants, so I have spent the rest of my horsey life, as a writer and a rider, exploring that connection. My current horses, two mares and a gelding, fascinate me because they are very different from one another. The gelding is sweet and graceful, but anxious at times. One mare is smart but opinionated — she hates jumping and being petted, loves patterns. The other mare is only three, but she already has her own way of doing things — petting calms her, she likes to connect, she understands signals.

Some days, I feel lazy, don’t want to ride, but I make myself do it, and I always come home refreshed and with some little tidbit of new information about the horses, a renewed feeling of love for them. Horses have taught me a lot: to be patient, to be observant, to think for myself, to enjoy the outdoors and being active, to take pleasure in who the horses are as much as in what they do. I hope Ellen learns these lessons, too.