“What do you love most about riding?”
Plot Summary: Stevie doesn’t want to do her math project and is jeopardizing her chances of going on the Mountain Trail Overnight. Carole’s mother died recently and Pine Hollow is her safe place. Lisa’s mother is forcing her to try riding lessons and although she’s not sure about it, she finds it comes naturally to her. Lisa and Stevie have trouble getting along at first, so Lisa tries to befriend Mean Girl Veronica. It goes poorly. Stevie tries to raise money for the MTO instead of doing her math project but compulsively blows all of her money on CDs. Lisa saves the day by realizing that she can help Stevie salvage the math project. Carole, Stevie, and Lisa formalize their new friendship by calling themselves The Saddle Club.
Okay, here we go! This post will contain spoilers for book one but none of the later books, as will be the rule going forward.
Horse Crazy is the debut novel of the series, and as such, its purpose is to establish the setting and the characters. We meet our main characters Stevie (impulsive and smarter than she thinks she is), Carole (the horsewoman I want to be when I grow up) and Lisa (the Hermione Granger of Saddle Club?). Side characters like their parents, instructor Max, and Veronica (Pine Hollow’s Regina George) fill out the cast at the start.
Returning to Pine Hollow is every bit as magical as I’d hoped it would be. While the behavior of some of the characters strikes me as… unhealthy… in a way it didn’t when I was a kid, I loved returning to their world. The characters set the stage for a whole lot of adolescent drama, but the genuine love they have for horses is what I think most of us latched onto and why we want to come back.
We meet Stevie first, and before we even encounter her around horses we see that she’s got quite the entrepreneurial spirit and a lot going on for a 12 year old. Reading about her as an adult makes me worry for her a bit–meltdowns that extreme are concerning at her age–but she’s a smart, funny person and I would have been friends with her and followed her around like a puppy. Plus she named her cat Madonna. That’s rad.
Carole is the next to come on the scene. Only six months after losing her mom, she’s clearly traumatized–who wouldn’t be–and pours a lot of her energy into regulating Stevie’s moods. One of my favorite moments in this book is when she’s chatting with the barn owner’s mother, Mrs. Reg, who gives her some great advice about letting friends make their own decisions and handle their own consequences. Carole’s single-minded love for horses and her stellar relationship with her father is going to get her through losing her mother at such a tender age.
Finally, Lisa turns up at the barn for her first riding lesson, trailing her mother, who is demonstrating some narcissistic traits–insisting to Max that her daughter (dressed in show attire for her first riding lesson) is a show winner when she’s only ever been on a pony ride. Over the course of the book, Lisa decides she doesn’t want to go back because she feels out of place with the other girls her age who’ve been riding longer, and because Stevie is pretty mean to her on her first day, but her mom doesn’t listen. It’s more important to her that her daughter serve as a prop in her social climbing scheme. Lisa is going to need a support group at some point.
What’s a drama without a villain? Veronica serves the classic mean girls role, but the poor (rich) kid doesn’t have much of a chance. Her mother is completely closed off emotionally–you’d have to be to ignore another child in the back seat of your car who’s being mauled by your dogs–and her dad is only mentioned in the context of being extremely wealthy. She and Lisa might find as adults that they have more in common than it appears at first.
But just like our heroes, we’re not really here for the people, are we?
It’s interesting that the first Saddle Club member we see riding is Lisa, who has a hell of an experience when her trusty mount Patch spooks at a slammed door and gallops madly around the ring. Against all odds, she stays on and figures out how to sit the canter. That’s one of the scenes that’s stuck in my head for the past 30 years–I think about her figuring out the waltz rhythm when I’m cantering a green horse.
So we all love the Saddle Club and Pine Hollow and Max, but we have to engage in some questions before we go further: Why was Lisa not on a lunge line for her first ride? How did a first-time rider who doesn’t know how to steer wind up in a group lesson with seven other kids who’ve been riding for years? Max must have killer liability insurance.
I found a lot about Lisa’s experiences with horses relatable, even if her progress in the saddle is unrealistic. When she expected to see resentment on Patch’s face after her test ride and instead saw gentleness–that has stuck with me over time. Projecting our insecurities onto our horses is so common amongst riders, but the book demonstrates that Carole’s ability to read them accurately without bringing her own (considerable) baggage to the interaction is part of what makes her a good horsewoman. I also felt Carole’s special relationship with Cobalt, her heart horse.
I also think that moment of realizing you made the wrong friend is a thing, as Lisa does when she agrees to go to Veronica’s house after their lesson. Haven’t we all been there? Wanting to have a friend so badly we hang out with someone horrible? Especially when there’s a small glimmer of promise that things might work out okay–she’s starting to like the horses, she’s developing a good rapport with Max. And then Veronica is a disaster, and everything falls apart.
The story ends well, though: Lisa sees through Veronica, she and Stevie repair their relationship over math homework, Carole gets the great idea to call themselves The Saddle Club. Oh, and the teaser for book two: Stevie and Lisa are both permitted to attend the Mountain Trail Overnight, held in the same Blue Ridge mountains I can see from my bedroom window. Will they fight off a mountain lion? Rescue a horse in the woods who turns out to be a Kentucky Derby winner? Let’s find out!
Stay tuned for our next regular installment, Horse Shy. And in the meantime, look forward to guest content. Need a new series about horses for middle-grade readers? Check out Show Strides: School Horses and Show Ponies.