Book 6: Dude Ranch

“I guess that means I’m not a dude anymore, huh?”

“Don’t think you ever really were.”


Content Warning: The plot of this book includes description of the traumatic death of a dog. Details are glossed over but the incident is acknowledged in this post.

Plot Summary: The girls are heading west to visit Kate at her family’s dude ranch. They have a somewhat off-putting first encounter with the ranch’s wrangler, Eli, who has a secret–a litter of puppies he’s hiding from the tourists. They spy on and continually run into an indigenous girl about their age, Christine Lonetree. The Saddle Club girls have bought into every horrible stereotype about Indians and offend Christine. When the Saddle Club goes on a cattle drive, Stevie falls off and is threatened by a rattlesnake. Christine’s dog saves Stevie but is bitten and dies. Stevie and Christine trauma bond, and Christine takes the Saddle Club on one of her pre-dawn trail rides. The Saddle Club plus Christine throw Stevie a surprise birthday party. Stevie arranges for Christine to get one of Eli’s dog’s puppies.

Hoooooo boy. Okay. I loved the last book, with its opportunities to explore learning about communication and boundaries. This book, while it really makes me want to go to a dude ranch, also makes my skin crawl in some parts. Maybe by 1989 standards it’s woke, but this is 2019 and the way it handles indigenous culture is broke.

We open with our heroes getting awards at the end of Pine Hollow’s summer camp. Carole gets best all around and Lisa gets most improved. Stevie, out of nowhere, is awarded best at dressage. I know this comes up in later books but except for their drill team practice (which all three were good at) there hasn’t been much dressage. But considering the rest of this book, I think I can let that one go.

The girls get on a series of airplanes to head out west, and on the last one an older boy rudely butts into their conversation and makes fun of them for not already knowing everything about cattle. That turns out to be the Bar None wrangler, Eli. Carole and Lisa don’t seem to give him a second thought, but Stevie is irritated by his attitude and rightfully so.

Side note: Men can and should be effusive with their compliments and praise of other people. One thing that bothers me about the Max character, and now Eli, is how it’s cute that they can grimly nod or say “better” and the girls are supposed to take that as high praise. Given how the equestrian community seems to have some bizarre attachment to men who withhold compliments and can be downright abusive to their students, I think this is an area of toxic masculinity that needs to be aired out. Why can’t Max and Eli be kinder people? Or at least not set the standard for young women that “mmhmm” is all they deserve?

That particular rant over, but don’t worry–more to come.

After a SEVENTY MILE TRIP IN THE BED OF A TRUCK (that would get Child Protective Services called on you now), they arrive at the ranch. The Devines are sweet to the girls, and set them up in a nice cabin on their beautiful ranch. Carole, Stevie, and Lisa officially induct Kate into the Saddle Club.

I don’t know a darn thing about ranching, so I can’t speak at all to the accuracy of how the ranch operates, but it sounds lovely. The descriptions of breakfast made me hungry. The Bonnie Bryant Collective really nails evocative descriptions all around in this book.

Things first start to get weird when the girls go into town to run errands for Kate’s mom and there’s an Old West reenactment, during which Stevie meets a cool dog, who runs away at the sound of his owner’s whistle. Impressive. My dogs won’t come to me unless I’m holding food and sometimes not even then.

Tohono Indian Women led the Tucson 2019 Women’s March with a show of strength, resilience and power. 
Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

The next morning, Stevie hears the same whistle and goes outside to check it out. Now we’re really on the down slope. She sees someone riding bareback and assumes that person is a Native American (“Indian” is the kind of word that’s okay for indigenous people to use on themselves, but not a word I’m comfortable using). She then goes on a flight of fancy about why an indigenous person would go riding pre-dawn, all of which are steeped in myths and horrible stereotypes. For more on why this is harmful, read this entire website. When she goes back to sleep, she dreams about lassoing “the Indian and his dog.” No. Writers have choices, and they could have chosen a different reaction.

International Women’s Day Women of the Tohono Indian Tribe in Tucson, AZ led the Tucson Women’s March in January 2019.
Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

When the girls meet Christine the next day–because they’re spying on her from their cabin and get her attention–they just trot out all of the stupid things they thought about indigenous people, and then they get offended when Christine bites back. Which she does, and I love her for it. Stevie gets all “reverse racism” about it. You can read more about why reverse racism is a myth here.

An anti-pipeline protester holds a bottle of water near police officers in riot gear.Wes Enzinna
Read about it.

They run into Christine again on their cattle drive (a cattle drive sounds fun; I want to rescue tiny newborn calves from rushing creek water and be a hero too). Stevie falls off and is faced with a rattlesnake and has a Tomahawk Ex Machina moment. The sweet dog appears out of nowhere, gets between Stevie and the snake, and takes a snake bite to the nose. It’s horrible.

© Alexander Rubinstein © Twitter
Read about it.

Stevie surprises Christine with her feelings about the dog. The other Saddle Club girls show up and they bury the dog together. Christine is a much more diplomatic person than I am and is willing to befriend the girls after the way they treated her and immediately after the death of her dog.

Christina invites them on her morning ride and to her home for breakfast, where the girls are all amazement that she lives in a house with a foundation and a microwave and everything. Her mom is my favorite–she’s a potter who makes “primitive” pottery to sell to white tourists and makes high-end pottery to satisfy her own creative need and to display in art shows. She points out that the white people only want to buy the pottery that “looks like it was made by a little old Indian woman in a mud hut,” calling out exactly the kind of objectification the girls were doing to Christine.

An aside: at Stevie’s birthday party, Kate gives Stevie her dressage whip, and everything makes much more sense now. She was a junior dressage champion, not a good junior hunter. Got it.

So at the end of the day, Christine and the rest of the Saddle Club girls are friends, and Stevie manages to hook Christine up with one of Eli’s puppies. The Saddle Club minus Kate heads back east, which is bittersweet.

There’s so much I didn’t get to in this recap, but I think it’s important to focus on how it’s not okay to exoticize or objectify people from other cultures, especially a marginalized group of people. Check out the Water Protectors to learn more about how badly indigenous people are still treated in this country, and keep in mind that the US government has never honored any treaty made with an indigenous nation.

Sometimes it’s the lessons we learn around the horses that are the most important, eh?

Book 5: Trail Mates

“When you had friends like The Saddle Club, you were never alone.”


Plot Summary: Carole manages to save the day when greenhorn cutie Scott gets in trouble on a tourist trail ride. He catches feelings but she’s a one-woman girl and doesn’t return his affections–in fact, it makes her uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Stevie and Lisa think they’re being booked for their first modeling gig, but it doesn’t go the way they thought. That’s about all we get from them in this Carole-heavy installment. The young Ms. Hanson is also dealing with her dad’s overbearing girlfriend and fears that she might get stuck with a less than ideal stepmom. Somewhere in this book they ride horses. I think.

Listen up, everyone. Carole Hanson is a 12-year-old badass. First, she saves a boy’s entire life when Patch hears thunder and runs away with him on a trail ride. Then, she’s like NOT here for his affections. She had a job to do and she did it and now she has more than some boy to focus on. Next, that same boy is not going to teach her to dance at an officers’ ball she opportunistically took him to. Finally, she eventually does get up the guts to just tell the kid it’s not happening. Dang. Love her.

This book is a great examination of boundaries and communication. Stevie and Lisa, for instance, get recruited by a photographer to help with a tack catalog shoot. They think they’re going to be models in the glamorous sense, but they wind up being photographer’s aids. I’ve been a photographer’s aid, and I’m here to tell you it’s as hard as they make it sound in the book. I’ve been in countless photos from which I was tidily erased in editing. But hey, if you can make a horse stand still, there are people out there willing to pay a decent hourly rate.

It’s disappointing to them that they weren’t launched straight from Young Riders to Vogue, but I for one am relieved. I don’t want Stevie and Lisa to live that life. It isn’t easy, and I would like to think that they grew up without the inevitable body image issues. But I blame the photographer for this one. She’s the adult professional and she should have explained to the kids very clearly what the job was.

But back to our dear Carole, who is dealing with two people who want a different role in her life than she wants for them. Her dad is dating Lynn Blessing, a “nice” woman who doesn’t listen to a word Carole says. She takes Carole dress shopping and pays no attention to Carole’s feelings, which range from lack of interest to outright discomfort.

I know so many people who endured this as kids from parents, stepparents, and other adults in their lives. It makes my skin crawl. Lynn is described as “nice” and “well-meaning” but she’s neither. She’s trying to force Carole into her image of what a young adolescent should be without respecting her at all. For some kids, including those who don’t adhere to “traditional” gender roles, this can actually lead to quite a bit of depression and anxiety.

I think Carole’s dad makes a lot of mistakes in this book, but to me, this is the worst one. She doesn’t want to go dress shopping with another adult she’s uncomfortable with and he puts his foot down? No. Absolutely not. This one hits me where I live on a few levels and I don’t like it.

A foal I photographed

Meanwhile, Carole is trying to figure out how to get Scott to stop having a crush on her, which isn’t possible. People are going to feel how they feel. What she can do is set a boundary and tell him she’s not interested in dating him–and by the end of the book, she does–but instead she tries to find ways to make him lose interest.

I don’t want to be hard on Carole about this, because she clearly isn’t having good boundaries modeled for her at home. If she can tell her dad that she doesn’t want to go dress shopping or to a dance and he passes it off as something she has to do to make some other adult (Lynn) happy, how in the world is she supposed to know she can tell a boy to go away? She can’t be expected to know that.

Scott isn’t a bad kid, although I don’t love him showing up at Pine Hollow to look for her. That’s her safe place. But he is kind and helpful generally, so I think he’ll turn out fine. And when she does ultimately tell him no, he takes the news graciously and agrees to be her friend, which is a terrific model for handling rejection.

Okay back to Mitch. I’m still mad at him. He stays at the dance so he can win airline tickets even though Carole sprained her ankle running away from the scene when it occurs to her that he and Lynn might be planning to get married. He’s a colonel in the military. He can afford two airline tickets. He doesn’t need to win them at the expense of his daughter’s physical and emotional well being.

He does redeem himself a little bit by telling Carole that he’d talk to her before he got serious enough about someone to consider marriage again, but that doesn’t quite make up for the rest of his mistakes here. Parenting is hard, I know. Every parent blows it sometimes. That doesn’t mean the way he handled all of this is okay.

me n my ol pal Mo

Horses. Right. The reason we’re all here. The girls do get to go on a trail ride/picnic and talk, which sounds lovely. Because this has come up before, though, I have to point it out: let horses drink as much water as they want regardless of how hot they are. The research has debunked the old myth that hot horses get stomach cramps when they drink cold water. They don’t! In fact, drinking cold water helps them cool off faster.

In the end, it all works out okay. Both Hansons learn how to do a break up. Stevie and Lisa decide that the best use of their money is to treat Carole to a trip out west to see Kate, whom Carole is still thinking about all the time. Mitch gives Carole the tickets he won in the dance contest, so all three of them can go. Yay!

Stay tuned to find out if the girls decide to take up western riding and ditch Pine Hollow after their trip out west. Let’s hope they get to send more time riding and less time dealing with inappropriate boundaries. And most importantly, Carate Time!

Need more stories about horse-crazy kids? Check out the latest Show Strides installment, Confidence Comeback.

Book 4: Horse Power

“Riding is a friendly sport and if you never talk to anyone about it, you’re missing half the fun.”


Plot Summary: Carole makes friends with “championship rider” Kate Devine, but learns that Kate has given up riding. Carole falls in love with Kate, but this is a mainstream novel about pre-teens from the late 1980s so the author doesn’t come out and say that. What is made explicit is that Chad has a crush on Lisa, which leads him to taking lessons at Pine Hollow, which drives Stevie nuts. Lisa’s mother allows her thirteen year old to go on a date with him but it turns out to not be fun. The Saddle Club gears up for the Pine Hollow gymkhana. Chad falls off and hurts his arm, so Kate ends up filling in and rediscovers her love of riding–just in time to tell Carole she’s moving across the country.

We open on our heroes in Carole’s bedroom discussing whether they’ll ever ride in a horse show, which they seem to take as Madison Square Garden (I hope they got their chance before the National Horse Show moved). There’s quite a big step between any horse show and the top of the sport, but let’s set our sights high, I suppose. Plus, this talk of glitzy shows sets us up to meet your favorite new character and mine.

The next day, Carole and her father hang out at Quantico with some military friends of his, and Carole meets her new crush, Kate Devine. Kate is kind and easy to get along with–she’s kinda written as though she’s 25–and Carole insists on dragging her to the barn because she can’t read a room. She goes on forever about horses, not realizing she’s talking to someone who knows more and has done more than she herself has. She realizes her mistake on the drive home, and we first hear Kate referred to as a “championship rider.”

Pause. I don’t want to pick on these books because I love them, but I have to get this off my chest: no one says “championship rider.” It’s not a phrase that means anything. A championship can be anything from a local show end-of-year walk-trot class to the American Eventing Championships or big series finals in the hunter/jumper or dressage worlds. Kate is 14, so if we’re to make sense of it, she probably had a great children’s or junior hunter career. The book implies she was an event rider, but that makes even less sense. No 14 year old eventer kid was being written about in magazines in 1988 (and at that time I think you had to be 15 or up to even go preliminary), and the AECs hadn’t been invented yet. So I’m going to grit my teeth and let it go for the rest of the recap but I had to drag you all here with me. I’m going to assume that she was doing the hunters or eq and move on with my life. Harumph.

A random old pic of Mo to remind me to breathe.

Stevie is incensed to learn that her doofy older brother Chad is going to attend the upcoming week of Pine Hollow’s summer camp and she immediately makes it clear that she’s not going to help him with his chores. He seems unbothered. I get it–she’s in the middle of four kids and needs to assert her own identity, especially because she likes a lot of the same things her brothers do. The Bonnie Bryant Collective irritates me endlessly when they talk about Stevie’s appreciation for adventure movies “more suitable for boys than girls,” because that is icky and I remember bumping on that when I read the books for the first time. Movies, like colors and clothing, are for everyone. 

Chad is only interested in riding to get close to Lisa. Lisa picks up on his crush relatively quickly, as does Carole. It makes Lisa uncomfortable, which of course it does. There’s nothing worse than a boy with a crush on you. That’s my truth and I’m livin’ it. Carole gives Stevie some great advice for butting out of the Lisa/Chad ‘ship (Lad? Chisa?) and Stevie ends up handling all of it better than I’d have guessed, given her tendency to make everything about her all the time.

Carole’s crush on Kate goes unremarked on by everyone, and when she visits Pine Hollow she quickly becomes friends with Lisa and Stevie. It’s always nice when our friends approve of the people we like. Her arrival coincides with the three-day event Max is hosting (remember how I thought he had lost it when he decided to start a drill team? I think trying to run a gymkhana for kids during a three day is even more bananas). The kids all go watch together, which is when we learn that Kate used to be an event rider, but I already said I don’t buy it and I wouldn’t obsess so moving on…

Chisa are going on their date. Chad displayed some tendencies he’s going to need to unlearn. It’s fine to suggest a particular movie for a date, but he didn’t ask her about her opinion or what she would like to do. He talks about the movie franchise endlessly instead of trying to get to know her better, even after poor Lisa spent time thinking of several topics of conversation, and if that ain’t always the way. It’s adorable that Lisa didn’t understand why her mom was concerned about her going out with a boy. Thirteen is pretty young. I definitely wasn’t going on dates at that age, but what do I know.

The good news is, Lisa realizes Chad isn’t the guy for her so we don’t have to suffer through a hetero teenage relationship (yet). I appreciate how Lisa doesn’t think she has to pretend to like what Chad likes to get him to like her–a trap that a lot of people fall into that can go to a codependent place. She also doesn’t malign Chad for liking mummy movies and video games. It’s healthy. Gold star for Lisa.

Gymkhana fun ensues. The Saddle Club Plus Chad team doesn’t win every race, but they win the first day overall. They don’t win the second day, and Chad gets hurt, which means they can’t ride on the third day. So sad. 

But wait! We have a skilled rider in our midst who isn’t already committed to a team! Max agrees to let Kate ride on her girlfriend’s team with a couple of handicaps to keep it fair, which makes sense given that she replaced a team member who could barely post. Our faves take the third-day and overall win for the three days of games (those poor ponies, holy cow). 

The heartbreaking denouement of this installment comes when Kate tells Carole that her family is moving out west to a dude ranch her parents bought upon her dad’s retirement. Apparently Kate’s sudden lack of interest in competitive riding–it sounds like she just got burned out–put a potential kink in the works for that plan, but riding in the games made her realize she could have fun with horses without the pressure of the show ring. I’m all about that, but if her parents were so invested in their daughter’s competitive success that they wanted to invest in a horse property, wouldn’t they stay somewhere on the east coast and buy something set up for showing? The mind, it boggles. But it works out in the end, because Kate can do dude ranch things and not horse show things.

It’s sad that distance in a pre-Snapchat era is going to separate Kate and Carole (Carate? Katole?), but of course it will be temporary because it would be rotten of the Bonnie Bryant Collective to introduce a character as awesome as Kate only to never bring her back. 

So what have we learned? That kids don’t have to try to like each other if they have nothing in common; that riding should be fun regardless of discipline; that Veronica doesn’t have to have any lines to be the worst? Tune in next time to see how camp is progressing and whether Carole is turning to ice cream to squelch her feelings of missing Kate #Carate5ever.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a kid in the hunters, pick up Show Strides. The second book, Confidence Comeback, is out now on Kindle and Audible!

Book 3: Horse Sense

“The little black colt was almost a rebirth, for Cobalt and for Carole.”


Plot Summary: The Saddle Clubbers are now in summer camp at Pine Hollow. Delilah is soon to give birth to Cobalt’s foal and it’s all Carole can think about. Her possessiveness over every newborn foal in the state is alienating her friends. Max asks Stevie to plan a gymkhana for the young riders and she way overcomplicates things. Lisa wants The Saddle Club to have rules to keep members from getting their feelings hurt, so she writes them. Lisa makes a new friend at the barn, a French girl named Estelle, who talks a big game. Carole and Stevie are busy so Lisa just hangs out with Estelle and invites her to join The Saddle Club. Estelle turns out to be a phony, and our original three realize they’re better together just in time for Delilah to go into labor when they’re alone in the barn.

Hi everyone. How are we feeling? Have we recovered from the wild ups and downs of Book Two? Bonnie Bryant (who I am assuming is a collective, not an individual) gives us a bit of a reprieve from trauma–but thankfully not from drama–in book three.

We open on our heroes at Pine Hollow summer camp, which sounds a lot like normal Pine Hollow but for more of the day. In other words, the dream. The omniscient third person narrator (hey look I remember something from high school) lets us know that Lisa is starting to wish she could cut her hair into spikes and buy thrift store clothing, to which I say: come sit by me, sweet summer child. I got you.

It Me.

Carole is understandably excited that Delilah is pregnant with Cobalt’s foal and will be giving birth at some point in the near future. Not only is Delilah the horse she rode regularly in lessons, but of course she had a special relationship with Cobalt before his death. Unfortunately, her attachment to the process means she can’t see that she’s hurting her friends’ feelings when they try to share her excitement. She assumes she’ll be the only Saddle Club member at the birth, even though Stevie and Lisa are very excited about it too.

Thus is the rift created that drives the plot for the rest of this book. Lisa is especially hurt by the interaction, and after what she considers an unproductive Saddle Club meeting, she decides to write rules. She even brings out a brand new notebook for the project.

Y’all. If I might go meta for a moment. When I decided to do this project? Brand new notebook. I see you, Lisa.

Also, I’m choosing to believe that her dog, Dolly, is named after Dolly Parton. You can’t change my mind.

Lisa’s rules are the second blow to the three-way friendship. In the last book I presumed she might be a Libra, but now I’m thinking perhaps Capricorn. The girl loves structure, but what she doesn’t see is that penalizing and fining people for being late or not showing up to what is really meant to be a friendly hang out isn’t the way to cement the bond, which is what she really wants. 

Meanwhile, Max asks Stevie to design the gymkhana games for the younger students to coincide with the three-day event he’s planning. I get why he asked her–she’s a creative thinker, she likes to have fun, and she really needs things to do. But Stevie also doesn’t bring practicality to many of her engagements, and thus she decides it has to be The Best Gymkhana Ever instead of just a fun games day. 

So now we have all three Saddle Club members going to the extremes of their personalities, pulling away from each other. What better time to introduce a controversial new character? Estelle is another 12 year old who’s participating in Pine Hollow’s summer camp, and despite her inherent glamour–she’s rich and French–she hasn’t been snapped up by the Mean Girls. Where is Veronica? 

Lisa is a kind person who really needs a buddy, so she and Estelle latch onto each other. Estelle wows Lisa with (tall) tales of her home in France and all of her fabulous horses, and she seems to welcome Lisa’s company in a moment when Lisa feels left out. Estelle, however, serves only to everyone else with her incompetence.

Estelle is a lot like Lisa’s mom, so it’s interesting that she’s introduced in the same book in which we start to get glimpses of Lisa’s desire to rebel. Both Estelle and Mama Atwood have a tendency to embellish past the point of believability out of some desire to fit in with the cool kids, and both seem to want Lisa to play along in ways that aren’t in her own best interests.

With Carole and Stevie off doing their own things, Lisa decides to pass her Saddle Club rules and invite Estelle to join without consulting either of them. She knows, really, that this is a mistake, but it seems to be one she can’t stop herself from making. 

Fortunately for our buddies, we have a foal ex machina moment. The three girls are left alone in the barn after a drill team practice (I made my Breyer horses do so many drill team exercises after I read this book for the first time) when they notice that Delilah is in labor.

Have you ever watched a foal being born? It’s an incredible (if nerve wracking) experience. It brings the girls back together with a project that’s both high stakes and emotional, and turns out to be successful. Delilah’s foal, Samson*, is healthy and beautiful and seems to bring Carole a great deal of peace. The experience of preparing Delilah for a safe delivery helps them overcome their rift.

A foal I helped deliver many years ago

(*Listen, I’m not a biblical scholar, but I did major in English at William & Mary and thus was forced to take The Bible as Lit. Samson had a ridiculous life. Superhuman strength, yes. Defeating the entire Philistine army with just a donkey jaw as a weapon, sure. But his lover Delilah deceived him, had servants cut his hair and gouge out his eyes, and sold him into slavery. He ultimately died in a mass murder/suicide. Yikes.)

Carole and Stevie threaten to leave The Saddle Club if Lisa doesn’t rescind her invitation to Estelle. They get a little annoying when they tell Lisa all the reasons Estelle is lying to her. I mean, I call horses white all the time. I know all the stuff about how there’s no such thing as a white horse, but come on. Also, horses do feel it when you yank on their manes, and ponies will absolutely try to kick at their riders. It is true that horses don’t throw up, though, which is too bad. A lot of good horses would still be alive if they could.

My childhood pony, Pickles. I called him white. Sue me.

Lisa hears their words. She gets major props from me for confronting Estelle about her lies, which is hard to do. These are kids, not adults who’ve been to therapy and had training in conflict management.

Whew. Now that the band is back together and the foal is healthy and the enemy has been evicted, I have one remaining question: why on Earth has Max decided it’s his mission in life to coach a drill team comprised of middle schoolers?

Will the drill team get the girls college scholarships in six years? Will the gymkhana involve fireworks and a flying trapeze? Is Samson doomed to a life of war and enslavement and Oedipal tendencies? Tune in next time! Meanwhile, check out Show Strides: School Horses and Show Ponies, for an updated look at life at a riding school.

School Horses We Love: Bean

I was one of those lucky barn rat kids–the type many of us elder millennials and Gen-Xers think are disappearing. I grew up in a riding school, taking lessons on school horses from knowledgeable instructors who still mad e learning fun (usually). I rode a lot of really wonderful school horses, and I’m sure I’ll write about more of them in the future, but reading The Saddle Club and Show Strides keeps bringing me back to a very special dude named Bean.

I have no idea what kind of horse Bean was. In my memory, he’s tall and lanky and thoroughbred-y, and maybe he was, but more likely he was some kind of mix and shorter than I remember. What I’m sure of, though, is that he was a chestnut with a kidney bean-shaped star and that he was the most perfect animal who’s ever lived. The school horse in the first Show Strides book, Sweetie, sounds like a fancier version of him.

This isn’t Bean. I don’t have any photos of him, because I was riding him before the invention of photography.

I started riding Bean in lessons when I was around eight or nine. I was kind of a traumatized kid, and while horses were very important to me, I was sometimes afraid of them. It’s interesting, because now I’m pushing 40 and I’m much braver than I was as a kid or a teenager. “Children bounce” might be true of normal kids, but not this one.

Bean was the answer to my fears. He belonged to a family whose son, Matt, was deaf and had special needs. I liked Matt a lot, and I was grateful that he and his family let the school use Bean in the lesson program sometimes. He was gentle and not reactive. He would never, ever run off or buck or rear or spook. I don’t really remember jumping him, and I suspect he may not have been the soundest horse alive, but he was flawless. I knew I was going to be okay when I was riding Bean, even if we had to canter without stirrups.

It’s not that the other school horses were bad. They weren’t. Some of them were just naughty ponies, and some of them were completely fine, but I wasn’t an assertive rider. I would crumple in on myself at the slightest disobedience, which is funny now considering that Mo is so naughty we call his bad behaviors Mo-Ments, and it doesn’t phase me at all.

A classic Mo-Ment from a couple years ago.

The other thing I remember about Bean, this horse I rode nearly 30 years ago, was that you did have to approach him nicely. No one needed to be an extra-amazing special gifted horse whisperer, but if you just kinda marched up to him and expected him to let you put the bridle on, he wasn’t having it. I watched a new barn worker struggle mightily to get a halter on the kindest kids’ horse in the world because he just wasn’t very nice. For a kid like me, who desperately wanted more gentleness in the world, that was a challenge I was up for. I would hug him and pet him and kiss him and sneak him treats all day long.

I wish I had some of his tail hair or something, I would definitely consider cloning him. I can’t imagine a more perfect horse, and I think he’s most of the reason I kept riding when in other lessons I was getting bucked off by one pony or was unable to get another one to jump a cross rail (probably because I didn’t want to jump it).

I can’t imagine a better school horse. While I do recognize that we can learn a lot from naughty horses, perhaps even more than from perfect ones, I only think that’s true if we’re mentally and emotionally prepared for a challenge. If your comfort zone can dance on the head of a pin, and your learning zone is only a hair wider, the entire rest of the world is the danger zone. Now that I’m a confident adult rider, I’m relatively unflappable when horses are being turds or the communication has broken down and I definitely learn more from tough horses and hard rides than smooth sailing. But at various times in all of our lives, I think we need and deserve a Bean of our very own. 

Tell us about your favorite school horse! Email us at or hit us up on Facebook or Instagram @thesaddleclubrevisited. And don’t forget to check out the first in the Show Strides series, School Horses and Show Ponies.

Book 2: Horse Shy

“Anyway, the only thing worse than losing something you care about is not having anything you care about at all.”

page 132

Hold onto your hats, everyone. This one is an emotional roller coaster.

I love the opening of this book: the three girls are on a trail ride that involves rearing horses (y’all, if you’re on a horse who rears, please don’t pull on the reins–loop an arm around the horse’s neck), Lisa falling off for the first time, getting chased by a bull, jumping a 4’ pasture fence, and galloping madly through pastures. As a kid I would have lived for a ride like that–minus the fall. As an adult, my heart drops into my gut just thinking about the chaos.

Side note: my first fall was from rearing, too. I was riding a pony named Blondie who reared because one of the barn owner’s whippets jumped up in her face. I landed on my back on a gravel driveway. I was five. It’s been 32 years and it still feels like it happened yesterday.

Lisa is so funny about her fall, assuming it means she’s done riding for good, and then about 30 minutes later she’s following her friends over a pasture fence on a broke to death school horse. Lisa is such an overachiever.  I’ve been riding my whole life and my horse is extremely athletic and I’m pretty sure that move would get us both killed but hey, that’s what fiction is for.

“Pasture fence? Not happening.”

I think about the Mountain Trail Overnight trip they go on in this book all the time. I can’t decide if it’s my dream come true or my worst nightmare. I love trail riding but I hate camping. I’m neurotic as hell about horse care and I think I’d just glue myself to Mo overnight in the field, but hanging out with him in the mountains sounds incredible. 

We also get some good character insights: Carole demonstrates excellent horsemanship by putting the horses first; Lisa throws a mounted game on purpose after Veronica cheats–tres chic, tres Libra; and Stevie latches onto the fantastical stories about Max’s grandfather. 

Before The Worst Imaginable Thing happens, Carole has some really sweet conversations with her dad. I have no experience with being a 12 year old who recently lost my mother, and I’m wondering–is it typical for the kiddo to want her dad to date? Regardless, those two love each other and I love their relationship.

Of course, after returning from the trip, Carole has to deal with another loss. Cobalt, the horse she adores, dies in a riding accident with horrible Veronica, who never listens to Max’s instructions. I’m an event rider, and I know that horses do die sometimes on cross country (where this accident happened), but given the level of riding these kids are doing, it’s hard to imagine a horse as athletic as Cobalt getting killed. But it does happen, and must have been terrifying for Veronica and the other kids who witnessed it. I’d like to think that Max addressed it with all of them with compassion and clarity. 

Carole shuts down emotionally after Cobalt dies and tells her friends she’s going to stop riding. I get it. I have a tendency to close into myself when bad things happen, too. She explains to them that she is reliving the experience of losing her mother and doesn’t think she can emotionally handle going through that again. Stevie and Lisa back off, which is an understandable reaction for kids their age. It’s hard to handle that much grief from someone, and Carole seemed to want to distance herself from anything to do with horses.

So Stevie and Lisa go to the library to research Max’s grandfather, which raises a question for me: how do these kids know so much about history? The Russian Revolution, San Juan, Rough Riders? Amazing. Anyway, they wind up doing my favorite kind of historical research: talking to someone who was there. Oral history is the most fun, even though they learned that Max I was kind of a boring guy. Stevie gives herself permission to indulge in her need for drama by making up endless stories about him after realizing that he was just a regular old business owner. 

We can’t have the second book in a series of 100+ end with one of the main characters quitting the sport, so of course Carole comes back after another good talk with Mrs. Reg. I like to think that the magic of a black kitten Carole gets to keep is part of it too. In my personal but highly relevant experience, black kittens who show up serendipitously in one’s life can be transformational.

Trust me on this one.

So what did we learn? That the grieving process is important, and people will start to return to normal life when they’re ready, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sad anymore. That we shouldn’t ride into fields we’re not invited to ride in in case they contain angry bulls. That we should listen to our coach’s instructions so we can ride safely. And, of course, that kittens make everything better.

Want to read along? We’ll be posting our thoughts on Book Three: Horse Sense in a week! In the meantime, if you want to write a guest post or just have thoughts you’d like to share, email us at And check out the Show Strides series for another great series on horse-crazy kids.

A lesson in half and half, alcoholic ponies, and shillelaghs: A 90’s kid gets her start

When I was in elementary school, we had a writing prompt asking about what our favorite thing to do was and why. I said riding horses because I could tell the horses what to do and be in charge. Boy do I roll my eyes at my younger self!

I had my very first riding lesson three days after my eighth birthday. It was early January and bitterly cold, but I was bundled up and so excited to finally be allowed to ride. Eight was the age that this particular lesson barn allowed students to begin. It was a local stable where one of the other kids at my daycare rode. Knowing what I know now, I cringe to think about some of the things that went on at this barn, and it was a short-lived experience for me — I think I only took lessons there for about a year and a half before I found the New Jersey version of Pine Hollow (but with far better horsemanship). 

Just a 90’s baby cowgirling around at a pony party. (Please note I now ALWAYS ride with a helmet, promise)

Reading about Lisa’s first riding lesson in the Book 1 blog triggered memories of my first few lessons. I’m a firm believer in setting up students for success, and a lunge line is, in my opinion, a big part of safely beginning the journey of horseback riding. Poor Lisa got thrown into a crazy situation where she really didn’t know what she was doing. Patch ran away with her in her test ride (good thing she managed to stick with him) and then in her lesson she was with far too many people at too many different levels. She was not set up for success. Boy is that relatable to my first few lesson experiences!

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I was blinded by excitement at the prospect of riding horses. The barn had an array of mostly pintos with names like Seneca, Tequila, Cerveza… I think you’ll see the theme here. My very first ride was on Seneca, a lovely, chunky black and white paint who I now estimate was around 15 hands or so. I can’t say I remember exactly what happened on my first lesson, but I do know I was put in a group lesson just like Lisa was. I spent a few minutes with the instructor walking me around in a western saddle on this tolerant horse and I was in heaven. I ended up trotting a little that first day, but I was on the outside track, not a lunge. At least the instructor was close by, if memory serves.

This barn did group lessons much the same as Max seems to have set them up at Pine Hollow. There were anywhere from four to ten people of varying abilities riding in a lesson at once. We went around the outside track at the walk, then the trot, then we’d all come into the center of the arena and we’d split into groups to canter. I don’t know how long it was before I learned to canter, but for quite some time, my lessons consisted of walking and trotting around the outside track in both directions and then standing in the middle of the arena while everyone else went out in their canter groups, a few laps each direction.

This barn used tack in an unusual way–the lessons were a mix of horses outfitted in western tack, English tack, and what they called “half and half.” We started learning to ride in western tack, then went to half and half so we could use a western bridle, holding onto the reins in one hand, holding onto the front of the English saddle with the other. Then finally when we were good enough, we switched to fully English if that was our desire. Is that not how everyone learns, or…? 

At the time I didn’t know better and I had a blast. I regularly rode Seneca, Tequila, and a few other alcohol themed horses with a Summer and Autumn thrown in for good measure, and got stronger at my trot before eventually learning to canter. I don’t remember ever being on a lunge line and was happy to mosey on the outside track, learning to stop the horses from running into the middle of the arena every chance they got. Ah, the magic of beginner lesson horses! There was more than one occasion we all had to stop because someone (me) was being run away with, but that’s neither here nor there. 

When I finally learned to canter, it went a lot like Lisa’s first ride. We had a new pony at the barn called Jeep. She was an adorable grey, and looking back she was quite quarter horsey but could have been anything. She was spunky and I couldn’t believe my luck when they told me I got to ride her. I’d cantered a few times at this point thanks to my trusty alcoholic ponies, and was ready to conquer a ride on Jeep. When I asked the pony to canter, she took off bucking and off I flew, eating dirt for the first, second, third time. This theme continued over my subsequent rides on the mare, and I thought it was me who was doing a bad job. In reality, she was likely a horribly inappropriate pony to be putting beginners on, and our instructor probably shouldn’t have been chasing us around the arena with a shillelagh. I’m pretty sure there was grown-up juice in his water bottles while he was teaching. 

Side note: I just had an epiphany about why I was, a few years later, terrified to canter this lovely mare called Junebug at my next barn. She was another grey quarter horse type, and was the most comfortable thing you’d ever sit on. The first few times I rode her I absolutely refused to canter and my trainer could not figure out why, and to be honest neither could I. I rode the other horses with beginner confidence and was unafraid to canter them, but now I’m almost positive I was scared because she was a grey mare, just like Jeep. Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? 

Eventually a woman took over our lessons and I began to actually learn something about riding. Soon after this, I signed up for a summer camp at Briarwood Farm, which was everything a lesson barn should be and everything my first riding stable was not. There, I learned from true horsemen and horsewomen not only how to ride, but how to care for these amazing animals. I also learned how to tack up finally, something that I was not permitted to learn in my year and a half at the other stable. I loved my first week at summer camp so much that my mom signed me up for a second week. I then started lessons there while I was still riding at the first stable, which only lasted a few weeks and I was finally where I was meant to be, in an English saddle on wonderful school horses riding under instructors I still admire to this day. 

2004 Alyssa riding Moon at a show at Briarwood a few years after moving out of the crazy barn. Did I mention I have no pictures from that first barn because they didn’t allow parents to watch lessons? Totally normal, it’s fine.

I don’t often think of my first riding stable, mainly because I remained at Briarwood for nearly ten years and I attribute my entire riding foundation to them. I think I’ve also repressed some memories from my first riding experiences, which I can’t blame myself for as I look back with horror at the circumstances. But for all that it lacked, it gave me my start. Sometimes learning how to do things the wrong way is just as important as learning how to do them the correct way. In my experience, as soon as I saw what riding could be and what true horsemanship was, there was no turning back and I strove to learn and absorb as much about these animals as I possibly could. I was a true barn rat and loved every second of it. 

What about you? How did you get your start? Was it similar to Lisa’s experience or to mine, or did you have a more idyllic introduction to the equine world?

Along for the Ride: Alyssa Davidson

The defining theme of my life has been horses. Starting when I was three years old, I was constantly asking to ride ponies, checking horse and pony books out of the library, and once I got a little older (I think six), trying to convince my parents that our acre yard was certainly enough space to accommodate a mini horse.

Books have been the other constant for me. I remember getting in trouble in third grade for reading Pony Pals when I was supposed to be paying attention to math with Mrs. Marino. Bookworm extraordinaire, this continued throughout my childhood, adolescence, teenagedom, and of course my adult life. Other notable equine-related series from my childhood are The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, The Phantom Stallion, and my all-time favorite, The Saddle Club. 

At some point in my childhood, I subscribed to one of those monthly kids’ book clubs, this one specifically for The Saddle Club. I’d get sent two books a month plus all kinds of other special things like posters, bookmarks, figurines, you know the kind of stuff that makes kiddo grabby hands come out in full force. I devoured the books, and when I found out there was a television series to go with them, my brain exploded in excitement. At one time I even had The Saddle Club computer game and spent countless hours cantering virtual horses across the countryside to solve mystery after mystery. Life was grand. 

When I was eight, I got riding lessons for my birthday and haven’t been able to quit the habit since. Over the years, I’ve bopped around a few different barns, graduated with an Equine Science degree, changed my zip code, and have now set myself up in Charlotte, North Carolina with two dogs, Zuzu and Franny, and my horse, Goose. Though my day job revolves around agriculture clients, my downtime is spent with Goose and the dogs, hanging out with my barn friends, and co-hosting The Plaidcast Junior with my good friend the creator of this blog, Jess Clawson. Though I grew up riding hunter/jumpers, Goose and I are doing the ammy thing where I work a lot of hours and my time spent with him is meant to be relaxing and fun. We enjoy pretending we’re going to event one day, and in the meantime, his favorite things are trail riding, jumping, and schooling cross country while I try to persuade him that dressage won’t kill him. The very best parts of my life still have everything to do with horses, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Zuzu, my three-year-old black lab, and Franny, my now seven-month-old yellow lab.

In my adult life, I haven’t forgotten the magic of Pine Hollow and the early friendship I had with Stevie, Carole, and Lisa. To this day, I drive my friends nuts by singing “Hello World, This is Me” from the tv series as we walk side by side in the arena or on trail. I have been lucky enough to find an incredible group of women to share my love of horses with, and as such we have dubbed ourselves The Saddle Club. Our adult version of The Saddle Club involved meeting up twice a year for adventures at Jess’s magical farm in Virginia, not far from where the book series takes place. These Saddle Club Weekends involve plenty of wine (the best part of being a grownup), lots of dogs, crafts of varying degrees, and heaps of riding adventures. Our next Saddle Club Weekend is coming up this October, and don’t worry, you’ll be reading all about it. 


When Jess pitched the idea of this blog series, I knew I had to be a part of it. Rereading some of my favorite books of all time and blogging about it? Yes, please! So here I am, ready to immerse myself back into my childhood alongside my very best friends. I hope you join us on our adventures as we follow along with the OG Saddle Club, share our own stories, and explore other books and themes from our pasts. What’s our outcome of this journey? Time will tell, but of one thing I am certain: we’re in for a wild ride.

Book 1: Horse Crazy

“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?

My girl Tinkerbell

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.

My very own heart horse, Mo. Photo by Victoria Lockwood Photography.

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.

Welcome Back to Pine Hollow

We did it, everyone. We survived middle school. Ready to go back?

The Saddle Club Revisited is this early millennial’s plan to dive back into the depths of being a 12 year old horse-crazy kid with what was absolutely the most important book series of my life. It’s time to pay it the respect it deserves.

The concept is simple: I’m going to read every Saddle Club book, including the Super Editions and Inside Stories, in order, and write about all of them individually. I’ll sometimes do overview posts of handfuls of the books at a time for The Plaid Horse. There will be guest bloggers, comparisons to other middle grade fiction franchises, and a lot more.

Most importantly, there will be discussions of the extremely questionable horsemanship taking place at Pine Hollow, celebrations that we’re past that phase of our lives, nostalgia for a simpler time, and a mounting case for Stevie being a lesbian. Yes, the one with the boyfriend. You’re gonna have to trust me on that.

I’m doing this because I love the series, mostly. I’m a late-30s member of the equestrian media. I’m an event rider who lives in a hay loft apartment of a barn. I take care of seven horses every day, ride several of them, and then come upstairs to write about what’s going on in the horse show world. All week long I talk to horse people, write about horse people, learn about new businesses in the horse world, and on the weekends I go compete. So I figured, hey, let’s stuff whatever free time I have left with a walk down the gravel driveway of memory into this seminal series so I can think about horses some more.

Oh, and did I mention that I have my own saddle club? I’m old enough to be the parent of a 12 year old, but instead of driving my own kids to lessons, I got together with my four best friends and we declared ourselves a Saddle Club. We even have Saddle Club weekends twice a year that let us live out our dreams of just being at horse camp all the time (but with wine, because we’re grown ups. Perhaps a small silver lining to also being old enough to have to worry about affording these horses). You’ll be hearing from all of them too.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is going to be, or who will be the friends we make along the way. I do know that this is going to be really fun, irreverent, and definitely full of questions about why a bunch of 12 year olds were regularly allowed to jump unsupervised. I do hope you’ll join us.