Jun 7, 2008

Riding High is Not Intended as a Euphemism

Riding High
Blue Ribbon Series #1
Originally Published: 1989

I had to take another break from reading really awful TB books, though don't worry, I'll get back to that soon enough. Perhaps even later today! Instead, I thought I'd take this chance to write my first book recommendation.

The Blue Ribbon series was a short-lived run of books published in the later 1980s about three girls training and competing as three day eventers in Connecticut. It was written by someone named "Chris St. John," which I think was a pen name for one or two different writers. I found the last book at one of those weird remainder bookstores years ago, and once Amazon.com started its used bookstore, I quickly bought up the other five books in the series. They're short but sweet, and never lacking in cheer, though somehow the characters never really become annoying. There's also no consistent human antagonist, which means the girls have to face the problems life throws at them, and they're much better and more believable than having to scrub glitter off your horse before a show. I thought I'd review the first book, Riding High.

Cover: So the good thing about using photos as covers is that we're more likely to avoid some gross misinterpretation of what real riding/horses/people look like. The tricky thing, however, is finding representations of both equine and human characters that resemble those in the books. Here we have pictured Kate and Night Owl, the protagonists of this book and the stars of the whole series, though character rotation does occur. My only real problem with this cover is that Kate looks about 28, whereas she's supposed to be 16. Also, helmet! Other than that, whatever.

Last year she was number one, but this year...
The first horse show of the season is here, and Kate is in a panic. Her horse, NIGHT OWL, isn't performing well in the ring, and her toughest competitor is a beautiful new girl from school. What else could go wrong?

Kate just wants to hide out in the stables. But all her friends - including a special admirer - are in the audience cheering her on, and Kate knows that she has to get on her horse and ride into the arena. After all, it's what she loves most in the world.
This blurb pretty much has the plot spot-on. Too bad HarperCollins didn't hire Mr. Good Synopsis Writer to tackle the TB series.

Plot: When we first meet Kate Wiley, she is schooling her horse Night Owl in the dressage ring at her home on Windcroft farm, her parent's boarding and training facility in Connecticut. Kate's father is a computer programmer, but her mother was a champion eventer until a tragic accident led her to leave the sport. She's the instructor at Windcroft, however, though lately she hasn't had time to work with Kate and Night Owl, or the Owl as he's more familiarly known.

Kate, by the way, is a phenomenal rider, perhaps even better than her mother was. Like every character ever, she has drive and plans on becoming an Olympic event rider, and has the talent to do it. The only problem is Night Owl. The two destroyed the novice division during the previous showing year, but Kate is ready to move up to training level. Night Owl, on the other hand, can be inconsistent in his performance, and many people think that he'll never be able to take Kate to higher levels of competition. Kate reacts rather violently to this assertion, even though during her schooling that day Night Owl is doing his best to prove all the doubters right. When it comes to jumping, Night Owl is a dream, but as Kate tries to practice the new training level dressage test he's stiff and unresponsive. Kate finally gives up and takes him out on the trails, galloping him over her family's cross country jumps. Maybe this will help him relax, she thinks.

Anne's old coach, Pietro Yon, shows up just as Kate's finishing her ride and tells her riding should be fun, but Anne has other ideas. She reminds Kate that rewarding the Owl for bad behavior is not the way to make his dressage any better. Kate knows this, but she blames Anne for never being around to help her school her horse. She's pretty convinced she'll never be able to correct the Owl's problems on her own. Anne apologizes for her absence and promises to make time to watch Kate ride. She's just been so busy.

Later, at dinner, Pietro drops the bomb that he's going to retire and move to Florida because of health reasons, unlike our tenacious friend Charlie Burke. This means he'll be selling his stable of horses. There is shock and dismay all around. Yon's retirement is key to plot developments in this and subsequent books, so it's important to mention. Though he does seem to spend more time hanging around Windcroft than retiring in the first couple of books.

Anyway, the next day Kate goes off to school. On the bus she's reading that year's event schedule, but puts it away after all her friends start teasing her. She feels like she has two identities: horse Kate and school Kate, because none of her friends understand her love of horses and passion for eventing. Of course they wouldn't, because this wouldn't be a book about teenage girls riding horses if they did.

At school Kate runs into her best friend, Jessica Robeson. Jessica is horse crazy too, of course, but she doesn't have her own horse. She's been leasing a mare boarded at Windcroft called Time-Out (this hyphen drives me crazy; I don't want to talk about it), but recently Time-Out's owner decided to breed the mare. The reasoning behind this is never really explained, but regardless, for the past several months Jessica's been mostly horseless. This is all solved, however, because Anne has decided Jessica can school her horse, Johnathon, if she'd like, because she won't have time to do it herself. Whoopee, that problem is solved. Moving on.

At lunch we are introduced to Kate's future love interest, a sweet young lad named Pete Hastings. Also, Jessie promises to stop by Windcroft that afternoon to help Kate school Night Owl. Jessica's tragic back story is that her mother died three years ago, leaving Jessica and her father to care for Jessica's two young siblings. Mr. Robeson had trouble keeping a housekeeper because his children are a terror (though we never really see any examples of this) so Jessie's been spending less time at the barn while she helps her father out. But she's going to make time for Kate today, gosh darnit!

Of course, Jessica isn't much help. She's not as good of a rider as Kate, but then again, she's not as driven (we are told that Jessica could be as good a rider if she had her own horse and the determination to do so). She's fine with riding at her own pace and doesn't particularly care about winning as long as she improves. Plus, at this point she's just focused on finding a horse to ride. What I'm getting at here is that Jessica isn't able to help Kate school Night Owl in dressage successfully. What they need is Anne, who's still to busy doing god knows what.

Jessie, after being completely unhelpful, decides that to make up for this she needs to pile more pressure on Kate. A winaholic, Kate's already freaking out about her first training level competition with Night Owl. She just has to prove all those who doubt in him wrong. She's still getting teased at school for her love of eventing. The consensus is that eventing is easy. To shut everyone up, Jessie tells them that they should come see Kate ride at her first event of the season. This is particularly upsetting because Kate and Night Owl suck right now and she doesn't want to lose in front of all her friends, especially Pete. She's pretty convinced he won't want to hold hands with a loser.

Back at Windcroft, Anne is busy readying the stable for a mysterious new boarder. She manages to find time to give Kate a lesson, however, and of course all of the problems she and Night Owl are having melt away. Kate is happy because her mother has promised to continue working with them, and now surely she can't lose, but then Anne's mother has to go and reinjure her her knee and is bedridden. Worse, she needs surgery. So that plan for success is now out the door.

Kate and Jessie pass the time by finishing preparations for the new horse, whom they knew absolutely nothing about. When he arrives they find he's a disgustingly gorgeous dappled gray named Arpeggio, and both of them are kind of disgruntled because his owner still hasn't shown up. Who wouldn't to be be there to greet such a beautiful horse? Clearly this is abuse. They're unsure what to do with him so they basically throw him in a paddock until his owner shows up.

A week passes and Kate arrives at her usual lunch table to find a new, drop dead gorgeous, infinitely cool girl sitting in Kate's usual chair. Everyone is fawning over her, especially the boys. This upsets Kate, especially when she finds out the girl, Dara Cooper, rides. There is no way, of course, that this girl is Arpeggio's owner. That would make too much sense.

But, of course Dara is Arpeggio's owner! Oh yeah and by the way she's going to be riding in the same event Kate is. How terrifying. Even Kate knows that Arpeggio is a better horse than Night Owl. She watches in terror as Dara arrives at Windcroft with her mother in their Mercedes. That's right, my friends, Dara's family is filthy stinking rich, and she has an irksome mother. Perhaps you know where this is going. Dara also informs Kate that she wanted to work with Pietro, but he redirected her to Anne because he was retiring. This made Mrs. Cooper angry, because Anne is not an "in" trainer, though Dara doesn't seem to care. Still, this has only added insult to injury.

If Kate was having any doubts about hating Dara, they are now officially out the window. To make matters worse, she learns that Pietro has sent several of his clients to Anne. This is good news for the farm, but they were supposed to take some trial lessons with Anne before her injury immobilized her. Instead they're going to watch Kate event to see the kind of rider Anne can turn out. This is the last thing Kate wants. Now Kate will be competing against Dara in front of all of her friends, and to make matters worse the very future of their farm (which is really only breaking even, apparently) hangs in the balance. And she and Night Owl still suck. Wow, this can't end well. Tears abound.

Jessie tries to cheer her up, and everyone seems to think that riding with Dara will improve Kate's own riding. Kate, who still hates Dara with the burning passion of a thousand suns, refuses to participate in this obviously demeaning exercise. Meanwhile, Jessie has gone all Benedict Arnold and is actually friends with Dara. Man, can Kate's life get any worse? How could Jessie violate the rich girls are bitches trope by seeing Dara as a human being?

On the day of the show Night Owl and Kate still suck. This is pretty upsetting for Kate. She considers withdrawing, but then doesn't. Everyone goes over to the show grounds, yay. Kate's all fretting and freaking out when Dara interjects that she knows exactly what's wrong with Night Owl, and offers to help. This is pretty big news because Dara is Kate's biggest competition, and she's offering to help Kate out, perhaps at the expense of a blue ribbon for herself. Kate is stunned and desperate, and decides to let Dara help.

Out they go into a field, and after watching Kate ride Dara tells her the key to success: Kate has been nervous and tense, and all the negative emotions have set Night Owl on edge, making him stiff and unresponsive. All Kate has to do is relax and they will be unbeatable. Kate takes some deep breaths and, viola, everything is perfect. At this point I became convinced that Dara had been on the phone with Parker "The Solution is Jumping Bigger Jumps" Townsend.

The event goes by and Kate rides beautifully. Everyone is super impressed. Dara rides beautifully, too. And, in the end, they tie for first place. I'm not sure how likely that is, but whatever. Kate also learns that when Dara was given Arpeggio she made a deal with her mother that the horse is hers only if she wins most of her classes. This is just horrible, Kate thinks. Poor Dara! After this and other insights into Dara's character, Kate decides she was just being prejudiced against beautiful rich blond girls, she and Dara become friends, and everyone is super happy, the end.

Point of Interest:
  • Kate is obsessed with winning, but somehow this is less irritating than any character in the TB series who felt the same. I think it might be the realism we are presented with in watching her train. Or it might just be the writing. Despite her dedication to horses, Kate has a balanced life. She's also been riding horses and training for eventing her whole life, so she has the experience necessary to win. I dunno. That may not be ample justification, but you just have to take my word for it that's it's not too annoying, at least in comparison with Cindy, Melanie, and Christina.
  • Of course, Kate has a magical special bond with Night Owl, no one knows him better than she does, and everyone who thinks he can't compete at higher levels is super wrong. The difference between the TB series and the Blue Ribbon series, however, is that Kate is wrong. Night Owl's not good enough, and in later books she will come to realize that and will actually sell him in favor of a better horse. Holy crap, unbelievable.
  • Kate gets to leave school early because her riding counts as physical education and her stable work is independent study. I remember reading this as a kid and wondering how I could sign up for this program.
  • Night Owl is never, ever described as a bay. He is mahogany with a black mane and tail. Bentley, eat your heart out.
  • Every horse in these books has a nick name with "the" in front of it. The Owl. The Pod. The Baron. I don't understand including this article in nicknames, as if these horses were the only ones of their kind. It becomes really irritating. That said, most of the horses in this book have great names. Except Time-Out. God I hate that name. It makes me think of soccer.
  • The girls are in home ec and the guys are in shop. This is what I hate about reading books written during this period.
  • Oh my god we used the word "Damn." Super!
The books may have a real buddy-buddy feel, and the main plot point problems are usually solved in every book, but the plots aren't insular. The major problems: Dara's troubles with her mother, Jessie's struggles with Time-Out and her home life, and Kate's indecision about Night Owl, all continue from book to book, though each new plot line offers a unique challenge on top of the on-going dilemmas. This adds cohesion to the series, drives it forward, and aids character development. There's cheese here, and some factual errors (cross country does not come after stadium jumping, it is not referred to as the outside course (at least to my knowledge), and stadium jumping does not consist of four jumps in a circle that a rider goes over repeatedly), but overall I rate the series an 8. Plus we are treated to lovely descriptions of late 80s/early 90s fashion, such as stone washed denim shorts. Yum. It's too bad it was so short-lived. If you want a light, enjoyable horse read of the young adult variety, copies of all the books are available for relatively cheap on Amazon.com, and I actually have an extra set I might be willing to part with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i'm beginning to wonder if there were two series named Blue Ribbon, because i've got another book from the same series name and it does not sound like it fits with this one at all.