Jul 4, 2008

Dark Horse = Boring Horse

Per Sundae's request, I've decided to tackle a Jean Slaughter Doty book.

For those of you not familiar with Doty, she churned out a few horse books, most famously Sumemr Pony and Winter Pony, in the 1970s and 1980s. She is one of the very few authors whose characters love and treasure ponies as much as they treasure horses. If someone from TBverse suddenly found themselves in one of Doty's books, they'd probably kill themselves. Anyway, Doty wrote some pretty okay books (Like Yesterday's Horse, a favorite of mine I will review in the near future), but she was known for her realistic portrayal of horse care, riding, and the horse showing world.

This book, Dark Horse, takes place at High Hickory Stables, a well-known barn in New England, and centers around our intrepid teenage narrator, Abby. Abby doesn't have her own horse, and while her family tends to move a lot, she's worked at every stable she could since she was old enough to hold a pitchfork, as she put it. She's learned to ride by exercising horses and catching lessons with various instructors whenever she could, and as a result is a decent enough rider to stick on most horses. She wishes she had her own horse, but cost makes it impossible, something she actually accepts without question and is okay with. She wishes she could show more, and luckily for her in this book her dream comes true, but with an interesting twist. Here's the blurb:
When Sandy first arrives at High Hickory Stables, he's a misfit among the gleaming horses there. His dark coat is harsh and dry, his bones stick out, and hsi head hangs down dejectedly.

Abby's heart goes out to the thin, sad horse. On her rounds mucking out the stalls and filling grain pails, she always gives him special attention and treats.

Then, Abby is asked to ride Sandy - and discovers that he is a fabulous jumper! This dark horse can soar effortlessly over the highest gate or fence. Suddenly the pair are famous, winning several blue ribbons and even a Championship Cup.

Abby can't believe their good fortune. Will it last. she wonders. Or is it too good to be true?
This synopsis makes Abbey sound a lot more sentimental about horses and Sandy than she is for the majority of the book. For example, she doesn't even like Sandy for the most part, at least at first, and she never really gives him any special attention. She spends so much time with him mainly because he's the only horse available for her to ride.

In this book, and Doty's other more young adult venture, The Monday Horses, horses and showing at big barns like High Hickory are a business, and the animals are commodities. Don't you forget it. This doesn't get in the way of people loving what they do, however, nor Abbey's dedication, though I think this attitude is kind of off-putting. The characters are all really impersonal in a way that's basically the exact polar opposite of the TB Series, and it makes for some bland writing in many cases. That's probably why I didn't remember any of these books until a few days ago. But, despite this supposed realism, her main characters are always complete whizzes in the saddle despite any inexperience they might have, and very little losing ever goes on.

Anyway, as the book begins Andy is waiting for a new shipment of horses to come in. High Hickory is one of the stops for a traveling horse peddler, and this go round he leaves a Connemara pony and a big, ridiculously thin and scraggly bay horse who's obviously been neglected. There is the usual "how could someone treat a horse like this" clap trap (and at this point I am just sick and tired of this kind of plot line). No one at the barn really knows what to do with him. They'll rehabilitate him, of course, but his appearance is an embarrassment to the stable, so one of the owners, Russ, tells Abby to stick him in a back paddock when a client comes over to view the Connemara.

Abby obliges, but suddenly the horse appears outside the ring, grazing placidly. Russ is furious, and Abby brings him back to the pasture, thinking she's forgotten to latch the gate. But after hiding behind a bush she sees the bay easily jump out of the paddock. Turns out he pretty much refuses to stay in a paddock and jumps out of every single one they put him in. This means everyone eventually gives up and the horse is left to jump around the farm as he pleases. He's still kind of ugly though, so everyone is still stumped as to what to do with him.

Meanwhile, Abby is busy going along to shows as a groom literally every weekend. The Connemara pony as been bought for Tommy, a boy Abby's age who was injured in an accident and therefore can no longer play the sports he loves. His mother, an avid rider, has bought him the pony in an attempt to make up for this, but Tommy could care less. The pony, whom he dubbed Shamrock, is a talented jumper, but Tommy has no interest in showing him. So Tommy's mother asks Abby to show him for the family, hoping if Tommy sees how exciting this is he will suddenly change his mind about riding. Abby loves showing and wins junior championships on the pony two weekends in a row, but Tommy still couldn't care less. Oh well.

In the midst of this excitement, Abby is asked to ride Sandy (the dark horse), who's been given the name Sandpiper officially, and he has a very strange way of moving and looks not at all impressive when he goes over jumps in the ring. Everyone is pretty much oh well, and they continue to let Abby hack around the farm with him. One day she hacks out to a fox hunt with Tommy and his mother. His mother ends up having to go back to the barn because her horse is an airhead and totally freaks out at the whole thing, but Tommy and Abby love it. Their horses whip across the countryside, easily jumping everything in their path.

Unfortunately, they get separated from the main hunt, but manage to meet up with the Huntmaster, who's also all by his lonesome. Because he's retarded, he leads them over hill and dale and crazy jumps, and eventually tries to jump a huge fence that's set back across a stream, in reality making it a totally high water jump with a huge spread. His horse can't make the jump and crashes into the fence.

Abby, seeing this accident, decides she will jump Sandy over the same fence. Sandy, of course, makes the spectacular jump. The Huntmaster, unharmed, is completely awestruck by this amazing feat and rides Sandy back to his farm while leaving Abby to catch his injured horse.

Mr. Huntmaster, AKA Bill, then goes screaming across the countryside about how amazing Sandy is, and everyone is pretty surprised, so they have Abby take him over really huge jumps in the ring and yeah, the horse actually looks pretty grand. Therefore they enter him in some junior jumper classes with Abby aboard. Everything goes swimmingly at the first show except for the time Sandy flips over backward when being asked to enter the ring for one class. Everyone is puzzled and horrified, but lacking any other explanation decide he simply must have spooked.

Abby and Sandy continue to show and win, and everyone is in love with the horse. They win some Crystal Cup, and Abby makes friends with some other people on the show circuit, who for some reason in this book are not jealous bitchy ass holes. So much for realism about the show circuit.

Then one day Abby goes to ride Sandy in to the ring and he positively flips out again, deliberately bucking and rearing no matter what anyone does, therefore scaring the shit out of them. After several of these episodes Abby decides there is no way she's going to ask Sandy to go into the ring again, and the general consensus is that is a good idea because this weird horse has simply decided he has had enough of competitive show jumping. Russ the owner, however, decides he is going to show Sandy who's boss and rides him into the ring one morning when no one's around. Russ, I would like to point out, really isn't bright.

Everything goes terribly, and of course Sandy throws him, knocking him unconscious and breaking several of his ribs, I think. Therefore, Russ and Meg, the other owner, decide to shoot him. Abby is understanding but upset about all this, and decides the thing to do is ride Sandy through the fields bareback. The horse easily and without resistance sails over all the fences in his path, and Abby runs into Huntmaster Bill again. Bill believes in Sandy just as she does, and the book ends with the sure knowledge that Sandy will not be shot because Bill is going to buy him and use him as a fox hunting horse. Also, Abby has been recognized as a talented catch rider and is asked to ride a fabulous horse named Frosty Pumpkin for one of her show circuit friends in an upcoming competition. Hurrah.

Like I said, the pacing of this book is rather rapid and the horses are viewed throughout as commodities. This seems to be an honest look at the world of upper level children's showing. At one point Meg points out that the competitions are taken as seriously for the kids as they are for the adults, and the horses are all hideously expensive as a result. There is some contempt there at this system, but Meg and Abby are willingly a part of it. Oh well.

I remember reading this book as a kid and being just absolutely terrified at Sandy's random violence and then the idea that he was going to be shot. There is a gruesome scene where Abby rides by a giant hole that is going to be Sandy's grave. This always disturbed me and made it hard for me to reread this book. Perhaps it is because the author has such a gruesome middle name. I did like Sandy though. As a child my mind was able to invent him a personality.

Points of Interest:
  • Doty does have a way with names. The barn cat in this book is named forever, which I find to be a really elegant name, because she is forever having kittens.
  • Sandy kind of annoys me because all Abby does is point him at a jump and he magically gets himself over it, no matter what. I understand that part of a rider's job is not to interfere with the horse, but this horse in this regard is just as much of a Mary Sue as Abby.
  • When Abby is asked to ride Frosty Pumpkin (not such a good name) at the end of the book, it's because her friend has had an accident and cracked several ribs, an injury described as "nothing serious." Yeah uh...no.
This book hovers somewhere between adult and children's fiction. But I think its major shortcoming is that absolutely none of the characters, equine or human, have any personality. In fact, Doty goes out of her way to explain how bland Sandy is other than that random crazy freak out thing. Anywho, it's still a nice way to eat up an half hour, and others may enjoy it more than me, so there you go.


Molly (formerly anonymous) said...

Frosty Pumpkin is possibly the worst horse name EVER. And here I thought no one could top Joanna Campbell for shitty horse names.

Anonymous said...


i agree, it's rather refreshing to see kids happy with ponies, instead of spending the entire book whining about how they don't have a horse. i'd even go as far to say that they prefer ponies over horses, which is an oddity in horse fiction.

Monique said...

The worst horse name ever is Hardy Har Har... who appears in the Chestnut Hill series. Hands down!