A "Gusty" McCaw Mystery
by Lynn Hall
"Gusty" McCaw has a life many teenage girls can only dream of. Living at Tradition Farm gives her independence and the chance to work with the horses she loves so much. But her happiness is shattered when her father is killed in an accident that looks very much like murder. Then Gusty discovers that another horse is being bred in place of Tradition's valuable prize stud, Ambassador, and she realizes that something suspicious -- and dangerous -- is going on at Tradition Farm. Which horse is being switched with Ambassador for breedings and why? And how does her father's shameful death fit into the puzzle?I like Lynn Hall, mainly because I feel she creates interesting main characters that seem firmly grounded in reality rather than flitting off in some sentimental "OMG did you just call that horse an animal?" mentality. Ride a Dark Horse definitely exhibits one of these characters. Gusty McCaw was practically born and bred on a horse farm, and she has no special horses that only respond to her attention, or crazy love works miracles policy. What Gusty does share with most of her other horse book main characters is the determination factor, which comes in handy for her as she winds up trying to avoid bodily harm while attempting to get her life back.
Gusty is determined to uncover Tradition's dark secret, but someone is equally determined that Gusty never reveal her knowledge and will stop at nothing -- even murder -- to keep her quiet. Stripped of her good name, unable to trust anyone, Gusty must solve the mystery alone, using only her sharp wits and her courage.
The deal is that Gusty's dad is recently dead, and Gusty is all alone in the world except for her connections at Tradition Farm. She's sitting outside at night and sees lights on in the breeding shed. This is typical, as Ambassador usually does his breedings at night. While this is happening she follows her dog to the stud barn and sees Ambassador still in his stall, making a mystery out of what was going on in the breeding shed. Later she discovers that the owner's riding horse, a stallion named Toby, would look like Ambassador if he was less fat. Gusty, because she's new at this whole suspicion thing, asks the stud manager, Jackson, why Ambassador was in his stall when they were in the breeding shed, and before she knows it she's been fired for selling information to other farms.
Gusty makes the executive decision to get her job back, so she goes on the hunt for clues about this whole stallion switch thing. A day in a library leads her to a farm called Wood Hill, which had a few stallions before a fire put a stop to that. While there she manages to make a few enemies, a few friends, and then, because of the enemies, she's fired for not being straight about who she is when she presented herself for a job. By that point, she's been asking questions there also about this former Wood Hill stallion, American Express. It turns out that one of the grooms is the nephew of someone at Tradition, creating a link that Gusty can't ignore. The groom realizes this, and decides to beat up Gusty, who runs out of there afterward. By this point, she realizes that Toby and American Express are the same horse and they're using Toby as a stand in for Ambassador.
She calls up the Jockey Club in hysterics, but the guy on the phone doesn't exactly sound like he believes her, so she goes into more hysterics and heads to Tradition to find the proof she needs: a little white dot on Toby's eye. When she gets there, the groom from before knocks her out and hog ties her in the breeding shed, where he has a meeting with his partner in crime, a rider from Tradition called R.B. Then Jackson comes along and tells them that he's had enough of this and they can't just murder poor Gusty. The boys don't like this, and all hell breaks loose just as the cops get there and the Jockey Club guy, Theo, takes Gusty to the hospital.
So, these stud switch plots never seem to have a realistic reason behind them, and I was interested to see how Lynn Hall explains this whole thing. The explanation? LOVE. Jackson was in love with the owner lady, who bought Ambassador after her husband died, only to have the stallion be a dud. Jackson loved her from afar to the point that he decided that they needed to switch out Ambassador for a stud more likely to be fantastic, but not too fantastic. Unfortunately, the stud they stole was way fantastic and everyone started to blackmail eachother to the point that, when Gusty's dad was transferred to the stud barn, R.B. had to spike his soda with vodka in attempts to get him to go along with the plot. Her dad was an alcoholic, so they hoped he'd just be too drunk to deal with anything and eventually would get fired. Only he fell over and died. Oops.
Tradition Farm folds, the appropriate parties go to jail, and Gusty is offered a job with the Jockey Club as an undercover agent of sorts. Gusty decides to take the job because she's (shockingly...like, I turned my head and squinted at this) got a huge crush on Theo, who is, like, forty. I was completely disturbed by this revelation, and then the book quickly ended, leaving me feeling a little uncomfortable.
But, you know, I still like Lynn Hall.