Book Design · Clearwater Bay series

Judging a book by its cover

judging by cover

I wrote a blog post for Horse Crossings this week that talks about the importance of a good cover. And it got me thinking. While I’m super happy with the Dare to Dream and Pony Jumpers covers, the Clearwater Bay ones leave a little to be desired.

I didn’t design the cover of Flying Changes – I supplied the image and the rest was done for me. When I released Against the Clock, I set up the file to look similar to the first book, to make it clear it was part of a series.

But now I’m thinking of re-doing both covers… like this:

Thoughts?

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · writing

Sticks & Stones

sticks stones

The following post contains spoilers for SIX TO RIDE. Consider yourself warned.

One of the best – and sometimes worst – parts of being a writer is being reviewed. Good reviews make your heart sing, inspire you to write more, make all of the tedious hours of self-imposed exile seem worthwhile. Indifferent reviews are can be shrugged off with matching indifference, and while bad reviews are an inevitability, you just have to try not to let them get you down. Not everyone is going to like your books, after all. That’s just life. But every so often a review comes along that halts you in your tracks. I got one of those today.

It started promisingly enough, awarding the book five stars because the reader loves the series (and I’m immensely grateful and happy to hear that). She then went on to explain, at length, what she didn’t like about Six to Ride.

Let me clarify something quickly – I’m not here to complain about this review. I honestly didn’t mind getting it, because constructive criticism is a good thing, and I’m the first person to ask for it. It was a well-written, well thought out review – something else I’m grateful for. But the reason I’m writing this is because this was a review that challenged me, and made me stop and think about what I’d written, what I’m writing next, and where I’m going with the whole series. It forced me to evaluate the path I’m on, and to be sure that I’m heading in the right direction. I wasn’t sure I would ever post this, when I wrote it, but I think it’s important enough to say out loud.

So here goes.

The three key points that the reviewer made in her dissection of the novel related to Tori, Phil, and Katy.

Tori

This book barely mentions the new horse and it is relegated to a sub plot role so that Katy can get her flirt on with a boy.

Tori was a tough one to write, because she’s an ongoing plot line for Katy, and this book was mostly providing set-up. I wanted readers to see what she was like, to learn why, and to also understand and appreciate that difficult, psychologically-damaged horses can’t be fixed by love alone, and especially not in the space of three weeks. These things simply don’t happen overnight, unfortunately.

So every section of the book that featured Tori was, by necessity, a down beat, a negative moment. There isn’t a breakthrough and there isn’t a golden moment. So to balance out that negativity, it was important for me to limit these scenes, to avoid the whole book being dragged down into a negative quagmire, and temper it with lighter, more optimistic moments. Usually AJ is a good provider of those, but there’s some distance between AJ and Katy right now, and Katy is feeling isolated from her friend, so that wasn’t going to work. Phil was the obvious choice to shift the mood and provide some lift to the story, while Katy slowly works out that she can’t help Tori without first swallowing her pride and asking for help (and admitting to her father that she couldn’t do this on her own, or right away).

Phil

A boy who, lets not forget, was a total a-hole in the last book… I hope Katy dumps his ass in the next book but it seems likely that he will stick around or will dump her instead.

There have been times in the past when I’ve read a book and found myself absolutely and utterly loathing a character that the author was clearly very fond of. A character in whom the writer clearly found some redeeming qualities, but who left me extremely cold.

Phil is not that person to me. As the author, I’m extremely fond of him. But he’s complex. He’s light and dark, sunlight and shadows, and he flickers from one to the other at the drop of a hat. And yes, he will be sticking around. But he won’t be universally beloved by all of the other characters  – one person, in particular, has no time for him at all. Yet despite some of his less endearing qualities, I want him in the story because he has a story to tell. He’s a non-horsey person growing up surrounded by people who are obsessed with horses, and that’s a dynamic that I want to explore.

And now we get to the meat of it.

Katy

My main complaint about this book was the set up for Katy to develop an eating disorder – the classic pony box (sic) trope of the already skinny girl who becomes anorexic due to family drama stressing her out. It’s been done to death and does not need to be repeated. 

Trope
1. b. common or overused theme or device: cliché <the usual horror movie trope>
– Merriam Webster dictionary

This is what really threw me, when I read it. Because I didn’t set out to write a cliché, or to follow a pony book trope. Generally I try and do the opposite – take what you think is likely to happen next, and flip it on its head. But somewhere along the line, I must have missed the fact that this was a pony book trope, because clearly I’m not reading the same books as this reviewer. Aside from Tudor Robins’ excellent Objects in Mirror, I actually don’t ever recall reading a pony book about a girl with an eating disorder. The reviewer did list a couple, which admittedly I haven’t read, but to me, it wasn’t an obvious storyline thrown in there because I couldn’t think of anything better, or to add extra drama. It wasn’t that at all…

Let me explain how it happened. When I started writing Double Clear, I was fresh off the end of First Fence, and ready to step from AJ’s head into Katy’s. It was an easy transition – I felt like I knew Katy already, as she’d turned up even before First Fence, making her debut in a handful of scenes in Dare to Dream, then reappearing in Dream On. She was part of a backlog of characters that I have in my head, ready to be drawn upon when the moment demanded it, and so when I’d needed someone just like her in First Fence, she’d stepped into the story and owned it.

So I started writing Double Clear, with only the vaguest idea of where I was going with her side of the story. I’d written First Fence almost entirely off the cuff, chapter by chapter, literally making it up as I went along. And I started Double Clear the same way. I stepped into Katy’s head and looked around. Where was she? In the yards, in the dark, in the rain, with her favourite pony Molly. Why was she still out there? Because Molly wouldn’t eat her feed. Katy does her best to persuade her, but without success.

Moments later, Katy goes inside the house, refusing her own dinner because she’s feeling overwhelmed with her homework and everything else she has to do. She doesn’t want to take the time to sit down and eat, despite her mother’s nagging. This scene pretty much wrote itself, as it drew a neat parallel between pony and rider that helped to underline the bond between them – because it was this bond that was about to come under serious threat.

But somehow, almost without me noticing, it had become more than that. Because the opening scenes of Double Clear are about not wanting to eat. And that stuck around in my head as I wrote on, and worked my way deeper into Katy’s character. And I started to wonder, and I started to worry. And as I began to worry about her, she resolutely refused to worry about herself.

The plot thickened.

You might assume at this point that I thought “well clearly this character is anorexic, so I should expand on that theme and make an ‘issue’ out of it.” But what I actually thought was “I know how she feels.” Confession: I’ve skirted around the edges of eating issues in my own life, and have been fortunate that I’ve had a strong enough will and family support to always be able to nip it in the bud. But I know what it’s like to be too anxious to eat. To have to force yourself to put something in your stomach, when you know it’s going to make you feel sick afterwards. To experience physical pangs of hunger until the moment food reaches your mouth, when it abruptly becomes almost physically impossible to chew and swallow. It’s not fun. It sucks, and it’s scary, and honestly I hesitated to put Katy through that, because I’m fond of my protagonists and nobody needs that in their life. But by then it was too late. The story was waiting to be told, and honestly, I felt like it needed to be told.

I don’t know how those other books that the reviewer cited depicted eating disorders. I don’t know whether those other authors wrote from personal experience, or because they’d heard that anorexia is an ‘issue’ that many riders face and thought they’d touch on that in the midst of their book series, before moving on to something more entertaining. I do my best to write books that feel real, with characters that seem real, who live in the real world. I look around myself when I’m at shows, at Pony Club, in the equestrian environment, and I write what I see. I write with an eye on the people I know, and I know girls like Katy. I know girls who’ve suffered terribly, and hidden it successfully. Girls who seem to have it all together, but who are fighting a desperate battle on the inside, striving frantically for an unattainable level of perfection. Their self-confidence is all a mask. Deep down, they’re hurting. They just don’t want to let anyone see.

And that brings me back to Phil, because that’s also why he’s in the story, and why he’s so important. He, too, has pain he can’t express, and no outlet for it. Like Katy, he’s battling against the tide of others’ expectations, only he’s stopped trying to prove himself, has quit trying to fight back. It became too hard to care, so he gave up. A nonchalant shrug and a closed off expression. Keep them at arm’s length. Pretend everything’s fine.

But he’s been friends with Katy for too long to really be able to hide from her. And he can see through her as well. Slowly, tentatively, they’re opening up their wounds and trying to heal each other.

I hope Kate Lattey reconsiders where she is going with Katy’s story because this book was disappointing.

Sorry, but I can’t. I’ve set these characters on a path, and it’s too late now for them to turn around. They’ve got a story to tell, and a reason to tell it. And I’m not going to change that.

Because when I think about those girls I know, who have battled silently, struggling along thinking everyone else had it together and they were the only ones who were getting it wrong, I want them to know the truth.

That they’re not alone. That we’re all fighting our own battles, and that there is hope. There is a way forward, and there is a way home.

Be brave. Keep fighting. Keep moving forward, because it’s not over until you’ve given up.

This is their story…Katy’s story…my story…your story…our story.

And it wants to be told.

Deleted scenes · Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride

SIX TO RIDE – Deleted Scene Unlocked!

6TR

You did it! SIX TO RIDE now has 10 Amazon reviews, and 9 of them are five-star reviews, which is just awesome. Thanks so much to everyone who has reviewed!!

So as promised, here is the first full deleted scene from the book. It’s not long, but I still like it and thought it was worth sharing 🙂  Enjoy!


“I can’t believe I don’t get to come!” AJ scowled at me from her seat on the couch.

“I know, it sucks,” I said sympathetically, tucking my feet up underneath me. It was a warm afternoon, and my bare legs were sticking to each other.

“Do you want to know what actually sucks?”

We both looked over at Anders, who was half-sitting, half-lying on the other couch in the Macleans’ living room.

“Let me guess. Being you?” AJ asked him.

“Correct.”

“Tragedy,” AJ told him, pulling a mournful face and tracing a line down her cheek from the corner of her eye.

“Cow,” he muttered.

AJ looked slightly affronted. She stabbed an accusing finger in his direction. “Cripple.”

“What does that make me?” I asked quickly, trying to ease the tension. I felt bad for Anders, who wasn’t coping at all well with being immobile. He’d been in a foul mood for the last few days, lying idly on the couch with his busted leg stretched out in front of him, propped up by multiple cushions and pillows.

“Trouble,” Anders said swiftly, then winked at me and making me even hotter than I was before. I hoped he couldn’t tell how much my face was flushing.

“Whatever. As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, you’ll text me as soon as you know, right?” AJ asked. She turned towards me as she spoke, which had the simultaneous effect of turning her back to Anders. He closed his eyes, ignoring us both.

“As soon as what?”

She rolled her eyes. “As soon as Tess tells you anything.”

“Oh! Yeah, definitely.”

“Don’t you think that if she wanted you to know, she’d tell you herself?” Anders asked, his eyes still closed.

“Don’t you think that if we wanted your opinion, we’d ask for it?” AJ retorted.

“You’re not exactly being quiet,” he snapped back. “And I can’t get up and walk out of the room, as much as I want to right now.”

AJ stood up. “Fine, we’ll get out of your hair. C’mon Katy, let’s leave Grumpy McGee here to his moaning and complaining.”

I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t mind when a sharp knock came at the front door, making us all jump and sending Dax, their German Shepherd guard dog, into a frenzy.

“And so you should,” AJ told him, speaking loudly to be heard over his frantic barking. “If anyone else in the world slept on the job as much as you do they’d be fired.”

I listened to her following the dog down the hall, telling him to shut up and sit down, then the front door opening and a voice that sounded vaguely familiar. I glanced at Anders for confirmation, but he had his eyes closed again. Moments later, AJ came back into the room with Harry by her side and Dax on their heels.

“Hey, how’s it going?” Harry went to see Anders, standing awkwardly in front of him with his hands in his pockets and shoulders slightly hunched.

“I’ve been better,” Anders said, trying to sound casual. “You keeping fit?”

Harry nodded. “Running eight k’s a day, and my times are getting better.”

“Sprints?”

AJ sat down next to me again and rolled her eyes. “Sports talk,” she muttered. “That’ll keep them busy for a while.”

I nodded. Anders was the captain of our school First XV, and he took his job seriously. If he couldn’t train and stay fit himself, he’d at least be making sure that his team was.

Deleted scenes · Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride

SIX TO RIDE – Deleted Scenes

6TR

The process of editing means that there is always plenty of material that gets tossed onto the cutting room floor. It could be because the story changed and the scene no longer fit, or because the timeline changed, or the scene had to be moved to a different location or incorporate different characters, or because I wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to move forward from there, or because, quite simply, it sucked.

I’m not letting you read those ones, but there are a few scraps from SIX TO RIDE that I actually quite like, so I’m going to share them here.

Yay, right? But there’s a catch. Right now, SIX TO RIDE has 4 reviews on Amazon (one on .com, two on .co.uk and one on .com.au). When it gets to 10 reviews (across the board), I’ll post a deleted scene here. And ditto when it gets to 20, and to 30. (And then I will have run out of deleted scenes.)

For now, if you’ve already posted a review, flick me an email and I’ll send you the deleted scene ahead of time! If you haven’t, please do (then you can email me too).

And just to get you going…here’s a snippet from the first one, which was cut because it was repeating information I’d told in a different scene, and because I had to move it to a different (earlier) place in the book than this scene was. But I still really like it, because AJ and Anders are just always fun to write when they’re in a room together, bickering like mad.


“I can’t believe I don’t get to come!” AJ scowled at me from her seat on the couch.

“I know, it sucks,” I said sympathetically, tucking my feet up underneath me. It was a warm afternoon, and my bare legs were sticking to each other.

“Do you want to know what actually sucks?”

We both looked over at Anders, who was half-sitting, half-lying on the other couch in the Macleans’ living room.

“Let me guess. Being you?” AJ asked him.

“Correct.”

“Tragedy,” AJ told him, pulling a mournful face and tracing a line down her cheek from the corner of her eye.

“Cow,” he muttered.

AJ looked slightly affronted. She stabbed an accusing finger in his direction. “Cripple.”

“What does that make me?” I asked…


Want more? Get reviewing! (Please. And thank you.)

And when you have reviewed, email me!

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · writing

Putting yourself out there

putting yourself out there

It’s always exciting to release a new book, but it’s a little nerve-wracking as well. It’s putting yourself out there, and every time I write another book, I get a little big nervous about how it’s going to be received. Especially when I’ve written something a bit different, or covered a different topic to something I’ve done before. SIX TO RIDE takes a firm step into serious YA territory, and SEVENTH PLACE is following hot on its heels. Without revealing any spoilers or giving too much away, it will suffice to say that this series is going places that your average pony book doesn’t. Seems to be a hallmark of my writing…unfortunately for my poor characters, I don’t like things to be too easy or predictable. There’s no fun in reading a book if you know what’s going to happen in the end, right?

I’ve never subscribed to the belief that pony books should deal with ponies alone, and ignore or gloss over the other details of life. Otherwise all of your drama and tension has to come from the horse storyline, and there are only so many injuries or colics or evil competitors that you can write about without ending up repeating not only yourself, but a hundred other writers of equestrian fiction out there. That’s one of the beauties of being self-published – there’s nobody to tell me that ‘you just can’t do that in a pony book’. I can write, essentially, whatever I like!

6 Six to Ride - DIGITAL (E1).jpg

Of course, that’s both a blessing and a curse. The difficult part comes in releasing a book that nobody (literally, nobody) else has read until the moment that it goes online. For my longer novels (the DARE TO DREAM and CLEARWATER BAY books), I have a group of beta readers who give me feedback before I release them, but none of the PONY JUMPERS books have been treated to that scrutiny. I write them, I read back through them (rarely more than once) to tidy up the spelling and grammar, then I release them into the world – and get cracking on the next one. (NB: If you spot a typo in one of my books – email me and let me know! I won’t be offended…in fact, I’ll reward you with a free e-book for your troubles.)

But it’s not just the threat of hidden typos that makes me nervous when I unleash a new book onto the unsuspecting public. It’s the fact that while I’m in the writing process, and even before that, in the drafting and imagining processes, I can change the story as much as I like. I’m constrained only by what has gone before, but going forward, I can do anything. I have a lot of plot points figured out, but I’m not married to any of them. I could change them all, completely, and nobody would be any the wiser. But once a book is published, the words on the page become real. Become canon, to borrow a term. Now that other people have read it, it has become a part of the story, and there’s no going back. I suppose it’s a bit like making pottery – you mould it and mould it until it’s the shape you want, and then you fire it in the kiln, and if you get it out and discover that it has lumps and bumps and uneven patches, you’ve just got to learn to live with it.

SIX TO RIDE both does, and doesn’t, feel like that. I’m sitting here second-guessing myself about a few things, but for the most part, I’m happy with the way the book turned out. (I don’t know whether I’ll ever be completely happy with a book – there’s always room for improvement – but I didn’t want to throw the laptop across the room when I was reading it back, so that’s something.) Are there lumps and bumps and uneven patches? Probably. Undoubtedly, in fact. Those things are natural byproducts of writing. The biggest challenge right now is to keep all of my facts straight, and I can’t tell you the number of times I had to open one (or all) of the previous books in Word and search for a name, or a reference…knowing I’d mentioned that character before, hoping like heck that I hadn’t said something that was going to negate what I’d just tried to write, and crossing my fingers constantly that I haven’t inadvertantly contradicted myself at any point. I do have a file that outlines every character and their physical characteristics, their behavioural quirks and prior descriptions, their backstory and their family’s names, and any tidbits of information I threw in there at random that might become important later.

With 20 books planned for the series (and 14 of them still to write) it’s becoming more and more important that I not only get these details right, but continue to plan ahead. When I wrote FIRST FENCE, it was on a whim. DOUBLE CLEAR was supposed to be a one-off opportunity to see Katy’s side of the story, and then I couldn’t resist writing from Susannah’s perspective, and so TRIPLE BAR came along. But from then on, it spiralled out of control, and now I have not only plots for those remaining 14 books, but all of the titles, covers and blurbs as well. (I just bought the cover images for books 7 and 8 today, and have been having fun designing back covers for when I get around to setting up CreateSpace and making copies available in paperback.) And I have notes. Countless, endless notes – some on my computer, some on my phone, some scrawled on the back of my shopping lists or in that 2013 diary that I never used.

First 6 covers 150dpi

And still, every day, something new comes to me. Some new storyline or scene springs to mind. Some books are clearer than others – I’m still very fuzzy on book 9, and I’m just hoping to have some inspiration by the time I get to it. Book 11, on the other hand, I could write tomorrow (and actually already have some scenes penned). A new character turned up today who will feature sporadically from book 7 onwards to the end of the series, and I have a sneaking suspicion that she’ll be around a lot more than even I’m predicting. Characters have a habit of taking control of their own narrative, and steering the story in directions that I never expected them to go.

But that, after all, is the fun part. I just hope that my readers are enjoying the journey, and are willing to continue the ride.

 

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride

New release – SIX TO RIDE

PONY JUMPERS #6: SIX TO RIDE is finally out! Click the cover to read a sample of the book.

6 Six to Ride - DIGITAL (E1)

Now that Katy’s father has returned, he wants to be more involved in her life. Although she’s reluctant at first to welcome him back, her head is turned when he offers to buy her a new horse for Christmas. And not just any horse – a talented youngster with all the scope and talent to take her to the top.

But Katy is finding her dream horse a challenge to ride, and as the pressure to succeed mounts from all sides, she can feel herself starting to crack…

Purchase on Amazon.com for US$2.99

Dare To Dream · Dream Once More

A Christmas bonus…

Merry Christmas / Meri Kirihimete / Happy Holidays!

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I would have a Christmas surprise…well as usual, life got into the way a little bit and I spent time with whanau (family). I’m also off to Pony Club Camp tomorrow for a week, and I haven’t even *started* packing.

But I do love and appreciate my readers, and I hate to break promises so here’s a little bit more of a sneak peek into Dream Once More, book #3 in the Dare to Dream series. Which I am planning to release for Christmas 2016! There’s more, but I haven’t had time to finish it so I will try and get it online next week, after camp.

In the meantime, enjoy, and thanks SO MUCH for your loyal readership this year x



DARE TO DREAM #3

DREAM ONCE MORE

 

CHAPTER ONE

Dawn was breaking, sending shimmers of golden light across the hills and through the wavering branches of winter-sparse trees. The world was yawning, stretching, coming awake. A building chorus of native birds heralded the promise of a new day, and the dusky morning sky hinted at the possibility of blue. At the top of a hill, in a paddock that lay close enough to the ocean that the smell of salt lingered in the air, a pinto pony was dozing. His eyes were half-closed and his head low as he stood peacefully, resting a hind leg. Another pony lay nearby, flat on his side and fast asleep, his round dapple grey belly flecked with dried mud. Sparrows hopped across the soggy ground between the pair, seeking out worms raised by last night’s heavy rain, which still dripped in gathering droplets from overhead branches and surrounding wire fences.

Then the call came from the gate at the bottom of the hill, and the ponies woke. The dapple grey raised his head halfway up, looked vaguely towards the gate, then lay back down, clearly preferring to lie-in. But the pinto pony with the splash of white on his nose and the lightning-bolt shaped scar between his eyes stood suddenly alert, and he whinnied a warm welcome to the teenage girl who was striding towards him across the grass, then began to make his way down the hill to meet her.

Marley’s paddock boots were battered and cracked, and the short walk from the house to the hill paddock had already left her with wet feet. She hadn’t bothered putting socks on – what was the point, when they’d only have to be wrung out and rewashed when she went back inside? She’d built up callouses to deal with the insistent rubbing of her little toes against the edges of the ill-fitting boots, and she didn’t notice any of the discomfort, anyway. She only had eyes for the pinto pony as he picked his way down the steep slope, broke into a rhythmic trot when he reached the bottom, then halted neatly in front of her with his ears pricked, Good morning written as clearly in his expression as if he’d said it out loud.

She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”

The pinto pony butted Marley with his nose, and she gave him a chunk of carrot to crunch on before wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her cheek against his thick coat, closing her eyes and breathing in his warm scent. The events that had first brought them together, then torn them apart, and then ultimately – and miraculously, Marley still felt – seen them reunited all lay behind her in a haze. She had her pony back, and every morning on which she could scramble out of bed and go straight to the paddock to give him a hug was one to be savoured.

Cruise licked his lips, delicately snuffling at the pockets of Marley’s jeans as her arms stayed fixed around his solid neck. As dedicated to Marley as she was to him, the pony was always pleased to see her, always whinnied out a greeting whenever he spotted her anywhere on the farm. He never missed an opportunity to remind her of his presence, a habit which had caused her considerable agony only a few months ago when he’d been at shows with his new owner. Losing her pony had been hard enough, but to have him call out to her whenever she walked past had been heart-wrenching, especially as she’d rarely been able to bring herself to stop and talk to him, scarred by the knowledge that he was no longer hers. But those days were behind them now, because Cruise hers once more, and hers forever. And this time, when the talented pony went out competing again, Marley would be the one loading him onto her truck. She would be the one to ride him, feed him and muck him out every day; she would be the one grooming him and saddling him and screwing in his studs, warming him up and cooling him down, hosing him off, wrapping his legs and rugging him up; lying on her stomach on the warm, dry grass and watching him graze peacefully nearby at the end of a long, exhilarating show day. She couldn’t wait – but she would have to. The show season was over, and months of cold, wet weather lay ahead as winter settled in across New Zealand.

“Why does the season have to be so far away?” Marley mumbled into Cruise’s thickening coat, still slightly damp from the night before. “Months of this. Months and months of rain and mud and not getting to ride you.” She stepped back and looked her pony in the eye, and he reached out and licked her hands eagerly, searching out more treats. “Greedy,” she told him affectionately, then scooped another piece of carrot from her pocket and fed it to him, loving the feel of his whiskery lips against her palm.

The offseason was always particularly trying for Marley. With shorter, darker days, a long stretch of several months without so much as a single public holiday to break up the tedium of school, and the incessant rain that turned everything to mud, it was, in her opinion, the absolute worst time of year. The competition ponies were turned out for eight long weeks and left almost entirely to their own devices, other than being checked on daily and fed extra rations of hay. Their holidays came unmolested by halters and brushes and brought them out the other side of the winter months looking like shaggy bush ponies. They grew out their coats, manes and tails were left to become straggly and dreadlocked, wispy beards grew under their chins and tufts of hair emerged from their ears. Bridle paths disappeared, shaved tails grew out into bristly bottlebrushes, and hairy fetlocks abounded. Marley ran her hands down Cruise’s white legs, checking for any heat, swelling, cuts or scabs. Mud fever was always a concern at this time of the year, and although most of their land was on sand that drained well, any of their ponies with pale skin under white legs or socks were kept in the driest paddocks to lessen the risk of infection on their sensitive skin. Cruise turned his head and watched Marley as she made her careful inspection of his well-being, patiently waiting as she checked him over and declared him to be injury-free.

Marley looked up the hill at Seattle, who was still lying on his side and ignoring her presence.

“Sea!” she yelled. “Are you going to make me come up there?” The pony lifted his head a mere fraction and gazed down at her idly. “No carrots for you if you do,” she warned him. Seattle flickered an ear back and forth, then resumed his slumbering position, apparently resigned to a carrot-less fate.

“Lazybones,” Marley muttered, beginning her march up the hill to check on him, because God knew that if she didn’t do it, he’d turn out to have some kind of gaping leg wound that required urgent attention. He wasn’t really a lazy pony; not when she was on his back and there was a jump in front of him, anyway. Then he was transformed into a bouncing ball of enthusiasm, flinging himself over the jumps with room to spare, and was just as likely to use up any excess energy in attempts to buck her off, if the moment inspired him. But if ever given the option to be ridden or left alone, he would always choose the latter, due to his deep suspicion of hard work.

“Welcome to the real world,” Marley told him as she clambered up the steep hill with Cruise following puppyishly on her heels. “Hard work is all we’ve got, so you’d better get used to it.”

Seattle closed his eyes as she approached, still feigning sleep. Marley grinned at his round, mud-flecked belly as it rose and fell. “Brat. You’re going to have so much winter weight to work off when spring comes around.”

Despite his reluctance to get up, Marley was able to reassure herself that there was nothing wrong with the pony other than his indifference to her, and she knew him too well to take that as a personal slight. Stretching her arms in their threadbare jacket over her head, she gazed down at the small farm house that she’d grown up in. She knew every inch of it like the back of her hand, knew every floorboard that creaked, every window that jammed, every door that swelled in the damp and had to be kicked open and shut. She had spent her entire life there, and had never even considered leaving. It was her home – their home, hers and her sisters’. At least, it always had been. But things were changing. Van had left, gone off to America to work at a flashy show jumping stable in Florida, and Seamus had been installed in her stead. Van’s absence wasn’t permanent, of course, but Seamus’s addition was, now that he’d married Kris and settled himself into their house. Dad’s bedroom had become their bedroom, and Kris’s room was being prepared as a nursery. Marley shook her head slowly as she looked at the tightly-drawn curtains in the master bedroom. It’d been almost two months since her eldest sister had broken the news to her that she was going to have a baby, but it still seemed incredible to Marley. Not that she doubted Kris would make an excellent mother – after all, she’d had plenty of practice, having dragged Van and Marley up after their father died several years ago. Kris was the closest thing to a mother that Marley had ever known, as their own mother had died only hours after she was born, and yet thinking of her as a married, pregnant woman was still a little jarring.

“Things are changing a bit too fast around here,” she told Cruise as she started back down the hill towards the house, with the pinto pony on her heels.

 

Kris forced her eyes to open, and stared blearily at the alarm clock next to her bed. 6:55. Five more minutes. She closed her eyes again, and snuggled deeper underneath the warm covers. The bed creaked as Seamus rolled over, then the warm weight of him rested against her back and she felt his arm slide across her waist.

“What time is it?”

“Five to seven.”

Seamus groaned. “Is it really? I’ve to be up at the stud by eight, and that’s a half hour drive.”

“You better get up then,” Kris replied without opening her eyes.

“Five more minutes,” he whispered, leaning over to kiss the edge of her cheek.

Kris smiled, but only for a moment. Pushing back the covers and flinging Seamus’s arm off her, she got quickly to her feet and stumbled blearily towards the door, overcome by a sudden bout of nausea. Seamus sighed as she left the room, rolling onto his back and resting his hands behind his head as he stared contemplatively up at the cracked ceiling. Nothing he could do about Kris’s morning sickness, other than feel guilty for being (in some way) the cause of it. He’d have taken it on himself if he could, but bereft of that option and having been firmly shooed away when he’d offered immediate comfort, he was left to wait it out, and hope that it would abate soon. Unable to lie in bed and listen to Kris’s predicament, he tossed off the blankets and picked up his jeans off the floor by his side of the bed, pulling them on and distracting himself by mentally running through the list of horses he had to shoe that day.

Kris pulled a face at herself in the mirror as she brushed her teeth, doing her best to ignore the dark circles under her eyes that wouldn’t go away. She needed to wash her hair, she decided. She’d feel better after a shower, but first she needed a cup of tea. Grabbing the dressing gown off the back of the bathroom door, she wrapped herself up in it, then headed down to the kitchen to boil the kettle, one hand still resting on her uneasy stomach. The kitchen door was standing open, and Kris was only half-paying attention as she walked into the room, until she saw something that made her stop in her tracks.

“What the hell!

“Don’t yell, you’ll spook him,” Marley said, sitting at the table with a heaped bowl of cornflakes. Across the table from her, standing right in the middle of the kitchen with his head in his own bowl of cereal and his tail in the sink, was Cruise.

“Get that pony out of the kitchen.” Kris’s voice shook with barely suppressed anger. “Right now, Marley!”

“He’s fine,” her sister said, waving her spoon lazily in the air and spattering droplets of milk across the tablecloth. “He’s on his best behaviour, I swear. He followed me down to the house and when I said he couldn’t come in he gave me this look and I couldn’t resist.”

Marley beamed across the table at the pony, who swished his tail, and the frying pan on the draining board slid dangerously towards the edge of the bench.

“Well I can,” Kris asserted. She was feeling sick again, and desperately impatient with her headstrong little sister. “I mean it. Get him out of here!”

Behind her, she heard footsteps, and she stood a little straighter as Seamus came through the doorway behind her. Backup, she thought, but her relief was short-lived. Seamus put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as he walked past her into the room.

“Mornin’,” he greeted Marley with a nod, and she mumbled a response through a mouthful of cornflakes, watching intently as he approached Cruise. Without batting an eyelid, he slapped the pinto gelding gently on the rump. “Shift over, you.” Cruise obediently shifted his hindquarters, and Seamus flipped the switch on the electric jug, then looked back over at Kris. “Cuppa tea?”

Her frustration now at boiling point, Kris hovered for a moment between yelling at the pair of them and just walking out of the room and going back to bed.

Marley looked at her sister’s expression, then shovelled another generous spoonful of cornflakes into her mouth and gazed lovingly at her pony, who was lipping up stray cornflakes off the scarred wooden table. But Seamus had caught Kris’s eye and decided to go into bat for her.

“Go on now, do as your sister told you and get this great lump out of the kitchen before he leaves us with an unwelcome calling card,” he told her.

Marley sighed. “Okay, fine. Cruise and I were getting bored of your company anyway.” Standing up, she tipped her bowl and drank the remaining milk before setting it down on the table and clicking her tongue at the pony. “C’mon then. Let’s leave the old people to their civilised breakfast.”

“Thanks, much obliged,” Seamus replied cheerfully as he poured boiling water into the mugs he had set out.

Marley stopped in front of her sister. “You’re in the way.”

Kris shuffled sideways, letting Marley pass. “Don’t do that again.”

Marley rolled her eyes. “Okay okay, but you have to admit that it’s funny.”

Kris glared at her sister, but the corner of her mouth twitched involuntarily. Marley noticed it, and grinned.

“Just get him out of here,” Kris said, then as Cruise lifted his tail suddenly, added with greater urgency, “Now!”

“Close call,” Seamus observed as he splashed milk into the mugs, watching Marley through the rain-streaked kitchen window as she led Cruise by the forelock into the back yard, where he promptly relieved himself.

Kris shook her head and sat down. “Just when I think she’s finally starting to grow up, she goes and does something like that.”

“I’m not sure she’ll ever properly grow up,” Seamus told her, setting a mug of tea down in front of her. “You fancy anything to eat?”

She shook her head. “I’ll eat later, when I feel a bit more up to it. I might take this back to bed,” she added as he pulled a frying pan out of the cupboard and set it on the stove. The very thought of bacon and eggs was making her nauseous, and she wasn’t sure she could sit in the room while Seamus cooked them. The cold floor was making her toes curl up defensively, and she thought longingly of her warm blankets. She shouldn’t do it, she knew. There was too much to do to waste any more time lying in bed, but her resolve had been wavering these past few weeks, and now it was utterly spent.

“Sure?”

“Yeah. Have a good day, I’ll see you tonight.” And she left the room, her hands wrapped around the hot ceramic mug and stomach still gurgling uneasily.

Kris’s slipper-clad feet scuffed against the threadbare carpet as she made her way back upstairs. Her bedroom door was open, the bed still rumpled and inviting, but she walked past it. A trail of muddy footprints led her on, past the room that had once been hers and would soon be the nursery, and on to the door that was tightly closed. She reached out a hand and brushed her fingers over the handle, then gripped it firmly and opened the door.

Everything in here was exactly as she’d left it. The bed half-made, the clothes strewn across the floor, drawers half-opened and a broken suitcase discarded in the corner. Van had packed the same way she did everything – like a whirlwind, moving at full pace and never mind the consequences. Kris had planned to come in after she left here and tidy up, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The sense of chaos that her sister had left behind was a strange comfort to her, and Kris sat down on the narrow single bed and leaned back against the peeling wallpaper, looking around at the life Van had left behind.

We miss you.

As Kris gazed around the room, her eye caught a picture that had been torn from a magazine and tacked above the desk – a horse soaring over a water jump, with blue skies and palm trees in the background. Florida. Leo Valdes. Grand Prix rider, top notch trainer. Van’s new employer. And Kris closed her eyes and rested her head back against the wall, the mug of hot tea held against her grumbling stomach.

We miss you, but you’ll be having way too much fun to be missing us.

*   *   *

The horse’s hooves pounded out a staccato beat across the arena surface. The reins were slick with sweat, and the bay gelding’s breath was coming in heavy pants through the muggy air. Van eased the big Warmblood back to a trot and clapped his sticky neck before glancing across the ring towards Leo. He had his back turned, watching one of his students ride. He seemed relaxed in the insistent Florida sun, but Van still wasn’t used to the heat. There were a lot of things she still wasn’t used to.

There was no denying that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to ride in America, to work for a successful Grand Prix rider, to learn what it took from the people who were actually doing it – it was everything that an ambitious but underfunded twenty-year-old could’ve dreamed of. She’d never expected it to be easy. She’d come here to ride and work and learn as she’d never ridden and worked before. But the reality of life as a groom and catch rider in Florida wasn’t quite living up to Van’s expectations. Long days – check. Hard work – double check. That was fine – she’d never laboured under any assumptions that she was going away on holiday. She hadn’t expected days off, or decent pay, or to be handed rides on Grand Prix jumpers. She’d known, before she’d arrived, that she’d be up at dawn and done at dusk, that she’d be at the bottom of the pecking order, having to do as she was told, when she was told – a change of pace for someone used to doing everything herself, but one she was willing to accept. Because she’d come here to learn the things she couldn’t teach herself, the things Kris couldn’t give her, not that she’d ever have expected her to. Her sister had done enough for her, for all of them, and it was time that Van grew up and was more independent and gave Kris the chance to live her own life.

Van swung her leg over the gelding’s back and loosened his girth, then led him over to the exit gate. Sweat trickled down the small of her back and made her underarms itch. Dust coated her skin and irritated her eyes, and she almost didn’t see the tall chestnut horse in tight draw reins that was being cantered past the gate.

“Watch it!” The rider snapped as Van came to a sudden halt, stopping the big bay next to her in the nick of time before they had a collision.

The gelding threw his head up in surprise and Van took a step back to avoid having her face kicked in by the rider’s stirrup. The bright sunlight glinted off the spur that was jabbing into the chestnut’s sweat-soaked flank, and Van couldn’t help turning her head to watch the horse as he horse cantered past. His head was held tightly down to his chest, an expanse of white foam issued from his straining mouth and flecked his narrow chest. Van bit her tongue, wishing she could close her eyes. The rail cleared, and she led the bay horse out of the ring and along the palm tree-lined path towards the air-conditioned barn, both of their steps quickening as they approached the cooler building.

More to come! Check back in a week, and leave your comments below x 

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · Sneak peek

SIX TO RIDE – SNEAK PEEK!

6TR

PONY JUMPERS #6 – SIX TO RIDE is still a work in progress, and still a week or two away, at the least. But because I’ve been so incredibly slack and I’m so desperately far behind schedule with it, here’s a little excerpt. I guess you could say this conversation has been on my mind, in the wake of recent events.

Scene: Katy and Phil (her next door neighbour – remember Phil?) talking, late at night, about the weight of the world.


“Why is the world such a mess?”

Phil shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s always been like that, I think. It’s just that we can’t help knowing about it.”

“You mean because of the internet and stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you ever feel like…” I hesitated, unsure of what I was about to say. “I don’t know how to explain this so I don’t sound like a terrible person.”

Phil cocked an eyebrow at me. “You can’t shock me. I already know you’re a terrible person.”

“Ha ha. Fine. I’ll say it, and watch you be shocked.”

He straightened up, fixing his eyes on mine and assuming a serious expression. “Okay, I’ll brace myself. Go.”

The old couch was scratchy against my bare legs. I pulled them up higher under the horse blanket and tucked my feet underneath me, my brain desperately scrabbling for words.

“Do you ever feel like it’s too hard…to care? Like, when bad things happen around the world – suicide bombings and terrorist attacks and people getting beheaded and there being millions of people living in rat-infested refugee camps and it’s so awful and you feel so bad about it, but then you still have to get up every day and go to school and live your life, and your own problems seem so little and petty but then they’re also like, huge, because they’re the only problems that you’ve got. And things go wrong and you get upset and people are like um at least you’re not living in a rat-infested refugee camp and you know that’s true and you try to see that perspective but it’s so…exhausting,” I told him, my words tripping over each other as I stared at his neutral expression, trying to make him understand my point. “Like it’s just too hard to care that much about everyone all at once. And then something really bad happens, something terrible and cataclysmic and everyone gets really worked up and it’s all over Facebook and there are hashtags and memes and everyone changes their DPs and you do it as well because if you don’t then it looks like you don’t care about other people’s plights, and then someone posts something about how the media is misinterpreting what’s going on or how you’ve only been shown the stuff they want you to see, and that hundreds and thousands more people are dying that you never even hear about. So then you feel manipulated and cynical, and you have to feel bad for those people too, for their problems and because they’re being ignored by the media, and it makes you mad that you’re being told to care more about some people than others. And the whole time you’re trying to wrap your head around how it must feel for people to be in those kind of horrific situations, seeing their families get killed and not being able to go to school for fear of their lives, and you think how grateful you are for where you live and what you get to do in your life. But then your mum yells at you for not keeping your room clean, and teachers tell you off for not studying hard enough and it’s like sorry but I have the weight of the freaking world on my shoulders right now, except that I don’t. Not really. Because all those problems are other people’s problems, and my problems are whether I’ve done my homework and whether my room is clean and how my ponies are going to do at the show this weekend. I can’t do anything about whether someone decides to strap a bomb to themselves and kill innocent people. All I can do is write a hashtag and change my profile picture and feel guilty for having a better life than millions of people who are living in rat-infested refugee camps, and that’s nothing. That’s pathetic. And I hate it. I hate feeling so bad about something I can’t change, and something I’m so powerless to fix, so I just try to stop thinking about it. At all.”

My words petered out at last, my tongue finally tying itself in so many knots that I had to stop. I’d just talked myself around in circles, making absolutely no sense, I was sure. I wondered what he was thinking. Heartless cow, probably. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything, but it was too late now. My guts were officially spilled, and Phil still hadn’t said anything, and I just knew that I’d made a terrible mistake. Story of my life.

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The importance of good sportsmanship

Sportsmanship – an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors.

Three days ago, I was lying on a half-deflated air mattress in my horse trailer at six in the morning, watching my breath steam up the cold air and scrolling through Facebook on my phone. My heart thumped heavily as I sought out the information I desperately needed…had the New Zealand All Blacks, our national rugby team, beaten the South African Springboks in the Rugby World Cup semi-final, which had finished just minutes earlier? A few agonising moments, and then a wave of relief.

Yes. 20 points to 18, a win by the narrowest of margins, and by all accounts a heart-stopper of a game. But we had won, we had done it and we were on our way to the final. Satisfied and feeling well pleased, I extracted myself from my sleeping bag, changed out of my pyjamas, and went to fetch JJ from his yard so I could start plaiting his mane for the day ahead.

New Zealand is fanatical as a country about our ‘national sport’ – rugby union. It has long been a huge part of our culture, and the All Blacks are one of the most successful sporting teams of all time, with a historical 77% winning record; in fact, only five other teams have ever beaten the All Blacks. We eat, sleep and breathe Black, and when I watched the news report that evening, the entire first segment (8 minutes) was dedicated solely to recapping the semi-final match.

To be an All Black is not just about sporting prowess. Talent will only get you so far, but hard work, perseverance and humility are an equal part of what makes the All Blacks such a mighty team. This ethos is literally in their handbook, which states that: Better people make better All Blacks. The All Blacks are role models, and they take that very, very seriously.

Success in sport is about knowing how to win, but it’s also about being able to lose. To quote from the current All Blacks’ coach, Steve Hansen:

When you play really well and get beaten you have to accept it,” Hansen says. “You can’t change it – it has happened, you have had your chance and you have to do that with the same humbleness that you do winning. We have got to respect the way we want to be respected ourselves and there is nothing worse than seeing a winner gloating or a team that loses sulking. It is okay to hurt but you don’t have to be arrogant and I think rugby is a great game in teaching you some core values of being grateful and being humble.” [Read more here, it’s a great article.]

There was a great example of this ethos at the conclusion of the semi-final match, when South African centre Jesse Kriel sank to the ground next to the goal posts after the final whistle blew. While the stadium erupted with jubilant fans, and many of the All Blacks players celebrated their victory, the dejected Springboks players were taking the loss hard. The Rugby World Cup only comes around every four years, and it has been 20 years since South Africa were able to lift the trophy. It was a tight game, both teams played well, but the All Blacks were the victors on the night.LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24:  Jesse Kriel of South Africa sits dejected by the post pads at the end of the match during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Semi Final match between South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on October 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 24: Jesse Kriel of South Africa sits dejected by the post pads at the end of the match during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Semi Final match between South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on October 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

As Kriel sat there, his dreams of World Cup glory disappearing before his eyes, All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams approached him. They say that a picture speaks a thousand words, so I will let you see for yourself what happened next.

SBW2
SONNY BILL WILLIAMS: “I just told him ‘Nothing but respect bro, you’ve had a massive tournament and I’m sure you will be around for years to come’.”
SBW3
SBW: “It was 20-18. It could have gone either way. We could have been sitting on the ground there knowing that four years of hard work was over.”
SBW5
SBW later tweeted: “2 great teams battled it out tonight, in my eyes we are all winners.”

That same day, only hours after the above had happened, I was sitting on a folding chair in the back of my horse trailer, looking out across the show grounds and watching riders warm up for the 1.30m class that was being held in the main ring at the time. One of the great things about equestrian sport is that men and women of all ages compete on equal footing. I was watching one of our most experienced Grand Prix competitors warm up his horse, a blingy chestnut, and at the same time was keeping an eye on one of our youngest Grand Prix riders, who is only fifteen and was riding a huge, powerful Warmblood mare. I soon realised that I wasn’t the only one with an eye on her, as when she had a couple of glitches at the warm-up fence, this experienced competitor took time out from his own warm-up to help her. He is not her trainer, but he saw that she needed help, and so he provided it. I could hear him calling out advice to her from my seat across the field, and watched as, under his guidance, she jumped the fence smoothly a couple of times, thanked him and headed out to compete.

Later that afternoon, I rode in my Equitation class. I’m still new to the registered circuit, and don’t know many of the faces of regular competitors. I warmed up, went into the ring and jumped my round – and I did a pretty good job, with no major glitches. Feeling good, I walked JJ out of the ring on a long rein and met another rider coming in. She smiled at me and said “That was a really nice round!” I smiled back and thanked her, feeling even more pleased. It didn’t cost her anything to say that, and she could’ve ridden straight past me without a word, but she didn’t. She took the time to congratulate me, and I really appreciated it.

Sportsmanship. Discover it, embrace it, embody it. Because at the end of the day, it’s what sport is all about.

Read more:

The All Blacks’ Guide to Being Successful Off the Field

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JJ vs the world

As a teenager I used to keep a horse diary, recording every ride I had and how it went. When it seemed as though I was making no progress, it was nice to be able to look back and realise that even baby steps really are steps. Somewhere in my closet is also a diary I kept when JJ was younger, although I was never very diligent about keeping it up.

One thing I do like writing about is my show experiences, so if you are interested at all in what it’s like to start out competing on the registered Show Hunter circuit in New Zealand, feel free to have a look at JJ vs the World, my new blog that explores just that. There are posts from two shows so far, Central Districts SJ & SH Championship and Wairarapa Premier 3*, with plenty more to come. I’ve also got a schedule of shows I’m planning to attend, a photo album of some of JJ’s highlights, and hopefully some videos to come!

http://jjvstheworld.wordpress.com