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.

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’.”
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.”
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


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!



As if there was any doubt…

If you read yesterday’s post and thought “is this…can it be?” but weren’t quite sure, well you can rest easy. All of your concerns are about to be laid to rest, because here is the third paragraph of what is quite clearly book 3 – looks like “Dare to Dream” is going to be a trilogy.

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? Her smallest toes rubbed irritably against the edges of her boots, but calluses had built up years ago to provide for this. And it wasn’t as though she noticed. She only had eyes for the pony ahead of her, nickering a greeting as he picked his way down the steep hill, trotted a few paces at the bottom, and halted in front of her with his ears pricked.

She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”

Stay tuned for a couple more paragraphs and more details over the next few days, and feel free to comment below (or on Facebook) who your favourite character is from my books and why.


Second paragraph…

So today’s ‘chore’ to earn the next paragraph was to get me to 460 likes on my NZPonyWriter Facebook page. We didn’t quite make it but 458 likes is pretty good, so I’ll take it. (Hint: if you’re reading this and you haven’t liked my Facebook page just yet, please pop over there and do so! I will be posting daily ‘chores’ to earn the next paragraph of this opening scene over the rest of the week, with the book’s title to be revealed at the end!)

And now, on with the story…

A call came from the gate at the bottom of the hill, and the ponies woke up. The dapple grey pony raised his head halfway, looked vaguely towards the gate, then lay back down, 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 was alert, and he whinnied a warm welcome to the teenage girl striding towards him across the grass, before making his way down to meet her.


I’m back…with something to share!

It’s been a long month, with changes and challenges, trials and tribulations – one of the least of which was my laptop’s apparent sudden death. Fortunately it has survived, having apparently just fallen into ‘Sleep mode’ and being unable to be woken without a trip to the computer hospital. But it’s back, I’m back, and to celebrate, here’s the opening paragraph of a scene I just wrote…

Dawn was breaking, sending shimmers of golden light across the hills and through the dripping trees, watching the world come awake. Amid the morning chorus of native birdsong, at the top of a hill in a paddock that lay close enough to the ocean that the smell of salt lingered in the damp air, a pinto pony was dozing. His eyes were half-closed, his head held low and he stood hip-shot, resting a hind leg. Another pony lay nearby, flat out on his side and fast asleep, his round dapple grey belly flecked with mud. Sparrows hopped across the soggy winter ground between the pair, seeking out worms raised by last night’s heavy rain, which still dripped in gathering droplets from trees and surrounding wire fences.

What does this mean? Does this mean what you think it means? Maybe. I wrote the scene because it came into my head and I liked it. It might only ever be a scene, or a short story, or it might, it just might, turn itself into a novel. Who knows? Not even me. But I thought you might like it anyway.

And yes, there’s more. I’ll post the next paragraph once my next Facebook challenge is met… 10 comments on a post got you this far, visit http://www.facebook.com/NZPonyWriter/ to find out how to get the next few lines!


Equus Education Blog Hop: A Career With Horses

This is written for a blog hop from Equus Education, discussing various equine careers. Click the link to find out more and read others’ posts responding to the same questions.

1. What is your horse related career?

This should be a simple question, but I have had several horse-related careers over the years! So here are some of the main ones:

Riding school instructor (Waikanae, New Zealand)

NZ pics

I started out teaching at a local riding school just after I finished University, as a way of rebelling against the expectation that I would ‘use’ my new degree in some form of office job. In fairness, I actually did both – I worked part-time during the week at a local polytechnic, then on weekends (and during school holidays) I taught riding. The pay was much higher for the office job, and the work far less strenuous! I made some great friends during this time, both colleagues and students (including one who is now my flatmate and one of my best friends!).

I also got to ride and work with some lovely horses and ponies, including the dream team of Cheyenne, Honey and Major, three grey ponies of varying height who were all exceptional rides for beginners and far better instructors than I was.

After that riding school eventually closed, I formed up with one of my co-workers as she set up her own riding school, and we worked together there for a few months before I headed overseas for the winter. (We were very fortunate to be able to bring the dream team with us, all of whom lived into their thirties in the end.)

Summer camp counsellor (New Hampshire, USA)

REF pics

I signed up as a summer camp counsellor in 2004 because I wanted an excuse to travel, and I figured that it would be fun to do something horse-related. I was exceptionally lucky to be offered a position at an amazing girls’ horsemanship camp in New Hampshire, which I now consider to be my home away from home. I worked there for five summers in total between 2004 and 2010, and have been back to visit twice since, with plenty more trips on the radar (October 2016 is the next one planned). This job involved general horse care of our herd of 70+ horses, taking daily trail rides around the farm’s gorgeous miles and miles of woodland trails, and teaching daily lessons to rides of all levels, from those who’d never been on a pony before to those competing at big shows back home.

I had the time of my life at the farm in NH – meeting amazing people, riding wonderful horses, teaching avid riders, and becoming a better person. I made friendships for life, learned more than I had ever realised I didn’t know, and met and rode the horse of my dreams, who will be with me forever in spirit. I have so many great memories from the farm, but Bittersweet will always be the highlight – the other half of my soul, in horse form. One of the things I learned from the farm was the power of the bond between horse and human – or horse and young girl. No matter how awkward or ornery or difficult a horse might be, they could always find a home at the farm, and they could always find a girl there who loved them above all others.

Livery yard groom (Epsom, UK)

UK pics

After my second summer in America, I went to England for nine months and worked on a livery yard. This was a completely different experience of horse care for me – I’d never mucked out a stable, never clipped a horse, never ridden in the snow, never ridden in a double bridle, and never lived in a trailer in the middle of winter! It was a huge learning curve and we worked 10+ hour days for very little pay, but I learned a huge amount during my time there. Some of this I only realised that I’d learned when I got home, but it was all very valuable and changed many things in my riding and the way I work with my horses. It also taught me one helluva work ethic!

Trekking guide (Co. Mayo, Ireland)

Ireland pics

After my fourth summer at camp in America, I went to Ireland for nine months and worked at a castle which is now a five-star hotel. The stables on the castle grounds had several Connemara ponies, Irish cobs and Irish Draught horses, and my job involved taking hotel clients on rides around the castle grounds and surrounding countryside. Although it was the coldest winter in fifty years, I had a wonderful time and we were very much left to our own devices much of the time. Some of my favourite memories from my time there include exercising my two favourite ponies, Barnacle and Biscuit, by riding Barnacle and leading Biscuit off the side; walking the dogs for hours around the castle grounds (when I couldn’t ride because I had hurt my back); exercising the horses in the indoor by pretending that our dressage whips were lances and galloping back and forth at one another; and curling up in the armchair next to the Aga in the kitchen (the only warm room in the house) and reading Georgette Heyer novels. I also learned to drive on Irish roads – never again!

These days, my horse jobs are a little more low-key. I work full time behind a desk, but I find time to write novels and have now published nine novels and a collection of short stories, many of which draw from the experience and knowledge that I’ve gained over the years. I am also the Head Coach of my local Pony Club branch, and will also be coaching our area team at the National Pony Club Show Hunter Champs in October, so I still have my coaching hat well and truly rammed on!

2.  Where in the world can we find you?

Currently I live in Waikanae, New Zealand, where I am blessed to have some amazing places to ride my horse.


3.   Is your horse career able to be carried out in part online?

The writing part certainly is, as I self-publish my books on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

But most of the other jobs have been practical, hands-on jobs. I did however find the jobs in England and Ireland on yardandgroom.com.

4.  Do you need a qualification to do your job?

As my only equine qualification is my NZPCA C+ Certificate, the short answer to that is no. But here are five things that I did need to be successful at the above:

Riding school instructor (Waikanae, New Zealand) lunge

  • Patience
  • A sense of humour
  • A sound knowledge of the correct riding position and its importance, to be imparted to pupils
  • Ability to keep a lazy pony moving forward on the lunge
  • Organisational and time-keeping skills

Summer camp counsellor (New Hampshire, USA) REF

  • Passion for working with young people
  • Energy and enthusiasm
  • A lively imagination
  • A solid work ethic
  • The ability to understand horse and herd behaviour (probably more so for my camp than many others but definitely a requirement at the farm)

Livery yard groom (Epsom, UK) sleeping

  • A very solid work ethic
  • Ability to sleep in a trailer under four duvets with the heater going and still get up for morning feeding at 7am
  • Be good at riding, schooling and tack cleaning
  • Know how to muck out to very exacting standards
  • Ability to lead horses through ankle deep mud without being squashed

Trekking guide (Co. Mayo, Ireland)ashforgirls

  • Eyes in the back of your head
  • Eyes in the front of your head
  • Ability to lead a pony off the side of your mount while a tourist clutches the saddle
  • Ability to maintain a conversation with people from all walks of life
  • Knowledge of the castle grounds that you can impart (or enough imagination to make things up that sound convincing).

And as a writer? beach

  • A vivid imagination
  • Plenty of determination
  • Encouraging friends and family
  • No social life
  • A laptop that doesn’t crash every ten minutes.
  • (Oh, and I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Media Studies, but I don’t think that’s as important as the above.)

5.   What’s the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my current writing job is getting to tell stories based on my experiences from all around the world. And getting positive reviews is the best part of all!




The shows that shaped my words

In my last blog post, I mentioned wanting to be a television writer, and how writing the episodic Pony Jumpers series is going a small way towards fulfilling that desire. So I thought I’d do another post about what it is that I’ve learned about writing from television – and from three shows in particular – and how they have helped me to write novels (yes, really).


Before I proceed though, there are a few general, hard-and-fast rules to learn from television:

The importance of a five-act structure – setting the scene, the turning point (which in the case of my Pony Jumpers books, is where the preview at the back of the previous book ends), the rising action, the climax, the falling action and denouement. (Here’s a good article on the five-act structure, complete with fun examples.)

No scene left behind – Every single scene in a TV drama has to have a purpose and drive the plot forward (preferably more than one plot point at a time, but sometimes that’s not possible depending on the length and purpose of the scene). Because when you’re shooting a TV show, time is money and you only have 42 minutes to tell your story, so you can’t afford to have filler scenes that don’t contribute anything to the plot (not in good TV drama, anyway. Watching bad TV drama is a whole other deal, but it’s a worthwhile one if you can stomach it. Maybe I’ll blog on that sometime.)

The importance of mixing action with dialogue – And when I say ‘action’, I don’t necessarily mean running or fighting. It could be doing the dishes, or setting the table, or mucking out stables. It’s something that is happening during the scene, to break up large swathes of dialogue. When you’re writing a scene between two characters talking to each other, it can be easy to get bogged down in what they’re saying, but it can become tedious to read. I try to imagine that I’m watching a scene play out on a TV show, and I ‘block’ the scene in my head as I go. (Blocking is when you run through lines and organise where each actor will stand and where they will move to etc. while they are acting out the scene. It’s crucial in TV for lighting and camera angles, and TV actors have very specific marks they have to hit, so they are standing in the right place, facing the right direction, while remembering to act convincingly at the same time.) Even if the action is minimal, such as someone shifting their position on the couch or scratching the back of their head or looking out of the window, it gives texture to a scene that might otherwise feel a little flat. Texture is everything.

So now we move on to the three TV shows that shaped the way I write. In no particular order, here they are.

“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

If anything completely revolutionised my ideas on writing (and made me want to write for TV) it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are many, many things about the show that I loved and thought were brilliant, and there is endless wisdom to be taken from series creator Joss Whedon, but probably the key thing that I learned from Buffy was how to balance dark with light. Whedon has a great quote that I came across years ago that lurks at the back of my mind constantly: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke”, and that really applies to any writing, but is particularly important when writing for a Young Adult audience. (J.K. Rowling is also a master at this.)

For example, when I look back at Dare to Dream, which has easily been my most successful book so far, it’s not exactly a bright and shiny story – the lead characters are orphans who are struggling financially, they build up their dreams then get them torn down, time and again, they lose the animals they love…there’s a lot of darkness in there. But amongst all of that is enough positive family dynamic and shared love for each other that it balances out the bleaker moments. In fact, I’ve had several reviewers wish that they could be part of the Carmichael family – which, when you consider that it wouldn’t be the easiest life to live, has to count as a success. As a writer, you can get away with a lot of dark if you temper it with plenty of light, and the banter and teasing between the sisters throughout the book give it a healthy dose of joy and hopefulness that balances out the sadder parts.

Which is something that Buffy did exceptionally well – it could be very silly, but it could also break your heart into a thousand pieces, often within the same episode, sometimes more than once. And, of course, Buffy herself was an awesome heroine. She was incredibly tough and incredibly fragile at the same time, destined to save the world but only ever wanting to be a normal girl and live an ordinary life – one she was fated never to have.

“So this is it. No family, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?”

white box

“You can live in the wreckage and pretend it’s still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild. But if you’re like me, you’ll just keep chasing the storm.”

Since we’re talking about kick-ass blondes, let’s move right on to Veronica Mars. Veronica has often been compared to Buffy, but she has absolutely zero magical powers. She’s the furthest thing from being the Chosen One – she’s the one everyone has tried to ignore, or leave behind. When we meet Veronica in the pilot, she has just lost everything that is of utmost value to a teenage girl – her father has lost his job as the local sheriff, her mother has walked out on them and vanished without a trace, her boyfriend has inexplicably dumped her, her friends have all turned on her and made her into an outcast, she was drugged and date-raped at a party (the voice-over line “Wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I” is immortal in its brutality) – and if that wasn’t enough, her best friend has been horrifically murdered. Yet somehow, Veronica is not a tragic figure – quite the opposite. Because she is possessed of a massive amount of mental toughness – this is her weapon and she wields it fiercely. Sometimes she reaps the benefit of this. Sometimes it strangles her. Like Buffy, Veronica is not perfect. She makes mistakes – lots of them. But she tries. Veronica provides an excellent model of how to write a strong female character without having to make her physically strong. Her resilience in the face of an incredible amount of emotional pain is a defining characteristic, but it leaves its own scars.

But writing an awesome female lead is not the only thing I learned from Veronica Mars, and I think this second one is even more important. This is a show that has plot coming out of its eyeballs. Every episode contained a ‘Mystery of the Week’ as the A-plot (Veronica was, amongst many other things, a part-time private investigator), at least one (usually two) B-plots, which might be about her friends or boyfriend or another, smaller mystery that would inevitably tie into the larger one, or into the C-plot, the over-arcing mystery that encompassed the entire season (well, the first two seasons, anyway). Oh, and then there are all the layered character moments and call-backs to earlier episodes that fill in every gap. An episode of Veronica Mars is the kind that requires repeat viewing to really catch all of the nuances, and oftentimes I would find myself pausing partway through an episode and trying to work out the leaps of logic that she had made. Veronica’s mind worked swiftly, slotting things together like a jigsaw, but this wasn’t a show that could be bothered spelling it out for you like most procedurals will. You know how it goes, when the cop realises who the killer is, and then you cut to the interrogation room where they lay it out to the criminal piece-by-piece, sometimes accompanied by a flashback to that pertinent scene to Make. Sure. The. Audience. Understands. Veronica Mars never bothered to do that. You could almost hear Veronica herself snapping her fingers at the audience, and demanding that they keep up. This is smart, clever TV that expected its audience to be equally savvy.

I have always found plot to be the hardest part of writing. Characters come easily to me, and pacing is almost effortless now (somehow nearly every chapter I write ends up 10-12 pages long, without me even thinking about it), but plot was the tricky part, and weaving together multiple plot threads was overwhelming. Veronica Mars gave me the tools I needed to work out plot structures – what is the A-plot? (In the case of my books, that’s the part of the story that revolves around the pony, and that answers the question set up in the first chapter or two – will Katy get to keep Molly? What’s wrong with Tess’s sister? etc.) What is the B-plot? (For me, that’s usually the family side of things – Katy’s relationship with her father, AJ’s struggles with her siblings, Susannah dealing with her brother; or it might be the romantic side of the story – Tess’s developing relationship with Jonty, AJ’s unwanted crush on Harry. There can, of course, be more than one B-plot). And then there are the C-plots, the little loose ends, some of which are just there to add texture to the story (such as Susannah’s dealings with her classmates) and some of which are set-up, and will come back into play later (the most prominent of which is Bayard’s storyline. He’ll definitely be back.) Making sure with every book I write that I have the A, B and C-plots covered ensures that there is never a dull scene, and that we’re not treading water, because every scene in there leads to an overall arc. Remembering that each of these plots has to have its own resolution within that one book – and the girls do have their own over-arching themes that will cross all of the books about that character to keep in mind as well…

Veronica was nothing if not an overachiever, so it seems fitting that I learn such things from her as well.

“I think we all learned a valuable lesson about faith. You give it to the people you love. But the people who really deserve it are the ones who come through, even when you don’t love them enough.”

white strip

Which brings me to the show that would arguably be my favourite TV show ever. Friday Night Lights has a very simple premise, exploring the life and trials of a Texas high school football coach, and uses its small town backdrop to address many issues facing contemporary culture, including family values, school funding, racism, drugs, abortion, and lack of economic opportunities. Friday Night Lights is expert at giving exceptional realism to dramatic scenes that many shows might not consider necessary. I’ve never in my life been to Texas, but I walked away from this show with “Texas Forever” emblazoned on my heart. I couldn’t give a crap about American football (it seriously pales in comparison to rugby, which I love) but I still got excited during the game scenes in the show. (And it has a completely kick-ass female lead in Tami Taylor, who is the woman we all want to grow up to be.) But really, there were two key things that Friday Nights Lights did exceptionally well that I have learned from.

The first is the quality of the show’s texture, and its lived-in feel. During the five seasons that Friday Night Lights was on the air, I felt as though I lived in Dillon, TX. The way the show was shot, entirely on location with handheld cameras and with a lot of ad-libbed dialogue, made it feel so real that it was truly fly-on-the-wall viewing. And the tiny details that the cameras would capture – the way Matt’s grandmother tapped her slippers on the linoleum floor of their tiny house, zooming on a character’s wringing hands as they wait nervously – almost felt as though there was a writer in the background, quietly pointing these little details out. I mentioned at the start of this blog post that action is important in scenes, and so is detail. This is where once you’ve blocked out a scene in your head, working out what the characters would be doing during a scene, you then work out what the camera would notice if you were filming it. What details would be important? What would the camera zoom in on? Friday Night Lights is not particularly subtle in its camera movements, but that’s part of its charm. Each scene in the show was shot on location with mostly natural lighting and on several hand-held cameras. Yes, several. That’s not one static camera, that’s two or three camera operators moving around the scene, sometimes crouching on the floor to get the shot, sometime standing half behind a pillar, sometimes shooting from the side or from behind a character as they talk. (This show is beautifully edited, I might add, because you almost never notice this.) This is in contrast to the way most shows are shot, with static cameras or steadicam, with every movement planned and blocked out. (A quick example: here’s a scene in an early episode outside a church where the camera operator is filming unobtrusively from the middle of a group of people, angling the camera over someone’s shoulder. Then one of the extras walks into the shot and stops in front of the camera. The camera operator just shifts to the side slightly and zooms in on the character that are being filmed. Talk about feeling like you’re in the middle of it!)

How does this relate to writing? I’ve had quite a few reviews saying that readers feel as though they’re “standing ringside” during the scenes, and I think part of this comes down to the way that FNL incorporates the smaller details into the action. This is perhaps best explained with an example. There’s a scene in Five Stride Line where AJ is talking to Jonty while she watches her friends walk the course for the Pony Grand Prix. As well as the primary motivation for this scene, which is to have AJ try to get information out of Jonty (which relates to the previous novel), she’s also thinking about how she wishes that she was out there walking the course too (which calls back to the book’s A-plot – and AJ’s overall plot arc for the series) and she’s also wondering how Tess is feeling about jumping these big fences, because she’s a nervous rider who’s never shown an inclination to jump this high before (which also calls back to Four Faults, and is a typical character moment for AJ, who is always worried about how other people are feeling). On top of all that, she’s watching Tess closely throughout the scene, and this is what the camera would be focusing during a pause in the dialogue:

I followed the movement of his arm to see Tess in the middle of the arena, pacing out the distance between fences in the treble combination. All of the jumps came up past her shoulder, and you could’ve fit three of her standing side-by-side between the front and back rails of the last fence.

As I watched, Tess said something to Katy, who mimed sitting up tall and checking her pony. Tess mimicked her, committing the need to half-halt to muscle memory, then nodded.

The other big thing I’ve learned from FNL is that there is no storyline too small or too mundane to find the emotion within it. Not all moments have to be huge ones – we don’t have to vanquish demons or solve murder mysteries to have a compelling plotline. As I mentioned above, this is a show that’s not afraid to tackle real issues, and to do so head-on and in a realistic fashion. Moreover, the show often came at a story from a slightly unexpected perspective. When Matt’s father dies while in active service in Iraq, everyone sees him and remembers him as a hero – but to Matt he was still the man who walked out on him years ago, leaving him to look after his increasingly senile grandmother. When Matt told him it was too hard and asked him to come home, his father refused. For years, Matt felt abandoned and put all his anger and hatred onto his father “so that I don’t have to hate anybody else. So that I can be a good person to my grandmother, to my friends…” The complexity of his grief and his own warring emotions over how he feels about his loss makes it so much more heart-breaking than it would be to simply have had his father die a hero. Because he did die a hero to his country…but not to his son.

Ultimately, Friday Night Lights is not a show about football. It’s a show about life, and community, and the all-too-real struggles that we all go through. It’s about learning and falling down and not giving up, and the football gives it a very effective backdrop because the raw joy and triumph of a sporting victory can take the edge off a very difficult life. (Again, Dare to Dream springs to mind as an example here of how I’ve used this in my writing.)

I am always, always looking for authenticity. I want characters to feel real, no matter how fantastical their setting. This show, more than any other, represented a true cross-section of life and showed us just how hard things can get, and how hard it can be to pull ourselves back up, and how much more triumphant victory is when it has come at such a price.

I said you need to strive to be better than everybody else. I didn’t say you need to be better, but you gotta try. That’s what character is. It’s in the trying.”


Patricia Leitch, 1933-2015

On a loose rein, Perdita galloped on. Her hoofs made hardly any sound on the soft turf. She felt as if she could go on forever. We shared a freedom of space, of air, this tranced motion. We rode the exploding world. Held it still by our movement.
– Dream of Fair Horses

horseinamillionOn July 28 2015, the pony book world lost one of its finest authors, Patricia “Pat” Leitch (who also published under the nom de plume Jane Eliot).

Unlike the majority of people, I didn’t come to Pat Leitch’s work through her popular Jinny series, but instead through one of her lesser-known novels Riding Course Summer, which was followed by the excellent Highland Pony Trek before I discovered Jinny and her feisty chestnut Arab mare, Shantih, who quickly joined Ruby Ferguson’s likeable heroine Jill Crewe as one of my favourites.

Patricia knew how to balance the fantasy of horse ownership with the sometimes harsh reality of it, and the Jinny series brought this home to the reader, time and time again. Jinny is a wild, feisty heroine who is not always likeable and almost never sensible. But there is something about her that is so vibrant and alive, and she leaps off the pages, pushing her way through the paper and ink in the same way that the mural of the red horse on her bedroom wall leaps off at her in Night of the Red Horse, the fourth book in the series:

The Red Horse in her mural was burning, glowing, its yellow eyes starting from its head. The hooves outside became the beat of its hooves as it galloped free…

And it’s not just Jinny who comes to life in the books – her chestnut Arab mare Shantih is the horse of her dreams, from the moment she first lays eyes on her when the mare is performing in a circus act:

forloveofahorseThe horse was a pure-bred Arab. She came, bright and dancing, flaunting into the ring, her tail held high over her quarters, her silken mane flowing over the crest of her neck. Her head was fine-boned and delicate, with the concave line of the true Arab horse. Her dark, lustrous eyes were fringed with long lashes and the nostrils wrinkling her velvet muzzle were huge black pits. She moved around the ring like a bright flame, her pricked ears delicate as flower petals. Her legs were clean and unblemished and her small hooves were polished ivory. After the dull ache of the rosinbacks, she was all light and fire.

Jinny sat entranced, hardly breathing, and then her breath burst out of her in a throbbing gasp. She loved the chestnut mare. As if all their long day’s travelling had only been for this. As if she had come all the way from Stopton only for this, to see this sudden gift of perfection.
For Love of a Horse

I loved Jinny and Shantih, and read the books over and over in my youth. There are 12 in the series, unfortunately I’ve never been able to get my hands on the last one. I expect that it will come to me someday when I least expect it.

One of my favourite quotes from Pat is not even from one of her books, but rather an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to Jane Badger back in 2008, reminiscing     about telling Jinny’s story:

chestnut gold“It seems long and long ago since the Jinny books were part of me …
I have been reading them again, mostly with a grin on my face. Dear Jinny! And Shantih! She was all dream. In fact, I used to dream about the chestnut Arab mare long before I wrote about her. Perhaps this letter will bring her back, and Bramble who was real flesh and blood, my own Kirsty. I still feel, if I could walk out onto the moor and call her she would hear and come galloping over the skyline to me. But then what is imagination for if not to call up the past?”

You can read Jane’s interview with Pat here.

I have a large collection of pony books, but my Patricia Leitch books are the ones I would be least willing to part with. Some, in particular, I have read over and over again – For Love of a Horse, Jump for the Moon, Ride Like the Wind, The Magic Pony, Highland Pony Trek, and and last but not least, Dream of Fair Horses, my favourite pony book of all time, which has influenced my own writing more than any other, and which I have read and reread and never ceased to adore.

DREAMOFFAIRHORSESDream of Fair Horses (also published under the title Fields of Praise) is a novel with the most cliche of storylines – a young girl has a dream to ride at Olympia, but no pony, no money, and next to no riding experience. Yet somehow she gets her chance, and it doesn’t seem impossible, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous or even predictable. The unlikeliness of it all is counter-balanced perfectly by grim reality, the characters are all brilliantly, breathtakingly, bitterly alive, and the ending will leave even the most jaded pony book reader gasping.

Here are a few of my favourite passages from the novel:

I sat down in the saddle and touched Tessy into a canter and I was no longer a skinny, ugly girl on an old pony that didn’t even belong to me: I was changed into Velvet on the Pie, Gandalf on Shadowfax, Bellerophon on Pegasus, Tom o’Bedlam astride his horse of air. The magic that had haunted my life for as long as I could remember was still as powerful as ever.

In all my life I had never seen anything as beautiful as this grey pony. There was about her an absolute perfection. Lost in her enchantment, I sat and stared. I wondered if she had dreamed of a girl who would come and ride her to fame, just as I had dreamed of her.

And Perdita was herself, flinging out in a first freedom, tossing her head and shaking her mane, suddenly, head down, screwing into a buck or flirting out from the track of the lunge, to poise for a second of incredible beauty, balanced on her hind legs, the delicate profile of her head etched against the pearl immensity of the evening sky.

And a few more from Jinny:

The tan muffling her hoofbeats, Shantih circled the ring. Tail lifted; her mane tongues of chestnut flame about her gleaming neck; her great eyes held the whole of the arena reflected in their liquid depths.
– Jump for the Moon

Jinny’s breath steamed the window pane. She breathed harder, then wrote with her finger nail:
She stood back from the window to gaze for a second, entranced by teh spell she had cast.

“Horses, ponies and foals. Oh my!” she chanted.
– For Love of a Horse

Hardly able to believe her eyes, JInny lifted the picture from its wrappings and stared at it with delight that was almost pain. The painting was part of herself; part of Shantih
“Her face is a lamp uplifted to guide the faithful to the place of Allah,” she quoted aloud. “Oh, Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.”
Ride Like the Wind

For the spirit that was almost visible in the white pony was that of a top-class show pony, fleet and beautiful beyond the singing of it.
– The Magic Pony

As beautiful as those passages are though, the one that for me will always stand out, and will always define Pat’s writing and what it meant to me, is the final paragraph from Dream of Fair Horses, which swirled around and around in my head for days after the first time I read it, and still moves me every time I re-read it:

But sometimes I still think about Mr Ramsay and the summer evenings when he would stand in the centre of the paddock, and I would ride Perdita in that magic circle that shut out the troubled unease of the world and enclosed the three of us in a dream of fair horses.

I hope that Pat is enclosed now in her own dream, and I want to thank her most profusely for the hours of reading pleasure she gave me, and the inspiration she left behind.

May she rest in peace.


My home away from home

I was going to start this by saying “Everyone has a home away from home, a place where they feel that they belong, where they travel in their mind when they think of their ‘happy place’…” but then I wondered. Does everyone have that place?

Perhaps not, but for hundreds of lucky women – young and old – around the world, there is a place where they belong.

A home away from home.

REF logoI went to summer camp to broaden my horizons and for a bit of an adventure. I can honestly say that my time working at Road’s End Farm in NH, USA has changed my life.

I can’t remember now what I expected from that place, but what I got was a slice of heaven on earth.

herd run 2

There are so many things that I would never have known, horses I’d never have ridden, people I’d never have met, lives that would never have touched mine, had I not turned up at the end of the road 11 years ago with a backpack and a dream.

I would never have known that home could be half a world away, yet feel like I’d been there forever.


I wouldn’t have known the joy of a herd in full flight.

Herd running

I would never have met the other half of my soul in equine form…


Or have had the chance to meet my special little ponygirl, sassing her way through life with a spring in her step and flowers in her hair.

alice mane

I would never have met these amazing, inspiring, wonderful people who I am so lucky to call my friends.

faves     session 2 08     wednesdays

And I wouldn’t have found my second family.

tom alicia me

Road’s End Farm is a magical place that has changed me for the better in more ways than I can count.

It’s truly my home away from home, and yet it’s more than that. It’s a place where I feel free.

And I’m not alone in that. Those of us who have been there, spent time there, know how its magic works. We know what kind of a place it is.

It’s a place where we run and jump and ride and love on our horses.

Where we dress up in stupid outfits and read silly fiction and write funny stories for reading at night.

Where we share our deepest, darkest secrets in whispers after lights out, or on the back field, sleeping out under a blanket of stars.

Where we laugh, and hug, and work, and play; where we learn about values and respect and hard work.

Where a week can pass by in the blink of an eye, and a summer at the drop of a hat.

Where we dance while we do the dishes, and sing on the way to swimming, and where many hands make light work.

Where we climb mountains, and paddle down rivers, and haul hay, and lug water buckets.

Where we find our kindred spirits, our soul sisters, and without even realising it at the time, we find ourselves.

We meet ourselves as we truly are, as we are meant to be. Free to be ourselves, unfettered by social convention and others’ opinions.

And we drag our feet to slow the circles down.

The farm is half a world away from where I am and yet I am always there, watching the horses run, reveling in their freedom as I continue to pursue my own…

Knowing that I can always go home, to the farm at the end of the road.

herd running

If only everyone in the world could have a place like this, what a place this world could be.



Blog hop : Latest Book Excerpt

Taking part in another Blog Hop, this one from Christine at Horse Country Book!

From Chapter 3 of my upcoming novel Five Stride Line (Pony Jumpers #5):

5 Five Stride - DIGITAL (E1)

“There’s a Pony Club rally tomorrow,” I told Katy the following afternoon as we groomed our ponies before our ride.

“Ugh, I know.” She ran her body brush over Molly’s gleaming hindquarters. “Mum’s trying to make me go because they have some coach coming to do a desensitising clinic and she thinks it’s the perfect time to take Rascal back to his owners and show how much improved he is.”

“Rebel,” I corrected her for the thousandth time. “His name is Rebel, not Rascal.”

Katy looked at me. “What?”

“The roan pony that you’re schooling,” I clarified, and she nodded. “His name’s Rebel.”

“No it’s not.”

I grinned. “Yeah it is. Squib used to graze with him, remember?”

“Really?” Katy looked confused, then shrugged. “Oh well, same difference. Either way it’s a stupid name for such a well-behaved pony. I’ve got no idea what those muppets who own him were on about when they said he’s naughty. He hasn’t put a foot wrong since he got here.”

“Nervous riders make nervous horses,” I said, remembering how petrified Alyssa was of her pony.

“If she doesn’t want her pony to go forward when she puts her leg on, she should buy a tricycle,” Katy said. “I can’t stand kids who scream and grab at the reins the second their ponies move faster than a snail’s pace. Poor Rascal, having to go back to them.”

“So he is going back?”

“Yeah, I’m sick of riding him and I think they’re sick of paying me when every time they ring up to find out how he’s going I just say the same thing. As well-behaved as he was the day he arrived. Which he has been, but as soon as they get him back and he puts a toe out of line, they’re going to accuse me of lying or being a useless trainer, and send him to someone else, throwing more money at the exact same problem. Yet somehow buying the kid some lessons never crosses their mind.”

“The funny thing is, her little sister would be able to ride him,” I said, thinking of Carrie’s bubbly enthusiasm. “But Sandra would never allow it.”

“Ugh. Parents are stupid,” Katy muttered, just as her mother appeared around the side of the building, leading the roan pony we’d been discussing. I’d have been mortified if my mother heard me say anything like that, but Deb seemed to take the insults for granted.

“I hope you’re talking about your father, not me,” was all she said as she tied Rebel to a ring in the wall and started taking his covers off.

“Actually I was talking about the people who own Rascal,” Katy told her mother.

“Rebel,” I said, but my correction fell again on deaf ears.

“They’ll be here in half an hour,” Deb told Katy, who looked stunned.

“What? Who?”

“Rascal’s owners. They’re coming to have a ride and see how Alicia gets on with him, if there’s any improvement. I told you that last night.”

“It’s Alyssa,” I interjected, but neither of them heard me.

“You did not! You said I had to take him to Pony Club, not that they were coming to ride him.”

Deb sighed and started explaining that the owners thought they might want to take him to Pony Club themselves, and she’d had to convince them to come and ride him again first. Katy made a lot of grumpy interruptions and I just listened wryly to their argument as I finished picking out Squib’s hooves, checking carefully around his white line for any embedded stones. Katy’s arena had quite a bit of fine gravel mixed into the surface, and it was notorious for getting trapped inside Squib’s white line, which could cause bruising or abscesses if I wasn’t vigilant about it.

Once his hooves were done, I lifted Squib’s saddle onto his back, setting it too far forward and then sliding it back to make sure the hairs under his saddle blanket didn’t get ruffled the wrong way. Reaching under his belly for the girth, I pulled it up snugly but not too tight, then gave his solid neck a firm pat.

Deb went off to get some brushes for Rebel, and Katy looked over at me with a pained expression.

“Ugh. Now we can’t go over to the Fitzherberts’ today, because we won’t have time to ride there and back before these people turn up to see Rascal or Ratbag or whatever you said his name is.”


“Rebel,” she repeated, looking at the pony with some scepticism. “I’m never going to remember that. I guess we’ll have to ride these two in the arena.”

I pulled a face at her. “Squib wanted to go for a hack.”

“Well, tell him that we can’t always have what we want,” Katy replied curtly. “Sometimes life just bites you in the butt and you have to get used to it.”

“Speaking of that, have you heard from Tess?” I asked, but Katy shook her head.

“Nope, not since Dad dropped her home a fortnight ago. You?” I shook my head as well, and she looked concerned. “I hope she’s okay.”

“Yeah, me too.”

We were quiet for a while then as we finished tacking up our ponies, both lost in thought. Tess was another rider who competed at lots of the same shows as we did, usually riding her sister Hayley’s outgrown show jumping pony Misty. Misty was even more of a handful than Squib on his worst days, and Tess didn’t look like she had much fun riding him, but she’d been bullied into it by her sister. I didn’t have much time for Hayley, who had a mean streak, but she’d started having unexplained seizures lately and I knew Tess was worried about her. Personally I thought it might provide a good wake-up call for Hayley to have to deal with her own weakness, since she was always so busy calling everyone else out on theirs, but I didn’t want to say that out loud and appear heartless.

“You forgot your martingale again,” Katy told me as she put her helmet on and snapped up the chinstrap.

“I thought I’d try riding without it today,” I replied, keeping my voice casual. I’d never ridden Squib in anything other than a snaffle bridle until I’d first met Katy, and although the martingale and copper roller bit that she’d added to my tack had helped me keep my pony under control, I didn’t want to rely on them forever.

Katy rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.” She swung gracefully into Molly’s saddle, used her foot to push her offside stirrup down then leaned down to tighten her girth. “But don’t come crying to me when you have pick his mane out of your teeth.”

“We’ll be fine,” I assured my friend, rubbing Squib’s head affectionately as I tightened his girth another hole and picked up my own helmet.

There was no malice in my pony, just a lack of training. And as his owner and rider, it was my job to train him so that he didn’t need any artificial aids to keep him under control. Horses are remarkably sensitive animals, and I’d watched countless videos in the past few days of riders who’d trained hot, excitable horses that were considered unruly or dangerous and made them into balanced, relaxed and willing partners, simply by removing unnecessary tack items. Squib butted me with his nose, and waited as I swung myself into the saddle and followed Katy into the arena.

*   *   *

The full novel will be out on 8 August 2015. In the meantime if you haven’t already read books 1-4 in the Pony Jumpers series, you can get all 4-in-1 in a discounted box set on Amazon!

PJ box set 1