03 March 2020

The Horse Road (book review and some reminiscences)

The Horse RoadThe Horse Road by Troon Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an interesting mix of genres.

It is set in Central Asia in the first century BC, so it is basically a historical novel. The protagonist, Kallisto, is a horse-obsessed 14-year-old girl, and there is an entire literary genre aimed at horse-mad 14-year-old girls. It is also a Bildungsroman. because she has to cope with a series of crises when her father is away on business and her mother is ill, so she has to grow up fast. The crises include war, famine and earthquake.

The Horse Road also has cultural and racial diversity. Kallisto's father is a Greek merchant, her mother a Sarmatian horse breeder, and they live in the Fergana valley in what is now Kyrgyzstan, at the meeting place of East and West.

For the horse-obsessed 14-year-old girls there is plenty of detail about the horses, their care and grooming, their gaits, harness and training, their character and the skills of the rider. At times I thought it went a bit overboard on the details. One horse is described as an Appaloosa, a specifically American breed which would be very unlikely to have been found in Central Asia in that period. And cruppers are mentioned several times -- the leather loop attached to the rear of the saddle that goes under the horse's tail and stops the saddle from sliding forward over the horse's withers. I'm not sure that cruppers had been invented at that time. But those are the kind of details that appeal to the horse-mad young.

It's now 20 years since I last sat on a horse, and so this book took me back to times long past. One of the priests in our diocese, Father Justin Venn, was a farrier by trade, but he recently gave it up because it required too much travelling in the Johannesburg area, and he too observed that in today's urban society the only people who keep horses are middle-aged middle-class women and 14-year-old girls, but  perhaps the range of readership of books about horses is slightly wider.

I certainly enjoyed reading about horses at the age of 10 or 11, and perhaps the interest of boys in horses peaks slightly younger than among girls, at about 11 or 12. At that age boys are big enough to mount a horse bareback, but not so big and heavy that they are a burden to the horse.

Steve Hayes, Brassie & Elizabeth Dods, Aug 1952
When I was 11 I had a horse called Brassie, and he became to object of attraction to a 14-year-old girl, Elizabeth Dods, who asked if she could ride him. She rode him so much that I had to go by bicycle, which did not have off-road capability. Fortunately a riding school across the road closed and sold off all their horses cheaply, and so I acquired a pony called Tom as a Christmas present, and the first ride on him on Christmas day was to St Nicholas Church in Sandringham, Johannesburg with Elizabeth. That was the first church service I had ever been to (apart from a couple of family baptisms which I was too young to remember).

A few months later Elizabeth turned 15, and lost interest in horses, but she had a marvellous collection of horse books that she had acquired during the period of her obsession, which I eagerly borrowed and read. One of my favourites was Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cumming, which also had an element of fantasy.

The Horse Road has all the details that horse book addicts seem to love, but there is also enough drama, excitement and danger to make it a gripping adventure story for those who wouldn't know a crupper from a martingale..

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