Learning to train horses in the precise, artful discipline of dressage, a troubled teenage boy gains self-understanding.
When Michael Ross, who has just aged out of foster care, hears his social worker’s suggestion that he work for a horse trainer, he agrees despite the lack of pay; already in trouble with the law, he has few options. It soon becomes clear that Michael—resentful, balky and unaware of his limitations—needs more training than the horses. He yearns to ride with accomplished ease but struggles to understand distant, sarcastic dressage trainer Erik Sarmento. Sarmento grew up with an abusive father and is now a hard, isolated man devoid of sentiment, but as a teacher, he applies a precise toughness; fellow apprentice Peter explains to Michael, “Me, he tries to make me lose my temper, because he knows damned well it’s hard for me to do it. He makes you control yours because that’s what’s hardest for you.” With difficulties and setbacks, Michael begins to understand that training is about understanding and changing one’s own nature, not the horse’s. In her debut novel, Feldman—a trainer and rider for more than 60 years and also a psychiatric social worker—makes excellent use of her background to anchor this psychologically astute coming-of-age story in the equestrian world. Sarmento’s training philosophy, which echoes that of the great horseman William Steinkraus, purports that horses are, of course, much stronger and faster than humans, but are, despite their strength, yielding and forgiving. This view, the reader discovers through fascinating scenes of dressage training, is much more complicated, demanding and deeply satisfying than Michael’s self-serving fantasies of power over horses. Seeing Michael come to this understanding is quietly thrilling.
Honest, tough-minded and beautiful.