Am I the only person that doesn’t like the Winnie the Horse Gentler series?
Spoiler alert ahead - I’ll reveal large parts of the book in this review. It’s the only way I know to explain why I don’t like the series. Of course this is only my opinion. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Right off the bat, I was turned off by the title. I’ve owned a lot of horses over the years—both when I was young and when my daughters were still at home. Kids and wild horses—that's a combination you would do well to avoid! The most recent stats I located were from 2007, when 78,279 people ended up in a hospital ER due to horse-riding injuries. It’s estimated there are one hundred deaths annually from horse-related accidents.
The back cover of the book contains a quote from Winnie, “I have to have that horse. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get her.”
Um, yes, that’s a great Christian message to send to young readers. Twelve-year-old Winnie Willis is determined to do anything to get a wild horse.
Perhaps that was just marketing hype. I decided to give the book a chance, but it didn’t get any better.
In the first chapter, we learn that Winnie’s mother died two years before in a car accident. Winnie remembers the picture in her mind of “the upside-down car and my mother’s arm, limp as a ribbon over the steering wheel.”
Their dad has moved Winnie and her eleven-year-old sister, Lizzy, five times, irresponsibly never staying in the same place more than a few months. Mr. Willis is basically an invisible, non-important character for much of the book, other than being absent-minded, distant, and oblivious of his daughters’ feelings. Eleven-year-old Lizzy is portrayed as the wise adult in the family.
Winnie blames herself for the accident that killed her mother and believes her father blames her also. Even though the roads were icy, she’d begged her mother to take her to look at a horse that was for sale.
In the first chapter, Winnie meets her “ghost mare” Wild Thing, a gray Arabian who is being chased by the evil man who runs the boarding stable—and also owns the mare. Because being cruel and treating horses badly is a great way for boarding stables to build their reputation and get business.
Winnie tells her sister, “She’s not wild, Lizzy. She just needs me to love her.”
Oh my goodness. Horses do not operate on love; they operate on respect. You can love them all you want, but until you earn the respect and trust of an abused horse, they will constantly put themselves over you in their “pecking order” and that can be dangerous. Of course you treat them with love and kindness, but love alone won’t turn a wild or abused horse around.
In chapter two, we meet Catman. Perhaps I’m just past the age where I find that amusing, but many of the characters are named after animals. Winnie—horses, Lizzy loves lizards, Catman—obviously cats. Later we meet Barker. Guess what he likes? Victoria Hawkins (Hawk) has a pet bird. And the owner of the pet store is Pat Haven (pet haven?).
After being in Ohio all of three weeks, their dad returns home one afternoon and tells the girls to pack immediately because they’re moving again—to Pittsburgh this time, for no apparent reason. Catman saves the day by encouraging Mr. Willis to stay and try to sell his invention, a bike that is pedaled backwards.
Seriously? What kind of message about fathers is that sending to young readers?
Winnie’s plan is to work cleaning stalls at Stable-Mart, the boarding stable run by the mean ignorant horse people, to earn enough money to buy Wild Thing. One day, she finds the stable owner’s son, Richard Spidell, has tied the mare to a post with a hood over her head and a leg tied up with a chain. Winnie gets Richard to let her remove the hood from the horse’s head.
“I eased it up and off.”
Winnie is described several times as short—shorter than her younger sister. Removing the hood would be difficult for a short twelve-year-old. When horses are frightened, they raise their heads. It doesn't seem Winnie could reach that high. But, it was the next part that had me figuratively scratching my head.
“Blaming me for the pain, she bared her teeth, flattened her ears back, and tried to bite. I jumped out of the way just in time.”
I was bitten by a horse this year (on my upper arm). This was a well-trained 4-H horse, not a wild Arabian. It happened so fast, I was totally taken by surprise. But, not Winnie. No one else had been able to determine the age of the wild horse, but in that brief instant when the mare had her teeth bared, Winnie was able to tell that Wild Thing was four or five years old. (see how fast a bite happens in the video below)
Aging a horse by its teeth is a common practice, but I don’t know anyone good enough to age one in the split second when you’re jumping away to avoid the bite of an angry, frightened horse.
Winnie has strong opinions about the stable owners and their practices. A few examples:
“When owners don’t care enough to ride their horses, they stick them in the hot walker for exercise.”
“… Spidells held horses prisoners in their stalls day and night.”
“… I cleaned his horse-prison ‘cell.’”
Winnie removes a cribbing collar, which she considers abusive, from one of the horses in the stable. Mackall incorrectly states that cribbing is chewing on wood, and “In some cases, the horse goes one step further and gulps air while chewing.” Cribbing and chewing are two different things. If a horse cribs, he is sucking air not chewing. It’s a strange, addictive habit that some horses find soothing. It can have harmful effects though—colic, weight loss, and abnormal wear of their teeth. Hence, the reason for the cribbing collar.
To earn additional money for the horse, Winnie gets a job at the pet store answering people’s email questions about horse behavior. Where can I find a job like that?
When Winnie gets fired from her job at the stable after interfering again with Richard and Wild Thing, she comes up with a new plan. She’ll buy a cheap horse at an auction, train it, and then sell it at an upcoming fancier sale. She anticipates her profit being enough to purchase Wild Thing. The only problem is the higher-profile sale gives her only one week to train the horse. Winnie didn’t consider that much of a problem, but I do—a big problem! A professional trainer couldn't train a wild horse (to be reliable) in that timeframe, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. Elsewhere in the book, it states she hadn't ridden at all since her mother's death, so the last time she rode, Winnie was ten years old.
Of course, Winnie doesn’t even have the money to buy the first horse, so the plan is to manipulate her dad into giving her the money for the horse.
To keep this from becoming the longest book review in history, I'll skip a few details. Wild Thing ends up appearing at the first auction. Winnie, who is portrayed as adult-like in so many ways, foolishly blurts out an opening bid of the family’s entire $750 on the horse even though no one else appeared to be interested in buying Wild Thing. She still thinks she has to sell the mare at the sale the following week, so spends a week “gentling” her.
Winnie believes she just needs to convince Wild Thing that she loves her. A comparison is made to how Winnie hasn’t felt loved by her father or God since her mother’s death. The first night with Wild Thing at their farm, Winnie places a blanket in the pasture which the girl sleeps on. She’d made a trail of horse treats that led to her blanket. Overnight, Wild Thing eats all the treats and manages not to step on the sleeping Winnie.
“My mom had taught me that playing is the best way to gentle a horse.”
The following day, Winnie gets the horse to roll a bucket and a ball, then later has the horse chase her in the pasture. Oh my. :( Do I have to even say how dangerous having a horse chase you is? Let alone a semi-wild one? I had a little mule colt that I had to put down a few years ago because he was playing with a horse in the pasture. They bumped each other ever-so-slightly and just like that, the mule’s leg snapped. One of the worst days ever. :(
No. Never have any horse chase you! People aren't made to play those kind of games with horses.
Dad still hasn’t realized that Winnie would love to keep the horse, so a week later, Winnie takes Wild Thing to the next sale. At the last minute, she scares the mare so she runs out of the sale ring and escapes. Later that day, Winnie catches her and rides the horse bareback with just a halter and lead rope.
Finally, Dad comes out of his fog, and Winnie ends up with the horse after all. Although she’s done so many things wrong, it all works out in the end. She gets the horse and realizes both God and her dad really do love her.
I feel bad even writing this review. I know it may come across as overly critical. But, horses are large, potentially dangerous animals, even when they're not intentionally being mean. To depict a young girl doing the things Winnie does with this horse in the book is irresponsible.
For an example of what a “wild” horse can do to children, watch this video. The horse bites at and kicks the girl. Fortunately, the horse seemed to sense that it was a child and didn’t use full force in the bite or kick. The horse could have easily killed her, but the girl doesn’t appear to be seriously injured. You can find much worse on youtube. :(
(There is some language in the video. The narrator is known for being blunt and rude about people doing dumb things around horses.)
Winnie is distant from God. She doesn’t think He loves her. Neither she nor her dad attend church, although Lizzy goes with a neighbor family. Lizzy is Winnie’s spiritual advisor, even though she’s a year younger. At eleven, it seems Lizzy is also the cook for the family.
“Thanks, God, I prayed, as I walked to the fence. I know I haven’t had much to say lately. But only you could make a horse this incredible.”
When she’s trying to convince her dad to give her the money to buy the horse at the first auction, she prays. “Please, God, lead my dad to water.”
“The crooked thread letters of Lizzy’s needlework flashed into my brain again: God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. Jesus didn’t die for nothing!”
Those aren't the only Christian references, but sometimes it seems a prayer or Bible verse is inserted as sort of an afterthought rather than being central to the storyline. For me, the negative aspects of the book outweigh the intended spiritual lesson. The book and series is typical of modern children's books where the adults are either ignorant, abusive/neglectful, or absent, and the kids have to figure things out for themselves.
Wild Thing - Book 1 in the Winnie the Horse Gentler series by Dandi Daley Mackall
Age Range: 8 - 12 years, Grade Level: 3 - 6, 173 pages
Publisher: Tyndale Kids