Now that Winnie has her horse, Wild Thing, renamed Nickers, she has to have a way to pay the horse’s feed bill. She plans to take in horses to train to earn money. Her first project is Victoria (Hawk) Hawkin’s gelding, Towaco. When Towaco arrives, Winnie immediately puts him in with Nickers, then everyone seems surprised that the two horses are fussing with each other. Winnie foolishly gets in between the horses to separate them (that’s a recipe for disaster). Winnie decides to take Nickers for a ride (bareback) to let the mare calm down. Hmm, taking her for a ride won’t have any effect on how the two horses act when they’re back together. When she gets out to the pasture, Winnie stops and lets Nickers graze. (not generally a good idea, but needed for this scene in the story I guess)
She notices a branch in the horse’s tail so turns around on the horse and leans over to remove it. Two boys on horses race past and frighten Nickers who takes off running for the barn - with Winnie on backwards, bareback no less. She slips off to the side and somehow miraculously pulls herself up again - still backwards - and rides all the way back to the barn that way. In real life, the girl would have fallen off at the horse's first jump and potentially been kicked in the head or stepped on, but not Winnie.
She arrives at the barn to find Towaco gone. Apparently, his anxiety over Nickers caused him to jump the fence to escape. They later find him in town standing in the middle of a street blocking traffic. With all the horses I’ve owned over the years, not one has been athletic enough to jump a pasture fence. Towaco, an Appaloosa, doesn’t strike me as the type who could either. And then, you have the potentially catastrophic situation of a horse running down the road in traffic - that’s enough to give me nightmares. But, the Hawkins return the horse to Winnie to give her another chance with him.
Her second training project is Grant’s horse, one of the boys who’d raced across the pasture frightening Nickers. Winnie has one week to turn Blaine’s Bad Boy, whom Winnie calls Eager Star, into a barrel horse for a big barrel racing contest. Many professional trainers consider one to two years a minimum for training a solid barrel horse, but with Winnie’s twelve-year-old expertise, she can do it in a week.
Eager Star is having behavioral issues that indicate he’s not very well trained. This is really no horse to be barrel racing on. It requires an athletic horse who can do flying lead changes, maintain their balance with a rider while doing sharp, fast turns, and in general be under the control of the rider. The horse needs to be fast, but also sensible enough to calm down quickly after his run.
Meanwhile, Winnie has difficulties adjusting to the start of middle school (7th grade). She feels excluded from the “in-group.” She journals about the students and teachers, referring to them as various types of horses and their interactions as herd dynamics. The “mares” (popular girls) competing for the “stallion” (Grant’s) attention. One teacher, “Mrs. Brumby” she labels “The Old Mare Teacher.” Winnie inadvertently turns in her personal journal one day. After Mrs. Brumby reads it, she contacts Mr. Willis.
Winnie’s father tells her that Mrs. Brumby is concerned about her. Winnie’s thoughts in response:
“They clone them! Every rotten teacher I’d ever had turned out some caring imitation whenever parents were around.” p. 118
Back to the crash course on barrel racing.
“Wrong leads make bumpy rides. A cutting horse can’t even get around a barrel if he throws the wrong lead.” p. 107
What? What does a cutting horse have to do with barrel racing? Cutting horses separate individual cows from a herd. I have no idea why that was inserted into the story. And, I’ve never heard the phrasing “throw a lead” but maybe it’s a regional thing.
Well, as low as my expectations already were for this series, this next part surprised even me! Winnie has no barrels to practice barrel racing with, so what do you think she uses instead?
Her little sister and two friends! No. I’m not kidding.
“We came at Barker in a wide-angled arc. I leaned to the right, but he (Eager Star) overdid it and stumbled again. We circled Barker in a wide trot. ‘Come on!’ I urged Star to change leads. He didn’t, and we bumped Catman, almost toppling him. On we ran straight toward Lizzy, picking up speed.” p. 122
Lizzy (a smart girl) screams and runs for the fence, refusing to be a human barrel any longer. Good for her! Honestly, this is just so stupidly dangerous I don’t even know what else to say.
Winnie finally attends church with her sister, Lizzy, and the Barker family. A substitute pastor says,
“My grandaddy used to say, ‘Praise and punishment. Them’s the only two choices.’” p. 126
Them's? But, that gives Winnie the breakthrough she needed with Eager Star’s training. All that was wrong was that she hadn’t been praising the horse enough!
Within a week, Winnie transforms Eager Star into a competent barrel racer, and the previously rough rider, Grant, into a compassionate horseman. I had expected them to win the “race” for a happy ending, but surprisingly Grant didn’t win. I’m not sure why it’s referred to as a race. Barrel racing is a timed event, so they’re competing for the fastest time, but they’re not really “racing” each other.
Nearly all the people in the books are characterized in an extreme manner. Catman is hippy-like, wearing bell bottoms and saying things like cool, I dig it, far out, etc. His parents are even more eccentric. The Spidells, owners of Stable-Mart are snobbish and abusive to horses. Grant’s father is the ultimate, driven father only concerned with beating the Spidells in the race. Mr. Willis is the scatter-brained inventor. As the timer for the race, he apparently isn't even aware that the lowest time wins.
"Dad announced, "Grant did it in more time than Summer did. Does that mean Summer won?" p. 165
Mr. Willis is again a minor character in the book. Toward the end, when he’s heading off to attend a business luncheon on the day of the barrel race (wearing the suit he wore to his wife’s funeral), Winnie basically tells him to stay and watch the contest, and he complies. Because, children should always tell their parents what to do. :(
"Winnie, shouldn't you get ready for the race?" Dad asked.
I jumped up and planted a kiss on his cheek. "I'm ready! And you better change out of that thing and into your astronaut suit and get to the pasture!"
"But the luncheon? Those businessmen?"
"They'll have to eat without Odd-Job Willis. You have a barrel race to watch!" p. 159