THE FLYING HORSE (Once Upon a Horse, Book 1), by Sarah Maslin Nir. Illustrated by Laylie Frazier.
Many girls grow up reading a book (for me it was “Silver Birch,” by Dorothy Lyons) in which the heroine longs for a horse, finds one, tames it and makes a connection that is much more solid and fun than those she has with her schoolmates. Such a book is often the start of a lifelong infatuation with horses.
Sarah Maslin Nir’s “The Flying Horse,” the first in a series of middle grade novels based on “real horses and the people who love them,” was inspired by an experience Nir, a reporter at The New York Times, shared in her 2020 memoir “Horse Crazy.” In 2016, the Dutch warmblood Trendsetter, whom she had purchased a week after her father’s death two years earlier, stumbled and pitched forward while she was riding him in a competition. Then he saved her life. “There was no way he was falling anywhere but on top of you. And then, midair, he flipped himself,” a spectator told her. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He torqued his whole body as he came crashing down and flung himself in the opposite direction.”
This validated what Nir had felt about the horse from the moment she laid eyes on him: “Trendsetter elevated a passion in me for the sport to an echelon I had only ever aspired to reach.”
“The Flying Horse” begins with Trendsetter’s birth in the Netherlands, as the novel’s narrator imagines what it’s like to come into the world as a foal: “He lay flopped like a half-pitched tent, bum in the air, and the scrap of a tail protruding from his rear, flip-flipping.” From here we get to know the foal’s personality and follow him as he grows up. (He will train alongside the famous Lipizzaners, or flying horses, at an equestrian castle in Austria before eventually traveling to America.)
It is evident that one of Nir’s purposes in “The Flying Horse” is to educate young girls about how horses see the world, how it feels to be a horse, how horses relate to people. Her style is conversational and often amusing: “Right now, Trendy was getting a vibe. It was icky.”
Interspersed with the eight chapters from Trendy’s point of view are five from Sarah’s. Sarah lives in New York City and in the novel is 10 years old when Trendsetter is born on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. “One day, Trendy’s life would become linked to Sarah’s … but neither of them knew that yet.” Sarah is already obsessed with horses, and takes as many riding lessons as she can, but while Trendy is struggling to stand for the first time Sarah is “muddling through something different” and “no less challenging”: trying to spell. (Nir has spoken about her own struggle with a learning disability.) For me, Sarah’s chapters are the most engaging, because, bit by bit, she reveals how she overcomes her problems.
Given the inherent danger of horseback riding (which Nir knows firsthand, having written in “Horse Crazy” about the sometimes scary injuries she has suffered), what I miss in “The Flying Horse” is the how-to. What has Sarah learned from her teachers about how to ride, how to sense a horse’s mood and fears? When Sarah finally mounts Trendsetter at 13, what does she notice about him that makes him different from other horses? Maybe the “legendary equestrian” Beverly Moore, Trendsetter’s savior in a moment of crisis and Sarah’s idol, should have played a larger, more meaningful role.
Jane Smiley is the author of many horse novels (most recently “Perestroika in Paris”), including eight titles for young readers.
THE FLYING HORSE (Once Upon a Horse, Book 1) | By Sarah Maslin Nir | Illustrated by Laylie Frazier | 192 pp. | Cameron Kids | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12