Riding Lessons (An Ellen & Ned Book)

The first book in a new horse trilogy from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley starring a feisty young rider.
 
Eleven-year-old Ellen is a spunky—and occasionally misbehaving—young riding student. Her teacher Abby Lovitt (who readers might recognize from The Georges and the Jewels) is a high school student who introduces her to jumping, dressage techniques, and most importantly, Ned. 
 
Ned is a colt who used to be a racehorse, until he hurt his leg and moved to Abby’s ranch. Ellen and Ned seem to understand each other, and their companionship is immediate. But Ellen is only allowed to go to riding lessons when she behaves at school. And with all that’s going on, from learning that she’s adopted to finding out her parents are adopting a new baby, it’s harder than ever for Ellen to pay attention and behave in class and at home.
 
Will Ellen be able to spend more time on the ranch with Ned? And will her parents ever let her have a horse of her own?

Chapter 1

 

 

 

Tonight my mom said, “Ellen Leinsdorf, do you lie in bed and plan about how to be naughty?” So now I am lying in bed, and I am thinking about that, and I guess what I always plan is two things--how to get my own horse and how to be funny. The problem with my plans is that they never work out. I have tried wishes, too, but I gave up on that right after third grade. Here is what happened. Last summer, I was down the street at Paulie Miller’s birthday party. First, I got in trouble because when I counted the candles on his cake, there were only nine, so I said to Mrs. Miller, “Where’s the one to grow on?” but she didn’t hear me, so I said it a little louder, “Where’s the one to grow on? He can’t get to ten without it,” and she told me to hush, so I hushed. I really did hush. So Paulie closed his eyes and made a wish (you could see it in his face), and blew out the candles. He only blew out eight, and I saw his mom blow out the last one. But still I hushed because she gave me a look.

 

Supposedly, your wish is a secret, but Paulie had no secrets. I knew he was going to wish for a Creepy Crawlers set, because that’s what he told me the day before when we were talking about the party. I told him that your wish had to be a secret and that you had to wish for something good, like people not going hungry or plenty of rain right when we need it, but his face got this look, and he said, “Well, I want Creepy Crawlers.”

 

After we ate the cake and the ice cream (the cake was vanilla, with vanilla icing, and good; the ice cream was chocolate--yuck), everyone went outside to run around and play statues and then dodgeball, and I knew what I had to do. I went to the pile of presents and took the one that was the Creepy Crawlers set (big box, and anyway, I could see the words through the tissue paper) and I put it in the closet, under a lot of stuff. It didn’t take me very long, and then I closed the door of the closet and went out and played with the other kids. I am really good at statues.

 

We came in and had some jelly beans and sat down to open the presents, and Paulie got an Erector set, a baseball bat, a ball, a Frisbee, two books, and some watercolors and a pad (from me--Mom always says to give as a present what you yourself like best; I told him I would teach him how to draw a horse). But then his mom began running around, looking behind stuff and under the couch and all, and at first I didn’t know what was going on, and then I realized that she was looking for the Creepy Crawlers, but I didn’t say anything. And they never found it until the rains started in the fall and they had to get out their boots and raincoats. I had hidden it really well. Whenever I do something, I make my best effort, just like Mom tells me.

 

Even though I didn’t get in trouble, I did realize that if you keep your wish a secret, you probably won’t get it, so you have to say what you wish and then, probably, say it again and again, because that’s the only way it works, even if it takes a long time to work.

 

Every weekend and sometimes more often than that, I go to the stables and have a riding lesson. My teacher is Abby Lovitt. She is in high school, and she is a really good rider. The horse I ride every weekend is one she trained whose name is True Blue. We call him Blue. Last year, I rode a pony, but he got sold. Blue is a lot bigger, and at first I was afraid of how tall he is, but then I got on him and he was so nice, much nicer than the pony, and now I like him very much. The pony wasn’t bad, but the pony was a lot like me. The pony was always saying, “I will do what I want, and you can come along for the ride,” and then he would toss his head, and lucky for me, mostly he wanted to do what I wanted him to, but not always. Blue says, “What do you want to do? That is what I want to do, too.”

 

Grown-ups will tell you that horses can’t talk. It might be that Todd Kerrigan, who is in my class and who I eat lunch with every day, is the only person in the world who thinks that the horse on TV, Mr. Ed, is actually talking. I used to watch Mr. Ed, say, two years ago, but when I started taking riding lessons, I decided that I was not interested in a horse that just stands around in a stall, moving his mouth to a voice-over. Anyway, my dad says that Mr. Ed isn’t on TV anymore, so I guess that was why last month Todd finally stopped asking me if I had seen Mr. Ed the night before. Abby might say that horses don’t talk, too, but she talks to the horses all the time, and why would she do that if the horses don’t talk back to her? I mean, I’m not talking about what everyone knows--if someone is walking toward Blue’s stall and shouts, “Blue, Blue! How are you?” he will pop his head out and whinny. That makes everyone laugh, and then you are supposed to think that he is saying, “I am fine. How are you?” because he has very good manners. My mom talks to me about manners all the time. “Please” and “thank you” and “How do you do? Nice to meet you,” and shake hands and look her in the eye, and if she wants to give you a little kiss on the cheek, stand there quietly, and don’t wipe it off, if you must, until she has turned away. (This is my aunt Louise, and Mom swears that there isn’t a yellow cloud of perfume all around her head, but I see it and it makes me kind of dizzy. Every time I tell Mom this, she says that I am exaggerating again.) At school, of course, you are supposed to sit quietly in your seat, and raise your hand when you know the answer, and do not wave it back and forth just because you know the answer and no one else does, and no one has known the answer for the last three questions, so why does Miss Cranfield have to keep calling on them? It is a waste of time, but the more you know the answer, the less they call on you, and so how is that good manners?

 

Anyway, if I can possibly be quiet (and sometimes I possibly can), I sit on the fence and listen to Abby talking to Blue or Gee Whiz or one of Jane’s horses, and she says, “Oh, that is very good! Nice square turn, now easy up into the canter, right lead. Good boy. Four strides to the crossbar, ease back now, one two three four. Good jump. Let’s try that again.” I’m not saying that she talks to them all the time--you can’t in a horse show, for one thing, and for another, all conversations stop and start. But maybe they are saying to her, “Did you like that? What now? Which lead? Tell me the difference between right and left again . . . oh yes, I’ve got it. One two three four, two plus two is four, this crossbar is easy as pie, let’s try another one.”

 

Blue and Gee Whiz are both grays, and both Thoroughbreds, but everything else about them is different. Blue is always looking around. He notices things, and he doesn’t sometimes like what he notices. I would say that he is a little shy, but Jane says “careful” is the word. When I am riding him, I am supposed to let him take his time. He may look and make up his mind, and if we don’t push him, he will go on and do what he is told. He is a very beautiful horse, dark mane, dark tail, and dapples along his underside and over his haunches. When he first came to the stables where I ride (he used to be Abby’s and he lived at her place, but since my ears are very big, I know from eavesdropping that Jane bought him, also for a lot of money, but my ears are not big enough to know how much), he was very spooky, but Jane says that Abby has performed a miracle with that horse, and now he is very reliable, which is a good thing, because my mom would make me stop riding him if he acted bad. Jane runs the stables, which are big and very expensive, and surrounded by a famous golf course. Lots of people board their horses there, and they have horse shows and golf tournaments.

 

Gee Whiz is huge and very white. He used to be a racehorse and won a lot of money, but Abby didn’t get any of it because she didn’t own him in those days. He stares at things, and does not seem to be afraid of anything. He lives at Abby’s ranch (Oak Valley Ranch, it is called) and only comes to the stables to school over bigger fences. If he comes on a day when I am having a lesson, I try to stay after my lesson and watch. Abby and Jane always talk about whether to go slow with him, because they don’t want to overdo it, but I am here to tell you that the last thing on earth that Gee Whiz wants to do is to go slow. He wants to go fast and jump big jumps, and I admit that yes, he needs to learn to turn a little better. Blue is much more handy. “Handy” is a word that I really like. In every horse show, they have a class called Handy Hunters, where the horse has to do all kinds of things, some at the trot, some at the canter, some at the hand gallop, tight turns, halts, opening gates. When I get to jump higher than a foot and a half and go in hunter classes (maybe next year), that is what I want to do. My mom says she does not see how we will be able to afford much showing, because showing is really expensive.

 

Abby has another horse, too, a racehorse. His name is Jack So Far, and he is down in Los Angeles. He was born on the Lovitts’ ranch, and his mom died when he was a foal. He is getting ready for his first race, which should happen in the next few weeks, according to Jane. He was training at Vista del Canada, which is a pretty nice place near here, but he went to LA after a few months, and I heard Jane ask Abby if she was going to go to the race, but even though I made my ears as big as I possibly could, I did not hear what Abby answered, so I do not know. And now I can see a shadow under the door of my room, and then there is a little creak, which means that Mom is peeking in to make sure I am asleep, and so I close my eyes and let my head sort of flop to one side, and I do those slow breaths so she will think I’m asleep and go to bed. It is ten o’clock; my bedtime is eight-thirty, and I have to get up at seven, so I guess I really should go to sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

We live right down from my school. If I walk, it is four minutes (Mom gave me a watch for Christmas, and I have taken very good care of it). If I run, it is two, because I have to run uphill. But sometimes, like today, when the fog is out and the sky is clear, I walk backward. Today it took ten minutes. I was looking down the hill to where the street disappears, and then I saw a few roofs of houses, and beyond that, there was the line of the ocean shading into the mountains across the bay, ending halfway up the sky, darker blue against lighter blue. I know you can’t see dolphins or whales jumping from five blocks up, even if you are farsighted, but I looked for them anyway. I didn’t get to school until after the first bell, and then I ran to my room, number four, down the hall to the right on the first floor. I sat down at my desk and looked out the window at a few trees. I do wish that Miss Cranfield’s classroom were on the top floor, or even on the roof, because I would like to look over the trees and watch the ocean while the other kids are trying to figure out how to answer her questions. At least, it would be something to do. While she was taking the roll, I stared at the letters of the alphabet that run along the top of the blackboard. I can say the alphabet backward. It is easy. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. You tap a finger with each letter--thumb, Z; forefinger, Y; middle finger, X; ring finger, W; baby finger, V--all the way back to A. If you get there without forgetting a letter, the A is by itself. Generally, if I am going to forget a letter, it will be I. I don’t know why that is. Also, the middle letters of the alphabet are M and N. I think there should be another letter between them--the exact middle. It would be a ch sound so you wouldn’t have to write two letters to make one sound. These are the things I think about at school while the other kids are trying to get their work done. Sometimes my dad says that I am too smart for my own good. Also, I reminded myself that today is Friday, my favorite day of the week--tomorrow is my riding lesson, and if today is nice, tomorrow will probably be nice, too. We have had plenty of rain this spring, but I am hoping that is over.

 

Dad sells vacuum cleaners. He’s gone from Monday to Thursday, because he has to go to people’s houses and demonstrate the vacuum cleaners on the floors and the carpets that the people actually have. On Fridays and Saturdays, Mom works the evening shift at the department store. I don’t have to say which one, because there is only one, and it is really big. Maybe Mom doesn’t have to work there, but she has been working there since she was in high school, and she gets a discount, and anyway, it is the most beautiful place in town, and it is only a short walk, so why not go there? I don’t know if she will keep working there after the baby is born, though.

© Derek Shapton
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some LuckEarly Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California. View titles by Jane Smiley

About

The first book in a new horse trilogy from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley starring a feisty young rider.
 
Eleven-year-old Ellen is a spunky—and occasionally misbehaving—young riding student. Her teacher Abby Lovitt (who readers might recognize from The Georges and the Jewels) is a high school student who introduces her to jumping, dressage techniques, and most importantly, Ned. 
 
Ned is a colt who used to be a racehorse, until he hurt his leg and moved to Abby’s ranch. Ellen and Ned seem to understand each other, and their companionship is immediate. But Ellen is only allowed to go to riding lessons when she behaves at school. And with all that’s going on, from learning that she’s adopted to finding out her parents are adopting a new baby, it’s harder than ever for Ellen to pay attention and behave in class and at home.
 
Will Ellen be able to spend more time on the ranch with Ned? And will her parents ever let her have a horse of her own?

Excerpt

Chapter 1

 

 

 

Tonight my mom said, “Ellen Leinsdorf, do you lie in bed and plan about how to be naughty?” So now I am lying in bed, and I am thinking about that, and I guess what I always plan is two things--how to get my own horse and how to be funny. The problem with my plans is that they never work out. I have tried wishes, too, but I gave up on that right after third grade. Here is what happened. Last summer, I was down the street at Paulie Miller’s birthday party. First, I got in trouble because when I counted the candles on his cake, there were only nine, so I said to Mrs. Miller, “Where’s the one to grow on?” but she didn’t hear me, so I said it a little louder, “Where’s the one to grow on? He can’t get to ten without it,” and she told me to hush, so I hushed. I really did hush. So Paulie closed his eyes and made a wish (you could see it in his face), and blew out the candles. He only blew out eight, and I saw his mom blow out the last one. But still I hushed because she gave me a look.

 

Supposedly, your wish is a secret, but Paulie had no secrets. I knew he was going to wish for a Creepy Crawlers set, because that’s what he told me the day before when we were talking about the party. I told him that your wish had to be a secret and that you had to wish for something good, like people not going hungry or plenty of rain right when we need it, but his face got this look, and he said, “Well, I want Creepy Crawlers.”

 

After we ate the cake and the ice cream (the cake was vanilla, with vanilla icing, and good; the ice cream was chocolate--yuck), everyone went outside to run around and play statues and then dodgeball, and I knew what I had to do. I went to the pile of presents and took the one that was the Creepy Crawlers set (big box, and anyway, I could see the words through the tissue paper) and I put it in the closet, under a lot of stuff. It didn’t take me very long, and then I closed the door of the closet and went out and played with the other kids. I am really good at statues.

 

We came in and had some jelly beans and sat down to open the presents, and Paulie got an Erector set, a baseball bat, a ball, a Frisbee, two books, and some watercolors and a pad (from me--Mom always says to give as a present what you yourself like best; I told him I would teach him how to draw a horse). But then his mom began running around, looking behind stuff and under the couch and all, and at first I didn’t know what was going on, and then I realized that she was looking for the Creepy Crawlers, but I didn’t say anything. And they never found it until the rains started in the fall and they had to get out their boots and raincoats. I had hidden it really well. Whenever I do something, I make my best effort, just like Mom tells me.

 

Even though I didn’t get in trouble, I did realize that if you keep your wish a secret, you probably won’t get it, so you have to say what you wish and then, probably, say it again and again, because that’s the only way it works, even if it takes a long time to work.

 

Every weekend and sometimes more often than that, I go to the stables and have a riding lesson. My teacher is Abby Lovitt. She is in high school, and she is a really good rider. The horse I ride every weekend is one she trained whose name is True Blue. We call him Blue. Last year, I rode a pony, but he got sold. Blue is a lot bigger, and at first I was afraid of how tall he is, but then I got on him and he was so nice, much nicer than the pony, and now I like him very much. The pony wasn’t bad, but the pony was a lot like me. The pony was always saying, “I will do what I want, and you can come along for the ride,” and then he would toss his head, and lucky for me, mostly he wanted to do what I wanted him to, but not always. Blue says, “What do you want to do? That is what I want to do, too.”

 

Grown-ups will tell you that horses can’t talk. It might be that Todd Kerrigan, who is in my class and who I eat lunch with every day, is the only person in the world who thinks that the horse on TV, Mr. Ed, is actually talking. I used to watch Mr. Ed, say, two years ago, but when I started taking riding lessons, I decided that I was not interested in a horse that just stands around in a stall, moving his mouth to a voice-over. Anyway, my dad says that Mr. Ed isn’t on TV anymore, so I guess that was why last month Todd finally stopped asking me if I had seen Mr. Ed the night before. Abby might say that horses don’t talk, too, but she talks to the horses all the time, and why would she do that if the horses don’t talk back to her? I mean, I’m not talking about what everyone knows--if someone is walking toward Blue’s stall and shouts, “Blue, Blue! How are you?” he will pop his head out and whinny. That makes everyone laugh, and then you are supposed to think that he is saying, “I am fine. How are you?” because he has very good manners. My mom talks to me about manners all the time. “Please” and “thank you” and “How do you do? Nice to meet you,” and shake hands and look her in the eye, and if she wants to give you a little kiss on the cheek, stand there quietly, and don’t wipe it off, if you must, until she has turned away. (This is my aunt Louise, and Mom swears that there isn’t a yellow cloud of perfume all around her head, but I see it and it makes me kind of dizzy. Every time I tell Mom this, she says that I am exaggerating again.) At school, of course, you are supposed to sit quietly in your seat, and raise your hand when you know the answer, and do not wave it back and forth just because you know the answer and no one else does, and no one has known the answer for the last three questions, so why does Miss Cranfield have to keep calling on them? It is a waste of time, but the more you know the answer, the less they call on you, and so how is that good manners?

 

Anyway, if I can possibly be quiet (and sometimes I possibly can), I sit on the fence and listen to Abby talking to Blue or Gee Whiz or one of Jane’s horses, and she says, “Oh, that is very good! Nice square turn, now easy up into the canter, right lead. Good boy. Four strides to the crossbar, ease back now, one two three four. Good jump. Let’s try that again.” I’m not saying that she talks to them all the time--you can’t in a horse show, for one thing, and for another, all conversations stop and start. But maybe they are saying to her, “Did you like that? What now? Which lead? Tell me the difference between right and left again . . . oh yes, I’ve got it. One two three four, two plus two is four, this crossbar is easy as pie, let’s try another one.”

 

Blue and Gee Whiz are both grays, and both Thoroughbreds, but everything else about them is different. Blue is always looking around. He notices things, and he doesn’t sometimes like what he notices. I would say that he is a little shy, but Jane says “careful” is the word. When I am riding him, I am supposed to let him take his time. He may look and make up his mind, and if we don’t push him, he will go on and do what he is told. He is a very beautiful horse, dark mane, dark tail, and dapples along his underside and over his haunches. When he first came to the stables where I ride (he used to be Abby’s and he lived at her place, but since my ears are very big, I know from eavesdropping that Jane bought him, also for a lot of money, but my ears are not big enough to know how much), he was very spooky, but Jane says that Abby has performed a miracle with that horse, and now he is very reliable, which is a good thing, because my mom would make me stop riding him if he acted bad. Jane runs the stables, which are big and very expensive, and surrounded by a famous golf course. Lots of people board their horses there, and they have horse shows and golf tournaments.

 

Gee Whiz is huge and very white. He used to be a racehorse and won a lot of money, but Abby didn’t get any of it because she didn’t own him in those days. He stares at things, and does not seem to be afraid of anything. He lives at Abby’s ranch (Oak Valley Ranch, it is called) and only comes to the stables to school over bigger fences. If he comes on a day when I am having a lesson, I try to stay after my lesson and watch. Abby and Jane always talk about whether to go slow with him, because they don’t want to overdo it, but I am here to tell you that the last thing on earth that Gee Whiz wants to do is to go slow. He wants to go fast and jump big jumps, and I admit that yes, he needs to learn to turn a little better. Blue is much more handy. “Handy” is a word that I really like. In every horse show, they have a class called Handy Hunters, where the horse has to do all kinds of things, some at the trot, some at the canter, some at the hand gallop, tight turns, halts, opening gates. When I get to jump higher than a foot and a half and go in hunter classes (maybe next year), that is what I want to do. My mom says she does not see how we will be able to afford much showing, because showing is really expensive.

 

Abby has another horse, too, a racehorse. His name is Jack So Far, and he is down in Los Angeles. He was born on the Lovitts’ ranch, and his mom died when he was a foal. He is getting ready for his first race, which should happen in the next few weeks, according to Jane. He was training at Vista del Canada, which is a pretty nice place near here, but he went to LA after a few months, and I heard Jane ask Abby if she was going to go to the race, but even though I made my ears as big as I possibly could, I did not hear what Abby answered, so I do not know. And now I can see a shadow under the door of my room, and then there is a little creak, which means that Mom is peeking in to make sure I am asleep, and so I close my eyes and let my head sort of flop to one side, and I do those slow breaths so she will think I’m asleep and go to bed. It is ten o’clock; my bedtime is eight-thirty, and I have to get up at seven, so I guess I really should go to sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

We live right down from my school. If I walk, it is four minutes (Mom gave me a watch for Christmas, and I have taken very good care of it). If I run, it is two, because I have to run uphill. But sometimes, like today, when the fog is out and the sky is clear, I walk backward. Today it took ten minutes. I was looking down the hill to where the street disappears, and then I saw a few roofs of houses, and beyond that, there was the line of the ocean shading into the mountains across the bay, ending halfway up the sky, darker blue against lighter blue. I know you can’t see dolphins or whales jumping from five blocks up, even if you are farsighted, but I looked for them anyway. I didn’t get to school until after the first bell, and then I ran to my room, number four, down the hall to the right on the first floor. I sat down at my desk and looked out the window at a few trees. I do wish that Miss Cranfield’s classroom were on the top floor, or even on the roof, because I would like to look over the trees and watch the ocean while the other kids are trying to figure out how to answer her questions. At least, it would be something to do. While she was taking the roll, I stared at the letters of the alphabet that run along the top of the blackboard. I can say the alphabet backward. It is easy. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. You tap a finger with each letter--thumb, Z; forefinger, Y; middle finger, X; ring finger, W; baby finger, V--all the way back to A. If you get there without forgetting a letter, the A is by itself. Generally, if I am going to forget a letter, it will be I. I don’t know why that is. Also, the middle letters of the alphabet are M and N. I think there should be another letter between them--the exact middle. It would be a ch sound so you wouldn’t have to write two letters to make one sound. These are the things I think about at school while the other kids are trying to get their work done. Sometimes my dad says that I am too smart for my own good. Also, I reminded myself that today is Friday, my favorite day of the week--tomorrow is my riding lesson, and if today is nice, tomorrow will probably be nice, too. We have had plenty of rain this spring, but I am hoping that is over.

 

Dad sells vacuum cleaners. He’s gone from Monday to Thursday, because he has to go to people’s houses and demonstrate the vacuum cleaners on the floors and the carpets that the people actually have. On Fridays and Saturdays, Mom works the evening shift at the department store. I don’t have to say which one, because there is only one, and it is really big. Maybe Mom doesn’t have to work there, but she has been working there since she was in high school, and she gets a discount, and anyway, it is the most beautiful place in town, and it is only a short walk, so why not go there? I don’t know if she will keep working there after the baby is born, though.

Author

© Derek Shapton
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some LuckEarly Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California. View titles by Jane Smiley