In the opening scene of middle-grade novel Horse Girl, Wills earns one of the most essential badges of honor for every budding equestrian—she falls off.

Clyde Lee, her not-so trusty and oh-so-over-it school horse, refuses a jump and sends her flying. To make matters worse, everyone else at the barn is watching, including snooty but glamorous Amara, dreamy Luis Valdez, her clueless but enthusiastic dad, and all the other students. It is a preteen nightmare that’s hilariously relatable to anyone who has ever biffed it during a lesson.

Horse books written for children and teens run into the same significant pitfalls that plague their adult counterparts. They often rely on an overly familiar plot and cast of characters. Even if the book offers the reader a fresh take, it then has to tackle the challenge of juggling horse-centric vocabulary and accuracy; too little equestrian detail and the story feels like hollow fantasy, too much and the story gets lost in the minutia.

Author Carrie Seim strikes the exact balance between reality and wonder, with a main character that is impossible not to fall in love with. It is the perfect starter for any horse crazy reader.

Horse Girl chronicles life of the 12-year-old Wills who lives with her father and brainy, older sister Kay. Her mother is a pilot for the Air Force and appears in the book primarily via Facetime and text messages after the family decides to stay in Nebraska rather than follow to her next post. Accustomed to being regularly uprooted, Wills has trouble making human friends and leans heavily on her equine obsession for stability. Breyer Horses dance along her bookshelves, and she makes homemade t-shirts splashed with adorable horse puns. “Haaay girl” states one such creation below a drawing of a horse with a hay net.

Her friend group starts to blossom when Wills accepts an invitation to join the Oakwood Flyers, the barn’s equestrian team. As she prepares for her events, mysterious notes appear written in purple pen, encouraging her to keep practicing hard and following her dream. Seim captures both the sense of the community and the drama that comes with finding friends at the barn. It is often achingly sweet, poignantly honest and hysterically funny. (See the moment known as “The incident” with Amara, Oakwood’s star rider.)

Horse Girl also conveys the reality of life with horses. The first, of course, is money. Like many in the real world, weekly lessons are a financial stretch for Wills’s family. Homemade costumes and second-hand riding clothes show up in a way that gives the story unique texture and nuance. Wills also experiences the heart-tugging sadness of changing lesson horses when Clyde Lee comes up lame before the big horse show. While the ending is sweet and satisfying, it isn’t cheap and forced. Clyde doesn’t magically become sound again the way he might in a less careful novel. 

Here is to Wills and her team of #horsegirls! Hopefully, we will see a sequel soon.

Catch Carrie Seim on this Month’s HN Reads with Gretchen Lida. Tune in June 3 at 7:30pm ET on Youtube, Facebook, and HN LIVE!