As a redhead myself, I am often drawn to red-haired characters in stories. Too often, those with red hair get short shrift. Witches and clowns are frequently portrayed with red hair. Redheads are supposed to have violent tempers that flare up at moment’s notice. Then there are the taunts: “I’d rather be dead than red on the head” or “treated like a redheaded step-child.” That one leaves me cringing every time I hear it. Still, in fiction, redheads do have good representation. Take She Who Rides Horses by Sarah V. Barnes as an example.
Barnes features Naya, a redhead and a female, as the first person to tame, train, and ride a horse more than 6000 years ago. Naya discovers the horse she yearns to ride while wandering from her tribe’s camp. The horse is special because it has hair almost the same color as Naya’s. Naya has been giving names to the horses as she watches them. The red one she names Bhokos, meaning Flame.
Naya holds a special place in the tribe because she is the daughter of a clan chief. Still, she is a girl, so she is expected to conform to behavior expected of girls and women. Naya longs for more freedom. Sara, Naya’s mother, gives Naya as much freedom as she can. She too had longed for opportunities when she was a girl. Now, as the clan chief’s wife, she must follow rules and take care of her responsibilities.
Horses represent no more than food for Naya’s tribe. Naya feels the urge to be on the special horse’s back even though no one has ever done that before. Out in the open plain, Naya waits patiently and stays still. Over days of returning to where the horses feed and continuing to wait quietly, Naya finds she can inch ever closer to the horses without causing them to run. The horses are aware of her presence, but she is gaining a little ground each time she visits.
Readers clearly know that Naya will be successful in being able to ride Flame. The story will engage readers on other fronts: Naya’s fierce independence, her strong will, and her determination. Barnes has done a masterful job of portraying a time long ago. Her research in to the period is evident and is woven into the story seamlessly—not as a lecture.
She Who Rides Horses is the first in the series. Readers will look forward to book 2. For book clubs, there is much to discuss: the time period, culture, marriage and child-rearing customs, tribal hierarchy, and the horses themselves.
Sarah Barnes “teaches riding as a meditative art.” Readers will discover that in She Who Rides Horses.