Raja - Story of a Racehorse, by Anne Hambleton. Illustrations by Margaret Kauffman

Raja – Story of a Racehorse, by Anne Hambleton. Illustrations by Margaret Kauffman

Many of us who love horses often think, “how does my horse feel?” And more, when they are doing something we aren’t happy with, “why are they doing that?” The answers are often vague, or never really answered to our satisfaction. We still wonder how our horses think and admire those trainers who seem to have the answers and know the horses so well.

We are told we need more “experience”, or have to spend a lifetime in the horse world to find the answers, or have to study horsemanship for many years under esteemed trainers, or embrace popular commercial training systems to find the answers. But wait.

I have news for everyone. It’s not a mystery, and Anne Hambleton has proved my theory in her delightful yet somber effort about a fictional Thoroughbred race horse.

Ms. Hambleton has delved into the way a horse feels about the circumstances of his life in an empathetic fashion and has included everything a horse could experience. This empathetic approach is very important, and what makes the book charming and suited to children, proved by the awards won by Raja, Story of a Racehorse: the IPPY Award Bronze Medalist for Juvenile Fiction, Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist for Young Readers Fiction (8-12), Winner of Mom’s Choice Gold Medal, and Kirkus 2012 Best of Indie Selection. So what is this empathy thing, and why is it important, especially for children?

Empathy is the phenomenon of the mutuality of shared experience. It’s important, especially in our society today because of the distance that the internet and online part of our world creates in individuals. Children raised to learn from a screen, to play games with a computer rather than a living being, can be dangerously socially inept and can develop to adulthood without emotional controls that normally socialized children have. It’s being studied as “technology-induced social isolation”, a fancy way of saying the internet can make us lonely. Finding ways to help kids understand how a dumb animal might think and act, goes a long way toward creating empathetic adults. So we need to raise children who are empathetic, who can relate to another living being that feels pain and has real emotions. They need to see how an animal thinks and feels from the animals’ point of view. Not just sympathetic — which is the ability to feel for another’s situation, but empathetic – the ability to share the experience.

Empathy is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”. So empathy is a deeper emotional experience, and in Raja’s case, it is a teaching experience about horsemanship and the way that horses think and react in normal ways to the environment they live in. Feed, weather, handling, shipping, learning how to be ridden or learning to race, they are all covered — Anne provides a scenario of how she thinks Raja would react, feel, and live his life all comprehensively told from Raja’s point of view. I think this book should be required reading of every Pony Clubber, 4-H’er, and young rider in the country; it’s that good about teaching horsemanship.

I recognize many of Raja’s experiences and I think I might even know a few of the people she writes about. Raja’s story moves from birth to the track and beyond, but I’m not going to give away all of the story. Suffice it to say you will enjoy the timeline and the writing, and you won’t be without a few tears, either. My favorite yet most emotional line is when Raja says:

Pick me. I know dressage.

Rugby won my copy! Photo by Rebecca Grenier

Rugby won my copy! Photo by Rebecca Grenier

Boy, I didn’t even finish that chapter after that line, it took me two days to pick the book back up and finish it. I can’t even write that line in this blog without tearing up, because I know how hard it is to find homes for ex-racehorses and how difficult it is to explain why it is so critical that these horses find good homes when they can no longer race.

It has torn my heart more than once to hear of horses that have fallen through the cracks and ended up starved, neglected, or dead from ill treatment, disease, or injury when simple care would have avoided such misery.

Rather than such a sad note, I’d like to end on a good note. My own ex-racehorse actually won me my copy of Raja, Story of a Racehorse last Sunday at the Fair Hill All-Thoroughbred horse show! How’s that for neat? Thank you, Rugby!

Raja, Story of a Racehorse is now available in paperback on Amazon.

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