It’s time to select your summer reading material for those long days at the barn or show, and the memoir Mirror Horse, by Canadian-British rider, artist, and musician Tamara Williamson, is a perfect place to start.
Filled with emotion, humour, and passion for all things equine, her story is also packed with memorable characters, especially the ponies and horses who have passed through Williamson’s hands over the years. While being an insider’s look at the sport (full disclosure, I edited an earlier version of the manuscript), Mirror Horse is also a deeply moving portrait of one woman’s journey to understand herself through the animals she loves.
A one-time fixture on the Ontario equestrian scene, the London-born/Uxbridge-based Williamson has led a varied and creative life as a multidisciplinary storyteller, musician, songwriter, producer, playwright, multimedia artist, podcaster, and equestrian. She has toured internationally as a musician, recording albums as a solo artist and with her band Mrs. Torrance, and created the award-winning alternative musical-theatre production, The Break-Up Diet. Then there’s Williamson horsey life, where she’s run her own stables, coached, competed, and continues to create music for dressage freestyles. And it was this part of her journey that she chose to focus on for her first book.
The release of Mirror Horse also has an altruistic component; Williamson will donate 20 per cent of her royalties to the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition, an organization that is lobbying to end inhumane horse slaughter transport practices.
We spoke to Williamson about what went into writing her memoir and what she hopes readers might take away from it.
Horse Canada: You’ve had a varied and fascinating career in the arts, as well as your riding. What inspired you to tackle horses and the horse world as the focus of your memoir?
Tamara Williamson: I suppose what inspired Mirror Horse were the stories and the horses. Because I sold my last horse Fletcher in 2017, I had enough time and distance to reflect on my horse life and some of the amazing journeys it took me on. As I was typing, a whole load of feelings and other memories started to surface and all of a sudden, I had a book.
It’s troubling when you look back on your life and feel more than when you were living it. But that’s also what happened. Writing the book took hold of me and brought me to some kind of closure.
I actually started writing this book many years ago. I wrote the Pony Club chapters but ground to a halt. My thought at the time was, who would want to read about my childhood? and I stored these first few chapters away. Then Covid happened and I wasn’t performing music or theatre, so I had all this spare time. I re-read those first few chapters and thought, “Ha. That’s actually quite interesting.” And so I kept going. I had no plan, no idea where the book would take me or what I was trying to say. I just let it run.
You don’t name names, but you’ve ridden with or been involved in the horse business with upper-level dressage riders who are somewhat recognizable by their descriptions. Have you told these pros about your book?
TW: I did tell one. Her reaction was fairly strong, but she understood that this book was written about what it felt like through my eyes, not hers. It’s tricky, it’s a memoir so I had to write what happened. My perspective was also somewhat unique in that I was a rock musician stepping off a tour bus and back into horses in my mid-thirties. I was looking at the industry with wide, clear eyes. I am happy though that I got the chance to talk about some great training experiences and people I consider to be unsung heroes in the horse industry like vets, blacksmiths, cowboys, and barn staff.
[Ultimately] memories are funny things. My recollections of events may be different from the trainers that I alluded to. I tried to be fair, but I think anyone in the horse industry knows that when money, power and horses are involved, sometimes things can go sideways. Sport in general to me is a little like a microcosm of the world at large. We humans are capable of most behaviours and we sometimes make bad decisions. These days I’m a great believer in mentors and discussing your actions with someone you trust.
What has been your main life lesson that horses taught you?
TW: That I probably shouldn’t write so much about other people (joking). I think that any great passion is not going to mend you, it’s not going to cure you. It might help you feel joy and love while you’re doing it, but if you are not feeling whole, if you’re too messed up inside, then you need to do some work. Understanding why you behave the way you do will help you and ultimately your horse, but that can only happen if you get the shovel out and do some soul digging.
Are you still involved in the sport?
TW: I help my niece Hannah Peach on her six-year-old Thoroughbred mare Whiskey. We are hoping to take her eventing this summer. I teach riding at Woodlands Equestrian, helping kids and we do some important charity work. I also muck stalls four mornings a week at my friend’s barn. It’s a great way to start the day. So horses are still very much a part of my life and my relationship with horses has become warmer since writing this book. It’s good.
What was the biggest challenge writing this equestrian memoir?
TW: I suppose one of the challenges was the balance of explaining enough details that non-horse people would understand and horsey people wouldn’t get annoyed. For instance, something like a surcingle with side reins. “[It’s] errr, a big belt that goes around the horse’s belly with reins that attach…to… the…?” It’s hard and can be clunky. But I still wanted to put enough detail in that the non-horsey reader would understand the skill level involved in this complex sport. I also worried that horsey people might disagree with some of the information.
So it was difficult at times, and as I mention in the book, I have a pretty substantial learning disorder ‒ dyslexia and a strange type of ADHD. My grammar and spelling are appalling. In fact, spell check often can’t even recognize what I’m getting at, and my sentences are often front to back. I never in a million years thought I would write a book. Yet here I am, thanks to friends and editors.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
TW: What I have learned from being a performer is that an audience member will go on their own journey. They will create their own story and no two people will probably feel or experience the same emotions while reading anything. I just hope it’s positive.
I am also hoping that the book will not just be read by horse people and will be a window into a world that maybe some people might judge from the outside. There is a lot of knowledge in equestrian sport and tons of history between man and horse. It’s part of almost every person’s ancestry and culture. We owe a lot to this animal.
What’s next for your creative career – more music, another book?
TW: I hope another book. I have some ideas, but this book has been an undertaking. I painted the cover for Mirror Horse and decided to try and paint all the horses that I mention in the book. I’m only at number seven – you can see some of the paintings on my website. I’d like to paint more, it’s a great joy.
I have also only just finished recording the audio book which took me about three months and was without doubt the most frustrating thing I have ever tried to do. I’m hoping to do performances maybe with readings from this book, The Break-Up Diet and the song Mirror Horse.
Published by Douglas & McIntyre, Mirror Horse is available now at Amazon, Indigo and independent booksellers.