The acclaimed novelist is also a dressage rider and a lifelong horse lover
By Patti Schofler
When you’re reading a Maisie Dobbs mystery, something tells you that New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline Winspear knows horses. No, these aren’t horse books, but horses appear in Winspear’s novels with considerable authenticity.
A scrupulous researcher, Winspear points out that horses were part of life in central London in the first half of the twentieth century, the time period in which her books are set. What’s more, Winspear, 66, has two obsessions: writing and horses, especially dressage horses.
Her dual passions dictate the rhythm of her day. After a morning walk, Winspear sits down to write for four hours. After a bit to eat, she goes to the barn, rides her horse, and spends as much time at the barn as she can. Then the British expat returns to her California home, has a cup of tea, and writes for a couple more hours.
The disciplined schedule has enabled Winspear to turn out 16 historical mysteries since 2002. Fans have followed the adventures of British investigator and psychologist Maisie Dobbs through World War I and into World War II. Winspear has also penned two nonfiction books and another novel set during World War I.
Winspear was a horse-crazy kid, but during her childhood in the rural county of Kent, England, a horse was out of reach for her family. The closest riding stable was at a boarding school attended by the likes of Princess Anne. But Winspear jumped on a horse whenever the chance presented itself. She got her love of horses from her late father, Albert Winspear, who rode London cart horses when he was a kid, and relates the tale of how her father learned to ride: Toward the end of World War II, while serving in the British military, Albert Winspear was stationed at a barracks in Germany where the Nazis had housed cavalry mounts. “The Germans had hightailed it out of there, but they left the groom to care for the horses, and the groom taught my father how to ride like a gentleman,” she says.
Winspear herself was a largely self-taught rider until her twenties, when she began learning to ride “properly,” as she puts it, with an equestrian education that included jumping and dressage. Then in 1990 she and her husband, John Morrell, moved to California, settling in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Riding and Writing
Writing and dressage have many similarities, Winspear contends. “The wonderful writer and great horsewoman Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, said, ‘Riding is a complicated joy; it’s never quite the same, and you never know it all.’ And it’s the same with writing. Every time you warm up your horse, you’re back to the same basics. When riding on any day, you could be doing an exercise or movement that someone is being asked to do on the very first day they get on a horse. And every time you start a new writing project, you have the same blank page ahead of you, and you’re in the warm-up.”
And both pursuits, of course, require discipline and focus.
“When you go into the arena, all your attention has to be focused on what you are doing because if it’s not for even a split second, your horse thinks, ‘Where did she just go?’ And you can go into the zone when everything is going right and where you just feel the lightness of being on your horse.
“If I’m doing anything worth doing,” Winspear continues, “I have to give that my full attention. I definitely get into the zone when I’m writing. The other day, it was very hot where I live. I kept the curtains closed and had the A/C on. I stopped work to get a bite to eat, and when I stepped outside, I was shocked to realize that I was in California. I had been so immersed my work, I thought I was in 1930s London.
“Writing takes such dedication. And then there is this other obsession. Your horse dies, and you say you can’t stand the heartbreak. You think you’ll never going to do this again. And then there is a lovely horse that walks by.”
That, in fact, is how the Dutch Warmblood Calvary Sinclair came into Winspear’s life. Her mother had died in late 2015, and she needed to return to England to tend to her mother’s affairs when Oliver, her Friesian, was slated for surgery to remove a keratoma. Winspear left town in February 2016, and all went well with the surgery. But a day or so later her dressage trainer, Becky Cushman, called to say that Oliver was back in surgery after suffering a twisted bowel. Sadly, the prognosis was determined to be poor.
“Becky called me and said it was time to call it. I wasn’t able to say goodbye,” Winspear says.
The day after Oliver was euthanized, Winspear went for a walk near her parents’ home, taking the path past Paul McCartney’s recording studio and through a farm. “In the field,” she recalls, “I stroked the horses when they approached me and then told them to leave me alone because I had to go. I walked down the hill and thought, good Lord, one of those horses is right behind me. I could hear him. I could feel the horse behind me, following me. I turned around ready to say, ‘Go away,’ but I saw no horse.” She felt a chill. “I knew Oliver was with me.”
Back home in California, Winspear hung out at the barn. One day in June, Cushman invited her to cool out the big dark bay she was riding. It was Cavalry Sinclair, aka Calvin.
“Of course, walk went into trot, and that led to ‘What do you mean he’s for sale?’” Winspear says. “And I bought him. He’s a beautiful boy, a lovely temperament. Becky says we’re made for each other because we both really like to get things right. And if we don’t, we get upset.”
Last year Cushman moved from Marin County to Port Townsend, Washington, and Winspear moved to southern California. She explains, “I had a book coming out, and I was on deadline for another I was writing. Life was getting crazy. I asked Becky to take Calvin with her so I would l know he was being taken care of.”
This summer and into the fall, Winspear has leased a cottage in Washington so that she can write, hang out at the barn, and ride Calvin—after her shoulder heals, that is. Winspear says sheepishly that while she was looking at a dog while on a bike ride, she rode over a tree root and crashed. The incident got her thinking about a riding accident she’d had 20 years ago, when she—like most equestrians—wanted to know if, and how soon, she would ride again. Her doctor replied wryly that “one of the great failures of her medical career was that she never stopped anyone from riding a horse.”
Horses, it seems clear, are part of Winspear’s own plot line for many years to come.