Dream Jobs: Equestrian Series Author

Jessica Burkhart's Canterwood Crest series takes young horse lovers – and herself – into an exciting fictional equestrian world.

by Karen Braschayko

Jessica Burkhart has made a career writing about young equestrians, beautiful horses and growing up in a horse-centered world for her 20-book tween series called Canterwood Crest. Burkhart wrote her first book, “Take the Reins,” at age 19, and the Canterwood series was born. Now 25, she has authored numerous young adult books and values her career as a full-time writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

No longer able to ride because of spinal surgery, Burkhart finds her horse fix in writing about a fictional equestrian boarding school and the horse show world she’d wanted to join. Canterwood Crest Academy, situated in Connecticut, is at the heart of the eventing and show jumping world. Her characters are promising young riders who compete at notable shows and meet top equestrian team scouts. Readers ride along with Sasha Silver and the Canterwood team as they have horse adventures at school and beyond.

Here Burkhart shares how her early passion for horses shapes her work today and how she developed her love for writing.

Jessica Burkhart, author the Canterwood Crest young adult book series

Jessica Burkhart helps readers experience a young rider's world of horse fun and competition through character Sasha Silver and the Canterwood Crest riding team.

Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: What is your background with horses? How did you fall in love with them?

Jessica Burkhart:
I was in love with horses by the age of five. I lived in Ocala, Florida, which is Horse City, and I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a horse or two. I’d make my parents pull the car over so I could get out and reach through the fences to pet any horse that came my way. My neighbors had horses that they let me ride, so I quickly fell for the sport, too.

At ten, I lived in Tennessee and there was a horse stable in my backyard. I started slipping through the fence, climbing onto boarders’ horses and riding the horses bareback around a giant pasture. One owner saw me astride his Appaloosa/Quarter Horse and said, “Girly, you’ve got to get some lessons or you’re going to get hurt.” Thankfully, my inexperience never hurt any of the horses I “borrowed,” and none of the owners ever complained.

Paying for lessons wasn’t something my family could do at the time. So, I started “Jessie’s Tack Cleaning Service.” I wrote out dozens of flyers and handed them out at the stable, Triple Springs, and I got permission from Pam, the stable manager, to post one on the stable bulletin board.

Immediately, I got phone calls! My first job was to clean five Western saddles. Another odd job was to wash a buggy. I did everything and anything that Triple Springs’ boarders called me to do.

I think Pam saw that I would do whatever it took to ride. She offered to give me English lessons if I helped muck out stalls, groom and feed horses. I began with weekly lessons, which progressed to two or three times a week or whenever Pam was free. Soon, Pam let me choose from any of her horses, and I could ride them whenever I wanted.

If I wasn’t in school, I was at the stable. Most days, I wore my paddock boots to school with jeans so I wouldn’t have to waste time changing clothes when I got home. When I wasn’t at the stable or at school, I was reading every book I could get my hands on about horses and watching horse-centered DVDs, like National Velvet, The Black Stallion and Primo Baby

Jessica Burkhart is the author of the Canterwood Crest series starring Sasha Silver and friends

 Jessica Burkhart often joins the Canterwood Crest cover models on photo shoots and films the experience for her YouTube channel. 

After a couple of years of riding stable horses, a boarder that I’d grown close to had a strawberry roan mare for sale. I’d exercised her a few times and was in love with her. She had the smoothest transitions, since she was a double registered Tennessee Walker and American Saddlebred. The boarder saw my bond with Sallie, his mare, and offered to sell her to me – for one dollar.

I trained with Sallie every day and ended up breeding her with an Arabian who belonged to the boarder who’d sold me Sallie. Sallie foaled an albino filly, and I had my first horse to train. I worked with the filly, Misty (guess what horse series I was reading then!), from the second she was born for imprinting. After Misty was fully weaned, I bred Sallie again and she had a gorgeous chestnut filly – Princess Spice.

My life revolved around breaking and training my two young horses and growing as a rider with Sallie. I dreamed of riding for the United States Equestrian Team or owning a stable and training horses.

Unfortunately, and to my complete devastation, that dream came to a screeching halt. At 13, I needed lifesaving surgery for severe scoliosis. I’d had the condition for about five years and wore a plastic back brace, but my spine was twisting into an “S” and pressing on my heart and lungs. I had the worst case the hospital had ever seen. For a while, I’d had heart palpitations and trouble breathing. But I’d tried to hide it and keep working with my horses because I was afraid I’d need surgery.

The doctor, at Shriners Hospital for Children, spoke the words that ended my career: “If you ever ride a horse again and fall off, you could break one or both of the rods we’ll be inserting into your back and become paralyzed.”

At first, I was defiant. I said I’d rather die than have surgery. That changed to, “Fine, I’ll have surgery, but I’m going to risk it and ride anyway.”

I went into surgery thinking I would ride again after a year of required healing. After nine hours under the knife, I emerged with two metal rods in my back, screws, a collapsed lung and a paralyzed leg. Doctors were unable to inflate my damaged lung, so I was transported to another hospital. My lung was inflated and feeling started coming back to my leg.

As I regained some mobility in the two weeks I was hospitalized, I imagined swinging into a saddle and going for a ground-eating gallop. The thoughts that followed shocked me and made me angry at myself. The mere thought of mounting a horse made me nervous. Nervous! The girl who had ridden strange horses bareback, guiding them with their manes at a gallop and holding her hands in the air. The girl who had jumped those same horses over a creek with a four-foot span – still bareback. The girl who had helped a mare birth a stuck foal, who lunged a stallion that no one else could touch, and who had stood on her horse’s back pretending to be vaulting was scared.

I felt as though the doctors hadn’t stopped my career – I had by being afraid. I was ashamed and disgusted with myself.

My parents sold Sallie and her fillies, knowing it was too hard for me to keep them. I made sure everything about horses was eliminated from my life. My family moved to Illinois, and there was no longer a stable in my backyard, so that aided in my desperate need to forget about horses. My life was horse-free for six years, until the idea for Canterwood flashed in my brain.

Jessica Burkhart's equestrian series comes to life on the CanterwoodCrest.com interactive website, her jessicaburkhart87 YouTube channel, and with many fan videos as well.

Equitrekking: What was your inspiration for the Canterwood Crest series? How did you get started as an author at such a young age?

Jessica Burkhart: Canterwood came at a time when, even though I didn’t know it, I was ready to reenter Horse World. I’d been absent for six years, and any horse lover knows that you’re never able to stay away from horses for long. They become part of your blood.

I wanted to write a series that was part childhood fantasy – going to a boarding school and riding – and part needing to find a way back to horses.

Long before Canterwood, though, I practiced writing by penning magazine articles. I started writing for publication at 14. While I was recovering from my back surgery, I read a zillion teen magazines and wondered if I could write articles, too. I got “how to” writing books from my local library and started querying magazine editors. I earned over 100 rejections before I got my first yes.

My first check? I danced around the kitchen holding a check in my name for five dollars. It felt like a million dollars! I saw freelance writing as a way to earn money doing something I was beginning to love – writing. But I was certain there was one thing I’d never write about – horses.

I freelanced from the age of 14 to 19. In November 2006, as a senior in college, I heard about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal of the “contest” is to challenge yourself to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I’d never written book-length fiction before, so I decided to give it a shot.

I had no idea what to write about until Canterwood came along. I pushed it away for a while, but soon I started jotting down notes. Then I did a brief outline, and on November first I began writing “Take the Reins,” the first book in the Canterwood Crest series. That December, the draft was complete. I had an actual book! Sure, it was in rough shape and needed lots of editing, but I had a book.

I’d been blogging all November about my progress, and I posted the summary of “Take the Reins” on my blog. Within days, a literary agent from New York City contacted me and asked to read the story. I made sure it wasn’t a scam and then got to work. There was so much editing to be done. When the story was in good shape, I sent it to the agent. She liked what she read and signed me as a client in January 2007. We worked on revising “Take the Reins” from late January until the end of April. The manuscript went out to editors at publishing houses in May, and within ten days, we’d secured a four-book series with Simon & Schuster.

There was no turning back. I’d fallen in love with horses again through my writing. Canterwood allowed me to be with horses vicariously through my characters. I’d never imagined I’d be writing instead of riding, but I was so in love with my newfound way to be part of Horse World again. 

Jessica Burkhart, author the Canterwood Crest young adult book series

 Author Jessica Burkhart connects with her horse-loving fans, Team Canterwood, on book tours and through an active presence in social media.

Equitrekking: Tell us about your process for writing a Canterwood Crest book. How do you get inspired for a story?

Jessica Burkhart: I usually talk to my editor Kate about an idea for the book, and we brainstorm from there. I’ll compose a chapter-by-chapter outline and she’ll go through it with me – looking for plot holes, places to add something more exciting, or an idea to keep the pace fast. Real experiences from my riding days inspire me, and Kate helps me take them to a different level so they’ll make a good story.

After outlining, it’s time to start writing. It usually takes me six weeks to write a Canterwood book. Lately, though, it’s been longer because I’m battling a tendon problem in my right arm. I have to take lots of breaks, brace and ice my elbow, and sometimes not work the entire day. Thankfully, I’m on the road to finding a surgeon for my injury.

I often do some horse-related research. This summer, it was all about watching the equestrian games at the Olympics.

Equitrekking: What is a typical day like for you, if there is such a thing?

Jessica Burkhart: My days are quite varied, but when I’m writing a book, they tend to be more structured. I usually start writing around 10 in the morning, after answering work emails. I write until I reach my goal page count for the day (usually at least five pages), and then I’ll spend some time doing PR and work on my blog, YouTube channel or website.

There’s never a day when I can check off everything on my list and say that I’m out of things to do that are writing related. After I’m offline, I spend downtime reading and keeping up with what’s being published.

Equitrekking: Do you have any interesting stories to share from meeting your fans?

Jessica Burkhart: I call all of my readers members of “Team Canterwood.” The word fan seems so silly for someone like me.

I did a reading in Rochester, Minnesota, in fall 2011. A cute girl, probably about eight or nine, brought me a strawberry lip gloss in pretty pink plastic wrap! She had read on my site that my obsession with gloss was as strong as my character’s love of it. This awesome member of Team Canterwood thought enough to bring me a present. I felt like a princess!

Equitrekking: What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Jessica Burkhart: Reading emails, snail mail, Facebook notes, Tweets and message board comments from Team Canterwood. I LOVE my readers! They are the absolute best, and they have supported me, my editor/BFF and Canterwood from day one. They’re the reason I want to write forever!

Equitrekking: What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?

Jessica Burkhart: I’m at a bit of a crossroad right now. My publisher has decided to end Canterwood Crest on a high note with book 20, “Home for Christmas.” Now, I have to write the last two books in the series and simultaneously compose proposals for new work.

It takes a long time for publishing contracts to be finalized, so I need to sell a new project before Canterwood ends so I have income. I know writing is my life, and I’ll hustle as much as I need to so that I’m able to always be a full-time writer. 

The latest Canterwood Crest book, "Masquerade," and many aspects of the series are illustrated by video trailers on YouTube.

Equitrekking: You write a variety of young adult and tween fiction, but are you planning more equestrian stories for the future?

Jessica Burkhart: I’m asked daily by members of Team Canterwood if I’m writing any more equestrian stories. The answer is YES! The editor of Canterwood, Kate Angelella, and I have formed our own e-book publishing company, Violet & Ruby Productions. We’re working on a series of horse-centered e-novellas called Wellington Prep. The first e-novella, “dominate,” will be released in the near future, and there will be follow-up e-novellas to complete the series. Ready your e-readers!

As for work through a traditional publishing house, I’ve got several proposals that I’m working on. They cover many age ranges and are all different topics. For now, I have to zip my lips on whether or not any of those are horse centered.

I look forward to continuing to promote Canterwood, writing for Violet & Ruby, and working with my incredible imprint, Aladdin MIX, at Simon & Schuster.

Equitrekking: What advice would you give someone who’d like to write about horses?

Jessica Burkhart: I was lucky enough to be a guest at Girls Horse Club. GHC opened a forum that allowed readers from all over the world to ask me questions about writing, publishing, etc. I answered dozens of questions, and you’ll find the answers along with tons of advice at girlshorseclub.com.

To learn more about Canterwood Crest, visit www.canterwoodcrest.com. For more about Jessica Burkhart and all her projects, head to www.jessicaburkhart.com or jessicaburkhart.blogspot.com.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.