Often a late bloomer, I missed the phase of life known as pre-teen-girl-becomes-horse-crazy. Well, I am finally and happily blooming into that phase at almost 70, after moving to a new location where rescued horses and donkeys come with the property. I have the best of both worlds: petting and smelling and feeding treats to three horses without having to pay the feed or vet bills. Which brings me to the subject of reading horse stories, of which there are almost as many as there are dog stories. Nearly overwhelming, but here is a place to start with some of my favorites.
In case you have not read any of Smiley’s excellent books, I recommend this very accessible and lively story set in the thoroughbred horse racing mileau of Southern California. Smiley never seems to write the same story twice–her novels are varied and fully developed. She clearly knows the world of horses and horse racing more than most, and I learned a lot while being entertained. The novel is Dickensonian in scope and story–it’s over 600 pages, with a cast of 50 characters, one of the best being a Jack Russell terrier! And as an added bonus, what I remember most is that this story includes one of the most erotic love scenes I have ever read–but no spoiler from me–you’ll have to find those pages for yourself.
The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts
Here is a true Cinderella story, which none of us can resist even as they may be hard to believe. Farmer and horse lover Harry de Leyer was headed for a horse auction one winter’s day in the mid-1950’s, but arrived too late to bid. Instead he saw a dirty white plow horse headed for slaughter and bought him for $80 just to save the horse’s life. Snowman went on to become a national jumping champion two years later, after de Leyer discovered the horse loved to jump, and was unnaturally steady and calm. In the world of horse jumping in the years after WWII, money and image were everything, and the combination of a young Dutch immigrant farmer paired with a workhorse not known for his looks made a most unlikely pair. An engaging story, well told.
Another Cinderella horse story (is there any other kind?), this memoir captured my interest because both the horse being rescued and the woman who rescues had been abused. Richards, who entered her 40’s with a lot of baggage–years of previous addiction, an abusive family and ex-husband–was asked to rescue an abused mare named Lay Me Down and her foal. Already caring for three horses, Richards was somewhat reluctant to take on two more, especially ones that came with such a rough history. But she soon discovered that her new rescue had more trust and vulnerability than she did, and healing began. Now there is not an animal story that I know of that does not involve loss, and this is no different. This memoir is a quick read, flows smoothly, and may seem like it could be easily forgotten later. But it sticks.
The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss
We have sold so many copies of this book at Darvill’s, I would be surprised if you don’t already own it; it is a long-time staff favorite. Set in Eastern Oregon in 1917, at a time when local men were going off to war, a young Martha Lessen showed up at the Bliss’s ranch looking for work breaking horses. George, the ranch owner, thinks he sees something unique in the shy 19 year old and gives her a chance. She has a serious intelligence, and gentle way with the most recalcitrant animals, a style we have come to know as a “horse whisperer”. This style earns her both new friends and an enemy in the form of another ranch hand who is abusive and insensitive. This story lacks the sentimentality and sappiness of many an animal story–fiction or not. Instead, Gloss has told a story both familiar and fresh, with a wry wit to boot. It is a real winner!
Painted Horses, by Malcolm Brooks
A debut by an author with much potential, I believe, set in mid-1950’s rural Montana. A young female archeologist is sent to Billings to survey the site of a dam about to be built, to determine if native artifacts are present before the dam is filled. She is naive, maybe a bit too much so, yet wary. Her character is not as fully developed as I would have hoped, yet the book delivers a strong sense of place and time (I thought of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his take on horse culture). Brooks’ gift of that spare yet lush description of the West, its rawness and beauty, is evident throughout. He evokes the kind of change that has a dark underside to it and has always been present in the history of the West: those who want it to stay the way it was, and those who thirst for development. This story, enhanced by characters who represent both sides of that classic western drama, is lovely and makes me nostalgic for the days when I first discovered authors like Zane Grey and Ivan Doig.
Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand
Still another rags to riches story, this one set in the depression era when people needed fantasy so badly. Although Seabiscuit had patrician bloodlines (a descendant of Man O’ War), his legs were misshapen and he had a strange gait. But four men, particularly trainer Tom Smith, saw the potential in the horse and trained him to overcome his handicaps, accidents and injuries he suffered as he progressed in his racing career. The highlight of his story was a 1938 race against his acclaimed rival, War Admiral. Hillenbrand is a remarkable writer–passionate and involved with her subjects. She is also famous for Unbroken, which has dominated the best seller list for over four years, and was recently made into a movie. This book set the stage for her to write Unbroken, and it spent over a year on the best seller list itself. Well deserved!