Really Good Books About Horses

Oh, the horse show? You’re wondering about my horse show. Rough Start: Bella was in a raging, psycho heat and threw a full-on tantrum when I mounted (bucked and tried to run into an empty stall). Strategy: We cantered around the outside of the warm-up pen yelling “RAIL! RAIL! RAIL!” to keep other unfortunates from being run over until two seconds before we were due in the ring. Strong Finish: The second she saw the dressage arena she exhaled happily, trotted in like a lamb, executed two lovely tests, put us in the ribbons (first show!). And I looked remarkably like Mr. Bingley in my fluffy stock tie and pin and tall boots and four-button jacket, complete with moon-faced grin.

Okay, this is literally the last thing about horses that you, or my immediate family will hear about from me for the next few months, promise. I can’t even get into the amazing children’s and young adult options out there: Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, the Saddle Club, Anna Sewell…NATIONAL VELVET? Have you even READ National Velvet? It’s extraordinary! But these are for grown-ups, mostly, and they’re wonderful.

Chosen by a Horse, Susan Richards — This is really an intensely beautiful memoir about being a damaged person, and trying to heal yourself; the horse just happens to be the medium for that healing. I cried, my mom cried, we all cried. There’s a sequel! She finds love! Remember that, as you’re reading. She finds love; it is the only way.

Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life, Samantha Dunn — Okay, this is also a memoir about being a damaged person, and trying to heal yourself. Except, in this case, the damage is FROM the horse, and causes you to reflect on a lifetime of placing yourself in danger. Horses, man. Don’t let them land on you.

In Service to the Horse, Susan Nusser — It’s out of print (a couple of these are, but Amazon has loads of used copies), which infuriates me, because the perspective of horsiness it provides is so unique and vital: the grooms. Paid grooms in the United States, of course, fall chiefly into two camps: extremely wiry teenage white girls, and Latino men, invariably referred to around a certain type of snooty barn as (brace yourself) “your Mexicans.” “How many Mexicans do you have?” “Get one of your Mexicans to do it.” “Can I borrow a Mexican?” This is a book about the relationship between grooms and the horses they take care of. I would also recommend William Nack’s Secretariat, which, unlike the EXECRABLE MOVIE, focuses extensively on the bond Secretariat shared with Eddie Sweat, his black handler.

Riding Lessons, Sara Gruen — Cheesy middle-brow romance novel alert! It’s, um, it’s something. I’ve read it, and the sequel, about nine times. Unlike her classier novel, Water for Elephants, it is not yet a major motion picture. (Fingers crossed!)

Ruffian: Burning From the Start, Jane Schwartz — There are very few happy endings in horse racing. And this isn’t one of them. When I watch Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta decimate their male competition, I always think about Ruffian. And then I get nervous.

Some Horses, Thomas McGuane — McGuane, a novelist and screenwriter by trade, is here to bring an earthier, Western note to our dorky English riding fest. Horses are a livelihood, too, in much of the country, and ranch horses are a completely different beast. His essay on cutting horses? Perfect. There is NOTHING like watching a skilled cutting horse work cows, and, trust me, the best thing their rider can do is stay the hell out of their way.

Centered Riding, Sally Swift — This is the only book ABOUT riding that I’m including. Sally Swift, who just passed away at the age of 95 a few years ago, was a complete genius of physical alignment and balance in the saddle. I thought about including George Morris’ Hunter Seat Equitation, instead, which is also uniformly excellent, but Sally Swift never tries to assert that what your riding really lacks is a ninety pound blonde girl to take your place in the saddle. Oh, and your saddle pad is too dingy. He’s a billion years old, he’s a legend, we’re all lucky to benefit from his knowledge, etc.

Chestnut Mare, Beware / In Colt Blood, Jody Jaffe — Jaffe has stopped writing these hilarious little horsey mysteries, having (no happy endings in horses!) lost Brenda Starr, the titular chestnut mare who inspired them, but that’s no reason we can’t love the ones she’s already written. And there’s a George Morris cameo!

If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession
, Susanna Forrest — Written by a ‘Pinner, everyone! I kvelled. It’s ADORABLE and funny and relatable.

(Dick Francis having been discussed already, and Jane Smiley being purposely left off because of this incident, which I frown upon. But, um, Horse Heaven is actually really entertaining.)