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On Loving, Reading, and Writing Good Horse Books

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Since June of 2020, I have had the honor of hosting HN Reads. It is a show on Horse Network where I get to interview authors whose main subjects are equine. As a die-hard member of the clan of the horse-obsessed, it is a dream come true.

However, My obsession with horse books began long before HN Reads. A tattered picture book called A Mare for Young Wolf sits as a testament to my early literary horse obsession. I plucked it from a Scholastic book fair shelf when I was 6 because the horse on the cover looked like Carabela, a mare owned by my Grandmother. A little bit later, I then inhaled The Secret of the Unicorn Queen, a set of pulpy fantasy novels. The librarian gave them to me when I graduated from high school, and my tentative teen handwriting still graces the check-out card inside each one. When I hit middle school, a scene with a beloved horse in Little Britches left me sobbing through the reading period.

Then I grew up, became a writer myself, and started reading many other things. Nevertheless, the ghost of a horse obsession still creeps in no matter what it is that I am reading. I memorized the horses’ names in The Lord of the Rings, fell in love with the horse in The Far Pavilions, and had my Jamie Fraser crush early because he too was good with horses. More recently, the scene with the mother’s horse in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or the images of the horses left to fend for themselves after the Iranian revolution in Aminata Forna’s The Window Seat haunt me.

Horse books, just like any other genre, still need all the ingredients of any other good book to really sing off the page. Kareem Rosser’s new memoir on his life as a polo player from Philadelphia, Crossing the Line, is a fantastic example of pacing and plot. He has a story to tell and the insight to say to it. In her novel Kept Animals, Kate Miliken masterfully balances the development of her main character, Rory, with Rory’s complicated relationship with the eventing world in which she lives.

A good horse book also knows that horses and the land they live on often blend together. If done well, the horses and the landscape tell you more about each other than they would by themselves. Of course, the most obvious example of this is Misty of Chincoteague. The island the wild ponies live on is just as much a character as the ponies and people on the page. It is also masterfully done in Tim Pear’s The West Country Trilogy. The horses and the countryside in the western corner of the United Kingdom are written so beautifully that it is hard to tell where one ends, and the other begins.

Another way to tell a good horse book from a not-so-good one is how it uses the language of horses. So many books get bogged down by accuracy that they lose the music. Of course, the saddle should sit behind a horse’s shoulder, but above the withers so it doesn’t pinch, and yes, there need to be three turns and a straight away in a barrel race, but use it as music, not as a must. The new middle grade novel Horse Girl is a master class in this, as each new term becomes a tiny bit of wonderment for its preteen protagonist.

The world of horses, horse sport, and horse riders is also fabulously diverse. However, nuance and variety get drowned out by the dominant narratives that include Mustangs, racehorses, or the escapades of the fabulously wealthy. While these are all aspects of the industry that deserve a good story, there are so many equine cultures that deserve to have their stories told. Two books that embrace nuance include Horse Girl, a new anthology edited by Halimah Marcus, and Sarah Maslin Nir’s Horse Crazy.

Lastly, it is essential to remember that part of the lure of loving horses is that they are windows into ourselves. A good horse book is vulnerable, controversial, and unafraid to get a bit messy. A good horse book author has also read widely and far. Even if you do not have the perfect horse book, there are so many wonderful ones to read.

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