FRIGHTEN THE HORSES: A Rusty Coulter Mystery. Kurth Sprague. Writers Club Press, New York. 333 pp. 2003. $19.95.
Kurth Sprague mixes his own interest in the horse show world with his love of literature, imbuing Rusty Coulter, the main character of Frighten The Horses, with a strong passion for both.
Sprague, a devoted Texan horseman who authored The National Horse Show: A Centennial History, 1883-1983, has had several books of his own poetry and short stories published while lecturing at the University of Texas. But this mystery novel is a complete departure from Sprague’s previous literary efforts.
Written with a sophisticated spin on the first-person-narrative style of a Sam Spade detective novel, Sprague combines the world of academia with the hunter/jumper scene.
Once a champion hunter rider, Coulter has been banned from the ring because of illegally tranquilizing a horse–a charge he denies and knows he was framed for. Now divorced and a little world-weary, Coulter works hard at losing himself in the world of university literature but keeps his hand in the horse world by helping out at a local boarding stable.
The novel opens with the death of the English department chairman, a brilliant, charismatic but mostly hated man. Sprague wastes no time in moving the novel along, introducing all the potential killers via Coulter’s daily encounters with them at the university and through his dual life as a horseman.
The investigating detective enlists Coulter’s help, and he’s soon embroiled in a classic whodunit, with all the appropriate twists and turns in the plot line.
One of the reasons the English department chairman is so reviled involves his wholesale dismissal of lecturers–a reflection of a real-world problem as university officials try to educate and balance their budgets at the same time. As the involved professors discuss this issue with Coulter, Sprague manages to take academics from the realm of the mundane to the nitty gritty real world.
He also takes a hard look, through a parallel story line, at the less-than-glamorous, behind-the-scenes world of the hunter ring. A crooked trainer, who uses a glib tongue and some nefarious ruses to squeeze the best from his horses and students, runs headlong into a conflict with the older and wiser Coulter, who tries to save a horse and a teenage girl from the man’s grasp.
Sprague cleverly makes this book different by making Coulter a multi-dimensional character; he’s a believable and fallible man who often drinks too much and falls prey to his insecurities. Coulter’s dual worlds act as a vital vehicle that moves the story forward and layers the plot with complexity.
Coulter’s narrative is sprinkled liberally with literary allusions and steeped heavily with references to the high-stakes world of the East Coast show ring. Sprague does a terrific job of opening the doors to both worlds. The book would entertain someone who knows nothing of either, because, at its heart, it’s truly a good mystery story.
WILD HORSES: THE LAST SURVIVING HERDS. Elwyn Harley Edwards. Hylas Publishing, 129 Main Street, Irvington, N.Y. 10533. 144 pp. 2004. $24.95.
British writer Elwyn Hartley Edwards, author of several classics about domestic horses–including the venerable The Encyclopedia of the Horse–this time turns his educational focus to the world’s wild and feral horses.
Edwards’ latest work weaves together the history and present state of feral herds around the world, including zebras and asses, in the glossy 13-chapter volume. Striking full-page photographs add context and keep the reading light in this coffee-table-sized book.
A look at the 60-million-year history of the horse, originating as the Equus caballus on the American continent, sets the stage for historical accounts of equine survival and adaptation. Edwards points out that many of these animals cannot rightfully be called wild because even some of the most remote herds still have a dependence on man.
It is the pressures of the modern environment, explains Edwards, that have depleted many of the herds. One chapter is devoted to “the tiger horse of Africa”–zebras–which likely roamed all over Europe before “indiscriminate shooting” depleted their striped ranks to just three principal species.
Another interesting chapter tells the story of how the million or more Mustangs that roamed the western American plains at the beginning of the 20th century have now been reduced to around 30,000. The present herds are protected by law and watched over by the federal government and numerous welfare and conservation organizations to ensure this integral piece of American heritage is preserved.
In a story similar to that of the Mustang, the Brumbies of Australia descended from horses that strayed from mining settlements in the 1800s. Edwards describes how the Australian herds haven’t received the same support from conservation agencies as the American Mustang. When the Brumbie population increased enough to cause a nuisance in the 1960s, thousands were killed off in mass slaughters–provoking criticism from around the world. The pet food industry also encouraged the hunting at the time, making the shooting of feral horse “an acceptable weekend sport for many Australians.”
Edwards gives a succinct history of the world’s wild and feral horses with just enough interesting facts sprinkled in to store away for moments that call for some equine trivia.
AMERICA’S HORSES: A Celebration of the Horse Breeds Born in the U.S.A. Moira C. Harris. The Globe Pequot Press. P.O. Box 480, Guilford, CT 06347. 214 pp. Illus. 2003. $29.95.
Ever ridden a Florida Cracker Horse or hacked out on an Azteca? Groomed a Bashkir Curly or braided the mane of an American Creme Horse?
This well-photographed and easily read volume details the development of nearly two dozen breeds that call America their home base. While some are nearly unknown far from their point of origin–such as the Colorado Ranger Horse–others, like the American Quarter Horse, enjoy widespread popularity. And children all around the world have heard about and read the story of Misty–Chincoteague Island’s most treasured pony.
Harris (editor of Horse Illustrated magazine) and photographer Bob Langrish have compiled stories and histories of equines large and small. Twenty-three breeds are profiled and each chapter includes color photos, a section on breed history and characteristics, names of well-known representatives, and sometimes a paragraph describing comparable breeds.
Thus we learn that William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame is a vocal Saddlebred supporter, that the Danish Knabstrupper (a loudly spotted, colorful warmblood) is similar to the Appaloosa, and that in 1963 White Beauty was born–the first registered white Thoroughbred in America.
In addition, Harris has chronicled the emergence, disappearance and reintroduction of the horse in North America. She reminds us that with the arrival of humans in America approximately 15,000 years ago, the horse mysteriously began to disappear and was absent from the land until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the late 15th century.
Part photo essay and part reference manual, this book will appeal not only to specific breed aficionados, but also to anyone interested in a “made-in-the-USA” product.