A YEAR AT THE RACES: REFLECTIONS ON HORSES, HUMANS, LOVE, MONEY AND LUCK. Jane Smiley. Alfred A. Knopff. 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Illus. 286 pp. 2004. $22.00.
In her bestseller Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley provided a glimpse into the lives behind horse racing. In A Year At The Races, she gives us a look into the particularly unique world of her own horse ownership, both of race horses and pleasure horses.
If you’re thinking about skipping this book because you’re not interested in racing, think again. Smiley writes about so much more than a year at the races.
It’s both a personal accounting of what a year of owning a race horse is like and a thoughtful musing on the nature of horse ownership altogether.
Smiley intersperses her stories about her horses with discussions of the nature of the equine mind. She explores the way horses think, particularly in relation to their life experiences. And she examines how humans relate to the equine mind.
Some readers may cringe at her discussions of consulting an animal communicator and training with a horse whisperer, but they definitely highlight Smiley’s theme–the bond between man and horse.
One of Smiley’s more fascinating subjects is the idea that a horse’s personality is, to a great extent, formed by the way his dam treats him. She observes the way that her homebreds relate to their dams and watches as their individual personalities develop. Smiley delves deeply into what makes the equine mind tick and how individual humans read those minds differently.
The thread that holds all of Smiley’s semi-rambling thoughts about horses together is the story line of her horses–Waterwheel and Wowie–running at the track–their triumphs and tragedies, their struggles and courage. It’s a roller-coaster ride to which any horse owner, in any discipline, can relate. And it draws the book into a coherent whole.
Smiley’s last paragraph clearly shows just how she sees her life with horses–almost as though it’s one of her novels, with characters and plot lines: “And so, the reward for me, and sometimes it’s a bittersweet reward, is still in seeing how it all turns out–how character and events add up to the appropriate, always appropriate, denouement.”
HORSEPLAY: A NOVEL. Judy Reene Singer. Broadway Books. 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. www.broadwaybooks.com. 292 pp. 2004. $22.95.
Chronicle readers may recognize Jude Reene Singer’s name because she was a frequent contributor in the mid-1990s. If not, they’ll likely recognize her style because it was hard to forget when her humorous articles graced the pages of the magazine.
Singer, who won the Chronicle’s best feature article award in 1996, combines humor and horses into lively and memorable tales that leave you laughing out loud and relating to just about every story.
In Horseplay, Singer’s debut novel, she introduces Judy Van Brunt, a 30-something, married horse aficionado who’s dangling at the end of her marriage rope. When she finally decides to jump ship, she lands in rural North Carolina as the working student to a famous dressage queen, who is, of course, of German descent.
What follows is Van Brunt’s rebirth as a horseman, rider, single and ambitious person with a goal in life.
And all along her new path she meets characters typical of the horse world–women of wealth, women of poverty whose horses live better than they do, men with questionable backgrounds, and, of course, true horse lovers who dedicate their lives to the animals. Just to name a few.
What’s great about this novel is that after the first few chapters I stopped worrying about or looking for the typical “mistakes” that are rampant in most horse-centered fiction. Usually, novels with a horse theme are written by authors who are not horsemen–and it shows. But Singer has cared for her own horses at home and has ridden to the Grand Prix level in dressage. What a difference this makes.
While most of Van Brunt’s adventures are within the realm of possibility, there are a few times when I was surprised at the turn of events. But, hey, that’s what makes fiction so interesting and gives credibility to that phrase, “Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.”
This book is a light and lively read that’s definitely worth picking up, especially if you appreciate the different types of people and interactions that make up the soap opera that is the horse world. If you’ve ever ridden with a serious trainer or stabled your horse in a boarding facility, I’m sure you’ll relate to Van Brunt’s experiences. And you’ll smile many times as you say, “Wow, that character reminds me of _____.”
IN-HAND: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PREPARING & SHOWING YOUR HORSE. K. J. FitzGerald. Half Halt Press, P.O. Box 67, Boonsboro, MD 21713. 127 pp. Photos. Diagrams. 2002. $27.95.
Showing horses in-hand requires patience and practice, just like showing under saddle. The fact that the horses are usually very young adds an exciting wrinkle to the equation.
K.J. FitzGerald, seeking to help both the novice exhibitor and the more experienced, covers plenty of terri-tory in her book. She focuses on dressage and hunter shows, but she also draws on insights gained from other disciplines.
The chapters offer tips on preparation before the show, what to expect on show day, and how to present the horse to its best advantage. Color photos throughout are instructive, giving examples of proper braiding and proper bridle fit, plus illustrating correct techniques of training and showing.
One admirable aspect of FitzGerald’s philosophy is that horses, especially young horses, are not hothouse plants to be fattened and stall-bound. She
insists, “To develop a good mind, a young horse needs the freedom of a pasture and the companionship of other equines. The need for this development of mind surpasses any reason to show.”
The chapter “Grooming, Appearance and Presentation” addresses preparations for the show ring, not only the horses but also for the handlers. The section “To Shave or Not to Shave?” addresses whether horses should be shaved nearly naked for the show ring. She writes, “Whiskers and other body hair serve a specific purpose for the horse. Whiskers increase a horse’s sensitivity to his immediate surroundings and are useful to animals turned out at night.”
She then describes how to trim and neaten ears, muzzles and fetlocks for the show while leaving the horse’s natural protection intact.
Also, FitzGerald addresses safety concerns regarding the reality of handling these large, lovely but volatile animals. “Horses outweigh humans by more than a half-ton, they can outrun and outmaneuver us just as a speedboat can outmaneuver a slow-moving manatee,” she writes.
Her chapter “Training Techniques” should be required reading to novice and apprentice trainers of in-hand horses. She emphasizes that frequent and proper handling of horses from birth makes them much easier to train and safer to the handler and others in the show environment.