Monday, April 30, 2012


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.)

71 Comments / Post A Comment

Reginal T. Squirge

I'm glad you were able to rein it in.

Nicole Cliffe

I was worried we'd have to hoof it out of there.


@Nicole Cliffe And that you got to see the mane events!

Does "in the ribbons" mean you got a red/blue/whatever 4H-style? Or do you mean you placed in a ranking?

Asked she who was thrown off a horse in an argument with another horse at diabetic summer camp at the age of 6 and never really got into the horse thing after, and only would be a wrangler camp counselor at diabetic summer camp because she liked the kids that rose because they were oddballs.

Nicole Cliffe

@PistolPackinMama Someone walked off with their test, so they're hanging onto them and mailing the rest out. I BELIEVE we came in third in our division.

Also, yes, they are oddballs.


@Nicole Cliffe Hay now, don't be so negative.


This is one of the best ones. How times have changed.@t


Love the Tom McGuane. A truly awesome book, especially about training cutting horses, which is just OMFG.

And dissent on George Morris. Invented the crest release, so that kids with no seat could buy horses that cost as much and houses and show 3'6". If they'd had to manage an automatic release before they got to go to big shows then 25 years later the hunters wouldn't look like western pleasure with jumps.

And ditto Horse Heaven, most amazing horse novel ever. But also Jane how could you, to Waterwheel? And A Year at the Races, about Waterwheel and her others. Weird to hear horse-woo from a really smart woman.


@noReally Can you...explain about George Morris in other words? It sounds interesting, but I am horse stupid and can't actually figure out what you're talking about to any real extent.


@noReally AHHH George Morris. What an ass. I love that his solution to all horse problems is "lose weight." I remember an article in Practical Horseman (back when they were legit) when he did his critique and commented on a woman's weight. She wasn't thin, but she certainly wasn't too heavy for her horse, and people got OUTRAGED and he was like, WHATEVER IF YOU WANT TO BE AN ATHLETE. He can fuck right off.

It makes me delightfully happy that when he gave a clinic at a barn when I worked and rode, he fell off over a fence when a horse stopped and had the nerve to yell at the owner for not telling him the horse was a stopper. Dude, if you are the Olympic coach, surely you should be able to feel it when a horse is going to quit on you, and stay on if they do. (...says the girl who doesn't jump anymore because of fear and falling)


Seriously? Well. In way back times, the correct upper body position for jumping a horse was called an automatic release, or following hand. You kept a straight line from your elbow to the horse's mouth, and didn't use them for balance. But it's really hard. You have to have a very secure seat (lower body position) in order to do it right. And if you lose your balance you either pile up on the horse's neck or sock him in the mouth with the bit. So when you were first starting to jump, you were taught to grab the horse's mane (doesn't hurt him) to steady yourself. Then, as you got better at staying balanced with your lower body, you let go of the mane and followed with your hands. Kind of mane = training wheels.

Then George Morris (not alone, by any means, but he's kind of the king) started teaching people to lean on their hands (he said "press") on the top of the horse's neck. He/they named this a crest release, and it is much easier to learn and much more secure for a less experienced rider. And it became the standard in horse show judging. Where in 1955 if you'd been in an equitation class and rested your hands on the mane over the jumps you'd have been marked down against someone who used an automatic release, in 1963 or so George published Hunt Seat Equitation, and by the late 70s the crest release was all anyone taught, and all you needed to win at the highest levels.

The crest release was easier to learn, and students become competent much more quickly. Kid goes from beginner classes to fancy horse shows a lot faster. Mercenary on the part of horse trainers? Merely practical? Actual innovation? Depends who you ask. There are those who advocate the classical method, for sure. For control, for the value of correct basics. Because of GM's legendary reputation as a dick head, you have to think his very low opinion of his students contributed to his no longer trying to teach them the best way to do things, and to use his incredible clout to change the judging conventions to suit.

My crack about western pleasure refers to a huge drop in the acceptable pace for hunter and equitation courses. The standard used to be "boldness" and "brilliance" and now what wins is dead, dead quiet. Some feel that this too reflects a change in the judging standard to reward a lower level of riding. Also the trend from lightly built, hotter-tempered Thoroughbreds to more stolid warmbloods. Also a shit ton of doping.


@noReally Thanks! I got caught up on crest - I was thinking of it in the "coat of arms" way, and thought maybe you were saying something about class. Which you kind of were, but not in that way!


@noReally That was an excellent summary of the development of the current American hunter scene. If you read the more recent Morris Practical Horseman articles, you see that he advocates transitioning to an automatic release once the rider is competent. I'm also always amused when he has to critique cross-country event riders and talks about how the colors are distasteful and their position is not ideal. Yay, ponies!


Where is The Horse Whisperer on this list?! I've read it multiple times and I still love it.

Tuna Surprise

@whimseywisp - I'm not a horsebooker but I loved Buck, the documentary about the 'real' Horse Whisperer. It was streaming on Netflix last time I checked.

Nicole Cliffe

So fantastic. I found it very difficult to watch the parts about his awful father, though, honestly. It was horrifying to imagine.

The Hons

No Jilly Cooper?

Nicole Cliffe

I do love "Riders"!

The Hons

@Nicole Cliffe Rupert makes me a little squicky in that one! I think I like "Polo" better--Perdita is such a delightful bitch.


nicole, sorry to make things sad in here for a minute, but were you by any chance aware of the girl at our mutual alma mater who died fall of 2009 falling off a horse/the horse falling on her? she was in my class, it was both of our senior year, i was acquainted with her through lit mag stuff and since the main thing i knew about her prior to the accident was how joyously and wholeheartedly she loved horses, the whole thing left me pretty shaken. did the story come across your radar at all?

Nicole Cliffe

Yeesh, it did (via, of all things, the alumni magazine). I graduated in 2005, so I didn't know her personally. It sounded like such a tragic, freak accident.



Or just get like a billion of those Thouroughbred and Saddle Club books.

The Horse Whisperer taught me what an erection was. (Three cheers for laissez-faire parenting!)



Man, I had assloads of the Saddle Club and Thoroughbred books. Also in the realm of middle-grade lit, I think we can all agree that the 14th Animorphs book (AKA The One Where Cassie Morphs A Horse On The Cover) is the best early Animorphs book.


@Interrobanged Remember the Saddle Club book where one of the instructors gets married? I made a diorama of the wedding cake topper with the toy horses on top for class. I was nine? And "borrowed" my mom's springform cake pan? Aaaand discovered that you shouldn't try to put paper on a cake pan with Elmer's glue.


@Interrobanged ALL the Saddle Club books! One episode that sticks out is when Stevie is passing out leg wraps and gives one to Veronica with "GUCCI GUCCI GUCCI" written all over it--bless baby me, I had no idea what it meant.

The Lady of Shalott

I have a question!!! So I just watched that (awesome) video of cutting horses, and I want to know--how much does the rider do in that case? I mean, it doesn't LOOK like they're doing much, but what I know about horses and riding could fill a thimble, so I have no idea. Is the horse doing most of the work? Is the rider? Is...the cow doing it somehow? TEACH ME, PINNERS!!!

Nicole Cliffe

It's all about the horse. You have to be a good rider to sit it, but the horse is full-on working that cow, absolutely.


The rule is, you pick the cow, then lay down the reins and grab the saddle horn, and the horse is driving. Until the bell rings or the cow gets past. It is a-mazing.

And also, completely unlike actually sorting cattle. In that way it is like every other kind of competition on horses, pretty much completely divorced (or maybe in some cases you could say evolved) from its origins. Dressage was about battle. Equitation resemble fox hunting not at all. Like that.


@The Lady of Shalott
I think of cutting as more of an exhibition of your training than your riding. You do have to be a good rider to get out of your horses way and not throw them off when they are in that "zone" that cow ponies have. But it is mainly a show of the years of training you've put into that horse to get it there.


@The Lady of Shalott I do the UK equivalent, the rounding up of the feral New Forest ponies for their regular checks and things. The pony I ride must be half border collie - I just sit there and tell her which pony we are aiming at, she does the rest.
We've also done bringing in cows from the New Forest, but that was waaaay slower and we gently persuaded them to go where we wanted, there was very little above a walk! UK cows I think are less energetic than US ones.


You just had to bring up Ruffian, didn't you.

Not Quite Maclay

Nicole Cliffe you are my hero horse-article-writer! My young horse is going to his first dressage show this weekend and I'm already having nightmares!

Nicole Cliffe

My only actual advice that ISN'T totally dependent on your horse is to take an Ambien and a glass of red wine at nine o'clock the night before your show, and be asleep by quarter to ten. You'll be fabulous, have fun!

Amy Vogelgesang@facebook

For true childhood reminscing, the Pullein Thomson sisters can't be beat. (I know they are children's books, but I still re-read them!) Ponies in the Forest, Prince Among Ponies (my favourite, a dapple grey). Bliss. Thanks for the list Nicole!!!


@Amy Vogelgesang@facebook Have you got their collective childhood memoir - fair girls on grey horses? It's a cracking read.


What about Steinbeck's "The Red Pony?" It is depressing! All the horses die horrible deaths! At least, that is the memory I have from when it was ASSIGNED in fifth grade. In hindsight: what the h kind of book is that to force ten-year-olds to read?


@CrossWord Oh my god, I had to read it 8th grade and it was traumatic enough then.


I love your horse articles so much. I'll be sad to see them go (but not as sad as every damn horse movie ever. They're worse than dog movies even!).


@photoalice I refused to watch Game of Thrones after they killed off the dog/wolf. CANNOT HANDLE.


Also also also - Thelwell ponies. Hilarious cartoons, highly recommended for Mitford fans!


@Lucienne When Fanny's pony lay down on her in the brook! And bubbles were seen!


I have to recommend a book by one of my favorite authors "Dark Horses and Black Beauties" http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780393322668 by Melisa Holbrook Pierson, in which she explores the relationship between women and horses. It's a great study of the fascination/obsession so many women have with horses starting at a young age.

Nicole Cliffe

I really liked "Dark Horses and Black Beauties." It's like a slightly harder-edged take on the same subject matter as Susanna Forrest's book.


The bit in Natural History of Love about women and horses, too. Though I remember feeling kind of indignant, where I thought she was off base. I don't think Diane Ackerman is/was a horse girl.

In Dark Horses and Black Beauties she spends an awful lot of time on whether it's moral to subject horses to being ridden. Which I think is beside the point, at this stage in the relationship. She does get into the plight of Premarin mares, which you don't hear much about.


Thanks so much for the horse articles! I loved riding as a teenager. Can I also throw "Everyday Friends" by Lucy Diggs into the mix? It was like a Judy Blume book for horse loving pre-teens. I don't know if it's even still in print.


I have read every book on here except the last one! Off I go! :)


Also, Congratulations on the wonderful first show!

Thank you for including "In Service to the Horse." I worked as a groom at a stable from the time I was 13-18. (13-15 I worked for riding time, cause I was too young to legally work). I also took riding lessons and, eventually, helped train horses and teach lessons.
I was referred to as "the help" for all five years. Three girls even went to school with me and still would say things like "Eww, your bit is gross. Get The Help to clean it. She's over there. Hey, you. Her bit needs cleaned."


I'm not sure if they bear any semblance to reality on the horse-rider relationship front, but The Blue Sword and Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley were my absolute favorite horsey books growing up.


@Edie BLUE SWORD!!! So good. Still have it on the shelf. Have you read Deerskin? It's all about dogs!


@Edie Those books are AWESOME. No matter if you are horsey at all or not. (I am not. But I love Robin McKinley so much.)


Missed one! http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/17kzuje3zl1icjpg/original.jpg


Surely I'm not the only one who truly madly deeply loved/hated/wanted to be Vivi Malloy, the heroine of A Very Young Rider by Jill Krementz.


I am not trying to hate on the racing industry (it keeps my state in business, for serious, and it also keeps it gorgeous) but man, we have got to stop with the match races. Forever and ever amen.


King of the Wind. No?


My copy is held together with duck tape and has a missing a back cover. I loved it in a way that I just couldn't love the Chincoteague books.


(The Black Stallion is the most beautiful film ever made)


I am a little sad that "The Man Who Listens to Horses" or "Shy Boy" wasn't on here. I am kind of a rabid Monty Roberts fan.
Just don't discuss the Parelli family with me, and we'll do alright.


I kvell in return, thank you!

Well done to Bella and you. She sounds very very smart to me, like the best kind of horse. Sometimes they will drive you nuts, but they know when to turn it on.

Am wishlisting In the Service of the Horse. Sounds like I need it in my reference library. I just bought an insanely beautiful giant French book full of academic essays and colour plates. And The Seat of Queens, on side-saddle.
I can also highly recommend pootling about on Archive.org for nineteenth century riding manuals. Especially this one: In the Riding School, Chats with Esmerelda (1890). It's hilarious.


'As you are an American, it is reasonable to presume that you desire to learn [to ride[ quickly; as you are youthful, it is certain that you earnestly wish to look pretty in the saddle, and as you are a youthful American, there is not a shadow of a doubt that your objections to authoritative teaching will be almost unconquerable, and that you will insist upon being treated, from the very beginning, as if your small head contained the knowledge of a Hiram Woodruff or of an Archer. Perhaps you may find a teacher who will comply with your wishes; who will be exceedingly deferential to your little whims; will unhesitatingly accept your report of your own sensations and your hypotheses as to their cause; and, Esmeralda, when once your eyes behold that model man, be content, and go and take lessons of another, for either he is a pretentious humbug, careless of everything except his fees, or he is an ignoramus.”

“Is it not a matter of tradition that Queen Victoria owes her regal carriage to the rough drill-sergeant who, with no effect upon his pupil, horrified her governess, and astonished her, by sharply saying: "A pretty Queen you'll make with that dot-and-go-one gait!" Up went the little chin, back went the shoulders, down went the elbows, and, in her wrath, the little princess did precisely what the old soldier had been striving to make her do; but his delighted cry of "Just right!" was a surprise to her, inasmuch as she had been conscious of no muscular effort whatsoever. From that time forth, incessit regina.”'


I had a crazy German riding instructor who would crack us on the helmet with her lunge whip if we started to slouch.(Well if you'd been riding for less than 5 years it was the helmet. If you'd been riding for longer, your shoulder took the brunt of it.)


@The Kendragon Youch! A friend of mine had a nightmare German instructor too, but the ones I've met here (I live in Berlin) have been very nice ;)
That book is also very funny on German riding masters:

“If you were a German princess, Esmeralda, you would be compelled to sit in the saddle for many an hour without touching the reins, while your patient horse walked around a tan bark ring, and you balanced yourself and straightened yourself, and adjusted arms, shoulders, waist, knees and feet, under the orders of a drill-sergeant, who might, indeed, sugar-coat his phrases with "Your Highness," but whose intonations would say "You must," as plainly as if he were drilling an awkward squad of peasant recruits.

If you were the daughter of a hundred earls, you would be mounted on a Shetland pony and shaken into a good seat long before you outgrew short frocks, and afterwards you would be trained by your mother or older sisters, by the gentlemen of your family, or perhaps, by some trusted old groom, or in a good London riding-school, and, no matter who your instructor might be, you would be compelled to be submissive and obedient.”


That does sound like an awesome book.
I will say, she may be terrifying, but I have the best posture/cleanest tack of anyone that I know.


yay love this! no, more horse posts please! what about Rita Mae Brown's Sister Jane books? they are delicious. My foxhunting friends turned me on to them.

I was traumatized when I read Ruffian as a child. I was even more traumatized when I read the Horse Whisperer in the fifth grade. Worst birthday present ever from my uncle (he had no idea what it was about, beyond horses.) I still have my Saddle Club and Thoroughbred books collections!


Thank you, Nicole! I can't wait to read Centered Riding. I really benefited from Linda Benedik's Yoga for Equestrians, which I would highly recommend.


Where's the Jessica Jahiel love?...Okay, so most of what I read is her Horse Sense emails, but hallo, they're phenomenally helpful, and her patience with even the shirtiest messages (teen instructor who sneered that flexible stirrups are cheating and that anyone who can't ride with bog-standard equipment ought not to be allowed on a horse, I'm looking at you) is admirable.

Mark Rashid's beautiful prose matches his preternaturally calm training style, but he's not as well known as Roberts or Brannaman. Lots of the sort of natural sensible horsemanship that encourages you to take your ego out of training and helps you see why the horse is reacting the way it is ("They have a cave troll").

I rode my first barn show last fall, after a wistful request from the horse's owner (QH/Arab in his 20s and full of opinions; Training Level 1 ride). We did not score well, but no new thing arose, the judges said we looked happy together, and I got a decent video of the ride, so I considered it a success.


OH! I meant to ask: Has anyone read Judith Tarr's "Writing Horses"? She developed it out of a series of online columns that appear to have been taken down so that people will buy the book (sensible), but it sounds like she was trying to address common errors committed by writers more familiar with cars than critters. Would that someone did the same for movies--the shot of Hidalgo galloping off to roam free with the other mustangs, the silver of his shod heels glinting in the light, bugs me like the wrong sky bothers Neil DeGrasse Tyson.


Regarding Jane Smiley. I love Horse Heaven, and it will make me cry every time. Also enjoyed Barn Blind.

It's funny that this is such an English-centric little board. I grew up riding western in the midwest, and now do endurance on the west coast. So here are some more western-leaning books worth reading:

-Horse Tradin' and More Horse Tradin' by Ben Green. These are the memoirs of a real old-timey horse trader. Sometimes hilarious, occasionally heartwarming. Just great. (Also look for "Mister, You Got Yourself a Horse," another trading compilation.)

-The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle. I picked this up on a whim at the airport. Portland? Salt Lake? They all look the same to me. Anyway, it is a really dramatic exploration of the financial and family costs of being horsey... as well as the inherent class divisions.

-The Horse Trader by Lynn Hall. My dad bought this at a used book store without knowing what it was about. This melodrama is rife with 1970s social issues, i.e., selling your rodeo queen horse to pay for an abortion.

Finally, they aren't strictly horse books, but Annie Proulx's Close Range and Bad Dirt also do a pretty good job of *not* talking about H/J and dressage. :)


It's totally Canadian specific but the all-time best horsey books were the Margaret books by Bernice Thurman Hunter. Awesome Margaret and her devoted Clydesdale!

Lisa Marie

I don't see it on the list already but I'd like to recommend The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle. It's really kind of bleak and coming of age-y but I really loved it when I read it a couple years ago.


Friggin' mares. Why do they always get their most hysterical and terrifying at shows? Seriously. That's why our mare is now confined to our arena only, after cantering/galloping like a crazy horse on the longe line for forty-five minutes with breaks only to cry at her new boyfriend. MARES. UGH.


Okay, So I just got done reading A Girl and 5 Brave Horses...which is the Sonora Carver/Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken Story.....Might have ruined the movie slightly for me.

Jody Jaffe@facebook

thanks for the nice words about my books. im working on the fourth, "whoa nellie," told from the perspective of nattie's obnoxious 16 year old daughter, nellie.
and ive also started blogging:
thanks again!


nice information. keep updated. irctc login

Post a Comment

You must be logged-in to post a comment.

Login To Your Account