Growing up, I was a bit of a horse girl. I was one of those girls who cried over Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. My favorite book in first grade was Brighty of the Grand Canyon, about a sweet little burro, which was close enough to a horse for me. Around fifth grade or so I received The Girl Scout Book of Horse Stories as a gift, stories combining Girl Scout resourcefulness and courage with the wild independence of horses. Like horses, Girl Scouts have a mind of their own.
I collected Breyer toy horses too and but I never had as many as my older cousin did. She had a whole cabinet for hers while mine fit on a shelf. I didn’t have any of the showy appaloosas or pintos or paints like hers; instead, my horses were classic breeds, making up in elegance what they lacked in variety: the white Arabians, the golden Palominos, and the dark brown Thoroughbreds. I collected my horses in families of mother, father, and foal, with a cousin pony sometimes keeping them company. I still have those horses.
I love the beauty of horses but not so much riding them. They’re alarmingly large to me and unpredictable. I’ve been on a horse a dozen times and always just manage to ride comfortably enough, the horse paying less attention to who’s on their back than to finding dinner back at the stable. I may not be a rider, but I’m always thrilled to come upon a herd of multi-hued horses pasturing in the foothills along my drive to town.
And I’m still happy to chance upon a good horse story, like The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a novel of an unusual young woman, Martha Lessen, who “gentles” horses for a living. Inspired by the oral history of a “rancher’s daughter” whose words introduce the story, the novel is set during WWI in eastern Oregon and the plot device—she travels a circuit of several ranches to train each family’s horses—allows Gloss to examine the rural situations and prejudices of the times. I’m not sure what interested me more—young Martha’s avoidance of gender restrictions with her “man’s trousers” and self-reliant ways or Gloss’s descriptions of the horses Martha handles. Despite her bashfulness, Martha never shies away from doing what’s right, whether it’s rescuing a horse from a foreman’s whip or helping a family in need.
Gloss’s authorial point of view is particularly adept at capturing the innermost thoughts of characters so that by the end of the novel, we’ve intimately experienced the sensibilities found in the rural West of the time. I didn’t want the novel to end, but it did, beautifully. Leaving Martha as a young woman, newly married to a man who can love a woman who “doesn’t want to stay in the house like women usually do,” the novel flashes forward to an older Martha at a time far removed from the West of her young adulthood: “She said to her granddaughter, without planning to say it, ‘You know, honey, I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves.’ It was a startling thing to hear herself say, but then she thought: Here I am in my old age and just at the beginning of figuring out what it that means, or what to do about it.”
I have that feeling myself; even though I’m not yet facing old age, I am trying to figure out at fifty what to do with the next part of my life. As a young girl dreaming of horses, this jumping off feeling was breathless with possibilities of what I might be when I grew up. Now that I’m grown, I’m more cautious about the choices I may make, or more certain of the criteria they must fulfill. Still, at any age, we must choose how far we’ll go without knowing exactly where we’re going. Do we give the horse we’re riding its head or hold the reins even tighter?