It’s nearly the weekend. If you’re not preparing to ride — or if you’re planning what to do when you’re not riding — check out these five must-reads for 2024.
By Jess Bowers
If you’re anything like my barn friends, who have all resolved to read more in 2024, chances are high you’re hoping to add as many horsey titles as possible to your ever-growing “to be read” pile. Whether you’re looking for fiction, nonfiction, history, or a book that’s got a little bit of all three, these five recommendations will make sure your hours spent reading this year are just as compelling as the ones you’ll spend in the saddle!
1. HORSE, by Geraldine Brooks
A powerful novel centered around the legendary racehorse and stud Lexington, Geraldine Brooks’s HORSE braids together the story of the horse’s life among Black trainers in 19th century America with a present-day story about researchers trying to verify that a long-ignored equus caballus skeleton in the Smithsonian’s archive belonged to the famous horse. Brooks juxtaposes characters across space and time, as the precarious life of Lexington’s enslaved groom, Jarret, contrasts that of Theo, a 21st century Nigerian art history graduate student who must reckon with the ghosts of America’s racial past, both in his research and his daily life. Living up to its title’s promise, Lexington himself remains firmly at the heart of HORSE, as living, breathing character and as cultural memory.
2. KICK THE LATCH, by Kathryn Scanlan
Presented as fiction, this slim novella is based entirely on one-on-one interviews Scanlan held with Sonia, a real horse trainer and racetracker who’s been working with Thoroughbreds professionally since she was a teenager. Rough, rowdy, and matter of fact, reading Scanlan’s first person take on Sonia’s narrative voice feels like you’ve pulled up a hay bale outside the tack room to hear a veteran horsewoman tell her life’s story. Scanlan pulls no punches, letting her protagonist get brutally honest about the strange mixture of violence, cruelty, camaraderie, and care that characterized American backstretch culture during the 1970s and 80s. Sonia’s tough as nails, but shows a tenderness toward the animals in her care that will endear her immediately to any horse person.
3. MARGUERITE, MISTY AND ME: A HORSE LOVER’S HUNT FOR THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF MARGUERITE HENRY AND HER CHINCOTEAGUE PONY, by Susan Friedland
It’s an unspoken rule that every horse kid must read Marguerite Henry’s children’s classic Misty of Chincoteague, with some of us devouring anything we could find about Misty’s life after leaving the Beebe family behind to go live with Henry! Now, Saddle Seeks Horse blogger Susan Friedland’s exploration of the beloved author’s real life with horses is a must-read for anyone who grew up dreaming of Misty and the Phantom. Framed as the story of a lifelong fan on a cross-country scavenger hunt to uncover the secrets of Henry’s life and horses, Friedland’s journey finds her kayaking off the coast of Assateague Island, meeting the illustrator behind some of Henry’s iconic books, and even borrowing a real Chincoteague pony for a ride. Part memoir, part author biography, MARGUERITE, MISTY AND ME is nostalgic, chock full of revelations about Henry’s life and process, and sure to send you back to her classic novels with a fresh perspective.
4. FALL GIRL: MY LIFE AS A WESTERN STUNT DOUBLE by Martha Crawford Cantarini and Chrystopher J. Spicer
The daughter of a professional polo player, Martha Crawford dreamed of making it as an actress, but a disastrous screen test led to a lifelong career as a stunt rider doubling Hollywood’s most glamorous female stars throughout the 1930s and 40s. Full of firsthand knowledge about how dangerous equestrian stunts were done for the silver screen, gossipy backstage encounters with Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan, and Jean Simmons, and fond memories of the horses who carried her career, especially her beloved “gambling horse” Frosty the palomino, Cantarini’s memoir is a total page-turner for anyone interested in Westerns, stunt riding, and the empowering life story of a woman who carved out a career in a male-dominated industry.
5. HORSE SHOW, by Jess Bowers
A collection of short historical fiction about horses and spectacles (think TV, film, racing, rodeo, amusement parks, and circuses) my own book HORSE SHOW offers an alternative history of America’s dependence upon our equine companions, honoring the horses as individuals while questioning the morals and motivations of their human keepers. Familiar faces like Mr. Ed and P.T. Barnum appear alongside lesser-known legends, such as Claudia Fonda, a 1930s housewife who convinced Duke University researchers that her mare, Lady Wonder, had psychic powers; or the stunt horse whose on-camera death directly led to the American Humane Society’s supervision of animal action on film sets. HORSE SHOW releases 4/9/24 from Santa Fe Writers’ Project—but pre-ordering now will give your TBR pile a much-needed jolt come spring!
Enjoy, Horse Nation. Go riding and go reading!