Barn Aisle Chats: ‘Horse Show’ with Jess Bowers

Siân Griffiths talks to Jess Bowers about her new story collection, Horse Show. Horse Show combines real-life and fictional accounts of horses throughout the ages, from celebrity horses like Mr. Ed to lesser known horses like Lady, the mind-reading mare, or Washington, DC’s fire horse #12.

By Siân Griffiths

As a fellow writer, rider, and all-around horse nut, I hit the pre-order button as soon as I saw the publication announcement for Jess Bowers’s new story collection, Horse Show. The book combines real life and fictional accounts of horses throughout the ages, from celebrity horses like Mr. Ed to lesser known horses like Lady, the mind-reading mare, or Washington, DC’s fire horse #12. Bowers explores the noble though often tragic history of our equine companions.

Siân: Hi Jess! It’s such a delight to get to sit down with you (at least virtually) and know you better. I feel like we should start with horses. When did the obsession start — or is it right to call it an obsession? How did it translate from the barn to the page, leading you to write about horses?

Jess: Absolutely an obsession. I have a vivid memory of watching Winning Colors (a filly!) win the Kentucky Derby in 1988 while playing with My Little Ponies, then going outside and pretending the swings were racehorses. Eventually my mom realized this wasn’t a phase and found an English lesson barn with Appaloosas I could learn on. I’m so grateful for that. I’d just been diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy, but she never let her fear hold me back. I’m the only rider in my whole family, so getting more access to horses meant volunteering to put up hay, scrub troughs, clean tack –- anything to earn an extra ride or two. Total barn rat. Then I went to Goucher College, which has amazing equestrian and creative writing programs. But I didn’t own a horse until I was 27, doing my Ph.D. in English at the University of Missouri. I worked at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center in Columbia, MO, where I met Billy, a Haflinger who didn’t want to be a therapy horse. He just wanted to trail ride, which suited me fine.

Jess with Billy. Photo courtesy of Jess Bowers.

I hadn’t “crossed the streams” and written about horses though, out of fear that people might find it juvenile. During grad school, I was writing every morning and riding Billy or helping with lessons most afternoons. Then a friend sent me the photograph that became my story “Shooting a Mule.” My writing workshop’s reaction surprised me. They were asking questions about horses I didn’t know they wanted answered. That was the first time I thought, huh, maybe people do want to read about horses, if I approach them in a surprising way.

SG: I had that exact same fear, like writing about horses would out me as someone who never got over the obsession I’d had since I was eight years old. (It didn’t help that it was true.) Your writing has a maturity about it that should stop anyone from making that accusation. I feel like something amazing happens when a writer allows themselves to really lean into their obsessions. The quality of knowledge and of love throws down a kind of gauntlet — the language has to live up to that intense passion so that the reader can share it. I felt that reading your book. Every word felt so carefully chosen, the stories so beautifully crafted, that I was left in no doubt of your passion for your subject. Yet you don’t flinch from writing about some really troubling history. I think we all know, at least in the abstract, that standards of animal husbandry and care have raised significantly in the last few decades, with welfare becoming a more central concern, but it’s another thing entirely to confront the actual stories. I don’t want to misrepresent the book because there is a lot of attention paid to more loving relationships as well, but how did you steel yourself for some of the more difficult histories you go into?

JB: Growing up riding other people’s horses, I was shielded from the darker aspects of horse/human partnership. More than a few beloved mounts were “retired to farms upstate,” if you get my meaning. Working in therapeutic riding, I came to know senior horses who were on their third or fourth career, with our farm as their final resting place. So I’ve seen more horses die than the average person. I was working some of that grief out through the fiction. They weren’t my horses, but they were my friends, you know? In the deaths that occur in Horse Show, I thought of storytelling as justice. For example, in “One Trick Pony,” I wrote about the stunt that led to animal action regulation in Hollywood. It was an awful, inhumane act where a horse was killed for entertainment, then forgotten. If I can make that animal’s death more meaningful by making readers care about the individual, there’s an element of reclamation in that. If these horses weren’t honored in life, their stories can honor them in death.

SG: That story was harrowing, but beautifully written. I could feel that motivation — that of paying tribute to that particular horse and to many others who might otherwise be lost to time. Your love for the animal shows in the writing, even when you’re writing about something rather bleak.

One of the things I find myself thinking about a lot is the idea that the horse is an anachronism. I feel like there’s a perception that the horse became out of date as soon as we invented cars, which may have an element of truth but certainly fails to capture so many aspects of a human-equine relationship that go beyond work. I found that your book celebrates that relationship, as well as showing the dangers that happen when people limit their thinking about an animal only to its use value.  …I don’t know what my question is here, exactly, but do you want to speak to this idea?

JB: One of my favorite facts about “the passing of the horse,” which is what the automotive press at the turn of the century called it, is that horses and cars shared American roads well into the 1930s. We all know cars won, so we assume the Model T came out and all the horses immediately lost their jobs to this obviously superior technology, but that wasn’t how it went. Not everyone could afford the transition. So magazines printed passionate screeds about preserving the horse’s cultural role and keeping streets car-free. Riding manuals about negotiating traffic safely were sold. Many worried Ford’s “flivver” would destroy the livelihoods of farriers, livery stables, veterinarians, trainers, breeders, carriage builders, leatherworkers, skilled drivers – a whole economic sector was at risk.

Some saw replacing horses with cars as a karmic betrayal, since we humans owe modernity to what horses allowed us to build. On the other hand, there are characters in my book who treat horses like machines, often with devastating consequences. I enjoyed creating the narrator of “Midwest Utilitor Breakdown,” because she’s not horse-crazy, she’s tractor-mad. She sees horses as dangerous, unpredictable, and terrifying, and machines as safe, reliable, and empowering – a perspective totally alien to me.

SG: To build on the topic of the alien or unanticipated thought, I read once that the invention of the car was heralded as an end to pollution, which seems painfully ironic now, but the Victorians were thinking of manure in the streets rather than car exhaust. I also read that the equine population in the US hit its high point of well over 25 million horses, ponies, and mules in 1920, 12 years after the invention of the Model T. It’s funny how sometimes our assumptions don’t match the facts. What was the most surprising thing you learned writing your book?

JB: That’s all true! The Horse In The City: Living Machines in the 19th Century, by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, is a great resource on “the passing of the horse,” if you haven’t read it yet. In researching Horse Show, I was most surprised to discover the Steeplechase amusement park ride at Coney Island, which I use as a setting in “Two On A Horse.” It was a rollercoaster featuring multiple articulated metal horses who raced based on the weight of the two riders each carried. In the early days, women were expected to ride sidesaddle, which is a terrifying prospect. No brakes, no seatbelts. A modern, safer coaster based on this ride is still manufactured today!

SG: That’s so wild! I’ve never been to Coney Island, but now I feel like I need a field trip. Honestly, one of the many delights of your book is the places it takes us. I was fascinated, for instance, to learn about Lady, the mind-reading mare and to get the inside scoop on Mr. Ed. I thought I knew a lot about horses, but your book takes the reader into so many forgotten pockets of the horse world.

OK, one last question before I let you go. Tell me about a special horse in your life. It could be your heart horse, or it could be one who was odd or off beat, or it could be the first horse you ever rode, or it could be that another horse jumped into your mind. Tell us the story of a horse you hold dear.

JB: Horse Show is dedicated to Billy, who was both my heart horse and odd or offbeat! He was a gorgeous golden tank, about 14 hands, with boundless self-confidence and strong opinions. A Thelwell cartoon come to life. At my current barn, where he retired, he was nicknamed “The Mayor,” which speaks to his personality. We could hack out alone, open/close gates, mount off strange objects, plow through knee-deep snow. I was his person for over a decade, and with him in the end. Losing Billy turned out to be harder than any death I’d witnessed or written into Horse Show, but knowing him inspired me to explore the ideas in the book, so it felt right to give him the dedication. He carried me through!

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she serves as a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Weber State University and competes in dressage with her beloved Holsteiner, Larry. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Georgia Review,Prairie Schooner, American Short Fiction, and Booth among many other publications. She is the author of the novels Borrowed Horses, Scrapple, and the short fiction chapbook The Heart Keeps Faulty Time. Her latest book, The Sum of Her Parts, is out from University of Georgia Press. For more information, please visit

Siân with her horse, Larry.

Jess Bowers lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she works as an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Maryville University and learns dressage with her Haflinger, Teddy. Her debut fiction collection, Horse Show, is out now from SFWP. Find her online at

Jess with Teddy. Photo courtesy of Jess Bowers.