So in my continuing hunt for great horse books – and may I put in a plug here for anyone who is thinking about writing a horse-themed memoir or novel – please do so! Every month I comb Amazon looking for books, novels, or memoirs centered around horses and let me tell you, there is a LOT of room in that marketplace for adult material!
Okay, so getting back to my review, here are three of the best horse-centered memoirs I’ve read lately and I can wholeheartedly recommend every single one of them:
This fascinating book by Mandy Retzlaff stayed with me long after I turned the last page, and I don’t think it’s just because I too was born in Africa and also driven out of my homeland. For starters, I was only five years old when we left Kenya, so my memories/feeling for Kenya are more of a visceral thing. Plus we lived in the suburbs, not on a farm – although my next-door neighbour had a cheetah and our gardener would catch birds in his hands and let me stroke them before releasing them – so most of my connection with land and animals took place on safaris. Unlike the Retzlaff family who lived and worked the land as serious farmers.
What author Mandy Retzlaff takes us through is not just a sensory experience of Zimbabwe, but an insider’s view of the culture, the logistics and politics/economics of farming, and a riveting (at times nail-biting) story of her family and horses’ journey through building their dream farm, being torn apart by civil war, and starting all over again in Mozambique. Oh and did I mention that along with relocating their own horses, they also rescued and then relocated 70 or 80 others – who would otherwise have been killed or starved?
Exactly how does one move 100 horses across a war-torn, dangerous, ravaged country? Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out!
I learned SO MUCH in this book about so many things and that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. I love to be entertained when I read, but if I can also learn interesting/useful stuff at the same time, well that just really turns my crank! There is so much in this book that I’m struggling right now to pull out a few jewels to give you – how can I choose?
Instead, I think I’ll just give you an excerpt that allows you to get a feel for the different threads woven into this fascinating memoir. This is taken from page 27 as Mandy is riding with her husband Pat:
“As the first yields of tomatoes were being harvested and packed into crates, Pat and I rode on horseback between the fields, with Frisky and the chestnut mare named Sunny. Tomatoes flourished on virgin land, and we knew how much they enriched the soil for different crops to come: tobacco, cotton, maize and export vegetables and flowers.
Frisky whinnied softly underneath Pat.
“What next?” I began, watching the shadowed outlines of our workers move between the rows.
“I was thinking,” Pat joked, “that I might get some turkeys…”
It is a curious feeling when your heart swells and sinks all at once.
Years ago, when we had been married barely a year, I had come to understand the particular nature of Pat’s insanity, his desire to collect and hoard animals of every description. As Zimbabwe was being born out of the ruins of Rhodesia, Pat had worked at an agricultural research station called Grasslands, where company policy had been to slaughter the smallest lamb every time a sheep gave birth to triplets. Unwilling to accept this, Pat had taken to bringing them home, until our garden was heaving with his own private flock. While baby Paul crawled around the living room, he was surrounded by dozens of baby sheep, bleating out for their bottles. I became particularly skilled as a surrogate ewe, able to hold six bottles between my legs for the lambs to suckle while I fed another four out of my hands.”
This is not a book about a particular horse, or about Mandy’s relationship with horses. It is a true story of a whole life, of which horses are just one part – but a key part.
Of course there is some violence and brutality at a few places in this book, but it is not the type/level that will haunt you for months, and Mandy does not sensationalize the violence.
This is a memoir that transplants you to a different time and place; while learning about animals and farming, you also learn about displaced cultures, the history of Zimbabwe, an insider (often surprising) view of issues between colonialists and locals and of course, political corruption and agribusiness. But thankfully, the animals and horses are the biggest part of this entertaining, at times gripping, story.
This fabulous book by Chris Lombard takes us along the pathway of Chris’ life unraveling as his girlfriend breaks up with him and says, “I love you but there’s something in you that isn’t complete yet.” along the zig-zag of his search for the missing and broken parts of himself to the end where he writes:
“I walked over to Alto. He was standing there content, enjoying the morning sun. I remembered when I first saw him, the gangly and awkward looking horse. Now all I saw standing in front of me was a beautiful heart.
‘I can’t talk,’ I said to him ‘I just won’t be able to say what I’m feeling. You have given me so much and I ain’t talking about the riding and all that. You’ve given me… through you I have found something inside me that makes me feel… good. Like I’m the person I should be, inside and out. And it was all there, I didn’t need to go find it anywhere, it was inside me, that was where the search was. That was where I needed to go.’
‘I’m not lost anymore, Alto,’ I said. ‘And I won’t ever be again, because of you and the others. And I will never stop honoring you for this.”
It is this kind of vulnerability, to be unflinchingly honest about himself and his journey, that makes this book so great.
When Chris joins a legendary cowboy working at a vacation guest ranch, we don’t just get to hear about dealing with guests, herding horses (and dangerous bulls) in from the range, and all the details and challenges of a working ranch. We also get to hear about the isolation of a cowboy’s life, the toll on intimate relationships, and the alcoholism.
Chris’ perspective as someone who knew nothing about horses and had barely encountered them until just before his girlfriend left him, gives us a front row seat as he describes the course of his education from Western, to trail riding guide, to English, to natural horsemanship, to Ranch Hand, to Liberty bitless and bareback.
Like many others, we get the same old “leadership” and pressure/release stuff in this book, but we also see Chris have glimpses of true communion. The first time he rides a horse without a bridle, he says, “We loped and I felt a world I had not seen yet. A horse moves differently when it is free.”
And, thankfully, even when he is preaching the same old dominance disguised as leadership sermon, at least he has gone a step or two beyond the classic natural horsemanship:
“And soon the horse moves for you not because it is simply moving away from pressure but because it is seeking the feel, with you. There is a big difference in those two motivations. And it teaches us to ask ourselves what our motivation in life is. Are we just moving away from pressures or are we seeking the feel? Are we spending our days trying to avoid the dark, or walking the path to the light?
It all begins with respect and confidence in one another so that we have great communication from the heart.”
The other cool thing about this memoir is we also get to hear the story of Chris’ love life and how his relationships with women evolve as the horses show him how to open his heart and believe in his own worth.
If someone is trying to find themselves, or having a mid-life crisis, this would be a great book to pass on as Chris’ journey of discovery and search for meaning in life runs throughout the book and would be very helpful and meaningful for others who are searching – regardless of whether they have an interest in horses, or not. The book is good enough to stand on its own in the self-help, or adventure memoir genres too.
Great storytelling, combined with insight, humour and vulnerability – does it get any better?
Don’t let the mundane title or cover of this book fool you into passing over this excellent, very entertaining memoir by barefoot pioneer Maureen Tierney. Maureen shares her journey from horse-obsessed youngster, to her first apprenticeship with a race trainer, to owning and training her own horses, to setting up a rescue center.
Truly this is one of the best stories I’ve read, along with being a handbook full of insight and practical wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of being in relationship with horses as intelligent, sentient beings.
If you want to get a taste of Maureen’s blunt, engaging style of writing, you can start with her blog. But I enjoyed this book so much I read it again after a year had passed.
I also bought Maureen’s DVD on her Hoof-Guided trimming method – which is truly revolutionary in that you listen to the hoof and allow the hoof to guide you as to what needs to be trimmed, rasped, or left alone. Both Kesia and I have watched this video twice and Kesia has been testing Maureen’s method on about 6 of her trimming clients – with very satisfying results.
Getting back to the book; not only is Maureen’s memoir a fabulous series of stories, but her blunt, tell-it-like-it-is, lively style makes the book a very entertaining, engaging read. Here’s one of her stories that tickled me:
“One day, Red [the racehorse trainer], Mary Ann and I were all standing in the barn talking. Red had recently gone to a sale at Timonium, in Maryland, and had returned with three young 2-year-olds. One of them, a colt he had named Nabra, was in the stall next to Come Afternoon. Mary Ann was to my right, between Come’s stall door and Nabra’s, and Come’s head was hanging over his door, between me and Mary Ann. For no particular reason, I said to him, “Bite her,” and turned my head slightly Mary Ann’s way. Well, he didn’t bite her – nor did I really want him to – but he did turn his head and make a threatening face at her. Fascinated, I said it again, and again he turned and made a face at her. The third time he did it Mary Ann told me to cut it out.
That incident has always stuck in my mind. I didn’t think he actually understood the words “bite her”, but I did truly believe he read my thoughts – the pictures in my mind – and my intent. Judging by Mary Ann’s response, which was to tell me to cut it out, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was not just a coincidence that he turned and made a face at her each time I said it. I realize now, that Red, who witnessed the whole exchange, made no comment at all.
In hindsight I realize that Red never made disparaging remarks about horses’ intelligence, nor did he treat them as though they didn’t have feelings and emotions. I fact, one day I arrived at the barn…”
And she continues on with more stories. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the BEST way to share a viewpoint, or educate people, or convince them of something, is through storytelling! Humanity has evolved to share, learn and resonate with stories. So if you want to make a point, or introduce someone to a new way of thinking, storytelling is the best way to proceed.
In this book, Maureen shares the story of her journey and transformation from a traditional racehorse trainer, to an enlightened, educated horse owner who puts the horse’s physical and emotional/spiritual needs ahead of her agenda or financial goals. As she writes about halfway through the book:
“I realize now that this was a turning point for me. I had always given my horses a lot of leeway – and a lot of credit for being intelligent – but now it was different. Only when the horses were free to do whatever they wanted could I see who they really were and learn what they really thought.”
Maureen’s account of her foray into Parelli’s methods is hilarious, yet poignant, and after attending a workshop, buying the instructional DVDs and practicing on 2 of her horses, she concludes:
“To me, natural horsemanship is for people not horses. It’s instructions people can clearly understand and implement. Horses however are very subtle beings and to them natural horsemanship is not very different from talking very loudly to a person because they don’t speak your language. … What I learned about natural horsemanship, in general, is that it reduces the horse to a purely instinctual creature. The horse gets no credit for being smart and contributing to the process. If the horse is not doing what the trainer wants, they are being resistant or showing a lack of respect, or (and I really hate this one) testing the trainer. When the horse does things successfully, full credit falls on the trainer. Kind of a no-win situation for the horse.”
So we get the stories, a foray into different horse training methods (Maureen has her race track license), all kinds of horsekeeping know-how gleaned over decades of experience, along with poignant accounts of spiritual connection and intimacy with horses. In fact, near the end of the book, Maureen tells a powerful story about a duck she purchased spontaneously at the feed store; upon realizing the lone duck had spent his entire life inside the wire mesh cage. She brings the duck home and lifts him onto the earth near her pond:
“As I watched him, it seemed as though I could feel what he was feeling. The wonder of the dirt. The realization that he could move without restriction. The newness of everything. The duckness of it! Slowly he made his way to the water. Tentatively he touched it with his bill then paused to process the wetness of it, the coolness of it. The marvel of it. Then he went into the water and swam. Slowly at first, then suddenly he exploded with the irresistible instinct of a water fowl. I could feel his joy at being free, at doing what ducks are meant to do. His sensory overload.
Swimming, and seemingly trying to fly at the same time, the duck crossed the pond, turned and raced the other way at maximum speed. The Indian Runner ducks, who had been considering checking out the newcomer, were so astonished and dumbfounded by his behavior that they left the water and stood watching from shore.
The whole thing took on a magical, otherworldly feel. So intense was the ducks’ experience that we were all held captive by it… As I was standing there, almost in a trance, I was aware that someone had walked up beside me and was standing to my right. Unable to turn away from the scene at the pond, I sensed the person beside me was also enthralled by the duck’s transformation from caged creature to DUCK. Gradually the energy coming from the person beside me was so strong, so approving and loving, of both the duck’s experience – and of me – that in all honesty, as crazy as it may sound, for a moment I felt like God was standing beside me. Finally I turned to acknowledge him, still in an almost mystical state. It was as though we were all outside of time and space, in a state where everything was truly connected. In that state I wasn’t surprised to see that the being standing beside me was [my horse] Legacy. And for a moment he was not Legacy. He was God. … At that moment I realized that we are all the same – horse, duck, human. We are all Love.”
So yeah, this book pretty much has it all – in spades! If Maureen were to invest some money in getting a professional cover done, re-working the title, and learning or paying someone to tag/keyword it properly on Amazon, I’m sure it would quickly become a bestseller in it’s genre.
Although, who knows, Maureen may be selling lots of books directly off her site links and Amazon is not her main gig. That’s what I do with my books and Amazon makes up less than 4% of my sales. But, just thought I’d throw that out there in case Maureen – or anyone else thinking of publishing their book/memoir – is reading!
So there you have it – whether you’re curled up in front of the fire, or heading to the beach, or looking for something to read before bed, these are three excellent equine-themed memoirs that will not disappoint.
*****5 Stars for each of them!