“Personality Plus” — Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races”

If there is one thing that I would like to take up with author Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer) it is his introduction into polite society the very term “horse whisperer.” It is annoying, if only because it comes up any time any lay person mentions anything about any horse.

We’ve all had this conversation with a new acquaintance:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I train horses.”

“Oh… are you a horse whisperer?”

“No… I’m not that good, so I have to shout.”

Or some variation on the above. But let’s face it, as horsepeople, we have all been sorted into two groups by the Outside World: those who are Horse Whisperers, and those who are Not.

And so when I was doing a little research on animal communicators, based upon the conversations that author Jane Smiley related in A Year at the Races, wherein she was able to have Q & A’s with her assorted herd of racehorses, broodmares, and saddle horses via one of these fascinating people who claim to engage in interspecies-chit-chat, I found it hard to get past the first line in this article in The New York Times.

“Horse whispering? Too loud.”


Thoroughbred racehorse in shedrow

Not whispering so much as getting a kiss.

But, I suppose, every little piece has its place in the puzzle. When you study horse training, you have to go into it with an open mind, and then shuffle around all the conflicting bits of information you receive in order to arrive at your own philosophy. Horse trainers, I explained to a girl at her therapeutic riding lesson the other day—a girl who had serious doubts about the riding instructor’s decision to stop the lesson horse from showing affection to the girl, who was on the ground, while another girl was on the horse’s back—are only alike in that they all have very different and very steadfast opinions on how to train. She, the girl who wanted to stroke the horse being ridden by someone else, was clearly a girl with great empathy for horses; the instructor, who stopped her from stroking the horse, also had great empathy for horses; unfortunately, they had different ideals about what the horse should be doing with his time.

She wasn’t impressed by my explanation, of course, although I thought it very reasonable and well thought out, and I think that is usually the case when two horsewomen who are not avowed allies of one another differ on their training strategies: we listen, and disagree, and continue on our chosen paths. We’re very fundamentalist that way.

But I have to admit that I’ve never been completely bound by any one philosophy. I dislike gadgets, but I use side-reins, for example. I believe in the prey mentality of the horse, and establishing oneself as dominant, but I’m fascinated by discussions of equine personality.

I don’t have a lot to say to people who insist on anthropomorphizing their horses, but I do think horses have opinions, and individual character, and, in varying degrees, ambition, drive, and desires.

A Year at the Races cover image

"A Year at the Races" is so much more than that

And after frantically flipping through the pages of A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck, I can tell you, the next time I really want to know what is on a horse’s mind, I’m totally going to call up an animal communicator.

That’s really not me, of course, but at the same time, why be closed-minded? When I was having absolutely no progress in connecting with Bonnie, I consulted a book I found at the library, Ride the Right Horse: Understanding the Core Equine Personalities & How to Work with Them by Yvonne Barteau. This is a book I would not have picked up were I not absolutely desperate to create a relationship with a horse who was not interested in me. And trying to create a relationship with a horse was not a problem I had thought about since I decided that the prey social model was the most logical approach to horse training.

Now, to be perfectly honest, the book did not salvage my struggling attempt to build a partnership with Bonnie. What it did do, however, was show me that it was probably a lost cause. We just weren’t compatible. She just wasn’t that into me. And, I guess, I wasn’t that into her. You just can’t be compatible with every single horse. And that’s because, sound the alarm bell, let the anthropomorphizing begin, horses do have unique personalities, and drives, and desires, and they’re not always going to sync up to yours.

It’s the same reason you just don’t like some of your co-workers.

(And you know you don’t.)

Smiley gets that some horses will simply never love you.

The goal of horse training is to mitigate equine idiosyncrasy and to give every horse some fluency in the common language required to get along with people. There are always horses for sale and always buyers, and a trained horse is supposed to function reliably, to walk, trot, canter, jump, gallop across country, stand, cross-tie, be groomed and bathed, ride in a horse trailer, go to a few horse shows, and even foxhunt, or to do similar things as a Western-style horse.

But there are horses who show affection, who share a bond with the owner, who do more than perform functions. They actively seek to please. Until you have owned a horse who seeks cooperation and behaves warmly toward you, you don’t realize how many horses were just passing time in your company, half ignoring you or barely putting up with you.

I paused after I read that, to take stock. I have had horses like that, haven’t I? Of course. But how many? I thought I could name them. Rillo, my first Thoroughbred. Final Call. Maybe even Rapidan, although I don’t think Rapidan sought cooperation and behaved warmly towards me. He sought something from me: to rile me up, mostly. I don’t think he was half-ignoring me or barely putting up with me, so much as seeing how far he could push me. Playing with me. Masochistic, always hoping I’d yell at him, that was Rapidan.

It bears thinking about. And it makes you think about the personalities you have been in contact with.

My greatest take-away from A Year at the Races was a deeper understanding of the equine mind. Smiley has studied human psychology and the nature of love and affection much deeper than I have ever had any inclination to, and she has been able to turn this inquisitive nature into a fresh and fascinating exploration of How Horses Think.

I will say this: A Year at the Races is an extremely misleading title for this book, just as “book review” is an extremely misleading category for this article. This book could have been called My Horses, My Teachers except that Alois Podhajsky already took that one, or Talking With Horses, except that Henry Blake already took that one, and anyway, both texts are mentioned within this one. This book is a fascinating exploration of equine psychology, what makes horses tick, how they manifest their brilliantly defined personalities in every day encounters, how they tell their riders and handlers and fellow horses what they are thinking through reactions, movements, and vocalizations, and if the stories of Hornblower and Waterwheel, Smiley’s babies at the track during this particular “year at the races,” are neat little bookends and good for anecdotes, the real power of the story is in the explorations of who horses really are.

And as for her frequent communications with her horses via animal communicator Hali Jones? Yes, I’m a believer. It makes just as much sense as whispering.




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4 responses to ““Personality Plus” — Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races”

  1. Job well done again Natalie! Totally agree, with everything you say here, and have experienced it many times myself…

  2. I read this book after I read Jane’s Horse Heaven and remember that I really liked it, but that’s all I remember of it. So I’ve re-ordered it from the library. Sounds like I should spend some time with it again.

    • Thanks guys…
      I found it wonderfully helpful in expanding the way that I view a horse’s consciousness. Really thoughtful writing about the way horses think, or, if they don’t truly think in these ways, acting as if they do can be an asset in working with them!

  3. Trish Keller

    Great post Natalie! Isn’t life more interesting when you have an open mind? Leads you on many adventures! Thank you.