A Year at the Races, by Jane Smiley. Knopf. 284 pages. $22.
Reading Jane Smiley's A Year at the Races made me fall in love with horses all over again. It's a meandering ride through Smiley's quirky and complex thoughts. She's like a giant parabolic antenna, catching all sorts of esoteric information and applying it to horses and their relationships with humans.
Smiley pulls from sources as varied as Hamlet and Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and her insights and observations are invigorating. She writes, for example, how riding forced her to address "the feeling of fear itself." And she makes a case for a horse's superiority over humans in kinesthetic intelligence: "When the horse and the human are required to learn their roles in a particular athletic task, ... the horse needs fewer repetitions."
A Year at the Races is a delightful book filled with arcane horse knowledge. You will learn, for instance, the fruit metaphor for a Thoroughbred stallion's testicles: "lemons" are small to normal; "grapefruits" are extra-large.
The question is, will anyone but a horse enthusiast care? Maybe not. Knopf seems to be hedging its bet. The first print run is 60,000; the first print run for her novel Horse Heaven (2000) was 150,000.
Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, divides the world in two: those who love horses and those who don't. The first group (3.6 million Americans show horses, 4.3 million ride them recreationally, according the American Horse Council Foundation) will adore this book. It could easily become the bible of the barn for, if nothing else, Smiley's inventive equine version of the Myers-Briggs personality test.
The second group might just as easily put it down right after Hali, the horse communicator, tells Smiley that her racehorse Hornblower hates the "vibrational" qualities of his name and prefers Wowie. Smiley changes the horse's name and asks a race trainer to read Wowie the Daily Racing Form because Wowie wants to know whom he'll be running against.
All you second-groupers are probably laughing. But who in the first group hasn't either contacted a horse communicator or thought about doing so? What Smiley does best is to give words -- oftentimes beautiful and eloquent words -- to this obsession so many of us have.
"Over the years, I got into the habit of talking to him without either believing or disbelieving that we were actually communicating, but accepting it as a productive conceit, in much the same way that a reader accepts the reality of a work of fiction. And it had a similar effect upon me to a work of fiction -- I was moved and delighted by what the horse had to say, and I learned from it to treat him with respect."
Ostensibly, the book follows Smiley's year at the races as her two horses Wowie and Waterwheel try to make it to the winner's circle. But the narrative continually gives way to Smiley's tangents, which is fine by me, because they're always thought-provoking.
"Ultimately, in horses and in humans, the goal [of training] is that the individual will take responsibility for his actions." Meaning, Smiley says, that he understands the connection between intentions, actions and results, and he reliably acts in a way that doesn't hurt him or anyone else, regardless of any "stimulus promoting irresponsibility."
If those aren't words to live by -- for horse or human -- I don't know what are.
Jody Jaffe is the author of three equine mysteries published by Ballantine Books: Horse of a Different Killer, Chestnut Mare, Beware and In Colt Blood. She is also the co-author of Thief of Words (Warner 2003) and the forthcoming Shenandoah Summer (Warner 2004), which is about a woman's love for horses and her farm. She owns two horses, Roy and Theo, and teaches fiction writing at the Writer's Center in Bethesda.