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Reading: the next best thing to riding

Cover of Lord of MisruleIf you read my introductory column a few weeks ago, you know I’m a horse enthusiast. I said I’d be sharing some horse topics with you, and I’d like the first one to be about reading. We’re right in the middle of what I think is the worst time of year for riding in the Southeast.

Our humidity makes the cold feel sharper, and when it’s wet, the sun doesn’t do enough to dry out our trails and (mostly outdoor) arenas before the next cold rain. Look, I know I sound negative here, but what I’m getting at is that unless you’re a diehard horse person willing to be chilled to the bone to pursue a good ride, you might enjoy settling in by a fire and reading about horses until spring. For me, reading about horses is the next best thing to actually getting to ride them.

I happen to be a diehard, all-weather rider (masochist might be a better word here), but before I head outside to navigate the mud,  I’m going to leave you with my first horse reading recommendation: Jaime Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule.” If you do read this one, email me and let me know what you think:

In the corner of the horse world that houses cheap claiming races, worn-through boots and dilapidated hot walkers, there still lies that glimmer that makes all equines a little bit magic. Jaime Gordon does a masterful job of showing us the chimerical glint of the next great horse that keeps her old trainers and grooms plugging along year after year at Indian Mound Downs, a low-rent racetrack in West Virginia. At the same time, she doesn’t back off from the often gruesome realities of low-level horseracing: deadly track injuries; hideously protracted racing careers.

We see the story of the characters who revolve around the track play out from the standpoint of multiple human narrators and even horses. There is Medicine Ed, the ancient groom with a bad hip and an old timer’s intuition (or maybe just superstition) regarding the tired former racing stars and the lackluster or untried young prospects. There is Deucey, the stereotypical one-horse, downward-bound trainer who actually may have a heart of gold. There is Maggie, whose frizzy pigtails rarely escape mention; she’s a newcomer to the world of racing who has just enough inexperience to spark a last little spurt of hope and excitement in some of the jaded characters around her.

We meet horses from both ends of the spectrum: those whose careers have barely begun and the old-timers who still display the oft-mentioned “class” that won them prominent races many years ago. Either way, the horses are all in the same situation now – clawing their way through one claiming race after another, and Gordon makes no bones about the fact that the vast majority of them are headed down the ranks. She does a particularly interesting job of portraying training and performance through the horses’ eyes. For instance, Little Spinoza, the coltish six-year-old who should have made something of himself when he had the chance farther up the ranks, enjoys watching birds flying during his training sessions. When he is asked to actually race, however, bad memories come flooding back.

Gordon’s experience working at a racetrack shines through in her characters’ language; nothing is stated head-on. Instead, she allows her grizzled trainers and grooms to sidle up alongside subjects like equine medical procedures and training methods with expressions presumably peculiar to that sunken echelon of racing. The common thread among most of Gordon’s human characters is that they really do seem to love horses on some level. Granted, the majority of them make irresponsible — sometimes downright harmful — decisions regarding their equine charges’ welfare, but they all display an affinity in their own way.

“Lord of Misrule” is not a feel-good portrayal of the horse world, but it’s certainly worth the read if only for Gordon’s undeniable racing knowledge put forth in superbly crafted prose that won this novel the 2010 National Book Award.

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Elizabeth Crumbly

Elizabeth Crumbly is a newspaper veteran and freelance writer. She lives in rural Northwest Georgia where she teaches riding lessons, writes and raises her family. You can correspond with her at