The last time I rode a horse, it was at my friend Linda’s hobby farm a few hours north of Minneapolis. It was a pleasant day, riding through the countryside, alongside the corn fields, through the patches of Queen Anne’s Lace, talking or just enjoying the sunshine. I wasn’t particularly adept at riding – pretty clumsy, in fact, and it was amazing to me that such a large animal would be so willing to carry me on its back. Watching Linda that day take care of her two beloved horses, and seeing how much time she set aside for them, how much of her focus was at least tangentially entwined with their care and concern about them, I began to comprehend the weight of her observation, “There are two types of people in this world: horse people, and ‘not’ horse people.” It wasn’t a value judgment, it was a simple statement of fact.
In newcomer Siân Griffiths’ debut novel, Borrowed Horses, 27 year old Joannie Edson is definitely a horse person. She’s returning to her hometown of Moscow, Idaho after 2-1/2 years out East, training with the legendary Jack Stewart Flaherty, chef d’equipe of the U.S. Equestrian Team. Joannie is good, but her horse, Foxfire, is even better. A jumper. A powerful, refined, beautiful jumper. There are dreams of making the Olympic team. But then Foxy starts showing signs of arthritis and before long his hitching gate and stiffness has taken them out of the competition. The big chestnut has been too much of a part of Joannie’s life for her to simply let go of him, and she doesn’t have the funds to bankroll another horse, so she piles everything she owns into her rickety truck, hitches up Foxy’s trailer, and comes back to the place where she was raised, where her retired parents still live, and where she can take care of Foxy while deciding on how to move forward.
Of course, life never plays out as simply as we want it to. While some things in Moscow remain the same, and Joannie is able to return to a circle of friends who are willing to give her the space and time she needs to regroup, new pressures and expectations weigh on her. Plus, there are ghosts that haunt her from her past, and her sadness on knowing that the one creature she loves unconditionally will one day – sooner rather than later – be gone from her life, has her holding potential joys at arm’s length. Salvation may have come in the guise of Zephyr, an abused, mean spirited, unlovable horse that Joannie’s old trainer asks her to help him evaluate. This ghost gray mare has potential, but she also is aggressively hostile, and has been so removed from any instance of human kindness that normal incentives have no effect.
Joannie dislikes this borrowed horse, and agrees to work with her only out of stubbornness and a sense of loyalty to her old friend. But then her life spirals out of control when a chance encounter refuses to fade away, and everything she has steeled herself to endure threatens to overwhelm her already lonely and unsatisfying existence. When further tragedy strikes, and even as Joannie pushes other lifelines away, her one tether is to an unredeemable creature who has been conditioned to distrust even the hand that feeds it.
The story of Borrowed Horses is well done; not as predictable as one might assume nor offering the pat or saccharine ending that one may expect. Joannie and the others who inhabit her world seem very real in their virtues and their vices; the way they talk and react and interact. There were numerous times when I wanted to take Joannie by the shoulders and try to shake some sense into her, to get her to see that her self-appointed isolation and “I can do it myself” attitude was wrong. But I take this as good writing – where the character becomes so real to the reader that it’s easy to believe in her as a tangible person, capable of being affected if only not set in a paper-based world.
But what really captured me was the beauty of the writing. When dealing with a subject as well known yet as foreign as horse riding (we all know of it and have strong images of it, but very few of us really “know” what it is to ride horses), it would be easy to either gloss over it, relying on tried and true tropes to carry the day, or else to go into what must feel like exquisite detail for the author, but really is a vainglorious type of internal critique that is mind-numbing to the casual reader, who is unable to make a connection. Author Griffiths does not succumb to either of these pitfalls; her writing is keen yet accessible.
I’ve heard it argued that God made the horse for man to ride. As evidence, people cite the bars of the mouth – a toothless stretch of gum perfect for a bit – or the shape of the back and flanks, so perfectly contoured for the rider’s legs. But if we’re going to go there, man too seems designed for a horse. Consider the upright posture, the breadth and shape of pelvis that just spans a horse’s back, the long anchors of our legs hanging either side of a horse’s body. Take God out of the equation, and we were still made for one another. The devout will see such things. Even so, horse and rider must study one another, read the texts of each other, to determine whether one unity can be made of this double trinity: two bodies, two hearts, two minds.
It is in passages such as this that Ms. Griffiths invites the non-rider into to a world that is inhabited by horses, while paying homage to those who do. She gives those of us without creature knowledge just enough to understand the motion and the emotion between the rider and the horse, while not making it feel like we are being lectured at or otherwise educated.
That wonderfully fluid writing is not saved just for equine moments, however. Ms. Griffiths is able to inhabit and relate us to many emotional layers of her characters, such as this split second when Joannie is confronted with a jealous possessiveness from a sundered relationship:
Audacity. Audacity! The thought grew from my feet upward, bringing me back into myself. I was no counterpart. I was no missing piece. A woman is an entity unto herself, and I had already rejected this as a possible life. I would not waste myself spackling the gaps of an insufficient man.
In the end, an intimate knowledge of horses is superfluous in order to enjoy Borrowed Horses. Those who do ride will no doubt be able to relate to certain passages with a familiarity that the rest of us may lack, but all readers, used to a saddle or not, will be taken by the story and the manner in which it is told. As with all talented writers, we are asked to enter a world and allowed to feel welcome there, even if it is not our normal environ, even if the story is not always comfortable. But this story is well worth experiencing, even if you can’t really tell one end of a horse from the other. It’s all good. Very good.