Horse Crazy


Melissa Holbrook Pierson Ponies Up

Women make up 95 percent of the American Dressage Federation, and little girls four-fifths of the U.S. Pony Club. There’s something about horses that captures women’s imaginations when they are young, and very often it never lets them go. Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s Dark Horses and Black Beauties is a series of anecdotes, quotations, and reflections designed to illuminate that undeniable bond.

The stable is one of the few places where female children can get dirty without reprimand. In the equine world, the “males are pretty, as the females are powerful, and so horses seem to bear the same secret a little girl does about her own protean qualities even if the whole world would deny them.” A few insights like these, thought-provoking and original, flit through the book, but Pierson’s language is all too often hyperbolic and confused. Halfway through she confesses that she will never pull together a coherent argument: “I myself have become almost addicted to the taste of the unknowable, and sometimes gorge on it in the middle of the night, straight out of the container and with no sauce. With this revelation, I hereby give up all pretense of offering some final explanation of why girls love horses with the abiding passion they do.”

For a book that began with the author’s urgent desire to own a pony, the direction Dark Horses takes next is brave and surprising. Pierson finds herself increasingly unable to countenance our treatment of horses, not only their horrific deaths in slaughterhouses and the criminal drugging and overbreeding of racehorses, but also their abuse at the hands of loving owners: “Twenty-five years without tasting grass, without rolling on his back, without the simple necessity of moving his legs without the weight of a human bearing down and pulling him this way and that, twenty-five years in a cell.” She moves from idealized notions of the connection between horse and rider to full-out identification as an animal rights activist—unafraid to assault readers with ugly truths.

This is a disorganized and frustrating book, burdened by foggy poeticism and tangled sentences, bouncing between the joys of reading horse novels, the history of the sidesaddle, and the cruelties of dressage training. But it is nonetheless a fearless book: unflinching, earnest, and kind. In the horse community, animal rights advocates are the enemy. And Pierson is one of them; she would stop the shows, halt the races, end the sale of Premarin, and set every horse free to roam in emerald pastures.