Book List: Five Horse Books to Get You Hyped for the Kentucky Derby

When I was a baby, my dad ran a horse farm in Ocala, FL, and my mom trained racehorses. They first put me on a horse before I could walk. My earliest memories include the slough of horse hair on my mother’s jeans from riding bareback and the sway of the horse’s shoulders as we rode under mossy live oaks. Even after we left the farm and headed for the coast, horses remained a staple of my imagination. They were wild, majestic, magical, and free. Horse books like Misty of Chincoteague and The Black Stallion fluttered through my hands again and again. I blame these books for igniting my love of reading.

I plowed through all the horse books for kids (Saddle Club, anyone? I was totally obsessed.), and started to crave longer reads with more tangled stories. In other words, I was growing up. But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave horse books behind. To my surprise, there aren’t nearly as many horse books for adults. So now I’m writing one.

Here are five books that inspired me:

The most recent entry on the list, The Sport of Kings (2016) by C. E. Morgan follows an old Kentucky horse-racing family from the birth of their horse farm to racing for the roses. A doorstopper of a book that leaves no detail untold, The Sport of Kings is nonetheless a must-read for any horse lover.

And now for something completely different: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon will completely dismantle your conceptions of what it is to be a novel. Capturing the seedy side of horse racing, Gordon’s 2010 National Book Award Winner is 100% voice-driven. I can hear every character when I read. It’s extraordinary! A word of caution: this book is very literary and not for the casual reader. The perspective is sometimes so close to the viewpoint character that the narrative will be difficult to understand if you don’t know anything about horse racing.

Lyrical and dark, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses tells the story of a young Texas rancher who sets off on a journey to Mexico across the kind of wide-open spaces that make McCarthy famous. All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award in 1993.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand is one of my all-time favorite books. The movie staring Tobey Maguire brought my grandmother, a long-time equestrian and the owner of my parents’ horse farm, to tears. At seventeen years old, she had cheered from the stands as Seabiscuit faced War Admiral in their iconic 1938 clash at Pimlico. Basically: I love this book, and I want to read it again and again.

(Side note: one of her daughters, my aunt, was bitten by Secretariat, but that’s a story for another time.)

Finally, the book I’m currently reading is Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres in 1992. My first impression with this book was: dear God, what have I gotten myself into?! It’s quite a brick. But I love horse racing, and I can’t get enough horse racing books. There’s just this strange beauty and mystery about horse racing, and so far, Horse Heaven does not disappoint.

I can’t wait until my book makes it onto this list. I should be finishing the rough draft in the next few days (or weeks), and then I’ll get down to the arduous task of editing.