published Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

David Cook: All the pretty horses

It should have been the horse, not a bald eagle.

No other creature better tells the American story than the horse. There in the early days, it bore witness to the Spanish genocide of native peoples. Then came midnight rides and revolution, then Robert E. Lee's Traveller.

Annie Oakley, Crazy Horse and wagons headed west.

Subjugated by iron-forged things like the railroad and Model T, the American horse exists today less as a practical creature and more as a mythological one.

We climb aboard more carousel horses than real ones; our children ride their first and perhaps last horse at birthday party pony rides. We name our cars "Mustangs'' without having ever seen one.

I believe there is a part of us that wishes this were not so.

Fifteen years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an essay-then-book about Eustace Conway, a modern American man who lived in very pre-modern ways: lived in a tepee, floated the Mississippi River in a canoe, hunted, gathered, made his own clothes.

In 1995, he and his brother rode their horses all the way across America.

"They didn't have any corporate sponsors or fancy gear. They just ate a big Christmas dinner with their family and then strapped on their guns, mounted their horses, and headed out,'' Gilbert wrote in GQ.

Fifty miles a day, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They slept in barns and guest bedrooms; ate road kill; dodged 18-wheelers.

"From coast to coast,'' she wrote, "Americans of every conceivable background had looked up at Eustace Conway on his horse and said wistfully, 'I wish I could do what you're doing'.''

I would have said the same thing. You, too. Riding a horse across America would be better than a spaceship to the moon.

Sixteen hands high, and able to canter straight into the human heart. There are women who would rather part with house than horse, teenagers whose truest friend is their horse, men whose lives were transformed by time spent not in church but stable.

Just ask the broken-hearted people at Happy Valley Farms.

Last week's barn fire made news across the country. Thirty-five American Saddlebred horses died, some of the finest stallions in America, show horses that turned heads from east to west.

Strangers have driven by the farm, rolled down the car window and started to cry.

A horse is a horse, of course; just as meaningful as the million-dollar stallions is the $500 filly ridden by the barefoot kid down the road. Each one imbued with magic, able to ferry across the human-animal divide in ways little else can.

"What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them,'' Cormac McCarthy said in his epic "All the Pretty Horses.'' "All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted, and they would always be so and never be otherwise.''

Monday morning, the gate was closed at Happy Valley Farms. At least 22 brown and black horses -- about 100 remain on the farm -- made their way across the green hillside. Wind blew in their manes. Birds hopped on the ground beside them. One horse lay down and rolled in the dust.

On the farm gate, someone had placed 35 roses between the bars. Yellow, white and red, one for each horse lost. Homemade signs made by children -- "in loveing memory'' -- were taped to the gate and covered with glitter.

By the road, near a fire hydrant, someone had set down a wreath of flowers with a note attached:

"Our hearts are with you.''

Horses say the very same to us.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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rsmith1950 said...

Well said, as usual.

June 25, 2013 at 7:40 p.m.
marmadukegarcia said...

You can't even write a column praising horses without getting in a dig at the evil, bad, no good history of western civilization? Sad.

June 27, 2013 at 10:41 a.m.
LinBro said...

David, Americans can do what Mr. Conway did - well maybe not the whole ride across America part, but they can certainly get back to the old ways of owning and riding a horse. In most areas a horse can be kept for the price of a mid-size car monthly payment. People in cities and suburbs can own a horse, even big cities like Los Angeles. I encourage your readers to consider horse ownership. It is the best therapy in the world. When I look at my mare's face, all my worries disappear. It gives life purpose. No more Saturdays walking the mall with the other lost souls!

July 1, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.
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