As a freelancer, I’ve done a fair share of ghost writing over the years in order to make ends meet. Now, with Dream of Night, my new novel for young readers, I’ve turned to horse writing. In a way, it feels like I’ve come home.
I was born and raised in the Bluegrass, a part of Kentucky known for its rolling meadows and beautiful horses. They say what makes Kentucky Thoroughbreds the best in the world has to do with the rich limestone found in the soil. The horses here grow up strong, fast, and spirited. I think the people here grow up that way too.
Springtime in central Kentucky means that fields everywhere are dotted with mares and colts. (Most foals are born between January and April.) Springtime around here also means the Kentucky Derby and big silly hats and mint juleps.
I was not a particularly horsey girl growing up. I would ride occasionally, but not with the longing and the focus of some of my friends. In the middle of Kentucky farmland, unlikely as it sounds, I was into theater. My world revolved around acting and plays because that’s what my father did: he was an actor and producer of a summerstock theater. (I wrote about a childhood spent on stage in my novel Here’s How I See It/Here’s How It Is, 2009.) But horses were in my blood, at least on my mother’s side.
My maternal grandfather had been a horseman, a breeder and trainer of 3-5 gated saddlebred horses, one of the best trainers around. A man who knew a lot about horses. So I grew up hearing stories, seeing photos of my papa’s statuesque prize-winners. Photos and memories only. Because the stories always ended with a pounding at his front door in the middle of the night and the cry of “Fire! Fire!” Papa rushed out into the dark to find his main barn already engulfed in flames. (This was long before modern smoke detectors and sprinkler systems and telephones being commonplace in every home.) Papa – and his farmhands and neighbors – risked their lives to save the horses, but the fire was just too fast.
Papa kept a few pleasure horses after that, but he gave up breeding and training altogether. I think the horseman in him must have died along with those amazing creatures he had raised and trained and loved so dearly. He rebuilt the barn, but instead of stalls, there were open rafters for hanging tobacco while it cured. He turned his acres of grazing land into rows of crops.
I left Kentucky after high school, headed for the big city of New York. I went to college, became a writer, started a family, lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. And then, suddenly, I wanted to go home. Papa had died a while back, but his house was still empty. My husband and I decided to take the plunge, make a go of country living.
Moving back to the family farm I had a vague notion of wanting to own horses – for myself, for my son, for future kids. So I was happy to discover upon arrival that there were already horses on the farm. The neighbor down the lane was leasing the land around the house. So there was a herd of horses, about eight or so mares and one lone black stallion, the leader of the group. They were nearly wild because the neighbor didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them. The fields curved around in a horseshoe pattern, with the house in the middle. So most times of day I could look out any window, or stand in any part of the yard, and see the horses.
They were shy at first. They ignored our offerings of apples and peppermint. But slowly, when they realized we weren’t going anywhere, they got used to us. They would watch us across shorter and shorter distances. Finally they allowed us to give them treats, sniffing at us, still startling away if we made any sudden moves.
From my window on the second floor where I had set up my writing desk, I often just sat and stared out the window, watching the horses instead of working on the book I was trying to finish. The horses were all different colors. Their manes and tails were long and tangly. They seemed to move as one, stopping to graze together, drinking in one big group from the spring, bolting together in a heartbeat without any obvious (to me, anyway) signal. Many times a day this startling, graceful explosion into flight, and the gallop of so many big powerful bodies across the field would simply take my breath away.
After a while the lease came up on the land; the neighbor sold some of the horses, took the others back to his side of the lane. My husband, son and I would walk down the road to visit them. By this time they knew us. They’d sidle up to the fence when they saw us approaching, they’d take the apples we offered; they’d allow their faces and necks to be stroked.
We were settling into our new life on the farm with a big garden and chickens and cows – and skunks (uninvited but persistent guests). The barn was in disrepair. It would take a lot of money to make it a safe and comfortable place for horses. So we put off the dream of having horses of our own for a while and kept visiting the neighbor horses.
I went back to sitting at my desk while my son was at school, staring at my computer now, rather then staring out at the horses. Slowly though something started to happen, something started to click. It was true that I couldn’t actually see the horses anymore from my window. But I knew they were there. I could feel them. I could write about them, tell their story. And so that’s exactly what I started to do.