Reviewed by Grace Quantock
My instructor Cath stands in the centre of the arena, watching me struggle to get my horse to go forward. Snow is piling up in the yard outside.
“Come on” she calls to me. “Stop doing the work for her. You need to relax your hips and tell her what you want.” I try, but my horse is listening to my stiff, cold body, not my voice.
“You say exactly the same things as my therapist” I call.
“Of course, how you ride is how you do everything” Cath explains.
In The Year of The Horses: A Memoir by Courtney Maum, (Tin House Books, May 2022), we meet Maum on the cusp of falling into a deep depression. Maum writes evocatively about her experiences with severe depression, the trees calling her to drive into them, the inability to sleep, to think. How it feels to have your boundaries dissolve, unable to hold yourself together until you cease to feel like a person. The memoir follows her uncertain journey seeking what will make living feel possible. She finds this back at the barn, returning to riding despite the difficulties of pursuing equestrian sports as a mother of a small child.
We see Maum exploring her struggles and riding through grief, loss, and uncertainty. The issues we have in the arena often uncannily reflect our struggles in daily life. Because horses are prey animals, they can read us accurately and respond to non-verbal cues we may not realize we’re giving. Horses are our mirrors, but it’s not always easy to see ourselves so clearly. However, this isn’t the case in The Year of the Horses. In this memoir, Maum brings a compassionate but analytical eye to her own experiences and the wider issue of women looking for something to carry them forward in increasingly harsh political landscapes.
As a reader, I’m left with the impression that Maum comes to writing this exquisite memoir as she comes to riding; out of depression and with determination to seek liberation. Powerfully constructed, this memoir interweaves narratives between horses and creativity. The characters, both human and equine, are compelling and nuanced. A history of horses and women are braided with Maum’s personal history. The narrative winds through family history, while straining with present struggles.
“Being relaxed but strong, rigid but balanced, supple but determined. In short, it is an enigma that made absolutely no sense to my type A brain…How do you reconcile control and free-spiritedness? Seriousness and joy?”
The wider issues addressed through Maum’s journey speak to women disappearing in our countries, through suicide, through depression, in dissociation, as well as the routes and companions that help us come back to ourselves.
In my own riding, on a snowy night, we reach my favourite part of the lesson. I take off my horse’s saddle and trot bareback around the arena. I’m warmer, snuggled up against her winter coat. Untrammeled by stirrups, irons, or bits, I relax into my seat and my horse engages her hindquarters. I haven’t been able to run for many years, but I imagine it feels like this, soaring like an arrow, somewhere between falling and flying. Creativity can leap like this when unhooked from outside expectations and Maum’s writing leaps forward when she finds the equestrian sport which fits her need for focus, relaxation, and connection. “I had to let up on the reins, both the real and the metaphorical. I had to let the proverbial horses go.”
The Year of The Horses will appeal to readers looking for an alternative journey out of dark times, those interested in equine and animal connections and anyone who wants to read a lyrical, insightful journey towards finding what feels like enough.