One Good Horse

by Tom Groneberg

Published by Scribner

240 pages, 2006



A Horse Is Not Just a Horse, of Course

Reviewed by David Abrams


"A horse is a horse of course, of course/and no one can talk to a horse, of course."

Those of a certain age will recognize the opening lyrics of the Mr. Ed television show of the 1960s and, while the world isn't exactly filled with talking horses, there are plenty of people who consider the hoofed ones their most loving and faithful companions. To them, a horse is not just a horse. Of course, you can find interspecies devotion just about anywhere two-legged and four-legged creatures get together; but horse lovers are often a breed apart in fanatic attachment to their animals. In many cases, it's not just about the pleasures of pet ownership, it's the therapeutic solace horses seem to provide with their combination of muscular, thunder-hooved power and velvet-muzzle tenderness.

Tom Groneberg knows how horses can help heal a broken human soul. Over the years, he worked with horses on dude ranches, wrangling outfits and, briefly, a rodeo. In the years since he moved to Montana from Chicago, Groneberg ate, slept and breathed horses, but had never owned one himself. In his first book, The Secret Life of Cowboys, he described how he awkwardly assimilated into the world of men and their mounts. Now, in One Good Horse, he gives us a moving account of his love affair with one particular horse -- a scrawny, chocolate-brown two-year-old he names Blue after a legendary horseman, Teddy "Blue" Abbott.

As he and his wife Jennifer raise their son Carter in Montana's Flathead Valley, Groneberg starts to feel his life is incomplete. Jennifer is expecting twins and he's living out his boyhood dream of working with horses, but still he thinks there's something missing. As he does chores on another man's ranch, he writes:

I think, perhaps for the first time, that I should have my own horse. If I walked out into a pasture with a halter, it would nicker and trot toward me. I wouldn't have to decide which horse to saddle, which animal to trust. If I had a good horse, I could give it my life. I could ride it for years. We could grow old together. Then I would give it to Carter. His own horse, to ride, to have, because I know I will not always be there for him.

With all the demands of being a good husband, father and ranch hand, Groneberg worries that he's stretched thin in too many different directions and that he's letting everyone down, including himself. Getting a horse, he thinks, could either be a really good idea or a really bad idea -- a conflict he wrestles with through most of One Good Horse.

Eventually, he finds Blue, a young horse which isn't getting the best treatment from his owner. Groneberg spends several pages debating on whether or not to buy the horse, and then a couple dozen more pages trying to find a place to board his new purchase. Taken on the surface, One Good Horse might seem a bit ordinary and uneventful. Why, you ask yourself, would you want to spend hundreds of pages reading about a man buying a horse -- a book where one of the big action scenes comes when a skittish horse finally learns to walk forward with a rider on its back?

Training him has been so easy, such a pleasure. When I thought about getting a colt, I imagined the worst -- resistance, bucking, sore muscles, maybe even broken bones. I thought I wanted that fight, thought I wanted to feel physical pain, to bleed. There are so many things that might have happened to me if the wrong horse had come along. I could have ended up in the hospital, or worse. But instead, I found Blue, who treated me kindly. He gave me what I needed, though I didn't know it at the time.

But One Good Horse is much more than a cowboy-horse love story; it's a tale that dives deep under the surface of its simple, straightforward prose. As he works with Blue and as he learns more about his neighbors in the pristine northwest Montana valley, Groneberg begins to see how things happen for a reason. He buys a horse, his wife gives birth to twins, he works hard to get his horse comfortable with a saddle, one of his newborn sons is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, his entire life threatens to unravel at the seams.

There are several different strands threading through One Good Horse: There's the story of Blue the horse (occasionally told from the horse's perspective), there's the struggle of Groneberg coming to grips with himself as a father and a husband, and there's a narrative about Teddy "Blue" Abbott and his cowboy adventures in the late 1800s. By book's end, Groneberg manages to tie all the pieces together in pages that practically crescendo with emotion.

Let's face it, sometimes we need a memoir where the author writes about what could only be called "regular life." In these pages, there are no root canals without Novocain, no deviant spirals into alcoholism and drug abuse, no childhood traumas involving wire hangers. This is a simple -- but achingly beautiful -- story about a man, his horse, his family and the land where all three live in uneasy harmony. | March 2006


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.