I think there are two things that unite horse people above all else: love of a complex animal, and a deep appreciation for story. Literature and history are littered with stories of horses, from the great Bucephalus to Black Beauty to Secretariat. And even closer to home, on ranches and in stables, on breeding farms and hobby farms, smaller, more intimate stories spread and linger — an old gelding who liked things just so, a hot-blooded young mare who could only be ridden by children, a first pony, the one that got away, the one that broke your heart. Horse people tell stories. We can’t help ourselves. Our admiration and wonder pours out of us, and inspires even the reserved old cowboy to wax poetic.
William Shatner is no different. From the first words of Spirit of the Horse, it’s clear that this is a man who is wonderfully, hopelessly in love with the creatures. He weaves his own anecdotes and memories with fables, excerpts from old training manuals, and other legacies to create something that is part memoir, part question: Why do horses have such a hold on humans? What about them captures us so intently?
The writing itself meanders, chasing tangents and thoughts in a way that could easily be annoying, but with Shatner’s gentle charm and curiosity, it finds a balance. There is a sense that you’re sitting on a porch with an old horseman, listening to him muse about the horses he’s known, the falls he’s taken, and the memories he’s made. From Star Trek sets to charity horse shows, it’s a sweet walk through a pretty interesting life. As someone who grew up alongside horses and continues to train them to this day, the evident fondness is a beautiful, familiar thing to me.
Like most meandering tales, there are places in Spirit of the Horse where the research is old, or the beliefs are incorrect. This is unlikely to trouble the casual reader or horse fan, but people who work with horses on a more regular basis may find some frustration with Shatner’s outdated takes on social structure and fear response. (The image of the domineering wild stallion may capture your imagination, for example — but increasingly, we’re discovering that it’s nothing more than fiction.
All that meandering can be a little off-putting at first — Shatner could certainly have benefitted from stronger editorial oversight. At times his narrative jumps the rails, never wrapping up a first thought until it he’s traveled through many more, and there are moments where he’ll simply abandon an interesting direction in favor of something new.
But one story in particular struck home, a memory of Shatner visiting Christopher Reeve in the hospital after he’d been paralyzed in a fall from a horse. They spoke — naturally — of horses, and Shatner marvels at the joy that was in Reeve’s eyes. Reeve’s sport, three day eventing, was my sport for many years, and I have often wondered what would happen if I took a jump wrong, if I hadn’t cleared a falling horse once — if I had lost everything the way Reeve did. Yet the story illustrates another common failing: We never seem to lose our love, once we’ve been bitten.
If you have not had the pleasure (and trauma) of having horses in your life, and have not read extensively about them, but you love their legacy and presence, this book will likely delight you. And if you know horses well — but have a fondness for Star Trek and memories of an interesting life — it’s still worth picking up.
Many of us grew up watching Star Trek, and countless dreams and careers grew out of the show’s curiosity and passion for learning — qualities which imbue The Spirit of the Horse from start to finish.