Michael Korda, Horse People: Scenes from the Riding Life (HarperCollins, 2003)

The back cover hails this book as “A beautifully illustrated and intimate exploration of the equestrian obsession.”

Cover copy is notoriously inaccurate, but that sentence begs for correction. To take the more minor point first, the illustrations are drawings by the author, who is not a professional artist, and black and white snapshots. The majority of both are amateurish, inelegant, and unnecessary.

Furthermore, an “exploration of the equestrian obsession” suggests a look at the ancient and profound relationship between humans and horses, using elements of history, folklore, and personal experience to explain why, apart from their usefulness, so many people have been and still are so in love with horses.

Instead, it's an account of how Simon & Schuster’s editor-in-chief Michael Korda and his beautiful, graceful, skilled, sensitive, stoic, compassionate, tough-minded, brave, witty, and wonderful second wife Margaret discovered and became part of the world of wealthy New Yorkers who own horses.

Horse People starts out with promise, segueing from a funny account of how an unprepared and tipsy Korda got roped into a fox hunt put on by ultra-rich eccentrics, to a meditation on how the horse has been used to separate the upper classes who ride from the lower classes who walk.

Korda can write an amusing anecdote, and some of his historical material is both inherently interesting and presented with wit and flair. His descriptions of equine personalities are vivid, bringing long-dead horses to snorting, biting, stamping life.

Unfortunately, the sharp observation and introspection at the beginning become increasingly spotty as the narrative continues. The writing gets sloppier, the anecdotes duller and duller, and Korda’s adoration of Margaret more and more intrusive. It’s nice that he loves his wife, but must that translate into paragraphs of musing at her fabulousness and endless quotes of her most banal remarks?

“Indeed, she is — as Margaret puts it — 'a toughie', high praise from one horse person about another, one of those people who, like Margaret herself, will compete even with a back so badly hurt that she can barely walk upright.”

As if to mirror his increasing absorption into the lifestyle of the not-quite-idle rich, Korda's prose style becomes more and more self-consciously jocular as the book goes on, until at times he sounds like a character written by P. G. Wodehouse. Toward the end, he quotes a stanza by Walt Whitman in praise of the horse, and remarks, "You have to hand it to old Walt, he managed to sum it up perfectly, for all time."

And while endless pages are taken up with stories in which Korda meets people who have horses (that's it — that's the whole story), he often neglects to take the time to explain unfamiliar terminology. For instance, he mentions "pin firing," which he says is a temporary cure for tendon trouble in horses that causes terrible scars and makes the problem worse in the long run. Well, what exactly is it, then?

As a reviewer, I was obligated to read every word rather than skim for the interesting bits, and so I could not help but observe the pointlessness of at least one quarter of the total verbiage. The names of famous people are dropped with abandon, but often without material of interest attached.

After a while, I felt as if I’d been transported back in time, to a screenwriting class I took in college with a professor who told stories in a similar style. “I knew Woody Allen,” he’d say for the fifteenth time, as the class looked for rope with which to hang ourselves. “Yes, I did. One day Woody called me up — he used to do that, Woody did, just call me up to chat. So we were chatting, Woody and I. And I said to him, ‘Woody,’ I said, ‘You’re a funny man, Woody.’ And he said to me, Woody Allen said, ‘Jim,’ he said, ‘You’re a funny man too.’”

Horse People was written by an editor, but rarely have I read a book so in need of one. It’s like the blacksmith’s horse that went unshod.

[Rachel Manija Brown]