Smoky the Cowhorse
By: Will James
Publisher: Mountain Press Publishing Company
Publication Date: May 2016
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
A mouse-colored horse, and what happens to him throughout his life at the hands of various men, form the plot of this 1927 Newbery Medal winner, now in a new printing for today's horse lovers.
For those not familiar with this story, the tale follows a horse named Smoky, who was born on the range, wild and free. His first few years are spent frolicking along with his mother and other horses in his herd. From beating off aggressive, older horses to escaping from hungry wolves, Smoky has many experiences that help shape him as a horse, and make him a strong horse who knows how to survive.
Other than being captured as a youngster with the rest of the herd so all the foals can be branded with the Rocking R ranch's mark, Smoky has no contact with humans until it is time for him to be "broke" and made into a proper cowpony. The "breaking" of the range horses is harsh and eventually wears Smoky down, so that he can be ridden, but only by Clint, the man who broke him and who rides/breaks all the young horses at the ranch. Clint and Smoky come to an understanding and while Smoky frequently bucks, and bucks so strongly that no other man can ride him, Clint likes the horse's feistiness. Smoky also has uncanny cow skills and quickly proves invaluable to Clint and the Rocking R.
Every fall, after the annual roundup is complete, all the cowponies are set free to roam the range until spring. It is during one of these winters that Smoky and the band of horses he is with are stolen by someone from south of the border. Lost to the Rocking R, Smoky proves unrideable and is eventually sold to a rodeo outfit. It is here that Smoky is known as "The Cougar" - a bronc nobody can ride. While Clint searches for his beloved horse, Smoky goes through a series of careers and owners.
Smoky is a classic in the world of horse books and if you're a fan of this genre, you really should read this book. There's a reason it was made into a movie (twice) as well as a winner of the Newbery. The only caveat is that, because it was written by a true cowboy, back in the 20's, it is both dated in the way the horses are handled, the way different people are treated, and the "cowboy speak" that uses mixed tenses, poor grammar, and misspellings (crethure for creature; eddication for education), that are frequent, but at least consistent. It takes a few chapters to get used to the unusual language, and if you stick with it, the reward will be well worth it. The story is interesting and will frequently pull at your heartstrings.
Quill says: A true classic that every horse lover should read.