The Hearts of Horses

The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss


$13.46 $14.95 Save 10% Current price is $13.46, Original price is $14.95. You Save 10%. View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, February 20
91 New & Used Starting at $1.99


An elegant, heartwarming story about the profound connections between people and animals


In the winter of 1917, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon, looking for work “gentling” wild horses. She chances on a rancher, George Bliss, who is willing to hire her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong-willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of a young but determined woman trying to make a go of it in a man’s world. Over the course of several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk witness Martha talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair—getting miraculous, almost immediate results. It's with this gift that she earns their respect, and a chance to make herself a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547085753
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/08/2008
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 157,072
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Molly Gloss is the award-winning author of The Jump-Off Creek, The Dazzle of Day, and Wild Life.

Actor and voice-over artist Renee Raudman has performed on film, television, radio, and stage. A multiple Audie Award nominee, she has garnered several AudioFile Earphones Awards, a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, and numerous starred reviews.

Read an Excerpt

In those days, even before the war had swept up all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses. They traveled from ranch to ranch with two or three horses they were taking home to break or with horses they had picked up in trade for work they’d done. Of course most outfits had fifty or sixty horses back then so there was plenty of work, and when the war came on, no men to get it done. Those girls could break horses as well as any man but they had their own ways of doing it, not such a bucking Wild West show. They went about it so quiet and deliberate, children would get tired of watching and go off to do something else. They were usually alone, those girls, but it wasn’t like in the moving pictures or the gunslinger novels, the female always in peril. If they were in peril it wasn’t from outlaws or crooked sheriffs, it was from the usual things that can happen with ranch work—breaking bones, freezing your fingers off—the kinds of things that can happen whether you’re a man or a woman.
 In November in that first winter of the war a girl named Martha Lessen rode down through the Ipsoot Pass into Elwha County looking for horses that needed breaking out. She was riding a badly scarred mare she called Dolly and she had a couple of other horses towing behind her, which she had brought along just because she didn’t feel she could leave them behind. At the upper end of the valley where the road first drops down along Graves Creek she saw a man out in a big fenced stubble field feeding about thirty cows and half a dozen horses and a pair of white mules. She called to him from the road, “Hello,” and he stopped what he was doing and looked over at her. “If you’ve got any horses need breaking to saddle, I’ll break them for you,” she told him.
 The daylight was thin, a cold and wintry light, and it pulled all the color out of the man’s face. He stood up straight. The winter before, there had been a string of about a hundred days when the temperature never rose above freezing and some counties—Elwha, Umatilla, Grant—had piled up seven feet of snow. Deer had been driven down into the towns, and cougar had come into the pastures with the cattle. Starving horses had wandered into people’s houses. But this particular winter, the winter of 1917 and 1918, would be an open one, and the day Martha Lessen rode down out of the Ipsoot Pass there wasn’t any snow on the ground at all, although the stubble field the man was working in had been grazed off and the skimpy leavings were dark from frost-kill. He was feeding from a wagon drawn by a pair of black Percherons.
 “Maybe I do,” he said. “There’s a couple could use working.” He looked her over. “I guess you ain’t no Land Girl.” This past summer a lot of men from the ranches had gone into the army and quite a few town and city girls had come out to the countryside to fill in where they were needed—“Land Girls” the newspapers had begun to call them. Some of them had come to Elwha County with the idea of being cowboys, though mostly the work that needed doing was getting in the hay crop and the wheat. Martha Lessen was the first girl he had seen advertising herself as a broncobuster.
 “No I’m not,” she said. “I’ve been riding and doing ranch work since I could walk. I can break horses.”
 He smiled and said, “I just bet you can,” which was a remark about the way she was built, big and solid as a man and five-eleven in her boots. Or he meant something about her old-fashioned cowboy trappings, the fringed batwing chaps well scratched up and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim. Then he said, not with serious misgiving but as if he had discovered something slightly amusing, “Breaking to saddle, so I guess that means you’re not interested in breaking horses to harness.”
 She could have found plenty of work around Pendleton, where she had come from, if she had wanted to break horses to drive, so she said stubbornly, “I’d just rather train a stock horse than a wagon horse if I’m able to choose.”
 He considered this. “Well, go on up to the house and I’ll be up shortly and we’ll see about it.” He went back to feeding hay.
 She followed a line of telephone poles from the road back to the ranch house, which was a paintless tall box with skinny windows set among a scattering of barns and sheds and bunkhouses built variously of lumber and pine logs. A yellow dog scrambled out from under the porch of the house and barked once and then walked up and smelled of the girl’s boot. “Hey there,” she said, which satisfied him, and he walked off and flopped down in the hard dirt at the edge of the porch steps.
 Elwha County was more than two-thirds taken up by the Clarks Range and the Whitehorn Mountains, with the towns and most of the ranches lying in the swale between. This house stood on the first moderately flat ground at the foot of the Clarks, its front windows facing south across the valley toward the Whitehorns. The girl wondered what sort of view could be seen from those windows, and she turned in the saddle to look. There had been a little cold rain earlier in the day and the clouds were moving southeast now, dragging low across the pointy tops of the lodgepole and yellow pine stands in the far distance; there was no telling whether the serrate line of the Whitehorns might show in better weather. By the time she turned back toward the house a woman had come out on the porch and was wiping her hands on her apron. She was just about exactly the age of the man who’d been feeding cows, which was fifty, and she stood there in black high-top shoes and a long dress and a sweater with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, stood there wiping her hands and squinting at the girl.
 Martha said, “I’m here to see about some work breaking horses. The man feeding cows in that field by the road said I ought to wait here till he came in to talk to me about it.”
 “Well it’s cold,” the woman said. “You can put up those horses in the barn and then come in and have a cup of coffee. He’ll be a while.” She went back inside the house.
 Martha watered her horses and led them over to the barn but she didn’t put them up. She left them standing saddled in the open runway, out of the wind, then walked back to the house. The dog met her again and smelled of her boots and her chaps up to the knees and she patted him on the head and went past him onto the porch. When she rapped lightly on the door the woman inside called out, “You’d better just come on in.” She tucked her gloves into her belt, scraped her boots as well as she could on the porch boards and stepped inside. The dim front room ran the width of the house and was furnished more elaborately than Martha was used to, with upholstered chairs, carved end tables, Turkish rugs, kerosene lamps with elaborate glass shades. Thick draperies closed off the windows, which might have been to keep the heat inside; but Martha felt if there was any chance of seeing the mountains she’d have left the windows open to the view.
 She crossed the room and went through a doorway into the kitchen where the woman was pouring coffee into heavy china cups. This room was bare of the fussy furnishings at the front of the house. The long pine table and chairs and two kitchen cupboards were painted white, and the windows were tall and narrow and curtainless. The day’s gray brightness flooding through those panes of glass made the room seem clean and cold. From this side of the house you could see some trees, but the house was too close to the Clarks to get a view of their snowy peaks. The girl took off her hat and held it in her hands.
 “What’s your name, dear?” the woman said.
 “It’s Martha Lessen.”
 “Well my goodness, I have a sister and a cousin both named Martha, so that’s a name that will come easy to my lips.” She put the coffee cups and a pitcher of cream on the kitchen table and sat down in a chair.
 “If I was to pay you for it,” the girl said to her, “I wonder if I could later on give my horses a little bit of your hay.”
 The woman made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Oh heavens,” she said, as if that was just the most outrageous idea. “You help yourself. A horse has got to have something to eat. Sit down now and drink your coffee.” Martha sat in a kitchen chair and put her big hat in her lap and poured as much cream into her coffee as the cup would hold.
 “You talked to George, did you?”
 “I didn’t get his name. He had on overalls and a brown coat.”
 This amused her. “Well of course every man in this part of the world is wearing overalls and an old brown coat,” she said, “but I guess it was George Bliss who is my husband and I am Louise Bliss.”
 She then started right in telling Martha how they were Old Oregonians, both she and her husband, children of first comers, and how this house they were sitting in had been built from trees cut and milled right here on the ranch by her husband’s daddy right after the Indians were driven off, and how her own granddaddy had fought in the Civil War and then come up to Oregon with one of the first big trail drives out of Texas and bought half a dozen cows with his wages, and by the time he died owned almost two hundred head of cattle and eight hundred acres of Baker Valley pastureland. She spoke as if the girl had asked for every bit of their family history but it was just that she had immediately taken Martha Lessen for a certain kind of ranch girl, the kind that followed the seasonal work traipsing from ranch to ranch; and Louise had known such girls to be shy as the dickens and indisposed to talk. She felt it would be up to her to fill the silence, and Martha’s old-time cowboy trappings seemed to make her a perfect audience for romantic pioneer stories.
 When George Bliss came in through the back porch he poured himself some coffee and stood there drinking it without sitting down at the kitchen table. His wife wasn’t saying anything he didn’t already know. She and George had brought four children into the world, she was telling Martha, and one had died shortly after being born but they had a boy who was now in Kansas preparing to fight in France and another who was at college up in Pullman, Washington, with the intent to learn veterinary medicine, and a girl, Miriam, who was married and living with her husband’s family on a ranch up around Pilot Rock. George stood there drinking his coffee quietly and letting Louise go on talking without interrupting her, and it was the telephone that finally broke the thread of her story and made all three of them jump. It wasn’t the Blisses’ ring—theirs was two longs and a short, this was three long jangles—but Mrs. Bliss went to the telephone anyway. In those days there were seven ranches on the party line at that end of the valley and they listened in on each other’s calls without a bit of apology.
 George took his opening to say to Martha, “I’ve got a couple of likely-looking three-year-olds, or I guess they’re four-year-olds now, that haven’t never been broke. They’re halter-broke more or less, and I suppose I could get a saddle on them if I was determined about it, and I suppose if I was truly determined I could stick on and ride them out. But they ain’t been finished and I haven’t got the time to do it now that my son has gone off to fight. I’ve got just two hands I’ve been able to keep this winter. Henry Frazer, who was my foreman, has left me and gone over to help out the Woodruff sisters since all their hands joined up, and one of the two I got left is a kid who I expect will be joined up as soon as he turns eighteen and anyway ain’t had much experience bucking out horses. I hired him mostly as a ditch walker and for moving the gates on my dams and so forth in the summer, and I’m trying to teach him cowboying but he’s not the best hand I ever had in the world; and the other is a fellow with a bum arm that keeps him out of the army and also keeps him from doing any kind of roping, and which is a disadvantage, I guess you know, if you’re trying to break broncs.”
 The usual method of broncobusters in those days was to forefoot a horse with a catch rope, which brought him right to his knees, and then wrestle a saddle onto him while he was on the ground, climb on and buck him near to death. Martha Lessen was a terrible hand with a lariat and horses hardly ever bucked when she rode them the first time but she didn’t say any of this to George Bliss. “I’d like to break them out for you,” she said. “I can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail.”
 “What would you want for the two of them?”
 “I could do them for ten dollars apiece.”
 He lifted his eyebrows. “Ten to get them started or will that get them finished?”
 Since this was the first time she’d been asked to name a price, she was easily warned off. She’d been helping out her dad since she was old enough to sit her own horse, and she’d been about thirteen the first time anybody hired her to move cattle or gather horses off the open range or round up a runaway team. She’d been breaking horses since she was fifteen but it had always been something she’d done in her spare time while she was working summers on one ranch or another and not something she’d been paid separately for. “I expect I can get them close to finished for ten dollars,” she said, looking down into her coffee. She knew the hard part wasn’t climbing onto a horse for the first time and a decent working horse might take a year or two to truly finish, and she thought George Bliss must know this too. But she could get a horse pretty well along in a few weeks, and after that it would be a matter of the horse gaining experience. She waited and when nothing more was said, she added, “If you aren’t happy with the way they turn out, you don’t have to pay me.”
 Mr. Bliss looked at his wife, who had by now hung up the telephone and come back to the table. Martha wanted to know what sort of look Louise Bliss was giving back to him but she deliberately kept from acting interested: she turned the coffee cup in her two hands and looked down at her thumbs rubbing along the rolled rim of the china.
 “That was the hardware store over in Bingham,” Louise said, because George’s questioning look had been about the telephone and not at all to do with Martha Lessen. “The nails and wire have come in, and after all this time, I should hope so.” George knew whose nails and wire she meant, and merely nodded at his coffee. Then Louise said suddenly, “Do you know? This girl sitting here is named Martha?” as if she expected the news to amaze him.
 George said, “Is that so,” with no more than mild interest. “Well Miss Martha, let’s go out and take a look at them broncs and you tell me do you think you can make them into cow ponies.” He winked at her without smiling and set his coffee down and went out through the back porch into the yard.
 “Thanks for the coffee,” she told Louise Bliss and followed the man outside.
 His two white mules were standing there tied to the porch rails; George Bliss had saddled them before he had come inside the house. He climbed onto one of them and when she realized what was expected of her Martha got up on the other and they rode out to find the horses. The yellow dog ran to get ahead because it was his habit to take the lead, a habit that had resulted in his acquiring the name Pilot.
 The war had encouraged George Bliss to plow up a big stretch of his deeded pastureland to plant wheat, so his wheat fields, fenced and cross-fenced and edged with irrigation ditches and diversion dams, took up most of the flattish ground to the east and the south near the homeplace. George led Martha the back way, north through a gate into the grass and bitterbrush foothills. After forty minutes or so they went up through another gate into the scattered timber of the Clarks Range. Those mountains had been part of Teddy Roosevelt’s freshly minted Blue Mountain Forest Reserve back in ’06, then were split off into their own reserve about 1912. The Taylor Grazing Act and all the rules and rigamarole of leasing from the government were a good fifteen years off at that point and George was still using the mountains as pasture for his livestock, was still wintering his horses and some of his cattle in the grassy canyons inside the reserve. He and Martha began scouring the creek bottoms one after the other, looking for the horses he wanted to show her.
 She had a cowboy’s disregard for mules—a mule lacked the dignity and honorableness of a horse was one of the things she believed. But this belief wasn’t in any way based on experience and it was a surprise to her to discover that the white mule had a nice swinging walk and a sure foot and a look in his eye that struck her as entirely dignified. When they had been riding in silence for a while, she finally worked up the nerve to say a few words to George Bliss about the mule’s gait and his sure-footedness. He told her, “Well, a mule is no good for working cattle, I guess you know, but I’ve always been partial to them for packing or if I’m going up into broken ground. They never put their foot wrong is my experience. My daddy used to raise mules for the army, which is how I got interested in them. They’ve got a lot of good sense. A mule won’t put up with a lopsided load; he’ll walk right up to a tree and scrape it off. I guess if I was smart I ought to go to raising them again, with the war and all, and there being a lot of call for mules.”
 The girl’s showy rodeo costume had caused him to saddle the mules out of amused contrariness—he intended to surprise and upend her. But now that she had spoken well of the mules he was coming to a slightly different opinion of her, and he began looking for a way to feel out her knowledge. After he’d thought about it he said, “These mules come out of a mare, Tulip, that I wish I had a dozen more just like her. She was half-Shire, and her mule colts was good big work animals. People say it’s the stud, but when it comes to mules my money’s on the mare.”
 Even farm girls in those days were modest and circumspect when it came to talking to men about the details and mechanics of stock breeding, so George didn’t say anything further along those lines; but all the time they were riding he went on talking in the same indirect way about matters to do with horses, especially anything to do with their breaking. He was mildly trying to provoke an opinion out of Martha Lessen without ever directly asking her anything. “I guess you know a mule is just about nothing to break,” he told her. “You can climb up on a mule and he’ll raise his back once or twice and then settle down to work, that easy.” And later on he said, “I don’t know what the difference is, or why horses have got to be so hard about it.”
 She had opinions and might have stated them; it was just from natural shyness and a failure to realize what he was fishing for that she didn’t say much. But as he kept on with it, she finally figured out what George was after and began to speak up, and once she got going she had plenty to say. She told him, for instance, about her preference for a McClelland saddle when she was breaking a horse, because those old cavalry saddles were light in the stirrup leathers and she liked how they let her feel the horse, and the horse feel her. She told him she liked to use her own homemade basal hackamore as long as possible on a green colt and after that a snaffle bit; and that she didn’t have much use for a spade bit. She told him when a horse misbehaved she figured it was for one of two reasons: either he didn’t understand what you wanted or the bad behavior hadn’t ever been corrected in the past. She said that in her experience horses weren’t mean unless some man made them that way; but some horses, once they’d been made mean, just weren’t worth the time it took to break them. “Like people,” she said, glancing at George. “Some people just belong in prison and some horses just belong in the rodeo.”
 They made a full swing along the timbered breaks of the foothills, passing through several small bunches of cows and steers, and three different bands of horses. In one bunch of fifteen or twenty mares, George pointed out a young buckskin stud horse he said was half-Arab that he’d bought to improve his herd. Martha said appreciatively, “He’s got an awfully nice-looking head,” and after watching him a moment—he was tossing his head, kicking and rearing and whinnying, showing off for George and Martha in front of his wives—she also said, “Those young horses sure like to make a big show,” without saying what had come into her mind, which was a young stallion she knew of who’d been put into pasture all one summer with half a dozen experienced brood mares without producing a single foal. Those mares had just been disgusted by his adolescent male lordliness, and they hadn’t ever let him cover them.
 He showed her maybe forty horses altogether, and among the last band the four-year-olds he wanted to have broken to saddle, a bay and a chestnut, both of them geldings. The chestnut, when he moved, had an odd action, a kind of conspicuous engagement of the hips, which Martha thought might make for a smooth trot. They were in their long winter coats and looked pretty rough, almost wild. She doubted they had much memory of being halter-broke, but if they’d been broken out in the usual way then not remembering was good news as far as she was concerned. She told George Bliss her opinion about the chestnut, the way he lifted his hips, and George gave the horse a close look in silence and then said, “Well, it do look different,” without saying whether he thought she was right about the horse having a smooth gait.
 When they got back to the house it was late in the afternoon, the daylight already failing, and it had grown pretty cold. They put up the saddles and turned the mules loose in the stubble field by the road and stood watching them trot off to rejoin the other animals. The cows in that field were all of a type, short horns and short-coupled bodies and red-brown hides spotted rarely with white. “Those is Louise’s cows,” George said. “I hate those pure breeds, all that extra work trying to keep them separate, and all the paper filing and so forth. Her daddy give her two registered ones when we was married and she was just dumb enough to like it.” Martha would have taken this at face value if it had been her own dad saying it. She didn’t know how to take George Bliss, who sounded only cheerfully long-suffering.
 “Well, let’s go eat,” he said to her, and slapped his palms on the top rail of the fence. She had expected George Bliss to say yes or no while they were standing there looking over his animals, and he hadn’t given her the word either way. She had a sleeping bag and tent with her and some sandwiches and cheese, and had more or less imagined that if she had trouble finding work she’d sleep in fields or sheds and make do with her own groceries. She didn’t know if George Bliss’s invitation to supper constituted an unspoken offer of employment. If she thought she was hired, she’d have wanted to put up her horses before going in to eat; but there was no way to know if Mr. Bliss had just forgotten about her animals standing saddled in his barn or if he hadn’t yet made up his mind whether to hire her on.
 She followed him across the shadowy yard and around to the back door, onto the closed-in porch where they kept the wash basin and a towel. He let Martha have first turn at the water, which may have been a concession to her femaleness. She was used to elbowing a turn with her brothers and her dad, used to dirty towels and brown water, but sometimes when she’d worked on other ranches the men would put her at the head of the line. She didn’t mind being singled out for such things but liked it better when the men seemed to forget she was a girl. Once some women relatives of the boss, women dressed in linen suits and delicate shoes, had come out to watch a branding crew where Martha was helping out, and some of the men had grum- bled about it. “When there’s women hanging around it sure takes your mind off what we’re doing, don’t it?” one of them had said to her seriously.
 She washed her hands and stepped into the kitchen, where George’s wife was turning out sourdough biscuits from a pan. A man with a graying handlebar mustache was sitting at the table drinking coffee and he gave her a curious look. He was about forty, with a falling-away jaw and thinning brown hair and old pockmark scars on his cheeks. Martha nodded to him and took off her hat and stood holding it and waiting, without knowing whether she ought to help Louise Bliss bring the soup and biscuits to the table, which was something some ranches would have expected a hired girl to do, or whether to sit down with the hired man. When George Bliss came into the kitchen she saw he had hung his hat on a peg on the back porch and so she stepped back out and found a peg for her own hat there. The Blisses were both sitting by then, and she took one of the remaining chairs. She wished she had had sense enough to take off her chaps and leave them outside—the old-fashioned batwings took up a lot of room under the table—but it was too late to do anything about that now.
 “Dear Lord bless this food and the horses and cows and the other animals and our children and all the boys in France and all the little Flanders children who are hungry,” Louise Bliss said with closed eyes while her husband and the hired man looked down into their laps with identical expressions of seriousness.
 “Amen,” they said quietly when Louise had come to the end of her prayer.
 As the food began to be passed, George said to Martha, “This here is Ellery Bayard but don’t never call him that, he goes by El. El, this here is Martha Lessen who is a broncobuster.”
 El Bayard said, “Is that right?” matter-of-factly without seeming to be amused by the spectacle of a girl bronc rider; and this, together with his family name, immediately put him in a good light with Martha: Bayard was the name of a legendary horse she had read of who had outraced the army of Charlemagne while carrying four men on his back. El’s right arm was fixed or nearly fixed in a half-bent position as if it had been broken once and poorly set. He made deft use of it lifting and passing plates and bowls but it was a puzzle to Martha how he would ever manage to get a saddle onto a horse or shovel out a hole or tighten a fence wire. Martha was left-handed and had been made to feel self-conscious about it, especially when she was with new people, but El Bayard’s frozen arm seemed in some way to mitigate her shyness as she spooned her soup with the wrong hand.
 They had eaten their dinner earlier in the day and supper was therefore pretty light. There was turnip and carrot in the soup and a chicken may have run through the pot on its way to somewhere else, or more likely this was one of the meatless days that had become patriotic in the last few months. Given that there wasn’t much to eat, Martha minded her appetite, though the only food she had had all day was a breakfast of toast and buttermilk, and a sandwich eaten while in the saddle riding down from the Ipsoot Pass. When Louise Bliss encouraged her to eat up the last biscuit, she allowed herself to be persuaded.
 Talk at the supper table was devoted to the war. In the afternoon newspaper had come more news of the fighting around Passchendaele, finally taken by the Canadians after months of bloody battle. In the midst of something the men were saying about soldiers who had drowned in the deep mud of the trenches, Louise Bliss stood up from the table and said in a tired voice, “I just can’t bear to think about it.” As she clattered dishes and stepped back and forth from table to sink, her husband gave his hired man a silencing look. Then he pushed his chair back and said to Martha, “Let’s go turn out those horses you brung with you. I guess I forgot entirely about that.”
 They walked out to the barn in a damp cold. The yellow dog Pilot, who didn’t ever like being left behind, scuttled out from his place under the porch and ran ahead of them. George brought along a lamp from the kitchen and stood by in the broad runway while Martha unloaded her gear and stripped the saddles from all three of her horses. She’d been riding Dolly on a good California stock saddle, and she’d put the old McClelland army saddle on T.M.; Rory was carrying a saddle with a wide flat seat, which she’d borrowed from her brother Tim, in case she ran into a horse who was big in the barrel like Rory. Tim and one of her other brothers, Davey, had both gone into the army, which meant Tim wouldn’t be needing the saddle for a while. When she had finished stripping the tack off her horses, George unwired and pushed back the gate that let into the stubble field and stood by while she waved the animals through. The Bliss mules and horses, clear out by the road, lifted their heads and spoke and came trotting over stiff-legged. Martha watched them become acquainted, a ritual of snorting and low nickering and mutual inspection of flanks. It appeared that a bright chestnut mare was the lead horse in that bunch and Martha watched her with Dolly to be sure there wouldn’t be any trouble between them, though she didn’t think there would be. Dolly was old enough and had been through enough troubles in her life that she liked to keep to herself, and other horses usually let her go her own way.
 “You can put up in the daughter’s room is what I think,” George Bliss said. “We don’t keep the bed made up since she was married but I guess you can just shake out your blankets on the mattress.”
 “I wasn’t expecting to be put up in the house.”
 He gave her a look. “Well, that’s sure up to you. I guess there’s the barn. My hired men are living in the bunkhouse so I expect Mrs. Bliss wouldn’t listen to you sleeping out there.”
 “I don’t mind the barn,” she said.
 “It’ll be cold, I’ll guarantee you that.” “ All right,” she said.
 He laughed. “All right you’ll take the barn? Or all right you’ll come into the house?”
 “All right the barn.”
 Her eyes were on the dark shapes of the animals moving off now toward the far side of the field. George Bliss looked out there too. “How did that sorrel mare of yours come to get scarred like that?” he asked her.
 “She was scorched in a fire.”
 “Was she, now? That’s a shame. I bet she was a goodlooking horse before that.”
 “I don’t know. She was already scarred when I got her.”
 “Are you breaking her for somebody?”
 “No sir, she’s mine, I got her off a man who thought she was spoiled. She was only scorched, but he figured she was spoiled and he sold her to me awful cheap.”
 George Bliss gave her a look.
 “She’s an awful good horse,” Martha told him.
 He nodded skeptically. “Well I guess it don’t matter what a stock horse looks like if she’s got good sense.” He offered her the lamp. “As long as we’re speaking of fire, my wife worries a lot more about kerosene than about anything else—her family was burnt out when she was young, and it was a kerosene lamp that did it—so there’s candles and matches in the barn, I believe, and you go ahead and keep this here lamp with you for now but I’d appreciate it if you’d turn it out when you get good and settled and a candle lit and so forth. You can make yourself comfortable in the tack room and if you need another blanket you come over to the house and get one. My other hand has a girl he’s spooning and that’s why he wasn’t at the table tonight but he’ll be at breakfast, and you come on over to the house tomorrow too and have breakfast, come around to the back door and walk right in but don’t come before daylight. We’re getting old enough we don’t like to roll out until the sun is up.” He winked at her solemnly and walked off across the dark yard. The dog considered the question of who he ought to stay with and finally trotted off to get out in front of George. It occurred to Martha that the rancher still hadn’t, strictly speaking, said she was hired.
 On one side of the barn runway six stalls were laid out on either side of a tack room. The other half of the barn had been left open to shelter machinery, and she made out a set of harrows, a cultivator, a stoneboat, pipe for irrigation, parts for a homemade buck rake. There was a haymow above, but she wouldn’t have wanted to sleep up there on account of the dust, and anyway George had said to make herself comfortable in the tack room. It was small and crowded, half a dozen saddles on wall trees and twenty or more bridles and halters and hackamores, as well as collars and rope and harness pieces hanging on pegs or slung over the half-walls that divided the room from the stalls. There was barely space to turn around between the wooden boxes spilling over with tools and blacksmithing equipage. She lit a candle she found standing inside a sooty glass chimney on a shelf crowded with veterinary gear and turned out the kerosene lamp. She went back to where she’d left her things and carried her saddles in one at a time and slung them up onto the half-walls of the stalls, then carried the rest of her gear into the tack room and shifted some things around a bit so she could make her bed in the cramped space on the floor. After shucking her chaps and walking out in the darkness to use the privy, she came back and stripped down to her long underwear and crawled into the sleeping bag.
 On ranches she’d worked for, it was never expected she would sleep in the bunkhouse with the men, so when she was too far from home to sleep in her own bed she had often been put up in the ranch house, and she’d slept in some pretty poor conditions, one time for several weeks sharing with two children on a bed with no mattress, just a spring with gunnysacks filled with straw, and a couple of wooden fruit boxes under the spring so it wouldn’t sag down to the floor. She had gotten in the habit of asking for the barn, which at least was likely to be quieter and more private. This year, before heading out on her own, she’d sewn together a sleeping bag made from a wool blanket and a piece of felt and an old fur rug. In the newspapers she had read that the British soldiers in France were sleeping in mud and had only a couple of thin blankets to keep them from pneumonia, so she didn’t think she had any grounds for complaint.
 The candle cast a high shadow, but it was enough light to read by. She was making her slow way through Black Beauty, a page or two at a time, too tired most nights to read for very long. Tonight, coming to the part where Beauty meets his old friend Ginger, in terrible condition from bad treatment as a cab horse, she shut the book and blew out the candle and then went on lying awake looking out into the darkness. Gradually the saddles and the other things took dim shape around her, and the smells of the fur rug and saddle soap, leather and hay, the warm, clean, fecund smell of horses, arose out of the cold darkness and were a comfort against a yearning that was not homesickness. 

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Best of all, Raudman lets us savor the author's leisurely descriptions and witness Matha's growing sense of self and belonging." —-AudioFile

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Hearts of Horses 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 88 reviews.
KatieBarTheDoor More than 1 year ago
. . .the cover is about to fall off. What a great read! Marvelous characters, wonderful story, timeless. I bought it because of the cover, began reading nearly immediately, and then couldn't put the book down. I've loaned it to a variety of friends of both genders (my husband liked it nearly as much as I did) and in ages ranging from 17 to nearly 90. The reviews are unanimously positive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this up because my favorite authors were between books but was pleasantly surprised at the unique glimpse of life in the rural west. This is set during an interesting period of transition between the automobile age and the horse age. While automobiles and trucks were around they were not as a dependable source of transportation as the horse in all circumstances. The main character makes her living by training horses and riding from farm to farm on a daily circuit. The story centers around the lives of herself and her clients and the family she stays with. It provides discrete looks at the relationships within families and societies expectations at the time. It deals with hard issues like alcoholism 'not a major theme in this book but just an example' in the mater of fact pragmatism of the era without drama and with out moral commentary. Things are not bad or good they just are. I read this book in one sitting as did my 93 year old mother in law, by sister's in law and my daughter. It is well worth the read and it absolutely transports you back to the time period. This is a grossly under valued book and an extremely satisfying read. Take it from someone who prefers mysteries and dislikes the the general slice of life books this book is terrific at giving you a vacation in your chair.
honestwoman More than 1 year ago
Molly Gloss has captured the essence of America in 1917 with memorable characters and a truly great story. My grandmother was born on a farm in California in 1902. This wonderful book showed me why my grandmother was the sturdy, hard-working, plain and simple woman I still love. Anyone who has ever held dear someone from that era should read this book. Anyone who wants to understand how very much America has changed (sadly) should also read this book.

Second only to Lonesome Dove.........
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing's elegant and sweet. A memoir with lots of nostalgia. Enjoyed the healing ambiance of horse whisperer and making sense of the world too. A profound and unexpected delight.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A well written story, first intended for my daughter, but fortunately ended up in my hands after she read it. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the western life with horses and wildlife as the mainstay. A very good book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this novel by accident. What a fortunate accident for me! The historical perspective gives the reader a peek into a past few of us would have known. Even more satisfying is the story itself, as the author created such interesting pictures in my head with creatures and characters to care about and even love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As the headline says the title of this book caught my eye. I had never read anything by this author before and will now be looking to compare other books she has written. I found it to be a wholesome but somewhat redundant book. I liked the characters and especially enjoyed learning traits of the different types of horses. This book created different emotions for me such as feeling of injustice,compassion, and humor. I would liked to have had the characters fleshed out a bit more. I have passed this book on to my granddaughter to now enjoy.
I_like_clean_reads More than 1 year ago
Title Somewhat Misleading First, let me say that I did enjoy this book and it was a welcome change from mysteries and others that I most recently read. However, I chose the book because of the cover, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed because the focus of the book changed midway from Martha's breaking horses to Martha's relationship with the people she came to know. Don't get me wrong - I still enjoyed it, and I thought that author Molly Gloss did a great job with the book, and I particularly enjoyed it since it took place during World War I, but in Oregon. But still yet, I yearned for more about Martha's actual work with the horses, with the actual temperaments of each horse, and that is why I gave the book 4 stars. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GretchenCraig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A lovely book. You don't have to be particularly involved or even interested in horses to enjoy this book. It certainly is about horses, but the real story is of the people living in this isolated valley in Idaho during WWI. A recommend it.
DoraBadollet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't love this book, but it had a original flavor distinct to Molly Gloss's body of work. The aspects I truly did enjoy were 1) the obvious and genuine affection the author feels towards her subject matter and 2) the slight feminist edge to her pre-civil rights lead character, Martha Lessen. There is no doubt that Gloss knows her subject--she writes of Western American with an authentic tone. It's simply a question of whether her unique style appeals to the individual reader. I don't think she does it for me. (Claire)
alikat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Martha Lessen is a sturdy girl with a love for horses. In 1917, when many of the men in Eastern Oregon have gone to war and ranch hands are in demand, Martha sets out to find work breaking horses. But her method is not to `break¿ them so much as gentle them. She makes an instant impression, standing, as she does, at 5¿11¿ and given to dressing in ¿old-fashioned cowboy trappings¿the fringed batwing chaps¿and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim.¿ She is first hired to work on George Bliss¿s ranch. He is so taken with Martha that he introduces her to other locals. Soon she is engaged in a ¿circle ride¿, training the horses by riding them one ranch over, stabling them there and taking the next one on to the next ranch. As the taciturn Martha gets to know the neighbors, she comes to understand who she can trust and who she should avoid. The book is peopled with feisty old-maid sisters who run their own spread, a young German couple suffering discrimination because of the rhetoric driven by WW1 propaganda, a widower who takes in injured animals, a ranch hand who beats horses. Martha begins as an outsider, drifting in and out of the lives and stories people along the way; and, at some point, as you know will happen, she is drawn into their lives and away from her comfortable perch as an observer from the saddle.Martha is a wonderful character, shy and damaged by her abusive childhood, but sure of her own self and the way she wants to be in the world. This book reminded me of Caprice by the poet George Bowering. That story is more tongue-in-cheek; a school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother¿s death. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890¿s. And then that reminds me of one of my favorite femi-westerns of all time, True Grit, the story of a young girl who sets on out on horseback to find her father. She pairs up with the rapscallion Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the movie. But I digress. The point is that there are far too few of these stories of the wild west that depict the heroism of women.There are some hard scenes in this book, including one where a wife watches helplessly as her husband suffers a terrible death from cancer. And there are the classic themes of the Western - the land as an Eden that is slowly being corrupted by the encroachment of man and the yearning for an earlier, more innocent world. I sensed that the author had done her research and had accurately portrayed early 20th cenutry life in Oregon. But finally I can hardly offer higher praise than my mother-in-law did when she finished it. She hugged it to her breast, saying, ¿now that was a good book.¿
jrae on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, for many reasons. First, I m real familiar with the area the book was written about and my father was a farrier for people like these ranchers and farmers. Ms. Glass captured the rural life and makes it come alive.
ccayne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved Martha, the independent, unconventional girl who set out to parts unknown with her rescued horses to work with horses in a different, non-violent way. Despite her shyness, she believes in her ability to work with horses and makes her way in rural Oregon as WWI is taking many of the men away from home. She makes friends, stands up for what is right and makes a new life for herself. As a rider and horseperson, I loved how she talked about horses and animal/human relationships.
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A warm, affecting story about a female "gentler" of horses, Martha Lessen, in 1917 Oregon. I love stories that can bring to life a world I don't know, and this does a great job in evoking an age on the cusp of the modern world before women could vote and when the legendary "Wild West" is still within living memory. I think more than anything its the voice of this that pulls you in. It's omniscient, but still somehow intimate, with an almost folksy voice and with vivid, clean prose. There are a slew of memorable characters--particularly strong female characters--and stories that impinge on Martha's and the novel manages to encompass issues like gender and race and the environment--but never by being preachy or feeling like it takes a point of view--just by telling the story of this community Martha rides into. There's a sweet romance here too and this stands out as a strong coming of age story. But above all, there are the horses--certainly a story that would appeal to animal lovers and particularly those fond of horses. If I have any criticism, its that the ending, while not falling flat, just somehow doesn't rise to something that matches the rest of the book in quality--but then that quality is very high.
julie10reads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the winter of 1917 many of the young ranch hands in this remote Eastern Oregon county have been called away to war. When 19-year-old Martha Lessen shows up at George Bliss¿s doorstep looking for work breaking horses, George glimpses beneath her showy rodeo costume a shy young woman with a serious knowledge of horses, and he hires her on. Martha¿s unusual, quiet way of breaking horses soon wins her additional work among several of George Bliss¿s neighbors, and over the course of the winter she helps out a German family whose wagon and horses have tipped off a narrow road into a ravine; she gentles a horse for a man who knows he is dying¿a last gift to his young son; and she clashes with a hired hand who has been abusing horses with casual cruelty. Against the backdrop of a horrifying modern war, Martha gradually comes to feel enveloped by a sense of community and family she¿s never had before. And eventually, against her best intentions to lead a solitary cowboy life, she falls in love. From mollygloss.comA slow moving tale that will enchant horse aficionados of all ages. Although I am not particularly interested in horses, I did enjoy learning about the different ways to train them in a humane way. Martha Lessen is a charmingly atypical heroine!
stonelaura on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss is the sentimental account of one winter in Elwha County in remote eastern Oregon in 1917 when The Great War is just beginning to tighten its grip on the young country boys, and automobiles are starting to outnumber horses in any parking lot. As nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a female broncobuster who has an innate feel for gentling troubled horses, makes her way around to seven farms and ranches we learn the quotidian particulars of the lives, worries, hopes and tragedies of the various families. Told in spare but still descriptive language, the reader slowly becomes attached to these hard-working folk. The novel is more of a dairy-like account of how each family loves, hates, plans and dreams through their days, with Martha¿s continued circling through on her equine ¿students¿ being the thread that unites the story. As Martha¿s calm presence settles the horses it also has a dramatic effect on several of the families as she helps them through sickness, German hysteria, mistreatment of animals, drunkenness, and death. And for Martha, who once dreamed of riding unfettered through fields of deep prairie grasses like a symbolic lone horseman of the west, we can only hope that she finds the same peace and contentment she bestows on her beloved horses. Gloss¿ descriptive details bring a solid truth to the story and her slow pacing seems to accurately reflect the often solitary and determined actions of the characters. Gloss says that she is addressing the influence of cowboy culture and the reflection of the landscape on people as she celebrates the heroism of ordinary people and the courage of ordinary lives. The story is steeped in atmosphere and these ¿ordinary¿ characters will linger in the reader¿s memory with quiet fondness.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The setting is the West during World War I. Martha Lessen is 19 years old, a big girl, bigger than some of the men she meets, who loves horses and dreams of the past, living in the "Wild West," riding bareback across the Plains. In reality, Martha has left a miserable life with her parents and brothers to try to make it on her own as a horse whisperer. What follows is a lovely coming-of-age story of a young girl living in a man's world who eventually realizes she is strong and independent but also learns to love and care for others. At first, I thought this book might be too simplistic, but it was far from simple, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the writing and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.
txwildflower on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A heartfelt novel about a young girl, Martha Lessing, who leaves home in the Fall of 1917 and travels the countryside looking for work as a broncobuster. After finding work with the Bliss family, word spreads about her unusual way with horses and she soon gains more work with neighboring ranches. Although Martha is a loner and withdrawn, these rancher's lives touch her in many ways. A wonderful story set in the West about human / horse relationships!
ladycato on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As the United States enters World War I, the final remnants of the Old West can still be found in eastern Oregon. Nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen rides into Elwha County with a string of horses and a dream of making her way as a horse gentler. In ranch and farm country depleted of young men heading off to war, Martha finds an unusual niche as she begins making her rounds training horses in a circuit. Her unusual garb and ways with horses are a spectacle to behold, but slowly, Martha's soothing ways show results with her horses--and in the families she encounters.I must say, I wasn't too sure about this book as I started. The third-person omniscient narrator knows all, referring to events far in the future and beyond the scope of the book, even going so far far as to mention when some folks die; that jolted me out of the story more than once. Martha is the main character, but the story follows a varied cast of very real people. Actually, I would say this is one of the finest books I've read as far as creating genuine characters. Everyone and everything about this book grew on me as I read. As the blurbs at the front said, the title may say it' s about the hearts of horses but it's really about the hearts of humans, too. Martha is slow and awkward in her conversations as the book begins, relating to horses better than people. Her maturity is beautiful to behold.There was one chapter in this book that almost drove me to sobs. I've read a lot of books. Some make me tear up. But this? Oh my gosh. I read at the end that the author's husband died and she stopped writing for three years until she started on this book. I think that single chapter channels much of her grief, and it's absolutely devastating.If you love horses, if you love studies of humanity, if you're curious about an in-depth look at the American rural home front during World War I... read this book. I hope it touches you as it did me.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A peaceful story in a world at war - This was my first exposure to the fiction of Molly Gloss. Wow! And I mean that in the most complimentary John-Denver-Rocky-Mountain-High kinda way. No, it's not the Colorado Rockies in the sixties, but the mountains of eastern Oregon in the teens, 1917-18 that is. Gloss's story, about a tomboy-ish young woman horse gentler, Martha Lessen, has such a light and sensitive touch in every way that it is hard to describe. I LOVED this book! I didn't want it to end, but when it does end it has a very right feeling, of something beautiful completed. I'm not going to summarize the story; look up top if you want that. Hearts of Horses brought to mind other books I've read - Winter Wheat, by Mildred Walker, which was another WWI homefront story with the same kind of peaceful beauty. And Gloss's heroine is re-reading Anna Sewell's classic Black Beauty. When Martha and Henry have what should be a very strange and awkward conversation (but it ISN'T) about what the lives of horses must be like, Black Beauty, of course comes immediately to mind; but so does Will James' western story of Smokey the Cowhorse. And there are similarities too to a more recent book I read and reviewed not long ago called Across Open Ground, by Heather Parkinson - another WWI novel. This is such a gentle, lovely, calm, PEACEFUL tale set in the midst of a world at war that it seems almost fairy-tale surreal at times, but it's NOT. It is disturbingly real, the kind of real you'd like to walk into and get to know the people, to be their friend, to laugh with them and comfort them - THAT kind of real. I guess it's pretty obvious by now that Gloss's book has made me nearly inarticulate with admiration. Here's a typical sample that rendered me speechless; the book's title comes from this passage in which Martha and Henry talk about the horses shipped overseas to the front - "... about the terrible plight of the horses over there - how they died on the transport ships from fear and trampling; how they pined with homesickness and consequently took cold or pneumonia and died at the remount depots before they ever got to the front; how they were often starved and thirsty to the point of eating harness or chewing their stablemate's blankets; how as many horses were invalided by war nerves as were killed in battle - their hearts and minds not able, any more than the men's, to bear the airplane bombs and grenades, falling fuses, the shrieks of wounded men and animals." The Hearts of Horses has, I think, a kind of quiet Quaker sensibility, a plain people quality that cannot fail to touch your heart. I'm so glad I found it. What a book!
kylenapoli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A group portrait centered on Martha Lessen, a girl "looking for horses that needed breaking out." Clear, reliable prose is the perfect choice for vignettes about a life that is far from simple but is, perhaps, more straightforward than what we know now.This title came from a line (a seam?) of reading and recommendations that has included "The God of Animals," "Split Estate," "Plainsong," "The Whistling Season," and, less obviously, "The Echo Maker" and "The Translator."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I generally liked the book but, because the ending felt hurried and incomplete, I could only give it three stars. Whereas the bulk of the book told a story through the eyes of an unconventional (for the day) cowgirl, the end felt like a quick review of the history of the area. Little was said about Martha as a wife and mother or about their life as a married couple.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago