The Year of the Horses: A Memoir by Courtney Maum
Published by Tin House Books
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Non-fiction, Memoir
Courtney Maum’s memoir opens with a scene of a young daughter refusing her mother’s help to put on her socks despite the fact that they’re going to be late for an appointment. Maum is the mother and her frustration, veering into internal rage and the immediate weight of guilt, is so well-written my jaw clenched reading it and I don’t even have children. The book is called The Year of the Horses and through it Maum documents her journey from severe depression to healing, through her love of horses.
Maum is a writer. She’s 37, married, with a 2-year-old daughter. When The Year begins she’s being diagnosed as severely depressed. From here she moves back to her childhood, her wealthy family, and her love of horses. She was a natural rider and was in eventing competitions when she was 7, but after her parents divorced it was too expensive, so by 9 she wasn’t riding anymore at all. As she excavates her childhood she starts exploring getting back into riding.
Maum fights the depression diagnosis not out of shame for the perceived stigma, but because it feels like an excuse and evidence of her own weakness. She is privileged in her personal and professional life, but doesn’t feel worthy of it. Writing has always been her identity, but now she’s blocked while writing her 2nd novel. She is shocked by the loss of an ability that has always come easily, so it must be her fault.
Therapy and medication help, but only marginally. She hopes that returning to horses and a time of her life she remembers fondly will make a difference. At first, she tries dressage, which is a very tightly controlled form of riding, a kind of dancing on the part of the horse and rider. The riding again provides relief, but the physical tension necessary for the sport works against her so she decides to try polo.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world of horse sports this choice might not seem worthy of a reaction. Except, this is a sport completely dominated by men; to the point that the most famous woman player played disguised as a man for 20 years in the 1950s and 1960s. Women simply do not play polo, even for fun. Maum pushes back on this fact and finds a stable, trainer, and player who are willing to work with her. The problem becomes polo is antithetical to everything Maum has been taught about riding. She’s horrible at it. She finds a team to play on made up of teens and they’re all riding circles around her—literally.
Maum is falling and failing, but while she spends months fighting against the rhythms of polo horses, she embraces her lack of skill and relaxes into the routine of equine care. Her mood lifts as her mind settles. Time spent in barns, on the field, and commuting open her to understanding on her relationship with her mother, becoming a mother herself, body dysmorphia, the creative life, marriage, and identity.
It might seem that without an interest in equines, The Year of the Horses would not be a good fit, but although my life bears no resemblance to Maum’s I found something to relate to on almost every page. Her writing is frank, clear, and insightful. Her description of the year as “the year of my unraveling” is wonderfully evocative and indicative of how this memoir speaks to women on a wider scale than just those who love horses.
This post contains affiliate links which means if you click on a link and make a purchase, I get a small commission (at no cost to you).
*I received a free copy of this book from Tin House in exchange for an honest review.*