Your newest e-single, The Fire Horse, tells the story of an equestrian eventer, Boyd Martin, and his ornery, but talented horse, Neville Bardos, during a death-defying eventing season. You also have written a full-length book, Three Strides Before the Wire, about the jockey, Chris Antley, and his dramatic Triple Crown attempt on the horse, Charismatic. And yet, we hear you are not an equestrian yourself. What explains your interest in these horse-related stories?
I think you answered that question somewhat in the words you used about the stories — “death defying” and “dramatic.” Both true stories are intense examples of human beings grappling with the most challenging circumstances of life and figuring their way amidst the turmoils. I originally became intrigued by horse racing through my own challenging circumstances, described in Three Strides: My boyfriend had been granted a brief reprieve of health during a battle with leukemia, and we decided we should go to the Kentucky Derby as an adventure; it turned out to be the year that Antley rode Charismatic. My boyfriend and I had a joyous time at Churchill Downs, which remained an ecstatic memory through some of the more difficult, heartbreaking days that were yet to come.
When I read the coverage of that race, I came to realize that the people at the track live out the highs and lows that we all do, but perhaps at a more rapid clip. As a result they think through the issues of loss and victory, chance, fate, love, and death more than your average civilian would. And they’re forthcoming people. They’re willing to share their experiences and wisdom with an outsider. That appealed to me. I have worked as a political journalist too, and candor doesn’t exactly flow from subjects in that line of work. It’s a great privilege when an interview subject will allow you a clear view of his or her world, experiences, and philosophy, and for the most part, horse people will share that with a curious outsider.
But does your lack of equestrian experience put you at a disadvantage in understanding their world?
I hope not too much of a disadvantage. Maybe there are some details I miss; I hope not too many because I do feel a deep responsibility to my readers and subjects. But there is also an advantage to seeing something new. I hopefully can communicate the view of that world to outsiders in language that they can understand — for example, I might not resort to the particular jargon first. And maybe I can see some of the details that grow old to the experts over time; habit does tend to make us miss the beauty of everyday existence. I ferret information too through plain old reporting and research; I was very happy to hear at one point that Three Strides was popular with jockeys because they felt understood. That was a huge honor.
What intrigued you most about the Fire Horse story?
I think anyone would be horrified and compelled by the story of the fire that Boyd and Neville lived through. But what I really liked was the wildness of both man and beast in their early days — Boyd as a handsome, daredevil, scrappy sort and Neville as an almost untameable animal — and how this common wildness might have fostered a real understanding between them that allowed them to boldly jump five foot fences and come out victorious.
There is also a sense that both of them are softies in their way; Boyd’s mother told a story about him when he was 15 that I think says a lot about what goes on deep in his character. And as for Neville, there is a YouTube interview where Neville is behind Boyd and the horse can’t stop nuzzling Boyd’s head and neck as he talks. It’s touching when you think that this is the same horse who has battled almost every other caretaker he has known.
Both of your horse stories — Fire Horse and Three Strides — don’t end with perfect victories. Do you think readers need fairy tale endings?
Well, I think we humans don’t get many fairy tale endings in life. Or a fairy tale ending is followed by a sequel of struggle. I like these stories that will mean something to a reader, not necessarily because the reader rides horses, or has lived through a tough fire, but because he or she lived through challenges and is interested in how fellow humans have handled those situations. I am most interested in the deep elegance and love often apparent in endings that don’t qualify as victorious. People can reveal their most adorable qualities in challenges or even losses. And I think probably the secret to ongoing happiness is seeing the grace in all endings, whether they be happy or sad.
ELIZABETH MITCHELL is the author of the nonfiction books Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing and W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (both from Hyperion). Her bestselling e-singles The Fearless Mrs. Goodwin and Lady with a Past: A Petulant French Sculptor, His Quest for Immortality, and The Real Story of the Statue of Liberty (both from Byliner) are reported historical narratives. Mitchell was executive editor of George magazine and features editor at Spin magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.