For Courtney Maum, The Year of the Horses followed a period of intense internal struggle. A crisis of identity as her daughter turned two brought on a bout of depression and insomnia so significant, it caused her life—and marriage—to stall. She found herself at a crossroads and needed to take the right path—and being a woman infused with wildness and power, she did it on horseback. This memoir follows Maum’s reconnection with the horseriding she loved so much as a young child, and her introduction to the dangerous, addictive sport of polo, and how both these ventures allowed her to find satisfaction in her life again.
Early in the text, we see Maum’s struggle compounded by the complexity of her many roles. She is a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer. She notes the tradeoff she and her husband, a filmmaker, make regularly—if he has a project deadline, then she takes on the bulk of the household duties, the mothering, the responsibility. When writing demands her attention fully, he takes on those tasks. An increasingly active child changes what Maum must offer each day to the world, and she begins to view everything through a new lens. She describes a car accident her family found themselves in, on the way to the airport, and how she had expected her husband to avert their path to avoid the crash: “If I had been driving, would the accident have happened? I think the worst of people, while Leo thinks the best of them. Therefore, I would have slowed.” Maum considers the possible wreckage of life on the daily, and those who experience mental health crises know, that is enough to prevent the most capable person from moving forward.
It is her writing, in a roundabout way, that returns her to her path, and to her childhood. Before her family let her have a real horse, they first give her an enormous rocking horse, which she learns to ride: “Just like with any horses, I would have to get stronger, better, fearless, and then I’d be able to ride off on my own.” This phrase becomes the spine of the memoir. She writes horse riding characters into a book that does not need them and visits local stables with interview questions for a dressage professional. As soon as she enters, there is a familiarity, a security, that she has been lacking. It’s clear that Maum belongs on a horse, but as she notes: “If I get on a horse, it will open the floodgates to something that would take a lot of free time and disposable income to retrieve.” Riding is not akin to running. It is a lifestyle. We use the cloying phrase horse girl for a reason.
In welcoming riding back into her life, Maum is able to find community. She rides at a handful of different stables, with different types of people: quiet teenagers who appear to know volumes more about polo than she does, single mothers, naturally talented Argentinean grooms. She also finds that compartmentalizing her life no longer serves her. She cannot be a wife, and a mother, and a writer, and a woman—she is all these things. She finds peak pleasure when she is able to bring her daughter into her new, external life: “For so long, I had been thinking of my child as a worthy time commitment that nevertheless ate into my time […] But I was slowly realizing that I could incorporate my child inside my joys, that if I showed her how to participate in the things I care about, she might care about them too.”
Besides the personal, which Maum does so well and so authentically that even a woman without children like me is sold on her qualms, she also takes time to segue into popular culture—the death of the winged horse in Fantasia—and even history. While I am certainly interested in horse riding and have been, like Maum, since I was a child, I had no interest in polo as a sport or an institution. Maum gives us a gracious historic overview, finding ways to include her own political agenda along the way, name checking 1920s real estate developer Marion Hollins, future chair of the Pacific Women’s Polo Association Dorothy Wheeler, and mother/daughter duo Sue Sally Hale and Sunset “Sunny” Hale as early trailblazing polo players and advocates. It appears that the origins of women in polo are very much rooted in feminism. Maum writes: “The story of women breaking into polo is one that heartens me because men and women had to come together to fight prejudice: women couldn’t have broken the gender barrier without the help of a few good men.” This homage to the women and men who came before to pave the way for her own playing is admirable, and allows outsiders like me a window into the long and complex narrative of the sport.
This memoir contains multitudes. Maum experiences more than one tragedy in these pages and finds many new avenues for growth too: seeking out riding, polo, learning Spanish, attending therapy. Her therapist recommends a compassion-first approach to life, and by the close of the text, that change is evident in all the small ways Maum inhabits her life. Riding is as much therapy as the therapy itself, and in questioning how to tame her depression and move forward, The Year of the Horses allows for an untaming, and a return to the wildness that is so pure and electrifying in womanhood. If you are an adult who used to be a child whiling away library time with your head in Saddle Club books, or if you read Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder and need a place to make sense of your identity that feels cathartic, or even productive, Courtney Maum and The Year of the Horses are what you’ve been looking for, to ready you to ride off on your own.
The Year of the Horses, by Courtney Maum. Portland, Oregon: Tin House Books, May 2022. $27.95, hardcover.
Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bending Genres, The Forge, No Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.