The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss

Paperback, 2008

Call number




Mariner Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, 304 pages


In the winter of 1917, a big-boned young woman shows up at George Bliss's doorstep. She's looking for a job breaking horses, and he hires 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 nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man's world. It was thought that the only way to break a horse was to buck the wild out of it, and broken ribs and tough falls just went with the job. But over several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk in this remote county of eastern Oregon witness Martha's way of talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair--and getting miraculous, almost immediate results--and she thereby earns a place of respect in the community. Along the way, Martha helps a family save their horses when their wagon slides into a ravine. She gentles a horse for a dying man--a last gift to his young son. She clashes with a hired hand who is abusing horses in unspeakable ways. Soon, despite her best efforts to remain aloof and detached, she comes to feel enveloped by a sense of community and family that she's never had before. With the elegant sweetness of Plainsong and a pitch-perfect sense of western life reminiscent of Annie Dillard, The Hearts of Horses is a remarkable story about how people and animals make connections and touch each other's lives in the most unexpected and profound ways.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ladycato
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kcoleman428
I liked this book a lot! I loved the story of Martha, and how it is easier for her to talk to horses than people. It was a great book about the time period and the feeling that was spreading during the war!
LibraryThing member jrae
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.
LibraryThing member ccayne
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member stonelaura
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
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
Show More
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!
Show Less
LibraryThing member kylenapoli
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
Show More
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."
Show Less
LibraryThing member CatieN
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member GretchenCraig
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.
LibraryThing member julie10reads
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
Show More
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
A 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!
Show Less
LibraryThing member CSailin
I enjoyed reading about this young lady who rode from homestead to homestead breaking horses.
The narrative is very detailed, and I pictured myself inside the book as I read.
I love reading about pioneer life, and farm life. If you do too, they you will enjoy this book.
LibraryThing member DoraBadollet
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.
Show More
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)
Show Less
LibraryThing member satyridae
An extraordinary book. Most of her books have had what felt to me to be a large remove from the emotions and inner lives of her characters. This issue is present here, but to a lesser extent, and because of who the characters are, it works.

The writing is luminous. The pace is slow, measured, and
Show More
deliberate. The starkness of life in Oregon's ranching country in the teens is brought into sharp focus by the steady, unflinching prose. There's a breathtaking passage where a small family confronts the father's untimely and agonizing death that undid me completely.

The central character is utterly believable, completely human and fully-fleshed. The minor characters are precisely drawn and as real as my own neighbors. The ending is neat but not tidy.
Show Less
LibraryThing member alikat
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,
Show More
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.”
Show Less
LibraryThing member elsyd
A great story of eastern Oregon during the first World War. A story of horses, men and women.
LibraryThing member Karin7
Martha Lessen is a young woman who in 1917 comes to Elwha County, Oregon looking for work as a broncobuster for local ranchers and farmers. She is far more of a horse whisperer than a conventional broncobuster of her time, and uses what were controversial methods. Wearing out of date rodeo type
Show More
gear, she first finds work with George Bliss. He doesn't quite see her methods, but is pleased with her initial results and proposes that she meet others to see if she can find enough horses to work with to keep her there through the winter doing what they call riding the circle so that the horses would be ready for work by the following spring.

Over the book we not only read Martha's story, but we become involved with some of the local families' stories as well. She is befriended by Henry, who works for the Woodruff sisters, two elderly spinsters who bucked convention and took over their father's ranch for him when he could no longer handle it.

I liked this book much better than I had expected to, and found myself caught up in the story.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
Lovely, quiet, authentic. More than just Martha's story, though, it's a slice of history of rural Oregon centering on WWI. I was charmed, and was given a lot to think about.
LibraryThing member clue
As WWI is beginning the farmers are losing sons and farm hands. Even their work horses are being taken by the Army.

Nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen leaves the unhappy home she grew up in and heads for a remote area in eastern Oregon hoping to find work breaking horses. George Bliss, a well known
Show More
and liked rancher, gives her a chance and is well pleased with the results. When he recommends her to other farmers she gets enough work to last the winter. Shy and lonely, Martha goes about her work with a determination and skill that brings her respect, even from those that questioned her methods. This is not just about Martha though, it's a novel giving insight into how people lived in this remote and unfriendly but beautiful place. A true novel of the West.
Show Less
LibraryThing member theeccentriclady
Book club choice. Another good book to inspire young girls to be true to who they are and have courage. This is the story of nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen who leaves home in 1917 determined to make a way for herself doing what she knows best and that is braking horses in a gentler way than the
Show More
norm. We meet many interesting settlers along the way trying to make their way during hard times and the 1st World War. Martha is very inspiring as she stays true to who she is and lives the life she is dreaming of.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ajlewis2
The central characters have integrity. Martha is 19 years old young woman who has left home looking for work breaking horses in 1917. Her approach has her riding horses in a circuit as part of the training. We get to know the owners of the various horses that she is breaking along with some others
Show More
who live in the area. These people, the way they live, and the happenings during this period are fascinating. The story is slow-paced, but very rich in action and personal interaction. The author has the talent of putting the reader into what is going on. It might be a sleigh ride or a evening after a hard day's work. Every bit is rich in real description, dialog, and action that seemed so normal for those in the story. There are some harsh realities in the book. They are part of the way things were and are not presented in a way to accentuate the evils of war, disease, or mean people. The overall story lifts up the goodness of people in the midst of very real and very serious adversity. I loved the way this part of history was presented in fiction.
Show Less
LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
(I don't give star ratings to books by the faculty of my MFA program.)

Well, it's been proven: you can still write a novel with an omniscient narrator. I don't pretend that setting it in the historical past (the U.S. homefront during WWI) doesn't help, but it can obviously still be done, and done
Show More

Apart from settling that debate, The Hearts of Horses is an enjoyable read, more page-turning than its quiet, even-tempered tone would initially give you cause to guess. It may prompt you to chuckle in company, and, when pressed, explain lamely, "Just horses being horses." It gives you a sense of these horses, these people, and even this country, even though they are invented from hoof to hillock. It's a beautiful trip you'll be glad to have taken.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Eye_Gee
This book is the story of an unconventional young woman who leaves the farm where she grew up, and strikes out on her own to find work breaking horses. It is set in the early 1900's, in the mountains out west. Her techniques with horses are gentle, unlike those commonly used on ranches at the time,
Show More
and they are effective. Many ranches are shorthanded because World War I has taken the young men off to fight She succeeds in finding work quickly and as the story unfolds ourquiet and reserved heroine gradually finds her place with the people in the community, and brings along the horses entrusted to her care. It is her story, but it is also a story about a place and a certain time. The West hasn't been settled long. Mechanized farming hasn't arrived yet but it's on the horizon. I enjoyed the combination of the place, the characters, and the slow pace of the book. I had hoped for more detailed descriptions of her work with the horses, but I was not disappointed by the book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nyiper
I LOVED this book and I'm so happy to discover an author whose books I haven't read! I was impressed with Gloss's ability to weave in so much history with the story. Martha was a woman ahead of her time, pushing ahead for women's rights.
LibraryThing member zmagic69
Nice story of about a young woman in 1916 in Oregon who breaks horses. The book is well written, the story is nice, but nothing major happens in the book.


Oregon Book Awards (Finalist — 2008)
WILLA Literary Award (Finalist — Historical Fiction — 2008)




0547085753 / 9780547085753
Page: 0.629 seconds