Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5, though I give the second half or so a 3/5
Honestly, I think the author just wanted to depict all the possible jobs and experiences a horse could have. Smoky begins life on the ranges in the West, born into a herd of horses left to run free most of the year. He is apparently the most intelligent horse born. In excruciating detail, the author describes Smoky’s early life, from how he steals grass from older horses to the dynamics of the herd. Finally, Smoky is rounded up with his age mates and befriended/tamed/”broken” by Clint, an old bronc breaker/cowhand. It’s love at first sight for Clint, though Smoky takes some convincing. With the same attention to detail, we learn the ‘good’ way to break horses, mostly involving Clint showing Smoky how and why things are done and not allowing him to get away with bad behavior. Under Clint’s tutelage, Smoky becomes the best cow-horse in the area, worth four hundred dollars.
Smoky’s life takes a turn for the worse when he is stolen by a “breed”, the author’s unfavorable term for half-breed Mexicans. Yeah, I thought maybe I could make it through one Newbery book without explicit racism. Nope. The “breed”, never named, tortures Smoky in an attempt to break him. Eventually Smoky kills him. Scarred by that experience, he decides he hates humans. Renamed “The Cougar”, Smoky becomes the best at bucking people off his back. This too comes to an end. Smoky becomes “Cloudy” when he’s sold to a livery stable. He receives decent enough treatment, until someone forgets to water him and another person rides him to foundering. This basically breaks him badly enough that he is sold to the chicken-feed man as potential chicken food. Instead, he’s traded to an abusive vegetable-seller, whereupon the now-nameless horse is enlisted to plow and pull the cart. He receives inadequate food and regularly whippings.
When he’s on the verge of collapse from this treatment, Clint, in town for the rodeo, recognizes him. After beating the vegetable man almost to death while the sheriff watches, Clint takes the horse home. The horse heals and eventually becomes Smoky again, resuming his loving relationship with Clint.
Overall, the story is decent, though a bit tedious until Smoky is stolen. Unless you care greatly about the particulars of a horse’s early life, the flood of endless description becomes wearisome. However, the level of detail provides an interesting anthropological look at the late days of that particular style of ranching. Further, the later part of Smoky’s story also gives a window into the nascent Humane Society movement; observers from the Humane Society watch the rodeo carefully and might have intervened for Smoky if Clint hadn’t gotten there first. If you care deeply about every aspect of a horse’s life, this is the book for you. Otherwise, skim the first half and actually read the second part.
This is most definitely NOT going on my reread list, although it’s one of the better Newbery Medal Winners from the 1920’s.