Horses and cowboys have, in many ways, changed the history of the West. “Horses are inextricably linked to the mythic cowboy within the national symbolic. More so even than the cow or the gun, the horse defines the cowboy’s status as sacred, special, and uniquely American” (Spurgeon, 89). Without what the Plain Indians called “sky dogs”, the west would not have been conquered. In fact, horses have played a major role in the evolution of civilization.
From Alexander the Great conquering Macedonian horsemen, to Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, horses have always played an integral part of history. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is a coming of age story of John Grady Cole who dreams of the mythical west that we have all come to know and love. He himself is a modern recreation of the mythical horsemen that have circled the imagination of all young boys for centuries. John Grady was born a horseman and has the soul of a horseman. He has been “born to sit and ride a horse” (Lincoln, 102).
Through the studying of the significance of the horse and its spirit, John Grady Cole, the main character in McCarthy’s novel, can be better understood and appreciated. All his life John Grady Cole grew up around and with horses. His life as it seems revolved around the presence of horses and they became an important part of his own existence. McCarthy presents horses as free spirits, untamed, passionate and strong. They almost take on a divine notion. Growing up on his grandfathers ranch, John would sit and listen to stories the ranch hands would tell about the open west, Mexico, and the vaqueros.
He was exposed to the beliefs and passion that these horsemen had for horses and the value they placed on the majestic animals. Later on when John would travel to Mexico and gain employment on a Mexican horse ranch with his best friend Lacey Rawlins, another ranch hand, Luis, would tell the young men that “the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing” (McCarthy, 111). In the title All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy attempts to signify an importance of the effects of horses on the main character John Grady Cole.
In the opening chapters of the novel, horses are presented to the reader as a form of economic means and transportation for John Grady and his best friend Lacey Rawlins. A modern comparison could be an automobile. It takes one to and from work and thus provides a means for economic growth. The author also seems, however, to describe another side to the animals. One which describes their spirit, a spirit which is not that different from mans. John is what some may call a “horse whisperer”, one who can speak and understand horses and their moods.
It almost seems that he has been born with this gift, an inherent gift from God. This gift, however, seems not to work as well with humans. Throughout the story, John is forced to confront his shortcomings with humans and rethink what he thought he knew about horses and humans and the relationships between the two. The romantic and mythical world he has been living in shows its true self and shatters his beliefs in it. The title, it seems, is an ironic twist to what John experiences throughout the novel.
The romantic world he believed in at the beginning and the very opposite that emerges at the end. All of John’s life, his existence has rotated around horses. In the beautiful world he lives in, horses are passionate, strong, and free. He can imagine them “thundering across some dramatic western landscape, wild and untamed” (Spurgeon, 89). Not unlike the vaqueros previously mentioned, John Grady worships horses not only for the various everyday roles they play in his life, but he truly sees them as a companion and a means for an escape from the ordinary world to the preferred one in his dreams.
McCarthy mentions these dreams and says they “were of horses, still wild on the mesa who’d never seen a man afoot and who knew nothing of him or his life yet in whose souls he would come to reside forever” (McCarthy, 118). In this passage one could argue that in the wild and spirited horse, John sees himself. He himself yearns to be free and answer to no one. To ride the mesa’s unencumbered and wild. This is part of the mythical west that John believes is still attainable and he strikes out to find in Mexico.
All through the novel, McCarthy uses very romantic and charged diction to connect humans and horses and to describe that connection. By being reverent and respectful in his description of horses, he masterfully paints a touching picture of the horse. He writes “the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair painted and each armed for war which was their life…when the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide” (McCarthy, 5).
McCarthy shows his love and admiration for horses with this passage at the beginning of the story. The words he uses are passionate and have strength. He continues later in the story in describing their energy and spirit in the passage “John Grady was holding the horse with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world” (McCarthy, 103). These images such as the horses’ nostrils corresponding news shows the animals’ mysterious nature, one that is very different than humans.
The author continues with this line of reasoning when later he writes “he rode the last five horses…horses dancing and turning in the light, their red eyes flashing as they moved with great elegance and seemliness” (McCarthy, 107). These later images are again powerful and resonate in the mind. It is easy to see how with all these striking images that this novel was made into a motion picture. These words are very descriptive and easily convey vivid imagery in ones brain. As you read the words you can without difficulty see the words take shape into beautiful pictures. They become almost unreal and aid in portraying the horses as mystical.
These are the thoughts and pictures John Grady sees in his mind and these are the type of horses that the title of the book so elegantly describes. The spiritual connection that we see John have with horses is just as mythical as the horses the author describes. John Grady is able somehow to communicate with these horses better than he can communicate with humans. The emotions and words he is able to share with horses are much deeper than with any other person he encounters in the novel. When John Grady and his best friend Lacey begin to start breaking horses on the Mexican ranch, this notion of deeper communication becomes more evident.
In one scene John has “cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animals eyes and stroking the terror out” (McCarthy, 103). John Grady’s ability to ease the horses’ fears is that not unlike a parent consoles a child. Humans who are not parents find this sort of calming a challenge with children so to see John performs this act shows a sort of understanding and knowledge of the beast.
McCarthy describes this bond earlier in the novel when he states the “the boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he had been born to it which he was but as if he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway” (McCarthy, 23). The words used in this passage gives the reader a sense that the relationship that is shared by horses and John Grady is more than a physical one, but a metaphysical relationship that keeps being strengthened as the story unfolds.
This connection seems to be summed up by the ranch hand Luis who says “the horses share a common soul and if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were” (McCarthy, 111). The message that McCarthy seems to be sending in these passages is that John has this ability to know all horses souls and that this makes him a very unique person, unique just like the horse that he share the relationship with. The relationships that John Grady knew and shared with horses would later prove not one to be trusted to be used with men.
As the story continues, it becomes evident to John that the two entities are very much different. In the opening of the story McCarthy writes that “what he loved in horses he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran in them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the learning’s of his life were for the adenhearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise” (McCarthy, 6). His belief that horses are this way makes him believe that humans must also be this way. John Grady is depicted as having very little social skills with humans, and his belief that men must be the same as horses is an example of this.
The quest that he is to undertake is something that he thinks will be romantic and will somehow change his perception of the world. Before this notion is completely broken, Luis says to him “among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men could be understood at all is probably an illusion” (McCarthy, 111). This would be the first, but not the last, time that John begins to realize that there is a difference between the two species. John finds along his journey that instead of the pretty horses that the title implies, the only thing he actually finds in the world his pain, both physical and emotional.
The beauty and wonder that the journey seemed to hold only resulted in theft, murder, lies, and betrayal. The “no such communion” line that Luis had spoken to him proves to be all the more clear to John and the journey only succeeds in ruining any preconception that John Grady had of man. When his journey is all but over and he realizes that his father has died along with Abuela, John’s beautiful and imaginary world completely disappears and he is left with only a “world that seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names.
Nothing for the living or the dead” (McCarthy, 301). The pre-journey notions of the “pretty horses” has been forever lost and destroyed. The new and lost events and memories show the irony in the title of the novel. The death and violence of the story belie McCarthy’s title All the Pretty Horses. One would not think of these types of events happening with a title such as this. Upon the end of John Grady’s travels, he, along with the reader, come to realize that the ideas and beliefs that John once had of the world and of men are completely false and there is indeed no such communion among men as among horses.
At the end of the book the reader also comes to realize that the title of the book is not ever meant to be taken literally. At the beginning of his journey, John fully believes in the imaginary world that the title suggests. By the time his journey to Mexico concludes, however, he realizes that the world is not as simple and innocent as he once thought it to be. He is disheartened at the idea that men do not live in a similar world to horses and it is not carefree and romantic. John Grady’s relations with horses took on many different roles, from friend and companion to mere transportation.
His unusual understanding of the spirit and thoughts of horses had made him think that it must be the same with that of men. John learns by the end of the story that this is certainly not the case and men could never be the equal to the spiritual horse. John Grady learns that men are a violent, cruel, and unpredictable species and not at all like horses. The title of the novel comes from a lullaby sung by slaves to their white owner’s children. Hushabye, don’t you cry, Go to sleep my little baby, When you wake you shall have All the pretty horses,
Dapples and greys, Pintos and bays, Coach and six little horses. “All the Pretty Horses is a lullaby for lost innocence, an elegy for a young nation of cowboys and New World breeds, a lament for first love and last chance, a love-song for a southwest border landscape of severe beauty that brings out strangeness, cruelty, and kindness in men” (Lincoln, 111). This quote depicts the novel perfectly, in my estimation. This novel on the surface can seem to be just another western tale, the cowboy and his horse riding out on the plains on some sort of quest.
I believe this novel goes a little deeper and touches our souls and leaves a lasting imprint of love, pain, suffering, and an invincible spirit that survives in man.
McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Owens, Barcley. Cormac McCarthy's Western Novels. Tucson: University of Arizona, 2000.
Wallach, Rick. Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2000.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Cormac McCarthy American Canticles. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Bloom, Harold. Cormac McCarthy. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.