The horses in All the Pretty Horses play a critical role, which is why specific horses are listed as characters in the front of these notes. The horses are more than a means of transportation for John Grady and Rawlins; they are friends. For example, when John Grady Cole finds Redbo in a stable after his long incarceration and travels on the grullo, Redbo whinnies, or calls to him in a touching reunion. The novel is centered around the horses: catching them, riding them, breeding them, rescuing them, admiring them, talking about them, philosophizing about them. They are the core, the soul, of the novel.
But the horses mean more to John Grady and Rawlins not just because they’ve formed bonds with them. Horses carry with them centuries of meaning, tied to legend and myth, romance and battle. When McCarthy uses the word grail in the first chapter of the book, we connect the horses to the romance of adventure that goes back in western culture to the crusades. Ever since that medieval period when, according to legend, women gave men their scarves and waved them off to romantic undertakings, men have gone, often on their horses, to fight wars. Here, in this book, are all the same ingredients. Except instead of being the glorious legend of times past, this story is skewed, like light shining through a prism. What we see on the other side isn’t the same as what came before. We have no happy ending, no glorious victory with love awaiting the victors. Not that there were, necessarily, happy endings during earlier historic times, but our notions of romance make us believe there were. McCarthy is a realistic mythmaker. His ending is not happy, but it is not totally tragic either. This is why it can be called “western existentialism.” John Grady’s father has come back from war injured and altered for the worse. The Mexican Revolution that affects so much of what happens in Mexico is 40-year-old history, and it stays with those who lived through it, haunting them and affecting their lives decades later. Yet romance and adventure still reverberate in the undertaking of the two young men when they take their horses and head south. The common thread is the horses.
The horses represent more than just themselves, and they also are the center axis around which the novel revolves. The horses connect all the characters. They connect John Grady to his parents, to his grandfather, to his other ancestors. Even Rawlins says he had seen his father rattle a few times on a horse, indicating that he was a cowpuncher, too, and most likely broke a few horses as Rawlins did. Horses connect the men and women, not just John Grady and Alejandra, but his parents. His father tells him that the two (his parents) had in common a great love of horses, and they were mistaken in thinking that was enough. The horses connect John Grady and Don Hector, owner of the hacienda, who can spend hours talking of the merits of individual horses. The two of them have even read some of the same horse books. The horses tie John Grady, Rawlins, and Blevins together, even after Blevins’ death, as John Grady tries to find the rightful owner of Blevins’ big bay horse. The horses connect all the cowboys and vaqueros. They connect the old men and the young, the Mexicans and the Americans.
Perhaps most importantly, the horses connect the present to the past. The imagined scenes John Grady sees on his lone rides on the prairie are of the Comanches in the past on their ponies. Horses connect the events of this era back to the conquistadors who brought the horses back to America, after the indigenous horses of America had long been extinct.
The horses are also the connection to work — working the cattle on ranches and play, riding to hunt or just for pleasure. In short, the horses are connected to all the enterprises of the characters. This includes transportation. Horses still had an important function in 1949, often still used in farming. In the western half of the country, kids still went to school on their ponies, and in the blizzard of 1949, after weeks of being snowed in, fathers finally got to town by horseback. John Grady and Rawlins are too poor to own a car in this novel. In the fifty years since the novel takes place, this has all reversed, so that everyone has a car, many equipped to get through heavy snow, and only the rich can afford horses. The horse, thus, has become a creature for pleasure, and has lost its work function.
When John Grady was a child, an oil painting of horses hung above the sideboard in the formal dining room of the ranch house. Six wild-eyed horses were breaking through a pole corral with manes flying. The horses had Andalusian and Barb features, and as John Grady grew, he analyzed them and saw that they had good cutting horse hindquarters. But something seemed askew because the heads, bodies, and legs of the horses did not fit as he’d seen them in real horses. He finally asked his grandfather what kind of horses these were. His grandfather tells him they are “picturebook horses.” But we learn when John Grady is breeding wild mares with Rocha’s chestnut stallion from Kentucky that these are the kind of horses Rocha and the young American cowboy now dreamed of producing.
So the horses are also the link between art and real life. First, an artist imagined these horses, quickly dismissed between bites of food by the grandfather, but remembered by John Grady. They impress John Grady’s mind’s eye and give him an idea that he later actually starts to carry out. A connection exists between idea, art, and even the forms of the domesticated horses.
A major energy the horses bring to the novel is to connect human beings to nature. The horses are part of the fabulous landscape scenes described here, in the desert southwest as well as the varied vegetation of Mexico, and often with magnificent mountains as a backdrop. But the horses do more than take the characters into the wilderness, into areas of great earthly beauty. They also help them leave, or escape, areas of harshness and danger.
It is to the nature of the horses themselves that many of the characters are drawn. After centuries of training and domestication of horses by men, we still cannot truly understand them and are often surprised by their behavior. John Grady reminds Rawlins, when he is sacking out the first wild Mexican mustang, that he does not know how a horse thinks. But John Grady is praised by Don Hector for understanding horses and, indeed, he does have the skills and instincts to work wonders with the horses. This is because John Grady has a spiritual connection to the horses, and he totally accepts them in all their power. To be in a pasture with a great stallion and several bands of mares and be accepted in their circle is an awesome experience. There is no explanation for why horses, even penned, accept some people and not others. And the horses do accept John Grady. This spiritual connection may be why John Grady can ride that wild chestnut stallion in the breeding season, a feat few would attempt. John Grady is a real cowboy who is capable of amazing feats with horses. This can be contrasted to the current rodeo, which some defend as the last place where people can exhibit their prowess with horses, cattle, and ropes. It is unfortunate that a needed skill has now developed into a sport only. Larry McMurtry has criticized this in Rodeo, “the West. . . . My grip about rodeo, as publicly promoted, is that it wants both the lie and the truth: to be both the Wild West, and yet steeped in family values.” He, like McCarthy, uses social protest in his novels.
In another quote from McMurtry, we get at the problem of the romance and myths even more. “I thought Lonesome Dove was antimythic. Malory may have felt the same way about the Morte D’Arthur. Readers suck so hard at the old myths, that they turn stones into sour grapes.” It is this degradation of the myth, of cowboys and horse, that McCarthy is trying to deal with and elevate in All the Pretty Horses. He is portraying the dreams and legends as we still imagine, but he is also casting a realistic eye on all of it.
Horses do carry with them the images of romance, of time long past. The romance endures, which is partly why horses have become so popular again. But the social protest of authors like McCarthy warns us that we are not able to relive the past. We, and the horses, must exist in a landscape that is dwindling in size and changing in use.
So the images that the pretty horses call up are not all positive and romantic. Aside from commercialization in rodeos, other dark sides to pretty horses do exist. One vaquero tells John Grady that to see the soul of a horse is a terrible thing. It is not just power and beauty that horses call up, but fear and fear of death even. Another old vaquero tells John Grady that horses love war. The idea that horses have a cruel side is not developed by McCarthy, but here the old man seems to be saying that horses like to strive, compete, and battle. Even if horses are essentially creatures of flight, who run from danger, they will fight for territory and also when trapped. This death theme of horses adds to the John Grady myth.
We are enamored, because he is young, he is very bright, he is on a quest. He is a cowboy. What is the romance of the cowboy in American culture? It is the romance the idealist has always elicited. The man of action still thrills — maybe especially because of the age of anxiety we live in. Romantic figures can call up something timeless, something so thrilling we can’t avoid it. The horses are an integral part of this romance. They are huge domesticated animals that have accompanied mankind on our adventures and travels for centuries. Almost every culture of the world has prized and used them — with the exception of some island societies, perhaps. They are beautiful creatures, which is why they lend themselves to more pretty romance than camels, for example. Horses are a connection to the most awesome, powerful, and beautiful parts of nature. When a man can train and ride a great horse, he partakes of that power and beauty that so often eludes us. Then nature is not quite so overpowering or frightening. If we can survive the horse gallop, we can do anything.
Whatever the negatives, it is hard to not return to the romance. But there are also the realists, and Rawlins is the main one in the novel, who try to get John Grady, as well as the reader, back to earth. Rawlins had said in Chapter I, “A good lookin horse is like a good lookin woman. . . . They’re always more trouble than what they’re worth.” This homespun philosophy gives the book and John Grady the needed realistic dialogue. But in the end, John Grady risks his life again to bring the horses home to America. They are not just transportation, not just animals. They are John Grady’s lifeblood. And much more.
So the cowboy has a special masculine aura, partly the aura all great athletes have, going back to the Greeks, but a more special one because the aura of the horse is inextricably bound up with the cowboy’s aura. As many have noted, rider and horse are one being, not two. This masculinity is so strong that the cowboy need not say much at all. The power of the horse communicates for him, with him. The vision of him on his horse is enough. This is not sexuality. It is skill, profound connection to the earth and sky. It is horse, pretty horse. The pretty horses are legend, myth, romance, nature, and spirituality; and John Grady, on his quest, supposedly to find a ranch, or home, throws himself into all of that. This is why one of the meanings for “pretty horses” must be the American Dream.
No American, or perhaps now even citizen of the world, can escape that. The New World was conquered, if that is the word we must use, by adventurers in search of gold. They took great risks in their searches and not all of them came for gold. The Jesuit and Franciscan monks walked so far in the desert, sometimes totally alone for dreams, of course. Dreams of serving God. Dreams of finding something new. Dreams of a better life. And those of us who have come after are forever in awe of the risks they all took, the suffering they endured. This is why to read All the Pretty Horses is to love not only the book and the story, but John Grady and the young characters as well. We admire them, we are frightened for them, we envy them, we do romanticize them. And is that so terrible? These young adventurers are surely the stuff dreams are made of. Adults steeped in reason, just like the adults in the novel, are way too hard on John Grady; “He is only sixteen-years-old.” John Grady is a realist as well as ideal character, for his time and place. But he also is larger than life, mythic at sixteen. Definitely a cowboy. Definitely a lover of horses.
John Grady, on his horse, is the bearer of a whole history, how perhaps a tragic one. Are the “pretty horses” dying? Do the horse and rider, who have achieved so much, also risk losing everything? At the end of All the Pretty Horses, they are still alive, their shadows a single being, where they “passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.” This may be the rider of pale horse, pale rider, linked to death. But it may also be the modern rider, still moving, or dancing, with the forces of existence. In any case, one cannot separate the pretty horses from the rider, or from the dreams.