Happy Black History Month!
I wanted to do a book recommendation list for Black History Month that was horse themed.
So here they are. I will preface that I haven’t read all of these. I picked some based on reviews, recommendation, and scholarship.
Picture/Early Reader Books
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby by Crystal Hubbard and illustrated by Robert McGuire
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby is for kids who have a 1st to 3rd grade reading level. It’s a biography of Jimmy Winkfield, who lived an amazing life around horses and was the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby.
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses is a for kids with a preschool to 3rd grade reading level. It’s about Bob Lemmons, a legendary mustang catcher. It is an adapted version of Julius’s book Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History.
Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy by Andrea D. Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy is another young reader book for kids with reading levels between preschool to 3rd grade. It’s a story about the child who became Bill Pickett, the cowboy who is credited with inventing bull dogging. Publisher’s Weekly gave this a starred review: “The author gives Pickett’s (ca.1860- 1932) life story ample context, too, bolstering it with information about the role of African Americans in settling the West; an afterword discusses black cowboys in general.”
Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunt Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by Gordon C. James
Let ‘Er Buck! is about George Fletcher with a focus on his entry in the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. He became the people’s champion after prejudice clouded his round and a local sheriff raised prize money for him. This was given a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly with ‘a glossary of rodeo and western words and a selected bibliography wrap up this triumphant tale of fairness trumping prejudice for a wrangler extraordinaire.’
Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman and illustrated by Daniel Minter
Dr. William Key had a special way with animals. While enslaved, he traveled around Tennessee to tend to sick and wounded animals. Once free, he dreamed of having a racehorse, but the foal was born weak. Key realized his horse’s smarts and began teaching him and showing the world the message of kindness to animals. Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness is a children’s book about Dr. William Key and his relationship with his famous horse, Jim Key. This book is for kids with a second to third grade reading level.
Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World’s Smartest Horse by Emily Arnold McCully.
Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World’s Smartest Horse is a picture book about Dr. William Key and his new foal Jim. It goes into Dr. William Key’s upbringing and how he taught his foal through kindness and patience. This book is for kids with a preschool to second grade reading level.
Middle Grade/Young Adult Books
Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
Ghetto Cowboy is a coming of age novel. Cole’s mother leaves him with a father he has never known. But the twelve year old is soon introduced to a group of Philadelphian cowboys who use horses to steer youths away from drugs and gangs. This novel received numerous awards including a YALSA Amazing Audiobook pick and a Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice List. It’s considered middle grade. This is going to be a movie that was partially filmed in Philadelphia with Idris Elba!
The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nichole Davis
The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis is a western inspired fantasy. In this world, children can be sold to ‘welcome houses’ where they’re branded with cursed markings that mature as they age. When Clementine accidentally kills a man, the girls escape and go on a dangerous journey to freedom. They’re pursued by powerful human and inhuman forces while following a story passed from one Good Luck Girl to another.
My Name Is America: The Journal Of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy by Walter Dean Myers
The My Name Is America series ran from 1998 to 2004. It was a series of historical novels written in a journal format during an important period or event in American History. The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy was written by Walter Dean Myers. Joshua Loper is a 16 year old in 1871, and records his journey during his first cattle drive while dealing with racial prejudice.
The King Of The Wind by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Wesley Dennis
The King of The Wind by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Wesley Dennis is probably the most well known book on this list. I kept flipping between including it and not including it on the list, but eventually decided to because I wanted another fictional book on the list. It won the Newberry Award in 1949. This is the fictionalized story of Sham, one of the founding stallions of the Thoroughbred breed, and his relationship with his steadfast friend, Agba.
The Saddle Club Series by Bonnie Bryant
The Saddle Club series follows the adventures of Carole, Stevie, and Lisa who ride at Pine Hollow Stables. This middle grade series spans 101 books with ten spin offs. The books were published between 1988 through 2001. A seventeen book young adult series that follows the girls four years after the Saddle Club series were also published, but seem to be out of print.
Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins
Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins is a historical romance set in 1880s Wyoming. Maggie Freeman grudgingly accepts the help of bounty hunter Ian Vance after a vigilante mob wants to see her hanged. On their journey to a safe place to try her case, love and freedom cross barriers.
The adult nonfiction list was the last I compiled. Finding books in the other categories felt like pulling teeth. This one was marginally easier. The books primarily settled in two categories: Black cowboys and Black jockeys.
African American Women of the Old West by Tricia Martineau Wagner
African American Women of the Old West by Tricia Martineau Wagner highlights 10 Black women from backgrounds ranging from slavery to freedom. Included are the biographies of woman like Elizabeth Thorn Scott who made it her mission to educate Black children.
Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, And Little-Known Stories From History by Tricia Martineau Wagner
Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, And Little-Known Stories From History by Tricia Martineau Wagner highlights Black western cowboys. The author wrote, “Black Cowboys of the Old West highlights the accomplishments and achievements of black cowboys, giving them the recognition they deserve. History is not being rewritten to make room for cowboys of color; the record is simply becoming appropriately inclusive.”
Race Horse Men by Katherine C. Mooney
Race Horse Men by Katherine C. Mooney is an an excellent book. She highlights the intersection between American racing and slavery. Horse racing was America’s first spectator sport. She highlights major players in America’s horse racing history and the role that Black jockeys, grooms, and trainers played in it.
The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy by Pellom McDaniels
Most horse books that highlight horse racing and records will have his picture. Issac Burns Murphy is considered to be the most winning jockey. The Prince of Jockeys by Pellom McDaniels III is a biography of the famed jockey who was not only an incredible horseman but also a cultural figure.
Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape
There are some stories that seem so incredible that they read like fiction. This is Jimmy Winkfield. Black Maestro: The Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape follows Jimmy Winkfield’s life from the 17th child of sharecroppers to being the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. He survived the Klu Klux Klan and Nazis before finally settling in France.
The Great Black Jockeys by Edward Hotaling
The Great Black Jockeys by Edward Hotaling highlights some of the famous Black jockeys ranging from the 1700s to the 20th century. The book highlights jockeys like Austin Curtis.
The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West by William H. Leckie with Shirley A. Leckie
The Buffalo Soliders by William H. Leckie and Shirley A. Leckie gives a comprehensive history about the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were formed during the Civil War because of a need for more soldiers. They weren’t known as the iconic name then, but the name eventually became a generic term for all Black soldiers. The book begins at the creation of The Buffalo Soldiers and ultimately ends with recent developments (as of 2007) of efforts to memorialize them.
Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World by Mim Eichler Rivas
Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World by Mim Eichler Rivas is about Dr. William Key. He was a former slave, Civil War Veteran, and veterinarian who turned an ugly duckling colt into a beloved hero. Dr. Key and his wonder horse performed across the country for nine years and earned respect from some of the most influential figures of the time.
My initial criteria for picking the books started as this:
- Must feature a Black person as the protagonist, not as a supporting character
- Horses must be a part of the plot or in the world ex. Western themed
- Available to buy (independently or major press published, it couldn’t be out of copyright and unavailable).
While this list isn’t as long as I wished, I hope you will look into them. I will not lie and say I scanned every book available out there–so if you know of any horse novels that feature Black protagonists, please send them my way.