Smoky the Cowhorse



Smoky the Cowhorse

written and illustrated by Will James

Age: 9+

Interests: horses, cowboys, animals

Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1926

323 pp., 14 chapters

Also by this author: The American Cowboy, Sun Up: Tales of the Cow Camps, Cowboys North and South, Cowboy in the Making, Horses I’ve Known, and many others

The life of a horse, born on the range of Wyoming, trained to be a cowhorse, stolen and mistreated, a legend on the rodeo circuit, and then neglected in a livery stable until chance leads him back to the ranges of his youth and the one cowboy who knew him the best.

This is a long book, written in cowboy vernacular and obviously drawing on the vast horse knowledge of its author. All the detail and horse psychology leads to its great length, but the events of old Smoky’s life are indeed dramatic and suspenseful, and a true horse lover will be fully engaged in this plot.

Will James was a reknowned artist and author, a career cowboy, horse-handler and Hollywood stunt rider. The depth of his knowledge and experience is highly evident in this book. Beginning with Smoky’s first hours of life struggling with his “wobblety legs”, James has a heightened sense of what’s going on in a horse’s head, while never stooping to anthropomorphize the beast.

In fact James gives a very realistic telling of Smoky’s life, particularly regarding the violence of wild horse battles and the terrible way that men sometimes treat animals. The most shocking incident is not told in detail, but it is obvious that Smoky actually kills a man who is brutally mistreating him. Because of the violence and the melancholy scenes of Smoky’s decline, this book is a little too intense for younger readers. Luckily, however, the ending is lovely – I was a little worried Smoky would just die an ignominious death but in the last chapter he is reunited with his former owner and nursed back to health.

Parents may not be fond of the casual grammar and folksy spelling (ie. “eddication”), and the book is very long, but James’s vast knowledge and immense love for horses carries the tale and makes this a sure favourite for any horse-lover.

Note: James’s masterful illustrations have not been included in every edition of this book – the one I read had no illustrations at all. (See examples of his work below.)

Movies: There are three movie versions of this novel, Smoky (1933), Smoky (1946), and Smoky (1966). The first one is noteworthy for having Will James as the Narrator.

(this title available at

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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