My Favorite Mistake: Writer Jane Smiley On How Her Horse-Breeding Got A Little Out Of Hand

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"My Favorite Mistake" is a biweekly series in which writer Seema Kalia asks various luminaries about the one mistake that taught them the most. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and horse lover Jane Smiley reveals how her favorite mistake taught her that you can't love 'em all.

SK: What is your favorite mistake?

JS: Horse breeding. It's going to be a surprise to readers that it's something so frivolous.

SK: No, it does not have to be some kind of world-scale tumult. We are actually interested in different "degrees" of mistakes.

JS: Well, you know, I have a philosophy about mistakes. One is that in your personal life and in your professional life, you don't really call them mistakes, you just call them "opportunities for learning." Bad marriages or the bad novel you wrote aren't really mistakes, they were just the best you could do at the time. But, somehow your advocational life, your passions and your hobbies, and the things that you spend your money and your free time on, those can be mistakes.

SK: What do you think those horses symbolized for you back then?

JS: Every conceivable ideal: they were the ultimate dog/boyfriend combination, but then, you can ride them, too. So they were a dog and a horse and a boyfriend combination in the sense that they were companions and warm but they were also really fun in terms of riding and doing things. I really adored horses from my earliest days.

SK: So, we fast-forward some years, and you decide...

JS: We fast-forward almost fifty years. I realized early on in my teens that I wasn't going to be a professional equestrian. I didn't have the skills and I didn't have the background for that, but I knew I was going to end up a horse owner eventually. So, I bought a horse when I was 42 and I was content with that. Then I moved to California and it just came to me that it might be fun to breed a horse. I was reading a magazine and they sent me a catalog of stallions that were available for breeding and, I looked at them and thought, "I would really like to try this."

SK: A catalog of perfect stallions to choose from seems heavily symbolic in some way.

JS: Well, more to outsiders than to people who actually breed horses.

SK: Just in terms of the promise of so much selection and perfection in one place...

JS: Well, that's true. I was moved by that more than I was moved by the masculinity part of it.

So I look through the catalog and see one particular stallion who was rather old at the time, but he was a beautiful dark brown and sort of muscular. A beautifully well-balanced animal. And in the magazine I also saw that there was a mare for sale that was a daughter of his. So I went and looked at her, in Dickson, which wasn't far from where I was. I saw her, and as they were putting her away, she turned and put her head on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. I was a lost soul at that point. So, I bought her. Now obviously a lot of people will feel we have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, and will say that's what I did. But I don't think it was just me. I think it was just a close feeling of connection you don't always have with other horses or even with people. Judging by her subsequent behavior, she always felt a connection with me, too. She was always ready to come over and see me and, when she was pregnant she physically liked to sit in my lap: the closer she got to the foaling, the more affectionate she got.

SK: Didn't that get heavy?

JS: She wouldn't actually sit in my lap. She would nuzzle against me. And so I remember thinking when looking at her this way "Oh, I want another one of those!" Like I was placing an order rather than a bet. Lo and behold the little foal was born and he looked just like that stallion in the catalog. He was the same color, the same shape and he was a very sweet little boy. I'm thinking: "This is easy! You pick one then you pick the other one and you say 'This is what I want'" and that's what you get.

SK: So you were seduced by that immediate success?

JS: Absolutely. But then I should have paid better attention when that mare died (from illness) when the baby was a month old. But he was still so gorgeous, so kind and sweet, and exactly what I wanted.

SK: You have to tell us the names to these horses because in any horse story, the names are the best part.

JS: The stallion that I first was attracted to was named Big Spruce, and the mare was named Bio-Symmetree and when the foal was born we named him Lumber Jack and since then he was known as Jackie.

So after that first success, I thought, "I have to do this again!" So, I found another mare by the same stallion, Big Spruce, and I bred that mare to another horse, a beautiful grey stallion. Once again, I said: "I want one of those, like the grey stallion" and Bingo! I did it again.

I was really hooked. I basically hit the jackpot twice and, in my own view, hit two home runs. They say the worst thing that can happen the first time you go to the racetrack is to hit a long shot -- a 99:1 long shot. And then that's what hooks you. If you lose over and over all day long you never go back to the track.

Over the years (after hitting the early jackpots), I bought more mares and I bred them to more stallions and now I have bred about fifteen. Then of course I entered into the real world, because in the real world of breeding horses, you don't always get what you want. Even if you do, there can be an accident, there can be a genetic problem, a congenital problem, there can be illness and that's where I embarked upon my experience of chaos.

That's what horses teach you, to endure, and maybe tolerate, and eventually possibly come to believe in chaos.

SK: Not that we're usually given a choice.

JS: That's right, and you have to learn to deal with it. So I have had five horses who won at the racetrack, and one who claimed a lot of money, but I've also had painful situations -- a young horse who was galloping behind his mom and didn't make a turn and seriously injured himself. It runs the gamut of chaos, from all chaos to no chaos.

SK: Are you still breeding horses?

JS: Well, this year I said, "No more, I'm getting rid of all the mares," because I began to look at a mare and think: "Who would that go with?" I don't want to do it anymore.

Everybody will think they might be breeding the next Kentucky Derby winner and eventually you have to say, "No, odds are against it, stop now." So this year I decided I was going to sell the mares so I wouldn't be tempted anymore to breed them, but that doesn't mean I'm selling all the horses. I'm still keeping the ones that I have very close relationships with and feel some type of connection to.

SK: Horse-breeding seems very analogous to that perpetual pursuit of some type of ideal. It reminds me of the dating world.

JS: It's so close to that. People who have succeeded think that their success means they deserve a certain thing, so they go out and they look for that thing, not necessarily knowing what in the world they are doing. The horse business is a little bit like dating in terms of wanting a "winner" and so you try this one and this one and this one until finally you find a winner. And you ride that one for a while and your trainer helps you with it and you get the ego of being on a winner. The other side of that approach, in my own life, is that once I started breeding horses knowing that some of them were going to be my own horses, I had to learn how to accommodate their nature and so that made me appreciate them more.

SK: So they're not fungible assets?

JS: Right. Jackie, the one I've been telling you about before, he had been difficult to train partly because he had been orphaned. He had a very strong sense of who he is, he's quite beautiful and quite athletic too but...he's an ego maniac in some ways. His sight response is also quite high, so he's dumped me several times. He often got out from under me So that's an example of how I've had to modify my own way of being in order to accommodate him. And that's very much the way with children -- you think they're your children. I've got three children and two step-children, and the lesson of children is that you think your children are going to be "this, this and this," and they aren't. They turn out to be "That, that, and that."

SK: How old are your children?

JS: They're adults now.

SK: Well, my oldest child is five years old. So I'm desperately holding on to the belief that I have some control, if you don't mind.

JS: (Laughter). Well, I could give you some child raising advice. The thing you realize when you look at the actual children that you've got was that, although they weren't 100% formed at birth, they were partly formed at birth. And that can sit well with you or not. And I think it's easier to mold yourself in some ways than to try to mold them. So you're constantly looking for ways to raise them, and for ways to love them, even though they are just like your Aunt Harriet, who when you were a child you just couldn't stand.

SK: Isn't that true of all relationships? You can't change someone else, you can only change your own response to them.

JS: If you breed your own horses and you are committed to them, you have an opportunity to scratch your head and ask "Hmm...I wonder what would work in this circumstance?" It's a broadening thing. And that's why it's my "favorite" mistake: because I have learned so much from breeding my own horses -- about horses, and about people.

SK: So you were actually very lucky in that your mistake led you back to something very valuable and personal and real in its satisfaction.

JS: I'm lucky in that I had real relationships with horses. In the end, that was primary. In anything we do--the real thing is where there are actual reciprocal relationships, whether it's with another person, a horse or your dog.

What's bad is if those real relationships don't exist.

You can feel that intensity because of the personal investment of your time, your experience, your connection. The day-to-day care. If you focus on more than a few special horses, you really don't have that connection with them. There isn't enough time in the day to do it right. You can't love them all.