A Remarkable Phenomenon: A Review of ‘Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World’s Smartest Horse’

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”  – St.  Francis of Assisi

Reading Level:  Grades 2-3  [according to common core]

Grade   3.3  [according to Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

Review and Comments:

Wonder Horse by Emily Arnold McCully is a book about a horse named Jim Key who was truly a phenomenon because of his remarkable abilities.  The story is also about the amazing and inspirational life of an exceptional man named Bill Key, the owner of the horse.

Bill Key was born in 1833 as a slave.  He had a nurturing gift of handling animals much like St. Francis of Assisi because he treated every one of God’s creatures with kindness.   After the Emancipation Proclamation Bill became a veterinarian and horses were a priority in his practice.  He became well known because of his humane treatment of all animals.

After awhile he created a medicine called Keystone Liniment. The profit from the sales of the liniment allowed Bill to buy a racetrack and eventually buy a horse that looked to have great potential.  She had a foal but to Doc’s disappointment the horse was born with twisted legs.  Doc named him Jim Key.  Then on top of that disappointment his treasured mare died soon after Jim’s birth and Doc was distraught.  His dream of owning the fastest horse was dashed.

Jim Key was one determined horse however.  He kept trying to stand on his crooked legs.  One day Jim Key brought a stick to Doc and they played fetch with it.  Jim began to walk a few feet at a time and gained strength. Doc even allowed Jim to stay in his spare room!  He eventually had to move out to the barn because of his size and amazingly Doc moved his bed out to the barn also.

Doc realized that Jim Key was a very clever and smart horse so he decided to teach him tricks – one at a time.  It took years but he actually learned to recognize every letter of the alphabet, identify colors, and add and subtract!  With all this talent, Doc decided to hit the road and have Jim perform in his own show.  Jim  loved the audiences and was truly a “showman.”

Jim Key was quite a success, but then some people began to question whether he was really talented or if the whole performance was a trick.  Doc wanted to prove Jim Key was indeed a legitimate talent but he could not do it on his own.  He felt they were experiencing prejudice and he needed help.  He finally asked some professors from Harvard to come and witness Jim’s performance.  They agreed.  After testing him they publicly proclaimed that Jim Key was not a fake.   Word spread about their findings and so did the message to treat all animals with kindness.

Doc and Jim Key continued to put on amazing shows for nine years, and then they retired to a tranquil life on a farm.

It is obvious from the title of this book that Jim Key is the star.  Children will definitely enjoy reading about Jim’s antics and unbelievable talents.  Even young children will enjoy hearing this story as a read aloud book and examining every colorful picture.  Dr. Bill Key should not be overlooked however.  He is an exceptional character who cannot be kept in the shadow of his horse. His resolve and courage are important lessons. Together, their lives touched the hearts of many people especially children. Their story continues to teach and inspire today’s readers.

Possible Issues:

There are no issues with this book.

Further Comments:

  • The parallel between the lives of Jim and Doc should not be neglected. They both started their lives greatly disadvantaged.  They worked for years and eventually succeeded in not only improving their own lives, but they entertained and educated the public.
  • Make a timeline to help organize the events of the story. Write simple phrases or labels for the major event on small pieces of paper. Write a title at the top of a paper or poster. Draw a horizontal line along the middle of the paper. Arrange the events in order along the timeline and glue them down.  Draw a simple picture for each event.  [Example: Bill Key is born – Draw a picture of a baby.]
  • There is more wonderful information and a photograph of the real Dr. Bill Key and Jim Key at the end of the book that should not be overlooked.

Catholic Resources:

  • Blessing of Animals by Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M. is a very good article. It includes information about St. Francis and even mentions St. Clare’s pet.
  • Blessing of Horses and other Draft Animals
    “The animals praise and glorify God inasmuch as they assist man and serve him. In their own way they assist man in attaining his ultimate goal, and for that reason the Church blesses them. In her blessing the church commends these animals to St. Anthony the hermit, who from the earliest times was regarded as the patron of farmers and animal breeders. The following prayers can be used when the animals are placed in harness for the first time. O God, our refuge and strength, the source of our devotion, hear the devout prayers of the Church, grant that what we ask in faith we may obtain in fact.Almighty, eternal God, who didst test glorious Saint Anthony the hermit in many temptations and didst grant him to go forth untouched by the seductions of this world: grant us Thy servants to make progress in virtue by his example and to be freed from the dangers of this life by his merits and intercession.May these animals, O Lord, receive Thy blessing; may they be sound in body and, by the intercession of Saint Anthony the hermit, may they be preserved from all evil. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” [Translated by Most Reverend J. H. Schlarman Bishop of Peoria]
  • In some places horses are blessed on the feast day of Saint Eligius of Noyon.
  • CCC 1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.
  • CCC 1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:

Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.