I thought Mister Ed was the only talking horse around, but there was a “talking” horse long before televisions existed. Right down the road from here, in Shelbyville, Tennessee, an amazing horse and his owner lived at the turn of the twentieth century! In Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, Donna Janell Bowman tells this unbelievable story.William “Doc” Key was born into slavery. As he was growing up, he learned about taking care of horses. His mother taught him how to make homemade remedies. By the time he was a young man, William was so good at treating horses’ injuries and sicknesses that everyone called him “Doc.”
Then came the Civil War, and Doc was a free man. He built a new life as a businessman. He created many medicines, including one called Keystone Liniment, which was very popular. Doc bought a medicine wagon and rode from town to town selling the Keystone Liniment.
Doc bought a scrawny gray mare that he named Lauretta. She later gave birth to a sickly colt that could barely walk.
Doc named the baby horse Jim Key and nursed him until he was healthy. Jim followed Doc around and watched Doc’s every move. One day, when Jim saw Doc playing fetch with a dog, Jim tried to join in and brought Doc a stick to throw. Doc soon taught Jim other dog tricks—Jim learned to sit, play dead, act sick, and roll over on cue.
When Jim was about a year old, Lauretta died. Doc was worried about Jim, so he brought the horse into his house to live. Jim lived inside the house until he was too big; then both Doc and Jim moved into the barn. Doc’s training of Jim continued:
When Doc was ready to hitch up the medicine wagon again, he decided to bring Jim along as his newest attraction. Doc held up a bottle of Keystone Liniment and announced for people to gather around. He told the crowd how his sickly, crippled colt had grown strong and healthy. Right on cue, Jim pretended to be sick. He limped and drooped and snorted and wobbled. Then Doc gave Jim a spoonful of medicine and massaged a dollop of liniment into his legs. Suddenly Jim acted well again. He pranced around, frisky as a pup.
The audience clapped and laughed and lined up to buy Doc’s medicines.
At home, Jim watched Doc count money and write letters. One day, Doc’s wife asked Jim if he wanted a piece of apple, and Jim nodded his head. This made Doc wonder what else Jim could learn.
With much patience, Doc taught Jim the alphabet. Over the next seven years, Jim learned how to spell words, add sums, find flags to identify states, move clock hands to tell time, and even write his name on a blackboard with chalk!
People were astounded. Doc explained: “The whip makes horses stubborn and they obey through fear. Kindness, kindness, and more kindness, that’s the way.”
Doc and Jim Key performed around the country, helping to promote the cause of kindness to animals. Humane societies decided that Jim Key was the perfect animal to represent their cause. The humane societies believed that animals were intelligent, capable of emotions, and willing to learn if treated well.
Doc and Jim Key traveled the country for nine years, proving to millions of people that “with kindness, anything is possible.” Let us all remember the lesson they taught.
I had never heard about this astonishing animal before reading this book. I wish I lived back in Doc and Jim Key’s time so that I could see the talented horse in action. Since that is not possible, I am grateful to Ms. Bowman for doing such a wonderful job bringing Jim Key to life for me.
Ms. Bowman is the author of a number of educational books for children, including The Sioux: The Past and Present of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota and The Navajo: The Past and Present of the Diné. Her love of horses is apparent not only in her writing about Jim Key, but also in two other horse books that she has written. Her website, www.donnajanellbowman.com is full of information and resources.
Have you read any great books lately?