When Tom Groneberg first goes west one summer to work as a trail guide in the Colorado Rockies, he doesn't know "hay from straw, gelding from mare, roan from bay." He returns in the fall to his earlier world of "book bags and Fighting Illini sweatshirts" unable to wash away the allure of the cowboy life; he sends grad school applications only to institutions west of the Mississippi. Working at the same ranch the following summer, he becomes disillusioned with the tourists and the play-acting required in his role as guide. A brief stint in the University of Montana's MFA program follows, but Groneberg is too thin-skinned to cut it there. All he knows for sure is that he hopes "horses and mountains and the love of a beautiful woman are something to build a life around."
The Secret Life of Cowboys is the account of Groneberg's efforts to build a life in the West, to make it as a day hand on various Montana ranches before buying, and then failing at operating, his own ranch with wife Jennifer. "I chased a dream and it kicked me in the teeth. Yet I find myself falling for it again and again, " he admits. The book ends with Groneberg still trying to make it as a modern day cowboy, and celebrating the second birthday of his son Connor.
One Good Horse, the follow-up to The Secret Life, intertwines three stories: that of the Gronebergs as they begin trying for a younger sibling for Connor, and wind up with premature twins, one of whom has Down syndrome; that of an authentic Old West cowboy whose travels brought him to many places Groneberg is familiar with and whose life appears at sharp contrast to Groneberg's; and that of a bay colt destined to be Groneberg's own.
"Sometimes, when I'm lying in bed at night, unable to fall asleep, I play a game in my head, trying to recall the names of all the horses I've known since moving west from Illinois," he writes. Groneberg wants a horse he can train, keep until he's old, then pass on to his son. "If I had a good horse, I could give it my life."
Eventually, for Groneberg is prone to hesitations, to second-guessing himself, he winds up buying the colt he'll name Blue, after the cowboy whose memoirs he's been reading. He doubts he's chosen a good one, for when he first get him Blue is wormy and his hooves show he may have been foundered. He looks forlorn and Groneberg feels guilty for spending time and money on something so selfish as his own horse. He worries about the expense and whether he'll find somewhere to board the colt when winter comes. He worries about his children and whether he'll ever be able to move his family back onto a ranch of their own.
This is a quiet story about good people who realize life isn't fair but still manage to look for the good in it.