Beautiful Jim Key

Exclusive interview with Mimi Rivas, author of Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World, below!

Bred to be a speedy racehorse, Beautiful Jim Key was somewhat of a blunder when he was first born as fragile and unhealthy colt in Shelbyville, Tennessee, 1889. However, Jim soon began to display his remarkable intelligence by snatching treats from a desk, and then shutting the drawers to hide the evidence. After his birth, Jim’s owner and trainer, Dr. William Key, brought the foal to health and watched him become one of the biggest horse-legends today. With his “horse whispering” techniques, Dr. Key taught Jim to spell, read, perform basic math, and identify money. Over the next nine years, the talented pair displayed their talents at various performances and soon became known as the “Marvel of the Twentieth Century.”

Dr. William Jim Key, born as a slave in 1833, was said to have horse whispering talents even as a youngster. Later in his life, Dr. Key became a self-taught veterinarian. To add to his accomplishments, he also created a hotel, racetrack, restaurant, and made affluence by selling Keystone Liniment in his touring medicine shows.

Not long after his birth, Jim Key’s mother died, and the colt insisted to be near his owner at all times. Dr. Key was obligated to take Jim along on his medicine tours. As they traveled together, Dr. Key spontaneously decided to attempt to teach Jim, which resulted in the phenomenon we know today.

As Jim’s fame continued to grow, he gained the performing name of “Beautiful Jim Key.” He touched thousands of hearts everywhere he went, gaining numerous fans all the while. Throughout his life, Beautiful Jim Key acquired even more unusual talents and proved himself to be much more than a crippled colt.

Horse Spirit Interview with Mimi Rivas:

Horse Spirit: What was the most challenging part of writing Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World?

Mimi Rivas: The most challenging part of writing Beautiful Jim Key was making sure that I kept an "objective" view of this astonishing, true story. I wanted to overcome the skeptics who first challenged the story as an urban myth so I made it my job to back up all the claims with documentation, and prevent myself from fictionalizing parts of the story that couldn't be uncovered. I'm happy with the end result that I represented concerns of believers and skeptics alike.

HS: Has writing this book helped you learn about horses in general?

MR: Writing this book was definitely a crash course in a variety of horse-related subject matter and in horses in general. Before writing the book, I honestly didn't know the difference between Thouroughbred and Standardbred! Thankfully, the passion of true "horse people" opened vaults of knowledge for me. And within that population, there are so many different groups and sub-sets! I have much more to learn!

HS: What do you expect readers to gain from the book?

MR: Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key changed the mind of America in regard to prejudices towards animals, who were seen merely as beasts of burdon for human use and consumption, and toward people of color who were all too often seen as lower class citizens. My hope primarily is that readers allow their own prejudices to be challenged and to realize the power of kindness that can connect us more closely one to each other -- humans, horses, and all living creatures. Secondly, I hope to inspire readers to value history more!

HS: Why did you agree to write it?

From the moment that I read the synopsis of it, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I felt that Jim and Doc Key were haunting me, begging for their story to be told.

HS: Was it difficult to rediscover all that history?

MR: Frankly, it was not at all difficult to uncover the volumes of documentations of the biggest box office star of a century ago. It was like striking oil!

HS: What do you like best about the book?

MR: My favorite passages are those that have famous individuals in them - the scenes with President William McKinley, Princess Alice Roosevelt, and the encounters between Jim Key and the press. I felt as though I was right there when I was writing them and hope that readers have the same experience.

HS: What has been your most memorial experience while working on Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World?

MR: Getting to meet the different individuals who had a direct link to having heard about Jim and Doc Key from the Shelbyville area. When Congressman Jim Cooper looked me in the eye and said that he had grown up with hearing stories from his Dad (Governor Prentic Cooper) telling about how amazing it was to see Jim spell and "cite" Bible passages and debate politics, that made it all true and real for me. Jim Cooper said that he always thought his father had made up those stories, but he realized how unforgettable this horse truly was.

**A special thank you to Mimi Rivas for allowing Horse Spirit to interview her. For more information about Mimi and her works, visit**

To learn more about the book Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World, visit

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