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Books about Seabiscuit, and Man o' War, and Mustang Annie – I read them all

Worn, solid, absolute

I admit this wincing: For a time I was one of those little girls who lives for horses. Since living was for me largely a matter of reading, the obsession took the form of reading books about horses. The wince comes from the GREATLY OVERRATED sexual component of the girls/horses phenomenon, which makes it a subject of snickering for some. But the horse thing has more to do with the idea of horses than with the horses themselves.

My equine period started before words, with the pictures in a big book of poetry for children edited by Louis Untermeyer. The binding was beige. I couldn't get it out of the shelf myself. It filled my whole lap. There were ink illustrations of horses, accompanying fragments from Shakespeare and the Bible. Something about nostrils flaring and laughing at the trumpets and sayeth-ing ha ha!

The fairy tales I was soon spending most daylight hours immersed in were rife with horses. The fairy-tale horse is strong, noble, beautiful, loyal. You escape on a horse. On his back, you triumph. You charge to the top of glass mountains, fly to magic gardens, win kingdoms and princesses. Your horse, as in The Goose Girl, is a personal savior. His head nailed above a gateway, he counsels you in your sorrow, saves you from the treachery of wicked maidservants and the like, and punishes those maidservants by dragging them up and down the street — "naked, inside a barrel studded with nails," as I proudly read one lunchtime to my astonished mother — until they are dead.

Most importantly, however, when you're on a horse's back you are taller than adults.

My first real horse novel was Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. The story line, amplified and repeated in dozens of later works by countless authors, runs as follows: boy (or, more rarely, girl) meets broken-down yet nobly bred horse. Boy befriends horse. Boy nurses horse back to health and championship form. Boy and horse have adventures involving scary storms and wounded animals. Wicked men, sometimes in collusion with boy's father, take horse away. Horse suffers humiliations and pain and is in short order condemned to cat food factory. Boy saves horse, sometimes in collusion with older, rough yet soft-hearted ranch hand. Boy and horse return, win big race/dressage event/rodeo. Horse retires to green pasture.

Of a gentler nature were C.W. Anderson's Blaze stories. Anderson began writing these picture books in the '30s, and they are filled with full-page, delicate pencil illustrations of "Billy" astride "Blaze" (in English saddle, a distinction that became important to me for some reason). Blaze, as I recall, was a bay pony with four white feet and a white nose. Billy was perfect. His life was perfect. He never had anything to cry about or wish for in other than the most remote, polite fashion. The Blaze books' titles tell the tale: Blaze Finds the Trail, Blaze and the Lost Quarry, Blaze Shows the Way, Blaze Finds Forgotten Roads, to name a few. Not real meaty stuff. The climactic moment in Blaze and the Gray Spotted Pony for example, occurs when Blaze, searching with Billy for an elusive gray-spotted pony (a birthday present for little Tommy), gives a loud snort and pulls away from Billy, indicating a passing trailer inside which is the gray-spotted pony.

One Saturday my father went to a library book sale. He came home with a carton of books, every one of them about horses. The covers were worn and the bindings split, which alone seemed to make them worth reading. Brumby the Wild Stallion by Mary Elwyn Patchett. Star Roan. Lonesome Sorrel. Walter Farley's Black Stallion. Some of Marguerite "Misty of Chincoteague" Henry's books like King of the Wind, a historical novel about the Arabian Thoroughbred, set, oddly, in the same alternate universe as the purely fictional (I think) Misty. Books about Seabiscuit, and Man o'War, and Mustang Annie, a girl who got polio and was in a body cast for a long time and then saved the wild mustangs of Nevada.

Each of the books had been stamped with a perforated phrase that I read as "worn, solid, absolute." It summed up my feelings about horses, and books, perfectly.

I read them all. Then I divvied the books into stacks of horse stories versus pony stories, reshuffled them into Western saddle versus English saddle. I laid them out in rows on the bedroom rug and set atop each one the Breyer horse model (I had more than a dozen) most appropriate to the title. I had Barbie and Ken act out scenes. Despite these riches, my horse obsession remained unsatisfied.

My second-grade friend Torrey Barnes got a pony for her birthday. Actually, she was just a passing acquaintance until she got the pony, which made her extremely attractive. She told me she just asked for it, and her mom worked overtime two weekends to pay for it. I tried a fit of wild sobbing on my mother's bed. I drew pictures of horses and left them in strategic locations. I began a campaign of whining a melancholy "ho-o-o-orse ..." every time we'd pass one while on a car trip. I read the classified ads under Livestock aloud to my father: 4-1/2 yr. Palo. geld. 15-1/2 hands. Saddle broke. Gentle with children. Negot. A wasted effort, as neither one of us knew what the shorthand meant. I mimicked Dean Jones's screen daughter in Disney's Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit who cries, "But Daddy, I want a horse more than anything else in the whole world!" and flees up a curving colonial staircase. In place of the staircase, I slammed the front door. Life not being a movie, I didn't get to see the reaction. But I didn't get a horse.

Eventually I gave up on my parents. We moved to the city. My reading interests branched out. I continued to read horse books, about horse grooming and care — Show to Win; Heads Up, Heels Down; and So You Want a Horse. I learned to recognize the parts of the tack, the difference between a snaffle bit and a shank. I learned the major points of confirmation, like the poll, fetlocks, and withers, using my cat as a stand-in.

At my new school, I met a girl who was even horse crazier. She claimed to have a horse, a big, black horse with a white blaze and one white sock. I asked her its name, and she told me it was a secret. She promised to take me riding on it. Monday after Monday for weeks she would tell me her folks would bring it to City Heights Park that weekend for us to ride. By Wednesday or Thursday, she'd be saying the truck broke down, or we needed special permits to ride it in the city, or the horse was sick and couldn't make it. She also claimed to have an invisible wall safe in her bedroom. I decided she was a pathological liar.

When did it all end? I don't remember. Sometimes those obsessions fade without your even noticing. I have a book my father bought me, called The Horse in the West. Brown Leatherette binding, now watermarked from serving as a platform for a potted plant in later years. The inscription, in my father's careful block letters, reads To Mary, Happy Eighth Birthday. Dad. So it must have been about then.

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