F is for Farley: Young Girls and Horses

Young girls are reputedly fascinated by horses. As a child, I sort of fell into this category and sort of didn't.

Why I Did

1. I read and reread Walter Farley's The Black Stallion. It was one of the first books I ever read to myself without stopping. I recently picked it up again and had the same experience. I then rewatched the Coppola movie which is nowhere near as fast-paced. However, I enjoyed it! The Coppola movie is not a true rendering of the book (although it follows the plot fairly closely) but more a nostalgic rendering of one's memory of the book--more on this later.

2. I took horseback riding lessons as a teen, thanks to my parents. My foray into jockey-dom didn't last, mostly because, well, they were lessons. I found riding around in a circle with the proper posture to be almost as dull as walking around in a circle with a book on my head. The most exciting event occurred when I lost control of my rather sedate horse (not on purpose) and went flying around the track. The trainers were mad; I was thrilled (but wisely didn't say so).

That's me in the blue pants.
About a year or so later, my parents and I were in Colorado and ended up taking a day-trip in the mountains on horses. No previous experience was required although since I had some, I used it. It was incredibly fun!! I've never enjoyed myself so much. I rode this huge animal with next to no control up and down trails that I am sure the horse had taken a million times before. Probably the most exciting thing for my horse was that in those days, I still weighed under 100 lbs. ("How's it going, Bert?" "Well, I got this flea on my back, but otherwise, no problems, Fred.")

So I enjoy riding horses though I haven't the discipline to do it seriously. 

Why I Didn't

1. I read no other horse books, not even Farley's many, many books (The Black Stallion Returns, The Black Stallion and Flame, The Black Stallion Goes to Vegas, The Black Stallion Does His Taxes--okay, I made up the last two). Many, many, many years later, I read the exhilarating Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, which I recommend. And I did read Black Beauty at some point: if Farley is the action-packed adventure horse story, Black Beauty is the look-at-all-that-scenery horse story. I barely remember it.

2. I collected zero My Little Pony trinkets.

In fact, I don't think I even had horse stuffed animals. My animal-of-choice as a child was cats: I had cat wallpaper, cat stuffed animals, cats in the house, and I read (and enjoyed) The Incredible Journey. However, despite the cat fetish (which I suppose never went away), I was never a fan of books exclusively about animals or even primarily about animals. I am human-centric when it comes to reading.

Back to The Black Stallion

Part of the wonder of The Black Stallion is the relationship between animal and human. What is so fascinating about this explanation is that the relationship is far less mystical in the book than anyone ever remembers. In fact, based on my oh, so extensive Wikipedia research, Farley himself appears to have endowed both the Black and Alec with a more mystical bond in later books.

In the initial book, the bond certainly exists--but there's a strong thread of pragmatism about how horses actually get trained. Alec gets thrown many more times than in the movie, and he never fully tames the Black, getting kicked by him at least once (in the movie, probably for safety reasons, the horse being used was a show American Stallion, Cass Ole, about whom people are constantly milling). Alec barely handles the Black on the racetrack (Farley does a thorough job expounding on the sheer stamina and upper body strength that a jockey needs to control a horse: Alec doesn't control the Black; he simply hangs on. In Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand argues, with reason, that jockeys are the strongest athletes in the world).

One of the most exciting vignettes
in the book and movie.
Moreover, in the book, Alec is a far more ordinary kid than he became later.  He loves his parents, including his not-dead dad. He's glad to be home. He goes back to school and invites his friends to come see his horse. He never questions using Black to win a race. The loner/man-fighting-for-a-horse's-soul qualities came later.

But the mystical relationship, particularly Alec's intuitive understanding of the Black IS the book's takeaway. Somehow. It was my takeaway long before I saw the movie. It was my memory of the book long after I read it. I was actually a little surprised reading it this time around.

Farley is the ultimate show don't tell writer and I think through sheer forceful imagery, he conveyed an idea/feeling that I doubt he was fully aware of until later.

In any case, the book has stood the test of time remarkably well. It is a stunning good read!

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I went through a horsey phase when I was around 10. It wasn't the Black Stallion books that appealed to me, though--in fact, I don't think I read one until I was a mother reading to my daughter. (We went to the Saratoga Race Track for the first time afterwards, as a field trip.) Marguerite Henry was my favorite author as a child. "King of the Wind" (a Newbery award winner) was my top choice, but I also liked "Misty of Chincoteague," "White Stallion of Lipizza," and "Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio." Henry's books were somewhat romanticized. When I got a little older I enjoyed K.M. Peyton's novel "Fly-by-Night," about a very ordinary girl who acquires a horse and the struggles she goes through. I never got to take riding lessons--I'm the oldest of 7 (Kate is the youngest) and my parents didn't have enough time or money to indulge me.--Ann

Katherine Woodbury said...

My sister Ann has conveniently forgotten that our parents attended her college graduation; they did not attend mine. She has also conveniently forgotten that I attended all of my older siblings concerts, plays, ballgames, etc. etc. etc. alongside my parents. Very few of them attended my plays, concerts, and speeches, and my parents attended less than 1/2 of my track-meets. They were older, more tired, and didn't like to go out at night. (My siblings were at college or dealing with marriage and children.)

There is plenty of "I didn't get that" to go around--unfortunately, youngest children tend to get stereotyped as spoiled, so there is a perception--not a reality--of getting more than everyone else when the truth is the "more" (or the "less") simply changes character.

Joe said...

We didn't get taken to England, Kate, even if it was with Grandma's money. But, yes, by the time you were a teen, most of us were gone and paid little attention whereas we were all dragged to the endless concerts at school for our elder siblings.

If it's any consolation, our parents didn't attend my college graduation and neither did I, since I could afford it. Nobody came to any of my track meets. I think Dan was the spoiled one in this regard, at least in Little League.

Ah, but Kate also gets frequent, fairly decent, free Sunday dinners!

(BTW, Kate, did you know that the Bugaboo Creek Steak House we went to shut down? We must have pushed it over the edge.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

Oh, I won't argue that I benefited not only from Grandma's money and also from the freedom that comes with, shall we say, "neglect."

The free Sunday dinners are an outgrowth of me making my home available to our parents between the end of church (12:00) and the 2:15 ferry. We still usually meet at my house!

My point is that there's plenty of material to create any kind of story a person wants. Ah, the joys of parenthood! Don't ever let your children hold a conversation with you that starts, "Let me explain how you screwed up my life."

Yeah, I remember you mentioned that Bugaboo was declining. I'm not surprised! I suppose all the overgrown bushes should have hinted that it was the equivalent of a Wild, Wild West saloon on the edge of civilization (and served the equivalent food).

I remembered another horse-related event (the point of this post, BTW): before Peaks Island started killing off its deer, I encountered a huge, blithe stag wandering through town. It had a full antler, was over two feet taller than me, much heavier of course, and totally unafraid. What I remember most is BIG!!!!

The point being, horses, like deer, look cute and dainty, but they are really dangerous! When watching the movie The Black Stallion, the completely tame and trainable nature of the horse becomes rapidly apparent since there is absolutely no way a 13-year-old boy would have been allowed near a real wild horse--not in today's Hollywood anyway.

I pretended not to notice. Why ruin the fun?!

Joe said...

Coppola produced The Black Stallion (1979), but it was directed by Caroll Ballard (I remember the Ballard part and that the Cinematography was by Caleb Deschanel. But then thought, no J.G. Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun. So I looked it up. Turns out my memory wasn't so faulty after all.)

Caleb Deschanel's photography is always stunning, but especially so in this movie, likely because Carrol Ballard has a real sense of photography as well, as seen in Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home (Deschanel was DP on the latter.)

Joe said...

And Wind--not so good movie, but beautiful. John Toll was DP. Perhaps it's because he has such a good sense of the visual that he knows how to pick great photographers and isn't scared to do so.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, about half-way through The Black Stallion, I thought, "This is a movie of vistas . . . with a horse somewhere in the vista." Like Last of the Mohicans, it has that grand, movie feel--I can imagine seeing it in a movie theater (I did see it in a movie theater when I was six; I just don't remember--actually, I remember . . . the car ride to and from the theater, not the movie).

There's this scene where Mickey Rooney squats on his knees to speak to the quite-excellent Kelly Reno after the practice race in the rain. He is three feet from Alec (Reno), leaning slightly towards the boy who is slumped on a car's running board. The rain is plummeting down. In the background, two newspaper men speak under umbrellas; I think they are smoking, so there is a faint, flickering light. The rest of the light comes the cars' headlights.

I thought, "This makes no sense. The kid is soaked. Get him dry!"

Then I thought, "Wow. How beautiful."

A lot of scenes are like that. Watch that horse run!

Katherine Woodbury said...

I was 8, not 6. I don't remember seeing the movie, only that I did. I saw Star Wars when I was 6, and I know I loved the movie, but I'm not sure I remember seeing it. I do remember the lines outside the theater.

I remember seeing Empire Strikes Back (to which I was taken by one of my siblings :) at age 9 because I spent the entire time gripping the armrests. I was utterly terrified! But not disappointed.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to come across as complaining in my comment, Kate--"you got riding lessons, I didn't." I believe I also wanted to take figure skating lessons around that same time period. And I did have piano, clarinet and ballet. Mom and Dad couldn't provide everything to everybody, regardless of what order we came in in our family. Not only did it not work financially and time-wise, it wasn't necessarily appropriate to indulge every child's every fantasy. We only have one child and when she was taking dance lessons nearly every night during high school, I remember thinking, "How did our parents ever manage multiple children and all their activities?" When she was younger, we also made her pick between ballet and Tae Kwon Do--she couldn't do both. At any rate, every child's position in the family results in a slightly different perception and experience. I often resented being chief babysitter and chore-doer. (Mom actually apologized years later for making me her "little helper" starting when Eugene was born and I was just 3 years old.) I envied you your New York City and England trips. You were only 3 when I went to college, but when I was home I remember going to a lot of your school and church activities. P.S. For the record, Mom told me once that she regretted not rearranging their time and church commitments so that they could attend your college graduation.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, family dynamics being what they are, deciding who experienced what is extremely problematic. It's one reason I'm so suspicious of birth order theory--gaps in age make a difference (a child born after all the other siblings have left home, for example, like Heather S.) as do appearance and age within a peer group (taller, older kids within a peer group will take on many of the nurturing roles associated with older children, no matter where they come in their family), plus the nature of the family to begin with (nobody in our family got a car for his or her 16th birthday! plus my friends thought I lived in a wealthy neighborhood, which puzzled me for years: didn't they know I drank powdered milk for breakfast?). Some of my students have written about adopted children coming into a family and how that changes some dynamics but not others; other have written about having step-brothers and sisters.

And of course, fundamental personality makes a difference. Youngest children are supposedly worry-free. Since I was born into the world worrying about, well, everything from death to upsetting the next door neighbors to fire, and since I'm not the only youngest child I know who is like this, I've reached the conclusion that most nurture theories are fairly selective. (On the other hand, Ann, you remember everyone's birthdays, which is either an oldest child's trait or a librarian one!)

Despite my doubts about birth order, variations arising from a family's economics, physical home, home-life, work habits, outside associations, time period, age of family, age of parents, and siblings' ages definitely cause a family to change over time. There's no such thing as a static family!

I believe you were the one to take me to Empire Strikes Back, Ann. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire time (which leads into a whole other discussion about how memories are made: I remember the theater--unlike with The Black Stallion where I just remember the car--and I *think* I remember the music, specifically at the end. I have no clue if I remember the plot from then or from later viewings).

Joe said...

Birth order theory does match out family pretty well. As for the gaps, if I remember, a gap of seven years or more does a reset. Several forms of birth order theory also consider two children born within 12-18 months to be twins for order purposes. The theory also runs in cycles of groupings of three or four, which fit our family.

I'm a huge believer in nature over nuture, but nuture still has a profound effect on what nature set down. Birth order is one of those things. It's not really mysterious, but rather the reality of how parents deal with multiple children. Parents tend to be over cautious with their first and learn what not to worry about with each additional kid.

What makes this interesting with my kids is that Amanda was born with a very stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway personality while Alyssa was born with the opposite, which amplified the effects of oldest vs. youngest.

Besides, we shouldn't be complaining about Ann or Kate, but Henry.

FreeLiveFree said...

Not having ever been a girl (little or otherwise), I never went through a horse period.

I did go through a dog period though. I read any book with a dog in it. This was interesting since I was scared of dogs. My parents eventually got a dog and I got over my fear.

One thing about writing about animals is that people have a tendency to make them little furry people (or large hoved people.) This occasionally works in things like Warner Bros. cartoons, but more serious works really annoying.

One of the best portrayals of man-dog relationship is Robert Crais's mystery novel Suspect. In it Crais manages to give the dog a distinct personality while still be recognizably a dog. There are chapters from the dogs point of view that are probably as good as an approximation of how a dog "thinks" as is possible for a human being to imagine.

The mystery of the novel on the other hand was that good. If you read a couple of Crais's books you could figure it out beforehand.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Another good dog book is The Art of Racing in the Rain. The book is told from the dog's point of view and is limited to what a dog--even an intelligent, sentient dog--could actually know (in fact, it is implied that occasionally the dog is wrong about his conclusions). It is also one of those animal books that will make the reader cry! (But not in a totally depressing way.)

I recently got out the book Old Yeller. I figured, as long as I'm reading animal books, I might as well go for the classics. But I refuse to read Steinbeck's Red Pony. Yeah, they tried to get me to read that in high school and I refused! ("They" being the dreaded invisible conspiracy of high school administrators that force depressing books on high school students.)

FreeLiveFree said...

I have to remember how Old Yeller would be taken today. Readers don't like it when an animal dies in a book. More so than a human being.

(Spoiler Alert) Crais was told at a book signing by a fan that she was glad he did not kill the dog at the end of the book. He later realized he has about five PEOPLE die in the book.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I wonder if part of the difference is that plot-wise, readers consider people characters as fair game, but animals as off-limits (and therefore, open to being loved without qualification). In one early Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode, someone's wife is kidnapped (then killed off-screen) while walking her poodle--which turns up later (covered in forensical clues). I was intensely relieved. By the exigencies of the plot, the woman was fair game (SOMEONE has to die in the first five minutes--otherwise, no episode), but the dog?! No!!

It is, I will grant, a little warped :)

FreeLiveFree said...

Possibly, but it still seems weird.

Eugene said...

In John Wick, a professional assassin (retired) goes on a revenge killing spree because a bunch of thugs killed his dog (that was given to him by his deceased girlfriend, who died in a hospital of some tragic disease). Usually cinematic revenge killing sprees require higher stakes, but a cute dog will do.

Joe said...

What a dog thinks: Food, food, food, cat, food, food, tall thing that often has food, it has food! food.

(What a cat thing: you're all jerks. Feed and pet me anyway.

Katherine Woodbury said...

In Finding Nemo, the seagulls shriek, "Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!" I think cats think the same thing, only they are more subtle, coy, and sociopathic. They stare at you with their light-reflecting eyes and through their heads crawls the thought, "Miiiinnnnne."

Regarding animals v. people, I've been rewatching WKRP in Cincinnati seasons. There's an episode in season 3 where Johnny Fever gets mad because people are more upset about Herb's daughter's dying frog (that Herb spray-painted pink by mistake) than Johnny's cold. I watched the episode and thought, "Ah, how thematically relevant to other entertaining parts of my life!"