Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The White Colt (aka Run Wild, Run Free)

There is a genre in Brit writing that I do not seem able to find in American writing. The style is slow and deliberate, the setting natural or artistic, the action minimal but vastly important. Rumer Godden, Joyce Stranger and Vian Smith all spring to mind. This book belongs too.

The White Colt (aka Run Wild, Run Free)

David Rook

1967, E.P. Dutton (Scholastic)

When the wind picked them up in its boisterous arms and threw them ahead of it, the colt would gallop like Pegasus, hooves hardly seeming to touch the ground, long mane lashing Philip's face. At such times a horse's body takes on a quality that is almost terrifying... Speed, so remote in a car or an aeroplane, is suddenly an intensely personal reality.

A teenager who shies away from human contact becomes obsessed with a wild pony on the moors. When the pony vanishes, a neighbor helps Philip get over the loss by interesting him in falconry. Through their friendship, the boy begins to lose his fearful, odd ways and drifts closer to human society.

A very patient book that takes its time, returning often to the same problems and story instead of branching off into new ones. Philip's condition, which appears similar to autism, improves with aching, realistic slowness, as do his relationships with falcon and pony.

Practical Information

A lot on falconry, but some on riding a horse, including a wonderful section on learning to ride.


Philip -grey Dartmoor pony colt


The farmer and the retired military man are heroic, the little gray lawyer is deeply limited, unable to deal with people. The mother is clutching and clinging and someone initially dismisses her as the problem with the boy, but it seems more likely the remote father had something to do with a similarly remote child.

Other Information

Made into a film by Columbia, "Run Wild, Run Free" with John Mills, Sylvia Sims, Bernard Miles and Mark Lester.

IMDB for film

Other Books
The Ballad Of The Belstone Fox - also made into a film, The Belstone Fox
Neeka The Kestrel
Free Spirit
The White Ghost
Birds - Strange And Exotic

About the Author
Rook appears to have been an artist as well as a writer; he's listed as illustrator for several books, including some by Joyce Stranger.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saddle A Thunderbolt

Saddle A Thunderbolt

Jo Sykes, il. Jo Sykes (cover)

1967, Funk & Wagnalls

"I guess everybody's tried to catch him at one time or another... He's running with a wild sorrel mare, though, and I do mean wild. She's got a brand, but I bet she hasn't seen the inside of a corral in twenty years. Trying to trap her is about like trying to catch rainwater with a sieve. And Rival's become just like her."

A year after his rancher father broke his back, 17-year-old Bruce Hubbard is alone on the failing family spread. His dad's having another operation, his mother is keeping him company and his brothers are tending their own families. It's up to Bruce to keep the place going in the meantime, but he has a string of bad luck. First he loses the family's prized racehorse, Buttermilk, whose reliable winning of the annual Cowboy Race each summer helped the ranch stay alive despite pressure from the neighboring Heart Seven Ranch to sell out. Then he has a fight witht he Heart Seven's owner, Ross Adams, and his spoiled son Wesley, over their attempts to capture the wild Arabian stallion Rival.

Rival lay less than fifty feet beyond the spring. The ground beneath the stallion was worn bare and looked as hard and smooth as a concrete sidewalk. The deadly lariat still encircled the once sleek neck. The hulk of Wesley's saddle lay in a clump of brush, lodged between two boulders.

Events bring Bruce into ownership of Rival, but he soon has cause to say "If things ever break right for me, I won't know how to act." Twists and turns put Bruce ever in hopes of having a mount for the race - but the mount keeps changing.

Very much a western, but more horse-oriented than many westerns. Injun and Old Sorrel, a cagey wild mare, are particularly vivid. Bruce makes a nice, stoic fledgling cowboy who, with the help of the slight but powerful cowboy Dandy, stands up to the truly unpleasant Adams clan and works to rescue the ranch.

Interesting training methods are used to break Geronimo of lashing out with his hind legs; I don't know how realistic or humane they are, but they're convincing. As is the need for some training.

The farmer took off his shapeless western hat and sailed it at the gelding's rump. Quick as lightning, the horse lashed out with both hind feet, stopped the hat in mid-air and slammed it back across the corral. "He doesn't just kick; he aims," Tucker said. "I believe he'd kill a man if he could."

Of course, it all comes down to a most unusual race.

Although relatively flat, it was not the kind of race course that would appeal to breeders of Thoroughbreds. Here and there the gravel of an old river bed came through the thin soil cover. Dry washes and scattered patches of brush created hazards known only to the range-bred horses.


Injun - black mare

Buttermilk - dun gelding

Pluto - bay gelding, pack horse

Bedouin Chief's Rival - 12-year-old bay Arabian stallion

Old Sorrel - sorrel mustang mare

Carousel - palomino gelding

Geronomio - 4-year-old buckskin gelding

Sundowner - 5-year-old

Sinner - sorrel gelding

Ben Blue - grey stallion

Little Bee - mare

Scamp - yellow shepherd dog

Other Books - horses

The Stubborn Mare 1957

Chip On His Shoulder 1961

Trouble Creek 1963

Other Books - dogs

Wolf Dog Of Ambush Canyon 1959

Leashed Lightning 1969

About the Author

Jo Sykes was born in American Falls, Idaho, and bought her first horse as a teenager. She worked as a cattle hand for ten years. She settled down near Livingston, Montana, where she was a a founding member of the Gallatin Dog Club and breeder of Smooth Fox Terriers.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Horse To Love
Nancy Springer
1987, Harper & Row

Erin Calahan is shy and a loner at school, but somehow when she is spotted, gazing longingly into the pastures, by the crotchety owner of a Morgan horse farm nearby, she musters the courage to speak. And eccentric Lexie Bromer unexpectedly agrees to teach her to ride. When Erin talks her father into letting her buy a horse, Lexie finds her a grey mare who Erin renames Spindrift. Erin's estatic, but reality quickly hits. Spindrift is a sensible sort of horse, and suitable as a mount, but she's also cranky, what horse people call 'mareish' and doesn't appear to have read the same books about loving, affectionate horses.

A warm feeling filled her, and she suddenly reached up and rubbed the mare's neck just behind her ears. Horses were supposed to like having their necks and withers rubbed... Spindrift put all her feet down flat and swung her head away as far as the cross ties would allow.

I confess, I've never been a fan of Springer's books - they remind me of Lynn Hall in their solid plotting, strong characterization and dispiriting insistence on stolid reality - her characters always say 'cripes' and are jerked back to earth from any flights of fancy. More to the point, this drumming in of reality seems to cut off any chance for a fluid writing style. The style is very plain and very choppy. It doesn't invite.

I do love the way that plain, matter-of-fact style gives plenty of room to solid, realistic horsekeeping chores and riding issues. I believe it's the only horse book I've ever read to show the heroine cleaning a horse's dock and udder. And the handling scenes are a balm to anyone still bitter about Alec's effortless partnership with the Black.

Spindrift saw a patch of tall grass at the end of the lane and rushed ahead. Without having to think, Erin tightened her grip on the lead so as not to lose her horse. The chain drew snug under Spindrift's chin, and Erin remembered what to do next. She gave it a jerk. "Whoa!" she ordered, pronouncing it "ho," the way Aunt Lexie did.

And, after the barn-sour mare bolts dangerously toward her stall, the author actually applies the crop;

It took ten minutes. Spindrift moved once the crop was in Erin's hand - she had seen it. But she scooted backward, danced sideways, balked and spun in her efforts to stay by the barn. Once forced near the ring, she refused the gate until Erin sent her through with a hard kick, a lick, and a yell. Erin had never fought with a horse before, and the whole process was against her way of thinking that the horse should be her friend, friend, friend.

Another thing - I love the description of Erin's bedroom:

There was a green-ribcord spread on the bed, a big Sam Savitt poster of all the horse breeds on the wall above it, a complete paperback set of all the Black Stallion stories on the bookshelf, and a herd of Breyer model horses, small ones collected over a dozen birthdays and Christmases, on the dresser...

This, plus about 500 other books, pretty much sums up my girlhood bedroom as well. Did any of the horse-mad of certain generations not have the Savitt poster?

William - red roan grade gelding (QH mix?)
Bianca/Spindrift - grey mare

Other books
Not On A White Horse (1988)
They're All Named Wildfire (1989)
Colt (1991)
The Great Pony Hassle (1993)
The Boy On A Black Horse (1994)
Sky Rider (1999)

Springer is also included in the anthology Horses, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

About the Author
Springer was born in 1948 in NJ. Her considerable output includes mysteries, adult and science fiction, but fantasy is the clear winner.

Sam Savitt poster of horse breeds
The American Morgan Horse Association
Breyer Horses website

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Movie v. Book - Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit (2003)
Dir: Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper

I think it's better to break a man's leg than his heart. 
I was crippled for the rest of my life. I got better. He made me better. Hell, you made me better.
You know everyone thinks we got this broken down horse and fixed him. But we didn't.
He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we fixed each other, too.

And the cheesey pièce de résistance:

You don't throw away a whole life just 'cause it's banged up a little.

The complex story of the Thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit and his 'connections' as they are called in racing, and Laura Hillenbrand's good book, did not deserve the thin, scared treatment they receive in this shiny, shallow film. I have no objection to a filmmaker changing a book -they are two very different mediums, they need to change them. But the changes here served not to streamline and strengthen the story for a visual media with a briefer audience relationship, but to water down the material beyond any but purely visual enjoyment. For the movie is beautiful. It's just the writing that kills.

The story is this: in the early 20th century, Charles Howard becomes one of California's first car salesmen and a wealthy man, but the death of his son destroys his marriage and his certainty about the world. He is wandering, looking for new distractions, when he remarries and begins to dabble in horse racing. He finds an oddball old cowboy named Tom Smith, who finds him a soured racehorse called Seabiscuit, and they end up hiring a jockey named Red Pollard to pilot him. And the horse, a reject from the stables of one of America's finest racehorse trainers, begins to win. And wins a match race against the Triple Crown winner War Admiral. And breaks down in his quest for the richest horse race on earth, Santa Anita Park's $100,000 stakes race. And stages a comeback alongside his jockey, also badly injured in a riding accident.

A compelling story, which Hillenbrand amps up by also including the story of Depression-era America, and how Seabiscuit's rags-to-riches story became a popular tale across the ragged country. The filmmakers seem to have perceived it as if they were aliens dimly aware that humans find abused animals and heartwarming tales of heroics appealing, but lacking in any sense of subtlety or lightness. The hamhandedness with which the major conflicts are handled is astounding.

In the film, a foal is loaded into a truck while his mother whinnies and races the fence line in distress. In reality, Seabiscuit was a yearling, six months past weaning, when he was shipped to the legendary trainer 'Sunny' Jim Fitzsimmons's stables at Aqueduct to begin training as a racehorse.

In film and reality, the colt's sire, Hard Tack, was famous as a rogue, that rare horse who is deliberately dangerous to humans, and his offspring were treated with caution. But in reality, the reasons Seabiscuit was trained and raced so hard by Fitzsimmons were more complicated than that they simply hated his father. The colt, though not aggressive like Hard Tack, had a similarly pugnacious personality; he simply wouldn't play ball; lazing around the track instead of working hard. Years later, Tom Smith would figure him out; Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons never did. He apparently had jockeys use the whip liberally - which was unusual for him - to try to persuade the big lug to run faster. Seabiscuit did have a hard time as a young racehorse; he was raced a lot, he was raced hard, and he was used pretty hard. This in no way excuses the line given to Red Pollard when he tells another jockey not to use the whip because 'they hit him there when he was a baby.'
War Admiral, portrayed almost villainously in the film as a huge and pampered favorite, was actually a smaller horse (15'2 hands, not 18.)

And here I throw up my hands and give up. With one more note - the score was so over the top, so smary, so rousing and insistent, that the filmmaker should have been jailed for it. Give the audience a little room to decide when the break out the hankies, for god's sake.

Tobey Maguire was good as Red Pollard, and Chris Cooper as Tom Smith. I generally like William H. Macy, but the invention of Tick Tock McGlaughlin was misguided.

Real jockey Gary Stevens played George Woolf in the film. Stevens, who's won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby and the Breeders' Cup, retired in 2005.

Gary Stevens' website with movie information
IMDB - Seabiscuit
Universal trailer
The actual 1938 match race on YouTube
The 1940 Santa Anita Handicap on YouTube
Photo of War Admiral
Photo of Seabiscuit
Santa Anita Park website