Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

As they entered the partially harvested, moonlit cornfield, Cricket snorted and swung her head from side to side. She eyed with alarm the stalks of dried corn that stood like skeletons of their former selves. The wind sent the dead leaves into a frenzy of rustling, like the clicking of miniature bones. Dustin pressed his heels into the mare's sides, but she refused to move faster than a nervous prance.
"Haunted Hayride" in the anthology A Horse For All Seasons by Sheila Kelly Welch (1994)

With a jack o'lantern glowing out front and a surprising number of children trick-or-treating to the house (including one girl dressed as an equestrian! true story!), I am driven to a holiday posting. However, I do not have a suitable review and, inexplicably, horse books with a Halloween theme are thin on the ground, outside series books. In the short story quoted above, however, I hit a perfect connection to my last post; in Welch's tale, a teenage hayride goes awry when the organizer's little brother swipes her barrel-racing mare and stages a little Headless Horseman action.

Mr. McFadden's Halloween by Rumer Godden (1975)
Phantom Rider: Ghost Horse by Janni Lee Simner
Phantom Rider: The Haunted Trail by Janni Lee Simner(1996)
Phantom Rider: Ghost Vision by Janni Lee Simner(1996)
The Saddle Club: Horse Magic (#47) by Bonnie Bryant (1995)
The Saddle Club: Ghost Rider (#24) by Bonnie Bryant (1992)
The Great Pumpkin Ride by Laura Hesse (2004)
Riding Academy: Mary Beth's Haunted Ride by Alison Hart (1994)
Pony Tails: Corey And The Spooky Pony by Bonnie Bryant (1996)
Animal Ark: Pony In A Pumpkin Patch (#49) by Ben M. Baglio (2006)

Ghost Stories with Horse
Mystery Horse by Margaret Goff Clark (1972)
Gypsy And The Moonstone Stallion by Sharon Wagner (1980)
The Mystery Of The Crimson Ghost by Phyllis A. Whitney (1969)
Sydney's Ghost by Carol Iden (1969)
The Ghost Pony by Lynn Hall (1978) (aka The Mystery Of Pony Hollow)
Ghost Horse by George Edward Stanley (2000)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Headless Horseman

In college, I had a job as a witch at a Halloween hayride. We witches lurked in a dark corner of woods and when a wagon meandered past, we charged out and pretended to attack, screaming and cackling and clawing at the customers. Around 9pm, the kids and adolescents were replaced by teens and young adults, often drunk, who fought back with screaming insults and beer bottles. The tractor would carry them away before anyone got mauled, chugging off through the low, wet fields to do battle with the zombies next door. On busy nights, we'd be chasing one wagon as the next appeared behind us, and we'd have to roar back to the cauldron (which periodically caught on fire), on weekends the local cops would drive through, grinning, to round up an ornerier-than-usual customer. On slow nights, we'd walk down the road to visit with the neighbors - Freddy Krueger, Frankenstein's Monster, the zombies, the mad scientist and his victim. It paid minimum wage, but all in all, it was a highly satisfying job. The only downside was that I was on the opposite side of the property from the Headless Horseman, whose black horse I sometimes glimpsed as I drove into the parking lot.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1801-1881)
Oil, 26 7/8 x 33 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Public domain via Wikimedia commons

The animal he bestrode was a broken down plow horse that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness He was gaunt and shagged with a ewe neck and a head like a hammer his rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burrs one eye had lost its pupil and was glaring and spectral but the other had the gleam of a genuine devil in it Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day if we may judge from his name which was Gunpowder.

Google Books - The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Circus Doctor (1951) - nonfiction

I was standing at a bus stop in Philadelphia once, waiting dreamily for my ever-tardy public transit choice to heave into view through a spring rain, when an unusually designed truck stopped in front of me for a red light. And a small elephant looked out the half-open side door. I gazed in at the elephant, the elephant gazed out at the bus stop, the light changed, and we all went back to our lives. The circus, obviously, was in town.

I've never really liked circuses; the massive Ringling operation, the folksy modern-day tent shows, and the animal-less Cirque all leave me cold. That is, the shows leave me cold. The idea of being part of the circus, on the other hand, is fabulous. All that color and drama to take you away from drab and sordid reality. From Toby Tyler to The Greatest Show On Earth, I've always been a sucker for a circus story.

Plus, classic circus stories are like Westerns; even when they're bad, they have horses.

Circus Doctor

J.Y. Henderson, told to Richard Taplinger

1951, Little, Brown and Company

... the circus's biggest preoccupation was with its horses: Ringling Brothers had a fortune tied up in what was undoubtedly the most beautiful collection of horses in the world. They wanted everything possible done for the rest of their animals too, but experience had taught them that they couldn't expect that to be too much.

In September, 1941, John Ringling North called a young veterinarian and offered him a job. The vet, Henderson, was a partner in a mixed small/large animal practice in Louisiana, and suffering from the physical effects of anthrax. Fascinated by the idea of the circus and believing that the recent advances in veterinary medicine mean a chance to pioneer in the field of exotic animal care, he accepted.

In Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey's winter quarters in Sarasota, Henderson is wary of his new, dangerous charges and takes comfort in the familiar:

On three sides of us there were open stalls, and on the fourth were box stalls where the most favored horses were kept. In the immediate center of the corral were patches of grass decorated with palm trees and a large watering trough... I examined the broad-beamed Percherons, smaller neat hackneys, smart American saddle horses, wild Arabians, the standard-bred horses, stockinged Clydesdales, and Andalusians.

Of course, Henderson treats the wild animals: the bears, which he discovers almost always need worming; the big cats, which seem to have a downright equine knack for strange accidents; a chocolate-loving hippo; and the elephants, who have a tendency to become footsore through walking on concrete so often. He and his wife even raise a particularly winning baby leopard, Sweetheart. His secret to treating animals seems to have been an exacting interest in details. He watches every horse act from the sidelines, noting each small incident like a horse bumping a leg on the ring, and treating the slight bruise before it can get bad. Fascinated by the wild animals, he spends time getting to know them and their trainers.

The busiest place in the world is not a beehive. It is not found by watching the ways of an ant, nor is it an army preparing for an invasion. The busiest place on earth is the grounds of a gigantic circus, two weeks before hitting the road for an eight-month season.

In that first year, with the value of vaccinations still in question, Henderson confidently tells the Norths that vaccinating the circus's 200+ horses will prevent the annual losses to shipping fever and sleeping sickness. That was a success. His attempt to halter two llamas for the parade was not.

While the pen boys stood there laughing, the two llamas chased me all over the pen. I was chastened and emerged unvictorious after being sprayed by both of them from head to foot.

Then there's the frankly alarming camel story, which I don't particularly care to relate in detail. Suffice it to say, camels appear to be extremely open-minded about personal matters most animals tend to regard with a great deal of jealousy. Henderson, perhaps because of this or because camels are just uncooperative patients, says:

I'd gladly walk a mile to keep from operating on a camel.

A year after he joins the circus, Henderson has an experience which irrevocably changes the way he views animals. On an August morning in Cleveland, a flash fire sweeps the menagerie tent, leaving animals dead, dying and badly hurt. Shocked by the aftermath, Henderson is impressed with both the stoicism of the badly hurt creatures and the willingness of those uninjured to go on with the show that night.

I knew then there is something in animal make-up akin to greatness in men. It is not just their size or their swiftness; their fierceness or their power. There is an inner nobility and a kinship to what is enduring in nature.

This is a essentially a collection of moments connected by quick throwaway lines about non-circus life. Henderson went into WWII in 1944 and served until 1946, rejoing the circus with his new wife, Martha, an aerialist. A few pages sum up their courtship, a paragraph goes to the war. A serviceable style, which supports but doesn't elevate the interesting stories, but which allows the author's humor and likeability to come through, and gives space to his passionate and sometimes elequent conclusions. Obviously dated, and some comments are a little depressing, as when he notes that the circus's horses are never put out into a pasture to graze.

And finally, it is a testament to the power of horses to do truly odd, arguably idiotic things that in a book filled with escaping lions, runaway giraffes and very angry gorillas, many of the most memorable mishaps have to do with the horses. A saddle horse, waiting on the ramp into Madison Square Garden, gets her hoof caught in her mouth. A liberty stallion decides to climb the bleachers, reaching the top row before deciding this was a bad idea. An absent-minded parade horse bumps into the tiger's cage and nearly gets scalped.


Billboard magazine article about the Cleveland fire (8/15/1942)

C. Lee Martin et al blog - covers roughly the same period with Ringling

Buckles Blog - covers circus history, features a photo of McClain's elephants

Buckles Blog - photo of Henderson

Circus Historical Society

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) - IMDB

Toby Tyler by James Otis

Other equine info

Henderson was apparently friendly with the Klebergs of the King Ranch, and their vet J.K. Northway, who recommended him to North. Ringling Bros., often bought King Ranch Quarter Horses for their show.


John Ringling North - owner of the circus

Dr. J.K. Northway - vet of the King Ranch

Alfred Court - animal trainer

Damoo Dhotre - trainer

John Sabo - menagerie superintendent

Dick Clemens - cat trainer

Walter McClain - elephant trainer

Rudolph Mathies - tiger trainer

Justino Loyal - horse act

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Very Young Rider (1977)

A Very Young Rider

Jill Krementz, author and photographer

1977, Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf

This oversized photo essay chronicling the experiences of young rider Vivi Malloy is a classic much beloved by women who were horse-obsessed girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Beautiful, evocative black-and-white photos illustrate the everyday chores, training and life of 10-year-old Vivi and her chestnut pony Ready Penny. We also meet Vivi's family, trainer and various friends, and travel to horse shows where Vivi and her older sister Debby are competing. The action is narrated by Vivi, whose voice alternates between matter-of-fact steadiness about chores and riding, and gleeful excitement about special events like a trip to a big horse show.

Vivi is shown participating in Pony Club and doing chores common to all who own horses, but the core of the book is her participation in the world of elite hunter/jumper horse shows. Debby is in training with George Morris, former Olympic rider and de facto god of the hunter/jumper world, and Vivi's trainer is his assistant. Vivi and her sister show at Devon, Lake Placid, Harrisburg, Washington D.C., and Madison Square Garden - the cream of the horse show crop.

Plenty of women remember this book fondly; it's a very beautiful book and that alone made it attractive to a whole range of kids, from those who had Vivi-like aspirations of going to the big show to those who just yearned for their own pony. I was one of the latter and I found the whole show aspect alien; not negative but unimportant. It was the day-to-day routine of her and the pony I found so appealing, as well as the obvious bond between Vivi and Penny.

If you were/are into showing, though, it was catnip. The horse show sequences are a who's who of that era's show world: Gordon Wright, Frank Chapot, George Morris, Michael Matz, Buddy Brown, Kathy Kusner, Bert de Nemethy, Rodney Jenkins.

It is dated now beyond the bell-bottoms and the harness-free velvet helmets:

I love cotton candy but it's so fattening. When I get older like Debby, I'll have to go on a diet. Debby's always on a diet or else George gets after her. Once she went on a pure liquid diet and almost fainted in school. I have to watch my weight now a little bit. You don't want to get too heavy for your pony. There's nothing uglier than a fat rider on a horse.

Granted, this is a book of its time and that time was blithely unaware of the dangers of encouraging teenage and adolescent girls to obsess over calories to the point of fainting. Still, that last little tidbit is telling. Morris is nearly as famous for his outspoken personality as for his riding and coaching, and he has long had a very strong opinion on weight. As times changed and possibly as he mellowed, he's toned it down, but the stories that circulate about his youthful comments are hair-raising. Worth seeking out, by comparison, is his monthly jumping critique at Practical Horseman magazine, as well as the happy parody of same at Hillbilly Farms.

About the author

Jill Krementz (1940-___)

A New Jersey native, she was married to Kurt Vonnegut.

Other Books

A Very Young Dancer

A Very Young Skater

A Very Young Circus Flyer

A Very Young Actress

A Very Young Gardener

A Very Young Gymnast

A Very Young Musician

A Very Young Skier

How It Feels To Be Adopted

How It Feels When A Parent Dies

How It Feels To Fight For Your Life

How It Feels When Parents Divorce

How It Feels To Live With A Physical Disability

A Visit To Washington D.C.

Holly's Farm Animals

Jamie Goes On An Airplane

Lily Goes To The Playground

Zachary Goes To The Zoo

Sweet Pea: A Black Girl Growing Up In The Rural South

Black Writers

The Jewish Writer

The Writers Image

Writers Unbound

Links - the author

New York Social Diary - a bit about Krementz appears halfway down the page


Links - about the book

A May 1995 article about the book and its subjects at The Chronicle Of The Horse magazine. Extremely interesting, as it discovers what happened to everyone, ponies included; a pony nerd dream.

George Morris at Practical Horseman

Parody of GM's column at Hillbilly Farms

National Horse Show - originally at Madison Square Garden

The Devon Horse Show

Derby Hill, Buddy Brown's h/j training stable in California

Rodney Jenkins at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Michael Matz at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

George Morris at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Gordon Wright at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Frank Chapot at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Kathy Kusner at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Bert de Nemethy at The Showjumping Hall of Fame

Sports Illustrated article about Dennis Murphy in the 1974 National Horse Show

Longview Farms, Dennis Murphy's h/j training barn in Alabama