While Henry and Alec wait for a flight home, Henry tells the story of his older brother, Bill, a renowned horse
This book picks up pretty soon after the last, with Henry and Alec sitting and waiting for a flight home from Lisbon after racing for a while in Europe (after their insanity in…wherever it was Black Stallion Mystery was supposed to take place). To pass the time, Henry starts telling Alec about his oldest brother Bill (apparently there were five kids and Henry was the youngest). Bill was a horse tamer, and Alec assumes that means trainer and Henry says THEY ARE VERY DIFFERENT but doesn’t really explain how?
Anyway, here’s how Henry describes
the Dark Ages sixty years ago:
“Most everybody had a horse, y’know. It was about the only way of gettin’ from place to place. Yet few owners knew anything about horses except how to ride or drive ’em. When trouble arose, it was hard on both man and horse. That’s when they started lookin’ around for a horse-tamer.”
The entire narrative of this book is predicated on the idea that in Ye Olden Times (1880ish, based on context clues later), people were REALLY DUMB. Like, I will accept that a casual rider who sits on a horse in a lesson once a week might not have the tools to cope with a tricky horse, but surely someone who handled horses every single day and depended on them for livelihood would know…something? NOPE. Not according to Henry!
Anyway, we open on Henry – called Hank for some reason – as a young kid, apprenticed to his brother Bill, who is a carriage maker. The two are delivering a fancy carriage to its buyer, and Bill is driving his mare without a bridle. Cute gimmick, but as
Henry Hank keeps pointing out, maybe not while they’re transporting really expensive merchandise?
Predictably, the mare bolts when she hears the sound of a whip, and smashes the carriage. They’re fine, though, and go to investigate the sounds. A guy named Finn Caspersen, a peddler, is whipping his horse because he says the gelding either balks or bolts constantly.
Bill offers to take the gelding and trade it for another horse, train the gelding in the meantime, and then give Finn back his gelding. Just because. Bill has absolutely no business sense, which you’d think would cause problems except the book would like you to know that having no business sense is the PURE AND RIGHTEOUS path.
Bill is full of information about what other horse trainers might have done with the gelding, like this doozy:
“Some horsemen say,” he told Hank, “that the best remedy for a balker like this colt is to take osselets, or small bones, from his legs, dry and grate them fine, then blow a thimbleful into his nostrils.”
WHAT THE EVERLOVING FUCK. No really, WHAT THE FUCK. Perform surgery, grind up the bones, blow them into his nose, and startle him into moving him? WHAAAAAT.
I wish I could tell you that is the least questionable training practice in this book but JUST YOU WAIT.
Finn is amazed at how Bill cures his gelding (let’s be clear, he coaxes the horse forward, rewards him for going forward, and then does a little bit of work to figure out the horse doesn’t like the noises from the peddler’s wagon, so he uses some very basic positive reinforcement to get him over that, it’s not goddamn rocket science) and decides to have Bill try his luck with a mare named Wild Bess – oh, and he sells tickets to it.
Bill doesn’t like the idea of performing, but Finn tells him that it will be an opportunity to teach people how to handle horses, and Bill is all over it, because he is nothing if not a condescending ass. He has a System, you see, and he firmly believes that if everyone just knew his System, all horses would be better off. (Please note, he never actually does explain the System.)
So, Wild Bess.
He was anxious to see Wild Bess for he had learned to associated a horse’s disposition and character with its color, eyes, ears, and contours.
Her medium size told him she’d be wonderfully quick, and by the shape of her head he knew she’d make few mistakes in the coming struggle.
Anyway. Wild Bess is a biter and kind of a nasty piece of work, and here’s how he cures her.
- He puts a sort of war bridle/rope halter on her.
- He grabs her tail.
- They spin in circles until she’s exhausted and dizzy.
- He switches sides and spins her the other way.
- She’s cured!
No, really. She gets dizzy and that’s it. The idea, I think, is that she’s been allowed to take liberties and all it took was one man to tell her firmly NO and tell her she was not allowed, and…that fixed it?
What’s bizarre about this book is that there is genuinely some great advice amidst the insanity!
“You give this kind of mare an inch an’ she’ll walk away with you. But she’ll respond quickly to kindness. So love her love her lots.”
…”Too many bad horses are the result of bad management. Jus’ like Wild bess was. More owners than horses need training.”
Bill, Finn, and Hank go on the road with a traveling horse-breaking show. The next horse they cure is a stallion named Thunder and Bill rigs up a rope around him and then proceeds to simply throw him to the ground for some horrifying length of time.
Bill lost track of how many times he threw Thunder before the horse finally lay quiet with the cord slack.
Not laid down, like The Horse Whisperer, but violently thrown to the ground, over and over and over. So much for love.
Here’s my poor snapshot of the illustration that’s included in the book.
low-quality picture of high-quality insanity
Anyway, on with the show!
People start thinking Bill has some kind of magic trick, so Finn says okay, let’s give them magic! They find some old recipes for horse remedies and Finn thinks they should just sell them, because that would be way easier and more profitable than actually explaining the System. Bill is not a fan.
Basically the book goes from horse to horse that Bill fixes. Next up is Tar Heel, a black stallion (HMMMM).
But his eyes gave him away. They were snakelike. His forehead, too, was a little too low. Bill would have known without being told that here was a horse who would look pleasantly at a man one minute and strike the next.
Bill ties his war bridle to Tar Heel’s tail and then sits back. CURED!
The show travels on. They do better and better. There are newspaper articles saying how Bill keeps fixing bad horses in a matter of minutes, right on stage.
Finn gets big ideas, and pitches Bill on how they can do even better, maybe if they got a nasty-looking horse and Bill just re-tamed him night after night? Oooh, or maybe they could tame a wild zebra? And don’t forget selling those elixirs!
How Finn was ever successful as a peddler is beyond me, because he reads Bill so, so, so poorly. Bill gets furious and kicks Finn out of the business. Finn then turns a weird and complete about-face on the character we’ve known so far and says fine! I’ve watched you and now I know your System and I’ll go off and do my own act! Which he does. Off-screen for a while.
Meanwhile, Bill ate blueberry pie before a show and has stomach cramps and can’t actually perform one night, so his credibility takes a hit so he really HAS to succeed with a gray stallion called The Mustang.
He was the worst horse Bill Daily had ever seen and the most dangerous. There was no telling what the Mustang would do.
Please note, his assessment of worst/most dangerous is based entirely on looking at the horse – not observing behavior or body language or everything. Just conformation and his head. The Mustang is apparently a really ugly horse.
It’s during his fight with the Mustang that we get the most succinct statement of Bill’s System:
The success of all his methods lay in overpowering resistance within a short time. Only if the Mustang fought the bridle and was quickly overpowered by its force was there any chance of achieving control over him.
Horse “taming” my ass.
[The bridle] applied pressure to a horse’s most vulnerable spot, a point behind the ears. The more cord that was used, the greater the pressure, and it could not be left on too long or the horse’s life would be endangered.
Today I learned that a tight rope halter can actually kill a horse? Huh? I mean…I guess there are some big veins behind the ears? Or is this supposed to be a neurological thing? WHY are you using methods that might kill the horse, Bill?
Turns out the Mustang was a ringer, everyone knew he couldn’t be tamed, they’re actually impressed Bill didn’t get killed, so it all works out despite the blueberry pie.
Meanwhile, Finn is in New York City doing exactly what he told Bill he would do: his own show taming horses. He’s really successful at it, so Bill gets furious and they head to NYC to stop him. When they arrive, the hear that he’s gone off to London to perform before the Queen.
Turns out, NYC is very strange!
Many women were riding horseback, and this surprised Bill and Hank very much, for such a thing was never done in Pennsylvania.
The fuck it wasn’t.
Never had Bill Dailey been so impressed by the passing scene. But the greatest shock of all came when a woman went by, sitting on the box seat of a coach like his own and skillfully driving four horses. “Now I’ve seen everything!” he told Hank.
Will it surprise you to learn that Bill is a lifelong confirmed bachelor? And that this is the closest we get to a female character in the entire book? (Not counting Wild Bess, earlier.)
Finn’s stable hand greets them and tells them all Finn’s secrets, thanks for nothing, asshole, which mostly involve leaving the horses without food or water for a long time and locking them up so they’re weak when they go on stage. Objectively a shitty thing. But morally better or worse than throwing horses down, manhandling them with war bridles, spinning them in circles until they’re dizzy…?
Finn returns to New York City having tamed a vicious racehorse, and Bill confronts him, and Finn confesses quite happily that he isolated the racehorse in his stable and…maybe?…withheld food for as long as a week? It’s really not clear and also kind of insane. Whatever, it worked great! And he came back with the racehorse because it’s not a permanent fix and he doesn’t want to get found out.
Finn goes on with his show, which pisses Bill off, so he forms the following plan and then executes it.
- Talk someone from the Barnum & Bailey Circus into buying a zebra named “Man-Eater” from the NYC zoo
- Sneak this zebra into the back of Finn’s show in the place of the racehorse he brought back from London
- Follow the zebra into the ring and call Finn out in front of the entire crowd
- Tame the zebra in front of them and humiliate Finn
It all works until #4, when Bill’s patented “throw them onto the ground” move fails to work with the zebra, who is wilier and quicker than the horses he’s worked with before and keeps getting back up and coming after him.
Enter Hank, who leaps down from the top of the circus wagon onto the zebra’s back, which startles him long enough for Bill to gain the upper hand. Bill ties the zebra’s tail to its halter so it can only spin around. And the zebra is tamed!
Bill’s reputation is officially made, and he decides to hire Finn so that he can keep an eye on him. He spends the rest of his life traveling around doing his show, and he writes a book. Finn gets into bicycles, and then into automobiles, and makes a ton of money. The end.
Small coda: so on the one hand, a lot of Bill’s training techniques in this book are objectively insane. But he also matches up his misguided actions with statements that really get it.
Not hands, Finn, head. Head and heart are needed to manage horses.
Which: yeah! That’s it, Bill! Now use those! Jesus.
It’s really hard to square.
Though, props to Walter Farley for continuity, because Bill’s training methods are almost exactly what Henry uses in a last-ditch attempt to tame Satan in Son of the Black Stallion. Interestingly, they fail miserably there, and it’s Alec’s saving of Satan from Henry’s idiocy that ultimately tames Satan. So I’m not sure what that says about the longterm of Bill’s training methods. Henry still seems to revere him, but doesn’t really follow his System.
Did this make any sense to you? Have you ever thought about taking a rope halter in one hand and your horse’s tail in the other and spin around until your horse was obeying your every command? If not, why not? Bill has a System that says that works great.
5 thoughts on “Summer Series: The Horse Tamer”
I get so excited when I see you’ve got a review up! I remember reading these as a kid and quickly deciding for some reason (which at the time I couldn’t pinpoint because #iwasakid) that this was nonsense.
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So in terms of some of the weird shit in the book —
1) I’ve actually heard of chestnuts (but not osselets?) being dried/ground up/blown in horse nostrils as some sort of cure-all for behavioral issues
2) I’ve seen a variant of that rope mechanism used to throw horses down called a running w (https://www.ruralheritage.com/messageboard/frontporch/17780.htm) and it was about as awful as you’d expect 🙈
Basically I wouldn’t let any of these people within 10 feet of my horses lol
Terrifyingly, I think this was based on a real trainer! https://twitter.com/KatBoniface/status/1018561345439100929
I kinda liked this one. I mean, it was crazy pants and I would never do these things, but it was at least a break from the usual racing story. Variety and all.