bits · dressage · Uncategorized

A Bit of Experimentation

I’m not even a little bit sorry for that subject.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with Tristan’s bits.

He is, generally speaking, a pretty hardmouthed horse. And yeah, I know – I trained him, it’s my fault. In my (admittedly pitiful) defense, that was always his natural tendency. From day 1 he was a horse who blew through and/or ignored aids, no matter where they came from.

Now, generally, I ride him in a loose ring double-jointed snaffle. Super, super mild. On the one hand, that’s good for asking him to reach forward without throwing on the brakes. He’s so generally backwards-minded that sometimes even touching the reins can stop him cold. So the softer the bit, the more it would encourage him to reach, right?

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About three years ago, when I started riding him again in his kimberwicke outside, I noticed an interesting trend: he was actually better in that, when things got going really well. He was more willing to soften to it (really soften, not back off), he was more willing to bend to it, he was overall more light and responsive.

To some extent, that’s to be expected. The kimberwicke is a big bit. And even with the improvements, it does not have a ton of subtlety to it. I think that, riding outside, it mostly gives him a way to channel all that assholery into productivity. If I have a big NO he doesn’t get to debate as long.

With some of the fine-tuning of his dressage that I’ve been doing lately, he was getting extra heavy and dead in the mouth, so in the last 2-3 weeks I’ve been experimenting with doing one dressage-intensive ride a week in the kimberwicke, indoors. I do not expect huge things; what I want is to basically rev him up in some of the same ways he gets outside, and use the kimberwicke to guide that.

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It’s mostly working. It starts out rough, but at about the 20 minute mark, when he’s truly warmed up and resigned to his fate, and going property forward, there’s the kimberwicke saying “okay, but you also can’t just yank and root and lean.” I’m asking for bend and getting it in 1-2 strides instead of 3, 5, 10…on and on.

I’ve jokingly called him my 2×4 horse in the past (as in, “you need to hit him with a 2×4 to get a point across). It’s not that he’s not a sensitive horse. All horses are sensitive. It’s that he is so damn stubborn, and his ability to turn up the “fuck you, I’m not paying attention” dial is remarkable. Like a toddler who needs very, very firm and clear boundaries to feel happy and comfortable.

We’ve got a long winter of work ahead of us, and I might not be done – I’ve thought about an intermediate bit to try and recapture some of the suppling ability of a snaffle but still something he won’t lean on, so ideas on that would be welcome.

black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Black Stallion Legend

Image result for the black stallion legend

After Alec experiences a devastating loss, he takes the Black out west, where a group of Native Americans believe he fulfills their prophecy for the end of the world.

Last but certainly not least, a book that may or may not end with the actual apocalypse. No, I’m not being hyperbolic. The actual. Apocalypse.

But we have a ways to go before we get there.

This book picks up not too long after the end of The Black Stallion and the Girl, with Alec still thinking about his place in the world and his goals as a rider, breeder, and trainer. He also reflects on his physical ailments after five years or so spent as a jockey. Like anyone with prolonged exposure to horses, his body is a wreck.

Anyway, he thinks about a new filly they have running, that they named Pam’s Song, after Pam. Which. Pam left A MONTH AGO how did they have time to do that??? Did they change her name with the Jockey Club?

A little over three months ago she had been a nonentity in the Hopeful Farm Stable, a good-looking sort of big lazy filly, one of many at the farm, promising but not proven. Then they had raced her conservatively in three races where the competition had not been tough, and she had won all of them.

The timeline and logistics here are just baffling to me, because this had to have been during the last book except they never mention that Alec is racing other horses and his moves are pretty well accounted for and seriously their whole business model is just fucked. Not only does it not make sense, but it changes from book to book.

The race is again during hideous weather that really would never actually have a race.

The snow had stopped falling but the gale-force wind almost swept him out of the saddle.

Anyway, during the race the saddle slips and Alec almost dies but he makes it through, thought the filly does not finish in the money. Alec reflects briefly that Henry is going to blame the saddle slipping on him being inattentive at the start of the race, not Henry not cinching it up properly, which is kind of the frosting on the whole “Henry has become a gaslighting, abusive asshole” storyline that’s been going for a few books now.

Alec heads back to the farm and thinks more about his life.

Satan nickered and came to the iron bars of his stall, eager for attention. Even after so short a time away from the farm, Alec was impressed by Satan’s size. He had put on more weight and was huge compared to the Black, so massive, so powerful in chest and shoulders.

YOU GUYS SATAN’S BACK. TEAM SATAN FOREVER!

Anyway, he’s not really back, I’m just excited that Alec remembers he exists. Even if Alec continues to fat shame him.

While he’s taking care of the farm, he picks up the newspaper, and sees an article on the front page about the death of four young American women in a car crash in the Alps and…yep, you guessed it, one of them was Pam.

Here’s where I have to take a serious moment and acknowledge that Pam’s character was based on Walter Farley’s real daughter Pamela, who really did die in a car crash in Europe, and it was a horrific and devastating thing for him to go through. That’s not something any parent should have to endure. So I want to make clear that when I mock Pam and/or the events of this book, I’m reacting only to the characters and the writing, ok? Ok.

So: Pam is dead, and Alec has an actual mental breakdown. I know I sort of joked about him losing it in The Black Stallion and the Ghost but he actually totally has a break with reality here.

He continued screaming Pam’s name but the cries from his throat were nothing but a funnel of white in the cold, cold air…He lay in the snow in a frightening state of disintegration. His distress over the loss of Pam was fearful, but he knew something was wrong with his mind, something that had been triggered by his tragic loss. He could feel it.

He comes back to himself many hours later, and he’s driving a truck and horse trailer through a snowstorm. Actually, he doesn’t realize he’s driving a horse trailer at first, he just thinks he’s driving the truck, even though it skids out a number of times. He looks in the rearview mirror and that’s when he sees the horse trailer. Which. NO. That has to be among the more unrealistic things that’s ever happened in these books, right?

He drives and drives and drives, and we cut back to Hopeful Farm, where Henry and Alec’s dad realize that he’s gone.

“I had Dr. Warson over to the house last night, and we talked about what we should do to find Alec.”

“Your friend, the psychiatrist? That’s crazy!” Henry said, concerned and angry. “What good is he?”

What an absolute scumbag Henry turned out to be. He went from charming and kooky and slightly grumpy to actively sabotaging Alec at every turn over the course of these books.

“[Dr. Warson, the psychiatrist] said we must realize what Alec has gone through since he first found the Black in that horrible shipwreck, which almost cost him his life. Then he had to spend all those months on that remote island until he was rescued. David said Alec’s been through several traumas, and it was a wonder to him, as a medical man, that Alec has been able to cope with his life as he’s done. It most certainly has not been any kind of a normal life for anybody, let alone a young man. Since he’s had the Black, he’s experienced one grim adventure after another.”

WHAT!!!

I feel smugly justified right now in my initial call that this whole series of books makes more sense if Alec is suffering from severe PTSD throughout.

Dr. Warson tells Alec’s father that they shouldn’t pursue Alec, because if they do, the results might be “tragic” which I think is him hinting that Alec might commit suicide?

Back to Alec, who drives until he reaches somewhere in the Southwest. He passes a number of Native Americans and his views on them are somewhere on the intersection of paternalizing, racist, and sort of grimly realistic. Like, he keeps thinking about how downtrodden they look but he also talks and thinks about how mysterious they are and it’s just weird and awkward.

He pulls the truck and trailer over to a mesa and gets out. And then he turns the Black loose. He has no plan for any of this. He’s acting on pure instinct and mental unbalance.

Then…I think the best possible explanation of what happens next is that Alec thinks he turns into a horse. He runs around with a herd of wild horses and um it’s really weird. In a really sad kind of way.

Throwing back his head, he uttered loud, wavering neighs to the distant horses. Then he broke into a run, his muscular legs moving rhythmically, effortlessly…So for a long while he was able to stay within sight of the wild horses and think of himself as one of them.

It’s not clear how long it takes before he comes back to himself, but when he does he realizes he’s in the middle of nowhere, with no plan, no food, no nothing.

Luckily, he happens across a young Indian boy, who first asks him if he’s one of the “loco” people who sound like hippies on a permanent acid trip. The boy tells him about a local prophecy.

“We must have patience to await the One who will lead us to a safe place while the rest of the world is destroyed. There we will live peacefully with each other until it is time to emerge and help create a new world.

I do not know what shape he will take but he will be riding the swift mount of Father Sun, a horse as black as the deepest blackness except for a small white spot in the center of his forehead. He will have great speed and magical powers. I will have no trouble recognizing such a horse.”

You get three guesses as to what happens next and the first two don’t count.

Yeah, the Black shows up, and he’s been fighting, and he has a new scar! On his forehead! That makes…wait for it…a small white spot on his forehead.

The boy decides that Alec is The One from the prophecy and freaks out and leaves. Alec is kind of baffled and confused but tries to follow but sort of fails at it? It’s not entirely clear whether he gets lost or goes in the wrong direction or what.

He and the Black come across a canyon, at the end of which are ruins that sound sort of Pueblo-esque. They enter this canyon and are boxed in by the loco people, and shit gets weird.

They were close enough now for him to make out the ornaments of bones, feathers and teeth they wore on their naked painted bodies. Their heads were shaved, their eyes heavy-lidded and colorless. They moved toward him in a huge mass, twitching their bodies from side to side and gibbering in a maniacal, feverish chant.

The loco people attack them by throwing rocks and things at them, and then physically attack them.

The Black bolted forward, but it was not to escape the milling mass of ghastly figures. He reached out for the nearest one, grabbing him with savage teeth and lifting him from the ground. He shook him vigorously before flinging him back to the earth.

It still doesn’t quite work, and this whole sequence is trippy and weird. The loco people chase Alec to the other end of the canyon, and they sort of go past the ruins to find a huge crater, with a road down to the bottom. Alec doesn’t want to go down, but the loco people chase them to the edge of the crater, and then start going down the path, so they go down, and through a sort of weird tunnel, and then:

He saw a great chamber, the size of a tremendous cathedral, oval-shaped and bathed in the golden rays of the late afternoon sun, which came through a long but narrow opening in the lofty heights above!

The cavern is also full of smaller caves, and the floor is carpeted with green grass, and there’s a stream running through it. Oh, and there’s an old man hanging out there who is NOT in good shape.

“I have been waiting for you all the years of my life,” the old Indian said. “You  have come at last.”

So: this guy is the grandfather of the boy who found Alec earlier. He is dying. He is too weak to stand up and his body is covered in lesions and open sores. He tells Alec about the prophecy again, Alec denies it again, but then decides to go along with it in the hopes that the old man will tell him how to get out of the chamber.

Joke’s on him, the old man dies right in front of him and Alec…picks up the body and carries it to one of the caves? There are some really graphic descriptions of how sick the old man was and frankly I would not have touched him. He’s already lost in an underground cavern in the middle of the desert with no food, he does NOT need some unidentified illness on top of everything.

Anyway, he and the Black find a tunnel that he thinks will lead out, and it mostly does. He thinks the old man must have come in this way because he finds a torch that’s still warm. Because THAT makes sense.

The tunnel is not entirely the way out, because it’s partially blocked, and when Alec moves some of the rocks, he somehow triggers water to flow into the tunnel and honestly this part made NO sense. At all. Just know that somehow they went from squeezing through a tunnel and hopefully heading toward the surface to floating and almost drowning and then magically outside.

He finds the same boy from earlier, and makes it to the local village. This chapter is called “Hopeless People” and there’s a lot of squicky stuff about how Alec always imagined Indians to be a proud, fierce people and these people are profoundly poverty stricken, miserable, and without any direction. It’s somewhere in between obnoxious and mildly socially aware.

Like many others, who had read schoolbooks and stories, he had thought the lives of Indians were bright and colorful, as beautiful as the jewelry they made, as colorful as their paintings and ceremonies. Instead he had found them in poverty and sickness, living on scrubland, sweating all day to cultivate enough food to eat, and freezing at night in dilapidated shacks, clothed in rags and sleeping on dirt floors. Actually, from what he had seen they were not the chosen people at all, but among the most hopeless people on earth.

Regardless, they welcome him and he beds the Black down and goes to sleep…and then wakes up in the middle of the night.

Afterward Alec went outside to stand in the swiftly falling night, wondering how he could change these people’s minds about him and obtain their help. When the men returned, he would tell them that there was no need to go to the sacred pueblo. They could see that the world was not coming to an end, despite their fearful prophecy.

While he’s outside, he thinks he sees Pam, and he thinks that she’s warning him of danger. Then he notices that a blue light in the sky is getting larger and brighter, and he decides it’s a meteoroid.

With sick dread, Alec realized that the meteoroid was going to crash close by, and none of them had a chance of staying alive in the holocaust that must come! EARTHFIRE!

Emphasis definitely not mine. This is the point at which the book moves from “weird, but not out of a standard deviation of weird from a normal Black Stallion book” to “oh holy shit we are so far off the rails now there’s no going back.”

Here we go.

The meteoroid crashes. The Black freaks out. Alec smells burning and everyone from the village runs screaming. They see Alec mounted on the Black.

Somehow, what he was doing seemed strangely right to him, now. It was as if he were suspended in a dram, viewing everything quite calmly when he should have felt only fear in what he had to do…return to the sacred pueblo.

They start to flee back to the underground cavern, and Alec is in a sort of fugue state. People are screaming all around him, everything is on fire, and there are apparently “gases rising from the earth.” But he’s fine with it all. He’s just sort of riding the Black in a dream, heading back to the pueblo.

It’s entirely unclear what exactly is going on: there was a meteoroid crash, but there is also an earthquake, and there is also a lot of just random debris crashing around everywhere. At one point, while they are fleeing, they come across the loco people, who try to join them, but they are all killed when another big rock crashes or another chasm opens up or…I dunno, I was kind of picturing Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom here.

Finally, Alec staggered to his feet. “Running away, like dying, is easy,” he said aloud. “It’s the living that’s hard.”

Yes, Alec, because what a huge group of terrified people escaping the apocalypse need is fucking platitudes. Holy shit.

They travel for some indeterminate length of time and it’s all awful and terrifying and confusing. They get to the cavern, and they all settle in and rest for a bit.

The Black lowered his head to the water, and Alec heard the pulling suck of his lips as the fluid gurgled up the rings of his throat.

That is both the weirdest and grossest description I’ve ever heard of a horse drinking.

For reasons that are totally opaque to me, Alec leaves. He was like 3/4 of the way to believing this really was the end of the world and he really had led these people to safety…but he still decides to leave. He makes his way back to where he left his truck and trailer.

The light from the sun had moved down, reddening the way before them, when Alec reached his truck and trailer buried deep in sand and ash. He rode up to what remained of the hulking body of the engine, then alongside the flattened horse trailer, its body splintered into pieces strewn about the area.

See what I mean about having no idea exactly what kind of disaster this is?

Somehow, Alec makes it to a local emergency shelter in Flagstaff, Arizona, and that chapter starts with a news broadcast that notes that there are earthquakes all over the world, the most devastating ever recorded, and oh by the way, Alec Ramsay is here! Why the local news felt the need to insert that tidbit alongside “the world might be ending” is an open question.

Alec and the Black hang out at the shelter for a while, and the news keeps coming in and getting worse. I did a little bit of research on other big earthquakes, and the ones the book is describing would be among the worst that have occurred in the history of the world, and they’re happening all over the world at the same time for no discernible reason. The entire city of Moscow had to be evacuated. There was a quake on the east coast of the US that could be felt from Georgia to Canada.

Alec finally gets in touch with his parents and Henry; his father is too overcome with emotion to talk to him on the phone, so Henry gets on and reports that Hopeful Farm is in bad shape.

“Awful. We’re starting to clean up. Lots of work but it’s not hopeless. Most of the barns are down but fortunately the horses were outside. The house is okay and no one’s been hurt. There’s a deep fissure where the training track used to be. It’s awful but at the same time it’s a miracle that we’re alive.

Alec could barely make out the old trainer’s words when Henry added, “It looks like we’re goin’ to have to start all over again, Alec. An’ we’re lucky to be having a chance to do it.”

They have a brief talk about riding and handling horses for the joy of it, not to make money, and then this is, I swear to you, the end of the last book in the Black Stallion series.

The floor beneath Alec’s feet tilted as a sharp tremor came from deep within the earth.

Alec held on to the phone, knowing this too would pass.

“Henry, can you hear me?”

There was no answer.

WHAT THE EVERLOVING FUCK.

A sentiment that sums up both my feelings on this book and on most of them.

Well, what do you think? Was this a good way to end the entire series of twenty (!) books?

Do you think the world really did end, or was Walter Farley just being dramatic?

I’ve been going back and forth on this question for weeks now, and I still can’t decide what I think happened, and what I want to have happened.

Stay tuned in the next few weeks for some fun audience participation surveys on the whole series. I’ll also do a roundup post linking to all of my reviews, if you want to binge.

dressage · Uncategorized

What we’re working on: fall 2018 edition

In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been rehabbing this horse for five years straight. Dumb thing after dumb thing after dumb thing and his Cushing’s mean that anytime he gets a few weeks off I have to start nearly from scratch. Keep in mind – he’s a mustang who spent the first ~10 years of his life doing nothing and/or starving. So he doesn’t have the base of fitness a properly raised young horse or an OTTB would have.

In the five weeks or so of his most recent return to work, I’ve been working on overall fitness but also targeting a few things specifically.

  • inside hind strength, particularly the left hind. Tristan has always been just a touch short on his left hind; his left side in general is his weaker one. I’ve looked at it with a few vets and it’s clearly just a weakness/mechanical issue, not a lameness or pain issue. So: lots of circles in and out, some longe work for stifle strength, poles, transitions, and generally focusing hard on the inside hind for short periods of time to load it, then rest it, then repeat. Slowly, he’s able to hold better, which means his bend is better, which means he’s more through and more comfortable overall.
  • Warmup: what does the senior pony need at this point in his life? This always changes. He’s never been a horse that is ready to go right out of the box. Right now, I’m working on 10 minutes of walk and then 5 minutes of trot before I so much as touch his face. The only thing I ask during that time is that he step forward and listen to my driving aids. I can get a good read on how to proceed after that during those 15 minutes: is he reaching for the bit? attempting to stretch his back a bit? eager to step out? or is he stopping dead when I so much as pick up the reins, kicking out at my leg, and just generally shitty?
  • My leg: Two things, really; I need to stop it from creeping up, a longtime bad habit from being 5’9″ and riding a 15hh horse. Second, I need more and more self discipline about using it when it’s called for and then laying off. Clear, precise, quick aids. Less nagging. Another lifelong bad habit.

Loads more things as well, obviously, but those are the big three.

So, what are you all focusing on right now?

2018 goals · Uncategorized

2018 Goals Update: October

Original Goals Post

January Goals Post
February Goals Post
March Goals Post
April Goals Post (didn’t happen)
May Goals Post
June Goals Post
July Goals Post
August Goals Post
September Goals Post

Horse Goals

1. Take 6 lessons through the year. – 6/6 done, and check!
2. Ride 3 new-to-me horses. – check!
3. Research 3 different retirement situations. – check!
4. Write retirement budget for Tristan. – check!
5. Reach goals for horse-specific income stream. (Primarily through Etsy shop.) –  October was an obscenely good month thanks to two bulk orders. If I take those out of the mix, October held the same as September, which is to say, about where I want it to be. I’ve been doing a lot of work getting things in stock for the holidays to hopefully have a big finish to the year.
Stretch: 6. Read and review 12 books about riding on the blog. – 12/12 and done thanks to the Black Stallion books!

Financial Goals

1. Fully fund Tristan’s savings account (to $1,500) – So. This is back in place, thanks to the truck. Best truck. It even helped me out after it left me.
2. 50% fund my overall emergency fund savings account (to $7,500) – now $6,150. Philosophical question: I’ve revised my goals for the emergency fund, which means that my 50% target is lower, which means I have hit it for the year – but not what the original goal was. So. Hmmmmm.
3. Track every purchase made in 2018. – I did SUPER well in October mostly by not buying hardly anything in October.
4. Create 30 day wait list for any purchase over $25 (excluding groceries & emergencies). – Yes! and executed a line item off this list with the purchase of new winter tires last week – saved for, purchased, CHECK.
5. Pay off 50% of energy improvement debt. – close and probably not going to make it but anything is possible.
6. Stretch: 75% fund my overall emergency fund savings account (to $11,250) – nope.

House Goals

1. Finish dining room (finish wallpaper, skimcoat lower half, plaster upper half, paint). –check!
2. Finish garage in basement (finish strappingput up drywall, plaster drywall, paint floor, clean out). – progress here, we taped the drywall seams , just need to plaster them, and cleaned out a bunch of stuff.
3. Finish living room (strip wallpaper, plaster, repaint). – would’ve been done this past weekend but I went canvassing in a swing district instead; I will work on it this week with the goal of painting next Monday.
4. Develop plan & budget for preserving mud room mural.
5. Build second raised bed, start seedlings indoors, can/process results of garden. – check!
6. Stretch: Finish breakfast nook room (strip wallpaper, plaster, figure out heating, repaint)

stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

No Excuses November

I’ve been thinking a lot about my riding goals.

Earlier this year, I wanted badly to bring Tristan out at First Level in the fall. I worked hard all winter and spring. We made some great progress. Then – a full summer of disaster. The heel grab, the new shoes, the colic, the new heel grab. My own motivation and drive suffered badly. I re-focused on other things in my life that I could push forward.

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He thinks being back in work is dumb.

Tristan has been back in work now for most of October. In the last week or so, I’ve started turning the screws a bit on his training – stepping up the intensity of his conditioning ride. Asking for better work earlier in the ride. He’s responded really well. I’m still more cautious than I should be, but moving more and more toward expecting him to come out and put in good work than hoping today would be a good day.

I thought about doing a no stirrup challenge for November, because I am badly in need of that kind of work myself, but ultimately decided it wasn’t in either of our best interests to do that. He really needs his back warmed up before I do any sitting work.

Photo Jun 05, 9 10 06 AMIf his back never warms up you get this gross ball of tension.

I’ve decided on what I’m calling “No Excuses November.”

No more, “but it’s cold and I’m tiiiiiiired.” If he has scheduled work, then I get my ass to the barn and do the work.

No more, “I’ll just let myself have this break.” Either I make a choice to give my brain and body a rest, and truly pursue that rest, or I suck it up.

No more, “Well, I can do it tomorrow, it’s fine.” I get the things done that need to be done. I re-evaluate a schedule if I have to, but I don’t put off because I’d rather whine instead.

To be clear, I’m already a pretty driven person. I already juggle a lot of things. But I fall too constantly into the DO ALL THE THINGS / DO NOTHING cycle, and the whiplash is bad news for future me. It tips the whole thing off balance, not that it’s really balanced to begin with.

So, tomorrow. No more excuses. Not for the whole month. Then I re-evaluate in December, and see where I’ve gotten.

Uncategorized

Horses Caught Unawares in Sculpture

I was recently researching the statue of General William Wells at Gettysburg for work. Wells was the commander of the First Vermont Cavalry and won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. There’s a statue of him at the base of Big Round Top.

On the base of the statue, there’s a bas relief in bronze showing the desperate cavalry charge for which Wells won the medal, and I studied it for a while and then noticed something and could not stop laughing.

Bronze bas-relief from the monument to Union Major William Wells at Gettysburg

That horse right in the middle. The one looking straight at you.

horse

*record scratch*

“You may be wondering how I got here…”

I don’t know why I find this so amusing, but it is seriously cracking me up.

black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Black Stallion and the Girl

Image result for the black stallion and the girl

When a young woman named Pam answers an ad to work at Hopeful Farm, Alec totally loses his mind has to make decisions about the path of his life.

Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: this book gets huge bonus points for doing a couple of really simple things. (I’m not saying it does them well, but it does them.)

  • including a woman as an actual living, breathing character
  • introducing horses who are not the Black
  • making Alec actually think about what he wants out of life
  • at least trying to connect the events of the story to current social conversations

I don’t know if it’s fair to include the bullet point of “outs Henry as a huge fucking asshole, which is where he’s been trending for the last dozen or so books,” but it does that too!

The book starts with employment difficulties at Hopeful Farm, and let’s remember here that Hopeful Farm is the breeding/training farm that’s supposedly Alec’s base. They have something like a couple dozen horses there, plus three stallions (the Black, Satan, and Wintertime, remember him?). They breed AND train. It’s a big operation.

And he wants to hire ONE person to do…all of it. There’s a brief mention of “maintenance” help and a foaling guy but this person is supposed to do everything else. All the handling, grooming, feeding, and training. ONE person. No wonder they have a horrible time keeping good help.

A new person answers the ad, and GASP, it’s a GIRL.

The girl appeared in his open doorway and said, “Good morning, Sun…I mean, sir.”

“Sun,” she repeated, laughing. “S…u…n. It’s crazy, I know, but I always say it in the morning, and people look at me just as startled as you do. I guess it’s because I feel good when the sun is out.”

Pam is a capital-H-Hippy. I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that she either spends this entire book high as fuck, or that she’s dropped so much acid that her brain is not…entirely…all there. Don’t get me wrong: she’s genuinely nice, and a really interesting character, but she also must be totally infuriating to interact with.

“Very few kids would stay with it,” he said defensively. “It’s hard and often dirty work, much more than they realize from books and movies. The time spent training them is lost. Few – if any – would remain.”

“I know,” she said. “I’d go, too, after a while; that is, even if you did hire me.”

Two things we learn about Pam pretty quickly: she really does know what she’s doing (she’s been riding and handling horses her whole life) and she is a Free Spirit who won’t be tied down to anything or anyone. She basically takes this job saying that she’s going to quit at some undefined point in the near future, whenever she feels like it. Alec finds that charming but he knows it will make Henry nuts.

The old trainer had no use for girls around barns. The would see only her femininity, and her honest candor would infuriate him.

Henry – and many of the character in this book – zooms way past sexist and straight into misogynistic. For example, here’s what he says about Becky Moore, a jockey who’s introduced as “the girl jock” a bit later.

“The right size but the wrong sex,” Henry continued. The girl was about five feet, one inch tall and weighed around 100 pounds, the ideal size for a rider. “Too bad. She’d like to have been a boy.”

“I don’t like to see girls around horseman….just because of their sex, they create problems we wouldn’t have otherwise. It takes a man’s mind off his work. They get emotionally involved, everything…I think a woman should be a woman and a mother and everything that goes with it.”

Anyway, Pam passes the test – basically Alec puts her on a colt named Black Sand who he feels pretty sure will dump her. She handles the colt quite well, and Alec leaves her in charge of the whole farm and runs off to race the Black at Aqueduct.

Henry rants and rants while they’re at the track about women and how they ruin everything and Alec reflects that Henry actively bullies any of the women he sees at the track by picking on every single thing he thinks they do wrong, and he basically implies that they sleep around to get their jobs. It’s really, really gross.

A lot of this book is in Alec’s head, and not in a psychedelic way like the last book, but more like Alec – old before his time but still technically somewhere in his late 20s – is supposed to be our conduit to understanding how society is changing around the characters. While Henry is ranting, Alec thinks a lot about how he’s always been raised to respect his elders and listen to and accept everything they say, but that the times, they are a-changing. He also has a nifty political moment when he thinks about how shittily everyone at the track is paid for all the hard work they do with absolutely no backup plans.

In Alec’s opinion, there was nothing explosive about women trying to get an even break. As with all minority groups, they were trying to get a piece of the action, equality of opportunity. He kept his silence, knowing that his beliefs – if he expressed them – would do no good. Henry’s tirade against women was based on emotion, not logic.

You guys, Alec went and got woke! So did Walter Farley! It’s hamfisted but it’s pretty great, and it’s a running theme throughout the book. It’s awesome. That said, it’s still problematic as hell because – well, you’ll see.

In the meantime,

Sex prejudice was no less evil than racial or religious bias, Alec decided.

Hell yeah, Alec!

After Henry is done ranting, Alec tells him, oh yeah, I hired a girl. Henry orders him to fire her. After implying that Alec hired her in order to sleep with her – which, Henry, have you been paying attention? The only person Alec has had the hots for in this entire series was Raj from The Black Stallion Returns.

Alec gets angry enough about Henry’s order to push back pretty hard, and Henry flat-out says to him that he has to choose between him and Pam. So Alec trudges back to Hopeful Farm and plans on firing her. Basically he reasons out that Henry is more important to their business than Pam is. It’s actually not a bad argument from a logic standpoint, but it ignores, you know, everything else.

He goes to fire Pam, and finds she’s re-decorated the apartment with “psychedelic art of colorful, intricate design” and is reading a book of poetry by Leonard Cohen. Good for her! Leonard Cohen is awesome. Did I ever think I’d get to shout-out to Leonard Cohen while reviewing a Black Stallion book? Walter Farley is vast and contains multitudes, you guys.

Anyway, he never finds Pam, even after creepily searching through her whole apartment including her photo album. The next morning, he checks in and Pam has been doing what he asked her to do, training the horses, and thankfully we also find out that she’s not doing stalls. We meet two new horses, Black Pepper (Black Minx’s daughter! When did they have time to breed her? NOBODY KNOWS.) and Black Out and the naming scheme is both dumb and kind of fun.

Her clothes were jeans, a white blouse and brown, worn loafers. No boots; no masculinity. And in the filly’s mane were braided flowers of yellow, pink and blue.

I have so many questions, such as, who gallops racehorses in loafers? since when are riding boots “masculine”? and when did she have time to braid flowers in Black Pepper’s mane?

Alec and Pam work together with their horses and it’s a suprisingly nice long stretch of just two people figuring out their horses together. It’s really great! Alec watches Pam ride and is appreciative of her light touch, and they problem solve the filly’s issues with the starting gate together. Pam name-drops that she rode with Captain Bill Heyer and Stanley White, two real people.

While they’re hanging out together, Alec realizes how happy he is at Hopeful Farm – which is something he knew way back in The Black Stallion and Satan, which in retrospect is really where these books took a sharp left turn. Alec was a homebody who didn’t want to race the Black. Now he’s impatient to keep racing faster and faster for more money. Pam points out that he doesn’t think of horses as friends anymore, and she’s totally right.

Alec thinks a lot more about what he really wants out of life, and watches Pam braid flowers into Black Sand’s hair.

There was no point in this girl’s ever having a luxurious home when she so obviously preferred a horse barn, he decided.

PAM IS ALL OF US.

Anyway, that night Alec checks in with his dad, who agrees with Henry.

Pam was doing her job well, his father had said. There was no fault to be found with her work, but it wasn’t right to have an attractive girl working around men even there at the farm.

His mom is also the worst!

Girls should not compete with men in the racing world, she said. It was too rough. Horse shows were much better for them. There they were treated like ladies. Girls should be more reserved and feminine. Otherwise, who would take care of the home and children?

Alec realizes all of a sudden that his parents are bigoted assholes, which is kind of a hard thing to have to absorb about your parents.

They were kind, wonderful parents, but Alec realized their remarks were lethal enough to poison the climate of feeling between generations. And he was further disturbed to think that they did not seem to consider him one of today’s youth.

In a lot of ways, Alec’s childhood vanished. He has no friends at all. He’s done the horse thing obsessively since he was 15 and got lost in that shipwreck. His formative influence has been Henry, who is as noted an asshole. This book is both Alec and Walter Farley realizing that he’s been backed into a corner.

Alec tells Pam all about what everyone thinks of her, and she is predictably not thrilled, because that is a shitty thing to do to someone. “Everyone hates you and here’s why and I can’t make up my mind! Should I hate you too? Also, please be my therapist?”

“I have to go back tomorrow,” he said. “Will you stay here, Pam?”

“Yes,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I want to stay very much.”

“Then it’s all settled,” he said. “Now we can talk about us.”

WHOA WHOA WHOA

RED ALERT

Alec, that is extortion. “Oh good, you’re staying, let’s fuck”??? NO. WAVE OFF. YOU ARE HER BOSS. Ugggggghhhhhhh. And before you say I’m reading too much into this, the book later implies pretty clearly that the fade to black at the end of that chapter was followed by sex. Coercive, weird, maybe not entirely consensual sex. Damn it. You were all doing so well!

Alec returns to the track the next day and the Black is happy to see them and wtf, they have their own farm a short drive away and they are stabling this poor horse at the track. Alec thinks guiltily that maybe he should have brought the Black back to the farm, YEAH, Alec, you should have! On the plus side, he does have a spot-on observation:

Horsemen who loved their horses were all alike, he thought. Each was filled with the same certainty that the horse he loved was the fastest, bravest, strongest, kindest, and smartest.

The whole next bit is devoted to Becky Moore, Girl Jockey. Now, the book’s treatment of Becky is…problematic. A lot of people make a lot of noise about her being A GIRL but we never actually meet or talk to her. She’s a token. She’s not very consistently portrayed, either. Is she tough? Does she act too tough? Who knows! She acts however the narrative wants her to in an given moment. She’s also like some Fox News conservative’s wet dream of how women are supposed to act in a workplace: don’t remind them you’re there, don’t make any waves, just put up and shut up.

Which does not stop literally everyone from speculating a) about how she’s sleeping with everyone at the track and b) that she keeps a big dog because everyone she’s not already sleeping with wants to rape her. WTF.

“Hey, Alec,” one rider called to him. “We’ve got a girl-driver on our hands today.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Becky’s no girl,” another said. “She’s a tomboy. Did ya ever see her in a dress?”

blergh. Alec is at least a bit more circumspect.

What the male jockeys hadn’t mentioned, though Alec knew it was very much on their minds, was the fact that the girl riders threatened their earning power. They feared a greatly reduced income if girl jockeys successfully invaded their ranks.

Before Becky’s race, Alec and Henry have one final showdown in which Henry threatens to leave the business if Alec keeps Pam, and when Alec is sort-of firm (he mostly doesn’t talk while Henry rants) finally decides that Alec can keep his little trollop on the side as long as she never shows up at the track.

Alec corrects none of his assumptions, though he very astutely realizes that there’s no way Henry’s going to walk away from the business. But he also doesn’t exactly stand up for himself or for Pam either. Alec is that guy who supports you by email but does jack shit when there’s actually stuff going on.

Becky’s race goes fine except there’s a whole bit where our racist Irish stereotype jockey from The Black Stallion’s Courage seems to feel the need to protect her? Or some bullshit? Anyway, she wins the race through some hard riding.

Henry was the first to turn away from the window. “Big deal,” he told a reporter. “She gets a horse that’s pounds the best and manages not to fall off.”

Fuck you, Henry.

Henry’s attitude at least starts to make Alec think hard about what his actual goals are out of his life and career. Henry has become the guy who only cares about how much money they can make racing, and how many horses they can beat. Alec wonders if he’s missing something – if he’s lost the love of his horse and of racing that made him fall in love with the sport to begin with.

Alec heads back up to Hopeful Farm for the weekend, and he and Pam have a whole moonlight interlude in the fields with conversations that go like this.

“You’ll never fall, Pam, not you. But even if you did, I’d be there to catch you.” Then, seeing that she was truly afraid, he took her in his arms and kissed her.

“I believe you would catch me,” she said, her face pressed against his, “because it takes life to love life. And I am you as you are you as you are me.”

“That’s a very nice thought,” he said.

…WHAT?!

Anyway, after his weekend getaway/booty call, Alec heads back to the track and races the Black again, only it doesn’t go well. He gets boxed in and he rides poorly and the Black gets out of control and sort of…shoves his way through other horses? Anyway, because of the way it happens, a bunch of the other jockeys (including Becky!) file complaints against him and the Black is disqualified. Basically the Black acts, for 5 seconds, like the horse he used to be 10 books ago and everyone freaks out. Including Henry, who blames Pam. Who shows up at the track, because Alec invited her but didn’t really expect her to come.

“I know it isn’t for his beauty and pretty ways that you love him, Alec, but see the crimson flower in his eyes!”

Alec moved to her side to find out what she meant. With Pam here, he thought, he must be prepared to see many new things. The Black’s eyes were shining with a red glow that had terrified many people in the past. Pam saw it as a crimson flower.

again, WHAT?!

Henry and Pam have it out. Alec does JACK SHIT. He just stands there and watches Henry say nasty things and Pam sort of float through the conversation defending, mostly, Alec – not herself. Somehow at the end of that conversation, they all decide that Pam should race Black Sand in his debut the next week. Yeah, honestly, it makes zero sense to me either. They get her an apprentice license, and, well – it goes badly.

But, suddenly, Black Sand took two quick jumps to the outside. Pam tried to stop him as he bolted crazily across the track. Alec caught a glimpse of the outer rail and knew that the colt would run full tilt into it.

“No!” he shouted at the top of his voice. Black Sand’s hurtling body crashed into the fence and Pam was catapulted high into the air!

Alec had jumped the rail and was on the track, running for the far turn when the field of horses swept by. With the track clear, the ambulance left the infield gate. Alec flagged it down and hopped into the front seat. A small crowd was already on the scene when they got there.

Black Sand was dead, his neck twisted and broken. White-faced, Alec kneeled beside the still, silk-clad figure that was Pam. His forehead was drenched in cold sweat, his body trembling uncontrollably.

Pam is totally fine, though, and he tells her Black Sand is dead.

Alec realized that Pam had known the moment the colt had died, for she and Black Sand had been one.

They all head back to the barns and Alec drops this truth bomb on her.

“Henry was right about girls’ racing,” Alec said. “It’s everything he said it was. It’s not for you.”

FUCK YOU, ALEC.

Pam has a solution though!

“I want to finish what I began,” she said. “Let me.”

“But how can we do that with no Black Sand?” Alec asked. He hadn’t wanted to mention the colt again, but she gave him no choice.

“By letting me ride your horse on Saturday,” she answered.

oh holy shit what

in the history of bad ideas this is a top 5 for sure

“I’ve ridden in one race and the horse died so let me ride the crazed murder-stallion in the big race on Saturday!”

WHAT.

BUT EVERYONE’S FINE WITH THIS.

They put Pam up on the Black for an exercise run and he…bolts. Of course he does! But she gets control of him after a turn or two. Sort of. Honestly, not really, but she doesn’t die or kill him so everyone gives the thumbs up for her to race him!

It literally happens that fast, guys. After endless chapters about how dumb girls are and how Alec should just live in the moment, man, in the space of 2 chapters Black Sand dies and Pam is riding the Black in the big race.

It’s not a great race. The Black is an unrideable asshole, but Pam at least points him roughly in the right direction and do you honestly need me to tell you that they win? They win. Of course they win. No one in these books loses races.

Anyway, after the race, Pam heads back to the farm. Now, she’s been spending this whole book reminding Alec that she might leave at any moment, and soon after she gets to the farm, she tells him that she’s headed out that night. No two weeks of notice for her! She’s packing all her things in the car and heading out that night, for Virginia, and from there to Europe to bum around for a while doing horses. This is a pretty crappy way to be, but Alec does NOT help. He mopes and mansplains and tries to bribe her and also low-key threatens her. Classy guy, our Alec.

“You’ll be hurt, if you go on as you do,” Alec said. “They’re going to knock you down. You’ll find people who are lots worse than Henry, and you wo’nt be able to change them as you did him.”

“Then, when I come back, we’ll help to outbreed them,” she said gaily.

Out…breed…them? What does that even mean? Do I want to think about this too hard?

Nothing he does works, and she heads out, with promises to come back someday. He also makes promises to go visit her in Europe. It will all work out, they’re two crazy kids in love! Or weird obsession. Or lust. Who even knows.

Whenever he wasn’t with her, her fingers would be the wind and the wind her fingers, and all space would be the smile of her.

yeah, that’s the last sentence. Let me know if you have ANY idea what it’s supposed to mean.

So, did you remember this book? Are you more of a Pam or more of a Becky? Does Henry have any redeeming qualities left at this point? Did anything Pam said make any sense to you?

Finally, administrative note: next week is the LAST BOOK! I can’t believe it either! Don’t worry, I’ve got a few more general posts planned about the Black Stallion, including some audience participation stuff in which we try to collectively decide the actual craziest moment in the whole series.