Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer Series: The Island Stallion

The Island Stallion, by Walter Farley

Oh, boy. Okay. First of all, for those of you who like this book: my sincere apologies.

For the rest of you: let's do this.

A quick summary.
Steve visits his childhood friend Pitch on the Caribbean island of Antago after Pitch sends him a newspaper clipping of wild horses on nearby Azul Island. They discover a hidden herd of wild horses, loads of Conquistador artifacts, and one magnificent chestnut stallion that Steve names Flame. Steve tames Flame, and Pitch and Steve witness a duel between Flame and a piebald stallion who also seeks to lead the herd. They decide to keep the island their secret, and return there whenever they can.
The first thing I need to say about this book is that Steve and Pitch are both unutterably, insanely, disturbingly, weird. SO WEIRD. They have half-formed personalities that basically shift constantly and how on earth do they deal with basic social norms and other people? In short: they are both really badly written.

The book starts by placing Azul Island with precise latitude and longitude coordinates.

Can I admit that I was kind of hoping they would be in the middle of a landmass in, like, Asia?

Steve is arriving to spend a few weeks with his childhood friend and next door neighbor Pitch, who has moved to the island of Antago to live with his older stepbrother, Tom, who owns a sugar cane plantation. Before we even go on can I just say that at no point does anyone in this book grapple with or even mention the history of brutal conquest and slavery that was the Caribbean sugar industry? Yeah. Here, read about it if you want to get (even more) depressed.

Anyway, Tom is a dick, but he at least has a well-defined character and a narrative purpose in the arc, because he thinks Steve's proposal to spend two weeks camping on Azul Island is dumb and he tells Steve that if he can hack it for two weeks he can have any horse he wants. It's not clear why he thinks Steve can't hack it, other than he's the kind of guy who doesn't think anyone is competent at anything. In fifty more years, Tom is going to be hanging around internet forums posting Pepe memes and calling people cucks.

Let me give you a taste of how weird Steve & Pitch's interactions with. This is one of their very first interactions after being apart for several years.
Steve pointed to Pitch’s shorts and said, smiling, “And you couldn’t get by with an outfit like that at home.” “No,” Pitch returned very seriously, “no, you couldn’t at all. And it’s a shame, for they’re so comfortable.”
...shorts? You can't wear shorts in America? I mean, I know that standards for men's clothing have changed and Steve and Pitch are both at a precarious point when they're not yet full adults and therefore are navigating the boundaries between acceptable young adult clothes and acceptable adult apparel but I somehow don't think that's what Walter Farley was trying to say here.

Steve & Pitch set off for Azul Island, a trip that mostly consists of Pitch whining about what a greenhorn he is and the two of them talking rapturously about the Conquistadors. They both think the Conquistadors are, like, history's greatest unsung adventuring heroes instead of rapey, pillaging douchebags.
Pitch’s eyes were bright as he went on excitedly, “From here, Steve, those infamous Conquistadores, men like Cortés, Pizarro and Balboa, may have selected their armies, their horses, guns and provisions, and set forth to plunder the Incas and the Aztecs of their gold!”

The Conquistador fanboying also leads quite nicely into the other theme of the book: equine eugenics. And look: we select for traits when we breed, and as humans who control the breeding destinies of our animals, we are obviously creating what we want, and I know that the term eugenics doesn't quite apply in the same way. But there is a difference between "selecting for desired traits within a breed standard that is part of a wide array of different breeds" and the over the top bizarreness that Steve and Pitch engage in here. I'll provide examples as we go on, but here's one of the first, when they arrive on the sandy beach that everyone thinks is the only accessible part of Azul Island.
It was obvious that Tom had left the worst of the horses upon Azul Island, Steve thought. Certainly the Conquistadores couldn’t have ridden puny animals like these in their long, arduous campaigns into the New World! He remembered the pictures of statues he had seen in his schoolbooks of men like Pizarro and Cortés sitting astride horses strong and powerful of limb, capable of standing the rigors of long marches through strange and hostile lands.
Pretty is as pretty does, Steve, and basing your conceptions of history off of pictures of statues from elementary school textbooks is...really dumb.

Speaking of the island, can we talk about its ecology for a second? Azul Island is about 95% steep canyon walls (how steep? steep enough to block the sun, but not so steep that Steve & Pitch can't climb them by hand later) with a sandy beach a few hundred yards wide by a quarter mile long that is believed to be the only accessible part of the island. On this beach lives a herd of horses with such viability that Tom can round up 30 horses every few years from them. How do they not all starve to death? Great question! Never answered.

Then we get to the next part of the story, in which Steve finally confesses to Pitch why he came to visit him in Antago. Pitch had sent a newspaper clipping of the most recent roundup of Azul Island horses, and it reminded Steve of a literal fever dream he had as a small child.
It was the anaesthetic, but I didn’t know that. I breathed in the sweet, sickly odor, and I was still thinking of my pony when the fiery pinwheels started. I followed them round and round as they sped faster and faster. Soon they were going so fast that they no longer made a circle, but were one ball of fire. It came at me hard, bursting in my face. “It was then that I first saw Flame. I didn’t name him Flame. The name just came with this horse, for his body was the red of fire. He was standing on the cliff—” Steve stopped and glanced behind him. “That cliff,” he added huskily. “Below, too, was the canyon and the rolling land beyond. All this …” His hand pointed to the canyon and then fell to his side.
“I grew up,” Steve went on, “and put Flame aside along with my tricycle and scooter. But I never actually forgot him, Pitch,” he insisted. “I never forgot Flame, or the canyon and cliff. Then a few weeks ago your letter came—your letter with the picture of a place I’d thought an imaginary one for so many years!” Steve’s voice had risen and there was eagerness in it now as he turned toward Pitch. “How could I have seen this canyon ten years ago, Pitch? How could I, when I’d never heard of Azul Island until a few weeks ago when your letter came? That’s what brought me here, Pitch,” he confessed.
So of course that very night they wake up in the middle of the night and what do they see? A giant chestnut stallion standing on that very cliff! (Later in the book it will be pretty clear that there is no way to get to the top of the cliff from the inside of the island except by climbing up a rope. Pretty much everything to do with this island is a plot hole so large you could drive a dump truck through it.)

This sends Steve straight into a frenzy, and they pack up their campsite and circle the island in the hopes of finding where the horse came from. They find a rock that they tie up to, and then foot and handholds up a fissure in the rock that they climb up. At the top of the cliff is a man-made hole, and they rappel down it into some caverns. Then they wander through the caverns for hours and hours. At one point they stumble across a room entirely full of skeletons chained to the wall. The lose all their matches, and then their flashlight. Because there is no justice in the universe, they do not starve to death.
“This tunnel is partly natural in formation, Steve. It could have been cut as far back as the Ice Age, then pushed up by some giant upheaval.” Pitch paused, then added with great awe, “But a lot of it has been worked out by hand. Notice the perfect regularity of the cutting on each side and on the ceiling here.” Steve’s eyes were following the beam of light. “By whose hands?” he asked. “The Spaniards, Steve, the Spaniards,” Pitch returned quickly. “They probably started work on it early in the sixteenth century and continued for well over a hundred and fifty years—until shortly after 1669, I’d say.”
Can I just get this off my chest? All the online summaries you read about this book call Pitch an archaeologist. PITCH IS NOT A FUCKING ARCHAEOLOGIST. He is an overly enthusiastic amateur idiot. We have no idea what he does on Antago other than skulk around his stepbrother. He has a creepy hard-on for the Conquistadors and he digs shit up. That's it. He's an archaeologist in the same way my husband is an electrician which is to say my husband wanders through the house leaving lights on for hours at a time and unplugs my iPhone chargers at the worst possible moment. Pitch jumps to bizarre conclusions, has no sense of context, has no interest in interrogating or documenting the things he finds. He's a worse archaeologist than Indiana Jones, who at least managed to get a doctorate and puts things in museum collections occasionally.

They emerge into a magical valley that comprises (most of) the interior of Azul Island, and there they see a band of horses! What kind of horses, you ask? Well, if you've read my other reviews you know that Walter Farley is obsessed with typing every possible kind of horse as an Arabian, no matter how unrealistic or unlikely it is that they would be.
Leaving the herd, moving from shadow to sun, stepped the giant stallion of the cliff! He walked toward the pool, his proud head raised high, his muscles moving easily beneath sleek skin. The sun’s rays turned his chestnut coat into the glowing red of fire. Under his breath, Steve murmured, “Flame!”
“They all have Arabian blood in them, Pitch. Notice their wedge-shaped heads.” And then Steve went on to point out every physical characteristic of the Arabian that he had observed in the horses. He concluded by saying, “They’re the same horses the Conquistadores rode centuries ago, Pitch."
One of them does the math and realizes this single herd of horses has been here for ~300 years, which is...interesting. Steve's fine with it.
But I’ve read,” he went on, “that inbreeding is perfectly all right if the horses are of the purest blood and don’t have any bad traits or weaknesses; because if they do, the bad traits in both sire and dam show up in the foal worse than ever.” Steve paused. “But that hasn’t happened here—at least, as far as we can tell.”
...that is not how genetics work, Steve.
They watched the horses for a few more minutes before Pitch said, “I was thinking of the Arabian blood in these horses, Steve. You know that seems logical to me too, now, because the Arabs invaded Spain in about 700 A.D. They remained in Spain for five hundred years before they were forced out, and I’m sure that by that time their horses had become native to Spain.” Pleased with his own reasoning, Pitch looked at the horses with renewed interest.
 ...that is not how history works, Pitch.

The next sequence of events is super weird and really kind of awful. (I feel like I'm overusing the word weird in this review, but at the same time I feel like my review is making this book feel more coherent than it actually is. Imagine me writing and erasing "weird" about twice as often as I actually ended up using it.)

First, a bay stallion comes out of nowhere (nowhere!!! there's only one herd of horses!) to challenge Flame, because if there's one thing this book series has established, it's that stallions are crazed assholes who fight to the death at every opportunity. Probably 10% of this book is horse-on-horse MMA. Flame kills the bay stallion, and then another stallion emerges out of nowhere to challenge Flame.
Then he, too, saw the monstrosity of a horse that now stood a few hundred yards from the red stallion. He had come with the falling of the sun behind the walls of Azul Island. In the shadows, his massive body penetrated the darkness like a luminous thing. It was as though he belonged only to the night. He was as grotesquely ugly as the red stallion was beautiful. Thick-bodied, he stood still, waiting … waiting as he had done all through the fight of the other two stallions. Small, close-set eyes—one blue, the other a white wall-eye—gleamed from his large head, which was black except for the heavy blaze that descended over his wall-eye. His neck was thick and short, as was his body, and black too except for the ghostly streaks of white that ran through it. His mane and tail were white. Arrogant and ruthless, fearing nothing, he moved toward the red stallion at a walk, hate gleaming in his beady eyes. His heavy ears were pulled back flat against his head, his teeth bared. Suddenly he stopped, with ears pitched forward, and screamed his challenge again. He was the embodiment of ugliness, of viciousness. Only the high crest upon his neck and the high set of his tail gave evidence of the Arabian blood in him.
Read that description, and then read it again slowly. Yeah. It makes even less sense the second time, doesn't it? You see what I mean about equine eugenics now? The Piebald actually sounds like a horse I'd rather ride than Flame, to be honest. Good bone, cool coloring, a bit sassy but way smarter than Flame. Sure, he's supposed to be the embodiment of evil, but Flame doesn't exactly have moral high ground to stand on either.

The Piebald kicks Flame's ass, and Flame runs away and disappears at the far end of the interior canyon. Steve is apoplectic and convinced that the Piebald will ruin the herd of horses in the valley by spreading his inferior seed, and it will be the end of this majickal breed of horses because nothing like this has ever happened in the last weird incestuous 300 years of this herd being entirely alone. (With no natural predators, and a couple square miles of grazing space! How is this place not ten feet high in horse bones?)

Steve, of course, follows Flame, and as he does so somehow the geography of Azul Island gets even more confusing. He goes through a narrow passageway to find another small canyon, where Flame is hiding out. Then Flame runs away from him into another narrow passageway, and emerges into a huge natural sea cavern. There are all sorts of small caverns off the main one, and in one of those small caverns is a pit of quicksand. With a sort of...winch over it? Like the Conquistadors used to...lower things into it? Is it some kind of torture mechanism? Why quicksand? What the actual fuck?

Of course Flame falls into the quicksand, somehow. (I'm honestly not sure how. I think trying to escape Steve? Good job, jackass.) Steve gets a rope around him and stops him from sliding further in. The rope is hooked to the 300 year old winch mechanism, which works perfectly. Then Steve leaves to go get Pitch.

Pitch thinks the whole thing is weird, and could Steve just calm down for a bit and have some dinner before they go rescue Flame?
“I didn’t mean to be unkind,” Pitch said quickly. “I’m sorry, Steve. It’s just that I’m finding it difficult to keep pace with your reasoning. Why are you so certain that Flame won’t return to his band?
Pitch is all of us.

Then I'm pretty sure he roofies Steve because...Steve falls asleep. Just out cold. While Flame is dangling from a winch in a pit of quicksand on the other side of the island. Holy shit.

When he wakes up, he has to talk Pitch into going to help him, which Pitch eventually does, and on the way there they do a lot of little side trips to look at Conquistador stuff because Pitch's hard-on continues unabated. In order to get Pitch's help, Steve promises specifically that he won't pursue Flame anymore, because Pitch is worried (not unreasonably!) that Flame is a wild animal who will kill Steve. Steve promises, and then spends pretty much the rest of the book whining about that promise.

They rescue Flame in a harrowing and highly improbable sequence of events, and then we get a whole long montage in which Steve makes heart-eyes at Flame from across fields while Pitch digs up extraordinary artifacts and just puts them in his pockets because they're shiny. That's maybe 10 days of their 14 day trip. (Everything else I have recounted was days 1-3, yes, seriously.) Eventually Flame approaches Steve and Steve says that he hasn't violated his promise to Pitch because he didn't pursue him, Flame came to him! That seems like really weaselly logic to me, but whatever. Steve then spends all day riding Flame and fixing up his cuts from his fight with the Piebald.

Steve is pretty determined to get Flame off the island, because he thinks Flame can be the horse that Tom promised him. He thinks that Flame is now ostracized from the herd and he doesn't care about equine racial purity anymore, just about "his" horse. He's convinced that Flame is to afraid of the Piebald to go back into the main valley.

Pitch and Steve get ready to leave on their last day, and the last 10% of the book is just them making up, and then changing, their minds about whether or not to tell people about the island. I wanted to knock their heads together really hard many times during this sequence. Make a plan and stick to it, fer fuck's sake!

But no! Flame follows Steve out of the valley like a lovesick puppy, whistling/screaming/making impossible noises the whole time! And the Piebald sees him, and Steve and Pitch. He chases down the boys and breaks Steve's arm somehow (maybe by knocking him over? it's really not clear). We get another multiple-page long stallion fight after which Flame finally emerges victorious, shockingly enough, and that convinces Steve that Flame has to stay on his island.

They get back to Antago in the boat which has miraculously been tied up to a random rock on the side of an island in the middle of the Atlantic for two weeks without sustaining any damage or sinking, and Pitch changes his mind five more times on the way there about whether to tell people.

Steve finally makes a vanity appeal, saying to Pitch that he could be the only person to study the island and he could make genius archaeological discoveries and Steve will come help him whenever he can! On all his school vacations and summers! Pitch thinks that sounds just swell, and he's going to excavate an important untouched archaeological site entirely by his untrained and uninformed self and everyone will be just thrilled!

Aaaaaand...end book. Seriously, that's it. What a long, strange trip that was, from the fever dreams to the equine racial purity to the Conquistador wet dreams to the utterly unlikable personalities of...literally everyone. Do I even need to mention that there was not one single woman in the entire book? Not "no women who spoke" or "no women with names" but not a single solitary woman even in the background. Oy.

I feel like I should say a few good things here, and what I have to say is that the most appealing parts of this book are pure wish-fulfillment. A secret tropical island with a hidden valley and a herd of magical horses? Sign 12 year old me! (Hell, sign 34 year old me up.) Obsessing about the Conquistadors at least gives Pitch something to do with his sad, weird life. And of course, the boy-and-his-horse trope is still strong here. The wistful, "I have a secret place were I'm accepted and loved" vibe is strong here, and there are moments when it really works.

Next up, I will have to try and be snarky about The Black Stallion and Satan, my own personal childhood favorite.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Weekly Blog Roundup

As a reminder, you can get your blog links in your email inbox, and as of this week, I'm making a change: email roundups (which contain these links + some additional content) will go out at noon on Friday. So if you're looking for a Friday afternoon boredom-reliever at work, sign up!

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Goodbye, Frank from The Reeling
Beautiful, clearly written account of a special mule's last days.

Becoming an Independent Rider in a Lesson Program from Cob Jockey
This is a tough and overlooked problem.

Weekend Wanderings from Eventing Saddlebred Style
I'm always a sucker for trail ride photos of landscapes that look so different from my own.

Ride Between the Rivers 2017 from In Omnia Paratus
The day I stop sharing Liz's endurance ride recaps someone should make sure I'm not dead in a ditch somewhere.

I had forgotten from A Gift Horse
This is just perfect and it encapsulates the way I feel exactly.

In which we run away to treasure hunt, and take the horses from Haiku Farm
An amazing recap of a day spend doing Competitive Mounted Orienteering.

Does your dog come when called? Every time? from The Other End of the Leash
Arya has a really really terrible recall. It's something I deeply regret but not something I feel I have the confidence to work on. I'm going to be studying this excellent long post for a while.

Canada Cup Dressage Photos & Final Comments from Oh Gingersnap
Scroll down for other posts about this very cool competition and lovely pictures of some gorgeous cobs.

Dino and the search for the magic gallop from PONY'TUDE
I never did find Tristan's really good XC gallop before retiring him from eventing, so I'm fascinated by this process.

Foxhunting v Eventing from The House on the Hill
I've never foxhunted, so this is a good list of things to think about.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Summer Series: Son of the Black Stallion

Son of the Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

At the end of The Black Stallion Returns, Alec left the Black behind in "Arabia" but was promised the first foal by the black out of the Arabian mare Johar. Spoiler alert: this book is about that foal. Here's the basic summary.
Alec is gifted the first foal by the Black, a colt he names Satan, but there's something wrong. Satan has a mean streak a mile wide, and Henry doubts it will ever be cured. After many, many, many violent interludes, Alec eventually bonds with Satan, and they train him for the track. He overcomes training problems and villainous machinations to win the two year old Hopeful Stakes and start a great racing career.
Much like the key to The Black Stallion was understanding that Alec has PTSD, the key to understanding this book is that Walter Farley wanted to try his hand at writing a horror novel but have it all turn out okay after all. There's just no other way to explain how Satan is written.

Let's start at the beginning, our third visit to the port of Addis, where a mysterious group of Arabs load a young colt onto a steamer ship. Two sailors watch, and decide a) the horses are really super nice and b) the colt is 5 months old and already a complete shit who bites one of his handlers.

The two sailors also helpfully spend several pages recapping the first book, including telling the reader that the Drake went down with all hands on deck, which makes yet another retcon. I don't have a good explanation for why I care about this so much except it's just so damn lazy. Read your own books, Walter Farley! They're not all that long, it's taking me about two hours for each one!

Cut to Flushing, where Alec helpfully catches us up on the events of The Black Stallion Returns via internal monologue and also lets us know that Henry is off working for Peter Boldt, "who has one of the finest racing stables in the country," except his wife is still Alec's neighbor and didn't Henry retire and what in God's name did he do in "Arabia" that merited offering him a job? Wouldn't Volence be the one that would actually be impressed by Henry? I give up.

Anyway, this is just a way of getting to the real moral of this book, which is that no one in this entire narrative deserves Alec's mother, Belle. (We only learn her name in an aside toward the end of the book, fuck you, Walter Farley.)
She was afraid. Afraid of what this new horse would bring. Twice before a horse, his horse, had led Alec to undertakings few men had ever experienced. Undertakings which for him had been adventurous, exciting. But for her and her husband, they had meant months of anguish and concern.
I grant you, this is exceptionally poorly written, but augh, Belle. She basically spends this entire book quietly in agony and if anyone acknowledges her at all its either as a joke or as an obstacle to get around.

Speaking of obstacles to get around, Mrs. Dailey, Henry's wife, who never does get a name!
"Mrs. Dailey?" Alec smiled. "Dad! Don't tell me you've forgotten...Henry's wife...lives in the big house on the corner, and owns the barn and field."
"Oh, yes! I guess I'm getting old, Alec," Mr. Ramsay said, laughing. "Come to think of it, your mother has been charging me with forgetfulness of late." A slight pause, and he added, "I shouldn't have thought Mrs. Dailey would make you pay anything, though, what with Henry having that good job on the coast, and her taking in boarders.
Later events will bear this out, but Mr. Ramsay? IS THE ACTUAL WORST. Holy shit. They're rolling in it, he's got a job and everything, why won't they feed your horse for free?!

The colt arrives, and things are...not good. First, he almost kills Alec's dog, and then Alec gives him daddy issues on, like day one.
Still looking at the blazing eyes, he said softly, "You're fire, boy. You're full of it, just like him. You're mine, boy. We're going places and I. We're going to use that fire to burn the tracks. We're going to make him proud of you. He'll hear about you, boy. Hear the pounding of your hoofs, even though he's way back in the desert. It's going to be the way he wants it, boy."
For my money, this right here? This is the moment that the colt decides the only solution to his current predicament is to murder everyone, and I do not blame him one bit.

Just for the WTF-ery, I will also give you this bit.
"He's it, Henry!" Alec almost shouted. He's everything we hoped for. I know he is. I can feel it right here in his muzzle even?" 

Alec announces he's decided to name the colt Satan, I even need to explain the ways in which that is a terrible idea? Is anyone even mildly surprised that the next ~75 pages of the book are a descent into a storyline right out of The Omen?

What, you think I'm exaggerating? Literally the next whole segment of the book is a see-saw between Alec expressing the same sentiments as above (he's perfect! he'll come around! I lurrrrve him! the Black will be so proud!) and Henry saying and thinking things like, well:
And it was his eyes that Henry looked at more and more often as they walked along. They were smaller than his sire's, and the glare from them was fixed and stony. They bothered Henry. For throughout his life the old trainer had prided himself on being able to tell much about a horse from his eyes. And he didn't like what he saw in the black colt's. Too much lurked there...craftiness, cunning, viciousness, yes...and something else, too. Something which Henry couldn't figure out. Something which he could only feel...and it was sinister. He'd never seen it in the eyes of any horse before, even the Black.
Satan is indeed a little shit, but can you blame him? He's being trained by an 18 year old kid who has no idea what he's doing, he gets barely any turnout, he has no interaction with other horses of any kind (he went after Napoleon and so they keep him far away) and basically his only entertainment and enrichment is trying to murder the people around him. Which he does. Over, and over, and over, and over, and...well, you get the idea.
The colt rose above them all in all his savageness, his blood on fire and the urge to kill great within him. No longer did his eyes smolder with contempt. Now they were alive and gleaming red with hate. And Satan's black body trembled with eagerness as his savage instinct drove him toward the kill.
There's something deeply ironic about the way Satan is handled, because you know what he needs? He needs a mare to kick the shit out of him and teach him some manners, and he needs friends. That's basically what Alec needs in his life, too. His mother is abused by the narrative and not allowed to express human feelings without being mocked by the men around her, and Alec spends the whole book isolating himself even further than he already was. He rebuffs the last of his friends who want to spend time with him and then transfers to community college so he can have even less claims on his time.

Anyway. Henry manages to get Satan sort of leading, and there's a whole bit where Alec sees a length of chain and is worried Henry is beating the colt, but of course Henry isn't, so with that resolved, Alec looks at a 17hh yearling (not making that up, it's explicitly stated) that can't even be lead and won't stand still for grooming and still tries to bite, kick, or run down everyone around him and well, you know what Alec does, right?

He convinces Henry to put a bridle and saddle on Satan and then gets up on him all within hour? Henry even flat out says this is too fast, but maybe it's also a good idea, because Satan is so awful this won't give him time to plot. Jesus, none of these people should be allowed around horses.

Predictably enough, Satan rears and then I think we're meant to understand that he deliberately flips on Alec and tries to squash him on the way down. Henry later remembers it this way:
Never would Henry forget the hideous sight of Satan, in all his fury, intentionally falling over backwards, hoping to pin the boy beneath his giant body. Never had he seen it happen before, with any horse, and he hoped never to see it again. If Alec hadn't kept his wits, if he hadn't been the horseman he was, he wouldn't have thrown himself clear of Satan's back as he'd done, and just in time.
Can we be clear about something here? Alec had never touched a horse until the summer he spent with his uncle in India. He pretty explicitly says that in The Black Stallion. Then he rides the Black for maybe a couple of months. THAT'S IT. That is the sum total of Alec's entire experience with horses. Satan is maybe the fourth or fifth horse he's ever ridden. EVER.
Mr. Ramsay said quietly, "I know better, Henry. Alec is too good a horseman to fall off, with or without stirrups. You had trouble with the colt." 
Because, see, Henry brought an unconscious Alec to his parents' house saying only that he'd fallen and hit his head. Also, fuck you, Mr. Ramsay. Alec is not any kind of horseman and far far far more talented riders than he have fallen off. Like me, for example. And probably you. Yes, you! If you're reading this, you're probably a better rider than Alec Ramsay!

Alec's accident prompts Henry to go out and have a come to Jesus session with Satan, and let's bullet point out what Henry does here because it is so mind-blowingly awful and misguided and just plain dumb that if you're surprised at how it ends I don't even know what to say to you.

  • Step 1: grab a crop and a length of rope 
  • Step 2: go out into Satan's field and yell at him, which causes him to charge straight at Henry
  • Step 3: smack Satan really hard on the face with the crop when he runs by
  • Step 4: lasso Satan, throw him to the ground, and tie a blindfold over his eyes
  • Step 5: chase him around the field, still lassoed, now with a blindfold, get knocked down many times
  • Step 6: make one final effort to wheel him around with the ropes but actually drive him to jump the fence into some undergrowth, lose consciousness
  • Step 7: profit?????
Alec hears Satan screaming from his sickbed, and comes out to see Henry out cold in the field and Satan gone. Henry tells him that he's killed Satan, because the colt jumped the fence with ropes still attached to him, and he's definitely strangled himself.

Of course he hasn't strangled himself, or this book would be even shorter. Alec finds Satan immobilized and lying in undergrowth and slowly being strangled by the ropes. He wades right in and loosens the ropes and...that's it. The act of saving Satan magically transforms him from the hellspawn described for the last umpteen pages into a spirited but manageable horse.

No, really. It's that fast and that complete. Like flipping a switch. Satan is not overly fond of Henry, but the rest of the summer is a training montage of Alec riding Satan around the field, and then heading to the track for workouts. In maybe four or five rides, Satan has the knack of not murdering other horses he's galloping with (poor Napoleon, who spends his nights galloping around a track and his days pulling Tony's vegetable cart). 

The next problem to overcome is that Satan is afraid of whips, but it's fine, they hang crops in his stall and rub them over his muzzle and put blinkers on him and magic! He's off to the races, literally - he wins his first race, the Sanford, even though he veers all over the place to get away from the other jockeys' crops so he really runs, like twice as far. He's just that good, you guys.

Now we have a complication. Peter Boldt, Henry's old boss, is trying really hard to be the villain of this book, even though it's really Satan. I've been neglecting his part of the book in favor of the horse bits, but here it is in a nutshell: he's a bad guy who wants to buy Satan. Earlier in the book, Alec sold Satan to his father for $1 to get around Jockey Club rules so that he could also ride him in races. Boldt offered Alec's father a lot of money ($35,000 in 1947 dollars, which is about $400k in today's money, adjusted for inflation. Mr. Ramsay refused, saying the horse belonged to Alec.

Now Boldt is back, trying to prevent Satan from running in the Hopeful Stakes so that his horse, Boldt's Comet, will win. So he files a complaint saying that Mr. Ramsay lied on his paperwork and that Alec is the real owner so Satan can't race. You know what? HE'S NOT WRONG. But on paper, Mr. Ramsay is the owner and he just has to show everyone the bill of sale that Alec wrote to prove it.

Let me backtrack for just a moment and say that the bill of sale scene was the most emotionally touching scene in the whole book, because these stories are best when they really show how deeply emotionally involved Alec is with these horses. Not in the creepy obsessive way (a line that Farley crosses with gusto) but in the boy-and-his-horse way.

Problem: Alec's dad has lost the bill of sale. He was showing it off to some people at work (THE WORST) and now he can't find it. He and Alec and Henry and poor Tony search the entire house over and over again and...enter Belle Ramsay again. First, yet another example of how she spends this book getting shat on.
Turning to Alec, [his father] added, "Don't mention my buying these riding silks to your mother, Alec." Pausing, he said confidingly, "She wouldn't understand." 
Nodding, Alec smiled. "Yes, Dad, I know...she wouldn't understand. 
It literally never occurs to anyone in this book to talk to women like they are people. But she gets her revenge.
Only half-heartedly had she helped search for the paper. She hadn't wanted to find it. She didn't want to spend next Saturday afternoon waiting at home, thinking of her son riding Satan in that big race. It would be dangerous, and she was afraid for him. 
Only person talking sense in this whole book? Yes, I think so. Notice, too, how she assumes no one will want her there to watch the race? Women's lib cannot come fast enough for Belle Ramsay.

You know what she does next? She logics that shit right out. She does exactly what women do. She thinks about where the paper was last, what her husband was doing, and within an hour she has accomplished what four men working twelve hours could not do. It's awesome, but it's also a really weird moment, narratively, because the whole book has been trashing her and her womanly emotions and now she saves the day in a practical, smart, and efficient way. Kind of whiplash-y, honestly.

Anyway, the day is saved, the big race is here, and...if I ended this recap right here you'd know what happens. There is a legitimately great scene with all of the other jockeys, and a really cool older jockey who takes Alec under his wing, and the predictable shenanigans of one jockey being a jerk during the race. Satan wins, though, fending off Tom Volence's Desert Storm (sired by one of the horses Volence brought back in the last book) in a stretch duel. In the winning circle, Belle Ramsey gets one last moment to being a secret hero, after her husband told her she should not have come to the race.
Mrs. Ramsay moved forward and placed her hand upon Satan's neck. "He's hot, Alec," she said with great concern. "We should get him away from this crowd."

Hey, guess who traveled to America to see the race? Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak, that's who, and at the very end of the book he drops the bombshell news that he's thinking of bringing the Black back to America to race, which lets Alec twist the screws on Satan's daddy issues one last time.
Abu had said the Black would be in the States next spring! And next spring Satan would be a three-year-old, eligible to race for the biggest stakes! It could happen that Satan would race the Black!
Satan pushed his head against him, and Alec rubbed the colt between the eyes. "Your pop is coming," he whispered. "And he'll be proud of you, boy. I know he will." 
Next up: we take a sideways journey to Azul Island, home of archaeologists and Spanish horses and, eventually, aliens, for The Island Stallion.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

2017 Goals: July Recap

Fuck this summer you guys. Forever and ever, world without end, fuck this summer, amen.


Let's recap.

January Recap
February Recap
March Recap
April Recap
May Recap
June Recap

Horse Goals - original post here

1. Put hands on my horse 5x a week - Actually I crushed this. Granted, a lot of these visits were in the middle of the night and doing medical care, so not a ton of riding, but I still saw him an awful lot.

2. Be less perfunctory - In some ways I'm actually doing really well with this. I'm trying to budget myself more time to do the little things. It's amazing and wonderful to live so close to him, but I've noticed that I fall into a trap where I think I can get in & out of the barn in 90 minutes, including travel time. That's do-able, but it leaves no time to take care of the niceties. So I'm working on building out more time.

3. Aim toward dressage schooling shows - I really should just take this goal off it's depressing me.

4. Take more lessons - lololololol

5. Horse-specific income stream / funding emergency fund - you guys, I'm not going to put up my numbers because I had $2,800 in vet bills in July fuck July.

6. Do more thoughtful work - Hm. I'm going with yes.

7. Get more media - Do a million pictures of him standing sick in his stall count?

Life Goals - original post here

1. Pay off car - yes! on track for November, depending on how things shake out I might take a swing at paying this down in September.

2. Read 75 books - 57/75, HA, take that, goals! Even better: I genuinely enjoyed everything I read this month, and most of them were superb. I wish I could make everyone read Random Family.

Welcome to NightVale by Joseph Fink
Supergirl Vol 1: Last Daughter of Krypton (New 52) by Michael Fink
Marriage and Other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole Leblanc
Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
The Black Stallion Returns by Walter Farley
Son of the Black Stallion by Walter Farley

3. Revive history blogs - ugggghhhhhh

4. Do better about food - Yes, still doing well, except I did eat terribly yesterday. I had small portions and did not eat a ton but I had biscuits & gravy for breakfast and pizza for dinner. Too many carbs, not enough proteins.

5. Decorate the house - nope.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Vet-bill-a-palooza: mystery dog illness

I don't talk about my dog all that much but rest assured, I'm at least as obsessed with her as I am with Tristan. Hence why it's been a difficult couple of weeks, because just as Tristan was getting better she also started getting really sick.

Arya's two natural states: 100mph and sound asleep. 

I had written previously that she started getting hives literally within the hour of when I arrived home after the first night of Tristan getting sick. Those hives continued all that week, coming back like clockwork when she was due for her next benadryl dose.

She was a pretty miserable little dog. Her skin was hot to the touch, and the hives were everywhere. We did lots of cold baths. I washed everything she could possibly be touching in case it was environmental. Nothing helped; by the end of that week, I made her a follow up appointment with her regular vet for the following Monday morning to talk through other options.

Well, that weekend my husband took her to New Hampshire for a few days of visiting his parents. On Saturday afternoon, he noticed a small bump on her nose, just about the size of a pimple. You can't even really see it on this picture he took of her that afternoon.

By Sunday morning, it had opened up into a blistering sore. We treated it with a baking soda and water paste, because our best guess was that she had either gotten exposed to some particularly nasty plant or a bug bite / bee sting.

It kept getting worse.

Thankfully, we had that vet appointment on Monday, and the vet was duly very impressed. Her best guess was that it was a staph infection, so Arya started on cephilixin, a pretty strong antibiotic, and she went in a cone to keep from getting at her nose. She kept on the benadryl to hopefully keep some of the itching down. She was a really miserable pup.

She didn't get better. By Wednesday afternoon, she had also started opening up bloody lesions on her legs - similarly pimple-sized spots that, with no outside intervention, blistered open. Because she had the cone on, they didn't get irritated into huge hot spots like her nose had, but they still kept opening up. She had as many as a dozen on each leg of varying sizes and severity. Most of them opened up and scabbed over pretty quickly; only a few of them were actively pussy and bloody like her nose.

Thursday, we went back to the vet. She should have at least paused in her progression on the antibiotics, and we were seeing none of that. So we did a barrage of tests. The vet pulled urine to test for canine blastomycosis, and after listening to her lungs, also ordered radiographs for that same reason. Her nose was too raw and open - she had managed to rub it when I took the cone off for two seconds - to culture, but they took biopsy punches of her nose, two legs, and one ear. They sent me home with a topical treatment to apply as I could, and then we waited.

Through that weekend, she finally started seeing incremental gains, but also some setbacks. Her nose finally started to scab over and heal, but she opened up new lesions on her ears, and her legs still had some lumps and scabs. Her ears continued to progress and her nose continued to heal all through the next week.

We got the urine test back first, and the second opinion from the radiologist: no signs of the blastomycosis, thankfully. That still left quite a few possibilities, though, and one that was looking increasingly likely was some kind of auto-immune disorder like pemphigus, in which her immune system was attacking and breaking down her own skin. That was our most likely worst case scenario. Fast moving skin cancer was still on the list, but looking less likely as she healed a little bit.

Two weeks after her first vet appointment, we went back to get her stitches from the biopsy pulled, and they finally had the biopsy results: deep bacterial pyoderma. In other words, a bacterial infection that had started on her nose but wreaked merry havoc systemically. Actually a pretty good case scenario! We added prednisone to the mix, and the vet put in a call to a dermatologist to get a secondary consult to make absolutely sure we had covered all the bases.

she did not think the comfy benches should be just for people.

She's been on the prednisone for about a week now, and is waiting to start her taper & to go off the antibiotics. We'll hopefully be able to do that soon. We're waiting on the dermatologist's opinion and to make sure she has no more scabs. She's still got one or two on her legs and her ears. Mostly, she's just down to bare skin in those spots; we'll see what grows back in!

Life on prednisone is not a ton of fun; she's drinking and peeing constantly, and lethargic. But she's spending more time than not out of the cone, and her personality is mostly back. She's clingier than she was - she will not let me out of her sight - but has occasionally started wreaking havoc again, taking apart her toy box to find exactly what she wants to chew on, leaving nylabones where we can step on them in the middle of the night, and waking me up to tell me all about her morning walk when she gets back from it.

So that's been my life for the last few weeks. She and Tristan were actually neck and neck for vet bills for a little while - small animal diagnostics: they are not cheap! - but with the most recent bill from the barn for supplies, Tristan has pulled ahead again, sigh.