Friday, March 18, 2011

Adventure classics -- A dark and stormy horse

The Black Stallion
by Walter Farley
The year 1941 was a momentous one for young writer Walter Farley.  It was the year he received his degree from Columbia University but perhaps more important – far more important for horse-loving young readers – it also saw the publication of his book, The Black Stallion.  That book, its sequels and movie adaptations, would keep Farley busy for the rest of his life.  The Black Stallion opens with teenaged Alec Ramsay returning to America following a visit with his uncle in Arabia.  One day, a wild black stallion is brought aboard – an unusual cargo for the tramp freighter they voyage on.  Alec investigates and succeeds in winning some degree of trust from the horse, but their lifelong bond is forged when they become castaways on a desert island – the only survivors of the wrecked freighter.  After mutually saving each other, the stallion teaches Alec a lesson reiterated in the current, unrelated movie, 127 Days – the value of a good knife.

On the island, Alec rides the stallion for the first time and is stunned by his speed.  After their rescue, the young man convinces his neighbor, retired racehorse trainer Henry Dailey, to train the horse secretly.  But without a known pedigree, the Black, as they call the stallion, cannot compete on the track except as the truly dark horse in a match race between two thoroughbred champions.  The rest is horse story history.

Farley was still a high school student, close to the age of his story’s protagonist, when he began writing the first and most famous of his books.  The Arabia of the story, the desert island, the improbable height of the mysterious horse, are mythic elements unknown in any geography book or breed standard.  If he’d realized how many sequels his story would sire, he might have given more thought to the mysterious horse’s background.  Or he might simply have felt overwhelmed and unequal to the task of writing one of the most iconic equine stories of the century.  In the end, all that matters is the wonder of a young dreamer finding himself swept away on the back of a marvelous horse.

In the accompanying picture, Equest therapy horse Sonny stands in for the Black.  Purists may object to Sonny’s white markings since Farley described his imaginary horse as being completely black.  But fans of the 1979 movie version will remember that Cass Ole, the Texas-bred Arabian stallion who played the Black, also had white markings that had to be dyed black for his role.

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