Long before rescuing OTBs was cool, this story of an unsuspecting Bold Ruler filly stole my heart and broke it and gave it back again as I stayed riveted to page after page of Barbara van Tuyl’s novel that became what is now referred to as “The Bonnie Books.” For reasons I still don’t understand I connected with this story on such a deep level that I still think about it and its characters from time to time. Julie Jefferson was all I ever wanted to be. She was brave, compassionate, wise behind her years — and willing to do whatever it took to protect and care for this endearing horse.
I loved this story because it so plays into our “diamond in the rough” fantasies about difficult horses. For me, it also inspired patience beyond words with a horse that everyone who watched our struggles chimed in with a collective exasperated, “Give up, already!”. But a gruff old trainer emerged just in the nick of time and together, over a year of slow and painstaking retraining, we redeemed this diamond of mine and proved a lot of naysayers wrong.
We didn’t win any races, but we won the sense of accomplishment that can only come from solving a serious horse problem and coming out of it with a shiny, shorty prize you knew was in there all along.
Do you have a diamond in the rough horse story? How did you know? What did to redeem your own chunk of coal? Let me hear from you! Share your story (and photos if you have them!) on Facebook, Twitter, or MelindaFolse.com
“I’ve never yet went wrong in sizing up a man by the kind of a horse he rode. A good horse always packs a good man, and I’ve always dodged the hombre what had no thought nor liking for his horse or other animals, for I figger that kind of gazabo is best to be left unacquainted with. No good would ever come of the meeting.”
— Will James, Smoky: The Cowhorse
My relationship with Will James began long before I was old enough to judge grammar or syntax — or realized that everything he says about men and their horses goes about double for women. All of this is excused here, because, as my dad explained, Will James is the real deal. He’s a cowboy that, for reasons no one really knows, spent a lot of time writing down the stories he lived, even though technically he could neither read nor write. (He also led a very short and tragic life, but at least he got the horse part right — and he followed his impulse to write about his experiences as a cowboy in a compelling way that no one else did.) For whatever reason, it was very important to Will to tell people about the horses and the cowboys he lived and worked with. Not only that, he wanted to share what he learned, understood and knew from curating these stories.
Will’s judgment of Smokey was spot on — and even though this little cowhorse with the great big heart endured a lot of peril, to have been so well-understood and deeply-loved by a simple cowboy was a gift and example that became the lasting and best part of Will James’ legacy. And now it is also mine. There is so much I want people to know and understand about horses and how much they can teach us. While most cowboys even today will tell you that there is no better teacher than a horse, it takes a little doing to learn to listen, observe, and understand.
Like Will, I have a deep need to share what I’ve learned and observed from the horses and riders and others who cross my path on regular basis (and even more regular when I put some effort into it!). And while, as the old saying goes, when you get three horse people together you’ll never get them all to agree on anything, you can usually get two of them to agree that the third one is wrong, I find these discussions fascinating. And, taking Wills quote above to heart, you can usually tell all you need to about each of the three by checking out what their their horses think of them!
That being said, and as one who has, As Will describes, “a soft spot in my heart” for all kinds of animals (and some would say a soft spot in my head to match!), stories about horses and their humans have always been my hands-down Number 1 heart-eyed-emoji fascination. And just like Will, I can’t not write them down.
What’s your horse story? What have you observed in the people and horses around you that seemed to reflect a far deeper understandings than was otherwise possible? Let me hear from you! Share your story (and photos if you have them!) on Facebook, Twitter, or MelindaFolse.com
In Part 1 I told you about the beginning of my lifelong love affair with “equine fiction” — and how My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara set the course for my fascination with the horse-human connection.
After probably much more thought than was completely necessary (but so much fun to pour some solid pondering into) I’ve identified four other solid horse life influencers (although each has sequels that kept these stories alive for as long as possible.) My list of finalists includes The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James, and a little-known wild card, A Horse Called Bonnie by Barbara van Tuyl.
Each of these stories brought something different to the table. And oddly enough, you’ll find these themes running through my three nonfiction horse books — and planting some seeds for my own possible foray into equine fiction. We’ll see how that works out.
I told you how I realized the connection between My Friend Flicka and The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses was not only the amazing connection found in the soul-level horse-human connection, but possibly more important, that Flicka was as much about growing up and gaining self-assurance through a relationship with a horse as it was about the horse itself.
Fast forward a few years in my writing life to my new book, Riding Through Thick and Thin. On the surface it’s about body image and riding horses. But dig a few inches under that and you’ll find the repeated allusions to the pure joy we’re meant to feel when we ride. The freedom and take-your-breath-away exhilaration that only comes when you are balanced, fit, and connected with your horse.
Can you guess where I got the mental imagery for this kind of ride? Of course it started with Alec Ramsey’s ecstatic first ride around the island (and later in that first practice ride on a real track) on The Black. I remember thinking of that ride when I rode my first horse, Babe, at breakneck speed (thank God, not literally) around allowed and improvised “track” we had in the flat back section of pasture at our boarding stable. And again on my father’s ranch just outside Hico, Texas, when Patches and I flew across the hayfield just ahead of a glorious Texas sunset (Glad neither of us knew to worry about gopher holes!). And finally, on Trace in the LBJ grasslands with a pack of insane trail riders galloping across a meadow in a stretch of Paradise (Paradise, Texas, that is). Call me weird, but any time I feel this free-spirited joy on the back of a horse, I can’t help but remember Farley’s Alec and The Black.
What real life horse experiences connect you to your favorite stories? Let me hear from you! Post your memories and faves to Facebook,Twitter or MelindaFolse.com
I came across a list of the TOP 100 HORSE MOVIES the other day (Equine Info Exchange™), and first I thought, Hmmm, who gets to write this list? And then I wondered (aside from, “Are there really 100? Where are they?), “What influences these choices? Is it the story? The humans? The horses? Or is it something silly and random — like the color of the horse? (Black Beauty + Black Stallion = any black horse makes a good story?)
I know I have my own favorite horse stories, and I’m sure you have yours, too. Mine started with a single book — the story that began my love affair with equine fiction.
I fell hard for My Friend Flicka in juniorhigh, and not much has come close since. This 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara about Ken McLaughlin, the son of a Wyoming rancher, and his horse, Flicka, awakened in me a fascination with the horse-human relationship. The idea that a horse could be a friend — with the closeness, communication and connection Ken formed with Flicka (against spectacular odds, I might add) — has inspired exploration even today into how this kind of relationship really does heal humans — and horses — from all kinds of ills. Drs. Tom, Deborah, and Adele Von Rust McCormick can tell you much more about the underpinnings of this kind of connection in their books, Horse Sense and the Human Heart and Horses and the Mystical Path.
While the horse-human connection portrayed in My Friend Flicka may have been passed off by many as a magical and farfetched idea when it was written, the truth beneath it is well documented by early Greek and Celtic horsemanship, as well as by the US Cavalry and more modern students such as Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Monty Roberts, Linda Kohanov and many others. In my work with Clinton Anderson as a staff writer, and on his book, Lessons Well Learned, I got a front-row seat to horses and human learning from and connecting with one another. And then, as one of the many women-of-a-certain-age exploring this connection and all horses can add to the middles of our lives, I turned what I learned on this exploration into my own book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses. My Friend Flicka, you see, was as much about growing up and gaining self-assurance through a relationship with a horse as it was about the horse itself.
My Friend Flicka was the first in a trilogy, followed by Thunderhead in 1943 and Green Grass of Wyoming in 1946. There was a popular 1943 film version featuring a young Roddy McDowall, followed by two other film adaptations, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka in 1945, and Green Grass of Wyoming in 1948, not to mention a TV series I didn’t catch until much later it its lengthy reruns. In 2006, Hollywood tried again with this great story — and even with Ken’s part played by a girl and Tim McGraw as the dad — nothing, I’m afraid, could compete with my own vivid imaginings.
As I read I could almost hear that horse nicker when she saw Ken coming down the path, see the softness of her flax main and he brushed it, and feel Ken’s angst in trying to please his father — and never quite measuring up. I knew the intimate details of the McLaughlin household, the breathtaking beauty of their ranch, and all the quirks of every family member as if they were my own. Even today, Mary O’Hara still (from the grave, no less!) still has me in the palm of her hand with this story — and my mental images formed by her words are as fresh and strong right now as they were the first time I read them. This story also brought about my first experience of the deep anxiety of never wanting a story to end, and no matter how many times I re-read that tattered paperback, turning the last page still brought a rush of sadness and yearning for more.
“I hope there are a hundred more books like this,” my 11-year-old self said, of course with the follow-up, “I want to have a horse just like Flicka someday.” And today, having made this soul-level connection with not one but two horses (yes, both somewhat like Flicka, each in a different way — but don’t tell them), it is the rare and wonderful experience I imagined it to be — and so much more.
What is your most compelling horse story? When did your connection with your dream horse begin? Where did it take you? I want to hear from you. Let’s share our stories and start our own list of favorite horse books and movies. Let me hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, or at MelindaFolse.com. I never realized until writing this post the power of these early attractions — and how they influenced my thoughts, perceptions, focus and interest.
And of course, there are a couple more where this one came from. Stay tuned.