I’ve always had an affinity for fierce creatures, predators and animals that have to be handled carefully. I adore ferrets and the twinned playful/bloodthirsty sides of their nature. Had I both the financial resources and the time, I would love to study falconry with the intent of someday having my own hawk. I once lived with a hybrid wolf (and I will never do that again), who was gorgeous and not socialised at all. I’ve owned and trained stallions, one lovely, gentlemanly Arabian stallion and one devil of a black Thoroughbred stallion who almost killed me. Something about the fierce hunter nature of difficult animals resonates with me.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater was a book that made me remember how much I loved working with stallions and difficult horses. I wrote a review of it here which talks a lot more about the book, the romance and bleakness of the island, and the relationship between the main characters and their horses. It’s well worth buying and reading, I loved it. It is about the capaill uisce, the dangerous water horses that sweep in from the sea every November, prowling the night and killing the unwary. The capaill uisce are captured, tamed and trained for the yearly Scorpio Races, which keep the island alive as tourists flock to watch. Every year there are deaths, and the sand is washed with blood.
The relationship between Sean and Corr, the great red water horse that he loves, was perfect. It made me remember a certain stallion that I once owned and tried to love, but he had been too badly damaged to accept it. It was during the period in my life when I would ride anything (I was evidently under the impression that I was immortal and unbreakable). I bought young horses to back and train and sell on, and also problem horses which I could buy cheap. Most problem horses have been made that way by stupid, cruel, ignorant or frightened people – such as the mare I bought after she had put her owner in the hospital. (If you saw on a horse’s mouth long enough, you will have it finally rear up and fall over on you, crushing your pelvis.) The biggest project that I ever attempted was the black stallion Salute.
He was a very tall black Thoroughbred colt who had been bred by a husband and wife for racing. The wife died, and the husband lost heart and all interest in the horses, leaving them to be cared for by the Mexican workers on the farm. When I went to look at him, he had been not broken in the normal sense but used for rodeos by the ranch hands. It took four guys to put a saddle on him and then he threw them over and over again until they finally exhausted him enough that one guy could run him around the round pen, whipping him with the ends of the reins. I said that I would buy him if they got off of him immediately and didn’t touch him again.
Salute was broken irreparably, and almost killed me. Thoroughbreds are bred for competitiveness and the refusal to quit, and that can make the stallions a bit more difficult to handle. The old horseman’s saying is that you “tell a gelding, ask a mare, and discuss it with a stallion,” meaning that there is an ongoing competition to see who is boss. You couldn’t trust him for a second – once when I was bridling him he whipped his head around, grabbed me by the neck and shoulder, shook me like a dog shaking a rat, and threw me to the side of the stall. Thank goodness for wearing a winter leather jacket, as he was faster than thought. Another time I’d turned him out in one of the large arenas and, since he was on the far side, nipped in to move a metal mounting block to the side so he wouldn’t get hurt on it. The next thing I knew, I was on my back and all I could see was a vast, black horse belly as he pawed the air over me. For some reason, he didn’t kill me that day.
He never learned to trust me, much less love me. I did get him backed, but he was never trustworthy as with the slightest provocation he would buck. And boy, could he ever buck. I could stay in the pad on most horses, but he would leap higher than my head and sunfish (front legs go to one side, hind legs the other). He swapped ends. He bucked so well that there was an old cowboy at the barn that kept saying I should sell him as rodeo stock. So we finally gelded him, and while he was recovering from that he struck out at another horse through a pipe fence and broke a leg. Poor Salute, destined for hardship and heartbreak.
As hateful as he actually was, I had to love his fierce spirit. He was a pure spirit in his hate, and a primal force of teeth and hooves. He was magnificent. And so, when I read The Scorpio Races, I understood how Sean could love the treacherous, flesh-eating capaill uisce and the red stallion Corr. I can see Salute as a black water horse, satiny coat and snakelike head with sharp teeth reaching for his flimsy human prey. I imagine him out there in the mists and the cold lacework of the waves…it would have suited him perfectly.