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Monday, February 21

Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West

There must be about 11,500 books targeted to children's who love horses, and I read most of them. They were as expendable as bubblegum (at least, once it has been chewed for the full forty-five minutes), although forty years after reading it, I discovered that the little blue-and-white paperback 'More Horse Stories' had so deeply screwed itself into my brain that I could close my eyes and finish every line in the book.

But the Shakespeare of the genre, we all recognized, was Marguerite Henry. Her's were books you would save up for and buy in hardcover, some with jackets bearing an embossed gold sticker to show they had won an important award. Parents picked up on the rays of desire emanation form their progeny towards these volumes and, if they were the least bit caring, fulfilled the desire at least once.

My younger sister received 'King of the Wind, the story of the Godolphin Arabian', one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred. It's color pictures opened onto an exotic world, all turbans and tassels and djellabas. It was a master of the dash of danger, the soupcon of flavorful character, the cup of moral rectitude.

But the one my parents gave to me seemed more an omen than a gift; it was a signed copy, with a legible signature and horseshoe in felt-tip pen on the title page. The book was 'Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West'. It contained on of the few Henry female protagonists, and its equine star for once was not an individual but a whole race of endangered animals.

I did not necessarily identify with Velma Johnston, the real-life heroine, although when she was described as a little girl who had to wear a body cast for months due to polio-----as near to my harrowing dread fear of being buried alive as I could stand to read about---I made myself think I could feel what she felt. But it was when Velma grew up, on the verge of transforming herself into Wild Horse Annie, that I felt the punch of identification---with the horses, that is ---right in my gut, and it knocked the wind out of me.

The book describes how the young woman was driving near her Nevada ranch when she noticed something about the slat -sided truck in front of her: It was dripping blood. She followed it to the rendering plant, thinking how could anyone treat cattle or sheep that way, and as a good western girl who had grown up with horses for friends, she was shocked to see the horses were what the truck contained; wild horses packed as if to presage their upcoming future as the contents of a can. The detail omitted from the children's book version of this transformational event was that the blood was flowing largely from one source, the body of a colt who had been caught under the hooves of this truckload of frenzied animals. Even without it I felt a bit faint. It was worse when I got to the part where it showed how the wild ones where hunted down, with planes and trucks and hundred-pound tires lassoed around their necks. There was a burning in my lungs and incredulity in my heart; how could they? How could anyone? This was beyond anything that had ever occurred to me as possible, and I wanted to believe, as the book's ending said, that Wild Horse Annie had succeeded in her crusade to save the American wild horse---after all, there was now a law with her name on it, and one declaring the mustang a National Heritage species. That would make them too important to ever be killed again. Once people KNEW what had happened to these brave and beautiful creatures, they could never again countenance the carnage that had almost wiped them from the land. Because once people knew something they could never again pretend they didn't know.

We are Hemorrhaging open space, but we have figured out a way to ease the loss. Symbols, unlike land, fit into shopping carts. And although wild horse in the true wild land , are not long for this world---the eradication campaign in the United States is headed by the government at the behest of the cattle ranchers cabal, under the faultless guise of necessary population control; in Namibia, in 2000, the feral horse population was dying from drought, and in other places stories are different, but always end the same---domestics are adaptable enough to feed the hunger for the great yonder and the uplifting sight of its ground-eating denizens. There are now over 5 million horses in this country, up more than 50,000 from last year before. Equestrian housing developments--ride you horse right past the front door of your mansion, which is guarded by sentries outside the electronic gate---are being advertised in every locale. One feed producer is opening by the dozen the type of fancified country store it has envisaged will cater to "ruralpolitan" markets, and boarding stables and riding camps are full up. They can't build stalls fast enough. We are living in horsey times indeed.

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