When Aliens Join Your Horse Fantasy: Walter Farley’s The Island Stallion Races

When I was writing the last SFF Equines post, between the research I was doing for the post and the many recommendations in the comments, I was possessed of a powerful urge to read horse books. Old favorites. Other people’s favorites that I never heard of, or never got to. Horse books! And, as we’ve achieved both the Celtic version of northern summer (having passed the feast of Beltane) and the US Southwestern version (with icebreak on the Santa Cruz River in Tucson), it’s the perfect time for a Summer Reading Adventure.

So, over the next few months, I’m going to read horse books—in genre as much as I can, but a few old favorites as well. I’m taking recommendations, so feel free to make suggestions in comments.

For now, I have an actual science-fiction horse novel in front of me, and it was one of my very most favorites when I was a tween: Walter Farley’s The Island Stallion Races.

For further fun and synchronicity, it was originally published in 1955, right in the period that I’ve been exploring in my other Tor.com column, the Andre Norton Reread.

Walter Farley was not my favorite horse author. That was Marguerite Henry. But Farley was up there. As a tween I didn’t know how young he really was—he published The Black Stallion when he was in college—but I deeply appreciated his knowledge of horses, especially horse racing, and his love for the species.

Much as I loved the Black and his family, I had a particular fondness for the Island Stallion books. Even before they went full-on science fiction, they had an otherworldly air. A hidden island in the Caribbean, a secret herd of beautiful horses, the wild stallion whom only one young person can ride, and pirates! What’s not to love? The protagonist was a young male, but I was used to that. Horse books had girls in them way more often than science fiction did, but I had no problem putting up with boys in order to get to the horses.

The Island Stallion Races was unlike anything I’d read before. Even in the reread, it struck me as a very strange book.

In a good way, mind you. This is a horsekid’s purest fantasy. Young Steve has begun his third summer in the Caribbean (this being book three of the series) with his friend and mentor, the archaeologist whom he calls Pitch, and the real reason we’re all here, including Steve: the secret valley at the heart of Azul Island, where the huge red stallion Flame rules over his herd.

This year is even better than the two previous years. Pitch is away doing research, and Steve gets to motor around the islands without adult supervision. Of course he heads straight for Azul and the horses, because seriously.

It’s a grand reunion with Flame—riding him bareback and bridleless (because seriously) at the fastest gallop imaginable, without ever losing balance or falling off (because seriously). But things quickly get weird. A brilliant light comes down into the ocean, and the incredulous Steve learns that the island has extraterrestrial visitors.

At first they appear as a pair of birds, a blue one and a brown one, but in fairly short order they manifest in human form: the flamboyant blue-suited Jay and the stuffy, grey-haired, brown-suited Flick. Steve eventually learns that they’re tourists/crew on an interstellar cruise ship, and they’ve been to Earth before—a long time ago.

Humans aren’t supposed to know about them, but in the time-honored tradition of kids’ fantasy, Steve is young enough to be able to see them. Flick is not pleased, but Jay thinks it’s grand. Jay has a childlike enthusiasm for all things Earthly, and he’s a passionate fan of horses and racing.

It just so happens that on the flight from the US, Steve saw a poster for a big international race in Havana, featuring horses from all over the world. When the aliens (who are telepathic) find him, he’s dreaming about entering Flame in the race.

Not seriously. Flame is feral, has no training, and knows nothing of the outside world. But he’s so fast! Steve believes he could win!

Jay is all for it. The last time he watched a race, jockeys rode upright with long stirrups—which tells horse-historian Steve how long it’s been since he visited earth (1895 or thereabouts). He’s eager to see how racing has evolved, and he’s as excited as Steve to see how Flame compares to actual, professional racehorses.

There are complications, naturally. Basic logistics—how to get Flame off the island and onto the spaceship, and then how to get him to Cuba and entered in the race. Weather presents problems. Flame himself needs superfast training, conditioning, and desensitizing. Plus there are the rules and regulations of the alien ship. Jay is breaking just about every one of them, but he blackmails Flick and mind-bends the reluctant Steve, because he wants to see Flame race.

We all know it has to happen. Steve prevails on Flame with the help of a “magic hackamore,” which is a living thing in bitless-bridle form. It seems to be an extension of the ship, which itself is alive and at least semi-sentient. The hackamore calms the horse, enhances the bond between him and Steve, and helps speed up the training.

There’s a lot to do. Flame has to follow Steve through some very constricted tunnels to the boat, then load on the boat and cross a not insignificant stretch of ocean to the ship. He has to enter the ship, where he’s kept in a sort of stasis, but when he exits, there’s a shuttle ride to Cuba, a couple of days in a stall (with a blanket on), and a trek by horse van to the racetrack, where he has to run against eight other stallions.

That race is something. Flame is out to kill! Kill! KILL! rival stallions. Steve figures out how to use this raving aggression to win—but he can’t stay around to collect the prize, because [a] he’s not supposed to be within two thousand miles of the place (even disguised by alien technology, he’s riding a highly recognizable horse), and [b] Flame will kill somebody if he doesn’t get out of there fast.

Steve doesn’t care about the glory or the money. He just wants proof that Flame is the fastest horse in the world. He gets that, and further complications as the aliens are called back to the ship on an emergency; they manage to deliver him and his horse to the island, but it’s a very near thing.

And then he wakes up, and oh, what a dream.

Except…

Definitely stay for the epilogue.

Farley’s science fiction is amazingly sophisticated for 1955. There’s a living ship, shape-shifting telepathic aliens, and a hint of an interstellar society that runs tours to Earth. And actual credible horses with actual credible worldbuilding.

The race is a fantasy, and it’s clear there are obstacles that only alien intervention can fix. Getting a feral stallion off his island and away from his herd, asking him to tolerate the confinement of a stall and a horse van, and entering him in a race with no prior training or experience of running with other stallions, all inside of a week, is impossible. But even with alien help, Steve has to be a horse trainer. He shows us what it takes to load a horse on a boat and get into a stall and a van. He figures out how to use Flame’s rampant hormones to advantage in the race. He gives us real horse-stuff in among the dazzling fantasy. Then in the end he, or rather the aliens, puts it all back where it was before. Except…

That epilogue. Oh yeah.

There are some very nice little bits of horse-lore and gentle satire. Jay is horrified that Steve runs Flame all over the island and then doesn’t cool him out or blanket him. Why, that’s terrible! No, says Steve, that’s a wild horse versus the domesticated racehorses Jay knows.

At the race, the difference between the feral and the domesticated is abundantly clear. The other horses ignore each other; they’re there to run, and running is what they’ve been bred for. Flame the wild herd stallion loves to run, but when he’s surrounded by stallions, all he wants to do is kill them. Steve gets him to focus on one and charge him, then Steve swerves him off balance and aims him at the next one. When there aren’t any more to challenge and there’s only open track ahead, and there’s serious danger of Flame turning back to kill the horse behind him, the outrider’s horse waiting past the finish line offers one last target. It’s all Steve can do to keep Flame from killing the poor pony; then he has to get the furious stallion off the track before the press and the fans get there.

I’ll note that in the past sixty-plus years, studies of wild-horse behavior have changed the perception of feral stallions. Most likely, in the absence of mares, Flame’s hormones would drop to nothing and he’d be all about the bachelor band, hanging with the guys and chillin’ by the water hole. But for what was known at the time, this is an ingenious solution to the problem of how to handle an undomesticated stallion in a highly domesticated setting.

The herd on the island has some interesting subtexts going. I love that Steve spends time with his favorite mare, the elder he calls Princess, and what is probably her last foal, a beautiful filly. There’s a yearling colt whom he rescued last year, who doesn’t appear to recognize him now; that makes him terribly sad. He had had thoughts of taking the colt home and keeping him, but given the choice between keeping a horse all year long and having the island in the summer, he chose, basically, Flame.

The hidden valley is small enough to gallop around in about an hour, and Flame is siring foals every year. Where is the bachelor band, and what happens when the population exhausts the available resources?

Farley has an answer to that, on several levels. He explicitly addresses the issue of inbreeding. Arabian breeders at the time relied heavily on it (and some still do), believing that it concentrated the best traits of a line; the fact that it can also concentrate the worst was not enough of a deterrent to stop them from breeding father to daughter and brother to sister.

On the island, I think we have to assume that Darwin’s principles apply. Only the best horses survive; the rest die.

That would have to include all the adult males. Flame kills them—and someday, when he’s no longer in peak condition, one of them will kill him. There’s no secondary stallion to breed his mother, sisters, and daughters. It’s all on him.

That implies that Steve’s yearling will either kill or be killed, once he reaches maturity. Though maybe Steve will domesticate him all over again and finally take him home, and thereby save his life. Or Flame’s life. Either way.

When I look back at this book, I realize how much it incorporated itself into my baby-writer psyche. The balance of fantasy and real-world logistics. The alien ship and its crew. The mythos of the gorgeous red Arabian stallion (as opposed to the much more likely Andalusian, since the herd was supposedly left there by the Conquistadores; Farley loved Arabians too much to worry about strict accuracy on that point), and the sweet older mare with her wisdom and patience.

I lived Steve’s dream a couple of decades later. The horse was red, he was Arabian, and he was wiiiild. He had been gelded, but late, for being so aggressive with humans that he was not safe to keep entire. I was the only rider at the stable who could stay on him, and we bonded, and stayed together for years, until the stable owner died and we were separated. I wrote a fantasy novel about a wild red stallion and a girl, and put my own stamp on the template. For that matter I’m still doing it, with living ships and sprightly aliens.

Amazing how strongly a book can imprint itself on one’s mind. I hadn’t even realized how much influence this one novel had, till I reread it and put all the elements together.

Next time I’m going to stay with the Arabian side of the horse-Force, and reread my favorite horse book of my entire tweens and teens, Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind. Will you join me?

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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