All The (Pretty) Horses I Have Known

I have had a post on horses laid out in the drafts section for ages, and have never gotten round to filling in the gaps, but during a lull before the horror begins again for another term, I thought I’d have a bash at getting it out. What follows then is my experience with horses, and the confusing jumble of books, memories and computer games that links them together.

I read All The Pretty Horses last week. The Crossing is sitting on my shelf as well, and probably will do for some time so that I maintain my usual pointless detachment with becoming over familiar with certain writers (obviously not applicable to Ballard). I think I’ve said it before, but I usually leave a space of years between reading one book by one author and another by the same. Ballard was the first to buck the trend.

This was my fifth attempt at reading ATPH, and my repeated failure to complete the book is what lead me to noticing the congruity of horses in my life. I had previously read The Road, and was familiar with McCarthy’s almost anti-punctuation perspective on prose – no speech marks, almost no commas – but still I failed to engage with the text properly and ended up stopping around page 30 every time. Last week when I picked it up, I launched straight in, so I’m not sure what actually happened the previous 4 times. Perhaps it was just ‘my time’.

As with The Road, the text is sparse, but conjures up wide baking vistas, and a parched land coated in dust. It is a wild west story, except it is set in Northern Mexico, and a coming of age tale. The experiences John Grady Cole goes through at 16 (briefly: leaving home with a friend, riding to Mexico with an additional kid picked up on the way, going to jail for a crime committed by the aforementioned kid, getting stabbed, working back to the ranch and the girl jail had made a widow of) is obviously completely out of my realm of experience, but what I took from the story was the way in which Cole is haunted by horses. He rides them, works to break them in on the ranch, and dreams about them in jail; he is inextricably linked to them. His relationships with people are strained and exist on a level of understanding whereby Cole can see the motivations of characters, but not the reasoning behind their actions. Horses are simpler, possessing an unspoken gestural understanding that is not complicated in the same way. This, I suppose, links back to the long history of man’s relationship with horses, where Cole is possessed not only by his own feelings towards horses (their freedom, sometimes their fierceness) but by the collective feelings of the generations of ranch hands and cowboys that came before him on the ranch his mother sells at the beginning of the book. Mexico, in this sense, is his attempt to move backwards to a place where the relationship(s) was stronger, where things are less confused by the clearing fog of war (WWII in this case). The downside of this is that the same elegant simplicity is the undoing of him and his two friends – Blevin’s actions and the subsequent results come about because of the black and white linearity of justice/perceived justice outside the realm of judicial process and defendant’s rights. ATPH then is a book ‘pregnant with place’, a paean to the disappeared West and frontierism of the pre-War years (vanishing in the same way that the concept of Empire does from Britain following the conflict), haunted by the memories of a dying way of life, of cowboys and horses, of old America. It is subtle and beautiful and angry and complex in a way that justifies its place as an American classic.

I went to an assortment of different stables with Chris over the years, my memories of which are largely foggy – I have written them here to the best of my knowledge secretly hoping Chris will fill in the gaps/blanks. His mum kept, and indeed possibly still keeps, horses. At one stable she gave me a riding lesson, which Chris though was lame but I was quite excited about. I suppose that is again an offshot of my lack of understanding or involvement with anything close to the size of a horse. To Chris the whole thing was clearly an annoying thing his Mum did and attempted to get him interested in and my riding was symbolic of the disappearance of our childhood, taken by adult pursuits…nah…I’m kidding, it’s just lame, but I’d not done it and thought I’d give it a go. It was ok, but completely outside of my skill set. I didn’t try again.

There was another stable at a place called Dog Kennel Farm just off the A505. There was a man called Michael who worked there/ran the place. He had several teeth missing, a dodgy eye and appeared generally dishevelled and or drunk whenever I saw him. Once when me and Chris were doing some filming, Michael appeared and offered us ten pounds to smash up a greenhouse. Chris immediately refused, and when I did the same, Michael became vaguely threatening in that way that drunks can often be, slurring a ‘You don’t have to follow everything your mate does do you?’. In riposte Chris threatened to hit him with a baseball bat if he didn’t fuck off (again, I’m hoping on clarification in the form of a comment Stokes).

The most memorable stable had to be the one somewheres in Hertfordshire, where we spent many afternoons climbing up the high hay bales in the barn and throwing ourselves off in a game I believe we called 999, though the reference to the emergency services is largely lost on me now. I guess we’d seen something similar on TV. Matthew Gadsten (sic) came with us a few times, solidifying his reputation in our childish minds. He will be forever associated with a sausage skin left on a piano, not enjoying a glass of (Baileys) chocolate milkshake, pretending to know the words of Common People by Pulp and being too scared to jump from the hay bales.

When I first moved to York, and me and Zo were wandering the local area to try and get out bearings, we came across a horse tied to a BT mast. It was, I think, some sort of shire horse, as it was quite large and had the distinctive white hair over its hooves. It had a small bucket of water, and was attached to the fence of the telecom mast by a thick metal chain. It had walked up and down in a line on the thin strip of grass so many times it had turned to mud, which had mixed with the shit the horse had left to an unpleasant smelling mix. We felt bad for the horse; it shied away from us as we walked past it, keeping close to the fence in an effort to avoid us. We repaid the favour, guiltily walking on the other side of the road on the way home to avoid the smell, and to avoid upsetting it further.

Two weeks after we moved in, a man rode the horse up our road, the horse attached to a flat bed on wheels. They were collecting rag and bone.

Three weeks ago, on my way to hospital, I took a short cut along the disused railway line that runs from Morrisons towards Nestle underneath the arterial roads that feed in to the city centre. The track is a cycle route now, flanked by odd blue piping and sculptures constructed from old bits of ex-rolling stock and sidings. As I entered the path, which sort of forks away from normal pavement as it sinks beneath the roads, the horse was there, this time walking back and forth across the path, tied to a lamppost with a slightly longer chain. There was no water bucket in sight, and the horse had shat all over the place.

Two fields, either side of the path I take to University. I have described it before, in relation to owls. Sometime in the early summer, I was walking in to work along the path, staring aimlessly in to the lower field which is surrounded by a mesh fence that you can see through. At the bottom of the field, five or six horses congregated; foals ran about on the outside of the group, or simply laid on the grass in the sun. The other field to the left was ringed by a high wooden fence and at the end directly opposite field, a lone black horse had fixed its head in the only gap where the wood had been broken back. It stood there motionless as I passed, staring in to the bottom field at the horses it had been separated from.

Another time at the stable, Chris and I found an injured dove. We went to Richard, who was either the farm hand or perhaps the son of the farmer (I think he was too young to actually own or run the farm, but Chris can probably clarify), and told him about the bird. He went with us to see it. Unlike us, he was unafraid to handle the dove, and reached down and picked it up. ‘It’s got a broken wing,’ he told us, ‘and there’s nothing we can do for it.’ He asked us to find a suitable stick to kill the bird with – I still think a neck breaking would have done the job – and we found one that we thought would be sturdy enough. Richard took it and hit the bird repeatedly, maybe seven or eight times. The ferociousness of the attack shocked me. It wasn’t a swift dispatch, but rather a angry attack, that although warranted was still somewhat disturbing to see for a young(ish) boy. Chris pointed out that the birds eyes and head was moving, that perhaps it was still alive. Richard shook the bird nonchalantly in his hand; ‘It’s just a nervous reflex,’ he said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything.’

On a different day, after pissing around by the abandoned tractors, we walked up the wooded track at the back of the farm. On the verge part way up was a dead rabbit which Chris said had probably died of myxomatosis – as a kid I was dead impressed he knew words like that. There was some sort of dare to poke it, which I did with the longest stick I could. The stomach sort of popped open. It was full of maggots.

I bought Red Dead Redemption five days after it was released, paying full price for an Xbox 360 title for only the second time (the first being Fallout 3, the third will be Fallout New Vegas). I’d heard nothing about it, or rather plenty of people had told me about it but I had ignored them because I thought the title was shit. I still do. I played it straight through to the end, which is only the second time I have done that with a game (again Fallout 3). When I was reading All The Pretty Horses, the areas of Perdido and Diez Coronas were what I was imagining, which troubled me slightly in terms of the impact that that sort of media has on my view of another. But at the same time, RDR is a remarkable piece of work, and unlike anything else I have played. I know that it is a kind of sandbox title, and that it can be fitted in to a genre alongside Rockstar’s previous titles, but the story has parallels with a wider world, linking in to themes explored in ATPH. John Marston’s world is also one in terminal decline, and he is pulled along by a story that he is largely helpless to escape, a pawn in greater conflicts. The first time you leave Hennigans Stead and look out over the ridge top towards Armadillo and Cholla Springs you know the scope of the game is truly epic, totally deserving of the plaudits it has received and the Morriconesque soundtrack which peppers the game in a suitably detached way, springing up during periods of action and merging in to the brush as soon as it has died down again.

Controlling a horse for the first time was odd, but became instinctive in a way I assume parallels actual horse riding, though obviously less skill is required here. I remember mentioning something to Zo about the horses in the field mentioned above and she reminded me that just because I’ve played a game doesn’t mean I know anything about horses. She is, as ever, correct. John Marston and the horse are largely inseparable in the game, with the time spent on foot seemingly jarring in comparison (slow, sometimes inaccurate aiming, though there is an option to autolock which seems pointless from a challenge perspective), though this is perhaps because I was a shit cowboy.

The ending is an unusual one, brave considering the amount of time invested in the character by the player. It is a proper ending, allowing for a continuation that many other games don’t bother with – their worlds are closed off, whereas this feels like but one narrative among many others. It reminded me of a similarly brave ending, to Blade Runner on the PC, which I shall spoil by revealing but as the game is basically unobtainable nowadays I don’t feel bad about doing so*. After pursuing the remaining replicant Clovis from the moonbus crash,  you (not as Deckard, but as Ray McCoy) wander through a sewerage system and out in to a junkyard where Clovis sits reading a book in the wreck of a bus. There is no clear cut idea of what should happen next; he doesn’t react much, but acknowledges your presence. Eventually I decided to shoot him, and he died. It was incredibly downbeat and unexpected, a sort of ‘You got the guy, what do you want, a fucking medal.’ There are a few bits afterwards, but essentially from this point you get in to your car, drift down in to the underground tunnel and drive away. I want to replay it now so I can have a go at the Moonbus endings. Damn Vista and its inability to run anything, even crappy Voxel engines.

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*The game also had 13 possible endings so I’m only ruining one.

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2 Responses to “All The (Pretty) Horses I Have Known”

  1. Thom Dicomidis Says:

    It may be that I was (am) a blinkered (pun) shut-in, but I have no (few) childhood stories that with anything nearly as interesting. That said, I am nauseated by (afeared of) maggots specifically and death more generally. So maybe it’s for the best.

  2. Ralph Says:

    I read the border trilogy in relatively quick succession and it’s to protagonists Billy Parham, and John Grady Cole merge at points in my mind (MacCarthy doesn’t write characters with the same attention he writes landscape, or rather he writes intimately about the country, and writes about the character’s only form observation) . I would agree that JGC is unable to connect with the reasoning of people in the way the way that he can comprehend his relationship to horse but I think this observation actually extends further. Simply put, horses are the mediation between man and landscape, both in a functional manner (the horse is the means of existence for the men, it is their livelihood, it allows them to range further and therefore survive) but also in terms of ontology, the horse is potentially a means to living with the landscape authentically. I tried to replace authentically with another word but really it’s only one but we just have to bracket out the Romanticism of “Back to the Land” and leave that to Bear Grylls and Pol Pot. The point is that in understanding the horses and being understood by them character’s in this book are able to exist fluidly with the landscape, without this connection they are lost. A common thread across all of MacCarthy’s protagonists is their ability to connect with the landscape in times of trauma. This landscape is the terrain in which they find themselves and sticking to ATPH is best exemplified here by the fight in the jail, the way in which JGC observes and responds to what happens. I’m not giving any thing away if I also say that the best example across the Border Trilogy is the section of the crossing which concerns Billy Parham putting a harness on a wolf. blah blah blah. I’m going to stop writing and go eat some breakfast. I wanted to write about what this means about how MacCarthy writes mexicans but I’ve run out of stream completely. I like this post anyway, I came looking for it after you mentioned all the pretty horses in the recent one, which i also like.

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