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  • Martin Sosnoff

Black Beauty Ain’t Just For Horse Struck Girls

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, was published late 19th century and sold over 50 million copies. It was revered by horse struck girls, but was much more of a dictate against animal abuse. Such came from owners, grooms and drivers of horse carts of all kinds.

Although Beauty can’t communicate orally with his owners, he does build relationships with his stable mates. Like slaves, horses were sold down the river frequently to new owners. The normal progression was most horses lost value, broken down and physically exhausted.

Many ended up in the hands of those who abused them, later sold for a few pounds, their salvage value.

When 10 years old, I was assigned to write a book report on Black Beauty. You should know that I grew up in Harlem and the East Bronx during the Great Depression. The only horses I encountered were the Sheffield Farms milk wagon animals. Their wheels used rubber tires and they were treated kindly by their drivers. Milk then cost 11 cents a quart, delivered in glass bottles with cream filling the neck of the bottle.

My encounter, writing the book report on Beauty was one of the worst experiences endured by me in grade school. Teachers in the public school system in New York City mainly then were middle-aged spinsters, toughies of the first rank.

My recollection of reading Beauty was I felt sorry for the colt’s relentless descent under mistreatment and then being rescued late in life at age 14, which then was considered old for a horse. My dressage horses normally live into their thirties, schooled by me and my trainer into their late twenties and then retired to farm life.

Miss Salt considered my book report a big disgrace. I would stay after school in the teacher’s lounge room and then rewrite it. What I had done wrong was write the piece using just 1 paragraph rather than organizing separate thoughts into individual paragraphs. I was held up as a disgrace to a gathering of teachers, forced to stand up and face my critics head-on. They wanted me to cry in shame. But, I wouldn't and didn't.

How could I know, then, that such an incident would wax indelibly, invading my life? Years later, Miss Salt called me to her desk, grabbed me by the belt and told me she had recommended to Miss Barr, school principal, that I be skipped a year and go directly into eighth grade, and so I went, fearlessly.

In college, CCNY, I majored in English. My first job after graduation was as a copy editor for Fairchild Publications. I wielded an aggressive red pencil and the female reporters at Women’s Wear Daily fought back but lost.

There were no horses in my life then, but early-seventies, my wife, Toni, and I chose to get involved and found a trainer for weekend instruction. We turned more and more serious over the years. Went up the ladder with talented mounts and advanced trainers. I reached upper-level dressage competition, did cross country and jumping as well. I’m 91 and ride 6 mornings, weekly. Horses traditionally get Mondays off and so do I.

Equitation turned into a serious discipline. Along the way I learned a lot from my horses who I considered my trainers. First off, you should know that a dressage horse is basically a passive-aggressive animal. Unless you get him to perform his movement with vigor, and collection, he will loaf under saddle.

Think of Revel’s Bolero. Starts slowly and softly. Later, it builds steadily in momentum and turns fortissimo. Unless you exert dynamic tension with legs, back and thighs your animal remains dull in your hands.

A collected horse is forward, bouncy. Takes years to develop your beast. Horse and rider become partners. As for Black Beauty, he was continuously abused by ignorant, unsympathetic drivers. His downhill journey covered a decade but by 14 Beauty was barely alive. A happy ending is tacked on by the author - and I mean tacked on. Animal rights groups did develop protocols for humane treatment and care to be abided by owners and handlers, alike, but largely ignored.

Beauty spent his working life as a cart horse, although early-on was ridden under saddle. He would complain: “The load was very heavy and I have neither food nor rest since morning.” Despite cruelty and injustice (the author speaking out for Beauty). “I should never be sold.”

In my teens, my prize possession was my baseball mitt. I had a good throwing arm from third base and nailed base runners. You could say my experience was the reciprocal of Beauty’s. Here’s Sewell describing a stable fire: “There was a dreadful sound before we got into our stalls. The shrieks of those poor horses being burned to death."

“Sewell’s not writing for 10-year-olds here. The world is not a perfect place” Beauty would say “It’s a burden never to have more liberty, to do what you like.” So, the theme of Sewell’s piece impresses. Kindness goes a long way. Patience and gentleness are watchwords. What’s a comfort to a horse is a light hand.

Finally, we see the world through the eyes of this wise and gentle colt who escaped destruction later on after facing nearly irrepressible evil treatment.

Beauty reminds me of a bear market. You get beaten up again and again until finally something changes for the better, unexpectedly. I’m writing and hoping to be saved by my brainpower. Nobody’s going to step in to help.

Sosnoff with Amigo, Leonardo and Sirocco

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