Terri Farley

Horse rustlers, mountain lions, wildfire, and mysterious mustangs… It’s all part of the exciting world that Nevada author Terri Farley has created for young readers. Her wildly popular Phantom Stallion series has sold millions of copies since it launched in 2002. The 24-volume series follows a teenage girl’s adventures living on a ranch in wild horse country. While the stories within the books are fictional, they are colored by reality. The Phantom Stallion series is set in Nevada and features real wild horses that Farley has seen on the range.  

The Phantom Stallion series launched Farley’s professional writing career, but she didn’t stop there. She has also published a spin-off series of 11 books called Wild Horse Island (set in Hawaii) and a stand-alone young adult fiction novel called Seven Tears into the Sea. In 2015, Terri published her first non-fiction book. Wild at Heart: Mustangs and the Young People Fighting to Save Them has racked up awards and recommendations since its release. In 2017, Farley was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

Writing has always been a part of Farley’s life. She studied secondary education English at San Jose State University and taught remedial reading. Farley moved to Nevada in 1976, received a Master of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Nevada, Reno, and spent many years as a high school English teacher. She published several historical romance novels under a pen name before finding success with the Phantom Stallion series.

Today, the 68-year-old lives in Verdi and writes full-time. She has two adult children and has adopted three wild horses. When she isn’t writing, Farley is actively involved in wild horse advocacy. We sat down with the renowned author, to find out how she found her niche in the writing world.

Terri as the mascot for the Pioneer High School Mustangs in San Jose, California, circa 1968.

Did you grow up with horses?

“I had always been one of those horse girls. I was allergic to everything that had hair or fur, but my parents were so wonderful. They would let me go ride once a month, even though I’d have an allergic reaction. Not to the horses so much. I think it was the dust and things like that. And if I ended up in emergency, I ended up in emergency, but it was my thing.

There was somebody who had a backyard horse really in an area where they shouldn’t have had a horse in the backyard, and I would sneak in there and ride it. My grandmother taught me how to knit. I knitted the headstall and the reins. I had two long bobby pins I joined in the middle to make a snaffle. And then I got caught one day.”

How old were you?

“Eight! But it was this wonderful little pinto mare. She’s in the Phantom Stallion books. Sweetheart. I don’t know what her real name was, but she had a patch on her shoulder that looked sort of heart-shaped.”

You are best known for your Phantom Stallion series. Where did that idea come from?

“When I did a ten-day cattle drive. This cattle drive started at Soldier Meadows [north of Gerlach]. It was supposed to be a dude roundup, like City Slickers, but it was the first time they had done it. The cow boss was a real, true buckaroo, and so you had people who paid to go on this, and you had people who were actually trying to do their jobs. That was the first mustang I ever rode for an extended period – a little 14-hand, freeze-branded bay named Ace, who is in all of my Phantom Stallion books.

It was spring in Nevada so in the morning there was mist every place. People don’t think of there being mist in Nevada, but there absolutely was. I was riding in the back, and there was a little slot canyon off to one side, and I looked down there and I thought I saw a white horse alone. And just as I saw him, a cow broke from the herd, and Ace, who was a great cow pony, went after it. And once we brought her back into the herd, the herd had moved on, but I made him go back. He did not want to go back, but we went back to that canyon, because I wanted to see. But there was nothing there. And Ace didn’t even act like there had been.

So I don’t know if I dreamed it, or if it was fog or what, but that’s where I got the idea for the Phantom Stallion book. I thought, okay, the phantom was a white stallion that came and went so quickly, people didn’t know if he was real, and that’s why they called him the phantom. I’ve had horse stories in my head forever, and I had already written three or four historical romances. So I knew I could write a book.”

How did that idea become reality?

“I got a new agent who said, ‘Send me everything you ever wanted to write.’ She picked that out of the stuff and said, ‘This is it. This is what you should be writing.’ Nobody writes about the contemporary West for kids. They write about the old West maybe, or they write about hunter jumper, Canterwood Crest, and bitchy girls in the stable. So she sent the first three chapters of this book I’d been kind of working on and stumbled across an editor who loved it. I thought it was just going to be one book called the Phantom Stallion.”

But it turned into a whole series! What do you think it is about the Phantom Stallion that resonates with your readers?

Terri’s first non-fiction book has received many awards since its release.

“Number one: Those books are about the horses. There are a few personality conflicts, but it’s about the horses. Mine was the only series up to that time where every single book had a horse on the cover and no people. We never had people on the cover. And I think a lot of adults who write for kids get into the personal relationships. Obviously, Samantha [the main character in the series] has parents. She has girlfriends. There’s a guy named Jake who is part Shoshone, and that’s part of the book too. But, the focus is always on the horses and that’s how I like to write the books.

The series is set in Nevada and includes real horses. Why was that important for you?

“A lot of writing fiction is where am I? When am I? And the setting is really important. And I think writing about the West, setting is huge. I fell in love with the range. I fell in love with the smell of sagebrush. The fact that suddenly I was living among public lands, which actually belonged to the American public. I fell in love with that part of the West, which is the historic range West that we grew up watching in movies, and reading about in books, and stuff like that.

That’s where my Phantom Stallion books are set – in the Calico Mountains. That’s one setting that I didn’t change the name for, because Calico Mountains sounds cool, and they are cool. And wild horse bands that I wrote about were based on real horses that I’d seen. If I was going to say there was a grullo with a band, there was a grullo with that band.”

Terri travels to schools around the country to teach students about writing and wild horses.

Your stories have reached children around the world. How does that make you feel?

“It makes me feel like I’m inviting people into my world.  One of the best things that happened this past year. A girl from Germany who had been writing to me a lot, by the time she turned 18, and her parents couldn’t tell her not to, she decided she was coming to Northern Nevada. She knew exactly where she was going. She had the Calico Mountains on a map. And her pictures on Instagram were of sky and sagebrush and things like that. She fell in love with it through the books.”

So the horses brought her to Nevada!

“She saw wild horses. She saw the range. She saw that kind of sky that we have here. And she fell in love with it. And I know she’ll come back. I’ll tell you this state is missing out by not using wild horse tourism. It’s cheap, truly if you had a van and good insurance, it’d be like safaris. Take them out. Because people love our West. They like that image and we’ve still got a lot of Wild West here.”

Terri regularly visits the range to observe wild horses.

Wild horse management is very contentious. Why is it important for you to advocate for horses?

“One of the first round ups I went to, by the Granite Range, they had zeroed out a herd management area. In other words, they took all the horses. And it was so different. It was silent. I couldn’t hear any birds. It was just quiet, and once you remove one major part from the environment, it’s just dominoes. Everything changes. So I think it’s important not just for the horses. I think it’s important for people to know what we’re losing. People have no clue. People need to know those horses, that land belongs to them, and it’s being taken away bit by bit or spoiled.”

What are you working on now?

“Did you ever read Watership Down? It’s Watership Down with wild horses. It’s from their viewpoint and I’ve taken everything I know about horses, and it’s in that book. I’m on the seventh re-write. It’s called Across the Sagebrush Sea. It’s about three young horses who are part of a mass round up, so they’re multiple bands. And these three young horses escape. A little girl opens the gate and three horses get out. So their whole family is left behind. They have to learn everything the hard way.”

What would your dream project be?

“If I get a chance, what I really want to do is write a biography of Wild Horse Annie. Wonderful stuff and her story has really been sanitized. I would look at the real woman. I interviewed her shortly before she died. She was in danger all the time, plus she’s a woman who was disfigured through polio in the 50s. The reason she was called Wild Horse Annie wasn’t because of the wild horses exactly. She came into a cattlemen’s meeting and they said, ‘well if it ain’t Wild Horse Annie. Look at her, she’s got a face just like a horse.’ And her face was disfigured, but this is what’s important for kids: She embraced that name and said fine. I’ll be Wild Horse Annie. So I think she’s a character people need to know about too. I think she’s heroic.”

Terri Farley’s books are available at all major bookstores and online. For more information, visit www.terrifarley.com.

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