Someone very kindly bought me four pony books recently. They were set in a riding stables where nobody went anywhere or did anything except prepare for various riding school shows. Closed in. Safe. Supervised. The writing was pedestrian. The stories were pedestrian. It was terribly depressing.
Yet I know that there are some fantastic modern pony books, exciting and well-written (many by Sassies, indeed…). And I also know that as a child, I read my way through a vast swathe of pony books, indiscriminately enthusiastic about most of them, not caring about how they were written as long as they had horses in them. I did ride, but in a riding school, so pony books supplied me with all the experiences I couldn’t actually have – riding off on my own, leaping five-bar gates, going on desperate rescue missions where I could gallop over the countryside and not be told off for trespassing. They let me spend huge amounts of time just looking at horses, which I wanted more of in the world. I’m guessing pretty much the same sort of thing applies for the children who read them today.
This got me thinking – if I revisited my old pony book collection, would I find that most were also just the horsy equivalents of Enid Blyton? (I’m not being snotty about Enid Blyton – I loved her books as a kid, but as an adult I do find them a little bit tedious…). My dad disinterred a box from his attic, and I got stuck in.
It felt as though I was shovelling soil out from a shallow grave of dreams. A ghostly choir sang the Black Beauty theme tune. The familiar cover of each deeply-loved book sparked flames inside me. These weren’t just books – they were the places I’d lived in my childhood – the golden fields of the Pullein-Thompson’s Home Counties, the moors of Vian Smith, Ruby Ferguson’s Chatton, the wild praries of the Silver Brumby, the streets of Siena before the Palio. The Highlands of Scotland, with Jinny Manders and her Arab mare, Shantih.
In some ways my fears were realised. It was an interesting experience to read a range of books that I’d loved as a child, and to realise that some of them were pretty mundane (anyone remember the Jackie series? Or the ones by Pat Smythe in which she is one of the characters?), some were well-written and completely horsy (Pullein-Thompsons, Ruby Ferguson etc.) and some were so absolutely brilliant that I almost wished they weren’t about ponies, because they deserve to reach a much wider audience.
When I opened up the first ‘Jinny’ book, For Love of a Horse by Patricia Leitch, I couldn’t believe that these books had sat in the attic, unread for years. They aren’t just fuel for the pony dreams of teenage girls, although there are elements of that in the boundless moors and the classic partnership of headstrong girl and wild horse. They are beautifully written – much more engaging to me than the classic Alan Garner stories which I read recently – I struggled to picture Alderley Edge, but after a single re-read of a Jinny book, Finmory and the purple heather of the dark moors lay clear in my mind’s eye.
The Wikipedia entry for Patricia Leitch compares the Jinny books to the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, and I’d say this is a fair comparison – they do have fantasy elements, occasionally. In the fourth book, Night of the Red Horse, Jinny encounters archaeologists searching for an ancient figurine, but the mural of a red horse in her bedroom has other plans for it. But they are also grounded in reality. Jinny frequently does terrible things as a result of her obsession with Shantih – (spoilers alert) in the early books, she overjumps the horse and lames her, and she betrays the presence of an osprey nest to an egg-collector, because she wants help from them to train Shantih. Other characters are by no means easy to place as heroes or villains – Brenda who wilfully neglects the horses in her riding school, but who used to be as full of dreams as Jinny, Miss Tuke who runs the trekking centre and who is unromantic and insensitive, but nevertheless sensible and practical.
I read them and marvelled – so often in these books, nothing is simple and the reader is encouraged to form their own view about what’s going on. Relationships between humans and animals are described in romantic and unromantic, partial and impartial ways. Jinny is entranced by the wildness that the horse represents, but in the way of most humans, her love becomes an obsessive desire to capture, possess and essentially subdue that wildness. It’s not a rosy picture, and it’s an uneasy truth that children’s books, particularly pony books, rarely confront: when people form relationships with animals, the animals are usually subservient, no matter how deeply they are loved and understood.
These are clever books. They’re pony books. I wish they weren’t, because the mere fact of them having a horse as one of the central characters might, in a genre-bound book world, serve to turn some readers away from them. Even if horses really aren’t your thing, the Jinny series might well be. Beautiful writing, wild fantasy, sodden reality and a cast of opinionated, strong-willed characters all trying to carve out the lives they wish to have. What more could anyone want from a book?
I’m about half way through the box of pony books now, and I haven’t even begun on the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, or the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell, both of which I remember absolutely adoring a couple of decades ago. And in among the pony books I found a whole chunk of Joyce Stranger’s animal stories. I’m going to carry on with this quest (probably interspersing every other book with a quick fix of Pullein-Thompson Pony Clubbing) – it’s getting to be an exhilarating ride!