The horse world, at least as portrayed in most horse and pony stories in the UK, is pretty uniform. It’s a world that’s generally white, that’s generally middle to upper class and that is generally female. Not that a preponderance of female characters is a bad thing, in my opinion. The pony book is the natural home of strong and independent female characters, and female representation in so many fields is still far too low. But the vast, vast majority of female characters in horse stories are white.
And yes, class counts. There’s an obvious lack of working class characters in pony books, because to participate in the horse world you need money, and if your parents are on minimum wage, you’ll be pushed to afford housing, let along horses. And as far more BAME people are in the lower income categories, that means their participation in the horse world is even less likely: though see excellent projects like the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton.
But people of colour are there in horsy literature, and this piece is aiming to get together some of those books that do exist. It concentrates on books written for children and/or teenagers – I simply haven’t read enough horse books for adults to be able to write anything sensible.
This is a short list: I’d love to add to it, so as with the rest of the piece, if you know anything I can add, let me know. All these authors are American – there’s a gap in the market for any BAME equestrians looking to add something to the UK horse story field.
The American stories I’ve found seem to be heavily biased towards Western riding: there are good historical examples of black cowboys, which might be an explanation.
One exception is the Logan family series by Mildred D Taylor, of which the first book is The Land. The hero of the series, Paul-Edward, is the son of a black mother and a white mother, who has been born into slavery. His position reflects that of the horses he loves, and with whom he has a gift: like them, he is a possession. Although he is allowed to care for the horses, he cannot ride them. When Paul-Edward does become a horse owner, this causes problems which are more than those of simple envy, and which reflect the difficult relationships in the post-Civil War Deep South in which the books were set.
Cowgirl Camryn is an early reader series by Abriana Johnson. Two of the series, Cowgirl Camryn and the Crazy Hair Day and Cowgirl Camryn and the Great Escape, are available on Kindle and as paperback through Amazon UK.
Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkey’s Black Cowboy, Wild Horses seems to be out of print, as far as I can tell, but is still easily available second hand. It’s the story of tracker Bob Lemmon, and his pursuit of a herd of mustangs.
Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion is by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. It’s a true story about the three men in the final round of the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. One was white, one was Indian and one was black. The white man was declared the winner, but the audience did not agree, and declared black cowboy George Fletcher as the people’s champion.
Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote another book based on the true story of a black cowboy. Will Pickett: Rodeo Ridin’ Cowboy is the story of a black boy who became the most famous black rodeo rider who ever lived.
If you’re looking for other books, Saddle Up and Read is a good resource. It has created a ‘library of books for and about Black equestrians’.
When I was researching this piece, I found this, which I wrote in 2010:
On a quick search through my memory of modern British pony books I’ve read recently, I can’t think of one offhand which tackles racism in the way these [American] books do: there are nods to multi-culturalism with Asian and black characters, but that’s about it. Please let me know if you have read any books which make an effort to look at the issue.
I’ll leave that with you, as they say.
Josephine Pullein-Thompson blazed a trail here in her Woodbury Pony Club series, originally published in the 1980s, and being republished in 2020. Hanif, whose ancestry is Pakistani, is a main character in all three books. Racism is touched on, but it’s not a main theme of the books. People mention Hanif’s race, and Hanif is embarrassed about the fact that his mother is so unlike the Pony Club mothers, but they seem to meet with acceptance all round. It’s inclusion that’s important here. It’s the behaviour of Hanif’s out-of-control pony, Jupiter, that’s more at issue.
British authors who have used BAME characters as a main character are quite rare: one of the best is Polly Faber’s Pony on the Twelfth Floor. This is an excellent read in its own right: there’s no point ticking boxes for inclusion if what you turn out is so dull no one gets beyond the first page. Pony on the Twelfth Floor is funny, touching and a rollicking good read.
Other authors include BAME characters as part of a wide character set. Katie Price, in her Perfect Ponies series, has Mel, who is the main character in Pony n Pooch. From memory, as I no longer have the series to hand, I think she does feature in other titles too.
Kelly McKain’s pony diaries has BAME characters. See in particular Lauren and Lucky.
Kate Beaton’s picture book The Princess and the Pony sounds a lot of fun. Princess Pinecone wants a warrior horse for her birthday, but what she gets is a small, farting pony.
Moving on to historicals, there are some very strong American books which feature black characters. I’ve reviewed most of those featured here over the years, and have linked to the full reviews.
Maggie Dana’s Turning on a Dime is an excellent timeslip story featuring two heroines: one African American (Sam) and one white (Caroline). Sam finds herself transported to 1860s America and the middle of the Civil War, worlds away from her comfortable existence as the daughter of an Olympic rider. Here’s what I said about it:
The narrative switches between each girl, which works well. It gives an immediacy to the way they see the enormous differences between them. Fortunately both girls share a willingness to see someone else’s point of view, something they’re both going to need. It’s interesting to see Caroline’s viewpoint change: that it’s not enough simply to treat people well; that people are far more than just slaves. Sam’s viewpoint changes too. She’s been brought up in a privileged world where she’s a minor celebrity because her father was an Olympic rider. She’s never taken much notice of her mother’s history lessons. The reality of being a slave in mid century America is a terrible, terrible shock.
Alison Hart’s three-book series, Racing to Freedom, is another excellent historical. The series’ hero, Gabriel Alexander, is an African American boy born into slavery. His father was free, but because his mother was a slave, the children were slaves too. Gabriel is, to some extent, lucky: Master Giles, the owner of Woodville Farm, where the family live, is mostly considerate and kindly. Gabriel loves horses, and manages to follow his dream of working with them. Racism though is never far from the surface, and Alison Hart paints a disturbing picture of some of its manifestations during the Civil War: Confederate guerillas hunt down and kill any blacks who survived the Saltville action described in the third book, and racism is casually present in the attitudes of many.
Diane Lee Wilson’s Black Storm Comin’ is another historical horse story. Colton, his sick mother and his sisters have been deserted by his father on the wrong side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The only way he can pay for a doctor, and pay for his black mother’s freedom papers, is to take a job with the Pony Express. Colton looks white, but he knows the discovery of his ancestry could lead to disaster.
Colton’s petrified anxiety less his ancestry be discovered lends the book much of its energy.
Moving on to the present day, the lot of Latin Americans in the American horse world is not necessarily a happy one. Francie Martinez, heroine of Kim Ablon Whitney’s The Perfect Distance, lives with her Mexican father at the training stables where she works. She’s a talented rider, but she faces sneering contempt because of her background.
It’s an excellent read, and if you enjoy a portrait of an intelligent teenager coming to terms with her world, this is a book for you.
I’m sure there must be more books that I don’t know about, and it would be great to have a better resource here.
If there are books that you’d like to recommend (suitable for children/YA), do please add them to the comments.