Helen Griffiths was an author who had passed me by, until in my bookselling days I bought most of her horse stories along with a collection of other pony and horse books. I picked up The Wild Heart, and was completely and utterly hooked. Helen Griffiths does not write conventional pony books; all her horse stories are set in the Spanish speaking world, and are very far from girl-gets-pony. They tend, in fact, to be boy-gets-horse, but to describe them as simply that is doing them a terrible dis-service. Her books are often about the casual cruelty with which man treats the horse, and if you read pony books as escapism, these are emphatically not the books for you.
They are starkly realistic: horses die, sometimes by the hundred when they are hunted down by the Gauchos for their skins, and people die too. The Last Summer is about Eduardo, a wealthy boy whose life is changed forever when the Spanish Civil War starts in 1936. His father is killed, he sees the family servants killed, and his only friend is an aged horse, whom he has to learn to love and care for, as he plods around Spain, trying to reach Galicia and his mother, whom he hopes has survived.
Sometimes Helen Griffith’s heroes share in the cruelty, though it is generally through ignorance rather than inclination, and they all learn there is a better way. The learning process is not necessarily straightforward, and often comes from an unexpected source.
The best of her novels, I think, is The Wild Heart. It is the story of La Bruja, a wild South American horse, who is blessed (or cursed) with great speed from her Thoroughbred grandsire. As in The Stallion of the Sands, the equine heroine becomes hunted, and in the end a seeming cruelty is her only hope of survival in freedom.
All the novels I have read are about loss: the loss of freedom; loved ones and innocence. Generally the loss is coped with, and a degree of understanding reached, but the process doesn’t always make comfortable reading. It does, however, make for stories which explore themes often missed by the average horse or pony story.
It is a very long time since I have added to my list of favourite pony books, but The Wild Heart is now there. Helen Griffith’s writing is a world away from the comfortable familiarity of Pony Clubs, but it is very well worth getting to know.
Helen Griffiths started writing at a very young age. Her first book, Horse in the Clouds (1957), was written when she was 16. The majority of teenage equine authors tend to stick to the tried and trusted path of equine biography or life in the Pony Club, but Helen started as she meant to go on, by choosing the Argentine as the setting for her first book. Animals are a consistent theme in her writing; besides her horse stories, she has written several novels about dogs and cats.
After marrying a Spaniard in 1959, she went on to live in Madrid, Lausanne and Mallorca, and has three daughters.
Her books have been critically acclaimed. She received a commendation from the Carnegie Medal Committee in 1966 for The Wild Horse of Santander, and was awarded the Dutch award the Silver Pencil for Witch Fear.
Helen Griffiths is a sadly under-rated author: I think because her stories are so very often bleak, and often pony stories are read as escape, not as an exploration of the horrors of the world. She deserves to be fêted much more than she is.
The Last Summer
Finding the books
The paperbacks of The Wild Heart and The Wild Horse of Santander are easy to find. Horse in the Clouds, Stallion of the Sands, Federico and The Last Summer are easy to find, and not generally expensive. Blackface Stallion and Dancing Horses can be a little harder to find, but are not generally expensive.
Horse in the Clouds, 1957
The Wild Heart, 1963
The Wild Horse of Santander, 1966
Stallion of the Sands, 1968
The Last Summer, 1979
Blackface Stallion, 1980
Dancing Horses, 1981
Biographical information from the dustjackets of her stories
20th Century Children’s Books, ed Chevalier, 3rd edn