About the author
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.
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.
Biographical information from the dustjackets of her stories
20th Century Children’s Books, ed Chevalier, 3rd edn
The Last Summer
Horse in the Clouds
Hutchinson, London, 1957, 206 pp, illus Edmund Osmond
Children’s Book Club, 1957
Hutchinson Educational, London, 1961, 208 pp.
Martin lives on an estancia, and doesn’t have a pony of his own, though he has plenty of poniesto ride. One day he sees a skewbald mare with her newly born chestnut foal, and that, he decides, is the horse for him. Martin’s time on the estancia is limited, however, and so Pancha, the foal,is ridden by Pancho.
Hutchinson, London, 1959, 160 pp, illus Edmund Osmond
The story of a mule.
The Wild Heart
Hutchinson, London, 1963, illus Victor Ambrus
Peacock, London, 1965, 173 pp
Horse and Pony Stories (ed Christine Pullein-Thompson) – extract
Set in South America, a wild filly is born. She has inherited her grandsire’s incredible speed, and this makes her very desirable to the gauchos. She is hunted, and learns much about man’s cruelty. Eventually she seeks sanctuary in a village church, where the boy Angel cares for her until he is faced with the terrible decision of how the mare will live out her life: wild and free, but hunted, or safe but in captivity?
The Wild Horse of Santander
Hutchinson, London, 1966, 157 pp, illus Victor Ambrus
Joaquin has become blind. He becomes devoted to a filly born to a Thoroughbred his father bought. The foal, Linda, will only let Joaquin handle her, and together they roam the countryside. Joaquin and Linda are happy in their intense relationship until Joaquin goes away for an operation to restore his sight. Alas, when he is away, Linda escapes.
Stallion of the Sands
Hutchinson, London, 1968, 167 pp, illus Victor Ambrus. Reprinted 1973
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co, New York, 1970, 160 pp
A wild albino colt is born on the pampas, but his colouring makes him hunted. Pablo is a desperately poor boy whose only support, his aunt is dying. When shedies, Pablo, who has failed to keep a job, decides to become a gaucho. Over-confidence causes the death of two horses and serious injuries for Pablo. Hehears about the albino stallion and decides the only way to make up for causing the death of his mentor’s horse is to capture the stallion.
Hutchinson, London, 1971, 123 pp, illus Shirley Hughes
This is the story of a boy and a donkey on the island of Mallorca.
The Last Summer
Hutchinson, London, 1979, 153 pp, illus Victor Ambrus
Set in Spain at the beginning of the Civil War, this story sees the wealthy Eduardo having to grow up with terrible speed in the brutal conditions of the revolution. His only support is an aged mare called Gaviota, whom he eventually learns to love and care for despite the horrors he meets in his quest to find his mother.
Hutchinson,London, 1980, 157 pp, illus Victor Ambrus
This is the story of a wild stallion in the bleak desert of northern Mexico. His palomino mother, stranded by accident, has taken up with a herd of wild horses. His father was a bay stallion descended from the Spanish horses brought from Spain by Cortez. The foal survives many hazards, growing into a magnificent stallion and master of his own herd.
Hutchinson, London, 152 pp, 1981Holiday House, New York, 1982
Set in post Civil War Spain. The golden colt Gavilan hates people, but Francisco comes to lovehim, and one day hopes that they will succeed at rejoneo – the art of mounted bullfighting.