About the author
Joan Houston was born in New York City, and spent four of her school years at a boarding school. That boarding school had a dance with a medieval theme, which duly made its appearance in Crofton Meadows. It was not at school that Joan Houston learned to love horses, but Vermont, where she spent her summers. She fell off her first pony, a black and white Shetland. She was two at the time, so that is understandable. She improved, and rode in horse shows throughout New England; at the age of nine, she competed in the National Horse Show Finals in New York.
After she graduated from Barnard College, she worked as a secretary for a television company. After her marriage, she lived in suburbia, and “her animal world [was] reduced to the raising of cats.”
Joan Houston wasn’t a prolific author, but her three titles are well known and loved in the USA. She wrote Jump Shy and its sequel Horse Show Hurdles and the stand alone Crofton Meadows, which was unusual in being a school story (not common in the US). Jump Shy was printed in the UK by Heinemann with illustrations by Sheila Rose. Its sequel, Horse Show Hurdles didn’t appear.
Crofton Meadows is head and shoulders above any of its UK rivals in the horse story at school field. It is a wonderfully observed portrait of two girls and the effect they have on each other. Even the minor characters are triumphs; the scene with the headmistress at the end, where Lorraine’s pretensions are well and truly punctured, is a masterpiece of sly observation.
Finding the books
Jump Shy is not easy to find in the UK, and expensive when it is, but it is still more reasonable than in its homeland, where all her titles are hard to find. Jump Shy and Horse Show Hurdles are illustrated by the most sought after of American equine illustrators, Paul Brown, which goes some way to explaining their high prices. Crofton Meadows, possibly because of the ineptness of its cover art, is the easiest of her titles to find.
Links and sources
Biographical information: endnote and jacket information, Crofton Meadows
Many thanks to Susan Bourgeau and Alison MacCallum for their help with pictures and information, and to Fran Fignar for writing the summaries.
Bibliography (horse books only)
Thomas Y Crowell, New York, 1956, 261 pp. illus Paul Brown
Heinemann, London, 1959, illus Sheila Rose
Twelve-year-old Tamora Wade and her older sister, Cynthia, spend the summer in Vermont with their Uncle Peter. Both want to go to Frank Wilby’s rather dilapidated though well-cared for riding stable. When Uncle Peter buys Cynnie a beautiful, well-schooled saddle mare, Tamora only gets the promise of riding lessons as he feels she’s too young for horse ownership.
Then Frank buys a black, ex-show jumper named Merlin who, due to a serious accident, now refuses to jump. Tam falls in love with Merlin and, with Frank’s help, is determined to retrain the black back to his former championship status – with no success. Then she decides to meet Merlin’s former owner who rode him to so many victories. Meanwhile, Frank is having competition from the classy Leroy Stables: his head groom goes to them and Cynthia is tempted. Tam remains loyal, and makes contact with Miles Corey, Merlin’s former owner, who seems uninterested in the horse, and is crippled from the show accident.
Merlin remembers Miles, and eventually Tam convinces Miles to help her. She even tries to get Miles to ride again. After a really bad schooling session, Tam finally does convince Miles to get on Merlin and a transformation begins for both horse and rider. When Frank has to put Merlin up for auction for much needed funds, Miles bids against Tam and her Uncle and gets the horse. He and Merlin do compete for the cup and win, out jumping Leroy’s classy jumper. As summer is ending, Cynthia and Tam are about ready to leave for their New York home when Miles rides up on Merlin to say goodbye. But he tells Tam Merlin won’t be going to Virginia but will be staying in Vermont. Merlin is hers as he, Miles, is going on to college and he wants the horse to have a good home so all ends well for everyone.
Horse Show Hurdles
Thomas Y Crowell, New York, 1957, 243pp, illus Paul Brown
Sequel to JUMP-SHY. Tam and Cynnie return to their Uncle Peter’s for another summer, but there are changes coming, with the Leroy Stable providing strong competition for Frank Welby and his rather “backyard” stable operation. When Frank loses the sale of a horse due to Leroy’s talking it down and the prospective customer is sold a horse by Leroy that is definitely beyond the rider’s ability, Tam begins to smell a rat.
However, her Uncle Peter is impressed by Leroy, and his trainer Captain Bodreau, and makes the girls move their horses to Leroy’s. Tam is still on Frank’s side, however. When a Ms. Armonk shows up wanting to start a girls’ summer camp, Tam hopes to convince her to buy or lease Frank’s reliable school horses but Ms. Armonk is impressed by “history”. Tam tries to impress her by by entering a parade float with Justin Morgan as the theme, but it isn’t very professional and a cat and dog fight puts an end to it, while Leroy’s period stagecoach wins.
Meanwhile, Leroy has talked Cynnie into riding and jumping Rambler, a spooky horse he wants to sell to Ms Armonk. He wants Cynnie to ride Rambler in the hunt team class with Tam and Merlin. When Cynnie finally admits she’s not comfortable on the horse, Leroy talks Grace, one of Cynnie’s friends, into riding Rambler. The final horse show is a disaster with Rambler panicking and running out of control. When Tam and Merlin try to head Rambler off before he races onto the highway, there is a bad pile up – though luckily everyone survives. The result of this fiasco convinces Ms. Armonk of Leroy’s deviousness and Uncle Peter that maybe Frank’s stable isn’t such a bad place after all and everything comes out right in the end, with even a minor romance for Captain Bodreau and Tam’s friendship with Miles Corey, Merlin’s former owner who was back for the summer, and was doing what he could to help Frank’s cause.
Crowell, New York, 1961, 242pp, cover illus Isabel Dawson
Sheila Michaelson is the daughter of the stable manager for Crofton Meadows, an exclusive girls’ school that offers riding instruction. She goes to the local high school, having been turned down for a scholarship to Crofton. Sheila is also an accomplished horsewoman and has raised and trained Jubilee, a chestnut mare belonging to the school.
When Sheila is suddenly offered a scholarship, she’s not happy, feeling awkward with the wealthy pupils, but in the end, accepts. She meets Lorraine Coxon, niece of a neighbouring stable owner. Everything she has is the best, and she is also an excellent rider who quickly spots Jubilee’s potential, and starts riding her. The stable has bought some horses from Lorraine’s Aunt including a clutzy lop-earred blue roan who can jump the moon – if you can get him up to the fence.
Over the year, Sheila and Lorraine develop a somewhat love-hate relationship as Lorraine takes command of every activity, including Jubilee, whom she persuades her Aunt to buy. Sheila is crushed, though as a school mount, Jubilee was available for sale. Sheila starts working with Mohawk, the gifted though awkward roan. When the school show comes up, she enters on him and competes with Lorraine in open jumping. Lorraine is pushing Jubilee as the mare is young and Mohawk jumps the final round clean next to Jubilee having an obvious touch on an obstacle. However, by some quirk, the class is awarded to Lorraine causing a split in loyalty among the students. Lorraine challenges Sheila to a cross-country race over a course she has built on her Aunt’s farm. If Sheila wins, Jubilee is to be hers. Sheila takes the challenge and the resulting contest has disastrous results when Jubilee falls, breaking a leg – though in the end, Sheila does get Jubilee to use as a brood mare.