Pony Books: an Introduction by Clarissa Cridland

Many thanks to Clarissa for letting me put this article on the site.

It first appeared in Folly Magazine in November 1992 and March 1993, and then on the Collecting Books and Magazines site.  It is the first article on pony books to have a wider circulation than academic journals or the equine press.  Clarissa Cridland and Ann Mackie-Hunter run Girls Gone By, who republish forgotten classics of children’s literature, including the wonderful Monica Edwards. GGB were also the original publishers of my book, Heroines on Horseback.

Like many other small girls, I was mad about ponies, and dreamed of spending my days riding, emulating the many children about whom I read. The reality, when it came, was rather different. I was a very wet child, and became absolutely terrified of ponies. I overcame this to a certain extent, but never to go beyond a gentle canter, and the desire to ride has never returned. However, I have never lost my love of reading pony books, and indeed this has extended (surprise, surprise) to collecting them!

eating books

As soon as she could wean me from How the Mole Got His Car which was my favourite book until aged about four, and before I could graduate to something worse (in her eyes) like Noddy, my mother read me her childhood books The Ponies of Bunts (by E Ducat and M M Oliver) and its sequel, Ponies and Caravans, and I was hooked for life.

At first, these, and other books were read to me, but as I grew older and able to read, I devoured them for myself – literally as I had a nasty habit of tearing off the bottom of pages and eating them as I read! Having read all those my mother had I then moved on to read the books which were being published in my own childhood.

What is a pony book?

Not all books which feature ponies are ‘pony’ books. A ‘pony’ book needs to be fundamentally about learning to ride, owning or caring for ponies. The pony is the hero of the book, and without the pony, there would be little point to the book. Plot wise, there are three types of pony book; format wise there are two types. All of these overlap, but the divisions are quite distinct.

The early pony books (in general those published pre 1945) were much larger than other children’s books, often being the same format as an annual. Unlike the school and adventure stories we collect, there were few full colour or black and white illustration plates, no decorative covers and no full-colour dustwrappers.

The books made up for this, however, by the quality of the illustrations that they did have which were often by such distinguished artists as Lionel Edwards, Alan Seaby and Stanley Lloyd. The dustwrappers were very much that – made of rather rough paper, which was usually buff, cream or grey, and with one of the inside illustrations printed on the front to make them seem not totally boring. Some of the books, especially the non fiction and the ‘non fiction story’ books were illustrated with black and white photographs, which have a wonderfully nostalgic look to them now.

It is also interesting to note that many of these early pony books were published by three publishers – Country Life, Blackie and A & C Black. After the war, other publishers moved in and the books were published in the normal 8to format, with black and white line illustrations and full colour dustwrappers. Although there are exceptions – Anne Bullen being a notable one – many of the post-war illustrators were vastly inferior to their earlier counterparts. Not because they were less famous but because they simply couldn’t draw ponies accurately.

the 1920s

Pony books did not appear until the late 1920s. Before everyone shrieks and says ‘What about Black Beauty?’ I must say that, although the forerunner of them all, Black Beauty is about a horse and not a pony.

Before the first world war, ponies were used, by all classes except the poorest, as a means of transport. Cars were kept only by the rich, and then often in conjunction with horses. During the war, the motor vehicle was developed at a far greater rate than it would otherwise have been and people could see it overtaking the horse completely. Thus for a time, few children were learning to ride.

This started to change in the late 1920s. In 1928 Country Life published Golden Gorse’s The Young Rider which went to a second edition in 1931, and a third in 1935. In the preface to the third edition, the author wrote:

‘Since then [1928] the outlook on children and their ponies has changed very much for the better. Five children seem to be learning to ride today for one who was learning seven years ago.’

The market for pony books had clearly arrived, and apart from a short period of time from about 1975 to 1985 has never ended. Like many children’s books, pony books published after 1970 hold little interest for the collector, and I am not considering them here: suffice to say that the market is once again booming, with new titles being published regularly and old ones being reissued.

The plots of the pre 1970 books can be divided into three types: those written by the pony itself, rarely found after World War II, books written from the point of view of the rider with little instruction in riding techniques, mostly written between 1936 and 1965 and, thirdly, books also written from the point of view of the rider but which taught far more (roughly from 1946 to 1965).

Golden Gorse

Golden Gorse, the author of The Young Rider, wrote what is generally considered to be the first ‘true’ pony story which was published in 1929, with wonderful illustrations by Lionel Edwards – Moorland Mousie. This was followed by Older Mousie in 1932, another non fiction book, The Young Rider’s Picture Book in 1936 and then two ‘fictional’ books, Janet and Felicity The Young Horse Breakers (1937) which was revised and extended as The Young Horse Breakers in 1946.

Back in 1992 I wrote an article on pony books for Folly (a fanzine dealing mostly with girls’ stories for those who don’t know it). Some time before my article was published, someone asked if anyone knew the identity of Golden Gorse. Looking though The Young Rider’s Picture Book I discovered a photograph of Moorland Mousie (who was a real pony) together with a man with a caption which said ‘This picture shows Mousie in the following year as a 3-year old. In my month at the farm I finished their education.’

discovering Golden Gorse

I made the incorrect, but perhaps natural, assumption that Golden Gorse was a man. I wrote to tell the person who’d asked his identity and she wrote back to say that she had now discovered he was called M R Wace. CD readers who attend the William meetings will know Michael Wace, with whom I worked at Macmillan.

I asked Michael if this were a relative and he denied all knowledge of M R Wace or Golden Gorse. Shortly afterwards I discovered Lucy Faulkner of Bookline in Northern Ireland. She sent me an article which had appeared in the Riding Annual in 1980, in which the author had searched out Golden Gorse and discovered her to be Muriel Wace, married to the Rev Henry Wace.

I took this into Michael. ‘Gosh, yes’, he said. ‘Henry Wace was my father’s cousin.’ When Michael brought me in his family tree, it was not surprising that he didn’t know all his relatives – his grandfather was one of 14, and his father one of 11! Interestingly, though when Michael asked one of his female cousins whether she had ever heard of Golden Gorse, she replied ‘Gosh, yes, she was my Godmother.’ Sadly, I haven’t managed to get to see Michael’s cousin yet to find out more, but it shows what an incredibly small place the world is.

The original Moorland Mousie
primrose cumming

An author who spans both the pre-war and post-war books is Primrose Cumming, whose first book, Doney, was published in 1934 when she was 19. She went on to write what is probably the greatest pony book ever written, Silver Snaffles, in 1937.

Jenny, sitting on the manger in Mr Pymmington’s stable, tells the old pony Tattles how much she longs to ride. ‘Through the Dark Corner and the password is Silver Snaffles,’ is the startling reply. When she gives the password and walks through what had been a brick corner of the stable, she finds herself in a land where the children are taught to ride by the ponies themselves. The book was illustrated by Stanley Lloyd.

Stanley Lloyd illustration from Silver Snaffles

Primrose Cumming wrote other classics such as The Wednesday Pony and The Chestnut Filly. She also wrote, in what I call her middle period, The Silver Eagle Riding Stable series of three and then moved to Dent where she produced seven books ending with Penny and Pegasus in 1970.

The climate in the early 1970s was changing and it is unlikely that Dent would have welcomed more books after this, but Primrose Cumming was too astute to wait for rejection. Having written a number of articles for annuals, both about ponies and not, she was approached by D C Thompson to write a series about ballet.

As she told me, she ‘simply mugged up’ ballet and wrote the series. She then ‘simply mugged up’ on several other subjects to write more series! She was paid considerably more than she earned at Dent, her last few books there bringing in £50 advances against royalties of 10%.

My first job in publishing was with Dent. I joined on 1st November 1976 to find that my boss, who was the editor of the children’s books, loathed the type of book I like, and one of my first jobs was to clear out all the files relating to books no longer on the list.

I found some fascinating memos about the quality of writing of No Place for Ponies (by Primrose C) which was seen to be not as good as her other books, and, very stupidly, did as I had been instructed and threw them out, instead of keeping them. The books I was told to ‘take to some jumble sale or other’ and I did at least keep these!

Joanna Cannan

In 1937 Joanna Cannan’s A Pony for Jean was published. This paved the way for the style of pony book which was written from the point of view of the rider but actually gave not much instruction.

illustration by Anne Bullen from A Pony for Jean

She wrote two more books about Jean, Another pony for Jean and More Ponies for Jean (not very imaginative titles but they told the reader exactly what she was getting) and another five non-Jean pony books (as well as a pony Picture Puffin and numerous other titles). Joanna Cannan would not be remembered now for her pony books were it not for her daughters – Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein-Thompson.


Mention the P-T sisters to anyone who reads, whether pony-mad or not, and you will get instant recognition. It was they who started the third phase of pony story writing – that written by the rider but with solid instruction.

With the development of International Horse Shows after World War II, the British had learnt that they could not win the dressage and showjumping sections unless they changed their way of riding and adopted the continental forward seat as opposed to the old backward seat with which they had led in the hunting field for years. Many instructors of riding, however, still favoured the old way and there was to be a forward/backward seat battle for years. This is reflected in all the post-war P-T books, and in the best of the others of this era. How often do we read ‘and he still jumps with the backward seat’, or words to that effect.

The P-T’s first book, It Began With Picotee, was a joint effort written by all three of them, but after that they went their separate ways. Personally, I enjoy Josephine’s books the best, especially her Noel and Henry series. All her books, while full of riding instruction, are also excellent stories and full of humour.

Christine and Diana, perhaps because they are twins, write in a very similar style to one another – and one which I find rather annoying in that their heroines frequently swing from deep despair to extreme joy and back again, which detracts from the stories.

Josephine wrote 12 pony stories between 1946–61, Christine 19 from 1948–63 and Diana 8 between 1946–56. They all went on to write other things and then returned to pony stories in the 1970s and indeed are still writing them today, even if these are very different from those of their early years (and from the collector’s point of view published in horrible paperbacks!).

Ruby Ferguson

The Enid Blyton or Elinor Brent-Dyer of pony stories is Ruby Ferguson whose Jill series has never been out of print since Jill’s Gymkhana was published in 1949. This was the one series I bought for myself as a child, going to Harrods to spend my hard won book tokens and pocket money, and, with one exception, I still have these same books today.

From Jill and the Perfect Pony

All of us who have read the Jill series know exactly how to ride and care for a pony, even if only in theory, and perhaps this is why the paperbacks today sell an average of 4,000 a year. Sadly, but probably inevitably, the paperbacks have been updated and not always well.

Inevitably, this is a very personal selection of pony books, and because of space I have not included all my favourites, and other readers may have others they would like to recommend.

Books by Golden Gorse (complete list)

The Young Rider (Country Life 1928)
Moorland Mousie (Country Life 1929)
Older Mousie (Country Life 1932)
The Young Rider’s Picture Book (Country Life 1936)
Janet and Felicity The Young Horse Breakers (Country Life 1937)
The Young Horse Breakers (Country Life 1946
Mary in the Country (Country Life 1955)

Books by M M Oliver and E Ducat (complete list)

Land of Ponies by (Country Life 1951)
A Riding We Will Go (Lutterworth Press 1951)
The Ponies of Bunts (Country Life 1933)
Sea Ponies (Country Life 1935)
Ponies and Caravans (Country Life 1941)

Books by M M Oliver

Riding Days in Hooks Hollow (Country Life 1944)
Horseman’s Island (Country Life 1950)
Menace on the Moor (Nelson 1960)
The Riddle of The Tired Pony (Nelson 1964)

Books by Primrose Cumming

Doney (Country Life 1934)
Spider Dog (Country Life 1936)
Silver Snaffles (Blackie 1937)
The Silver Eagle Riding School (A & C Black 1938)
Rachel of Romney (Country Life 1939)
The Wednesday Pony (Blackie 1939)
Ben: The Story of A Cart-Horse (Dent 1939)
The Chestnut Filly (Blackie 1940)
Silver Eagle Carries On (A & C Black 1940)
Owls Castle Farm (A & C Black 1942)
The Great Horses (Dent 1946)
Trouble At Trimbles (Country Life 1949)
Four Rode Home (Dent 1951)
Rivals To Silver Eagle (A & C Black 1954)
No Place For Ponies (Dent 1954)
The Deep-Sea Horse (Dent 1956)
Flying Horseman (Dent 1959)
The Mystery Trek (Dent 1964)
Foal of the Fjords (Dent 1966)
Penny and Pegasus (Dent 1969)

Books by Joanna Cannan (pony books only)

A Pony for Jean (John Lane The Bodley Head 1936)
We Met Our Cousins (Collins 1937)
Another Pony for Jean (Collins 1938)
London Pride (Collins 1939)
More Ponies for Jean (Collins 1943)
They Bought Her A Pony (Collins 1944)
Hamish: The Story of a Shetland Pony (Puffin 1944)
I Wrote A Pony Book (Collins 1950)
Gaze at the Moon (Collins 1957)

Books by Josephine Pullein-Thompson (pony books only – pre 1967)
It Began With Picotee (A & C Black 1946) (with C & D P-T)
Noel and Henry Series
Six Ponies (Collins 1946)
Pony Club Team (Collins 1950)
The Radney Riding Club (Collins 1951)
One Day Event (Collins 1954)
Pony Club Camp (Collins 1957)

I Had Two Ponies (Collins 1947)
Plenty of Ponies (Collins 1949)
Prince Among Ponies (Collins 1952)
Show Jumping Secret (Collins 1955)
Patrick’s Pony (Brockhampton Press 1956)
The Trick Jumpers (Collins 1958)
All Change (Benn 1961)

Non Fiction
How Horses Are Trained (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1961)
Ponies in Colour (Batsford 1962)
Learn To Ride Well (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1966)

Diana Pullein-Thompson (pony books only – pre 1960)

It Began With Picotee (A & C Black 1946) (with J & C P-T)
I Wanted A Pony (Collins 1946)
Three Ponies and Shannon (Collins 1947)
The Pennyfields (Collins 1949)
A Pony to School (Collins 1950)
A Pony for Sale (Collins 1951)
Janet Must Ride (Collins 1953)
Horses at Home and Friends Must Part (Collins 1954)
Riding With the Lyntons (Collins 1956)

Non Fiction

Riding for Children (Foyle 1957)

Christine Pullein-Thompson (pony books only – pre 1965)

It Began With Picotee (A & C Black 1946) (with J & D P-T)
We Rode to the Sea (Collins 1948)
We Hunted Hounds (Collins 1949)
I Carried The Horn (Collins 1951)
Goodbye to Hounds (Collins 1952)
Riders from Afar (Collins 1954)
Phantom Horse (Collins 1955)
A Day To Go Hunting (Collins 1956)
Stolen Ponies (Collins 1957)
Ride by Night (Collins 1960)
The Horse Sale (Collins 1960)
The First Rosette (Burke 1956)
The Second Mount (Burke 1957)
Three To Ride (Burke 1958)
The Lost Pony (Burke 1959)
For Want of a Saddle (Burke 1960)
The Empty Field (Burke 1961)
The Open Gate (Burke 1962)
The Doping Affair (Burke 1963)

As Christine Keir
The Impossible Horse (Evans 1957)

Books by Pat Smythe (fiction pony books only – pre 1965)
Jacqueline Rides for a Fall (Cassell 1957)
Three Jays Against The Clock (Cassell 1958)
Three Jays On Holiday (Cassell 1958)
Three Jays Go To Town (Cassell 1959)
Three Jays Over The Border (Cassell 1960)
Three Jays Go To Rome (Cassell 1960)
Three Jays Lend A Hand (Cassell 1961)

Books by Ruby Ferguson (pony books only)
Jill’s Gymkhana (Hodder & Stoughton 1947)
A Stable for Jill (Hodder & Stoughton 1951)
Jill Has Two Ponies (Hodder & Stoughton 1952)
Jill Enjoys Her Ponies (Hodder & Stoughton 1954)
Jill’s Riding Club (Hodder & Stoughton 1956)
Rosettes for Jill (Hodder & Stoughton 1957)
Jill and the Perfect Pony (Hodder & Stoughton 1959)
Pony Jobs for Jill (Hodder & Stoughton 1960)
Jill’s Pony Trek (Hodder & Stoughton 1962)