Susanna Forrest, journalist, long time pony-book fan and author of If Wishes were Horses and The Age of the Horse, wrote this article, which originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Many thanks to Susanna for letting me put it on the site.
Tales of girl-meets-horse are as popular as ever… and now, thanks to Jordan, that bit spicier, reports Susanna Forrest
It’s an old story. Girl (Jinny, Jill, Jackie) meets the Pony of her dreams (Shantih, Black Boy, Misty). Pony has intriguing psychological problems that respond only to Girl’s uniquely sensitive nature. Girl and Pony fall in love. Through the medium of an equus ex machina Girl gets Pony. Girl and Pony canter on beaches and rescue other horses from disused mineshafts/nasty farmers, before winning a silver cup against the odds and defeating the arch-bitch rich girl who – terrible sin! – never grooms her own pony.
End shot: Girl and Pony gallop whooping along a cliff top, pointed at destiny.
Katie Price, aka Jordan, the glamour model and generator of the dross that holds the tabloids together, has just launched a volley of Barbie-pink, sparkly Perfect Ponies for ages seven to nine – the biggest event in pony publishing for years. They begin with Here Comes the Bride – possibly the least promising pony book title ever – and look much like other uninspiring series for younger children, heavy on unicorns and princesses.
The Perfect Ponies books are about a gang of girls who work at a stable and get into scrapes like racing to a wedding wearing as many pink ribbons as possible. The dialogue doesn’t sparkle (‘I get well thirsty grooming’) and the characters are chiefly distinguished by their hair-dos, giving it the feel of something written by committee.
This is a great shame, because Price is a keen, knowledgeable horsewoman – the companion website contains solid advice, and I’m sure her forthcoming pony-care book will be a belter – but there’s none of the genuine excitement of the early books by Primrose Cumming or K M Peyton, who bought ponies and riding lessons with their first advances. Writing for nine-year-olds needn’t be as bland as Angel Delight.
The pony books of my childhood were packed with plucky heroines and practical pony-wrangling advice: ironical Jill in Ruby Ferguson’s eponymous series, who buys a pony for £25 and struggles to be a brick instead of a drip; passionate Jinny Manders from Patricia Leitch’s Finmory books, who nearly dies of exposure while rescuing a beautiful Arabian on the Scottish moors; Enid Bagnold’s Velvet Brown, who wins the Grand National dressed as a boy; Ruth Hollis of Peyton’s Fly-by-Night, doomed to love tricksy, spirited Fly, whom she keeps behind chicken wire in the back garden of the council house where she lives.
As a pony-mad girl cruelly deprived of my own Shetland by my parents, I was forced to sublimate my obsession into horsey books ranging from pulp to masterpiece. Demand for these old books is strong enough for such companies as Fidra Books in Edinburgh to reprint classics such as Fly-by-Night, Silver Snaffles and Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Six Ponies, and to plan mass-market editions to woo the book chains. It seems there are stirrings in the pony book business, which has been dwindling since the 1980s.
Since I started researching a history of the great romance between girls and horses, I’ve had a licence to dig out treasures such as the ur-pony book, Dick: the Memoirs of a little Poney by Arabella Argus, from 1799. This first-equine account has a narrator who is a highly believable pony: gluttonous, impatient, vain and prone to either sloth or manic gallops that end in tears for tiny riders.
Dick has a few enlightened things to say about Reason, Nature and the Reign of Tyranny, and while the scene in which he gets gelded – ‘I submit, however, to destiny’ – might be a bit much for a modern child, it would give Price something to work with.
For more than a century after Dick’s debut, horsey narratives were chiefly voiced by the equines themselves, a trend boosted by Black Beauty, one of the biggest-selling books of all time, translated into every language from Volapük to Braille.
Though I was born 100 years after its publication in 1877 and I’ve seen more spaceships than cab horses, I still get what May Hill Arbuthnot called ‘Black Beauty vapours’ when I read about poor Ginger’s corpse dangling off the knacker’s cart.
From the 1930s onwards, child riders emerged as the new heroes, rescuing the equine damsels in distress. I should really say heroines rather than heroes, because there are hardly any male protagonists in British pony books. As women took over the real horse world from the cavalry officers of the 19th century, so they monopolised the imaginary one, and the great pony-owning boom of the mid-century firmly established the bond between girls and horses as a cultural reference point. Publishers commissioned title after title – by Monica Dickens, Gillian Baxter, Joanna Cannan, Monica Edwards and the show-jumping superstar Pat Smythe – populated by girls who thought nothing of risking life and limb for the love of a horse and fair play.
Those doughty Golden Era heroines kept re-appearing in new editions for decades, and though there were a few outstanding new arrivals such as Leitch’s Finmory series and Caroline Akrill’s Eventing trilogy, on the whole the 1980s and 1990s meant no more jolly hoofpicks, and the flood slowed to a trickle. Critics of the genre carped about middle-class values and ‘static’ plots. Akrill summed it up: ‘We knew there was still an audience out there, but we couldn’t get to them. I do feel that pony books just went out of fashion and the audience was suddenly far more sophisticated.’
The pony-book dealer and aficionado Jane Badger points out that times have changed. ‘What publishers want now are series – they want Silver Snaffles plus 10,’ she says. This is not a guarantee of quality. Glossy American sagas such as The Saddle Club or Heartland hog the market, and the only home-grown competition is the matchless Peyton, who is still producing brilliant novels. In the autumn a new one is coming out for the same age range as Perfect Ponies – Minna’s Quest, the first in a historical Roman Pony series.
Here’s the paradox. The number of horses in the UK hasn’t dipped, but grown steadily, and pony mania shows no sign of slackening off: at the Olympia Horse Show last Christmas, I saw young girls cheering on the stars in the ring. I doubt they are all illiterate, nor uninterested in horsey prose. But aside from Peyton’s Blind Beauty (1999), whose heroine does time in a juvenile detention centre, there’s nothing horsey for them to read that reflects the time they are growing up in.
As Meg Rosoff pointed out recently, teenagers ‘listen to music about suicide and psycho killers’ and live in a paranoid world of war and global warming, yet pony-wise, there’s only escapism.
‘Pony books never really go away,’ says Price’s editor at Random House, Charlie Shepherd. ‘They’re a genre like boarding-school books and ballet stories – they go in cycles, and keep coming back.’ Perhaps, she suggests, the celebrity stardust will lead to a new boom for all age ranges. Fingers crossed, though I hope it’s not true that today’s teenagers will only read a book with a celebrity’s name gummed to the cover. Let’s take the chief buyer at Waterstone’s to the Horse of the Year show and show her the hordes who will be happy to have some ponies mixed in with their environmental apocalypse, serial killers and intravenous drug use.
If publishers are prepared to take a gamble and let pony books escape from the ‘posh gel’ stereotype and the ghetto of timelessness, we might see some true contemporary classics.