Friday, 10 June 2011

Where Have all the Horses Gone?

When I was a young girl I read horse books. I devoured them. And you know something? There seemed to be hundreds available to a pony-mad girl. On recent shopping trips I have browsed the children's section (the 8-12 section was generally where these sorts of novels would be found) and there seems to be a massive lack of them these days. Is this the case? I honestly cannot believe that little girls no longer like horses and ponies! There has been that love for so many years that its absence would be a little odd. There are still pony toys available (My Little Pony always seems to be a fixture on the shelves; and Barbie still has her riding outfit), so where are all the books? Where have all the horses gone?

I'd love to hear from those in the know? Is it just that the stories are no longer being written and submitted? Or is it that the demand just isn't there anymore?

I do know there is a fantastically active second hand market in the types of pony books I used to read as a girl.

Here, for your delight, are some of the horses that I read about and adored. Try to pick up copies of these books, if you can, and marvel in the wonderfully innocent and idyllic world of being amongst horses!

The Black Stallion - Walter Farley

The Black Stallion, known as "the Black" or "Shêtân", is the title character from author Walter Farley's bestselling series about the stallion and his young owner, Alec Ramsay. The series chronicles the story of an Arab sheikh's prized stallion after it comes into Alec's possession, although later books furnish the Black's back story.

The first book in the series, published in 1941, is titled The Black Stallion. The subsequent novels are about the stallion's three main offspring - his firstborn colt, Satan; his second colt, Bonfire, and his firstborn filly, Black Minx - as well as about the Black himself. Along with the Black, the series introduces a second stallion that is considered the Black's only equal - The Island Stallion, Flame. This is a separate storyline until Flame and the Black meet in two books - "The Black Stallion and Flame" and "The Black Stallion Challenged".

The Black Stallion was described as "the most famous fictional horse of the century." by the New York Times.

The Great Grey Horse

Monica Dickens (the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens) is most well known for her Follyfoot Farm series, of which a series of both books and TV programmes were produced. But I would rather highlight the lesser known series featuring the Great Grey Horse.

This series comprised The Messenger, Ballad of Favour, The Haunting of Bellamy 4 and Cry of a Seagull. Here is the synopsis of the first book: "When Rose is 13, she is chosen to be a messenger of the Great Grey Horse, whose long-ago heroism once saved an entire village. Rose is galloped back through time to solve the mystery of the annexe to her parents’ hotel, a house which fills its guests with a sense of tragedy and despair."

Jinny and Shantih

There are twelve books in the series about Jinny and Shantih - a girl and a beautiful chestnut Arabian mare.

The Jinny series marks a significant departure from the traditional 'tweedy' horse and pony stories aimed at middle-class children. Jinny is a scruffy, willful, tom-boyish girl who doesn't have any social or romantic aspirations. Serious social justice issues are raised throughout the series, forcing Jinny to confront her own prejudices and character faults.

Underlying the series is a sense of predestination deriving from Celtic mythology. Jinny is portrayed as a gifted or chosen child with special and dangerous tasks to perform, guided by mysterious and sometimes frightening characters such as the Red Horse (agent of the Celtic Horse Goddess Epona) and the Walker.

The first novel in the series is For Love of a Horse.

The Silver Brumby

Ah! My very favourite series involving horses!

The Silver Brumby series is a collection of children's books by Australian author Elyne Mitchell. They recount the life and adventures of Thowra, a magnificent pale brumby stallion, and his descendants.

Elyne Mitchell herself lived in the Snowy Mountains area of the Australian Alps, which is where her most popular series, The Silver Brumby, is set. She started writing the Silver Brumby books to give her daugher, Indi, something to read: books were hard to get, and Elyne wanted her daughter to read books with a strong Australian content.

The early Silver Brumby books blend their descriptions of the wild Australian mounties effortlessly with the adventures of the Brumbies. Talking horses can often be an awkward literary device, but Elyne Mitchell’s behave like horses, and their lives are portrayed vividly and realistically.


My Friend Flicka is a 1941 novel by Mary O'Hara, about Ken McLaughlin, the son of a Wyoming rancher, and his horse Flicka. It was the first in a trilogy, followed by Thunderhead (1943) and Green Grass of Wyoming (1946).

At the beginning of the first novel a young Ken McLaughlin is given, despite his father's misgivings, his choice of all the young colts on the ranch - to pick one and train it as his own. Ken angers his father when he picks the beautiful sorrel filly Flicka, who carries a strain of wild mustang blood that makes her 'loco'. Ken is desperate to prove his father wrong, and the novel focuses on the burgeoning relationship between Ken and Flicka. The second two novels focus on Flicka's colt foal Thunderhead.

Jill stories

Now the Jill books by Ruby Ferguson are definitely for younger readers and evoke a picture of a time when country shows were a major form of entertainment and young girls like Jill were pony mad.

In the first book in the series, Jill's Gymkhana, Jill's father has recently died, and she moves with her mother to a small cottage near the fictional village of Chatton. Her mother hopes to support them both as a children's author (shades of E. Nesbit's classic The Railway Children). Jill is at first a social outcast in "horsy" Chatton because she doesn't own a pony and can't ride. When her mother's stories finally begin to sell, however, the first thing she buys is a pony for her daughter. With hard work and the expert assistance of Martin Lowe, a wheelchair-using former Royal Air Force pilot, Jill becomes a star of Chatton equitation.

Jill is grateful for her mother's success; however, as she says repeatedly throughout the series, she "can't get on" with her mother's books at all, finding them impossibly sweet and whimsical (possibly a veiled criticism of the works of Enid Blyton). In contrast, Ferguson's Jill is an active, independent and witty character who defies post-war expectations for English girls by scorning ladylike pursuits, treating boys her own age as equals, and working hard to achieve her goals. This makes Ferguson's writing outstanding not only in the pony stories genre, but in children's literature generally.

Christine Pullein-Thompson

For this last section, I'm not mentioning a specific *horse* but rather highlighting the most prolific pony author of all time.

Here is a fantastic little biography from a lovely site called Jane Badger Books, which showcases a lot of the pony fiction available worldwide:

Christine Pullein-Thompson (1925-2005) was quite probably the most prolific British pony book author. She has over 100 books to her name, dwarfing the output of her sisters, Diana and Josephine. Her first solo book was We Rode to the Sea, and she followed this by what is probably a unique trilogy, the Chill Valley Hounds series, in which the heroes and heroines set up their own hunt. The likelihood of a story like this being published now is incredibly remote: but these stories were amongst Christine’s best, showing an interaction with the adult world that the pony story does not always embrace. Probably her other most noteworthy book is The Horse Sale. Christine was always interested in portraying riders from very different backgrounds, and this is probably one of her most successful. Like her sister, Josephine’s, Six Ponies, this book takes a situation and looks at how a very different set of characters react to it. The Horse Sale shows various teenagers and children coping with loved ponies being sold, and in some cases looking at, and changing their own behaviour. It is a satisfying read: without being too overtly fairytale, we see the struggle some of the characters have with themselves and their situations to achieve their dreams.

Christine’s later books showed a desire to move away from the portrayal of middle class children and their ponies (albeit sometimes the impoverished middle classes.) In books like Riders on the March and its sequel They Rode to Victory, she showed working class children fighting to save their riding school from development. These books are not as successful as other books depicting working class children and ponies: K M Peyton’s brilliant Fly-by-Night and Who Sir? Me Sir?, and Christine Dickenson’s Dark Horse both produce utterly believable characters: with Christine Pullein-Thompson’s, you are always just a little aware that it is an effort for the author to move outside her comfort zone: it’s a valiant effort, but it is an effort nevertheless.

She was on firmer ground writing about difficult emotional situations. In I Rode a Winner, her heroine, Debbie, comes from a broken home, and pours all her love onto the mare, Cleo. This is not one of the easiest of her books to read: its ending is not fairytale, but it is a convincing picture of a girl trying desperately hard to pick up the pieces of her life.

She moved back, with the Phantom Horse and Black Pony Inn series, to children with whose backgrounds she was more in tune. During the later part of her writing career, she wrote pony books for younger children, and series which concentrated on animal rescue.

In the publishing climate of today; by no means as accepting of the pony book as it once was, it is unlikely that any British author will ever match her output. Even worldwide, she has no equal. Yes, the American series by Bonnie Bryant, the Saddle Club, is enormously long, but it is a single series, but Christine Pullein-Thompson produced pony stories covering pretty well every aspect of the genre; from tales of a wild horse, to holiday adventure, to rescue stories and hunting.

My particular favourite by Christine Pullein-Thompson was her Phantom Horse series of six books.

Right, your turn now!

- Which pony stories did you love (and still appreciate now)?

- Which current pony series would you recommend to me as someone who still reads stories about horses?

- Why do you think publishers have fallen out of love with the pony story? Is this a current gap in the market?

I would love to hear from you all (although I do acknowledge that this post will mostly garner responses from women *winks*)


  1. Google search has come up with the film Pony and 2 Girls Part 2.

    I'm a little surprised that so many women would like this and even more surprised that part 1 needed a sequel...

  2. Ride By Night by Christine Pullein Thompson was my very first pony story. After that, I was obsessed with Jinny and Shantih.

    I think these things go in and out of fashion, like stories about boarding schools and ballet dancers (or indeed, teen vampires).

  3. I loved Margurite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague series. I think her best novel is The King of the Wind and I'm not ashamed that I still have it and I do the odd re-read.
    I read most if not all of Walter Farely's books, but Bonfire is drawing a blank for me. I do remember Flame and Satan. Didn't Shetan sire a blood bay filly as well (or was this Black Minx)?
    I know My Little Ponies are back in a big way amd I'm surprised that there has not been a surge in horse books for children as well.


  4. We still seem to have hundreds of pony books in the library where I work, including plenty coming in as new stock, so I don't know where they are in the shops... Particular authors that spring to mind are Linda Chapman, Lauren Brooke (Heartland), Stacy Gregg (Pony Club) and even some offerings by celebrity authors: Tilly's Pony Tales by Olympic Medalist Pippa Funnel and Katie Price's Perfect Ponies. I have no idea if these count as good horse books (especially the last series...) but our horse-mad younger readers aren't going uncatered for!

  5. I loved Summer Pony and Winter Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, and was horrified to learn that their text had been "updated" when reprinted in 2008 (shorter sentences, mostly). Another favorite was Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind.

  6. I, too, loved Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague series. I remember reading them over and over again. I also loved Black Beauty.

  7. What a unique note :) The horses are magnificent, noble beings who awaken in people a good feeling. I also do not believe that there are no children who do not wish to have a horse. It's probably a sign of our crazy times, everyone is rushing somewhere, our children too... Computer games and flashing ads cover what is valuable, many children simply do not remember that they are still children or they are ashamed to admit it. Personally, I would do anything to become a little girl again :) Strange, isn't? Or maybe not?

    Yours sincerely :)

  8. I'll have you know I've read 'The Silver Brumby' and 'The first term at Mallory Towers' - I will so read girl-books iffn I want to!

    As to where the horse books have gone ... maybe the vampires ate them, or somebody forgot to secure the gate.

  9. I loved Walter Farley's and Elayne Mitchell's books as well. Funnily enough, the books I mentioned last week were actually by a Dutch writer, Yvonne Brill, she actually wrote sixty books about Bianca and her beloved pony :D Most of the other horse books I read were by Dutch authors as well, but I absolutely devoured horse books!

    I'm curious to see what you think about Mary Finn's The Horse Girl, cause that looked awesome!