I wrote my first pony story when I was ten years old. It wasn’t well received. My teacher declared that he was sick of stories where girls on ponies won red rosettes and went home tired but happy. I can’t remember if he threw my exercise book across the room, but he might have done. He had a habit of throwing things when he was annoyed. He particularly disliked Enid Blyton so her books often took flight. On one occasion, he actually threw a desk, although it didn’t go very far.
Strangely enough, I loved being in his class. He may not have been very PC, but he was an inspiring teacher. And he taught me a very important lesson: don’t write trite stories.
Still smarting from that first experience, I didn’t write about horses again for quite a while. But when I did, I was more successful. My first ever fiction success was a story about Pegasus that was published in Horse and Pony magazine. I was thrilled to see my words in print but less thrilled by the illustration. The “horse wearing a rug” from my story looked like a horse with a fireside rug strapped to its back.
Over the next few years, I tried unsuccessfully to expand that short story into a book until my agent told me to stop writing about those wretched horses. So I abandoned fiction for a while and concentrated on non-fiction on a wide range of subjects, including a couple of books about horses.
Then Anne Finnis got in touch out of the blue. She was the editor of the very first children’s book I ever sold, and she was looking for someone to develop one of her ideas into a fiction series for young readers. She already had a publisher interested, and she wanted me to write the books because she knew I liked horses.
I was so flattered to be asked that I said “yes”, even though I had doubts about the idea. Would little girls relate to a princess with four ponies or would they be so jealous that they wanted want to claw her eyes out? Then I remembered Three Ponies and Shannon by Diana Pullein-Thompson which was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I had had no trouble relating to the spoilt, rich kid who was the main character because her life wasn’t that perfect and because she made so many mistakes when her groom wasn’t there to help. Maybe I could take inspiration from my namesake to make The Pony-Mad Princess work.
After some headscratching, I created a lonely princess who doesn’t like having to follow royal rules, finds waving lessons boring and hates the colour pink. I also invented a scenario where Princess Ellie could only ride her ponies if she booked with the elderly groom, just as if she going to a riding school, and where she wasn’t allowed to help at the stables because “princesses don’t”.
In the first book of the series, I turned that situation on its head by getting rid of the elderly groom and introducing Meg, a new, young groom one who introduces Ellie to the fun side of ponies, and Kate, the pony-mad granddaughter of the palace cook who becomes Ellie’s best and only friend. By the time, I had done all that I had fallen in love with Ellie and, judging by the success of the series, lots of young readers have done the same.
I’ve written thirteen Pony-Mad Princess books now, but Princess Ellie has never won a red rosette or gone home tired but happy. That might be because I’ve never competed much myself and prefer to just enjoy the company of horses. But maybe it’s because I still remember my teacher’s response to my very first pony story and I don’t want anyone to throw my book across the room.