Friday, February 6, 2015

How it All Began

What I really love writing is non fiction. Horses as a species haven't altered a great deal over the past hundreds of years, unlike dogs, but the way we treat them and ride them changes all the time. That's reflected in literature about horses, and it's fascinating seeing the way things change.

My book, Heroines on Horseback, looks at the history of children's pony books in the UK. It was a very, very different world in the 1930s, when the first pony books as we know them appeared. Children didn't bother with hats. They often rode bareback. They frequently set off on rides without leaving detailed instructions about where they were going, and couldn't rely on mobile phones to summon help if they got into trouble as mobiles were decades away from being invented. In Joanna Cannan's A Pony for Jean, published in 1936, Jean rarely, if ever, wore a hat, and when a burglar appeared one night, had to gallop up the nearest track to get help from a farm, because the only phone was downstairs, where the burglar was.

Look! No hat!
Joanna Cannan herself was in the vanguard of change. She was one of the earliest British writers to tell a horse story from the rider's point of view. If she'd been writing a decade or two earlier, Jean's pony, Cavalier, would have told us all how he was born on a windswept British moor, had an idyllic foalhood, was rounded up off the moor and sold, and then broken in, before he was sold to a family who didn't like him much, appeared not to feed him, and called him The Toastrack before giving him to a cousin, whom they didn't much like either.

Jean kept the pony, whom she renamed Cavalier, at home, as the family's cottage conveniently had an attached paddock. In the 1930s, the livery yard (or barn) wasn't the normal place where people kept horses and ponies in books. You tended to keep them on your own land, or on a nearby field you rented from a friendly farmer. This did mean that the writer didn't have access to the emotional stew that is livery yard life, and so they had to find other means for their characters to experience other children and their ponies. This happened via riding schools, the Pony Club, or through riding clubs children started up themselves.

There's no way a child could start up their own riding club or riding school now, but children really did then. Authors the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Diana and Christine, set up their own riding school during the Second World War, when they were in their mid teens. Their mother, Joanna Cannan, fortunately didn't insist on her children going to school, and so the girls were able to combine their rather sporadic education with earning a living. They started their riding school when the German Uboats patrolling the British Channel meant shortages of animal feed, which rocketed in price. Faced between having to sell their ponies, or work to keep them, they worked, and built up The Grove Stables into a solid and successful business. And did they work. It was endless, grinding toil. They collected grass for hay for a stableful of ponies themselves from road verges, and walked miles keeping ponies living in far distant fields watered and fed.

They reflected the world they knew in their books. Horse boxes were few and far between. Your wealthy cousins (whom you didn't much like) might have one to waft their expensive horses and ponies to shows, but you hacked, often miles. Christine Pullein-Thompson's A Day to Go Hunting features a whole gaggle of children who hack as much as ten miles before they even get as far as the actual meet. And that's all before they hunt for the day, and then ride the ten miles back.

It's a different world now, and that's reflected in today's pony books and horse stories. I'd love to leap forward thirty years or so and find out what future authors regard as quaintly old-fashioned, and what they look back on with nostalgic regret.


  1. Hi Jane - Fascinating post. I must be historical myself, because I rode my horse ten miles to my first horse show (we didn't have a horse trailer,) took off by myself horseback for miles through the mountains as a teenager, and enjoyed myself immensely because no one knew where I was! Cell phones - not invented. Helmets - never used them. But horses, then and now, instill a sense of empowerment, self-reliance, and responsibility in horse people (of all ages.) And I don't think that will ever change.

  2. Wow..... I absolutely agree with what you say about horses encouraging empowerment and responsibility. And that it won't ever change.