Of those new books which did appear, many were pony adventures. Perhaps this was in response to a generation more likely to watch fast-moving adventures on television than read a book. Even authors like the Pullein-Thompsons moved away from the instructional model of story, and began to write adventure stories. Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Race Horse Holiday (1971), Moors series (1976-1986) and Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Phantom Horse series, the first title of which appeared in 1955, but had four books added to it in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pony Patrol (1977-1980) and Black Pony Inn series (1978-1989), were all fast-moving and readable, but without the depth of some of their previous work.
The 1970s were tough times economically, with much industrial unrest. I remember the three day week, when the country experienced rolling power cuts during the miners’ strike. We huddled into one room with the paraffin lamp my father had bought as an ornament, but which did valiant service while we had no electricity. I used to creep as close as I could to the lamp to get enough light to read, but it is remarkably difficult to be surreptitious when the entire family is in a small room and they want the light too. I was not supposed to read by paraffin lamp as it was supposed to be bad for my eyes.
Christine Pullein-Thompson made an active, though not always successful, attempt to reflect changes in society. Throughout the 1960s she had written stories about working class children: the David and Pat, Janice and Mick and Riding School series. Her Riders on the March (1970), and its sequel They Rode to Victory (1972), are the stories of a group of children from a comprehensive school who battle the loss of their riding school to development. Although more successful than her earlier For Want of a Saddle (1960), where the characters' real achievements in entering the world of the horse are obscured by their melodramatic swoops of emotion, the books are still an uncomfortable read. Christine Pullein-Thompson was at her best when writing about characters with similar backgrounds to her own, as was seen with her I Rode a Winner (1973), which tackles another feature of 1970s life: the rising divorce rate.
As the optimism of the 1960s gave way to the grittier 1970s, one author wrote a series which took a (sometimes grim) look at life beyond the pony book dream. What happened to the pony once he was too old for gymkhanas? To the horse when he was too old to race? In 1963, Monica Dickens had written Cobbler’s Dream, an uncompromising and at times bleak adult novel about a home of rest for horses, Follyfoot. In the early 1970s, a television series called Follyfoot appeared which took the characters, and some of the storylines from Cobbler’s Dream, and developed it into a series which still has devoted fans today. Monica Dickens wrote four books – the Follyfoot series – to tie in with the television programmes, telling stories of the cruelties, both unthinking and deliberate which the human race visits upon the horse, and another series, World’s End, about the struggles of a family to survive on their own with little parental input. Neither series features comfortable middle- class children and neat pony adventures; the difficulty of surviving without a steady source of income is a theme of both series, as is the mistreatment of animals.
Television looked to literature for another series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, but this was not a dark look at the horrors the Victorian horse experienced: it took a Beauty now living a blissful life with a country doctor and his family, and made the horse into an equine action hero: whatever was wrong, Beauty would sort it, together with his human friends. Although it’s easy to be dismissive about it now, I loved it at the time. It was another, and a kinder, gentler, world, filled with certainties, where good always triumphed and the bad were punished. This world of certainty was a long way from my experiences as a grammar school girl whose school went comprehensive when she was half way up it. My school was combined with the girls’ secondary modern. The two schools had a long tradition of loathing each other, and the new comprehensive regime celebrated this, and the union of the two schools, by introducing a no discipline experiment. The girls were to discipline themselves. Except we didn’t, and it was chaos, and hell for those like my younger sister, caught up in the maelstrom of bullying and vindictiveness that swept the school.
Patricia Leitch’s Jinny was at school in a comprehensive system that had settled down, though that didn’t mean to say she enjoyed it. The one thing Jinny liked at school was art. The Jinny books (1976-1988) combined mysticism, a teenage heroine completely in tune with her readers, and a wild Arabian mare. It was an intoxicating mix, and one which is attracting new readers today. The Jinny series came after Patricia Leitch had written fifteen books, perceptive and often amusing, with her Dream of Fair Horses being a tour-de-force, examining what it really means to possess an animal.
Leitch had a particular interest in looking at the passionate need some girls have to possess a horse, and carried on throughout the Jinny series having Jinny crash up time and time again against her need to say “It’s mine,” when she has to share her world with both people and animals. In her hands, the pony book became something more than a simple girl-gets-pony tale. It became an examination of what getting that pony really means.
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If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far: