Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Elaine Walker: Fact, Fiction and Reality - Writing What I Know

Elaine Walker - Virtual writer-in-residence - October 2012
Elaine writes fiction and non-fiction about the horse. Her work has been featured at The Guardian Hay Festival and translated into several languages. Her book The Horses, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent post Apocalyptic story, in which a family who have been holidaying in remote Scotland find that everyone who lived in any community numbering more than a few is dead. The family are trying to survive on a Scottish farmstead, but life is desperately difficult, particularly when the family’s father dies. And then the horses come...

As well as lecturing in Creative Writing and English Literature, Elaine offers bespoke courses and mentoring in Creative Writing. Mention Jane Badger Books for a discount on courses and copies of Elaine's books - you can contact her via her website.

Writing Residency - week 4

For my final post, I'm going to talk about the way my connection with horses links to my academic and creative writing.

I didn't start writing so I could write about horses and I have more published articles, short stories and poems on other subjects. Yet out of my five books, three are about horses. They also feature in at least another four of the ideas for novels and non-fiction books percolating at the back of my mind. Writing what we know is perhaps inevitable - both Horse and To Amaze the People, came about because someone who knew the subject was needed to do the work. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, although Horse came first, the research for To Amaze the People, which began as my doctoral thesis, lead indirectly to it. This is the nature of writing for publication - the order in which books are published is not necessarily the order in which they are written. 

As I've mentioned in previous weeks, my own knowledge comes from long interest in horses. Like many children, especially girls maybe, I had an early love of horses. I had riding lessons for my fifth birthday and a pony on loan when I was about eight, then my own ponies from ten or eleven. 

My first pony, Shannon, as I saw her (age 9).
They were kept in borrowed, loaned and rented fields that were on the market as building plots - now I drive down the road where we lived and it's completely built up. My father loved horses too, and had spent his school holidays as a ‘pony boy’. This meant he took the local riding school ponies down to the beach to give children sixpenny rides to the pier and back. He had to walk up and down leading them all day, look after them between rides and then take them home at night. For this he got nothing except the ride to and from the beach but that was enough! He also loved western films and with my own love of reading, we had all the motivation we needed. 

Shannon and I out riding on Bryn Euryn, above Colwyn Bay, taken by my dad,
who walked many, many miles with us.
Reading Tolkien triggered an interest in research as I started to read the mythologies that inspired Middle-Earth and critical studies of The Lord of the Rings. My first fiction writing was a highly derivative fantasy, out of which emerged a character who still surfaces from time to time, getting less and less fantastical every time. One day I'll write his story, maybe - I gave him a bit part in The Horses, so there was a thread I could follow.

My academic work on horses came from a slightly different direction. I started my first degree when I was thirty and in the final term of the final year, did a module on seventeenth-century women writers. I decided to pursue the subject via an MPhil and a specialist in the seventeenth century happened to be on campus the day I went for my interview. She was in a hurry so invited me to talk over a sandwich in the pub. She sat down with half a lager and a huge beef bap and said, 'So, who do you want to look at?' The first name that came into my head was Margaret Cavendish, so that's what I said and my future changed direction from that moment. The more research I did on Margaret Cavendish, the more I came across her husband, William, Duke of Newcastle, who wrote books on horsemanship. At that time, the academic world considered it an odd thing for a royalist nobleman to do. This highlights the differences between what a riding and non-riding reader/academic could bring to the material, because it didn't seem odd at all to me. By the time I completed the MPhil on the Duchess, I was already committed to a PhD on the Duke and his horsemanship manuals. 

Research on the Duke of Newcastle has lead to a lot of interesting consultancy work - this is filming with Atacama Films for English Heritage at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire, with Peter Maddison-Greenwell of  El Caballo de España http://www.elcaballodeespana.co.uk/ in the saddle as the Duke.

Much of what we perceive about horses in culture and history is received information, shaped by many levels of knowledge and motivation. Horses are historically linked to elitism and that's still a pervasive image, even though they have similarly strong links to work and transport at the most everyday level. By the time I'd completed my PhD (which took eleven years), I had a new perspective that fed into the
shape of Horse and also The Horses.

William Cavendish, Marquis (later Duke) of Newcastle demonstrates the perfect seat for a horseman.
Humans are often relentlessly self-centred and in writing both fiction and non-fiction about horses, I didn't want - and will never want - to simply accept that humans are best equipped to make judgements and rules regarding other animals or consider them as a resource. The research I did on the Duke of Newcastle, for Horse and The Horses crossed, intersected and was all pulled together by the fact that I go out to my own horses every morning before I go to my desk. Even that needs looking at: are they mine? They are in my care, certainly, and they are my responsibility. Whether or not they are 'mine' in any sense that means something to them is another question. 

Me with Rowan as a two-year-old, just starting
 to get fluffy for winter.
The starting point for The Horses came when I was looking for epigraphs to set up the chapters for the Newcastle thesis. A colleague reminded me of Edwin Muir's poem, 'The Horses', which I'd known as a child. It came back to me in a rush and I went home and wrote the first chapter of what became the novel in a single sitting. Even though it then waited a long time to take off, the idea of missing a huge event had been with me since I was at school and saw a poster that asked the question, ‘What if they held a war and nobody came?’ Also the experience of arriving home from a family holiday, having seen no television or newspapers for a week, and finding the whole world shaken by a crisis was one I'd discussed with friends and thought had potential. 

While The Horses was languishing as a single chapter, I was reading a lot on environmentalism and came across mention of a bomb that would kill people but not damage property. The sad irony of that kick-started the story as the priorities of the modern world and the idea of a quiet apocalypse developed. I wanted to counter post-apocalyptic visions where ordinary people at once become gun-toting and violent and to explore the much older idea that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’. I also wanted to challenge the idea that the dysfunctional family is the norm in the modern world. 

I've always been drawn to magical realism, which offers the room to explore inexplicable events that require a new way of seeing. Muir’s poem resonates with the great cultural importance of the horse whilst modern interest in horse psychology uses herd behaviour to improve our understanding of and relationships with horses.

I wanted to pull these two elements together without the implications of domination that mark the long-established historical relationship. What if humans were removed from all the things they understood? Horses, being instinctive, might offer insights humans have lost. Jo’s horses behave pretty much like my own and are intended to be fully 'real' horses, while being enhanced from the perspective that a greater communication process could be available to us if we took the time to recognise it. 

Not the best photo of Rowan, perhaps, but the one that 
captures her character perfectly!
I still like that idea and think anything that makes humans more inclined to be humble is good. Watching my own horses constantly leads me to question what I 'know' about them. That has lead me to all the writing I've done on horses so far, and I am pretty sure, will lead to whatever comes in the future. 

Left to right - Darius, Rowan and Topaz.


Elaine Walker
All photographs copyright Elaine Walker

Previous posts:
Reading Horses

Writing Horses, part one
Writing Horses, part two

Monday, 22 October 2012

Review: Patricia Leitch - The Magic Pony

Patricia Leitch: The Magic Pony
Catnip, 2012, £5.99

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Patricia Leitch’s books are immensely satisfying; multi-layered: they succeed on so many levels. If you want to read The Magic Pony as a pony adventure in which a girl rescues a woman from dying somewhere she didn't want to; a mistreated pony from appalling conditions, and sees her own horse recover from a mystery foot injury, it works perfectly on that level. As a pony story, it is extraordinarily good, but it has much to say on ageing, and on death, and on how we perceive those around us.

The Magic Pony is the seventh in the Jinny series. Jinny is struggling with school (the intractability of algebra), and the utter frustration of a half term that has seen even she, normally uncaring about the weather, restricted to home in the face of the deluge that lasted until the last day of half term. And now the last day has come; it has dawned fine, but Jinny has to go to the dentist, and finish her algebra. When at last she is free, she rides Shantih into the dusk, but in a fit of fury at the things that restrict her; family, school, she hurtles with Shantih towards a high stone wall. Shantih crashes on the other side, and is lamed. Nothing Jinny or the vet try, over the coming weeks, seems to work.

In a search for a horsey expert who will be able to divine the cause of Shantih’s lameness, Jinny tries a nearby riding school. It is a hell-hole, with half-starved horses, overworked and uncared for. Amongst them is Easter, an ancient grey pony in whom Jinny can still see the remnants of beauty. Jinny is determined to rescue Easter. Over-reaching all of this is Kezia, the Tinker woman, who has been taken into hospital to die. She wants to die as she lived, in the hills, within reach of the outside, but she needs Jinny’s help to do it. Jinny is uniquely placed amongst those Kezia knows: a child outside the traveller society, she will be able to marshal the right sort of help.

Death is not the normal preserve of a pony book; not the death of another human being, at any rate. Neither is age. It struck me when reading the book that sadly, little has changed since the book was written in 1982. When she learns that Kezia is dying, and wants to see her, Jinny’s first reaction is horror: in her life “people were either alive or else you heard they’d died. You didn't visit them, knowing they were dying.” The dying are tidied away, neatly, in hospital. That is where all right-thinking people believe they should be, and Jinny at first unthinkingly parrots this line.  She comes, though, to recognise that the right-thinking way is not necessarily the way for everybody, and she, and those adults she knows will be sympathetic, help Kezia to sign herself out of the hospital.

The unexpected help too. This is one place where Patricia Leitch is so clever: we typecast people, and expect them to react in certain ways. Mr Mackenzie, owner of the farm next door to Finmory, is never slow to point Jinny’s stupidity out to her. He is the bastion of good sense, and has little time for her flights of fancy. But Kezia has asked to die in Mr Mackenzie’s bothy, and Jinny asks him, and he says yes. Kezia was a “bold one” in her youth, says Mr Mackenzie, a beauty. “It’s the sleepless nights I've spent tossing on my bed thinking of that one. Aye, So it is.” Jinny hurries away, not wanting to know. It is difficult to see the old; the middle aged even, and to think that they were once as you are now.

The old women in Kezia’s ward “the parchment skins, gaping mouths and white wisps of hair,” remind Jinny of the awfulness of the riding school, where she felt “the same hopelessness, the same empty endurance.” The pony Easter “is like a ghost – so old she seemed hardly there, unable to stand against the assault of the light.”  And yet Jinny is able to see, every now and then, what lies within both Kezia and Easter. The outer shell does not matter: there is still fire within.

“She looked up out of the window again. Keziah was tall and stately, the robes she wore about her shoulders trailed to the ground. She rode a white mare, proud-stepping with eye imperial and cascading mane and tail. A handmaiden walked by her side, and a page boy walked at the head of her palfrey. All the fairytales Jinny had ever read, all the illustrations she had ever seen of queens upon white horses, or wise women, or elfin lands, took hands and danced in Jinny’s sight. She watched spellbound.
For a minute they dropped out of sight as the track looped downhill and when they reappeared the spell was broken.”

It is not just the skins of the aged Jinny, and we, need to learn to see beneath. There is Miss Tuke, the generally dismissive owner of the local trekking centre, who sets about the owner of the pathetic riding school.  Brenda, who runs the riding school, once had dreams herself, but has been utterly ground down by life. 

“For a moment before Brenda turned away she smiled at Jinny, her mask drawn back, and, for a second, Jinny saw quite clearly the girl who had once shared her dreams.”

When Kezia’s death comes, Patricia Leitch meets it head on. There is no “passing away”, or even the dreadful modern “passing” (passing away-light? Is one only half dead?).

“Easter came slowly towards them. She reached out her head and breathed over Jinny’s tear-stained face, exchanged curious questioning breath with Shantih, then stood waiting.
‘Keziah’s dead,” said Jinny bleadkly. She’s gone. No more. Dead.’

This is a brilliant book; in which every time I read it, I see different things. There is Jinny herself, meeting life head on; flawed and intolerant but fighting her way towards understanding the world and how it works; “the right thing to do.” There is the glorious mixture of myth and faith: the Red Horse, personification of the horse goddess Epona, and the unspoken communication between human and horse.

It’s the sort of book that pierces you with the beauty of its language. Jinny’s “great camel groan” when she has to get back to her algebra and not ride Shantih, is the sort of thing that resonates over the page to anyone who has had to turn away from what they really want to do and get on with the dull, the oppressive, and the everyday.  And the horse, the wonderful Shantih. There are few, if any, pony writers better than Patricia Leitch at capturing the blazing brilliance of the Arab. Shantih, cured by Kezia’s herbs is restored and vital again.

“Jinny felt her drop behind the bit, her weight sink back on her hindlegs as she reared, struck out with her forefeet, then with an enormous bound was galloping up the track to the moor.
Shantih was all captured things flying free, was spirit loosened from flesh, was bird again in her own element.”

Thank you to Catnip for offering a copy of The Magic Pony to readers of this review. The competition has now closed, and the copies (they awarded two) will be on their way to the winners shortly.

If you'd like to learn more about Patricia Leitch, here's some useful links and further reading:

My interview with Patricia Leitch
Susanna Forrest has a chapter about Patricia Leitch in her excellent If Wishes were Horses
Susanna Forrest's editor located the real Finmory
Patricia Leitch's books - an illustrated bibliography

Review: K M Grant

K M Grant: The Blood Red Horse
Puffin, £5.99
Kobo, Kindle, £4.99

K M Grant's website

Last year I went to a literary party (not something I generally do, opportunities being few and far between) but while I was there, someone told me that as I liked horses I must read book X by Y. Yes, I said, excited at the thought of a new author. I then promptly forgot the name of the book and the author, and who had told me about it.  This year, I went to the British Museum exhibition on The Horse, and the shop had a copy of K M Grant's Blood Red Horse. This, I am pretty certain, is X. Thank you, unknown person, for recommending it. For it is a cracker.

It is set at the time of the Crusades, but opens in England. Will and his elder brother Gavin are knights: at least Gavin is, and Will wants to be. He needs a horse though; a great horse, and he is to choose one from the many his father has bred. The horse Will chooses, Hosanna, is blood red, and he is small, not a thundering and majestic creature like those Will's father and brother ride. Gavin misses no chance to tease Will about the horse, but Will is unrepentant. And Ellie, who is supposed to marry Gavin, but seems to have a great deal more in common with Will, supports him.

Virtually the whole household: father, brothers, knights, squires and a whole herd of horses, go off to the Crusades. K M Grant does not spare the reader the detail of what war meant. Transporting the horses to the Holy Land via sea is at times horrific. The war is grim; each side is as human, and cruel, as the other.

K M Grant refuses to be bound by any easy conventions. People on both sides behave barbarically: we can see why they do. Both sides behave nobly; and again we can see why that is. I loved the subtleties of this book, and the insight K M Grant gives into the results of her characters' behaviour. The men sail off to war, full of noble intentions, but Ellie is left, and she is vulnerable to predators.

Hosanna is the impartial horse around whom much of the action revolves. When he is captured by the Saracens, and taken over by the vengeful Kamil. I had a fleeting vision of Hosanna finding his own way back to his beloved master, Will, but Hosanna finds Kamil as good a master as Will, and is as fond of him as he is of Will. We all like to think our animals are specially fond of us, but of course they do not think as we do, and they are not little humans with hooves.

I always wonder, when reading historical novels, quite how much modern day sensibilities affect what's written. As I suspect the author holds pretty much the same views I do myself, it's even harder to judge: lacking any real sense of the period myself, I'm left in the author's hands.  Nevertheless, that was a place I was happy to be throughout the novel.

Blood Red Horse is the first of a series; there are two further books, Green Jasper and Blade of Silver, and a connector set much later, Hartslove.


To see all of K M Grant's horse-related stories, see her page on my website.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Getting that pony

The Pony Book: How to Get that Pony, part one

I never did get my own pony, but I wanted one. One of my nieces, when much younger, asked an aunt who had walked up through their garden at Christmas “Did you see a pony in the garden? Because I did ask for one.” Some years later, she did get a pony, but that year she had the empty feeling familiar to so many pony obsessed children: no pony had magically appeared in the garden, the garden shed, or the garage.  Father Christmas and parents remained deaf. 

She, like me, had to be content with reading about ponies: you might not have a pony of your own, but you could enter into the world of those who did. The books we read as children let us fulfil our dreams. I never could (and still can’t) talk to animals, but with Dr Dolittle and Narnia I was in worlds where I could. I enjoyed my school career as a state school child, but I still loved the midnight feast stuffed boarding school life of Malory Towers and St Clare’s. But more magical than any of this was the prospect of owning a pony. I didn’t actually want to go to boarding school, and fought off attempts to make me, and I knew that I was never going to be able to talk to animals. But a pony... a pony was just about, with a not inconceivable change in circumstances, possible. Someone might spot my matchless brilliance as a rider and ask me to ride their pony. Or I might find a mistreated pony in the fields around my home and rescue it, and my parents, recognising my devotion, would somehow find a way for me to keep it.

There were any number of delicious possibilities, and I kept the dream well stoked. If it had happened to the children I read about in pony books, maybe it could happen to me too.  There was plenty of material. The one thing without which no pony book is complete is getting a pony. Somehow, it has to happen. It’s what the reader most wants, so the bookish heroine has to do it.  The classic pony book plot opens with a heroine who has no pony; but wants one desperately. Through some device, whether it be hard work, reward, or coincidence, she gets it.

Monica Edwards’ heroines Tamzin and Rissa, in her first book, Wish for a Pony (1947), do not have ponies, but spend their time trying to work out how they can ride as often as possible.

“Both girls shared a single passion -- ponies.  And with both of them the main use to which brains and tact and energy were put was How and Where to get more riding.”

 After rescuing a bolting pony, they are allowed rides at a riding stable which has come to stay nearby, but this is not how Tamzin gets her pony.  After a disaster at sea, one of the injured sailors is brought to recuperate in Tamzin’s house.  It so happens that Laurence, the sailor, knows a man whose daughter was seriously injured in a fall from her pony, and whose father will not listen to her plea that it was her fault. He wants to get rid of the pony. Tamzin finds this out, persuades her parents they can manage to keep a pony, and after a few suspenseful days, she is told she can have it.  And all its equipment.  Cascade is not just any pony either:  he is half Arab, and a beautiful example of breedy bliss – “a really first-rate animal – an Anglo-Arab, or something -- and quiet as a lamb.” 

Or maybe, rather than coincidence, it’s sheer, galloping, good luck. Whatever, it was a device the author used only once. Other ponies are acquired in Monica Edwards’ books, though after Punchbowl Farm’s Lindsay gets the colt, Chalice, as a reward for confounding horse thieves in No Mistaking Corker (1947), the author generally resorts to more realistic methods of acquiring a pony. Rissa earns the money to buy Siani; and she and Tamzin together raise the money to buy mistreated, lice-ridden Banner.

However unrealistically Cascade is acquired, Wish for a Pony remains the author’s most re-published title. It went into cheap, and paperback editions. Monica Edwards wanted to revise the book, but Collins refused, no doubt recognising the pure gold the book held for the pony-loving child. It was one of my favourite books as a child. Tamzin was an ordinary sort of girl, but something extraordinary had happened to her. When I was in Primary School, we had a Group Reading session each week. We were divided up into groups of four or five, and took it in turns to choose a book to read out loud. I remember the long cupboard along the wall where the group reading books lived, but I do not remember any of the books I read, save Wish for a Pony, which the school had in bulk. It was always my choice, until our teacher took pity on my fellow group readers and suggested in a way that brooked no argument that I chose something else from then on.

I have read Wish for a Pony many times since then, but it was not until I had to read it from an academic distance that the weakness of the plot device leaped out at me. Before that, I simply could not have cared less. Tamzin had a pony, an actual pony. I was far too swept up in the delirious magic of the moment to care whether or not it was realistic. Picking it up since, I was wary of reading it lest the usual magic had faded, but the childhood magic worked its usual spell.

Monica Edwards is not the only major equine author to use coincidence. Patricia Leitch’s Jinny series has Jinny acquiring the Arab mare Shantih after a train accident just happens to decant the mare onto the moors near Jinny’s home while Jinny and her family just happen to be passing.   Reality does intervene:  the mare does not simply put her nose trustingly into Jinny’s hands after Jinny frees her from the crashed horse van: she hightails it off to the moors, and despite Jinny’s many and furious attempts, refuses to allow Jinny anywhere near her. She remains stubbornly wild, and is only caught right at the end of the book, when the vicious Highland winter has brought her almost to death, and she can no longer resist. Jinny risks her own life searching for the horse in a blizzard: it is her stubbornness and refusal to do the conventional thing that, at the end brings her her horse.

Patricia Leitch herself did not have a horse of her own until she was an adult, but she fully understood the passionate longing, the falling in love at first sight that can be a child’s reaction to a horse.

“She loved the chestnut mare.  As if all their long day’s travelling had only been for this, as if she had come all the way from Stopton only for this, to see this sudden gift of perfection.”

The best pony book writers are able to move on from the dream of getting the pony. Unlike the majority of romantic novels, which end once the heroine and hero get together, the best pony stories investigate the developing relationship between pony and rider. Patricia Leitch’s Jinny does not have an easy relationship either with her horse or school, and often not with her family. Jinny has a lot to learn about the nature of possession; the assumptions we make about the animals we own, and about the way we perceive others. Getting the horse, for her, is only the start.

Next week: A Good Deed Wins a Pony

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Review: Victoria Eveleigh - A Stallion Called Midnight

Victoria Eveleigh:  A Stallion Called Midnight
Orion, 2012, £4.99
Kobo, Kindle, £2.99

Victoria Eveleigh's website

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book

This book has been re-written for its publication by Orion (it was first published as Midnight on Lundy). I liked the original very much, and the new one is even better. It is set on the island of Lundy, during the 1960s, when Lundy was a much more isolated community than it is now. The only way of getting to the mainland was via boat, and if the weather was too bad, you were stuck, as the homesick and wretched Jenny finds out when she is unable to get back for half term.

Jenny, the book’s heroine, has lived on Lundy all her life. It is a very small community, and Jenny is facing a huge change. She is to leave Lundy, and go to boarding school on the mainland. The only experience she has of school is lessons with Mrs Hamilton; the only other children she sees the day visitors who appear in holiday time. She is dreading the change. Her passion in life is the Lundy ponies, particularly the stallion, Midnight. He has a rather mixed reputation, but Jenny has managed to ride him. She then makes the unfortunate discovery that ponies love sugar, and that Midnight loves it very much indeed. Unfortunately Midnight’s fondness for sugar results in things Jenny didn’t foresee. Now he knows that humans can have goodies, and after he terrorises a small boy in order to get his sweets, it is decided Midnight’s future lies off the island. Jenny is horrified. She manages to free Midnight, only to find out she has inadvertently signed his death warrant. If Midnight cannot be rehomed on the mainland, he has now become too dangerous to be allowed to run free, and must be shot. Jenny is distraught at what she has done; and tries to make amends.

Jenny has a daydream of staying on the island forever, with Midnight, but this book shows how Jenny’s dreams unravel, and how she starts to emerge from teenage self-absorption. Jenny learns that both people and animals have their own needs and wants; and that most important of lessons with animals: don’t assume that you know best what they need.

She has been thrown into a situation where everything is changing for her: she moves from a community of very mixed ages, where she knows everyone, to one where the only people to socialise with are girls of her own age, who already have their hierarchy and cliques well organised. School is a foreign country to Jenny. She doesn’t know how to join in, and she finds the girls and their sharply delineated groups confusing.

In the first incarnation of this book; I found the school part strongest. In this version, both halves are as good; the move between the sometimes claustrophobic world of school, and the freedom of Lundy, is seemlessly done.  It’s a cracking read. Jenny is a vital and attractive heroine; never so silly you wince for her, but believably obtuse. As ever, Victoria Eveleigh has created a community which crackles with life.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Elaine Walker: Writing Horses 2

Elaine Walker - Virtual writer-in-residence - October 2012
Elaine writes fiction and non-fiction about the horse. Her work has been featured at The Guardian Hay Festival and translated into several languages. Her book The Horses, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent post Apocalyptic story, in which a family who have been holidaying in remote Scotland find that everyone who lived in any community numbering more than a few is dead. The family are trying to survive on a Scottish farmstead, but life is desperately difficult, particularly when the family’s father dies. And then the horses come...

As well as lecturing in Creative Writing and English Literature, Elaine offers bespoke courses and mentoring in Creative Writing. Mention Jane Badger Books for a discount on courses and copies of Elaine's books - you can contact her via her website.

Writing residency - week 3

To follow on from my discussion of writing about horses last week, here are two poems inspired by my own horses. 

The first was originally published in Transparent Words in 2011; the second is a new piece, not previously published.

Autumn Horse

Against the fading brightness of a bank of mountain 
ash, with the burned brown ends of last year's reeds beyond, she 
surveys her surroundings. Behind her, a crown of red berries, a wreath 
of golden leaves, a swathe of crisped and faded purple heather. Her black
and white spotted rump is round as a full moon floating across the tired-moss 
field. Her finely shaped head is alert, the arched-bow neckline echoes the curve 
of the moor against the muted sky. She plants her neat hooves evenly with each 
step. She is interested but calm as she explores her new field, keeping a distance
from the unruly geldings crowding along the fence to call to her. She does not 
trouble with  them. A whole day, she wanders ground that's strange beneath her, 
smells air that's  damp and rich with loam and tastes grass that's a  new texture 
in her mouth. She is thoughtful, cautious, but not overwhelmed. She will breathe 
the peat-soaked air from the moors until the rhythms of her blood are attuned to 
this place and she blends like her patterned coat into the russet background of 
the rippling valley. By evening, I have named her 'Rowan' and the colours of 
autumn have gathered around her.


We talk over mugs of tea. He sits at the kitchen table while 
I stand, leaning against the worktop, where the kettle is cooling.

Points of contact -  people we know, places we've been -  bridge the
awkwardness of strangers so we can distance ourselves from the tears drying on
my skin and the kindness that brought him here at the request of a neighbour - a
long, slow journey at short notice because I needed help. 

Older than I expected, he wheezes and has trouble with his legs. 
Yet he came at once. 

Do I know Mari, from the shop? Yes. Ah, cancer.  And John Top Llan? Yes, of
course, he did our fencing. Oh, poor man, no, I hadn't heard. 
So young. Anwen and Tec? Yes, I know them too. Really? That's sad. That's very

We share stories of our children and smile a little. Then he tells me his wife died
five years ago. He lives alone now. We fall silent. 

Through the window, I see his JCB outside the gate, facing homewards. The
drying earth clinging round its wheels and bucket has started to crumble onto
the road. His walking stick and spade are wedged into a grille on its side. 

Out in the field, my old pony lies beneath the freshly disturbed ground.

Elaine Walker
Both photographs copyright Elaine Walker

Next week: Fact, fiction and reality - writing what I know

Previous posts:
Reading Horses

Writing Horses, part one

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Review: Sue Millard - One Fell Swoop

Sue Millard:  One Fell Swoop
Jackdaw, paperback, £5.00
Jackdaw, ebook (Kindle) £3.00

Thank you to the author for sending me a copy of this book

If you have ever had anything to do with native ponies, then buy this book. It is a joy from start to finish. The Fell Pony is not found as often as he should be in horsey literature, but this book of cartoons puts that right. It is devoted to the Fell Pony, pure and simple; its history, its character, its little ways.

I read this book with a smile on my face throughout. The cartoons are wonderful and I am struggling to pick out my favourites. The ponies with their tonsures (because Fells were owned by monasteries in the middle ages) are  marvellous,

and I love the pony peering over the boulder at the keen observer of wild ponies, as well as the Fell summing up its inept rider effortlessly, and acting as an impromptu pirate ship.....

The author’s knowledge, and affection for, the Fell Pony, shine through. This book is a gem. I love it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Guest blogger: Jane Ayres

My guest blogger today is author Jane Ayres. Jane had her first pony story published at the age of 14, and went on to write The Great Horse Rescue for the well received J A Allen Junior Equestrian Fiction series. She is re-issuing her excellent Matty series as ebooks. All profits from the books are going to Redwings Horse Sanctuary; they're all available from Amazon, and are £3.03 each.

Ponies, names, and happy endings by Jane Ayres

These days, I seem to forget so many things. The house is littered with post-it notes because if I don’t write it down, it will get forgotten.  So why is it that I can remember the names of most of the ponies I rode?   

When I was a child I avidly read every pony book I could lay my hands on.  My favourites were by the Pullein-Thompson sisters - Diana, Christine or Josephine, followed by the Jackie books, the Jill books, the silver Brumby series, stories about Misty and Stormy of Chincoteague, novels by Monica Dickens and Monica Edwards – the list is endless and I still have all of those books, over 40 years later.  They were such a major part of my childhood and teens. I devoured anything that featured a horse. I consumed the abundant tales about girls who were lucky enough to have a pony. I wanted to be those girls, so I started to write my own pony stories.  And when I wrote, it was often the name of the pony characters that came to me before anything else.  Names are so evocative. A name conjures up an image that can form the foundation for a story.  

In my novel Last Chance Horse (Stabenfeldt, 2010), Pagan had to be a magnificent black stallion.   Powerful, rebellious, strong.  He could be a Shire or even a feisty Shetland, but he wouldn't be a laid-back appaloosa or a showy flea-bitten grey. In another of my pony series, if I told you there is a horse called Fireworks, he would almost need no introduction. You are starting to picture him. Similarly, you couldn't imagine that Candy Floss would be a dangerous colt or a bad-tempered piebald. She would be a pretty, sweet-natured strawberry roan mare – wouldn’t she? (ironically, she was based on Candy, who was indeed a strawberry roan who looked like a rounded Thelwell creation and was exceptionally grumpy and moody!)

Charles Dickens was brilliant with names and understood the way we associate them with personalities. And as I consider this, I am reminded of those riding school ponies whose names I never forgot.   
The first riding school I went to as a child had three horses: Tiny, an enormous bay cob who never went faster than trot (and only if he was in the mood) and was used a lot for beginners because of his placid nature, and grey mare Mazel Tov and liver chestnut Ginny, who were reserved for more experienced riders.  The several ponies included handsome neat grey Starlight, the rotund Candy (as described above), responsive chestnut-with-a-white-star Ranger, and Binky, who was my favourite.  
What attracts us to the horse we want to ride?  Are we drawn to stunning good looks?  Do we construct an image of that horse in our minds, in the way we tend to do with people when we first meet them? Binky conjures an image of a cute, sweet-natured pony.  He was a silvery dapple grey, and very pretty, but not a safe ride.  You could be cantering along, the wind in your hair and with no warning at all, he would put the brakes on, stop dead and put his head down, generally resulting in his rider flying into the air and landing with a bump.  Or, in the case of a friend, landing on a sharp fence post and impaling a kidney.   

After riding Paintbox while on holiday in Skegness in 1974.  I wasn't expecting to ride hence the footwear! I was 12 years old then!
But in many of the pony books I had read, this was not an issue, because like the heroines, mostly my age, I wanted to miraculously overcome Binky’s vices and ultimately win the showjumping contest and prove to the world that I was a great rider.  Which was about as likely as finding and taming a wild stallion that would only ever respond to me after I had won him over using my natural talent with animals.  Not very likely really.  

In so many pony books I read as a child, the girls overcame all the odds, were natural riders, learnt fast, got brilliant ponies etc.  My reading encouraged me to aspire to something unachievable. This is in no way a criticism of those books, which were fiction, after all, and I loved reading them.  They were a lifeline, a gateway to a wonderful fantasy world. I lived in a built up area, with no countryside as such, and the riding school was off a busy main road, which we would hack along, competing with the traffic.  That was my reality.  The other local stables I went to consisted of a tiny yard tucked behind a car breakers and scrap dealer.  No rolling hills and green fields. So when I started to write I initially tried to create the landscapes, horses and environments I longed for. 

However, what I really liked about KM Peyton’s Fly-By-Night (1968) was that Ruth seemed somehow a real person, closer to the people I knew.  I think it was the first time I had read in a pony book that a girl had periods, an acknowledgement that she was authentic.  I found Vian Smith’s inspiring story Come Down the Mountain (1967)  offering a similarly believable world.   

As I got older and my self-awareness grew, I no longer demanded my reading matter provide happy endings. In fact, the first pony story I ever had published was a creepy tale ironically called Dream Pony, about a psychotic pony that goes crazy at a horse show. It doesn't end well for the girl or her pony, but it was the first story I had published by a short lived but wonderful UK magazine called Pony World. I was 14 years old. (I should add that my other preferred reading in my teens, in common with many young girls, was horror and the supernatural which has continued to influence my pony books).
Over the past thirty years I've gone through phases where I resumed riding lessons, each time giving up when I reached the steep part of the learning curve. 

As a child, I did foolish things, like entering unfamiliar fields and trying to ride the ponies bareback, without even considering the risk I was taking (or the fact I was trespassing!). Yet, the older I got, the more I had to fight to overcome nerves. It’s incredibly frustrating, being afraid of the thing you love.  When I try to analyse it now, it isn't actually horses that I became afraid of. It was a fear of the unknown, the realisation that any living creature could be unpredictable. My riding lessons assumed huge importance and significance, but each time I drove to a new lesson, I would feel a thrill of fear mixed with anticipation.  Gradually, the fear took precedence.  

The last time I rode, the horse was called Rocky, it was our first time together, and I was happily cantering around the sand school, feeling quite pleased with myself.  Seconds later I was lying face down, eating sand, feeling bruised and rather shocked.  He had bucked violently, without any warning at all.  Even the instructor commented on what a surprise it was.  Neither of us could see any reason for it.  I landed inches from the fence posts and could very easily have sustained more serious injuries.  Like my childhood friend when he rode Binky.  Maybe my subconscious honed in on that.  What if….the premise of all good stories. 

Because it’s what you always do, I stood up, shaking, took a deep breath and got right back on Rocky.  But something was different.  Something had changed.  I was the wage earner, the bread winner in my household. I had responsibilities so I shouldn't be taking risks.  That’s what I told myself.  I haven’t ridden since. 

I always longed to be the girl with the horse, just like in the stories I read as a child, and it was a dream that kept me warm for a long while.  That sense of yearning the dream ignited was part of growing up.  I never became that girl but it doesn’t matter.  That craving, that Wish for a Pony, and the desire to be the best rider ever,  inspired and fuelled my imagination and is still there when I write my pony books 40 years later.  


If you'd like to see the books Jane's written, they are all here
Jane's blog

Shetland pony picture from Freefoto.com

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Elaine Walker: Writing Horses

Elaine Walker - Virtual writer-in-residence - October 2012
Elaine writes fiction and non-fiction about the horse. Her work has been featured at The Guardian Hay Festival and translated into several languages. Her book The Horses, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent post Apocalyptic story, in which a family who have been holidaying in remote Scotland find that everyone who lived in any community numbering more than a few is dead. The family are trying to survive on a Scottish farmstead, but life is desperately difficult, particularly when the family’s father dies. And then the horses come...

As well as lecturing in Creative Writing and English Literature, Elaine offers bespoke courses and mentoring in Creative Writing. Mention Jane Badger Books for a discount on courses and copies of Elaine's books - you can contact her via her website.

Writing horses

Following on from last week, reading about horses can easily develop into writing about horses. If you're already a writer, you'll be familiar with the advice to 'write what you know'. If you're not, it's likely to come up not only in the first 'how-to' creative writing book you pick up but also in every one after that and any creative writing course you choose! That's because it's very good advice, though not as simple as it seems.

First of all, what you know can be so familiar that it's easy to overlook its value. Even if you don't want to write about a horse you struggle to catch every day, there's a huge amount of resource in that situation, from frustration to ingenuity, that could feed into a piece that doesn't feature horses at all. But assuming you do want to write about them, your own experience can add authenticity, which is always a good thing for a writer. However, as knowledge is shaped by individual perception and interest, a personal 'skills audit' can be very useful.

I learned to ride in traditional BHS style from the age of 5 but I've now been a western rider for over 20 years. I keep up with developments in understanding horses as herd animals in the way we manage and train them. My Appaloosas and donkeys live in a herd and they are all barefoot. I also know about the roots of classical riding through years of research on the first Duke on Newcastle. These are the things, in horsey terms, that I know and can write about confidently. But to write about a show-jumper or carriage driving in the 18th century, I'd have to do a lot of research. My own knowledge of horses would be a good general starting point, but I could make serious mistakes if I relied solely on it. Writing what you know has to be supported by finding out what you need to know and adding that to the knowledge store. 

Reader knowledge is also something every writer on any subject needs to take into account. I remember reading a novel where a previously healthy horse died overnight - the owner took one look at its body and decided it had died of founder. My faith in the whole novel was undermined but it was a good reminder for me as a writer - any feature of a story that stops the reader reading is a problem. Better to have the shock of a mysterious death to shake up the hero's journey than explain it with something that makes no sense to anyone who knows what it means.  

While it's clearly not a good idea to use terms we don't understand when we're writing outside our own area of expertise, even what we think is accurate can trip us up. It's very common to read that dressage has its roots in training for the battlefield - I accepted that myth myself until I started working on Renaissance horsemanship manuals and realized how untrue it is. Thorough research is key to making sure we don't trot out common misconceptions - and before you rely on Wikipedia, try using it to look up a subject you know really well. Then when you've stopped laughing, search out information written by named subject experts, or websites run by universities or organisations that catalogue reliable websites on specific subjects. Pictures can be useful for historical research and story ideas - eBay is a great source for original images.

And talking about trotting things out - writing about horses is rife with cliché. Avoid this like a horse that's advertised as 'in need of experienced rider'! Cliché is reliable as a means of easy communication and its familiarity can be a writer's comfort blanket. Some clichés, like the thunder of hooves, are accurate, just overworked.  But some are both worn out and unhelpful. If I say my horse runs like the wind, you're likely to understand that she gallops at an impressive speed. But do you really get the feel of her movement or do you just know what I mean? If I want my reader to share the experience, I need to create the situation in the mind's eye, not just tick some 'quick recognition' box in the brain. I try to do that by remembering an experience vividly and getting to the feeling of it. In The Horses (p. 138), Jo says that Grey took off at the gallop, 'his back legs thrusting so hard to power his movement that I could feel his hip joints right beneath me'. That is rooted in the memory of my own horse, Darius, leaping away up a bridlepath because, just as I asked him to canter, a herd of cows came lumbering up to the hedge!

If you don't know horses but you want to write about them, you have a different challenge. The cliché of silky manes is a good example - adult horsehair is typically quite wiry, unless it's conditioned and brushed regularly. But silky sounds more romantic than, 'he had a mane you could slice a finger on'. There's the problem - horses have a romantic image created largely by writers!  We want them to gallop out of the sunset, glimmering in its fiery glow, just as the hero needs to leap into the saddle (and how many riders can do that?!). As the sun sets, my gang are more likely to be mooching around the field covered in mud and they might wander over if they spot me to see if I'm dishing out haylage. Real horses are a delight but they're not romantic. Yet far from undermining their image, their real-ness is what offers the writer something to work with - horses can be in tune with their human in a way that goes beyond any romance.  Writing from the senses rather than the imagination can help keep our writing grounded and there are several ways to do that. 

If you don't have real horses close by, try searching online for genuine footage of horses. Watch like a writer and look for the filter system the director's eye has created. Can you spot romanticism, elitism or even dislike for horses in the way they are presented?  But even in the middle of a city, you can often find urban horses and watching how they move and interact can be helpful. Talk to owners - most people love to talk about their horses and will happily give you far more material than you'd bargained for! 

If you can, talk to horses - many horses will wander over to inspect a stranger but be careful. While bad-tempered horses are usually made, not born, you don't want get on the wrong side of one with emotional baggage! Avoid approaching strange horses in a herd in the open as they might start milling around out of curiosity and you could get hurt - or chased by a suspicious owner. From a safe position on the far side of a fence, quietly offer the back of your hand for them to snuffle at. Horses get to know one another by scent so let them smell you. If you want to be scientific about it, you can avoid wearing anything perfumed that day. Don't pat them - horses usually prefer to be stroked or scratched. Listen to the sounds they make and watch the way they interact - jot down in your writer's notebook (because you always carry a writer's notebook, of course) words that come into your mind. Don't work at this, just write them down. The worst excesses of over-writing come from working too hard at being imaginative. Trust your imagination to kick in without help once you feed it. 

Horses provide good food for the imagination. They are big enough to be impressive but friendly enough to engage with. Watch them under saddle - are their heads strapped down or are they moving out freely? Are they fighting the rider or relaxed? Are they shod or barefoot? Do they put their ears back at other horses or people or prick them up? Are their tails still or swishing continually? What can you learn from that? Be careful that your own prejudices or snippets of received information don't mislead you. If you've known them all your life, try to un-imagine - what if everything you know is wrong? What if you were seeing them for the first time?

Writing about horses can help us see them more clearly, whether we've known them all our lives or only ever encountered them in a book. Writing offers perspective, challenges our assumptions and opens up doors in the mind we probably didn't even know were closed!

From reader to writer - for your own pleasure or with serious aspirations about publication - it doesn't matter why you want to write about horses, but once you do, really get to know them then don't work too hard at it. They'll almost write themselves if you let them.

Elaine Walker
All images © Elaine Walker, except Coldingham Beach, © Jane Badger

Next week: 
Writing horses 2 - poems inspired by my own horses

Previous posts:
Reading Horses

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Help Redwings Horse Sanctuary!

Author Jane Ayres, one of the contributors to the J A Allen Equestrian Fiction series, and writer of several pony series since, is re-issuing her Matty series in Kindle format. This is good news as it was previously available only in America, and the books are all fine reads. Not only that, all the profits from the books are going to Redwings Horse Sanctuary. All the books are available from Amazon, and they're £3.03 each.

Jane will be doing some guest posts on this blog soon, so keep an eye open for those.

The Pony Book - a history from 1920-2010

I haven't quite finished my survey of the pony book, but here's a list of all my posts on pony books thus far.