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