But girls came, more and more over the years, to be the only sex at which pony books were aimed. It’s a sad fact that a genre which started with girls being strong, independent and forging their own lives with their ponies, has been driven by the incessant need of marketers to define markets, into a pink cul-de-sac. The pony is now almost indivisible from princess culture, not helped by the sea of pink and sparkly stuff that’s swept over the equestrian equipment market: the insistence on workmanlike sobriety for horse and rider is long gone. Whilst personal choice is all very well, it’s worth asking whether it’s really ok for this focus on the pony as dressing up object to go unchallenged. Is it really ok to alienate half the population? To make the horse exclusively female? And what of the horse itself? How far are its animal needs obscured by its objectification?
That’s not to say, of course, that series aimed fairly and squarely at girls aren’t good: Chloe Ryder’s Pony Princess titles are, despite the badging, perfectly decent stories. But it would be a rare boy who would pick them up. Their huge-eyed pony cover stars, their tiaras and sparkles, ensure that.
Victoria Eveleigh’s latest series addresses all this fairly and squarely. Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe is about Joe. A boy. He’s not Joanna, or Josephine, he’s an actual boy. He has parents, and a sister, and as the book opens, Joe’s on the move. In a beautifully written scene, which captures exactly the wrench of moving, the closing the door for the last time on all that is familiar, Joe is cast out of the town and into the country. His mother and his sister think it’s great. They love horses, and they’ll be able to have them. Joe doesn’t mind horses: in fact he quite likes them, but went off riding lessons under the twin assault of being the only boy, and his little sister starting riding and showing him up.
There’s a clear-eyed view of what it’s like to come and live in the countryside when you’ve been used to the town. The internet signal is non existent, getting a phone signal involves a trip out of the house, and, if his parents don’t take him, Joe's going nowhere. There’s no freedom in the countryside as far as Joe’s concerned. Then Joe’s mum goes off and buys two ponies: Lady and Lightning. Lady is nothing like her name, and Lightning came free because she’s lame. The ponies are a rapid learning experience for them all: particularly Joe’s mum. She has a fall from Lady, and is hospitalised. Emily, Joe’s sister, rapidly goes off the idea of ponies when Lightning runs away with her, and it’s left to Joe, with help from their Romany neighbour Nellie, to look after the ponies.
Joe, being devoid of the romantic love for horses of his mother, is rather better with them than she is. It’s natural to Joe to work out why horses are doing what they are, and being unencumbered with any preconceived notions, he soaiks up the information he gets from Nellie, and Chris the farrier and re-schooler of horses, like a sponge. Slowly, Joe finds himself fitting in to the rhythms of the countryside; making friends, and enjoying the horses. Life is full for Joe: he's not a pony obsessive: he does aikido with his friends, and finds that what he learns there crosses over to the horses. Joe gets a dog, and learns to understand his sister (a bit). He learns, as do we, useful stuff like how to train as a farrier, how to avoid laminitis, and why a horse going barefoot might be an idea. It’s all woven neatly into the story: Victoria Eveleigh doesn’t beat you about the head with what she knows, not beat a sanctimonious drum.
I loved this book; it’s certainly my pony book of the year so far. Victoria Eveleigh has created a brilliant horse-loving, aikido-playing boy in Joe, and a world in which it's entirely normal for girls and boys to love horses. I hope that all the boys out there who are too wary of being thought weird to admit that they like horses, read this book and realise that horses don’t have to be pink. There’s a place in the horse world for them too.
Victoria Eveleigh: Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe
Orion, 2013, £4.99
Thanks to Orion for sending me a copy of this book.