Pony books in the 1970s

The number of new pony books published in the 1970s was half that of the 1960s.  Plenty of titles were still appearing, but many of them were reprints. The Jill books appeared in a new guise with covers by W D Underwood.  Pullein-Thompson titles appeared on a regular basis, towards the end of the decade with a new feature: the photographic cover.  Changing the cover was a quick and easy way to make a book appear up to date, even if it had originally seen the light of day in the 1940s. The quality of the covers was variable: some took little notice of the actual content, and there were plenty that although intended to reflect the story, were awkwardly posed.

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.

From 24th - 31st August, there's 30% off all 1970s pony books on my sales site.

If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going. 


madwippitt said…
Dream of Fair Horses was, I thought, absolutely exceptional! It's one of the pony books I re-read every couple of years.
Jane Badger said…
Oh, I so agree. It is one of the absolute best.
Christine said…
I love informative posts like this! I have the whole Jinny series and devoured it in primary school in the early nineties... hadn't heard of Dream of Fair Horses - another for my wish list!

Also collecting the Phantom Horse books (and many others!) Thanks :)
Jane Badger said…
I hope you like Dream of Fair Horses! It's sort of where the Jinny series came from.
Laura said…
I've so enjoyed reading the information on your website about Patricia Leitch and especially the interview with her. Thank you so much for posting it. It means a great deal to be able to find out anything about a writer who was so important to me as a child.

I'm now a university lecturer in English Literature, though struggled with reading from about the age of 9 through to 13. Patricia Leitch's books kept me reading and thinking during that time and, most importantly, they kept alive in me the notion of a life of the imagination. The book that I loved most was Dream of Fair Horses, which I still reread, and I think you're quite right that it is really a book about what it means to have relationships that aren't driven by possessiveness. One of the rather melancholy aspects of Patricia Leitch's work that I think I sensed as a child, but that I see much more clearly now, is her anxiety about what it means to be live as an adult woman. The books sometimes seem to share Jinny's disappointment in seeing characters like Sue getting interested in boys and makeup, and this process of growing up, or at least growing up in a particular way, is almost always represented as a loss of real identity. In terms of the adult women in the books, Gill's rather spectral mother is happy so long as she can support her brilliant father; Jinny's mother doesn't even have a first name, only coming alive in the glimmers of memory she has about her own girlhood. Miss Tuke is a strong and valuable character in the Jinny books, but a caricature, really, with very little psychological depth. There is a telling moment in Dream of Fair Horses where a girl comments on the woman who runs the down-at-heel riding school, saying how 'terrific' she is. Gill says, 'I was cold to think what it must be like to wake up in the night and know that you were Jennifer'. It's very poignant, and striking, that adult women who are in relationships seem to lose themselves, and those who hold on to their own passions usually find themselves alone. Only Gill and the end of Dream of Fair Horses offer the barely glimpsed possibility of another kind of relationship, in which her identity can remain intact. Perhaps one of the things all these girls are waiting for is the opportunity to lead adult lives where they can continue to think and work and love passionately and imagine and create. I'm grateful for the fact that feminism made it more possible for girls brought up in the 70s to make such lives for themselves than those brought up in the 40s/50s, as Leitch was. I'm also grateful to Patricia Leitch's books for bringing to life girls who refuse to give up their passions. This demand for something other than what society was handing out and which seems linked to Leitch's wild and sometimes frighteningly unforgiving sense of landscape – a sense that oddly reminds me of Moby-Dick as much as anything (a book that Ken tells Jinny she'll appreciate when she's older, I seem to remember) – is one of the reasons why Jinny, in particular, can be so irritating and impossible. It is also the reason why I value her, and Gill, and Patricia's work.

Thank you so much for continuing to offer these little glimpses of a hardly recognised writer who, in my opinion, has a rather rare gift.

Anonymous said…
I am searching for a book I read when I was in the third grade in California. This was in 1973.

This book was about a girl who wanted a horse and her parents could not afford one. She worked on a farm picking plums to save money to buy a horse. I think she ended up buying a donkey. Or button though. The book may have been called “A Burro for Ginny or Jenny“ but I cannot find anything close. Does anyone have an idea of what this book would be?

Thank you so much.
Jane Badger said…
Hello - I'm not absolutely sure about the book. Might it be Shannon Garst's The Burro Who Sat Down? I'll ask on my FB page.

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