Interview: Belinda Rapley
My latest interviewee is Belinda Rapley, author of the Pony Detectives series. It's about a group of four girls: Rosie, Alice, Charlie and Mia who keep their horses at Rosie's farmhouse home. It’s a solid and well-
written series, which concentrates on the relationships between the girls and their ponies, and avoids the fantastic or romantic elements that have been added to the genre over the years.
Can you tell me something about how you came to love the horse?
The honest answer is that I’m not quite sure how it came about, it crept up out of nowhere! None of my family had ever shown any interest in anything remotely horsey, and I grew up in suburbia with very little greenery anywhere near. I used to share my name with an ancient donkey on the Isle of Wight, and whenever we went over there on holiday I was allowed to lead her out for some cow parsley, which she loved. But I don’t think I ever crazed my parents for lessons, or a pony. On one holiday though my parents organised a hack and I sat on my first ever pony at the grand old age of 10. My sister went too, and we both had fairly regular lessons after that but for some reason she lost interest while my obsession with horses just grew and grew. At 16 I ran away from home to fulfil my dream of working with them. My parents became very supportive once they knew I was serious, even if they couldn’t accept it necessarily as a sensible idea. After a while I did return to London and an office job but once horses get into your blood, you can never fully leave them – thankfully. I moved to Suffolk / Norfolk border five years ago simply to be back in the countryside and to give myself the option to finally live the life I’d longed for. After sharing a friend’s horse, Pinto, last year, I became the immensely proud owner of an even more immensely proud, yet equally comic, Andalusian. I adore him.
When you left school, you worked in yards and as a riding instructor. Were there any particular experiences you squirreled away, thinking that one day they’d be good in a book?
Not consciously, no. In fact, I wish I’d squirreled away more but my memory’s so appalling that if I did squirrel something away I’d soon forget where to dig for it anyway! But while I’m thinking up ideas something in the foggy recesses often gets jogged and details emerge. One memory tends to lead to another, which is always quite nice, if a bit distracting. Moonlight, the stolen pony from Moonlight, Star of the Show, was based on my favourite pony at the riding school I went to (also called Moonlight, funnily enough). I used to dream incessantly about owning him and taking him to shows. He was awesome and somehow I always knew he would live on in one of my books. Some of the things that happen to Rosie have happened to me, too – like the cowpat situation, I’ll say no more... And I got the idea for the ghostly goings on in Puzzle, the Runaway Pony, from an enormous Danish Warmblood I knew called Sprout (his breeder had a sense of humour). He had the spookiest neigh I’d ever come across. If I was ever the last person on the yard in the dark and I heard him whinny it used to give me the willies and I’d end up running up the lane to the road, scaring myself all the way!
What made you decide to write a pony book series?
I’ve always, always wanted to write. I’m a bit of a dreamer and tend to think in stories rather than live in the real world most of the time (it’s a happy place to be). And because I love horses and could talk about them endlessly all day, every day (and I do....!) it seemed like not just the natural, but the only place to start.
Which books (pony or not) have influenced you most in your own writing?
I love humour, and my favourite author is PG Wodehouse – the way he juggles so many balls, keeping them effortlessly in the air before catching them all at the end so neatly, is genius. I like catching all the balls in my stories, too. I know that doesn't necessarily reflect real life, but I think in these stories and for this age group it’s possible. Any humour in my stories tends to arrive courtesy of Rosie. I love her for the way she can lighten a serious situation, saving it from getting maudlin. I wish she’d been my best friend growing up. I'm also a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies Number One Detective Agency. I love its attitude of simplicity, even when the darker crimes are being investigated. It feels like a very gentle world and that’s the kind I like! Apart from that, any detective books are definitely my cup of tea (and I love tea very much!).
A lot of modern pony series tend to take place in large livery yards. Yours is on a much more domestic scale: it’s four girls and their ponies. What made you decide to give your characters a relatively small-scale background?
I think a few things. First, I didn't want lots of adults hanging around, watching over the girls, checking out what they’re up to and being restrictive. If you have a large livery yard, the adults are pretty much unavoidable and it would be strange if they didn't step in now and again when the girls make mistakes or need help. Second, I wanted to inhabit a yard that I would have loved to have kept a pony at when I was younger. A large livery yard would need the odd unsavoury character in there, and clashes of personality, to make it realistic; I did'’t want that within the stables themselves. I wanted Blackberry Farm to be a cosy, fun yard for the girls, with the bad characters lurking elsewhere...
You write very movingly of the struggle one of your characters has with her new horse: she’s going backwards, and whatever she tries, things get worse. Is this struggle something you've seen at first hand?
This is something that’s really quite odd, with fact reflecting fiction. It wasn't written from first-hand experience, although as I've got older it increasingly bothers me that horses are a pet, yet are often subject to many changes of ownership during their lives. It’s easy to sell a horse on if things aren't quite working. I had a session with an Intelligent Horsemanship coach last year with my friend's horse, Pinto. It was so incredible to see the way horses can respond when treated in a certain way; it’s all about trust, leadership and trying to see things from their perspective, rather than our own human one. Classic Black Beauty. I wanted Phantom to be a dark force, but also to have a really understandable reason for that.
The odd bit is that, after writing this story, I got my horse, Jerezano. He came over from Spain at 6, having just been gelded and allegedly well schooled. He then stood in a field for 2 years before I stumbled across him. It was meant to be a straightforward case of bringing him back into work and away we go. It’s been anything but. Instead I've been on a journey of discovery, including the revelation that he probably hadn't done more than a few months worth of work in Spain before coming over here. It was like having an overgrown Bambi to begin with, and when he lost his confidence he began to throw his (unco-ordinated) weight around. But, after working out how some of the jigsaw pieces fit together we’re beginning to get somewhere. It takes time with any new horse – moving yards, moving owners. Suddenly everything’s new. The owner can rationalise it, the horse can’t. Jerezano brought that home really hard, which is why I ended up dedicating book 4, Phantom, One Last Chance, to him.
You tackle some major themes in your books: death and grief. Was it a deliberate choice to include them, or did your characters take off and land you in surprising places?
I concentrate on trying to get the best plot I can and I'm not very conscious of the themes which develop around that. If I set out consciously to put some kind of theme in my writing it normally kills creativity. But I knew that I needed a bit of a lost soul to link into Phantom and Neve just grew from that. I do love the 4 main characters, though, they’re like best friends to me and they lead the way in the books. I simply follow.
Do you think the pony book has a valid role in a society where most people are never going to be able to have a horse?
Absolutely and whole heartedly. I didn't have a hope of owning a pony when I was younger, so any contact with horses – from a glimpse out of the car window, a picture in a magazine or my fortnightly lesson – was special. That’s what made pony books so precious to me. They allowed me to take a step into this amazing, ‘other’ world, giving me detail far beyond what I knew to imagine. It was the ultimate in wish fulfilment. So to flip the question round, I think that precisely because most people might not get to own their own pony, books about ponies have the potential to hold a special place for children. When I started writing the Pony Detectives it was exactly that kind of reader I had in mind.
What do you want people to take away from your pony books?
Very simply, whatever they chose to. Each book’s individual and personal to each reader, I’d hope, so I’d never like to put any expectations on anyone. Although, if everyone gets enjoyment from them, that would make me immensely happy!
Are there plans for more books in the series?
Yes! There will be two more coming out next year – I'm so excited about writing them, I can’t wait to head back onto the yard at Blackberry Farm for some more adventures and to solve pony crimes... Although, in a bit of a scoop, I can reveal that in one of the books the girls leave the Farm as they head off to summer camp.
You’re written on your favourite pony books for the Guardian. Was it difficult to pick your top ten books? What almost made it?
It was difficult to just pick ten, but I sneaked round that by choosing one book from a particular series, or author and mentioning the whole series or other books by that author. The book I would have loved to have included was The Pony Book by Nancy Roberts. It’s not a novel, but a book on pony care, which my parents gave me one Christmas years ago. I read it cover to cover countless times and I must have read the chapter about riding holidays about a thousand times. Just looking at the pictures now evokes such a strong memory. The book that I haven’t read yet, but am desperate to, one that I'm sure I would have put on the list if I had, is Fair Girls and Grey Horses, the Pullein-Thompson’s biography. I just love them. Blind Beauty, by KM Peyton, was another that nearly made it. Oh, and then there’s Ryan’s Master, about John Whitaker and Ryan’s Son. Ryan’s Son is, to this day, my favourite horse of all time. Well, at least equal with Desert Orchid and Kauto Star.
If you could press just one pony book (other than your own, of course) into the hands of a pony-loving child to encourage them to read, what would it be?
Lordy, I don’t know. Hmmm, just one...? Really...?! In that case, it would have to be a Shantih book, and I’d probably pick Jump For The Moon (by Patricia Leitch). So many strands, so well realised – it’s heart-breakingly wonderful.
What do you think are the differences between pony books now, and the ones you read as a child?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, or at least answer it fairly. When I picked up a pony book as a child the desire to be immersed in the world I was reading about was all consuming. That enabled such a deep connection to a book that, years later, just reading the opening lines transports me back to that time. For that reason I don’t think that I can compare pony books now to the ones I used to read, not because of the content but because I'm approaching it with such a different mindset. I did love the sound of the old fashioned life, though, that’s something I do miss!
And lastly, as it’s Olympic year, what were your golden Olympic moments?
So so many! In fact, this year has just been amazing full stop for horsey moments. With the Olympics it has to be watching the dressage – it was so gripping and edge of the seat stuff that I was watching through my fingers. The tension was unbearable right to the last rider. Charlotte Dujardin is just an absolute hero to have held her nerve. Personally, sitting in front of the laptop, I boiled over completely! Show jumping was always my first love – I think because it was covered so much on television when I was younger - so I was a bit emotional about the team gold, but especially for Nick Skelton. I visited his yard once and stuck coloured stickers all over his horses and took pictures of them for a project I was doing during my Diploma in Horse Studies. It was all about angles. He was very welcoming, if slightly bemused. I remember making the phone call to ask him if I could visit his yard – I was totally awestruck and to this day can’t quite work out how, as a very shy 18 year old talking to one of my heroes, I even managed to get a word out!
I desperately wanted Lee Pearson to get his three gold medals, but thought that bagging a bronze, silver and gold was pretty legendary, as well as completing a neat full set. I felt bereft when the Olympics finished, not just for the equestrian sports but the whole occasion. Clare Balding excelled herself too, she was fab.
But, aside from the Olympics, it’s been a great year for racing, too, and I can’t not mention a certain horse by the name of Frankel. He’s hit the headlines this year and has been another horse that I could hardly bear to watch. My heart almost crashes out of my chest from before they set off to when they cross the finish line. I love horses, but they do put me through the mill! Still, they’re worth it a million times over.
Thank you Belinda!
Belinda Rapley's website
Belinda Rapley writes on her favourite horse books for The Guardian