PBOTD: 22nd February, Patricia Leitch - For Love of a Horse
The chestnut Arab mare Shantih is such a vivid presence in Patricia Leitch's Jinny books it comes as a shock to learn that the only place she ever existed was in her author's mind. Patricia wrote in a letter to me:
And yet the plot of the book is conventional enough: Jinny and her family are making the well-worn journey from the town to the country. On the way to the highlands of Scotland, they stop off and visit a circus, and there Jinny sees Shantih, wild and abused. Fortunately for Jinny, they are there when the circus travelling wagon decants Shantih on to the moors and Jinny begins her obsessive pursuit of the horse.
"[Shantih] was all dream. In fact, I used to dream about the chestnut Arab mare long before I wrote about her. Perhaps this letter will bring her back, and Bramble who was real flesh and blood, my own Kirsty*. I still feel, if I could walk out onto the moor and call her she would hear and come galloping over the skyline to me. But then what is imagination for if not to call up the past?"
When Collins asked Patricia Leitch to write a three book series about a girl and her horse, it was the chestnut Arab mare who careened into being, along with Jinny, the extraordinarily vivid, spiky teenage girl who loves her. Jinny is difficult to like at times, and impossible to admire at others, but she has a compelling presence. She is worlds away from the sensible, focused girls of much pony literature, good role models all. Patricia Leitch has an almost uncanny ability to describe what it is like to be an obsessive, passionate girl who does not fit in. Jinny is never completely bowed down by her position as outsider. She has a fiery spirit, and for many readers, she fought their battles for them. One fan who wrote to me described how the books were "responsible for getting me through teenagerdom."
The horse, Shantih is as real as Jinny. There are many chestnut Arab horses out there who have Shantih to thank for the fact they are owned by people fulfilling a childhood dream and obsession. She is all fire and danger, and not a safe love at all. She is all experience, all speed and feeling.
It takes her the entire book before she gets there, and when she does, Shantih is sick almost to death. The pursuit nearly costs Jinny her life too. It is a grand passion in the trail of Enid Bagnold's National Velvet: it's not just being pony-mad with its connotations of juvenility and jollity: this is the sort of passion that can kill you. For Love of a Horse was a spectacular start to a series that retains its hold today.
For Love of a Horse was first published by Armada as a paperback in 1976. There was a hardback edition which appeared in 1979: printed by Severn House. It was reprinted with the white horseshoe style cover in 1984, and with the golden horseshoe cover style in 1993. The book was out of print until 2010, when Catnip reprinted it. They are working their way through the series, which thankfully will be there to encapsulate the dreams of another generation.
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* Kirsty was a Highland pony who appeared in A Pony of Our Own (1960).
For more on Patricia Leitch, including my interview with her, visit her page on my website.