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Showing posts from 2016

Of Christmas. And unicorns. And glittery bathbombs.

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A highlight of my year as a child was when the November horse and pony magazines hit the shelves, together with their Christmas gift guides. Why not this charming pair of jodhs from Swaine, Adeney, Brigg for double the price of my entire riding kit? Or this extraordinarily expensive china horse at roughly the same price as a small car? Why not indeed? I could always hope.
So, in tribute to those long ago, black and white pages of glory, here is my own selection of horse-themed gifts. Like those articles, I have chosen things at which you will gasp and say What is she on? And also the odd, more reasonable contribution.
If you no longer wish to smell of the stable, then you might like to try Parfums de Marly, whose creations are mostly named after horses. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have said the Galloway (probably ancestor of the Dales and Fell ponies) was elegant and white, but here in the world of splendidly expensive French perfumery that’s exactly what it is. The scent …

Review: Carl Hester – Valegro, the Little Horse with the Big Dream

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Ah, Valegro. Superstar dressage horse who made all our hearts flutter in the last two Olympics. If you’ve ever wondered how Valegro started off, and what life is like if you’re a horse on Carl Hester’s yard (and indeed if you’re a dog, a guinea fowl, or a human) then this is the book for you.


There’s not a great deal of narrative excitement in the book, as obviously we all know what’s going to happen. What we don’t know, however, is how Valegro got there, and that’s what this book covers – or at least his early life. The book is the first of a series and I admit I am looking forward to what happens when Valegro meets the woman who was to become his rider, Charlotte Dujardin. What this book tells you is what happens when Valegro is first shipped from Holland over to Carl Hester’s yard. 
We’re probably all familiar with some elements of his story, but this book introduces you to things you probably didn’t know, such as the Hester naming convention (all horses the year Valegro arrived w…

Pony Tails and Puffin Books II

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Puffin Picture Books to me had it just right. Their illustrations were things of simple beauty. They weren’t in any way child-like, quirky, or hitting a particular, temporary, zeitgeist. The illustrations of the only Puffin Picture Book I had as a child (Henry Wynmalen’s Riding for Children, found at a Methodist missionary society jumble sale) gave me a sunlit, rural world in which lived a perfectly behaved grey pony, and a kind and expert instructor who gave considered and elegant riding lessons where you had no need to wonder why you were being taught the hands-in-lap show ring style that had been out of fashion for decades. 
It, and its fellows, were the idea of Noel Carrington (1884-1989), who in the 1930s was working for publishers Country Life as an editor and designer. He had tried to interest them in his idea of a series of factual books for children that explained the world around them in books that were inexpensive, yet profusely illustrated in colour. Country Life already …

Pony Tales and Puffin Books I

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When I wrote Heroines on Horseback, I looked briefly at the impact that the development of paperback publishing had on the pony story. I was looking then at publishers like Armada, the paperback arm of Collins, whose business model was to produce paperback versions of books children wanted to read, in an often standardised and abridged format. Armada and Dragon tended to concentrate on popular series and genres: school stories, Enid Blyton, and of course the pony story. Puffin’s publishing model was subtly different. Puffin’s first editor, Eleanor Graham, aimed to give children the best of children’s literature, a model Kaye Webb, its next editor, followed and developed.

It’s interesting to look at the horse stories that Puffin published in the light of this, and that’s what this short series of blogs will do.
Eleanor Graham (1896-1984) was born to a father who was the editor of Country Life and a mother whose passion was books. After a brief interlude when she studied medicine, Ele…

Review: Caroline Akrill - The Last Baronet

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It’s been a while. It’s been a long while, but Caroline Akrill is back. After writing the best-selling Eventers’ Trilogy and a raft of other sharply observed and witty horse stories (not words that often go together) Caroline went off to do Other Things, like run J A Allen equestrian publishers, and run a hotel.
The hotel obviously provided rich comic fodder, much of which has surfaced in this book. Her first book for adults, it is a gloriously sweary, brilliant, vital read, which moves effortlessly from the comic to the dark and on to the romantic.

Set in the 1980s, when new money had not yet rushed through the world of the English country house and refurbished it, Rushbroke Hall has reached a state of almost terminal decline, reeking with rot, roof timbers open to the skies. Its owner, Sir Vivian Rushbroke, is in hock to the bank for staggering, sick-making sums of money. Rushbroke Hall needs a saviour, and it finds one in the unexpected form of Anna, a chef. A chef with secrets. A…

We like to have an old horse about the place

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I was born when the working horse was already an anachronism, but there were still plenty of reminders of what had been. My grandparents still had a stable, part of a long wooden building with a hen house, aviary and pig sty. It’s long gone, and is now under a housing estate, but when my sister and I were little we spent hour after hour playing with the completely imaginary animals, collecting imaginary eggs and mucking out the imaginary horse. We weren’t quite so keen on the imaginary pig, possibly because the pig sty was dark, gloomy and distinctly spidery.
Those buildings were a tangible connection to a way of life that had gone. Now the buildings have followed the way of the animals, family stories are the only connection to them: the cockerel that attacked my mother, the pony that pulled the cart, and the wartime pig.
None of the people reading this, I suspect, have any experience of what it is like to live in a world where there are working horses round every corner. If I want …

The Fall of the Railway Horse

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There are no horses working in the shunting and goods yards of British railways now: the last one retired in 1967. That horse was the last of a phenomenon that had lasted over 100 years. 


At its height, in 1913, there were 27,826 railway-owned cartage and shunting horses in the UK, a number Bryan Holden in his The Long Haul describes as declining to 9,077 by 1945. This decline had effects that were noticed by even the higher echelons of society. Riding Magazine, whose readership were not generally troubled by lack of money, noted with concern in its July 1951 edition that the number of railway horses on parade at the 55th Annual Show of the London Cart Horse Parade Society at Regent’s Park had dropped from 61 to 14.

The decline, as with the agricultural industry, was driven by the replacement of horses with motorised transport. This was not a process that happened immediately: it took 40 years. The Second World War, and the rationing of petrol meant a temporary halt to the reduction in …

The pony book in WWII - part two

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This is part two of the talk I did at the Bristol children's books conference. You can find part one, which looks at pre-war pony books, and those books that generally didn't deal with war, here.
For pony book authors, there is a pretty sharp division by sex which appears to affect whether or not they wrote about the direct effects of the war. All those books that do were written by women, mostly writing about what life was like on the Home Front. They had their own war experiences: Primrose Cumming worked for a year on a farm. One day, a bomber crashed in the field of sheep she was tending. She survived, and used her experience in her book Owl’s Castle Farm (1942). She later joined the ATS and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Shirley Faulkner-Horne was married to a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain.


Primrose Cumming’s Silver Eagle Carries On (1940) and Owl’s Castle Farm, Shirley Faulkner-Horne’s Riding with the Kindles (1941) and Parac…

The pony book in World War II: distraction, hobby or necessity?

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Last week I spoke at the Topsy-Turvy conference at Bristol. Its theme was children's book series, and hobbies. I spoke on the hobbies element, and how the advent of war changed the way horses and riding were portrayed in children's literature at the time. This is (pretty much; I've cut it a bit) the text of what I said. It's split into two parts. If you want to skip straight to part two, it's here.
*** Having a horse or pony is a complicated hobby. A horse is not like a stamp collection: something that you can put away in a drawer when you are bored with it. It demands a huge input of physical labour and attention (unless, of course, you have someone to do the work for you). And although now almost all horses are leisure animals, that was emphatically not the case before World War II, which itself changed the relationship of horse and man, reeling it back to a time when the horse was, for many, their only hope of transport and help with labour.
That is not a relati…