Horse Tales - Cambridge Conference May 2016

I'll report later on what actually happened at the conference, but in the meantime, here is the text of what I said. This is the full version, because reading this lot out would have taken considerably longer than I was allowed so drastic pruning took place before the event. [Edited to add this is in a large part my fault. I know how many words you  need for five minutes, but was sort of hoping I could speak quickly and it would all be ok. Alas the stopwatch was not my friend, even with my million-mile-an-hour delivery, so cut it was.]


I approach the pony book now from a similar perspective to many children today. I live in a world that is relatively horse-free. I no longer ride. I now live in the middle of a town, where the closest I get to a horse is the carved relief of a horse opposite our local Marks and Spencers.

The 1920s–1930s

That is not how the world was when the pony book as we know it was developing. In the 1920s and 1930s, the position of the horse was massively different to what it is today. It was entirely normal for horses and carts to be seen around the streets. Horses took goods from railway stations in huge numbers. In 1937, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company was the biggest private owner of horses in Great Britain. Its stables contained nearly 8,500 horses, with 2,000 in London alone. There were horses everywhere: there were horse hospitals in Camden and Willesden, huge railway stables in several London locations, and in many other cities. The clip below was filmed at the Camden stables in London in 1949. It was indeed another world.

As well as working horses, there was much easier access to riding horses. There were riding schools in the middle of towns. The Cadogan Riding School, which was in Central London, had 250 horses at the outbreak of war in 1939, and it was by no means the only riding school in London. Thousands of horses worked on farms.
But change was coming. I can remember the immense thrill as a small child in the 1960s of the coal cart coming round, being pulled by a horse. It was exciting precisely because of its rarity. Almost all ferrying of goods by the 1960s was now done by vans and lorries. Horses were sold off from farms in huge numbers in the 1950s and 1960s as mechanisation took over. My family farmed, but the horses were long gone by the time I came on the scene. When I was around 10, someone found an old horse collar in an outbuilding, green with age, and gave it to me, because they knew I liked horses.

And exposure to horses has continued to decrease. The inner city riding school is a rare beast. The horse has now been ‘tidied up’ into livery stables, often with segregated grazing. The scrub pony grazing on scrub land on the edges of towns is (perhaps thankfully) becoming more and more unusual.

And yet… even though most children rarely see an actual, live horse in their everyday lives, that seems to make no difference to their attraction to the horse and their desire to read about it. There still seems to be some strange, entrancing pull that the horse has for us. You can see it through the number of pony books published, which has recovered from its low point in the 1980s to levels that in the first decade of this century rivalled the pony book’s glory days in the 1950s. And pony books continue to be published in large numbers, aided by the rise in self-publishing.

The thing is, that if the horse bug bites you, it is not particular about where you live, or how likely it is that you are going to be able to do anything about it. For many pony book readers, reading a pony book is the closest they are ever going to get.

I can remember one of my nieces, who had led a totally pony-free life, saying when we arrived for Christmas, ‘When you were on your way up through the garden, did you happen to see a pony? Because I did ask for a pony for Christmas?’ Sadly, the garden was completely and utterly pony-free, and I did sympathise because my own present lists had always included a pony, and this is the nearest I got:

A fantasy landscape?
I would argue that the ability to experience a real-life horse, whether that is simply seeing it go by in the street, makes no difference to how much children want to read about horses and ponies. Whether that’s because horses and ponies are part of the fantasy landscape of the inner child, and are in fact similar to the wizarding of Harry Potter, is unclear. The relevance of their everyday lives to ponies, and their chances of riding themselves also seem to make no difference.

The adult world
As well as the fantasy element, one attraction of much children’s literature lies in the fact that it puts the child in an adult situation, but one that’s copable-with. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five had adventures on their own in the holidays, but Uncle Quentin was nearby, and real life always rolled back around again with the end of the school holidays.

Reality, of a sort
With pony stories, life is not like that. Day in, day out, year in, year out, the pony needs looking after, and certainly in the vast majority of pony books, the person in sole charge of the animal’s welfare is a child. In the Jill books, Jill, once she’d learned the ropes, had complete and utter say over what happened to Black Boy and Rapide.

Mrs Darcy, the owner of the riding school, was there for expert advice if needed, but Jill and her friends were expert enough to help with the running of the school when Mrs Darcy was away (something of a trope in pony literature – there are many noble pony book children who have taken on the running of a riding school when the owner was ill.)

And they have real-life parallels. The Pullein-Thompson sisters started their riding school in Oxfordshire when they were all in their mid-teens.

Economic reality is perhaps one of the things that divides most children’s literature from the real world. Parents and guardians are (almost) always there to pay for things and make sure every day life continues. The reality of owning a pony pre-supposes that you do actually have a certain level of family income: that you live somewhere where pony owning is possible, and that whoever looks after you can cover the expenses of everyday life. Nevertheless, there are many examples in pony books of children having to face some of the economic reality of horse-owning on their own, whether it’s Jinny selling her paintings to keep Shantih going, or the family in Veronica Westlake’s The Ten Pound Pony earning every penny of the pony’s purchase price, and its keep, themselves.

Perhaps in a world where children are less and less likely to experience the world on their own terms; where the chance of a child having the opportunity to experience adventure out in the wilds, on their own apart from their ponies is vanishingly rare, the pony has come to represent something sadly tantalising to the modern child, and something their predecessors took for granted: freedom. Freedom to act as an adult; freedom to perhaps hack out and be alone and unsupervised.


I've now finished pieces on the rest of the conference:


Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
I wish you hadn't had to shorten what you said, Jane. a full-length talk by you would have been so interesting. I don't know why there wasn't a talk by Susanna either - two opportunities missed! Anyway, it was still a fantastic event and I was so glad to meet you at long last. Wasn't hearing KM Peyton speak a treat? And meeting her, of course. Pony book authors are such a lovely friendly bunch.
Oh, what a wonderful event this must have been to attend! I love your inclusion of a photo of a Britains model horse here, and noticed the little string tail attached with glue...I still have my old Britains horses, and many of them are lacking a tail too, they did twist off so easily.

Well done, it is amazing indeed how that love of horses appears so spontaneously, it seems. I've always wondered about the world outside of the English-Irish-American-Australian German girls go "Pferd-verruckt"? (spelling is surely wrong there...). Are ponies popular among girls in France, Spain and beyond into Eurasia? (I know South and Central America have strong equine traditions, but not sure how girls play a role in that. Seems fairly macho in cultural history there.)
Jane Badger said…
Oh yes - it seems common to girls everywhere! There are thriving pony book authors in Germany and Sweden, to name just two. There were two Swedish authors at the conference, one of whom was giving a talk.

In fairness to the organisers, I'm sure if I'd suggested something suitable for a talk they'd have considered it! But I didn't. Partly I think because my mind was full of other horsy stuff. I have now had an idea for a talk (bit late, but there you go), which is war and the effect it has on pony books and whether that's any different to children's literature as a whole.
Nicola Smith said…
it was a fascinating day. I would be very interested in your thought on the effects of war on pony fiction. could this be an annual conference?
Elaine Brown said…
It is such a shame that today's children don't get the experiences we enjoyed as children. Perhaps that is what is wrong with some of today's youth. As a teenager in the 1970's in London there were plenty of horses around if you cared to look for them. Not only riding schools but gypsy ponies, coster ponies and the like. We managed to move from London to Surrey when my son was a year old because I wanted him to be brought up in the country. We lived opposite a farm and he spent his formative years bottle feeding lambs, helping with the cows and the horses and interacting with chickens, ducks and other farm animals. He is now 20. He is well adjusted, caring, hard working and really looks back on his childhood with affection. I am thankful that inner city farms, such as Mudchute, are still able to offer some children the wonderful and formative experience of being around animals. Maybe it is something child psychologists should look into, rather than telling kids they are deprived if they don't have a TV in their bedroom and a play station.

Jane Badger said…
So sorry to miss the latest comments! Nicola, yes, it's something I have on my to do list. I need to buy a few books first just so I have a full range of stuff. It'll be a terrible hardship, but somehow I think I can nerve myself to do it. It was great to meet you, by the way - keep in touch!

Elaine. Good points. It'd be interesting to know if anyone's done a study on exposure to animals and their effect on mental health. I'm sure they have - I know there are studies saying that exposure to animals is good for your physical health because of exposure to all those lovely germs.
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