I'm an avid reader, a rapacious consumer of the printed word; or rather, nowadays, the backlit words on my paperwhite kindle. I've collected over the years a pretty extensive library of equestrian reference and textbooks, but that's a different post, here I want to share some of my favourite novels that feature horses.
I'll bet everyone's experienced that mixture of cringe and rage when you see a horse on TV that appears to be whinnying constantly for no reason at all - and with its mouth shut - (some survival tactic for a prey animal!), or one described on the page as “white”, or which attacks the hero's enemies in a bloodthirsty fashion, or something equally unlikely. This kind of ignorance has ruined many a good book or film for me, I'm incapable of ignoring it, and compelled to share with anyone nearby whereabouts exactly the author or screenwriter has got it wrong.
So finding a novel that features horses in a realistic and relatable way is an absolute joy. Here are my favourites for adults and children.
Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley is an American Pulitzer prize winning author. She's just brilliant and I've read nearly everything she's written. Her novel Horse Heaven is set on and around stateside race tracks and the characters include trainers, vets, grooms and of course the horses. She writes about the horses with great tenderness and empathy, drawing unique personalities that will be as real to you as your own equine friends. I haven't re-read the book for a few years but certain scenes are still so vivid and moving, it's as if I read them yesterday. It's a fascinating look at the world of racing as well as being a damn fine read.
Flambards by KM Peyton
The first book of this trilogy, set in the early 1900s, is the horseiest. A young orphan girl goes to live with her hunting obsessed uncle and cousins. Christina learns to ride astride and stay up front with the best of them, earning her uncle's grudging respect. KM Peyton conjures up a lovely evocation of life for the landed gentry before the wars, and her genuine knowledge of horses makes the riding and hunting scenes very vivid.
Everything by Ruby Ferguson
Ruby Ferguson wrote the ‘Jill’ books, Jill has two ponies, a stable for Jill and several others. I'm not entirely sure when they were set, maybe the 1940s or 50s. My mum had a cardboard box of them and I absolutely adored them. As my mum pointed out though, they did rather give one unrealistic expectations, Jill and her pals were forever buying ponies from the meat man for pocket money and then winning open show jumping classes on them a few weeks later. No one ever went to the toilet either. The same applies to anything by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. I wouldn't re-read any of these books now for fear I'd dislike them, I'd rather preserve them in my memory as wonderful stories for pony obsessed kids.
Patricia Leitch and the “Jinny” books
Slightly more contemporary than the Ferguson and Pullein-Thompson sister's books, Jinny was a girl who had a half wild Arab mare, Shantih. This pair were forever galloping around the countryside having adventures. I don't remember many storylines but I totally fell in love with the idea of having a chestnut Arab and used to scour the for sale pages of Horse & Hound every week for one.
Riders by Jilly Cooper
For me Jilly’s novels are elevated above the average bonk-buster due to their fantastic equine characters. Who can forget brave Sailor dying after trying his great heart out for Jake at the Olympic trials? It would move the hardest heart to tears. Rupert Campbell-Black had the cheekbones, but the horses had the hearts. Her stories always had great canines too.
Now I’ve started I can think of so many more; Moorland Mousie by Golden Gorse, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, Black Hunting Whip and Wish for a Pony by Monica Edwards, Pat Smyth’s Three Jays series; but it strikes me that many of them are from the late 1920s - 1950s, and are aimed at children and young adults. They recall an arcadian time which even in my childhood seemed distant, and I’m sure to a ten year old today would seem quite alien. Apart from Horse Heaven (which is my no. 1 favourite on this list), most of them are quite divorced from reality. But what of that? Surely some honest escapism, peopled with horse-mad people and thrilling adventures, can only be good for the soul?
What are your favourite horsey novels? Let me know in the comments.