An example of Norman Thelwell's pony inspired comedy. pony stories

Little Riders and Cute Ponies: The World of Horse Book Illustration

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Today we’re exploring pony stories and humorous cartoons. Pony stories feed our obsessions and provide insight into the skills and ethics of horsemanship and horse care. Beautifully illustrated pony stories also stimulate an appreciation of art and an interest in drawing.

Some pony books, the ones we are looking at here, such as the Billy & Blaze series, Misty of Chincoteague, and of course, the Thelwell books, are timeless, and as such their continuing readerships demand they remain in print.

My brief selection of personal favourites is based around a preference for a finished pencil and charcoal drawings with lots of detail. As a child I obsessively drew horses on every surface (and sold the drawings at school for twenty cents a pop!) so what I needed from illustrated pony stories was information on equine bone structure and how to render light and shade on shining coats.

My three favourite illustrators were able to show me many technical solutions. Their horses spring off the page, and you can feel their biomechanics.  Their horse drawings aren’t flawless; only Stubbs’s drawings of dissected horses are scientifically accurate, but they were well able to express the horse at liberty, the horse under saddle, the horse in relationship with its rider and feeling its own emotions.

Wesley Dennis, who collaborated with author Marguerite Henry on ‘Misty of Chincoteague’ and C.W Anderson, of ‘Billy and Blaze’ fame, were both horsemen as well as artists and it was the love of horses that led them to illustration. Thelwell, the ‘odd man out’ here, wasn’t horsey, yet he was a superb observer of their expressions, and those of their riders!

Wesley Dennis’ Misty of Chincoteague

Misty of Chincoteague has been a perennial best seller in the pony book category, and has been recently re-printed by Simon & Schuster. Misty herself was a real Chincoteague pony belonging to the story’s author. Misty was very pretty; “Oh the beauty of her! She was neither silver nor gold, she was both … Like her mother she, too, wore a white map of the United States on her withers.”

In the photograph of her with Henry (overleaf), we can see the ‘map’ on the patriotic little wither. She is surely one of the cutest foals in the pony book canon.

Misty’s story is set in the close seafaring community of Chincoteague, off the eastern shore of Virginia where the swimming of the wild ponies from one island to another for sale is an annual tradition. Misty’s dam, the ‘Phantom’ is called back to Assateague Island, where the wild ponies live by the stallion Pied Piper. Meantime, after a series of dramas and against the odds, the two orphan children Paul and Maureen Beebe, manage to keep her little filly foal Misty.

The structure of Misty, finding her, losing her, finding again and then winning the island race on Phantom, is a common structure that unites most illustrated pony stories, which tend to follow the arc of “rescue, rehabilitation and recognition”. Through this structure, the intertwined qualities of patience, determination and horse sense are key to eventual success.

“Based on abiding principles of patience and humour, these examples of pony stories and pony humour are a good introduction to the world of horses for children.”

Wes Dennis’s brilliant illustrations really bring Misty to life – her sweetness, ‘wonderment’ and ‘surprise’. A true post war pony book classic, ‘Misty’ enjoyed many sequels and reprints, and the original Misty herself is on view in taxidermied glory at the Beebe Ranch Museum to this day.

C.W. Anderson’s Billy and Blaze

Reaching and inspiring generations of new young readers, and staying in print for the last eighty years C.W. Anderson’s adventures of ‘Billy and Blaze’ came out in the midst of the Great Depression in the US. Between 1936 and 1969 Anderson wrote and illustrated eleven different stories in this series, each entailed boy and pony working together, with an underlying message about the importance of the proper care of horses, and of being responsible, kind, community-minded and hopeful. All qualities that were much needed in these tough years.

The story starts with “Billy, a little boy who loved horses more than anything else in the world.” For his birthday he finds Blaze in the garden, with a card on his halter from his father. Blaze becomes Billy’s “best friend” and together they roam the bridle paths and forests of Central Virginia, embarking on many adventures, some of which are frightening like Blaze and the Forest Fire of 1938.

The Billy and Blaze books became instant classics. What is notable about them is how the human-animal bond is depicted here with sweet simplicity, allowing the theme to develop in ways meaningful and relevant; caring for animals, having a work ethic, being tolerant; and learning about the natural world.

Such is the following for the books that Welkin Studios in Virginia, where the books were originally set, have brought them to the cinema. Billy and Blaze: The Movie stars a cute Welsh hunter pony, Banbury Cross Abu.

Taking the part of Billy is young rider Henry Lesko, while two-time US eventing gold medal winner Tad Coffin plays Billy’s grandfather. This fifteen year-long passion project is finally in post-production and its debut is much awaited.

Along with well-illustrated ponies stories, what we budding equestrians also need is humour. As equine journalist Rebecca Didier recently put it ‘we are bound together not only by our love for horses, but by recognition of our shared insanity’.  Somehow chuckling over the latest horse-meme on social media and clicking ‘share’ helps bring us that little bit closer.

Norman Thelwell

Ironically the master of pony humour, whose books are still amusing generations of horsey kids, Norman Thelwell, was terrified of horses, after having been bolted with in India.

One of the most popular cartoonists in Britain since the Second World War, Norman Thelwell is loved the world over for his ‘little girls and fat, hairy ponies’. His first book of pony humour Angels on Horseback, came out in 1957. This was followed by A Leg at Each Corner; then Thelwell’s Riding Academy and many more popular titles.

Those of us are now re-reading his books to children, and grandchildren will be pleased to know Trafalgar Square Books have recently released an anthology of the first three books, titled Pony Cavalcade. A line of merchandise thrives, including everything from mugs to curtains to a collection of Beswick china ponies. I believe our Dear Editor, a huge Thelwell fan, slept nightly as a child under a Thelwell print doona and matching pillow cases. And in England – apparently to this day – fat hairy little ponies are called ‘Thelwells’ and local shows often feature classes for ‘most Thelwellian pony’.

What is it about Thelwell’s genius that keeps the young, and young at heart, coming back for more? Maybe it’s because they are endlessly re-readable, and that is something children love. Kids are really good at looking at energetic, funny, lively, brightly coloured images again and again and finding the same enjoyment, even noticing new small details. The compositions are balanced and dynamic, and even the backgrounds are full of the wellie-boot sucking mud, wildlife, and buildings, of rural Engand. Thelwell’s quintessentially verdant and English settings – full of glades, copses, and ancient beech trees with winter are an added wonder for Australian children, more used to the whites, olives and baked ochres of the bush.

Thelwell was not from a rural, horsey family, in fact he was born by the sea, in Birkenhead on Merseyside in the north west of England, where the main business was shipbuilding. He started sketching as a little boy and had dreams of being an artist, but the Second World War intervened and he signed up in 1941. One of his jobs though was editing Army magazines, which provided valuable experience. Posted to India later, it was here that he had his one and only horse-riding experience – an army remount who bolted with him; leading to his opinion that horses are “great windy things that’ll grab your coat off your back as soon as look at you”.

“As equine journalist Rebecca Didier recently put it ‘we are bound together not only by our love for horses, but by recognition of our shared insanity’.”

Evening art classes, marriage and children followed, and eventually he won a spot drawing for Punch magazine, which put him in the public eye as a humourist. But it was the experience of moving to the country, in Hampshire, and seeing from his studio window the antics of the two little girls next door trying to catch their Shetland ponies that led to worldwide success, and thirty-two books on ponies, dogs, and country life, drawn with his usual dry but gentle wit.

Thelwell recalled “They [the fat little ponies] were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves. They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs and velvet safety helmets”, he remembered. The little girls calmly dodged every well aimed kick and bite. “As the ponies were led meekly away, he imagined “they were planning vengeance – you could tell by their eyes”.

Says Thelwell’s son David, “Most of his pony books were researched from real books on horsemanship. They are the normal methods, given a comic twist.”  Thelwell was a keen observer of Shetland pony behaviour, especially their stubbornness! These little vertically challenged hairy haystacks are depicted doing endless wayward things, shattering the visions of competence and skill of their tiny riders. Some of the funniest Thelwells are the ones where the diminutive partnership is out in public, aghast onlookers at the local gymkhana; supercilious other children on better behaved ponies at riding school; so the ponies’ antics are guaranteed to be particularly mortifying.

The books are both comical and endearing and inspired many later horse cartoonists all over the world. Jean Abernethy, creator of ‘Fergus’ says the reason for Thelwell’s timeless popularity is that … “Ponies still behave like ponies. And we still behave like humans …”

Norman Thelwell’s comedy continues to remind us to throw out expectations and take things lightly. Fergus (and his herd of friends) and Thelwell’s pony characters all reserve the right to remain fundamentally equine.”  She says of her own creation, ‘Fergus’, “I don’t try to make Fergus do human things. I let him be a horse.”   And as a horse, Fergus has the knack of saying what we often suspect our horses are secretly thinking, about everything from flying changes to his role as therapist to his human, Shelby!

Based on abiding principles of patience and humour, these examples of pony stories and pony humour are all a good introduction to the world of horses for children.

What’s interesting about all of these books is that though they were published in the thirties, forties and fifties respectively, they still easily available; and now being rendered into new media. Readers enjoy them because they do say something profound and enduring about the soul and spirit of horses. The reality of horse care and riding is mixed or lightened with humour and insight, and we are left, as the last page is turned, with the feeling that though as species we are poles apart, we can sometimes bring out the best in each other.

Further Information:

  • https://www.billyandblazemovie.com/
  • http://www.thelwell.org.uk/
  • http://wesleydennis.com/

References

  1. https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/cartoonist-biographies/s-t/NormanThelwell.html
  2. Quote from Rebecca M. Didier’s article in Horse Illustrated ‘Little Girls and Fat, Hairy Ponies
  3. August 14, 2017. https://www.horseillustrated.com/horse-community-little-girls-and-fat-hairy-ponies
  4. Ibid.
  5. https://toplinemediateam.com/fergus-the-horse/

This article was published in Horses and People January-February 2020 magazine.

 

Dr Georgina Downey

An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.

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