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Oh But He’s Perfect! My ‘70s Horse-mad Girlhood

Wish for a Pony by Monica Edwards was first published in England in 1947 and has subsequently run to many reprints. It explores the feeling of being utterly and totally enchanted by horses, and it does so truthfully, and respectfully and in a way that also outlines the moral qualities needed to see through this passion to realization. I first read it when I was about seven and it has remained my favourite horse book.

Wish for a Pony tells the story of ten-year old Tamzin Grey, of ‘Westling’, (Rye Harbour) in East Sussex. Tamzin is growing up horse-mad in a good British middle class family with a kindly pipe-smoking vicar for a father, an affectionate mother and an adorable younger brother called Diccon. Tamzin and her equally horse-mad best friend Rissa (Clarissa) use wonderfully dated 1940s school-girl slang like ‘smashing’ and ‘goody’; they go to the village ‘for ices’ in their ‘guernseys’.  They are kind girls, well-brought up and polite – but there are no lengths they won’t go to be near, on, or around, horses.

The story begins at the start of the girls’ summer holidays. Rissa has spotted the arrival of horses from a smart Tonbridge Wells riding school, ‘Hillocks’. The girls are both thrilled, as they’ve spent their childhoods together doing almost anything to be near horses, taking the dairy ponies to the farrier, and begging rides off the local farmer on his draft mare ‘Tinkle’. But as they both sigh, they’ve only ever ridden ‘other people’s ponies’ as neither of their families can afford to buy them their own ponies.

They approach ‘Hillocks’ riding school owner Guy Randall and his assistant ‘Miss Wade’ and ask to work at the stables over the summer, in exchange for exercising the horses. Mr Randall politely dismisses them. Downcast at being rejected as stable hands the girls head down to Rye beach for a swim. All of sudden, one of the school horses, Carillon, comes careering towards them trailing behind him a loose hitching post tied to his halter that is banging against his perfect legs at every stride. The girls race to his rescue in unison, never thinking twice. “They had fifty yards to spare [before he jumped a five foot gate]… and ran on to meet the terrified horse, no room in their burdened minds for thought of personal and serious danger to themselves.” The girls stand right in front of Carillon, arms up, calling his name and he stops, and allows them to rescue him.

Guy Randall praises them for their bravery and in his gratitude offers them rides over the summer on the two school ponies, ‘Sea Pie’ and ‘Cobweb’, and the girls experience the delight of riding, and sea-swimming ‘well-schooled ponies’.  The girls spend a happy few weeks helping at Hillocks stable, mucking out, carrying water, feeding up, cleaning tack, and sweeping, in exchange for rides. The Hillocks ponies are a revelation to them, so perfectly schooled that they respond to a mere touch of the leg, even just a thought. They feel as if they could ‘suddenly fly’.

They swim the horses daily, and canter across the hard sands, the wind in their hair.  They accompany riding school students on beach rides, and in the process meet little Roy and his aunt Miss Polkinghorne, who rides school horse ‘Allegro’ side-saddle, in a style ‘so polished it seemed almost artificial’.

The girls think it ‘graceful, but not half as comfortable as cross saddle’, and they think her heavy blue serge wool habit ‘too confining’. The girls’ responses reflect the fact, that by the 1940s, it was quite acceptable for young girls to ride astride, their way being paved by the earlier generation of superb English horsewomen who rode astride by necessity while training hot, difficult remounts for armed services officers in World War One and proved themselves not only highly skilled and patriotic but quite ‘respectable’.

By the end of summer, the local Gymkhana looms, and Tamzin and Rissa practice their show jumping, bending around poles, show hacking, ‘Walk, Trot, Mount and Gallop’, the Wheelbarrow class, and Musical Chairs. The girls realise they need proper outfits (they’ve been riding in shorts up until now). At the Hastings jumble sale, against all odds, Tamzin pulls out from the pile of second-hand clothes ‘a pair of brown whipcord jodhpurs [just her size], and, a ‘neat little tailored riding coat in ginger Harris tweed’ to go with them. Tamzin somehow manages to fend off a fellow shopper, and then scrapes together the ‘four-and-six and five shillings’ they cost, and, topped off by ‘a dear little brown felt hat with an upturned brim’, her show outfit is complete. Rissa, being from a merchant’s family and a little better off, has hers tailor-made.

The magical quality of this scene, with its weaving in of chance and fate, it’s understanding of the importance of well-cut riding clothes, and its feel for fashion and tailoring, has never left me, and I can’t now pass a jumble sale without rummaging around for a pair of ‘brown whipcord jodhpurs – “just my size”. My collection of vintage and retro clothes always has a place for the old ‘elephant ear’ style jodhpurs. In my continuous efforts to duplicate Tamzin’s moment of luck I am drawn, zombie-like to jumble sales and Op-Shopping. I now volunteer regularly at the local church second-hand shop in a nearby village in the Adelaide Hills. On one memorable morning, on the ‘Fancy Dress’ rack, I did find a pair of jodhpurs, ‘just my size’ but they were a violent purple!

The climax of the story comes not at the Gymkhana, although both the girls do very well, bringing home ‘eight rosettes apiece’. Rather, it comes with the arrival of ‘Cascade’ at the Vicarage, a 14.2 hands high white Anglo-Arab. Like many of the formulaic pony stories from the era, Cascade is not only rescued by, but rescues Tamzin from her pony-less state.

Through happenstance, and through the social contacts of a convalescing sailor at their home, Tamzin hears about a pony in Yorkshire whose young child rider has been rendered paralyzed through an accident. The child put the pony at a jump under a low hanging tree upon which she hit her head and came off, suffering from spinal damage.

The father can’t bear the sight of the animal, and wants it shot. The daughter won’t hear of it, so Tamzin writes a letter begging to care for it on a kind of permanent loan basis. After her hopes are first dashed, then re-lit, the father (a red-faced Yorkshireman) accedes to the idea of passing the pony on rather than having it put down. The final pages of the novel are given over to the arrival of this perfect pony, and his settling in his new stable, with fresh straw and water. Tamzin is completely speechless with wonder at her dearest dream being realised.

The chauffeur lowered the horse-box door to form a ramp to the ground and climbed up it into the box. Cascade, in a brown head-collar, was led down the ramp and the rope put into Tamzin’s hand. She stared at him unbelievingly for a moment, then put out a hand to stroke his smooth neck. He pushed a soft muzzle against her side and she drew a small red apple from her pocket. He took it delicately and crunched it with quiet appreciation…”He’s more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen in my life”, said Rissa slowly. Tamzin glanced at her and said “That goes for me too”.

The lovely dry point etchings that illustrate the story were drawn by Anne Bullen. Bullen (1913-1963) was not only one of the world’s most respected writers and illustrators of children’s pony stories, but she also bred and trained children’s show ponies. She had six children, who between them have ridden in eight Olympic games, in eventing and dressage, with daughter Jennie (Loriston-Clarke) competing in four of these.

Here in Wish for a Pony Bullen depicts the ‘Hillocks Stables’ ponies that Tamsin and Rissa ride over the summer as not ponies but perfectly-formed small horses, with slender limbs, and charming fine heads. Two things about Bullen’s work here reveals her as a real horsewoman with a great eye; the anatomical precision of horses in movement and the sense of uphill balance (Bullen was an early adopter in England of German style dressage). Not least, these exquisite little creatures anticipate the show hacks she would eventually successfully breed at her stud ‘Catherstone’. I think as a child I also found the scale of the illustrations interesting; the girls, preposterously slender, look like tiny wind-blown paper dolls, but are nonetheless drawn perfectly to scale for their delicate ponies.

Wish for a Pony conforms in many ways to the formulaic tropes of the pony story. Tamzin’s world is conservative, loving and unchanging.   In a proto-feminist model however, it is evident that developing competence with horses does empower girls in pony stories like this one, yet few other signs of radicalism are permitted. The world of Wish for a pony is a gentle, predictable fairy tale world, ‘middle class, static, and irrelevant’ that conforms to the rigid formulae of the genre.

It was nonetheless a world that I clung to.  My family was middle-class, but unlike the fictional Grey family, we were by no means as tethered to place. By the time I was eleven we had spent several years in each of four different countries, Australia, Italy, Scotland and Canada. My father, a medical specialist, wanted an overseas post-graduation qualification, so he had a wider choice of jobs back home in Australia. My mother, expected in the 1960s to give up her career as a nurse upon marriage, (which she did), was simply passionately interested in other cultures, and in becoming a ‘cosmopolitan’, worldly person, with wide horizons and experience far beyond that of her 1950s rural and conservative Catholic girlhood. It was she rather than he who planned and coordinated our regular global journeys.

My sisters and I grew up with a lot of new languages and new schools, which meant that we sought safe worlds in books. I retreated to my bedroom, and read Wish for a Pony, over and over again, until I knew the phrases on almost every page, and I sketched and sketched and sketched horses until I could almost get them looking as lovely as ‘Cascade’.

In Grade 2 I even started selling my horse-drawings to schoolmates for twenty cents each, to save up for my pony – a scheme which saw me getting threatened with a smack of ‘the sandshoe’ from the Assistant Principal for running a business on school property.

My thoughts and dreams always centred on ‘horse-girl’ stories, featuring transformation, self-agency, courage, and knowledge.  I never stopped re-reading Wish for a Pony. Eventually, I did get my first pony, or rather, horse, at going-on sixteen, and it was a qualified disaster, as is quite often the case when your first horse is bought by non-horsey parents. I had no trainer, I had no horsey networks around me, a distinct disadvantage when the horse in question is a two year-old green broken Anglo-Arab – the same breed as Cascade, but mine was a chestnut. It’s a miracle we survived each other, and his first eighteen months were spent back in a paddock growing up. ‘Ozzie’ as I called him, ‘Sunwood Osmosis’, was trained by me, by reading a chapter of Tom Robert’s ‘Horse Control and the Young Horse’ each night before a schooling session and doing what Tom said in the book. Four years later, before starting University, I was able to sell him as a nice, ‘somewhat’ educated six year old gelding to a local horsey family.

Some thirty two years later, my second horse, my real ‘Cascade’ arrived on a truck after a four day journey from Queensland, and after he came down the ramp, the transport driver put the lead-rope in my hand, and I looked, speechless, at my very own, brand new (dust-covered) beautiful horse, and, in that moment I was Tamzin. I now have two, and am sometimes looking over my shoulder for a Tamzin or a Rissa to do some grooming and feeding!

On reflection, I do think that horse stories we read while young, encourage us to ‘rehearse’ staying calm and managing our emotions for the horse’s sake, and in this way while also being pleasurable they do help us prepare for that day – inevitable with horses –  when it all goes wrong. Diving into the world of horses is indeed transformative, and I do believe that Wish for a Pony prepared me, inspirationally and practically, for the good and the bad of horse-owning, and even forty-six years later I am still enchanted by the characters of the girls, their ponies and the world Monica Edwards created in this book.

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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