Carly Thomas spent most of her childhood either reading about horses or riding them. Here, she takes a look at what’s on literary offer for kids that are horse mad.
Finding New Zealand books for horse mad kids was not hard. I walked into my youngest daughter’s bedroom and found a shelf dedicated to the Showtym Adventures series. Written by Kelly Wilson, one of the three Wilson sisters who have carved out a big market in everything equine, this series has top shelf status in my 10-year-old's world.
I opened the cover of Dandy the Mountain Pony (Penguin Random House NZ) and my heart was tugged just a little; inside is handwritten ‘love this book’ with two wonky hearts and a horse shoe. I remembered this feeling: loving a book so much that you just had to make a mark.
When I was Lily’s age, it was all about the Jill's Ponies series by Ruby Ferguson. Filled with wonderfully twee English things like gymkhanas, mucking out at the local stables and cups of tea after a hack, these books sustained me until I got my own horse at age 13. They dwell on their own shelf in my study and I flick through them now and again, giggling at lines like 'I cannot think of anything more dim than letting somebody else choose your pony’. I don’t remember there being horsey books by Kiwi authors when I was a kid: it was either jodhpur-wearing Jills or lasso-throwing Lindas. So I dipped into Kelly Wilson’s yarn to see what got Lily so enamoured.
The series is inspired by the sisters’ childhoods and this one spins the yarn of Vicki having to sell her beloved lease pony. Sounds a bit teary, and it is, but it’s okay because that bit only takes up three-and-a-half pages of the book. And the last sentence of that first chapter is about Vicki dreaming of her next pony.
The next chapter held promise: 'The Mountain Stallion'. The Wilson sisters are known for their work with the Kaimanawas, New Zealand’s own wild horses, so I thought ‘cool, here comes the Aotearoa bit’. But no, these ponies are Welsh and the only nod to our backyard was ‘the old volcano, which loomed above the Hikurangi swamp’. But I do like that Vicki was honest about the family’s financial struggles back then. They weren’t just rich kids being given perfect ponies, they were a hard working family who could scrape together just enough to buy wild and unbroken young horses.
I started to see why Lily loved this book. After her beloved but ancient hand-me-down pony died last year, she was given a young, barely broken horse who had a brief career as a pacer. She gets bucked off regularly, but gets back on and has never once asked for anything but her feisty pony.
Grit makes a good read and this one is just that. There is not much in the way of the local flavour that I would have loved but it is a good tale of tenacity and determination.
I went on another book raid to Lily’s room and found Destiny and the Wild Horses by Kiwi author Stacy Gregg (Harper Collins). It’s from the Pony Club Secrets series which has been hugely popular. Look under G in the kids’ section at the library and Gregg definitely dominates. The first paragraph gives me an immediate glimpse of why. Gregg knows how to tap into what young, horsey girls are into – pretty ponies, jewel coloured ribbons and more pretty ponies. But she writes really well, and as I read on I start to wonder just who Stacy Gregg is. She seems savvy, funny and just a little horse-mad herself.
The horse world that she whips up is privileged and revolves around Issie, whose summer holidays stretch out before her in horse heaven goodness. She spends the summer at her aunt’s farm helping to rescue a herd of wild horses from being culled. Wild horses must be a thing; I’m pretty sure Jill tamed one back in the day. There are definite links to our own Kaimanawas here, but again, this book seems to be very general: as if to sell books, you have to make the setting universal. That makes me a bit sad, as I would love for Lily to read a horsey book that has a moana, a maunga and an awa as the backdrop.
And what about the horsey boys? Kelly Wilson’s books have very gender neutral covers which I really like, while Stacy Gregg’s are not. But both ranges are dominated by female characters, and I scratch my head at that.
I exhausted Lily’s shelves and so I headed to my local library. Kirsty, my go-to librarian found Bess the Brave War Horse by Susan Brocker and illustrated by Raymond McGrath (Scholastic NZ). This is a picture book based on a true New Zealand story and it is really very lovely. It tells the story of a remarkable horse called Bess from Martinborough who served with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade during World War One.
It is simply told, with the line-drawn and hand-inked illustrations leading the story beyond the words on the page. There is adventure, and the strong bond of friendship between man and horse and history is told with a light hand. This is a book that can be picked up by many ages: read to preschool kids, a help-along reader for school starters and a read alone for bigger kids. A good one too perhaps, for grandparents to read to their mokopuna, to prompt conversations with little minds.
Another trip to the library led to discovering the glittery covers of the Miniwings series (Scholastic NZ) and I admit to sinking into the squishy bean bag on offer and getting quite engrossed. This New Zealand series written by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Kirsten Richards is about fit-in-your-teacup-sized, flying ponies. I would have lost my mind with excitement if I had read these books when I was eight. I had an imaginary pony that lived in my pocket who was my absolute best friend and who I would talk to in secret. These books are a delight and I devoured two before my son asked me what I was doing. They are quirky and kooky and have winning lines like ‘Keep your fanglers off my fly flicker, you peskery old trotter!’.
The storylines aren’t totally centred around horses like in the other books featured here, but that does give them a wider audience. They are very ‘girly’; in the two books I read, there were only very brief little cameos from a dad. And again, no reference to New Zealand.
I got up off the beanbag and broke myself free from the magical daze the flying ponies have put me in and I searched out a book from the Starlight Stables series by Soraya Nicholas. Now this one is published by Random House Australia but Soraya is a New Zealander so I’ll give it a nod.
The cover very much looks like The Saddle Club books that I used to save up my pocket money to buy. From age 13, I kept my horse at the local pony club and my mum would drop me up there on Saturday mornings and pick me up just before dark. My horsey friends and I could easily fill our days with adventures, and the Starlight Stables books are a version of that.
They are dialogue-dominated, which as a grown-up can be annoying, but for young readers hearing the words of kids their age is a point of connection. Again, these books are very girl-orientated and the covers all show glossy photos of smiling girls on beautiful ponies. Boys love horses too, right? Well, in New Zealand’s horsey literature they are hugely unrepresented.
I went for one last search at the library but couldn’t find any further New Zealand authors that write horsey tales. It made me think that a horsey book that hits the mark for all genders, with a real sense of New Zealand identity, would be super cool. I asked Lily what she thought when we were out on a ride, her on little Tui the not-fast-enough racehorse and me on Walnut, the huge and gentle giant. She said ‘yeah Mum, I’d read that, but can we trot now?’ Tui snorted and tossed her mane in agreement.
Carly Thomas is an accidental journalist, an art gallery assistant and a gardener at Greenhaugh Gardens. She lives in a rambling old villa with a huge overgrown garden that she shares with her husband, three children and a motley herd of horses. Carly wrote Verve: 60 Years of the Art of Bruce Rennie last year and is usually late, always frazzled and rides into sunsets as often as she can.