Girls galloping horses: unstable identities, Amy Brown

Ella West
Allen and Unwin, $19.00, ISBN 9781760296834

Showtym Adventures: Casper, the Spirited Arabian
Kelly Wilson
Puffin, $15.00, ISBN 9780143772248

Do You Want to Gallop with Me?
Sophie Siers (Judith Trevelyan illus)
Millwood Press, $20.00, ISBN 9780473408541

The Gift Horse
Sophie Siers (Katharine White illus)
Millwood Press, $20.00, ISBN 9780473408558

Since I learned to read, I’ve read about horses and riders. Did I love horses because of the books I read, or did I read the books because their covers were stable doors? What does it mean to read about a female child desiring and caring for a horse? Answering these questions has felt like psychoanalysis; a girl galloping a horse should be a Jungian archetype – and I have been that girl.

In Rides of Passage, Alison Haymonds observes that the pony book heroine isn’t a subjugated beauty. Instead, it is the horse that becomes the object of desire, its “beauty is described from the female perspective, reversing the classic tradition of romantic novels where the women are seen through the male gaze”. This pony book heroine – plucky, humble and caring – is a British trope, not shared by the American pony books popular during the post-war period, which were mainly “rites of passage” books for boys. As Haymonds writes, “While the American genre is inextricably bound up with the story of the Wild West, where the horse is part of a wider and wilder landscape … the British pony story is placed firmly in a rural domestic setting.”

What about New Zealand pony fiction? A motif common to four recently released children’s and young adult horse books is water. The frequency with which ponies are at the mercy of flooding paddocks and hooves splash through swollen rivers, might signify more than New Zealand’s wet winters. Water is the commonest symbol of the unconscious, and the horse, it seems, enables its rider to wade into the depths; this is especially evident in Ella West’s Rainfall.  

We aren’t introduced to Blue, the heroine Annie’s horse, until chapter three, which might suggest that he is peripheral, rather than integral. However, Blue’s reactions often indicate his owner’s unarticulated feelings. It is Blue who whinnies to the jet-black mare they meet on the beach, and makes Annie speak to the mare’s rider, Jack. Annie has gone to the beach to look for her neighbour, who’s wanted for murder. Jack, the handsome 18-year-old rodeo star from Christchurch, is in Westport with his father, the detective on the case. 

Through incessant rain and under the eye of the police helicopter, the teenagers race their horses along the beach. Annie’s description of galloping makes it an act of sublimation: 

you’re connected to this animal that seems like nothing but fluid, moving muscle beneath you … the insides of your legs clamped against the moving sides of the horse and your hands gripping the reins. Nothing else. 

Blue both stokes and sublimates Annie’s attraction to Jack. On the one hand, riding is Annie’s alibi, allowing her to see Jack without her parents knowing. On the other, Blue interferes with physical intimacy between the teenagers. The first kiss, on horseback, is a hurried butting of noses as the animals move. The next, on foot this time, is more conventional:

I’m up against Blue’s withers, my horse warm behind me, both sets of reins still in Jack’s hands and I feel Jack’s lips on my cheek, then finding my own, ready for him. Soft, hardly a touch, his mouth opening against mine.

Blue’s presence is comforting: he is a distraction, and a means of escape. Later in the novel, Annie says, “for the first time, the first real time, I kiss him back”; notably, Blue is absent. West knows better than to conclude with the boy superseding the horse in the girl’s affections. When Annie and her family move house at the end of the novel, Blue comes too, in Jack’s horse-float. Annie’s description of Blue’s reaction to leaving seems to be an unconscious assessment of her own ambivalence:

I wish he would take one last look at his paddock, at the bush, at the mountains, at the sky. But he doesn’t … I step forward and he moves with me. I’m up onto the ramp of the float, Blue right beside me, but then his front hooves hit the metal and the sound echoes against the inside of the box and there he stops …  Jack takes the lead rope out of my hands and turns Blue around … Blue follows without a misstep.

While there is nothing wrong with Jack – in fact, he seems unusually solicitous – his declaration that he hopes there will never be anyone else for him but Annie seems a claustrophobic rather than saccharine proposition. As Jack is good with horses, he is also good with Annie – it would be flippant to use a term like “grooming”, but it comes to mind. 

Australian YA novelist, Penni Russon, describes the difference between children’s and YA fiction as depending upon how home is depicted: in children’s fiction, home is a stable (so to speak) entity that is to be returned to; whereas, in YA fiction, it is a fragile construct, vulnerable to adolescent chaos. Between rides, Annie finds her mother peeling the corridor’s wallpaper. The layers of patterns, the sense of home shedding a skin and becoming something new: Annie observes this, oblivious to its symbolism. With her dad’s job at risk, her neighbour’s house razed, and her friendships eclipsed by Jack, Annie’s identity is in a fluid state that typifies adolescence. While they’re galloping along the beach, Annie thinks, “It’s as if the whole world is made of water.” The atmosphere of flux is palpable, which makes the ending, in which Annie’s and Blue’s fate is safely locked inside Jack’s expensive horse-box, not a comforting relief, but abrupt and forced. 

Moving from Westport to Northland, from adolescence to childhood, Kelly Wilson’s third instalment in her Showtym Adventures series adheres to Russon’s definition of children’s fiction: home is a reliable reality. Based on her and her sisters’ experiences, Wilson’s novel follows a favourite trope of the horse book: the taming of the difficult pony. Eleven-year-old Vicki Wilson hears about an unrideable Arabian gelding for sale and persuades her parents to let her view it. Seeing kindness in the pony, despite its aggressive behaviour, Vicki decides to buy it. 

A thesis could be written about the economics of pony fiction; characters with expensive horses are bad, whereas protagonists who have to scrimp and save to afford oats are morally superior. Thus, it is another convention of the genre to see girls as young as six, in the case of Amanda Wilson, emptying their piggybanks and counting coins. More than a generic convention, the entrepreneurial spirit of the young Wilson characters appears to be consistent with their adult lives. The biographical note on the sisters’ website/online shop is a rags-to-riches narrative: due to the family’s near bankruptcy during the girls’ childhood, the sisters learned to ride bareback (no money for saddles) and to break in young horses rather than having the best bought for them. 

“Horses are our life,” Vicki says in the trailer for the television series Keeping up with the Kaimanawas, in which the sisters rescue and break in wild horses. “Why?” I keep asking myself. What is noble about working with horses? I become distracted and watch many Youtube videos of Vicki Wilson riding. In the intimate equestrian understanding that she displays – both as a character in her sister’s novel and as an adult in reality – there seems to be self-knowledge, too, a sort of meditative metacognition that borders on superpower. In her novel, Kelly Wilson attempts to share this numinous ability through wholesome homilies:

Not all ponies were naughty on purpose – sometimes bad behaviour could be a pony’s way of showing that something hurt. She leant down and wrapped her arms around Casper’s graceful neck. She had a feeling that her spirited Arabian still had plenty to teach her.

I agree with the sentiment but, unfortunately, the writing is heavy with didacticism. Style aside, I am sure my child-self would have read Wilson’s series hungrily.

Horse books can be divided into two categories: those in which the rider speaks, and those that come from the horse’s mouth. Do You Want to Gallop with Me? falls into the latter. A picture book by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Judith Trevelyan, it is aimed at much younger children than West’s or Wilson’s novels, but the notion of the horse being an extension of the rider’s self is still present. Nibbles, the protagonist, only wants someone to gallop with, but his four-legged friends are too busy. At last, another friend appears. She is wearing an odd combination of helmet and bare feet (a partial acknowledgement of the dangers horses pose). “Do you want to gallop with me?” asks Nibbles the pony. “Yes!” the small girl says. She brushes Nibbles’s coat “until it gleams”, the care of the pony being the price of the ride. Without saddle or bridle, off the two friends go; they “splash through the river” and gallop all the way home. On the penultimate page, a wobbly watercolour of the child embracing Nibbles is captioned: “Galloping with you is my favourite thing in the world.” It is ambiguous who is saying this line; the two characters have, in the ecstasy of their ride, merged.

Sophie Siers’s The Gift Horse, this time illustrated by Katharine White, has a similar conclusion, but a more complex narrative. Olivia, the protagonist, is grieving at the death of her mother. One morning, her father calls her out to the paddock. He has something for her: a troubled palomino. “Olivia’s heart leaps. He is the most beautiful horse she has ever seen.” Olivia is persistent, but impatient; when she tries to touch the timid animal, she’s injured. The physical pain the horse causes becomes a conduit for the sadness Olivia has been bottling up. As the horse trusts Olivia, her grief eases. On the final page, she

stands very still as he gently nudges her shoulder and she quietly leans back so that her head rests on his neck. It’s the very first time they have touched each other. He is so soft and warm and they fit together completely. They stand very quietly and watch the river flow by. 

Instead of a union of adult human lovers, as this excerpt could suggest out of context, there is a profound spreading of empathy across species – an expansion of the child’s sense of self that allows her to feel stronger. While the therapeutic meaning of Olivia’s relationship with her horse could have been depicted more subtly, the plausibility of the characterisation (both human and equine), and the quality of the illustrations, make this a poignant book about grief.

If the horse is a symbolic extension of the human protagonist’s self, it is no wonder that the human protagonist in pony fiction is often young and female. The identities of tween/teen girls are unstable, oscillating between child and adult, carer and cared for, student and teacher, lover and friend. Similarly, the infinitive “to ride” has ambiguous connotations: from sexual innuendo, to control, to passive transportation (escapism), to “riding out” a perilous situation. If childhood and adolescence are perilous – which they so often seem to be – then what better way to protect oneself than on horseback? Wittgenstein wrote in one of his notebooks: “I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.” Beautiful metaphors that they are, horses, it seems, can teach both riders and readers about life.  

Amy Brown is the author of two collections of poetry, The Propaganda Poster Girl and The Odour of Sanctity, and four children’s novels, the Pony Tales series.

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