Ride the wild wind: Feminism in pony fiction

I settle into my new Wintec saddle and guide my pony to a halt. We’ve already trotted in circles and figure eights for enough time in the little yard for Trixie to cough, snort, wheeze and fart her displeasure. Trixie is like something out of a fairy tale. She is a snow-white, Welsh mountain pony with a waterfall for a mane and tail. She stands at about thirteen and a half hands on dainty, slightly feathered hooves that she occasionally places directly on my foot and refuses to budge. She looks like a unicorn but acts like a crone. After thirty years of being ridden by silly young children, her mouth is now as inflexible as her patience. She is crafty and stubborn and has plenty of tricks to troll me with. My instructor has coached me through assertiveness, bribery and gentleness and when to use each method but Trixie is always two steps ahead of me…

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It’s been nearly twenty years since I had weekly horse riding lessons. My Grandma organised them for me by borrowing a pony from someone in town and exchanging maths tutoring for riding lessons. I was horse-obsessed. When I wasn’t riding, helping my grandparents with their thoroughbreds or drawing pictures of horses in class, I was reading books about horses.

There are a few different kinds of horse books. There are the books where the horse is the main character, like the original horse book Black Beauty by Anna Sewell or the Australian novel The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. There are the more realistic serial books about groups of friends who ride horses together either casually (like The Pony Pals by Jeanne Betancourt) or competitively (like the Saddle Club series by Bonnie Bryant). Then, there are the books that require the protagonist to acquire, build trust, overcome adversity and achieve great success with a horse. National Velvet by Enid Bagnold and The Quicksand Pony by Alison Lester are fantastic examples of these.

One of my all-time-favourites was a collection of short stories by Australian author Jackie French called Ride the Wild Wind. Each of the seven stories, spanning from a prehistoric girl in Europe who tames the first horse to an Aboriginal boy who rides the wild thunder, are linked together by the bond between kids and their horses. By building a relationship with their horse, each kid, trapped in their own way, discovers the special kind of freedom you can only find on horseback.

Horse riding, especially in Australia, was traditionally a masculine pursuit and this is reflected in literature. Banjo Paterson’s iconic poem The Man from Snowy River, so revered that it is printed in minute text on our ten dollar note, persists as an archetype of Australian masculinity and horsemanship.

For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

While men still dominate in the few professions left that involve horses, women now outstrip male leisure riders 3 to 1 and women such as Melbourne-cup winning jockey Michelle Payne and winning trainer Gai Waterhouse are certainly challenging the masculine trend. In the horseracing industry in particular, more and more women are graduating from apprentice jockey schools and qualifying as track riders, stable hands, farriers and stewards.

Despite the fact that many women are now turning their passion for horses into successful professions, not everyone takes their enthusiasm seriously.

I’m sure you’ve heard the stereotypes or seen the memes. Just look up the definition of horse girl on Urban Dictionary. Horse girls don’t care about their appearance. They spend all their time with and money on horses. They prioritise their horses over everything. They get some kind of sexual pleasure from riding horses. Spending any time sitting on a saddle will quickly dispel that ridiculous idea.

There’s a theme to all these complaints though: horse girls don’t pay enough attention to men.

When it comes to horse books, it’s true: horse girls don’t pay much attention to men. Compared to other genres, men barely feature in pony fiction at all unless it’s as an antagonist or, conveniently, as a veterinarian for a father. Most pony fiction passes the Bechdel test in the first couple of pages. There’s no need for a knight in shining armour to arrive to save the day; girls are their own heroes riding their own wild steeds. There’s also very rarely any romantic storylines because the emotional tension of a girl building a relationship with her pony is often more than enough to propel the story along.

In almost all of these books, in order to get, keep and build relationships with their ponies, girls must learn both physical and emotional skills. They communicate, problem-solve, set goals and work towards them. They persevere in the face of adversity. The girls in these books work hard and they are rewarded for that hard work with a better relationship with their pony.

Although they aren’t branded as feminist books, pony fiction is laden with messages that girls can be independent, resourceful, resilient and courageous. These books teach readers that problems can be solved with empathy, imagination and dedication.

Despite the clear influence of feminism in pony fiction, the genre is often scorned. In their book You’re a Brick, Angela!: The Girls’ Story 1839-1985, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig wrote:

It is difficult for the uncommitted reader to dissociate any pony book from the      absurd, exasperating connotations which the genre has acquired.

Jenny Kendrick writes that many academics have tried to psychoanalyse why girls are interested in stories about ponies, including eyebrow-raising ideas about a feminine need to be dominated, to be maternal and to be caregivers.

Honestly, it ultimately doesn’t matter why anyone is interested in pony fiction. Like any genre, horse books have just as much potential for quick plots, intense relationships and beautiful writing. It doesn’t matter if they’re not Stella Prize winners though, longitudinal studies have found that kids who read frequently for pleasure, no matter the book, have better outcomes for vocabulary, spelling and even maths.

So if your child picks out a horse book, maybe try to curb the eye-rolling. Between those pages your kid might find some great feminist values, some new literacy-boosting vocabulary and some incredible adventures.

Besides, pony books are much, much cheaper than real ponies.

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…My instructor tells me that we’re going to do some cantering next. I feel a jolt of anxiety but choke it down and coax Trixie into her characteristic slow, reluctant trot. I post uncomfortably for a few strides, guiding her around the corners with my knees because her mouth is so hard from years of young kids yanking on the reins. Eventually I gather my focus, sit deep in the saddle and tap Trixie’s sides with my heels. She settles into a canter like a spell has been cast. She has the most beautiful canter and for a few laps around the yard it’s like my pony has grown wings. We glide together and finally, finally we’re a team.

Photo by Cristy Zinn on Unsplash
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Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges

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