“How lovely! If Wishes Were Horses brought back all my childhood obsessions about ponies; all one’s old friends are there: Enid Bagnold, the Pullein-Thompsons, Golden Gorse, Joanna Cannan and the visit to Redwings. Susanna Forrest has done a fantastic job. She really loves and knows her horses.”
and from Carnegie Medal Winner, K M Peyton:
“I adored this book. All aspects of the horse and pony – historical, current, personal, obsessive, beautifully written. The wonderful chapter on riding Tav through the Norfolk countryside . . . I was on Tav, quite tired when I dismounted. It took me back. Gorgeous.”
Were you “pony mad but ponyless”? Did you want to be Jill, Velvet, Jinny or Jackie? Have you ever galloped without a horse or worked out elaborate schemes for keeping a shetland in your shed? Do you cry over adverts for horse rescues and get weepy when they Grand National theme music starts up?
If Wishes Were Horses is a memoir of my own unabashed horse-craziness but also an eclectic and eccentric history of girls and horses from Lascaux to My Little Pony. It’s about the way that our attitudes to women, children and horses have changed over the centuries and how those strands all came together in the twentieth-century pony craze which was discussed and debated by thinkers from Anna Freud to Germaine Greer. It’s also about the ways we use our imagination, and how we all try to make the leap from childhood to adulthood without losing the best of ourselves.
On the way I came across princesses, recovering crack addicts, courtesans, warriors, pink-obsessed schoolgirls, national heroines and runaways. I re-read Black Beauty, Patricia Leitch’s Jinny and Shantih novels, Moorland Mousie, Jill’s Gymkhana and nineteenth-century side-saddle manuals. I made the acquaintance of a groom who worshipped an ancient Celtic pony goddess with Budweiser and hippomanes, and an Australian “pony girl” who only felt at peace when she was galloping free in a meadow dressed in a PVC cat-suit with a horse-hair tail. The book also features a teenager from one of the most deprived areas in London who journeys across the city every weekend to groom and muck out, and says she wants to ride racehorses. I talked to a fragile and fierce old lady who carried a knitting bag full of painkillers for her old riding injuries and who told me that death out hunting would be “a lovely way to go,” and tracked down the backup team of the 1950s superstar showjumper, Pat Smythe.
The book looks at fear and romance, sex, stereotypes and hero worship. It exposes the myth that horses are, as one girl put it, “just for the rich”, and makes the case for what a horsey childhood – whether it’s in the Norfolk countryside or a council estate in Brixton – can still do for twenty-first century children, for, as Muriel Wace or “Golden Gorse” wrote in The Young Rider in 1928, “A child who is happy on his pony’s back has something which will be to him a glorious memory that the years cannot dim.”
This post contains links to a further series of posts on each chapter of the book. If you want to know what some of the Berlin street art looks like, see Norris working in the round pen at Redwings, try to guess what Tav’s breed was, or suck your teeth in horror at some of the health and safety offences of my earlier years, you’ll find it here. I’ve added slideshows of photos of some of the people and horses and places in each chapter and you should also feel free to ask any questions in the comments section and I will do my best to answer! Please do also request more links or sources for things that made you curious. The book has a pretty extensive bibliography but that doesn’t tell you exactly where to find the original material. I’ve also included corrections, links and a few out takes from earlier drafts. Have fun!
- The Trail – Berlin street art, Dusky, Dobbin and childhood.
- Hunters and Amazons – early horse domestication and artwork, Pazyryks and the Steppes.
- Back to School – I try to ride after an eleven year gap.
- Gymkhana – Jill and other girls.
- Ladies – in which sexism starts to get in the way and dancing with ponies is frowned upon.
- Costessey – starting with California, heading to Norfolk.
- Greenacres – Grantham.
- Horsemanship – queens, dukes and a little poney.
- Mary Breese – an old Norfolk huntress.
- Gräfin – the beautiful sea monster.
- Jeunes Filles Bien Elevées – girls and women and horses in the nineteenth century.
- Saving Beauty – the history of horse rescue and the survivors of Spindles’ Farm.
- Diminutive Dianas – the early twentieth century.
- Young Riders – the golden age of girls and ponies, 1930 to the 1960s.
- Lost Heroines – the wonderful Pat Smythe.
- Housework – Cringleford Riding School and the joys of mucking out.
- The Horse That Only I Could Ride – imaginary horses, ponyplay and shamanism.
- Nerve – and losing it.
- The Red Horse and the White Mare – Epona, Patricia Leitch, Jinny and Shantih.
- Tav – riding in Costessey and Ringland on the wise Mactavish.
- The Beast – it’s not all about sex.
- Love – Frossarbo and romance.
- Ambition – reaching the top.
- Fear – being afraid of the thing you love.
- Pursuit – another old Norfolk huntress reminisces.
- Safety – health and safety and the horseworld.
- Growing Up – teenage years and beyond to horse-crazy adulthood?
- March of the Pink Hooves – My Little Pony, Olympia and the dilemmas facing today’s equestriennes.
- Lost Boys – what happened to all the pony-mad boys?
- The 30mph Pony – pony racing with Days of Thunder.
- Eponalia – rites and Berlin’s wall art.
- Posh – hanging out with the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton.
- Kassane – riding in Brandenburg with Sabine Zuckmantel’s gang.