Talking on Behalf of Horses


I’ve been thinking lately about horses and ventriloquy.

I want to write something about the talking horses of literature, from Houyhnhnms to Dick, the Little Poney, Tolstoy’s Kholstomer and Black Beauty. Why do so many authors want to give a voice to horses? What do we use them to say about horses, humans and the world at large? How has this changed over time and in different cultures?

In recent decades horsemen and -women have moved from ventriloquy to claiming that they are directly interpreting the horse’s true tongue: its body language. Many schools of thought offer interpretations of tail swishing, ear flicking and herd hierarchy, often promising training methods that are “natural” and will allow you to “communicate in your horse’s own language”. “Understanding your horse” is the key to harmony in these systems, and you are promised that you will be able to “talk” directly back to your horse and get him to do what you want without confusion.

Lately I’ve wondered if these new interpreters aren’t just the latest generation of ventriloquists, however well meaning. We can, after all, only guess at the real language of horses, as, like a dog’s sense of smell, it probably contains subtleties far beyond our ken. What if we are just projecting human interpretations onto horses all over again? That’s why I’m fascinated by this piece offering a scientific interpretation of Horse Whispering by Dr Antonia J Z Henderson ( It will read as blasphemy to some, but it’s thought-provoking in the best sense. It never hurts to question orthodoxy, even when that orthodoxy has benevolent intentions.

Saddle Up For A Classic Pony Book Spring

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Fidra Books of Edinburgh have recommenced rolling out their new editions of Ruby Ferguson’s Jill series with book three, Jill Has Two Ponies. This is the original text, without any politically correct snips or sections removed because long books might bore the modern kiddo. They also feature facsimiles of the wonderful 1950s illustrations by Caney. Fidra’s Facebook page is here, and their home page for the Jill series is here, with sample chapters galore. If you think you’ve outgrown Jill, think on – rereading them as a grown up left me in peals of laughter. Ferguson added some gentle satire to the standard pony book mix, and Jill has the wickedest comments to make on sappy girls and other idiots.

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Look out, too, for Jane Badger’s forthcoming book, Heroines on Horseback: The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction. It tells you the stories behind not just the great authors of the genre – Pullein Thompson, Leitch, Gervaise, Ferguson, Peyton, Edwards, Cumming et al – but also the artists who brought life to their words. Jane collects and sells pony books and her website has long been a go-to resource for all things gymkhana. It’s definitive and chockful of illustrations from your childhood, helping you sort your Silver Snaffles from your Six Ponies. My wee disclaimer: I contributed a short piece on my love for the Pullein-Thompsons’ Black Beauty’s Clan series.

Talking Horses: Ponies Plot

Talking Horses is a series of extracts from novels, poems and short stories both classic and obscure that feature fictional horses who enter into the conversation.

Ponies Plot is a 1965 curio by the British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson. Curious because it sends up the classic pony book delightfully. It tells the story of a riding school on the verge of closing, where the ponies conspire to end up with the right kind of little girl who will cater to their whims – as you’ll see from the cover, it’s most definitely the ponies who are on top here. As the preface explains, “This … is a book about children, written for ponies.” In this extract, the ponies are gathered in their field and discussing ways to get themselves thrown out of the riding school. The oldest, Smokey, takes them all to task:

“You youngsters don’t see what the problem is. It is not enough to be unwanted here. You have first to find the girl you want and a home you would prefer. You must learn to look ahead! Decide, first of all, what it is you want.”
“Well,” said Skylark, “I should choose a girl of about nine, standing about fifteen hooves and weighing not more than four stone twleve pounds.”
“Or less,” said Dunblane quickly.
“She should have a snub nose,” said Brighty in a dreamy way, “with fair or red hair – yes, and freckles –”
“Freckles, yes,” agreed Skylark. “But a brunette can be all right too, so long as her back is straight and her legs are long.”
“I actually prefer a brunette with straight hair,” said Spice. “But she needs to be dependable, generous and kind, nicely mannered and reasonably intelligent.”
“Not too confident or rash,” suggested Dunblane.
“But with at least three years’ experience,” said Unbeatable.
“All right!” grunted Smokey. “Those are the Points we look for in the child. But what about her family and background?”
“She should have a prosperous father,” Unbeatable replied, “a doting mother – both reasy to help out in the stables. Yes, and two younger sisters aged five and one.”
“And what about brothers?”
“Only one, I think,” said Unbeatable. “Well-behaved and useful with apples.”

Talking Horses: Dick the Little Poney

Talking Horses is a series of extracts from novels, poems and short stories both classic and obscure that feature fictional horses who enter into the conversation.



The Memoirs of Dick, the little poney, supposed to be written by himself (1799) by Anon.

Why I was called Dick, I know not. The appellation was given me when in the society of the vagrants, who principally bred me up; and it was transferred and continued to each successive owner. After being so long accustomed to comparative solitude, judge what was my surprise, at being introduced into the society of some hundreds of my species, in the middle of a populous town. Their neighings, or rather their lamentations, for the loss of their former associates; the barking of dogs; the hum of business, and the swearing of dealers, quite confounded me and, for a time I fancied myself transported into another world. By degrees, however, I recovered myself a little, to attend to the novel scene ; and, indeed, I was not long permitted to indulge in my reverie. The master gypsey, who held me in a halter, was desired by several persons to walk me out; he was then asked my price ; but as I have before avowed my complete ignorance of the mysteries of monied transactions, as they are called, I can give no explanation of the terms that were used. I only recollect that seven guineas were asked for me, and five repeatedly bidden.

At last a gentleman, not a common dealer, came up, made many inquiries if I had been broke, and how I carried, what paces I went, if I was very quiet, and many interrogatories of similar import, all which were answered in the most positive manner, to give him satisfaction ; though I afterwards knew to my cost, that half of my pretended qualities were, at that time, absolutely false. Indeed my heart misgave me when I heard terms used to which I had been unaccustomed. I began to suspect that new calamities awaited me.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Ponies: the fatter they are, the naughtier they be. Thelwell proved correct by science.

Cheap gelding clinics are becoming a reality in the US. Here’s one in California.

Jane Smiley on National Velvet.

A fell pony riding holiday in Lancashire.

A swimming race for horses that commemorates a Venezuelan battle of 1819.

A wild stallion in Arizona rescues a filly who’s being swept away in a flood-swollen river.

If Wishes Were Horses: Gymkhana

Jill’s Gymkhana was recently reissued by Fidra Books in Scotland.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

If Wishes Were Horses: Horsemanship

Illustration from Dick, the Memoirs of a Little Poney

Balthasar Carlos, as painted by Velázquez.

A modern rendering of Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury, featuring Cate Blanchett and a very pretty palfrey.

Marie Antoinette rides astride, dashing in leopardskin and yellow silk, and Catherine the Great eschews a side-saddle for another equestrian portrait.

If you can’t resist the chance to read Dick: The Memoirs of a Little Poney, Supposed to be Written by Himself, Internet Archive has a facsimile here. Sadly I already have an erratum to report: the author is anonymous, and not, as I’d somehow misread, Arabella Argus.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.