My Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books

Fledge flying horse The Magician's Nephew

When I blogged about my top 10 animals in children’s fiction back in September I promised to follow up with my favourite horse characters, because I felt they deserved a list of their own. Finally, here it is.

I was a sucker for a pony story as a child, and I read anything I could find in my local library with a horse on the cover or a hint of one in the title. I must have consumed a lot of rubbish about gymkhanas and curry combs and five-barred-gates which I have completely forgotten now. Looking at my choices of rather more classic books below, I realise they are all highly dramatic, and highly romantic – even, at a pinch – the Thelwell ponies, who are the objects of their girl-riders’ romantic affections.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877). I blogged about this book here and here. Beauty is beautiful (natch) in looks and temperament, honest, ill-used, and eloquent in this, his ‘Autobiography Of A Horse’. He is the template against which all other fictional horses – and many human heroes and heroines – are measured. And fall a little short.

2. Thelwell ponies – any of the cartoon ponies created by the (somewhat reluctant) Norman Thelwell. They are the complete antidote to all the other noble equines here. Thelwell ponies are short, fat, hairy, stubborn, lazy, and selfish, and not even very good at natural horsey skills. Unless by natural horsey skills we mean kicking, bucking, shying, braking suddenly, and foraging in hedges. Yet they are still adored by their owners and riders, and readers of the little books like A Leg At Each Corner (1961). The nearest I could get to having a bloody-minded little Merrylegs of my own.

The Silver Brumby by Elynne Mitchell

3. Thowra in The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1958). Thowra is a wild Australian horse whose pale colour marks him out to other horses and to threatening humans, so already as a colt he has the makings of a persecuted hero. I loved Mitchell’s tale, told from the horses’ point of view without anthropomorphising them. A story firmly rooted in the natural world and using Thowra’s knowledge of it, so yet another strand that appealed to me as a child – and still does.

4. Flicka in My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara (1941). I watched loads of Westerns as a child. Cowboy films and TV series seemed to be the common dramatic staple then, just as cop/crime shows are now. My Friend Flicka, set on a Wyoming ranch, fulfilled my love of all things outdoorsy while I lay on the sofa with my nose in a book! It has the best ingredients: our sympathetic attraction to the underdog (the least favourite son, the filly that isn’t wanted), family rivalry and injustice, learning, love and loyalty. It also features serious injury, life-threatening illness and gruesome details, all of which seemed totally necessary to many of the books I relished, and were seen as perfectly suitable – nay, classic – material for child-readers!

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara

5. Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis (1955). Which takes us almost back to Black Beauty, since Strawberry is an overworked cab-horse in Victorian London when he gets whisked by magic to the Wood Between the Worlds and into Narnia as it is created. There Strawberry makes the ultimate transformation into Fledge, not only a flying horse, but a talking one as well. As Fledge he becomes the first in line of all the flying horses of Narnia. I loved the idea of a knackered old working horse finding his youthful strength again, blossoming into a mythical beast, and, as Beauty never could, gaining the capacity to tell humans the truth.

Flambards by K M Peyton OUPI’d also like to give an honourable mention to the horses in the Flambards books by K M Peyton, although by the time I discovered these I was more interested in the budding romance between the human characters than the horse-riding stuff. The beautiful, romantic, but accurate equine illustrations by the amazing Victor Ambrus really added to the delight.

And to The Pie in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935). This is another novel of transformation, and bears almost no resemblance to the famous film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as plain little slaughter-houseman’s daughter Velvet.

Lastly, though it is definitely not a book for children, Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000) is a wonder. A huge book about the American racing community, it tells parallel stories of jockeys, trainers, breeders, owners, grooms, various hangers-on – plus a dog and several horses! The amazing foal who might become a star, and the experienced old nag who is more than he seems. I have never, ever read anyone who creates the truly alien perceptions of an animal so persuasively before. The heart-wrenching powerlessness of the horses as they inevitably change hands, even on the way up in value, let alone on the way down, takes me right back to where I started, with Black Beauty.

Strawberry into Fledge, The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis


Dumb Animals – Black Beauty revisited (2)

Black Beauty The Autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell book

‘We call them dumb animals and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.’

Spoilers throughout!

Well, it didn’t end quite as I remembered. It ended well, for Beauty at least, but not as neatly as in my imagination -reunited with Merrylegs in the vicarage paddock. Black Beauty was not such an emotional story, either, only to be read through a veil of tears, though it certainly has its moments. Although Beauty suffers, the amount of time he spends with good – or good-ish – owners rather than bad ones is much higher than I thought!

As a child, after the first reading, once I knew about Ginger’s tragic fate, this was always the lowest, saddest part in the story which I approached with dread and a big lump in my throat. Yet this episode, which loomed so large, lasted barely two sides of a page. After one brief conversation with Ginger on the cab rank, Beauty isn’t even sure it is Ginger he later sees lying in the cart. ‘I believe it was Ginger. I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over.’ Gulp!

My first tears came when Beauty is parted from his second home and the kind coachman, John Manly: ‘I held my face close to him, for that was all I could do to say goodbye: and then he was gone, and I have never seen him since.’ This briefly-described image felt so powerful. It embodies so much of the wonderful bond that can exist between domesticated animals and humans and the wordless communication we understand so well.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

It’s the compassion and wisdom of humans that keeps the horses from trouble, because they are dumb animals. Beauty can’t tell his driver when he has a crippling stone in his hoof and the driver fails to notice. He can’t say he’s cold and shivering after a long hard day, or thirsty, if whoever is meant to take care of him is lazy or ignorant or just absent. Anna Sewell has to say all this for him, to the readers, educating them along the way. All animals – including humans, I would add – communicate through behaviour, but that behaviour has to be understood and not dismissed, and that’s part of her lesson. At first Ginger protests through bad behaviour but that doesn’t serve her well. ‘Men are stronger, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end.’

Beauty’s progress is one of regular partings and losses, with the horse in no control over any of it. His mother Duchess tells him, ‘A horse never knows who may buy him or who may drive him. It is all chance for us.’ On finding out that a horse he saw killed in a hunt was his half-brother, Beauty reflects, ‘It seems that horses have no relations. At least they never know each other, after they are sold.’

black beauty Anna Sewell

It was on this re-reading that the troubling parallel with slavery kept coming to mind, which never occurred to me as a child. I was too wrapped up in the story of beautiful, noble, helpless horses to imagine that humans were treated in a similar way. Perhaps back then I knew little about the details of slavery. But the themes of power and ownership versus powerlessness and voicelessness, being bred for work and sold away once old enough to be useful, of being treated like machines with no thought of what was going on inside the creature, of monetary value based on strength and health, kept reinforcing this.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

Of course Sewell doesn’t think in terms of animal rights; or even the possible rights of workers like the downtrodden rental cab-men, stuck in a vicious circle of debt and overwork, harsh masters and cheating customers – she knows it’s a bad situation but having shown great understanding says, through the Governor at the cab-rank, ‘but who’s to mend it I don’t know.’ People – and horses – right at the bottom of the heap disappear from the story into destitution and death. Like many a Victorian campaigner, she’s against the evils of drink, and she even has a chapter on elections, which are ‘a serious business’, not to be approached in an atmosphere of foolish drunkenness, bribery, and bullying. But Sewell is firmly lodged in the paternalistic world where all good deeds are in the gift of good masters, or those with a conscience, and she can only try to educate those who aren’t so enlightened.

black beauty by Anna Sewell vintage book cover

There is one scene which I fondly imagine is Anna Sewell herself, reasoning with the carter who overloads Beauty and keeps him on a bearing rein so that he can’t throw his weight into pulling the load. The anonymous lady proves her theory by demonstration, treats the man with respect and thanks him for trying out her plan. This is a modest lesson in how to win people over, at least temporarily. As a child I learned a lot about horse care from Black Beauty, although I was never lucky enough to own a horse to try it out on! I don’t remember all the other moral lessons at all, but I suppose I must have taken them in.

In old age Beauty comes to a place of safety where he will never be sold again ‘and so I have nothing to fear…My troubles are over and I am at home.’ Which is probably all that any of us might ask.

black beauty Anna Sewell

‘Black Beauty’ revisited (1)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

In preparation for drawing up the list of my Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books, I am reading Black Beauty. It was one of my best-loved books as a child yet I hadn’t picked it up since. I must have owned a copy as I read it a number of times but I have absolutely no memory of what the book looked like, whether it was hardback or paperback, of jumble-sale origin or brand-new.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

This time round I’ve bought a secondhand copy as the covers of new ones I found in bookshops came nowhere near what my idea of Beauty ought to look like. (The ones I’ve included here are ones I do approve of!) As a classic book, long out of copyright, there are lots of editions available with variable cover images. Some make Beauty look handsome and noble (correct). Others are frankly naff, the artwork apparently based on a plastic toy animal rather than a living, breathing horse. One audio version cover makes Beauty more like a plump cartoon pig than well-bred horseflesh!

It is hard now to imagine a world as full of horses as ours is full of cars. They were ridden or driven as transport, pulled everything from smart carriages to ploughs, omnibuses to hearses, were used for pleasure riding, and as pets-cum-playthings and teaching aids for children. We understand that cars are owned and run by experts and enthusiasts, by those who just use them to get from A to B but take reasonable care of them, and by people who don’t know what goes on under the bonnet or how to drive sensibly or safely. And, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, it was just the same with horses. But horses are sentient beings and herd animals, not machines.

horse-drawn vehicles traffic jam

I now know that Black Beauty was written as a kind of 19th century best-practice guide to horse care rather than a pony story for children, which was how it was presented to me. Anna Sewell was concerned about the ill-treatment of horses, through ignorance, arrogance, and thoughtlessness as much as through deliberate cruelty or neglect. This is the only book she ever wrote and she frequently strikes a practical rather than a romantic note, trying to appeal to common sense, and even economy, if entreating compassion won’t wash. One of her lessons is that if you treat a horse well and don’t overwork it, you will get better service and more years out of it. She obviously understands the different conditions that must prevail in settings like livery stables – the hire-car outlet of its day – and cab ranks, grand country houses with designer stable blocks, and pleasant vicarage meadows. Some of the difference is down to sheer economic necessity, but not all. Some is due to the temperament of the owners and workers. Sewell seems to me a keen observer of human nature, even if her humans tend to embody types she wants to show us rather than 3-dimensional characters.

horse-drawn Victorian Hansom cab

Black Beauty is a short book and I am only a quarter of the way through – nothing too dreadful has happened to Beauty yet. But on this reading I can see that each chapter presents a small moral and/or practical lesson: how – and why – to break a horse in gently and slowly; how to get it used to traffic and trains; why bad habits like biting and kicking are a result of bad treatment; even how to find out the true character of an employee in a subtle way.

But as a child I just consumed Beauty’s narrative, even if on re-readings I knew that it was all going to go horribly wrong before it came right again. I think it’s where I first appreciated that there was a narrative arc to a story – for example, from riches to rags to riches again – or in Beauty’s case from bran mash to beatings and back. The book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of a Horse and it’s told in the first person (or first horse) by Beauty himself. I had forgotten this. I wonder if it was the first novel to be narrated by an animal? I’d also forgotten that Beauty (!) is male, and that poor put-upon, biter and kicker Ginger is female.

I know that Beauty, like a long-lost childhood sweetheart, has got to be top of my list. I just had to check him out first. More about Black Beauty later…

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell book cover design