To say that the Woodbury Pony Club are a bit hopeless would be an understatement. They exist only to give the neighbouring pony clubs somebody to thrash in the local competitions. Now things have gone from bad to worse, as their District Commissioner (DC), Mrs Smythe, has resigned, leaving the club to be run by one good instructor, one rather bad tempered one, and a succession of working pupils from the local stable.
The real problem in the senior ride, however, lies with the riders and their ponies. The Woodbury boasts only two riders with any chance in competitions. James Morgan may be competent, but that's because his horse, Ferdinand, has been schooled by his mother. Jennifer Blacker, too, is a decent rider, but she's impatient, desperate to transfer to the superstar Cranford Vale team and unwilling to wait until the Woodbury improves.
Then come the no-hopers. The Wheeler family's two oldest members, Rupert and Lizzie, have just been given new ponies with bad habits. Their younger sister, Nettie, has better luck - she has taken over Rupert's outgrown and well-schooled Tristram. The Roberts siblings, Lynne and Paul, don't pay enough attention to improve their riding, while the Rooke sisters, Lesley and Sarah, are too busy being at each other's throats to be much use. Tina Spencer has a lot of experience working at the stables, but she has no pony, and so is useless in competitions.
With barely enough riders accomplished enough to make it through a riding lesson without someone falling off, being kicked, or bolting out of the school, even the Woodbury members have written themselves off.
Then the Woodbury gets some newcomers: Hanif, on his powerful but uncontrollable Jupiter, and Alice, on her hired pony Saffron. Most importantly though, they get a new DC: David Lumley, an ex-steeplechaser who was badly mangled in a racing accident. Initially unimpressed by having "a smashed up jockey" as their instructor, the Woodbury Pony Club are surprised to find themselves eager to impress their firm but fair DC, and as they apply themselves, David realises that there may be some potential in the hapless group of children he's in charge of.
The Woodbury series was written by Josephine Pullein-Thompson, one of a trio of sisters well-known for their Pony Tale stories. Published between 1983 and 1985, they are notable for being relatively equal-opportunity for the genre: while most pony tales feature predominantly white, middle class females from nuclear families, Woodbury features both boys and girls, children whose parents are divorced (or deceased) and one character originally from Pakistan.
The Woodbury series is a trilogy, featuring (in chronological order):
- Pony Club Cup
- Pony Club Challenge
- Pony Club Trek
The Woodbury series features examples of the following tropes:
- The Ace: James and Jennifer starts out as the closest thing the Woodbury has to this. After Jennifer leaves, James is still seen as the oldest and the trailblazer; however, as the others improve, Alice becomes the best all-rounder, Hanif the best cross-country rider, and Lesley the best dressage rider.
- Always Someone Better: Cranford Vale, the top pony club in the district. Even after his pony club improve in leaps and bounds, David cheerfully admits that the Woodbury are unlikely to win against the Cranford Vale in interbranch events, at least not until "you're all sixteen and the owners of large horses."
- Birds of a Feather: Most of the rider-pony pairs. Generally, this makes their problems worse until their weaknesses are addressed.
- Oliver cheerfully sums up his siblings: "Rupert and Rosie are both a bit dozy; Ra and Liz are both in a tiz." He's right — Rupert and Rosie both have wandering attention spans, but hidden talents, while Lizzie and Rajah are both overcautious, but are also hard working and thoughtful.
- Both the third Wheeler child, Nettie, and her pony Tristram are happy, versatile and confident.
- Lesley Rooke and Stardust lack confidence, but are quietly hardworking specialists.
- Alice and Saffron are good natured all rounders. It's implied that they're both glad of each other's company after a long period of loneliness.
- James and Ferdinand are both serious and responsible. Ferdie is also the biggest horse, just as James is the oldest rider.
- Blind Without 'Em: Lesley is extremely shortsighted without her glasses.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Mentioned but averted. Several of the children briefly consider confronting the adults on perceived slights, and several members of the club want to defend Lesley when Mrs. Rooke puts her down. Most significantly, in Pony Club Trek, after Sarah ignores and strays from the other riders on the trek, Seb resolves to tell Sarah's mother how horrible Sarah is, and why Mrs. Rooke shouldn't constantly spoil her. Lesley, resigned, just tells him he'd be wasting his breath.
- Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Despite their mixed results with their schooling, the Woodbury kids are generally sensible and responsible. The one time that they aren't results in two air pistols been stolen and used to attack foals at a nearby stud, almost leading David to disband the pony club.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Rupert Wheeler, often described as "dreamy" (in the "daydreamer" sense of the word, not the "attractive" sense). The fact that Rosie, his pony, also has her head in the clouds half the time just makes things worse. They frequently get lost in a town that they've lived in for years, and it doesn't get any better when they're on a cross-country course (or, in Pony Club Challenge, a cross-country footrace).
- Free-Range Children: When David's not keeping an eye on them, the pony club are usually wandering around with each other or their horses. They do live in a very quiet, rural area, and siblings tend to stick together (the two siblings that hate each other, the Rookes, are seldom seen without David or their mother around). In the case of Alice and Hanif, who have no siblings, they stick together as a pair.
- Pony Club Challenge takes a look at the consequences of this — a major incident in the book comes down to the children taking this freedom for granted, and not making sure an adult is around when they really need one.
- The Gadfly: When he's not zoned out, Rupert can't resist annoying people, especially super-serious James and easy-to-rile Lesley.
- Happily Adopted: Hanif, more or less. His stepfather is pushy, and Hanif wishes he wasn't so preoccupied with his new stepson's sporting prowess (or lack thereof), but he is enthusiastic, supportive, and thrilled at Hanif's accomplishments, as well as being Happily Married to Hanif's mum.
- Hidden Depths: Almost everyone, pony and rider alike. Hanif initially seems to lack courage, but once he learns how to manage Jupiter he takes his pony's reckless antics in stride. Alice goes from an insecure outsider to one of the best riders in the club, while her pony, Saffron, goes from a stargazing "lunatic pony" to one of the most accomplished of the horses. Grumpy Lesley turns out to have a talent for dressage. The only human characters who never change are Netti (talented and pleasant throughout), James (always responsible) and Sarah (always horrible).
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Mostly averted with David. He's still coming to terms with his injuries and what they cost him — including his career, his girlfriend, his ability to ride and his mobility on the ground. Even though he's shown as frustrated and depressed, though, he still pulls himself together enough to manage his pony club and his farm.
- Opposites Attract: Some of the rider-pony pairs. However, until David sorts them out, it's usually a source of problems:
- Cheerful, affectionate Lynne rides bad-tempered and prone-to-kicking mare, Berry.
- Underconfident, cautious Hanif rides powerful and reckless Jupiter.
- Selfish, histrionic Sarah rides the calm and faithful Chess.
- Cheeky, careless Oliver rides the reliable, sensible Hobbit.
- Parental Abandonment: Alice's globetrotting parents died in a plane crash. Sebastian's mum and dad separated, and he lives with his dad. We don't know whether Tina and Hanif's dads died or divorced their mothers, but, either way, their mothers remarry before or during the series.
- Parental Favoritism: Mrs. Rooke strongly favours her Spoiled Brat younger daughter, Sarah, over sullen but diligent Lesley. Although we don't see much of their youngest brother, Julian, Netti notes that he is equally doted upon, with Mrs Rooke waxing lyrical on his mathematical genius. Alice notes that that makes Lesley the only one she doesn't like; Netti agrees, and adds that it's horribly unfair.
- Pony Tale: Written by an author who was famous for them, as well as belonging to the genre itself.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Woodbury pony club, whose members all have different strengths...but also different bad habits.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: The Roberts siblings. Paul is fairly serious, loves jumping and hates pony care, while big sister Lynne is cheerful, loves pony care and is one of the least accomplished riders. As a result, Paul's pony Banjo has terrible sweet-itch and is often scruffy, but does well in shows, while Lynne's Berry is always beautifully turned out, but does badly in competitions. By the end of the series however, Lynne has realised her own potential, and David is trying to talk her parents into buying her a pony that she can train properly.
- Society Marches On: Portrays a very particular rural lifestyle that is much rarer now. Computers are nearly unheard of, the characters have to ride miles in search of a phonebox, fashion and makeup aren't even mentioned and the children have a level of freedom that would freak out most modern parents. Riding rules and methods have changed since the 1980s, with some of the characters wearing crash caps without chinstraps (now required to meet safety standards). Even David's methods of teaching may be viewed as dangerous by modern riding schools.
- Pony Club Challenge features air pistols and mentions gun laws in the UK. These have been made even stricter since then.
- Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Strongly indicated to be the case with Lesley. It's hard to tell if her un-favourite status is a result of her sour demeanour, or the cause of it. Either way, when she explodes at Sarah, her frustration is clear, and she's genuinely stunned when David or the Pony Club members praise her or help her.
- Spoiled Brat: Sarah Rooke. She is bought two top-of-the-line ponies, Bowie and Sparkler, and allowed to keep her first pony Chess as well, a luxury not extended to her big sister, Lesley. When the ham-fisted and arrogant Sarah fails to achieve anything with either Bowie or Sparkler, it's blamed on the pony rather than Sarah's bad temper and arrogance, and Mrs Rooke sinply resolves to buy her little darling a better pony. As Lesley says, there is no convincing Mrs. Rooke that Sarah was the one at fault.
- Tagalong Kid: Oliver Wheeler, the youngest Wheeler sibling. He's technically in the junior ride, but manages to wheedle his way into the activities of his brother and sisters, especially since big sister Lizzie looks after him.
- Team Mom: Lizzie Wheeler. Perpetually flustered and anxious, she's also kind and responsible.
- Token Minority: Hanif, who's Pakistani.
- The Un Favourite: Lesley Rooke is a depressingly believable example. She's not abused or actively tormented, she's just generally ignored by her mother, undermined in public and, whatever she does, her little sister Sarah can always do it better.