Back in the day, horses were for men. Gentry cavorted about the countryside on hunters, often in pursuit of some hapless fox; farmers in the pre-tractor days worked the soil with teams of draft horses; and The Wild West hero would be only half a man without his trusty hoss. While women did ride (and drive), this was taken to be a mark of how gentle and tame the horses were: only a Man could control a genuinely spirited and powerful animal.
Around the 1930s and 1940s, however, something changed. The "horsy girl" was created, and the Pony Tale was born. Mainly seen as a British genre — and more often than not, featuring an English setting — the story is only nominally about the pony. The real plot is about the Character Development of the protagonist (almost Always Female) via equestrianism.
The basic Pony Tale begins with a very specific type of heroine. Usually a misfit, or socially displaced in some way, she happens across a horse, or a riding school, or some experienced riders out for a gallop. Enchanted, she resolves to become a rider herself. After circumstances (however contrived) grant her a horse, the story follows her progress as an equestrian, with lovingly detailed descriptions of horse care, competitions and the technical aspects of riding along the way.
Our heroine makes no attempt to be "feminine." She doesn't put on make-up. She hates having to wear a dress when Great Auntie Gladys comes to visit. School is an evil institution whose sole purpose is to keep her out of the stable; she never has a large social circle, and she's usually either Book Dumb or smart but unmotivated. Her lack of interest extends to the opposite sex; about the only time she'll notice a boy is when he's got a pony with him. Oddly enough, on the rare occasion the hero is a young man, he'll be depicted as too sensitive or "feminine" to fit in with the other boys — a daydreamer, for example, or a Non-Action Guy in a world of athletes.
The Pony Tale doesn't strive for originality. This is an extremely formulaic genre, with stock plots, stock plot twists, stock characters (including stock horse characters, no pun intended), and a set of stock tropes.
Typical plot elements
- The heroine finds her dream horse, but must overcome obstacles (he's too expensive to buy, she lives in the city, he's sickly and will need constant nursing) in order to turn him into the champion she knows he can be.
- People still have difficulty believing that a mere girl can control a horse.
- Her parents object to her interest, claiming it is just a phase or that it takes up too much of her study time.
- Someone else claims ownership of the heroine's horse, saying that it was stolen/lost; the heroine frets over losing her beloved pony.
- A gymkhana, horse show or other event is forthcoming, and the heroine is determined to win at least one of the classes.
- After the inevitable triumph in the event, some event arises to prevent or delay future competition (the horse suffers a crippling injury; the mare is discovered to be pregnant).
- The stables' resident Alpha Bitch insults the heroine and/or challenges her to a contest.
- The heroine moves from the city to a farm with land enough for a horse but no horse, or the horse she has is intractable and impossible to ride.
- The heroine gets a new horse and neglects her old pony, which falls ill as a result.
- A horse dies, is sold or otherwise leaves the stables, and the heroine has to cope with the loss.
- The heroine becomes the special human of an "impossible" horse: earns the trust of a traumatised (or unhandled) horse, figures out the strength of the pariah pony of the stable, etc.
- Heroine: Always Good - Anti-Hero protagonists are virtually unheard of. Combine elements from Tomboy, Plucky Girl, Determinator (especially when it's a horse-in-danger plot)
- She may also be Socially Awkward Hero who is only comfortable when in her horsey element or one who develops confidence through riding.
- Authority figures
- Stable owner or riding teacher: usually a Reasonable Authority Figure. If female, she is either a widow or never married. If male, he is much older and in a clearly-defined professional relationship with the protagonist (trainer, stable owner, groom, ex-jockey, etc.) to avoid the Unfortunate Implications of an adult man spending time alone with a tween-age girl.
- Antagonists tend to only come in two flavours:
- Alpha Bitch: Almost without exception the richest and prettiest girl around. Her horse is always a highly trained, hugely expensive "prize machine." She will generally be the technician to the heroine's performer: an experienced rider who has no true connection with her horse. To further make her unsympathetic, she will be too good (and too busy with her personal appearance) for the day-to-day barn chores of feeding, mucking stalls, or grooming her horse. Laser-Guided Karma inevitably brings her down: she fails to win the big competition, she or her horse are injured, or it comes to light that she is neglectful and careless and her reputation suffers.
- Abusive horse owners
- Otherwise, the "bad guy" in the story will most likely be the circumstances.
- Parents are always obstructive: either they don't appreciate their daughter's interest in horses pro the Acceptable Feminine Goals and Traits of school, boys, and looks, OR they are understanding and sympathetic, but cannot afford to a) buy a horse b) pay for riding lessons c) live in the city where all the riding action is anymore.
- Other characters
- There is always a loyal best friend. If human, it's likely to be a slightly better rider than the heroine and is someone to whom she aspires, or either less confident and skilled than the heroine. Either way around, they have a close, little-sister-big-sister type of relationship. In some stories, the best friend is the leading horse.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Size can be one of the obstacles, forcing the character to work even harder to win a place in the horse world. This can apply to the protagonist, her friend, or a horse.
- Cool Horse: Downplayed thanks to the call for (relative) realism, but often still present for the sake of Rule of Cool. A Cool Horse will be identified by a) spitfire personality, combined with unusual talent b) looks: it's either an unusual or pretty colour, (likely black or white; sometimes palomino or a white-maned chestnut) or it's otherwise handsome, with flowing long mane and tail (unusual thanks to complicated maintenance) and deep dark eyes that shine with intelligence c) breed (Arabian = coolest and prettiest horse around).
- White Stallion: Mostly averted, interestingly enough. While a horse can be white, and sometimes a stallion, if these two occur in the same horse, it's almost certainly out of reach for the characters. Maybe it's the stable owner's personal steed, or a champion jumper. Normal People don't get to ride him. Justified as pure white horses (even those with the common grey genetics) are rare, and handling stallions is not a task for young girls.
- Horsing Around: Horses misbehave, but this is never blamed on the horse and instead put down to current or former mistreatment. Horses in a Pony Tale never spook or shy at, say, a random bush: they save that for when they see their abusive former owner right before the big jump-off.
- Pat the Horse and Nuzzled By the Horse: A character's true nature is always determined by their attitude towards horses and by the attitude horses take toward them. In classic Pony Tales, this takes a Laser-Guided Karma flavor: the rival who doesn't care about her horse will be dumped off when he refuses a jump during the big finale, while the heroine's horse will surpass all his limits for sheer love of her.
- Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: Many classic Pony Tales make buying the horse the only major financial obstacle. They conveniently forget that keeping a horse (stable fees, fodder, vet expenses, shoeing, tack etc.) makes the initial cost look laughable in comparison.
While this genre has a lot in common with A Boy and His X, there's a twist to it, other than the obvious gender flip. The former concerns itself with achieving "manhood", whereas the Pony Tale is not (usually) concerned with achieving "womanhood." The regulars of the stables are almost genderless. Romantic plotlines are rare, and the two sexes will regard each other as equals, at least until the obligatory loudmouth declares a battle of the sexes. This is Truth In Television to a great extent: the Equestrian Sports are one of the few arenas in which the two genders compete on equal terms. The stables are a culture unto themselves, and unless they give up riding, they are the centre of the protagonist's world. This is less true in North America, as everyone over there wants to see a You Go, Girl! story about a girl triumphing where others said she couldn't.
However, this genre is extremely prone to Growing Up Sucks. Ironically, while male heroes may be few and far between, it's the men who are more likely to pursue their equestrian career past adolescence. All too often, the formerly tomboyish, independent female lead will discover boys, decide that her love of horses was just a sublimated desire to get married and have babies (bear in mind how many ponies have much in common with the Troubled, but Cute boyfriend) and quit riding altogether. Some authors avert this by ending the series/novel while the heroine is still young. It's very rare to see a highly talented female rider actually make it to the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games, or even keep her love of horses as she grows up and gets a job. A larger issue that the genre often avoids is the reality that competing a horse at the top levels of the sport is spectacularly expensive, involving animals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, thousands a year in training fees, and very little chance or earning back an income comparable to expenses. Few riders of either gender (though increasingly the top teams are evenly divided and the US has fielded show-jumping Olympic teams that were entirely female) can manage to make horses a viable full-time profession, at least in the dramatic ways expected in a Pony Tale.
The whole genre is rapidly becoming a Dead Horse Trope (no pun intended), on its British turf at least. There could be a number of factors to this, often contradictory ones. In the media age, it could be that riding is getting less popular, compared to video games and celebrity culture. On the other hand, some claim that horses are more accessible now, meaning that anyone who wants to go riding can; they don't have to rely on books for wish fulfillment. Almost certainly a factor however, is the genre's vanishing demographic; its target audience, 7- to 14-year-old girls, are increasingly being steered towards the "feminine" culture of fashion, cosmetics and boyfriends rather than the tomboyish Pony Tale heroine. However, the feminine association with horses remains. Just count how many "fashion doll" lines feature a pony range. Alternatively, a new type of horse story, aimed at a younger demographic, is emerging that features more traditionally feminine characters who can ride a horse without damaging their manicure.
Not all horse stories are Pony Tales: see below for details.
- The works written and drawn by Swedish Lena Furberg (Examples of her series), especially her longer series such as Freddie På Firefoot Farm and Stallgänget På Tuva, tend to reconstruct the classic Pony Tale conventions and avert many clichés and instances of Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: horses cost money (and a lot of it, or there will be problems), keeping horses costs a lot of money, beginners and young horses don't match well (at least without regular help from experts), etc. Many comics manage to maintain an educational undertone however.
- The Misty story "Winner Loses All" combines this with Deal with the Devil.
- British cartoonist Norman Thelwell made a living out of his Up to Eleven cartoons of ponies and the sort of girls who ride them. A typical Thelwell pony is a short fat barrel with a leg at each corner; the girls who ride them are mini-Valkyries in hard hats and jodphurs; but the situations he illustrates are based on hard experience and real life in the horsey set. Thelwell's Riding Academy might be a good start for those wanting to explore a very British world of pony girls and their best friends.
- One of the most influential Pony Tales was Ruby Ferguson's Jill series, one of the first horse books to make riding appear accessible to the general public rather than the premise of the rich. Set in classic English countryside, nowadays it features a fair bit of Values Dissonance (one of Jill's mentors is a Master of Foxhunting, a sport now banned in the United Kingdom) and language that's the 1950s equivalent of Totally Radical: "That was jolly good fun!" "Oh, super!" and the occasional "old bean".
- The Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Diana and Christine, were all highly successful Pony Tale writers. Particularly notable for giving equal page-time to boys and girls, especially Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Woodbury Pony Club series. Some of their pony stories crossed over with the children's adventure genre.
- Patricia Leitch wrote quite a few "straight" pony stories, although she's well known for subverting the tropes associated with the genre. Particularly prone to having her heroine outgrow horses and not afraid to use the odd Downer Ending. Often sets her series in Scotland rather than England.
- The Jinny series stars Jennifer Manders, a heroine more out-of-touch with reality than the traditional, well-grounded horsy heroine, perhaps because she's an artist as well as a rider. The series features some genuinely paranormal goings on, and a temperamental mare in contrast to the normally good-natured principal pony, but maintains the Pony Tale criteria of "character development through care of horses".
- The Kestrels series was written for younger readers, and although the occasional supernatural element makes an appearance, especially in form of a crystal unicorn found in the sea by the heroine, Sally, it follows the Pony Tale formula almost to the letter.
- The Saddle Club by Bonnie Bryant (although this series is known to have been written partly by ghostwriters) is an American example, and one of the most modern Pony Tales. Its one of the few pony books to combine the subculture of the stables with the wider world; its three heroines all have lives outside their stable, Pine Hollow.
- The Saddle Club was given a sequel series titled Pine Hollow, a Darker and Edgier version of its forerunner that took the "real world" aspects into drugs, romantic relationships and other teenage issues, and away from the Pony Tale format. This series had a real Downer Ending, beyond the usual "heroine gives up horses" type.
- The Saddle Club also had a spinoff for younger readers appropriately named Pony Tails.
- The Thoroughbred series, begun by Joanna Campbell, is a classic series that also involves Loads and Loads of Characters and is set in the high-stakes world of East Coast horse racing, although eventing is also included. It is also a Long Runner, having flown past fifty main-series titles with many spinoffs and Special Editions.
- Her For Love Of A Horse practically defines this trope: daydreaming girl, horsey friend, neglected old nag who proves to be a competent jumper, snooty rich girl, unsupportive parents, jumping class at summer's end which she intends to win in order to show her skill.
- The Canterwood Crest series, by Jessica Burkhart
- The first book in the American Girls Collection Felicity series has the titular heroine befriend an abused horse and learn to ride her in secret, but in the end she's forced to let the horse run free to save her from her violent owner.
- National Velvet, a 1935 book by Enid Bagnold (turned later into a movie with teenage Liz Taylor) is possibly the granddaddy of them all.
- The Sleepover Club occasionally went into this territory with Lyndz, who was the resident animal lover. Books centred on her were generally about her wanting to win some horse-related prize.
- Jean Slaughter Doty's books, most obviously Summer Pony and the sequel Winter Pony, are classic examples of the Pony Tale. In Summer Pony the heroine learns about horse care when her non-horsey parents rent a pony for the summer, with help from the neighboring's stables head groom and the neighbor girl with the inevitable return of the pony at the end of summer as the antagonist. In Winter Pony, the challenge becomes teaching the pony a new skill (sleigh-pulling) and figuring out just why the pony is getting so fat.
- K. A. Applegate wrote a Pony Tale, back in The '90s. It was called the Silver Creek Riders trilogy, and it was under the pseudonym Beth Kincaid.
- The page image is from Pony Pals, a young readers' series of chapter books which is about three friends who own ponies in a small town (and is something of a minor Follow the Leader to The Saddle Club). The three main characters are all given subplots which cover some aspect of the typical tropes (one is new to having her own horse who she comes into caring for after discovering it injured, one almost has her horse taken away because her grades are falling as a result of undiagnosed dyslexia blamed on spending too much time at the barn, etc.)
- The series My Secret Unicorn, as implied by the title.
- The Heartland series and the TV show based on it.
- C. W. Anderson wrote a number of these, such as A Filly for Joan, Afraid to Ride and The Blind Connemara.
- The Saddle Club TV series was set in Australia and fit this trope exactly. It's based on the book series above.
- Caitlin's Way matches the trope perfectly.
- The Netflix series Free Rein is a classic interpretation of this trope. The central storyline involves main character Zoe moving from America to England, and never having ridden a horse before. She meets Raven the "untameable" horse, and promptly bonds with him.
- Played very straight with the "Stormy Arc" of The Little Mermaid animated series. Except the girl who loves horses is Ariel, and the horse in question is a Hippocampus.
- Played extremely straight with Spirit: Riding Free, with the added bonus of the horse in question being descended from a famously unbreakable horse.
- Pony Pals Dirk Strider Edition is a complex example, mostly a subversion. It's an MST of a children's book series, Pony Pals, an unambiguous example of the genre. The original series is about a group of girls who ride ponies and use overcome problems related to horses. The fic starts out that way too, though with a more adult and Black Humor filled take, but quickly goes off the rails and turns into an epic, metafictional tale of redemption filled with philosophical and supernatural elements. But in the end, the story is about the love between a girl and her pony, and the two of them overcoming obstacles to remain together.
- In the Discworld of A.A. Pessimal, the young witch Sophie Rawlinson grew up with ponies. In appearance a big, hearty, broad-shouldered girl of sixteen, one who has moved on to horses proper, she is every inch a Pony Girl still. She divides the world into two parts; (a), the part with horses, ponies and people who deal with them; and (b) everything else, the boring uninteresting part.
- Katie Price (better known as Jordan) wrote a series of pony books called Perfect Ponies aimed at younger readers. According to reviews, it has "You can be horsy and still be glam!" as its mantra, frequently dwelling on the beauty of the characters. Might reflect an attempt to integrate "love of ponies" with "interest in fashion and beauty" in order to interest its target audience.
- Ann M. Martin's Me And Katie (The Pest) has elements of this; a disgruntled and untalented heroine trying to find her special niche in the world, befriending and becoming enamored of a certain horse who eventually needs to be taken away from the stables after a leg injury.
- The TV series Follyfoot was set at a home of rest for horses. What on the surface might have appeared to be a series with limited interest to young girls with an equine interest was actually aimed squarely at the teenage market, and often had challenging things to say about the treatment of horses and animals generally in British society. The ethos of Follyfoot generally was to give another chance to both horses and people who had been rejected by the rest of society: the stance of the series was recognizably left-wing, and characters who resembled the archetypes of the Pullein-Thompson sisters et al were overwhelmingly shown in a negative light.
Horse stories that are not Pony Tales:
- There's a movie based on The Black Stallion that involves a young ARABIAN girl doing the jockey-barrier-breaking... A bit of Fridge Logic leads to some very Unfortunate Implications as to what the epilogue might be like. The movie was a (very loose) adaptation of book called The Young Black Stallion, written by his son after Farley died. The film eliminates many of the odder, Creator Breakdown — worthy elements carried over from Farley's last books, and changes the protagonist to a female.
- Albion The Enchanted Stallion is a Portal Fantasy where the horse shanghais the girl into adventure and is one of her quest companions.
- The Black Stallion series — Very much A Boy and His X. Puts the focus on hero Alec Ramsey's rise to manhood through mastering a difficult and genuinely bad-tempered horse rather than the culture of the stableyard and affection between horse and rider. Alec and the stallion have a mutual respect, rather than more "sentimental" emotions like love. Further, Alec eventually moves full-time into the Thoroughbred industry as a jockey and farm manager.
On the other hand, one title in the series (The Black Stallion and the Girl) is vaguely similar: the titular girl, Pam Athena, is a free spirit who wins the love of Alec and his horses, and her desire to ride as a jockey is genuinely scandalous in the 1960s-era Thoroughbred world in which the books are set. Pam is also directly contrasted to the domineering, aggressive Becky who rides because she wants to win, not because she loves the horses. Besides being an example of the story aging in real time (Alec starts out as a teenager in a time that appears to be pre-World War II) Pam is basically Alec's Manic Pixie Dream Girl and wounds up being Put on a Bus which, in the next book, suffers a Bus Crash.
- The first book in the Ken McLaughlin series My Friend Flicka is a borderline case; Ken is a sweet natured daydreamer who is smitten with a troublesome filly. While he initially gains her trust through love and devotion, the other books in the trilogy, Thunderhead and Green Grass Of Wyoming, shift the focus to horse racing and achieving "masculinity". Ken becomes more likely to use determination and brute strength to overcome obstacles rather than his originally sweet nature. Although in the more recent movie, they pulled a Gender Flip so that it could be a conventional "A girl on a horse? How scandalous!" story
- Most horse racing stories, such as those by Dick Francis, are not pony stories, being more focused on the industry than the characters. They also tend to be thrillers.
- A series of fairly diverse horse stories were released in the late eighties/early nineties, and was aimed at teenage readers. Some were more grown up Pony Tales, such as The Hidden Horse, but others were a totally different genre altogether with some horses wandering around in the plot. The Silver Bridle features a genuinely dangerous horse, but is largely about acting. Several other books in the series were cunningly disguised romance novels (look out for a mysterious, dark eyed horse trainer, or a strangely charming stable manager if you want to be sure where the plot's going), one involving a disturbing rape in a stable. As for Caroline Akrill's Flying Changes... well, it started out as a dressage story, but by the time a homosexual groom had hung himself out of unrequited love for the arrogant dressage superstar and heroine Francesca was put through the emotional wringer, it was pretty obvious that this was no idealistic pony story. Even the horses must have been wondering what the hell was going on at the end of it.
- The Horse and His Boy. Particularly worth noting because, while it's nothing at all like a Pony Tale, C. S. Lewis suggested in a letter to his publisher that the title "might allure the 'pony book' public".
- The first Unicorns of Balinor book, aside from its title, starts out like a standard Pony Tale despite beginning after a horrific accident that broke both of Ari's legs as well as removing her memories. It's when her foster parents warn her away from the nearby caves and she starts to hear Chase's voice in her head that the REAL story begins.
- The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell, perhaps unique in that they're written from the view of the horses and the humans are largely antagonistic, if not necessarily evil. Most of the books follow a particular brumby's struggle to survive against hunger, the elements, and frequent attacks by other stallions.
- The God Of Animals by Aryn Kyle unpleasantly (but not unrealistically) subverts many of the elements of this trope with its dark plot and gritty, failing-stable setting.
- Apart from the usual magic-politics plotline, The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones was this for Eric (Cat) Chant and his horse. There's a bit of recursion in here, in that the horse initially came into the family when Eric's foster sisters began reading horse stories and begged Chrestomanci for a pony. When he acquired one for them, the girls discovered that they were terrified of horses/didn't actually like riding after all, respectively, and the horse came to Eric as the only one who was able to bond with it. They quickly became fast friends, and the horse ends up being Eric's ticket into the fairy world that this book's plot revolves around.
- A Horse for XYZ. A girl at summer camp encounters a nefarious plot and in the course of an adventure story spends several days alone on horseback.
- Black Beauty is a dramatic and cautionary tale of a horse from his own perspective: it's all about the abuse and misuse suffered by horses in a time when the horse was the means of transport and farm power. The book's purpose was to wake readers up to the very real problems with animal treatment, not entertain and educate young horse fans.
- The Bella Sara tie-in novels are set in a medieval fantasy world and follow the 'supernaturally empowered horse finds young girl and sweeps her away into a life of adventure' template.