On a loose rein, Perdita galloped on. Her hoofs made hardly any sound on the soft turf. She felt as if she could go on forever. We shared a freedom of space, of air, this tranced motion. We rode the exploding world. Held it still by our movement.
– Dream of Fair Horses
On July 28 2015, the pony book world lost one of its finest authors, Patricia “Pat” Leitch (who also published under the nom de plume Jane Eliot).
Unlike the majority of people, I didn’t come to Pat Leitch’s work through her popular Jinny series, but instead through one of her lesser-known novels Riding Course Summer, which was followed by the excellent Highland Pony Trek before I discovered Jinny and her feisty chestnut Arab mare, Shantih, who quickly joined Ruby Ferguson’s likeable heroine Jill Crewe as one of my favourites.
Patricia knew how to balance the fantasy of horse ownership with the sometimes harsh reality of it, and the Jinny series brought this home to the reader, time and time again. Jinny is a wild, feisty heroine who is not always likeable and almost never sensible. But there is something about her that is so vibrant and alive, and she leaps off the pages, pushing her way through the paper and ink in the same way that the mural of the red horse on her bedroom wall leaps off at her in Night of the Red Horse, the fourth book in the series:
The Red Horse in her mural was burning, glowing, its yellow eyes starting from its head. The hooves outside became the beat of its hooves as it galloped free…
And it’s not just Jinny who comes to life in the books – her chestnut Arab mare Shantih is the horse of her dreams, from the moment she first lays eyes on her when the mare is performing in a circus act:
The horse was a pure-bred Arab. She came, bright and dancing, flaunting into the ring, her tail held high over her quarters, her silken mane flowing over the crest of her neck. Her head was fine-boned and delicate, with the concave line of the true Arab horse. Her dark, lustrous eyes were fringed with long lashes and the nostrils wrinkling her velvet muzzle were huge black pits. She moved around the ring like a bright flame, her pricked ears delicate as flower petals. Her legs were clean and unblemished and her small hooves were polished ivory. After the dull ache of the rosinbacks, she was all light and fire.
Jinny sat entranced, hardly breathing, and then her breath burst out of her in a throbbing gasp. She loved the chestnut mare. As if all their long day’s travelling had only been for this. As if she had come all the way from Stopton only for this, to see this sudden gift of perfection.
– For Love of a Horse
I loved Jinny and Shantih, and read the books over and over in my youth. There are 12 in the series, unfortunately I’ve never been able to get my hands on the last one. I expect that it will come to me someday when I least expect it.
One of my favourite quotes from Pat is not even from one of her books, but rather an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to Jane Badger back in 2008, reminiscing about telling Jinny’s story:
“It seems long and long ago since the Jinny books were part of me …
I have been reading them again, mostly with a grin on my face. Dear Jinny! And Shantih! She was all dream. In fact, I used to dream about the chestnut Arab mare long before I wrote about her. Perhaps this letter will bring her back, and Bramble who was real flesh and blood, my own Kirsty. I still feel, if I could walk out onto the moor and call her she would hear and come galloping over the skyline to me. But then what is imagination for if not to call up the past?”
You can read Jane’s interview with Pat here.
I have a large collection of pony books, but my Patricia Leitch books are the ones I would be least willing to part with. Some, in particular, I have read over and over again – For Love of a Horse, Jump for the Moon, Ride Like the Wind, The Magic Pony, Highland Pony Trek, and and last but not least, Dream of Fair Horses, my favourite pony book of all time, which has influenced my own writing more than any other, and which I have read and reread and never ceased to adore.
Dream of Fair Horses (also published under the title Fields of Praise) is a novel with the most cliche of storylines – a young girl has a dream to ride at Olympia, but no pony, no money, and next to no riding experience. Yet somehow she gets her chance, and it doesn’t seem impossible, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous or even predictable. The unlikeliness of it all is counter-balanced perfectly by grim reality, the characters are all brilliantly, breathtakingly, bitterly alive, and the ending will leave even the most jaded pony book reader gasping.
Here are a few of my favourite passages from the novel:
I sat down in the saddle and touched Tessy into a canter and I was no longer a skinny, ugly girl on an old pony that didn’t even belong to me: I was changed into Velvet on the Pie, Gandalf on Shadowfax, Bellerophon on Pegasus, Tom o’Bedlam astride his horse of air. The magic that had haunted my life for as long as I could remember was still as powerful as ever.
In all my life I had never seen anything as beautiful as this grey pony. There was about her an absolute perfection. Lost in her enchantment, I sat and stared. I wondered if she had dreamed of a girl who would come and ride her to fame, just as I had dreamed of her.
And Perdita was herself, flinging out in a first freedom, tossing her head and shaking her mane, suddenly, head down, screwing into a buck or flirting out from the track of the lunge, to poise for a second of incredible beauty, balanced on her hind legs, the delicate profile of her head etched against the pearl immensity of the evening sky.
And a few more from Jinny:
The tan muffling her hoofbeats, Shantih circled the ring. Tail lifted; her mane tongues of chestnut flame about her gleaming neck; her great eyes held the whole of the arena reflected in their liquid depths.
– Jump for the Moon
Jinny’s breath steamed the window pane. She breathed harder, then wrote with her finger nail:
She stood back from the window to gaze for a second, entranced by teh spell she had cast.
“Horses, ponies and foals. Oh my!” she chanted.
– For Love of a Horse
Hardly able to believe her eyes, JInny lifted the picture from its wrappings and stared at it with delight that was almost pain. The painting was part of herself; part of Shantih
“Her face is a lamp uplifted to guide the faithful to the place of Allah,” she quoted aloud. “Oh, Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.”
– Ride Like the Wind
For the spirit that was almost visible in the white pony was that of a top-class show pony, fleet and beautiful beyond the singing of it.
– The Magic Pony
As beautiful as those passages are though, the one that for me will always stand out, and will always define Pat’s writing and what it meant to me, is the final paragraph from Dream of Fair Horses, which swirled around and around in my head for days after the first time I read it, and still moves me every time I re-read it:
But sometimes I still think about Mr Ramsay and the summer evenings when he would stand in the centre of the paddock, and I would ride Perdita in that magic circle that shut out the troubled unease of the world and enclosed the three of us in a dream of fair horses.
I hope that Pat is enclosed now in her own dream, and I want to thank her most profusely for the hours of reading pleasure she gave me, and the inspiration she left behind.
May she rest in peace.