It is a truth universally acknowledged that although a majority of top professional riders are male, equestrian sports in general are dominated by women. Perhaps as a reflection of that, the majority of equestrian fiction, especially juvenile or YA equestrian fiction, is told from a female perspective.
As someone who has read countless pony books over the years, and with over 200 volumes on my bookshelf with an almost comparable number on my Kindle, I can think of fewer than 20 that are told from a male perspective. From classics like Walter Farley’s Black stallion series and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka trilogy, through to contemporary novels such as Sheena Wilkinson’s brilliant Taking Flight and Grounded, there are some excellent equestrian novels with a male protagonist, but they remain the exception, rather than the rule.
Boys don’t ride
Even in looking for an image to use on this blog post, I discovered that typing “boy+horse” into a free photo search engine brings back markedly fewer results than “girl+horse” does. Why are boys so outnumbered? At my local Pony Club, we currently have eight boys enrolled, ranging in age from six to seventeen. That seems pretty good, but when you take into account that we have fifty-five riders enrolled at our branch, that’s a fairly low ratio! Most of those boys are under the age of ten, and it will be interesting to see how many of them choose to continue riding as they get older. (We did have one sixteen-year-old boy last season who has since decided to focus on soccer instead of show jumping. Just as girls often leave the sport for boys, boys leave the sport for, well, sport.)
In my experience, boys are more likely to start riding because they genuinely want to ride, rather than because their friends are doing it, or because they think horses are pretty. And if they persist through to their teenage years, they reap rewards that they perhaps weren’t going in for in the first place – being one of only a few boys in a swarm of teenage girls is not a bad spot to be, so they tell me.
Jonty was sitting on the fence watching me, giving me an encouraging smile when I rode past, but not offering much else in the way of support. I supposed that with Katy on one side of him and Susannah on the other, he was a little distracted. It was annoying me a lot more than it should have, but it was probably my fault for bringing him along. Teenage boys were pretty thin on the ground at horse events, and while Jonty wasn’t necessarily pin-up material, he was far from unappealing. I was just glad they weren’t going to see him ride, because his skill in the saddle was easily one of his most attractive traits.
– excerpt from Four Faults (Pony Jumpers #4)
What’s the difference?
What is the difference then, between female and male protagonists – especially when it comes to a mainly female-dominated genre? Are most pony books written from a female perspective because the majority of riders and readers are female, and they want to read about people like themselves? Is it because the majority of writers in the genre are female? (Of the 21 books listed at the bottom of this post, only two were written by men.) Is it because horse books are often, essentially, romances – but between a girl and her horse, rather than a girl and a boy?
Boys tend to be slightly less soppy about their horses, less likely to shower them in kisses and have feelings of romantic attachment towards them. They are less inclined to declare their desperate love and obsession for their horse, but that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t feel that way.
My favourite pony book written from a male perspective is Pony from Tarella, by Australian author Mavis Thorpe Clark, and it is a story of a young man’s desperate love for a headstrong mare. Although this was published in 1959 and is now out of print, it’s well worth reading if you can get your hands on it.
For a second he stood very still, then his two fingers went up to his mouth, and the shrill insistent whistle floated across the hill. The horses kept on galloping, enjoying their game. Again he whistled. Sunflower was nearer this time.
Did she hesitate just a second? Did her ears lift?
His clear note echoed above the thud of the hooves. She was close this time, but still travelling fast. Another whistle. Her stride faltered, she eased the pace. She seemed to listen. Sandy’s heart bounded. She had heard him…
– excerpt from Pony from Tarella, by Mavis Thorpe Clark
Even less common than a straight male protagonist is a gay male protagonist, and of the list of books below, only two of them feature a gay male as their lead character (Mary Pagones’ Fortune’s Fool and its sequel Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion, which share a protagonist, so possibly only count as one gay male voice).
In my book, Jonty is already well-established as a loyal boyfriend to Tess, another of the series’ rotating protagonists, so there is no question of his sexual orientation. But one of his closest friendships in the novel is developed with Frankie, a young gay man in his late twenties, who teaches him a lot about riding, horsemanship, and taking care of the people around you – often before you take care of yourself.
Frankie unclipped the lunge rope from the bridle and patted Last Chance’s sweaty shoulder. “Come on mate. Be a good lad, and we’ll find you a nice home with a teenage girl who’ll kiss you all over your face and give you all the treats you can eat.”
“That’s the dream,” I told the pony, and Frankie pulled a face.
“Maybe for you.”
– excerpt from Jonty (Pony Jumpers – Special Edition #1)
Books for boys
But the question remains valid – as most of these books have been written by women, are they actually being written for boys? Do these horse book boys actually behave like boys, or are they teenage girls’ idealisations of boys, or boys who act and think rather more like girls? (This is not to say that women cannot write books that appeal to a male audience, because that is of course completely untrue. S.E. Hinton, whose Taming the Star Runner I have listed below, has written from a male perspective in all of her novels, and done so very successfully.)
Writing from a male voice is not just about swapping out pronouns; boys think differently, and see the world in a different way to girls. I have spent a lot of time around teenage girls, and understand them pretty well, but I’d never even considered writing from a male perspective before Jonty came along. If you’d said to me “write a pony book with a male protagonist”, I would’ve struggled to know where to begin. But when Jonty was first introduced in Four Faults, he stepped into the story with such a sense of surety and self-determination that I always wanted to know more about him, and see further into his life. A few books down the line, I felt that he was familiar enough now for me to be able to write in his voice. And he hasn’t let me down. I thought I might struggle, but the hardest part of writing Jonty has been keeping the word count down – the only reason that it hasn’t ended up being the longest book in the series so far is because I deleted an entire chapter from the end! (Six to Ride still holds the dubious honour of being the longest, but Jonty is only around 1000 words behind it, and both books are more than twice the length of First Fence.)
There are a few female characters in the book – Jonty’s three sisters, his mother, and his neighbours Hayley and Tess are the primary ones – but the main characters that he interacts with during the course of the novel are male. From his alcoholic father to a grumpy old retiree, from a taciturn local farmer to a disreputable horse trainer, Jonty learns a lot from the men around him, lessons both good and bad.
And not too far down the line is another Special Edition in the Pony Jumpers series, which also has a male protagonist. Once you start something…
Jonty is now available for purchase on Amazon – click here to find it online!
Books with boys
Are you looking for YA equestrian fiction with a male protagonist? Check out this list of recommendations below:
Taking Flight – Sheena Wilkinson
Grounded – Sheena Wilkinson
Boys Don’t Ride – Katharina Marcus
The Boy with the Amber Eyes – Katharina Marcus
Moonstone Promise (Diamond Spirit #2) – Karen Wood
The Boy Who Loves Horses (Pegasus Equestrian Centre #2) – Diana Vincent
Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe / Joe and the Lightning Pony / Joe and the Race to the Rescue – Victoria Eveleigh
Fortune’s Fool / Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion – Mary Pagones
Out of print
Pony from Tarella – Mavis Thorpe Clark
Patrick’s Pony – Josephine Pullein-Thompson
Show Jumping Secret – Josephine Pullein-Thompson
Taming the Star Runner – S.E. Hinton
My Friend Flicka / Thunderhead / Green Grass of Wyoming – Mary O’Hara
The Black Stallion series – Walter Farley
The Red Pony – John Steinbeck
(Note: I have chosen to list books where the primary protagonist is male, and haven’t included ensemble books with a good mix of male and female characters. I have also left off books such as Caroline Akrill’s Flying Changes, because while a large part of the story focuses on a male rider’s career, it is never told from his point of view.)
Did I miss any? Comment your recommendations below!