Books, Horses, and the Male Mentor

Someone on my LiveJournal friends list has been doing a month-long book meme. Yesterday’s entry was about something like topics or characters you’ll ALWAYS read about. While I certainly am with her on Rome (and those sexy Praetorian Guards) I found the character type I was thinking of came from, no surprise, horse books, and by and large those written from the mid-Fifties to the Seventies, aimed at girls.

On reflection, there is a whole subcategory of horse books written in that time frame that was aimed at horse-crazy girls. Not surprising, and though I post-date the books (I’m not that old) a bit read every one I could find, in the school library or used bookstores or wherever I could come by them. I confess to STILL reading them when I get the urge, and reading them as an adult, I’ve noticed a recurring theme: most of these books are about a teen or pre-teen girl, somewhere between 12 and 16, a horse, and a mentor.

The mentor is the type who leapt out at me. He’s male, older enough to be non-threatening in a sexual sense to a young teen, sometimes married, often in a trainer/groom position, frequently English or Irish (convenient, as the girls ride English in the old-school sense), often worked with horses in “the old country”, and is a stern but kind mentor who is very serious about proper horse care. He often works for the family of or is otherwise connected to a female friend of the heroine. In two of the three examples I’m thinking of, the author is female, so I don’t think it’s self-insertion. Wish fulfillment? A cultural reality for young people learning to ride in the time period? Or a clever play to girls’ tastes? And reviewing them, I begin to see where I get some of my taste in men!

The examples I’m thinking of in particular, not least because I had all the books handy:

Michael (no last name given), from Jean Slaughter Doty’s Summer Pony and Winter Pony. (Please forgive the lame-ass new cover on the second link. I have the much-older edition.) If this were TV Tropes and I were creating a trope, Michael would be the Trope Codifier. He’s an indeterminate age (from the thirteen-ish Ginny’s perspective, “adult” could be anything) but old enough that, before he worked for the family of Ginny’s new friend Pam’s family, he was a steeplechase jockey in England. He now grooms, rides, trains, and in some ways acts in loco parentis for both girls. A career-ending injury (never specified, though if I’m recalling correctly there’s some mention of a limp) ended his racing career, but he’s described as a talented rider who exercises the hunters Pam’s family owns. He’s stern and obviously has a very firm idea about proper horse care, but he also very quickly takes Ginny and her rented pinto pony Mokey under his wing. Partially this seems to be because having a friend riding lights a fire under Pam’s rear end, motivating her to be more interested in the care of her spirited show pony Firefly, but partially he seems to genuinely want to help out Ginny because of how hard she works to care for Mokey. In the first book, he helps Ginny train Mokey to jump (and gives a pre-ASTM/SEI-certification lecture about the rules of jumping, one of which is to never jump without a hard hat. Those of you familiar with fiction tropes know where that was going whether you read the book or not) and brings her to a show with Pam and Firefly. In the second, he teaches Ginny to teach Mokey to drive, and at the end is the only adult to arrive in time to help Ginny when Mokey gives birth. He’s also excellent at letting the girls learn their lessons, making his displeasure clear without lecturing, certain that so long as the horse is uninjured it’s lesson learned, move on. Essentially, he’s the ideal mentor for the horse-crazy girl.

Michael has an Irish cousin in Jack Jeffers, a.k.a. Mr. Jeffers, the trainer in C.W. Anderson’s Afraid to Ride. Judy, the teen heroine of the book, has lost her nerve to ride after a bad fall. Mr. Jeffers owns the stable where she used to ride, and thinks the best therapy to get her back in the saddle is for her to help an abused show mare named Fair Lady regain her confidence in people. Like Michael, Jeffers comes from a riding background in the British isles. Unlike Michael, we get an entire chapter devoted to his history, including his crazy-bordering-on-arrogant young hijinks, as related by a farrier whose role in the book seems to mostly be telling these stories to Judy. Jeffers also takes the kind-but-firm method of dealing with Judy and Fair Lady’s issues, sometimes bordering on being an author mouthpiece on proper care and training of show horses (Fair Lady has been traumatized by rough handling.) Does his plan to get Judy back on a horse work? Does it ever happen any other way in a horse book? Not often. Mr. Jeffers must at some point have been paid to teach Judy, and as such had a formal teaching relationship with her at some point, but he doesn’t appear to have any continuing financial interest in her work with Fair Lady–he could as easily have done it himself, but takes it upon himself to give Judy a way back to horses.

A less-common type is represented by Mr. Jonathan Sedgwick from Selma Hudnut’s A Horse of Her Own. Mr. Sedgwick is not a professional trainer or a stable employee but is in fact the owner. The heroine, orphaned Rosemary, observes him riding, and as with Michael and Mr. Jeffers above, he takes her under his wing, partially out of sympathy (she’s lost her parents, and moved away from her old stables) and partially in hopes of helping his daughter (another recurring theme, hm) become more interested in horses. The story’s particularly focused around the local hunt, and around a horse owned by another member that needs help which, of course, Rosemary ultimately provides. Mr. Sedgwick acts as less an equine mentor than a social integrator, bringing the already-competent Rosemary into the local hunt scene and helping her create a new social group, though her riding. But, like Michael and Mr. Jeffers, he’s an accomplished rider who takes it upon himself to help out a horseless or new-to-horses girl for no apparent reason beyond love of the sport and appreciation for a student who wants to learn.

There are other examples, but these are the three that I happen to have easy access to at the moment. And there are echoes/reiterations of this type even in more recent books (such as the book version of Max Regnery in the Saddle Club series.) In particular it was a quick reread this weekend of Summer Pony and Winter Pony that made me notice the peculiar character type Michael represents. He’s basically the ideal mentor for a horse-crazy girl: nonthreatening (he’s much too old, from the heroine’s perspective, to be of interest, and in the case of Mr. Sedgwick and Rosemary he’s married, albeit to a nonentity character), deeply knowledgeable about horses, ready to share that knowledge, and encouraging of the girl’s interest. I suspect the fact these characters are mostly male are in part related to when the books were written: at the time, most trainers and competitive riders were men. The people most likely to have the knowledge the heroines of these books need are men. (The horses, meanwhile, vary–Mokey and Fair Lady are mares, Irish/Dublin Jack is male and though never specifically identified as such, likely a gelding, as is the friend’s pony Firefly in Summer/Winter Pony.)

I think on examination, from a writing rather than equine perspective, they serve another important function, one particular to the horse-crazy girls who haven’t yet discovered boys who are the target audience of the books: they introduce male characters in that way I mentioned, nonthreatening. Age alone removes them from romantic consideration (as does marital status in at least one case). It also lets them take the place of parents to a greater or lesser degree–Rosemary’s parents are dead, Judy’s are supportive but uninvolved themselves, and Ginny’s are, like her, new to the entire concept of horse ownership, providing financial support but with even less knowledge than Ginny of horse care. Michael, Mr. Jeffers, and Mr. Sedgwick provide an adult introduction to the larger horse world, with an overtone of paternal authority. Boys are minor figures in A Horse of Her Own, while they essentially don’t appear in Afraid to Ride or Summer/Winter Pony. In two of three cases, they also bring the cache (which still exists to a greater or lesser degree) that the British and Irish simply know more about horses than Americans. Foxhunting is an English sport and features in two of the three books, while Ginny and Mokey enter a hunter show (over the now-rare outside course, no less.) This is a justified trope in many ways–the British Pony Club and the British Horse Society are serious about teaching horsemanship, and the special relationship between the Irish and horses is a post of its own.

I realized while reading this book how rare this type actually is, at least now. All but one of my trainers has been female, and at the lowest levels, girls drastically outnumber boys in most equestrian sports. In books, the protagonists are still female, but very few of the current Young Adult books I’ve seen that involve horses really focus, as the older books did, on the idea of integrating a first-time horse or pony owner into a wider horse community. Mentors are rare, and the focus is often on the friendships between the protagonist and girls her own age (Max is an authority figure in the Saddle Club, but his role is secondary to the friendship between the three protagonists.) Still, I find myself wondering if there really are Michaels and Mr. Jefferses out there as teachers for new young riders. (And if there is a Michael, if he’s single. 😉 )

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Louise
    Aug 18, 2010 @ 07:54:36

    If you’re too young to have read them when they first came out, I’m too old. I grew up on the Black Stallion series. Come to think of it, the lead character may be a boy, but he does have one of those good mentor types in Henry Daily.

    Reply

    • The Author
      Aug 18, 2010 @ 08:10:01

      I liked the Black Stallion series (at least up until the point where Walter Farley’s mind went or something and the plots went from “somewhat implausible but able to suspend disbelief” to “completely off the deep end.” The Island Stallion Races, I am looking at you. I have to wonder if his editors had stopped reading MSs at that point or what, because really, NO ONE looked at the first draft and said “Uh…Walt? Aliens? Really?”) But it always struck me as more plot-oriented than these books. Summer Pony/Winter Pony especially are a little light in the plot department–Ginny rents a pony for the summer, she learns about caring for the pony, she goes to a show (and runs into color prejudice among her competitors–a ‘spotted thing’ with one blue eye in hunters, oh, my!), she thinks she’s going to lose the pony, she doesn’t. There’s a lot about training horses for specific purposes in the Black Stallion books, but with a concrete object (one out of reach for 99.9% of readers) in mind, such as the Chicago match race, or training the Black’s son Satan for the Triple Crown. It’s even arguable that in The Black Stallion’s Filly Henry, not Alec, is the protagonist, because he’s the one who buys, trains, and believes in Black Minx when even Alec thinks the Derby is a long shot at best. Whereas most of the “a girl and her horse books” there might be a little conflict with non-horsey parents, trouble with friends, but mostly it’s a procedural for “your first pony/horse” with the protagonist lightly defined enough to be an author/reader avatar.

      It’s kind of funny, the one real attempt at a ‘modern’ Black Stallion-type series (other than misbegotten attempts to update Alec and the Black, which never work for me–they’re a product of racing’s heyday when the big handicaps were covered like major sporting events and people followed racing) was a success from publishing standpoints, but doesn’t grab the imagination like Farley’s books. I’m thinking of the Thoroughbred series, which is also unusual in that it seems to run in real time, with the protagonist aging out of her own books, horses aging and dying, not winning every time. But it’s also an example of the ‘a girl and her horse’ formula not translating well to a long-running series. After a while, the protagonists blend together, they run out of plots about bringing along the horse no one but our heroine believes in, and it becomes reminiscent of the Saddle Club, with the author (or ghostwriter) dabbling in various other equestrian disciplines.

      Reply

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  3. Natalie Keller Reinert
    Aug 29, 2010 @ 12:12:53

    I don’t think The Black Stallion really counts as horse stories. Which is why, probably, they’re the best!

    To my mind, the Black Stallion series were always a series specifically about Alec. Even when they jumped into other characters’ POVs, like Henry’s when he buys the filly, it was about Alec and his adventures. It was just an adaptation of so many serial stories that were written for boys, pre-war. Boys having adventures – going to Arabia! Finding a hidden desert empire! Constantly embarking on doomed airplane rides! Amnesia! And managing to do this from the background of a then-suburb of the City where fathers went to work in flannel suits and Mother was a plump, comforting presence who made meatloaf and sewed up holes in riding jeans.

    I think the mentor relationship applies specifically to the girl stories, and what’s more to the traditional helpless girl approach, also pre-war, when a girl has to prove that she’s not like The Other Girls, who presumably have personal grooms and expensive ponies and so on.

    Reply

    • The Author
      Aug 29, 2010 @ 12:39:18

      I think it STARTED as “a boy and his horse”, and just gradually got stranger and stranger. If you read “The Black Stallion and Satan” it even borrows a few elements of the “girl and her horse” (OMG a horrible equine illness!) with appropriate care descriptions for the time, but the books progressively get weird. Hollywood amnesia, and we go from a not-TOTALLY-out-there “Arab breeding horses” to “magical alien stallions from the horsehead nebula and ancient Indian prophecies.”

      They also really went off the deep end about where the average girl and her horse story would–trying to bring in romance. Pam also really, REALLY dates the thing, hippy-dippy as she is. The more “serious” teen Saddle Club books, the Pine Hollow series, also bombed when they moved beyond kid crushes to dating. Real lesson: dating and horses don’t mix!

      Reply

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