Book review - If Wishes were Horses

As a child it never occurred to me that my horsey existence might be the envy of pony-mad girls across the country. My late mother, Christine Pullein-Thompson, was the author of more than 100 children's books, mostly about horses. For pony-less children, such as Susanna Forrest, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and other writers such as Patricia Leitch, Monica Dickens and Ruby Ferguson, allowed them to indulge fantasies of owning and caring for a horse through their books.

Forrest's homage to horses recalls the popularity of this pony literature, which reached its zenith in the 1970s when WH Smith launched its Win a Pony competition. But the British love of horses and young girls' enthusiasm for riding them still endures.

Swiftly refuting the "pony-mad-girl of cliché", Forrest points out that "not all love is a simple sublimation of sexual desire". She eloquently describes how a horse allows "a preliminary equine sentimental education, where big emotions can be suffered and enjoyed". Forrest describes her childhood obsession with ponies and a return to riding in her thirties when she experiences a fear that she must conquer. Threaded through her personal journey are various examples of human interaction with horses ranging from the historical to the bizarre. She discovers a tomb from the Bronze Age in which a Pazyryk Priestess was buried with six geldings; talks to a member of the fetish group, The Other Pony Club; and explores the cult of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona.

The once sexist approach to competitive riding is recorded. Marjorie Bullows was the first woman to ride "astride" at Olympia in 1922 and women were not allowed to show-jump at the Olympics until 1956. There is an illuminating chapter about Pat Smythe, one of Britain's best loved showjumpers who was ineligible to compete in 1952, but the Olympic team asked to borrow her best horse.

Forrest's dissection of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty made me weep (again). Its vivid descriptions of the harshness of late 19th-century London from a horse's perspective contributed to the rise of animal rights groups.

Riding for the Disabled is not mentioned but the therapeutic effects of bonding with a horse are illustrated in chapters on a Swedish riding school for the rehabilitation of young offenders and the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, south London, catering for disadvantaged children. As Forrest shows, you don't have to be "posh" to be passionate about horses.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday on 18 March 2012