Ponies, ponies, ponies
Joyce Stranger, who died in 2007, wrote over 70 books. She was brought up in an area she described as on the “borderline between town and country,” rich in wildlife, and with “so many birds it was impossible to sleep through the dawn chorus.” Holidays were spent in the British countryside, where she watched wildlife. Besides being fascinated by the natural world, she also wanted to write, and eventually succeeded in publishing an article (on animals) in 1949. Spending all her spare time with farmers and horse and dog breeders, she continued to learn about animal behaviour, and soon realised that many books on animals were simply wrong, being written by authors who did not know enough. She said: “Often dogs and ponies in children’s books are given the oddest motivations, the reasons for their actions being nothing like those quoted.”
Her first book, The Running Foxes, was a great success, and was followed by her first horse title, Breed of Giants. This was based on Jim Gould’s Lymm Shires, in Cheshire. He “gave me his cuttings book to examine, and everything that happened in that book happened over the years to his horses. I met them; wonderful black animals, that had triumphed over and over again in the shows.”
Out of the many animal books that followed, eight were horse stories aimed at the adult market, plus a pair of books about a vet in which horses figure. She also wrote two children’s pony books, and Stranger than Fiction, a fictionalised account of the life of Elspeth Bryce Smith, a Welsh girl paralysed by polio, who eventually recovered enough to ride (disguised as a man) as a jockey. Many of Stranger’s stories feature heroes and heroines like Bryce Smith, who triumph over disaster, and this she thought was after her own childhood experience in World War II, when the family home was destroyed by a landmine in 1942. “The theme of them all has probably come from my father... So what, we’re alive. It’s the future that counts. We can’t change the past.”
In her later years, Joyce worked as a dog behaviourist, after she worked with her own dog, Chita. “She completely changed my direction, as she was so wild.... A headache on four legs. I had to learn to change her, and in doing so changed myself.” Her training was successful. Chita became the hundredth Pets as Therapy dog.
Stranger knew her books were portraying a vanishing way of life, and hoped they would be “a small history of the men and women who worked so hard with so little financial reward.”
Finding the books: Joyce Stranger’s books were (and are) very popular, and so most titles were reprinted many times. This means the majority of the horse books are easy to find as hardbacks, and very easy to find as paperbacks. The exceptions are the children’s book The Wild Ponies, which is very hard to find indeed, and The Stallion, which can be expensive.
PADS obit on Joyce Stranger
Joyce Stranger’s website: now only available via cache
Many thanks to Konstanze Allsopp, Susan Bourgeau, Dawn Harrison, Sue Howes, Fiona Williiams and Debbie Patrick for the pictures, and to Debbie for the summaries.
Breed of Giants
Hammond, London, 1966, illus David Rook
Viking Press, New York, 1967, illus David Rook
Corgi pb, 1968, 1975, 1979
Josh Johnson breeds Shire horses, but then runs
into bad luck: his best horse has an accident, and more
disasters follow, including foot and mouth on a nearby
farm. Once more though, he builds up his winning strain
Harvill Press, London, 1970
Corgi, pb, 1972, 1975
Richard Proud cannot afford to buy the Thoroughbred mare Zara, but he
does so anyway, determined that she will restore the fortunes of his stud,
despite the best efforts of the weather and his reckless wife to stop her.
The Wild Ponies
Kaye & Ward, London, 1976, illus Robert Rothero
Many thanks to Pam Wakelam for the picture of this children’s story.
Khazan: the Horse that Came out of the Sea
Firecrest (Large Print), 1978
Corgi pg, 1979, 1983
Tree of Life, pb, 2007
Debbie saves Khazan’s life after he is washed up on the Cornish coast. She fights
desperately to keep him, and finds new friends along the way.
Michael Joseph, London, 1981
Corgi, pb, 1983
Chivers (Large Print), 1984
After artist Rhea’s husband dies, she moves to the country and buys a stallion and a dog.
More a dog than a horse book, the stallion is kept elsewhere, and the story focuses on Rhea’s
developing relationship with her neighbours, and with her German Shepherd puppy, Witch, as
Rhea slowly overcomes her grief.
Harvill Press, London, 1972
Corgi, pb, 1974
Dai Evans runs his practice single handed, but as pressure of work mounts,
he finally manages to find a partner. The young man has a surprising amount
to learn about life in a country practice, and then there is his very full home
life, with his four children, and the threat to the village from the new reservoir
The January Queen
Michael Joseph, London, 1975
Corgi, pb, 1980
Chivers (Large Print), 1985
Kate Malone is spoiled and irresponsible. After she is responsible for a disaster on her
parents’ farm, her mother decides she must stand on her own two feet, and she is sent to
live in a cottage nearby. She buys January Queen, an in-
of the January Queen’s former owner, Joe, she learns how to look after herself and her
Hounds of Hades
Michael Joseph, London, 1985
Joel inherits a stud farm from a relative he never met, but it soon becomes clear that the stud was not
founded on honest endeavour. Joel reads his great uncle Joel’s diaries, which describe his life
meticulously. Throughout his life, Great Uncle Joel was plagued by guilt, and constantly refers to the
Hounds of Hades, who signify impending doom. Joel realises they’re baying for him too, and that
he must discover the truth behind his great uncle’s fortune.
Lions, London, 1991 (pb)
A children’s story. Mandy Hunt has lost her nerve after a bad fall, but she still dreams of a fabulous black stallion
called Midnight Magic. Then the family move to Hunt Cottage, and there is a black stallion grazing in the
meadow by the river. Some people call him Midnight Magic...
Stranger than Fiction
Michael Joseph, London, 1984
Corgi, pg, 1985
Chivers (Large Print), 1986
Elspeth Bryce Smith, a Welsh girl, was paralysed by polio as a child before World
War I. She eventually recovered enough to ride. She was horse obsessed, and,
disguised as a man and calling herself John Grey, rode as a jockey -
time, and only accepted reluctantly in the 1970s.
The Hound of Darkness
Dent, London, 1983
Corgi, pb, 1987
Raoul comes to the Welsh Mountains with his Arab stallion and a mare. Living in the
highest point in the village, he finds his house becomes a refuge as the floods come. Micky,
the Gipsy boy who works for him, has to ride for help, but will the mythical Cafell, the hound
of darkness whose ghost haunts the mountains, protect him?
Vet Riding High
Carousel, pb, 1981, 124 pp.
Severn House, 1983, 124 pp (laminated boards)
The horse content in this story is fairly minimal: the vet fulfils his dream of starting a stud with
a friend, and that’s about it, but it’s still a good read about life as a country vet.