Friday, 29 November 2013

Review: Kate Lattey - Dare to Dream

Beg, borrow or steal an Ereader if you don't have one. This book is so far only available in electronic format, and you absolutely have to read it. This is a book that grabs you and doesn't let go.

It's the story of three sisters, Kris, Van and Marley, and their horse operation in New Zealand. The girl's mother died when Marley was born, and their father was killed in an accident three years ago, leaving them to struggle on in an attempt to keep their farm going, and their family together.

Easy is the absolute last thing it is. Kris broke her spine falling from her horse; she and middle sister Van both left school without any qualifications, and life is a constant, hard struggle. The sisters just about keep the wolf from the door by buying problem horses, schooling them, and selling them on. Just when it looks as if their ship might come in, with a pony who might win Pony of the Year, ridden by talented youngest sister, Marley, Nimble has a serious accident.

They find an unbroken pinto pony, Cruise, and he turns out to be the pony of a lifetime for Marley. The trouble with ponies of a lifetime is that on the hyper-competitive show circuit, everyone else wants to buy them, and there are some who aren't too particular in what they're willing to do to stop Marley and Cruise winning. And of course if you have the pony of a lifetime, you love him, and you want to keep him and not have him sold from under you even if it does mean the family home won't be sold. That's the crucial dilemma of the book - can you hold on to everything you love?

The author involves you completely in her characters' lives. Will Marley manage to negotiate her truly terrible efforts at school work, her first experience of romance, and an almighty dust up with her best friend?  Lattey has an excellent ear for dialogue, and doesn't sugar-coat her characters, her horses, or the situations. What you get is entirely believable, and engrossing. You are right behind the characters in their fight to survive.  The ponies are brilliant too. It is not easy to write a good pony - it's all too easy to have them mere vehicles for the story - but Kate Lattey achieves it effortlessly.

The plot is completely convincing. I do like a book where I haven't worked out how it will end well before I've got there. This is a fairly lengthy book, and there are a couple of places where the plot seems to lose a little pace, but this is really nitpicking at what is a very good book indeed.

I absolutely loved Dare to Dream. My only regret is that pressure of work meant it was sitting on my ereader for weeks before I had time to read it. I finished it in tears. It's moving, wrenching, funny. Goodness, it's good.

~  0  ~

Kate Lattey: Dare to Dream
Kindle, £1.88
Click here for details on other ways to download the book - there are plenty. You do not have to have a Kindle.

Age of main characters: 15, older sisters 18 and 21
The occasional swearword, but mild and don't let it put you off.

Kate Lattey's website

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Review: Maggie Dana - Taking Chances

If you've rather lost faith with the Timber Ridge Riders series, take heart. Maggie Dana has excelled herself with the latest episode. 

Taking Chances in the Timber Ridge Riders series is set just before Christmas, so is a good seasonal read. Heroine Kate still needs to ride in one more competition to have any chance of qualifying for the Festival of Horses competition. Unfortunately, an accident means she’s really up against it. As it’s a horse story, it does follow the convention of overcoming physical adversity successfully, but the rest of the plot is readable, funny and perceptive. Best of all, the author has moved away from the model she’s followed in all the previous books, and although arch villain Angela Dean is still present, she doesn’t sabotage Kate, or do her down. Instead, we get to see rather more of Angela’s life, after her mother sells her horse from under her and presents her with another as a fait accompli.

Besides Kate, best friend Holly is present, fizzing with life, and with Kate, plotting their not wholly successful attempts to get their respective parents together. The adults in the book are nicely judged, and it’s particularly good to see boys playing such a large part in a horse story plot too. Brad is doing a good job as Kate’s very good friend, who might be more, and both he, and Adam, Holly’s boyfriend, play a real part of the plot, instead of being characterless add ons.

This is a really enjoyable read: we get to see Kate exploring other worlds, like ski-ing, and parties, and attempting to negotiate the minefields of teenage socialising. What I enjoyed most about this episode in the series was being able to relax and genuinely enjoy it, instead of watching out for predictable plot points. I wanted to find out what happened next, thoroughly enjoyed it when I did, and I’m looking forward to the next episode.

Maggie Dana: Taking Chances
(Timber Ridge Riders, 7)
Paperback: £5.99
Ebook: £1.91

Age of main character - 14

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A quick report on fly grazing and welfare

Even if you live in the inner City, you've probably seen fly grazing, where herds of horses suddenly appear on land that they don't have permission to be on. Near where I used to live, on the Wellingborough embankment, the local council spent thousands some years ago on putting up smart post and rail fencing around its land. Little of it now survives, because it has been removed by people breaking down the fences to graze their ponies. These ponies are regularly, repetitively, complained about on welfare grounds to the local authority, and to World Horse Welfare, the RSPCA... you name it. I've complained myself. My son and I corralled a skewbald who'd got loose one evening until the police turned up to deal with it.

Fly grazing near Irchester
Last year, the Embankment horses were finally removed because of welfare concerns. I don't know what happened to those horses, and I've since moved from the area, but when I drove back that way a couple of months ago, guess what? There are horses back in those fields again. The fields regularly flood, because they're next to the river, and the horses are often seen, huddling on the verge next to the road, where they're fed bread, and goodness' knows what else, by the many people worried about them.

There have been sad cases in our local press of horses found drowned, from herds fly grazing in the flood plains round the River Nene.

Fly grazing isn't restricted just to Wellingborough. Today (26 November, 2013) there was a debate in Westminster Hall on fly grazing, and the need to introduce more effective legislation.

The Welsh Assembly has introduced, and is fast tracking, legislation to make it easier to tackle the problem - the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill. At the moment, any action which can be taken needs ownership to be proved. During the debate, which the BBC streamed live, we heard how owners evade this. Even if ownership is proved, and the culprits are banned from keeping horses, they transfer ownership elsewhere within the family. Some owners have been banned, but blithely ignore this. Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer described a case where a farmer in Osbaldwick had, in a 48 hour period, removed horses fly grazing in one of his fields and mended the fences nine times. During this period, he had been abused and intimidated by the horses' owner, who was banned from keeping horses.

Huw Irranca Davies, Labour MP for Ogmore, reported that the RSPCA have concerns that the family of Tom (Tony) Price, the horse dealer who owned over 2,000 horses, and who was convicted of 57 offences of causing animal suffering, have already been moving horses into England in anticipation of the tightening of Welsh legislation.

If owners are prepared to flout the law, with little danger of prosecution, or to evade it, what is the point, as the Government proposes to do, on relying on a set of laws which they admit rely on ownership of horses being proved before action can be taken?

George Eustice, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, listed the existing pieces of legislation that could be used, and the imminent Acts that could help, but admitted that using all of these depended on ownership being proved. As had already been mentioned in the debate, it is this very fact that allows rogue owners to dance around the law, because they simply deny ownership, or transfer it elsewhere.

The Government spokesman was also was concerned that the proposed Welsh legislation would increase the financial and time burdens on local councils as they dealt with fly grazing and welfare issues.

Surely, if fly grazing is dealt with in a manner which deters it happening again, it is more cost effective than the current persistent, and mostly unsuccessful use of resources which provide only temporary relief for the problem. Alun Cairns, MP for the Vale of Glamorgan had statistics: in his area, one of those which suffer most from fly grazing, there were 1,500 horse-related incidents in the last 13 months alone, which had cost £1.2 million to deal with. In one example, a comprehensive school had to spend £61,000 on a fence to stop horses from being grazed on the school playing fields. If the fences are broken down by those who fly graze, the school will have to find the money again.

The Government's stance seems short-sighted at best, and likely to prolong equine suffering at worst.

Left on the Verge, a report produced by equine welfare charities, including World Horse Welfare, Redwings and the RSPCA, has a wide ranging set of proposals aimed at tackling fly grazing, and welfare concerns caused by indiscriminate breeding:

  • Criminal legislation - make fly grazing a crime
  • Have a better link between horses and their owners so ownership can be proved
  • Education - stop indiscriminate breeding
  • Help landowners resolve fly grazing quickly, amending legislation to allow authorities to seize and assume ownership rather than using the current lengthy abandonment process
  • Work with the traveller community (who are the main proponents, though  not the only ones, of fly grazing) to share best practice
  • Improve enforcement
  • Give more assistance to local authorities
  • Educate the public not to breed indiscriminately
  • Produce guidance notes for landowners to explain what to do if they experience fly grazing

In what I heard during the debate, I did not hear any evidence that the Government is prepared to take any new course of action, but proposes to rely on existing and proposed anti social behaviour legislation. We can only hope it is as successful as the Government hopes.

Read the full transcript of the debate

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Children and Ponies in World War II

I've been doing a lot of research recently into the lot of the domestic rider in World War II. There is a long term point to this, as I'm writing a story about it, but all that lovely research gives me an almost endless parade of excuses for not writing the story (16k so far, in case you're wondering) because I really need to know facts for this. And there are endless things I can find out to add local colour.

I have a virtually complete run of Riding Magazine from its start in 1936 up until the early 1960s, and it is fascinating to read them from the point of view of someone who was born well after the events they describe. I have the benefit of knowing that, despite the editor's fervent hopes, war would not come to an end early in 1940, or the next year, or for some years after. I knew rationing was on the way; that finding horses fodder would be increasingly difficult; that petrol rationing would give the driving pony a boost.

What is really interesting is seeing how the children who read Riding Magazine experienced the war. As far as I'm aware, these magazines offer pretty much the only expression of how the pony loving child experienced riding and pony-owning during the war. There were no dedicated children's horse or pony magazines in the 1930s. All the pony loving child had was the children's section in Riding Magazine. It certainly met a need. Virtually every letter has its child author commending the editor on publishing the magazine, and telling him how much they enjoyed it, and how much they looked forward to it every month. It's tempting to speculate on what happened to the critical letters. Perhaps they simply didn't appear. Perhaps the children flung in soft soap in an effort to get published.

The children's section hit a successful formula pretty much straight off, and stuck with it. Each month there was a story - Golden Gorse's The Young Horsebreakers, with illustrations by Anne Bullen,was serialised in the magazine before its publication. There were monthly competitions, one of which a young Diana Pullein-Thompson won. Her task had been to write a commentary on any article in Riding Magazine. She won, but her piece was never given the promised publication. It had demolished, quite thoroughly, one of the horsey experts of the day, and the editorial team perhaps felt it politic to suppress the criticism.

Owl's Castle Farm, Primrose Cumming, 1942

A regular, and hugely popular feature of the children's section, was the Children's Letter Box. It is one of those things you need to be passionately pony-mad to get anything out of. There's not a great deal of variation in the letters in the early days. Almost every letter is from a child writing in about its pony, or ponies, or the pony they ride at riding school, occasionally accompanied by a photograph.

War was declared in September 1939, and is mentioned in the main editorial of the adult section, with the pious hope that horses will continue to provide much needed relief from stress for those in the armed forces. It goes un-noticed in the Children's Letter Box. Child after child continues to write in. In the Letter Box of December 1939, June Wildes (age 9) of Vermont has a pony called Misty, and rides on the dirt roads of Vermont. 14 year old Peggy Roberts' uncle has lent her his black pony Trixie. Even Peggy's eyes of love can't make the photographed Trixie, with her slab head and thick neck, appear attractive. The photograph "does not show her off at all well, she looks a lot better really."  There is an Exmoor pony called Ladybird, who climbs up the steps to the house for her titbit, and Clean Sweep, who's been shipped out to his owner in Bombay, clearing a fence at the open jumping.

The correspondents appear a solid cross section of middle England and the Empire, but one of the longest letters, from 15 year old Jean Wyndham, is from a child who can't ride, and who spends her holidays at different holiday homes because her parents are abroad, but who seems remarkably cheerful despite it all. One of her holiday homes sounds tantalising: they kept horses, but Jean couldn't afford to ride them. Jean makes up for her lack of riding with sharp observation. Here she is talking about a pony called Memories:
"It was the most amazing whinny I have ever heard. It started with astonishment and hurt feelings, it went on to indignation and disappointment, then to rage and jealousy, and ended with a mix-up of the whole lot!"
By October 1939, Poland had surrendered to the Germans, and British troops were in France. By December, u-boats had mined the Thames estuary, and the Soviets had invaded Finland. Meat rationing had begun in Britain, but British children seem to be carrying on their equine life pretty much as normal. Lady Hickman, District Commissioner of the Albrighton Hunt branch of the Pony Club, wrote at the end of 1939 that children below the age of fifteen should be spared the realities of war, and the children of the New Forest Hunts Branch of the Pony Club certainly seemed to think so. They were a tough lot, those thirties children. They held a mock hunt on December 28, 1939. It snowed, and by the time the riders reached Wilverley Corner, all traces of the trail were covered by snow. However, the 28 members who turned up “seemed to enjoy the novelty of hunting in a snow storm, and anyhow had something to talk about when they got home.” Major P P Curtis provided hot drinks and eats at his house in Burley “much appreciated by those who had to ride as much as 10 miles home in the snow.”

The letters page continued to reflect a life lived as normal. The first hint of change came from a letter surely written by the child's mother. It is nominally from Colin Lewis, aged 4, of London SW3, and appeared in the January 1940 edition. Colin may well of course have been as fluent a correspondent as his letter suggests, but I've written this sort of letter for my infants. I know the form (I've even done it for the dog). It's surely Colin's Mummie's view of the war that's being shown here, with the desperate gloss being put on Colin's imminent evacuation:

"Now the war is here, I am going away to a boarding school in the West, but Mummie has packed all my RIDING books for company, as they are such nice friends to me, and she is going to send it to me every month."

It's a heart-wrenching letter, because little Colin at the time of writing probably had no idea of the reality of what was about to happen to him, and the company of Riding magazines was going to be a pretty poor substitute for his Mummie. Poor Mummie too, sending her very young child off, with the promise of ponies in magazines to keep him company.

The rest of the letters in the January edition, and almost all of them in the February edition, show children who were carrying on as before. There is one glaring exception. Laure De Noailles, fifteen at the time, and daughter of Marie-Laure de Noaille, whom Wikipedia describes as "one of the 20th century's most daring and influential patrons of the arts" lived at Fontainbleu. France, like Britain, had a programme through which the Army bought up horses for use during the war. Laure sent in a photograph of her grey mare, Panda.
"She was grey, five years old, and with a lovely action. Unfortunately, she and my father’s hunter were taken last month by the army. My polo pony, Flora, and skewbald pony, Herlequine, were too small for the army, also my sister’s little pony, so we luckily still have them.
Laure ended her letter with the obligatory compliments to Riding.  Laure, and her parents and sister, survived the war. Whether Panda, the hunter, Flora, Herlequine and her sister's little pony did, I doubt. 

Photographs: I'd love to illustrate this with photographs from the magazine, but copyright laws prohibit it, as the taker of the photographs is known. I've put in a war-time pony story instead.