Tales for Horse Lovers – Part 1

We are delighted to have received this piece about Pembrokeshire author Gillian Baxter from CAROLINE JULER. We are certain it will delight all of you horse lovers out there

Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

‘The road seemed to have been climbing for miles. Ahead the rising surface glistened in the headlights, damp from the last shower, and on either side banks rose into the featureless darkness of the open moorland. The old Transit was labouring, its engine roaring, and there was a smell of hot metal… Patsy peered into the darkness, hoping for somewhere to pull off the road… [She] switched off the engine. The silence was miraculous, flooding into the cab and singing in [her] ears.’ – Excerpt from Vacant Possession by Gillian Baxter.

Gillian Baxter lives about a mile from me. I used to see her on horseback at least once a week, a slight, quietly determined figure trotting along our lane on a little black pony. Apart from the fact that her daughters rode in competitions and they rented out a covered school, I didn’t know anything else about her. It was only a couple of months ago that I learned she was also a writer of popular horse stories.

Raised in Kent, in ‘an ordinary middle-class family’ – her father was an economist and her mother a teacher – Gillian learnt to ride in Hyde Park and earned the cash for her lessons by working in the stables. She wrote her first full-length stories when she was nine. They were about her pet guinea pigs ‘having adventures’.

Gillian published her first book, Horses and Heather, in 1956. Since then she has written 29 books. All except one are on equestrian themes. The odd one out is The Knightsgate Players (1966) which was inspired by her own experience of running an amateur touring company. Gillian started the troupe with her husband, Peter, who had a good singing voice. It was called The Entertainers, and was based in Surrey. The actors were all friends and they used to perform in hospitals and care homes for the elderly.

It was two series of horse novels that made her name. One revolves around a riding school called Bracken and is for readers aged 18+. The other is about a pair of Shetland driving ponies called Magic and Moonshine. These second stories, also known known as the Pantomime Ponies, are aimed at children of about ten. Then, in the late 1960s, she got the chance to write scripts for some of DC Thomson’s girl comics. Thomson is famous for publishing the Beano (which is still going strong) but before television usurped the market, the Dundee-based firm printed a huge list of graphic magazine titles for children and adults. Gillian had to produce storylines for Mandy and Judy two or three times a week, fantastic training for a writer of any genre. She created the character of Wendy, who lives on in various takes, the latest of which has seen her appearing on the Horse and Country television channel. 

Gillian also writes under her married name of Gillian Hirst. Because I hadn’t read any of her books, she lent me four of them, The Difficult Summer (1959) and Horses and Challenges at Bracken (2019, both from the Bracken series), Ponies in Harness (Pantomime Ponies, 1977) and With Vacant Possession? (2018). Gillian was shielding from the pandemic and a few weeks later, I left her a set of written questions which she answered on the phone.

‘There’s no particular reason why I write; it just seems to be natural,’ she told me matter-of-factly. ‘I wasn’t trying to reach anyone.’

Why were horses so important to you? ‘I don’t know why… I was always very attracted by them… Some people can be born that way.’

Which people and places have shaped your work? ‘Probably Tony Pratt, who ran the De Vere stables in Kensington, where I learnt to ride… Everyone loved him’. Tony was the model for Guy, one of the two leading characters in the Bracken books, the other being Bobby, a teenage girl who works at the yard and has a brilliant showjumper called Shelta.

What about literary role models? Diana Pullein-Thompson was an inspiration; she was secretary to Gillian’s first agent. After writing several of the Bracken stories, Gillian wanted to explore more demanding themes, like relationships between people, and sex. Her publishers wouldn’t have it – ‘you can’t mix pony books and Woman’s Own‘ – and her agent persuaded her to write for a younger readership instead. Hence the Pantomime Ponies.

Look out for Part 2 coming soon from Caroline… with reviews of the books of Gillian Baxter.

Caroline Juler (above) is a travel writer with a number of books to her name; she is also a film maker, art critic and reviewer. You can find out more about her in our previous article.

To find work by Caroline Juler:

Searching for Sarmizegetusa – the online version from https://amsterdampublishers.com/books/searching-for-sarmizegetusa/

Print versions from https://www.abebooks.com/9781899530113/Searching-Sarmizegetusa-Starborn-Paperbacks-Caroline-1899530118/plp

Other books include Blue Guide Romania, National Geographic Traveler Romania and Les Orientalistes de l’Ecole Italienne.

To contact Caroline: carolinejuler@gmail.com.

To see Caroline’s videos: visit Caroline Juler on YouTube and Vimeo.

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