Rowan Pelling: Well I had the hat and the boots...

There is one thing for which I will never forgive my parents - being too poor to buy me a pony
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The Independent Online

What sentient human being isn't moved to mirth by a newspaper headline such as: "Mother in gymkhana pony-doping scandal"? Kim Baudains, the "ambitious mother" of an 11-year-old rider, was supposedly seen feeding mints to his rivals' ponies at the final of the Under-16 Show Jumper of the Year in Jersey. Later, a couple of the animals seemed woozy and, according to the Pony Club gossips, a sedative pill was found on the ground near one animal. Mrs Baudains tearfully denied all charges and police have said no prosecution will be made.

The alleged foul play was a scenario straight out of the pony books of my youth. I know it's customary nowadays to claim your childhood reading was Proust and St Thomas Aquinas, but two-thirds of the shelving in my childhood bedroom was taken up with volumes with such wide-ranging titles as: I Wanted a Pony, The Pony Seekers,Five Ponies and Shannan, Six Ponies and, lest you hadn't got the point, Plenty of Ponies. Many were by the three Pullein-Thompson sisters, who led such a charmed life that they set up their own riding school.

Ponies, ponies everywhere - except in my own garden. In the books it seemed so easy to acquire one. A girl from a genteel but impecunious family would go to the market where a gypsy would sell her an "over-spirited" pony for a couple of shillings. Her mother would sigh and say: "Jolly good thing there's that old loose box in the yard. We could use the orchard as a paddock." Then our heroine would re-school the pony from a library book and before you could say "Pat Smythe" she'd be going for gold.

On her way to glory there would be an encounter with a brash mum and her snotty-nosed kid, with a couple of professionally trained ponies, a groom and a spanking new horsebox in tow. As you may have gathered from my pony book titles, it's fine to have more than one pony so long as you're self-consciously shabby and amateur, rather than ambitious or nouveau.

It took me a while to work out that my own family's shabbiness was genuine, unlike the patched hacking jacket dishevelment of the children in the books. Our lack of cash didn't affect my childhood (poor but happy, etc) except in the incredible cruelty of being denied a pony. If I had bought a horse at market, my mum would have sighed before turning it into stew, shoes and a fireside rug; she was a genius at recycling.

I adored my mother but sometimes couldn't help wishing for a super-pushy pony mum who shared my 24/7 fixation with all things horse. I had to make do with the one short course of riding lessons my mother saved for as a "special treat", where a procession of children on leading reins trotted dismally around an arena on bored ponies.

Much is made of pony-mad girls who owned ponies and pony-phobic girls who scorned their horsey families. But there's another brooding army of pony girls: those of us who yearned for a pony with every fibre of our being, yet never acquired one. We have similar tales to tell. Take the pointless accumulation of pony accessories: brushes, bits of tack, hoof polish and one of those tools for removing stones from hooves. Bedroom walls were covered in hand-made rosettes and old ticket stubs from the Horse of the Year Show. Rows of china horses sat by the pony books.

I owned jodhpurs, riding boots, a whip and hardhat throughout my youth, but only rode a dozen times in all. My mind was one big, grassy plain full of proud thoroughbreds with names like Comet and Jet. More than that, I spent half my imaginative life being a horse - usually a black stallion (make of that what you will). Another friend thought of her imaginary horses as "boyfriends", rather like Wilhelmina in Third Year at Malory Towers, of whose horse, Thunder, Enid Blyton wrote: "He was lovely ... showing her as plainly as possible that he adored every bit of his freckled little mistress."

Common wisdom has it that pony-crazed girls graduallyexchange equine lust for the human variety. But in my experience those of us who have experienced "unrequited" love for horses, find our obsession harder to slough off. To this day if someone says: "I have a present for you", I can't help responding: "Is it a pony?" One former colleague, Susanna Forrest, has the bug worse. At work she was surrounded by equine figures in My Little Pony T-shirts, a Black Beauty screen-saver and a list of her top 100 horses ever on the wall. Happily, she has now harnessed her obsession and is halfway through The Pony Cult: "a book for every grown-up girl who never owned a horse but wished she had". It may not be a pony, but it's the next best thing.

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