Jill's Gymkhana

by Ruby Ferguson

Rating: ★★

Okay, so everyone knows that an important part of being a normal teenage (tweenage?) girl is loving horses (or ponies). So far as I know, there is no comprehensive explanation of why this particular hobby so dominates the hearts and minds of the fairer sex, but then again when I was a kid I was completely obsessed with dinosaur trivia, and at least you can actually ride a pony. (My efforts to dig up dinosaur skeletons in the back of the playground did not bear much fruit, sadly, and anyway skeletons lack the viscera for visceral thrills.)

So anyway, reading a pony book has to be part of my research. We've established that. Ferguson's series is (I am told) a solid central example of the genre, so I won't be going far wrong. It even sells itself by talking about how Jill is a total beginner who makes loads of mistakes with her pony, so I should be able to pick it all up as I go, right?

"Now before we go any further I had better say that if you are blasé about ponies you had better put this book down"

Yeah, no. Jill might not have ever actually handled a pony before, but of course she knows absolutely everything about them, and assumes that the reader must be the same, and is totally familiar with all sorts of titles like 'M.F.H' and 'hard woman from hounds' which ordinary pedestrians like me wouldn't have the foggiest about. The book is actually quite clever about this when it comes to pony handling, as it follows all of Jill's 'and as of course you know' statements with very precise descriptions of how to brush or mount your pony, so that, well, of course the young know-it-all reading this book will know this information when it becomes vital to their future relationships with ponies. As a know-it-all myself, I appeciate the effort.

Anyway, there is also plot to this book. The plot is that Jill wants a pony, because Jill is an 11-year-old girl, and Jill gets a pony, because Jill is an incredibly lucky 11-year-old girl. The blurb on the back of the book would have you believe that the story is about how Jill has to work really hard to afford her pony. That blurb is a complete lie. Jill gets a pony because she sees a pony in a field near her house and nobody wants that pony so the farmer offers to sell it to her for some ridiculously low price (£25, old money) which is nonetheless well outside of anything Jill could ask for from her mother. Mother, however, just so happens to get a massive windfall around then and gives her daughter £30 with which, yes, she buys a pony and gets a load of pony gear for free. And they keep it in their back garden which it later turns out includes not only an orchard, but a hay field (!) and a stable (!). Because anyone could just miss a freakin' stable out back. Needless to say, I do not buy the 'we don't have much' narrative this story tries to present.

Jill learns to ride because she runs into a wheelchaired guy at a gymkhana who just straight offers to teach her, and I am about 90% confident that he was putting the moves on her mother, who starts getting really bent out of shape about obligations to the guy, which of course Jill just ignores. Jill moans about not having fancy riding gear, and eventually just buys some using some of her mom's money. There is a sort of training montage about Jill learning to ride her pony, and at the end there is a weird timeskip which seems to point to the book being partially based on life experience, as all sorts of previously unmentioned characters show up in the final gymkhana where Jill wins a bunch of ribbons (but not, we note, in her first gymkhana, which would be the obvious if implausible narrative solution).

I didn't actually enjoy the book. The writing took a 'voice' for Jill which was a bit too cloying and twee, and had weird interjected parenthetical excuses that only drew attention to passages where Jill exhibited a wider vocabulary than you (or, rather, Ferguson) might expect of a 14-year-old girl. I'm also not actually very interested in ponies, so the, uh, charm of the book is a bit wasted. The morals of all the short vignettes in the book were all about how being polite and nice is better behaviour than being sensible. Nonetheless, I have to give the book its due. It pushes a pony-based value system of mucking out and putting lots of effort into something you love, and while I can't really 'get' it, I can sort of appreciate that from afar.

PS: It hardly seems worth saying, but there are ponies out of the wazoo in this book. Every girl in Jill's class seems to have a pony and they are all competitive riders who show up to all the events. You can certainly forgive the impressionable child reading this book for thinking that ponies must actually be quite cheap and if her parents don't get her one it's probably just because they're evil.