Horse fiction is one of literature’s deepest genres and yet it is often dismissed as lacking in substance. Let’s start with Black Beauty by Anna Sewell – you have all heard of this novel from 1877, but are you with familiar with the book’s impact on animal welfare?
Black Beauty is one of bestselling books of all time and offers many messages about the mistreatment of animals. Sewell did not write the book for children but for horses. She wrote at a time when horses were essential working animals, and the book sparked animal welfare campaigns and helped to alter how harmful reins and blinkers were used.
Narrated by the horse in the first person, the novel moves from farm life to the harsh world of pulling cabs in London where hardship and cruelty is commonplace. The book offers a remarkable insight into the Victorian taxi cab industry and pre-mechanised London, and can hardly be cast aside as ‘soft’ literature.
Black Beauty did launch the pony book genre, which means novels about companionship and equestrian skills suitable for young girls who love horses, but horse novels go way beyond these slim volumes.
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold and The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley have given hours of joy to millions of readers, and their themes - from adventures on horseback to the bonds of animal companionship - have wide appeal.
Zane Grey loved writing horse stories as they were integral to the Wild West of his fiction – Wild Horse Mesa, Valley of Wild Horses and Horse Heaven Hill are just three that spring to mind. Dick Francis wrote numerous thrillers based around Britain’s horse racing industry and loved to depict the sport’s seedy underbelly. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses lends some heavyweight credibility to the genre, while War Horse by Michael Murpurgo is a fine young adult novel that packs an emotional punch amid the devastation of the World War I trenches.
This selection is fictional but we also recommend Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand as the best non-fiction horse book of recent times.