Jill’s Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson (Hodder & Stoughton, 1949)
The ‘Jill’ series is one of the most-loved range of pony books I can think of. Jill, and her best friend Ann Derry, are as pony-mad as any self-respecting heroines could be. However, Jill’s path to pony ownership is quite unusual.
A while back I reviewed Jackie Won a Pony, which also kicks off a series with the acquisition of a pony under interesting circumstances. Jill’s mother is a single parent struggling to earn a living from writing, so having a pony is really out of the question even though their tiny cottage has a field next door.
When Jill befriends a local pony, she hears his story from the farmer who bought him for his daughter, only for her to lose interest in riding. The farmer offers Jill a really good deal if she wants to buy Danny Boy, and (somehow) she and her mother are able to scrape together enough money. After that, Jill works at a local stable to fund hay and other necessities.
The tale of how Jill comes to get a pony is interesting, partly because many pony stories begin with children who already own horses and that fact is entirely taken for granted. However, what is perhaps more surprising is that when the book begins Jill cannot ride at all and has no experience of even putting tack on a pony. Astonishingly, she doesn’t even appreciate that Danny Boy needs to be groomed. Her journey to competent horsewoman is the backbone of the narrative.
This makes the book more accessible than many pony stories because it can easily be read by someone interested in horses but with no experience of being around them. I love all pony books, but it is true that many of them assume a degree of knowledge about horses.
Jill’s personal development comes because she is a hard worker and keen to learn. She listens carefully to advice from her mentors and always tries her best to get it right. This is the moral of the story
On balance, however, the effect is greatly softened by Jill’s scatter brained and occasionally unobservant approach to life, which is generally put right by her mother. Jill is a relatable heroine and this makes her incredibly likeable. Her adoration of her pony and joy at owning him completes the picture.
Two of the things I most liked about the Jill series were the presence of a disabled character, Martin, who is a fully developed character, and the portrayal of a single mother managing as best she could. These are two very marginalised people, brought centre stage.
Jill’s tale moves steadily through being incompetent on a horse through basic proficiency to a satisfying level of ability, recognised at the horse show towards the end. It is just the beginning of Jill’s adventures, all of which I remember as a cherished part of childhood.
Thank you for reading my review of Jill's Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson. I'll be back on Wednesday. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor Brent Dyer here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn here.