The Horsemasters by Don Stanford

This horse story is based on real life, in particular, the daily chores of caring for horses at a riding school in Great Britain. I never read this title as a child, but discovered it recently and loved it!

1957 Funk & Wagnalls first edition hardcover
1957 Funk and Wagnalls first edition

The majority of horse books for children and young adults tend to glamorize horse ownership. There are exceptions, of course, but few books really dig into the sheer work that owning a horse entails and this is what I loved here. Details like feeding the horse on time, keeping it groomed, cleaning its stall, its tack and treating its ailments are often only casually mentioned or completely ignored in other books. But it’s just these tidbits that bring home what owning a horse might be like.

Basing his fictional tale on the very real Porlock Vale Equestrian Centre in Great Britain, Mr. Stanford gives us chapter after chapter of mucking out, cleaning yards, grooming, treating horse ailments, having falls and other riding incidents, and creates a wonderfully entertaining read from the everyday life of a student!

Horse care is quickly addressed in a quote from the first chapter:

“There is, y’know!” Peanuts agreed with feeling and ran a hand through her mop of auburn curls. “If I’d had any idea how much personal service the tyrannical things demand every single day, I’d’ve pestered Father for a car instead of a show-jumper.”

Followed by the main character, Dinah:

Laughing at Peanut’s mournful expression, she agreed, “Bee Bye was counting it up last night in the Blue Room; I don’t know where you were. It adds up to over three hours a day we spend on stable work and grooming, not counting cleaning tack or yards and brasses or anything like that. And it has to be spread over thirteen hours between morning feed and night watering, which makes it kind of confining, to say the least. And we only ride two hours a day….”

I think the tallying up of work vs. actual riding time is brilliant. Parents whose children are agitating for a horse of their own can’t do better than acquainting their offspring with this book! It’s speculation on my part, but perhaps the author wrote this for his own daughter to whom he dedicated the book?

But on to the story …

The book follows an American girl, Dinah, who has traveled to England to obtain her instructor’s certificate from the British Horse Society’s Horsemastership course. If successful, she will work her way through college as a riding instructor.

However, Dinah has not had the past experience with horses that the other students have had. She’s prepared to work hard, but has doubts about passing. She also harbors a fear of falling. Her assigned horse, Corny P. is no one’s ideal mount, yet she later learns his true value. Things don’t always go smoothly in the schooling ring, however!

When you failed to execute a command properly in the Captain’s dressage class, the Captain screamed at you as though your incredible and incomparable stupidity had finally driven him, a patient and forbearing man, beyond the limits of human endurance. It was enough to make you wish a hole would open in the earth beneath you, and drain you and your horse to China in a torrent of sand and sawdust.

I had a few riding lessons as a child, and the above rang true! While my instructor didn’t quite scream, I felt the just the same about being singled out!

I also enjoy the way school horses are given distinctive personalities:

And then Cotton Socks, who positively hated jumping, resignedly took a step forward. He eyed the cross-pole suspiciously, while Sally continued to kick and belabor him and shriek in his ear, and twitched his haunches delicately like a fat woman in a tight corset to get his hocks under him; then he reluctantly hopped over the first pole.

This brought him face to face with the second cross-pole, and Cotton Socks stopped dead and sized up the situation. He had just jumped over a pole like this, reluctantly and against his better judgment, because this fool girl on his back had made such a fuss about it, and now look where it had got him! There was another pole just like it, and beyond this one there were others, a whole long row of ’em.

Dinah and the other students are offered learning opportunities with various horse ailments, they witness a treatment of lampas, they learn how to give a colic drench and Dinah has to treat her horse for thrush. On an afternoon off, we find the students attempting to manufacture their own hay wisps.

To keep the students on their toes (and create plot suspense), the students are divided into two “rides” to compete for the right to attend a Hunter Trials. I won’t give away more here but the story resolves quite satisfactorily!

The Horsemasters
Editions include the 1957 first American edition by Funk and Wagnalls, a 1958 British edition by George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd. (illustrated by Michael Lyne) and a 1964 Scholastic Books paperback edition (illustrated by Al Brulé).

Later softcover editions exist, but copies may run more than you’d expect. Luckily, the book has been scanned by the Internet Archive and may be borrowed from the Open Library. I advise reading a PDF as other formats could contain text errors due to lack of any proofreading.

Disney created a 1961 movie based on this book starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk. The movie offers nice horse action and may be found on YouTube here, although it is not entirely faithful to the book. There’s also a ten-minute YouTube video featuring the Porlock Vale Equestrian Centre.

Donald Kent Stanford (1918–1992) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His education included the Drexel Institute of Technology, the Foreign Service Institute and the University of Paris. Stanford was a literary nomad who moved about on various continents supporting himself by writing novels, short stories, film and TV scripts. His magazine writing in the 1950s included stories and serialized novels for True magazine.

A sports car enthusiast, he raced cars in competition. His first novel was The Slaughtered Lovelies, a mystery with a sports car theme. But it was his third novel, The Red Car, written for a younger audience and featuring a 1948 MG-TC Midget, that became extremely popular with sports car fans. This was followed by other novels geared towards teenagers, but of these, only The Horsemasters achieved similar popularity.

He had a son, Donald Kent Stanford, Jr. and a daughter, Kathy Llewellyn Stanford Clarke. Mr. Stanford died in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.