Writer Victoria Eveleigh shares her life with many animals and this year, in partnership with her publisher Orion Children’s Books, has donated five sets of ‘Joe and the Hidden Horsehoe Trilogy’ as prizes for National Pet Month supporters. Look out for our Retweet competition on Twitter to be in with a chance of winning.
Here Victoria (pictured with husband Chris, Tinkerbell the Exmoor pony and Sherman the Shire Horse ) talks about her home on an Exmoor farm and how the animals in her life have influenced her writing.
One of my children’s favourite books when they were young was Bonny’s Big Day by James Herriot. It’s about a farmer called John Skipton who enters his retired carthorse, Dolly, into the Family Pets Class at Darrowby Show. However, the Show Secretary asks them to leave because the mare is a working horse, not a pet. In the end, James Herriot has to intervene, arguing that Dolly has been retired for 12 years and is kept entirely for Mr Skipton’s pleasure; she is therefore a pet, albeit a big one!
As James Herriot points out, pets are animals that we keep for their own sake rather than for what they can do for us. This makes them very useful things for authors to include in stories because (as in real life) the type of pet someone has and how they treat it speaks volumes about that person. I warmed to Mr Skipton the moment I found out he’d given his carthorses a home for life even though he didn’t need them to work anymore because he had a tractor.
My books are essentially horse and pony stories, but other animals play important parts as well. Pets can be incredibly useful in all sorts of ways. For instance, in this piece from the opening chapter of Joe and The Hidden Horseshoe I’ve used pets to tell the reader about Joe, his family and what’s happening:
He scuffed his foot against the frayed patch of carpet which Rex, his hamster, had chewed in an attempt to make a nest under the bed. Rex had lived to a good age, despite being a brilliant escapologist, but he’d died just over a year ago. Joe didn’t have a pet now. He’d wanted a dog ever since he could remember, but Mum and Dad had said it was out of the question while they were living in Birmingham and working full-time as teachers.
One good thing about moving to the country was he’d been promised a dog. It looked as if they’d have horses and ponies as well, because Mum and Emily were determined to get one, or two, or as many as possible. Joe was sure Emily would hate the hard work of actually looking after one – she wouldn’t even clean out her goldfish because it made her feel sick – but she was ridiculously excited about it all.
I often choose animals I’ve had as pets myself. For instance, when I was growing up in London I had a hamster and several goldfish. All sorts of memories can come in handy when you’re writing a story, and I can still remember trying to balance a sloppy container of goldfish on my lap when we drove on holiday to my grandparents’ house in Kent. Here’s another paragraph from Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe:
Joe and Emily were unable to move for luggage. The goldfish container was wedged on the car seat between them. When the car changed direction or speed, water leaked out of the ventilation holes and dribbled onto the seat
For the past thirty years or so I’ve lived on a farm on Exmoor with my husband Chris, who illustrates my books, and (like Joe and his family) as soon as I moved to the country I acquired a dog and a pony, or two, or as many as possible… On our farm we have sheep, cattle, horses, ponies, chickens, a cat and three dogs.
Horses and ponies are central to all my stories. Are they pets? I suppose it depends what they’re kept for. And what about the free-living ponies that graze Britain’s moorlands? They have owners, so they’re not truly wild, but they are mostly unhandled and fend for themselves throughout the year.
My herd of Exmoor ponies, which I keep on the moorland above our farm, are definitely pets because they give me a lot of pleasure and are a loss-making enterprise! Nevertheless, they’ve earned their keep by providing me with plenty of inspiration for my Katy’s Ponies Trilogy. They’ve also allowed me to experience the thrill of touching and taming an unhandled animal – something both Katy in Katy’s Wild Foal and Jenny in A Stallion Called Midnight discover for themselves. A strong theme running through both books is that if you tame a free-living animal you effectively turn it into a pet; it learns to rely on you, so you become responsible for it. I first encountered this idea when I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a child, and it made a lasting impression on me.
Farm animals are domesticated, but they generally aren’t encouraged to become pets. However, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Our son was very keen on falconry when he was growing up, and he trained one of our chickens (‘Harriet the Hen Harrier’) to fly onto his fist when he called her.
Chickens, and a homemade hen house called Cluckingham Palace, feature in Joe and the Lightning Pony.
Other farm animals not generally credited with a high IQ are sheep, and yet some lambs can become incredibly tame if they’re bottle-reared. This year, for instance, we have a pet lamb called Phil, named after National Pet Month’s Chairman Phil Sketchley, but that’s another story…