Why are there so few ponies in picture books?
Pony-mad girls love reading about horses and ponies. That’s why there are so many pony books published. But nearly all of them are novels aimed at children who can read for themselves.
The situation is quite different for the under 6s. Picture book stories feature loads of rabbits and bears, quite a lot of penguins and a fair sprinkling of elephants. But, with the exception of the books linked to the My Little Pony toys, there are very few horses and ponies.
That can’t be because of lack of demand. Those pony-mad girls grow into pony-mad mums who want to read pony stories to their toddlers. So I suspect the true reasons for this shortage is horses themselves and the special problems they present to picture book writers and illustrators.
Horses are really difficult to draw.
Their legs are so complicated. Rabbits, bears and elephants are a much easier option, and penguins are a doddle
It’s hard to think of a story about a real horse that will resonate with small children.
Although picture book stories cover a huge range of settings and topics, the themes in them need to be ones that under 6s can relate too. That's hard to do with domesticated horses. They don’t live in family groups. They spend their non-working time in fields or stables so they don’t have the opportunity to wander off on their own and get lost. They get no say in where they live, who they share their field with or what they do everyday. And faced with danger, they are definitely not heroic. The bravest thing they are likely to do is not run away, and that doesn’t make a good story.
“Aah” I hear you saying. “What about all those imaginary animals in picture books – the ones that run around behaving like humans? Can’t they be horses?” Which brings us to:
Horses don’t have hands.
Of course, that’s true of those other imaginary animals too. But the ever popular rabbits and bears have soft paws that bend so it’s easy to imagine them acting like hands, penguins have flippers that easily look like arms and elephants have bendy trunks that can pick things up. Horses, in contrast, have hooves that are hard and rigid. You can’t get much less like a hand than that.
Those three reasons are so strong that it’s not surprising there are so few horses in picture books. In fact, it’s more surprising that there are any horses at all. Sometimes they get there because a pony-mad author can’t resist putting one in. Sometimes an idea for a story has to involve a horse and sometimes a character just can’t be anything else. That’s what happened with Doctor Hoof who sprang into my head complete with mane, tail and stethoscope when my grandson mispronounced Doctor Who.
Whichever is true, you can be sure of one thing. If there’s a horse in the story, the illustrator will have a difficult job, because horses really are hard to draw.