Pippa’s Pony Tales
Pippa Funnell is well-known for her equestrian achievements. She was a three-time Olympic medalist and Rolex Grand Slam winner in 2003. She is also the author of a series of books for children, Pippa’s Pony Tales.
In this episode, Pippa talks to Nikki Gamble about how her love of horses inspired the books and how she hopes they will encourage children to follow their dreams and be prepared to work hard to achieve them.
in the reading corner today, I’m thrilled to be welcoming Pippa Funnell, who, as lots of listeners will know, has a long string of achievements in the equestrian world. She’s a three-time Olympic medallist and Rolex Grand Slam winner in 2003. Today, we’re talking to Pippa because she is also the author of a series of eighteen children’s books about Tilly and her love of horses. So, probably, there’s some autobiographical connection there.
It’s called Pippa’s Pony Tales. I want to start off by thanking you for joining me at what I imagine is a very busy time of the year because Burghley’s coming up very soon.
Thank you, firstly, for having me on this podcast.
Yeah, it’s a very busy time of year. My whole life seems to be pretty manic, but, building up to Burghley is one of the big events of the autumn season. I’ve got an old campaigner going there, a horse called Maja’s Hope, who’s very dear to me. I’ve had him for many years. And then soon after, we go to Blenheim, and then I go to France with another horse. So it is all pretty active at the moment,
We’re talking about books today, and knowing that I was going to be talking to you, I thought about my own childhood reading. I wasn’t somebody who followed. all the horse and pony stories. But I was reminded that I read a book by Marguerite Henry called Stormy: Misty’s Foal. I don’t think it was the first book that she’d written, but it was the first one that was gifted to me. And I did read National Velvet by Enid Bagnold as well.
I wondered whether you were reading horse and pony stories, or whether you were reading other things.
I have to say I was one of those pony-mad kids. I think probably from the day I could first walk I was besotted by them., I loved the story, Black Beauty. When I was a child, the series of Black Beauty was on the telly.
And then a little bit later, probably when I was 11 or 12, I was hugely influenced by Lucinda Green, who was at that time one of the top event riders in the world. She won the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials on six occasions, but she wrote a series of books. The first one was Up and Away, and It was the true life story of her and her first horse and how he went from pony club to the world championships.
That really influenced and inspired me. I was passionate about her books, and I learned a lot from them. And what is very special is that during my career I have come to know Lucinda very well and I call her now a very dear friend.
I imagine you’ve got a very full life, and writing eighteen books is no mean feat. So, there must have been something driving you to take the time to write this number of books. What was it?
I admit if someone had come to me and said, would you be interested in writing eighteen books? I would have said, ‘no way’.
On the back of winning the Grand Slam in 2003, I was persuaded to write an autobiography, which I did, and it was very successful. I also was involved in some computer games. So, I think that is why Fiona Kennedy and her team approached me to ask if I would be interested in writing children’s stories. My initial reaction was, there was absolutely no way I would have the time. But then, of course, she’d planted the seed. At the time, I drove a big horse box all over Europe and spent a lot of time on the roads and going on long rides with the horses as part of their fitness programmes. So that got me thinking about what I would write about if I wrote a children’s book. Then I thought it would be a really good way to educate children and pass on some of what I’ve learned in a fun sort of way. That was what triggered it and then my imagination probably got a bit carried away.
I got back in touch with Fiona and said, ‘Funnily enough, I’ve got this rather farfetched story’.
And she went with it. And the lovely thing is the story evolved. The more I went on down a certain path, the easier it was. The difficult bit was getting started, getting the main characters and the main plot.
Initially, I wondered how it would be possible to find enough to write eighteen books but as I’ve been reading the stories, I realise you have threaded through many of the things that you feel passionate about.
Let’s talk a little bit, about Tilly. Of course, I will ask the obvious question: whether she’s modelled on you in any way.
I would probably have to say yes, but it wasn’t planned. I had thought that Angela, who’s the main lady at Silver Shoe Farm, would be modelled on me because she teaches in the way I teach. But Tilly is that pony-mad kid full of dreams. I had those wild dreams that I would go to these amazing competitions when I was older. And yes, for me. The dream came true. It was a lot of hard work, but I did absolutely stick by following my dreams and so that part was very much, me, So I would say I would cover both those two characters.
Does Silver Shoe Farm reflect your own stud as well?
It’s a mixture. I wanted to include The World Horse Welfare factor because I’m a patron of the charity, and I’m passionate about it.
However, my husband and I have a busy sport horse stud. He has show jumpers, and I have event horses. We have our competition horses, but we don’t take in rescue horses. We don’t have riding school horses where people come from outside to ride. And it’s not a livery yard where people come and keep their horses. It’s a proper competition yard but the way the horses are managed in Silver Shoe Farm is how we would manage them.
The only way I could really follow my dreams was by leaving school, going away from home and going to a yard where I served an apprenticeship for nine years. I based Silver Shoe on the yard run by the amazing lady where I served that apprenticeship because that was more a yard where different people and different children came in the holidays to train. And all sorts of horses and ponies came to her yard.
So the first book is Magic Spirit, and this is where you’re really setting up the story for us. What were the important things for you in the first book?
I’ve been successful in my career, but I would say I don’t have the greatest talent. However, what I’ve always believed in is empathy; climbing into a horse’s mind is very important. I do feel that horses like me, and I really love them. I wanted to get across the way that Tilly can get into horses’ heads and has a calming effect on them. They are completely relaxed with her.
I had a plaited horsehair bracelet that was from a wonderful horse I rode. Tragically, when he was at home with the owners, he died from colic, and we were all so upset about it. But they took some of his tail, and they had it braided into some lovely bracelets. At the time, friendship bracelets were popular in school. And that gave me the idea of introducing friendship bracelets into the story.
I thought there would be a Native American connection. That’s where the adoption came from. I have a lovely ride where I go hacking and I pass by a garden that always has a teepee in the garden and it’s called Tiger Lily. That’s what gave me the idea of the main character. Tilly is mad about horses and has all the magazines, but I had to think about how she would get involved with her first horse.
And that was when I had the wild idea that Magic Spirit was a horse that had been badly treated and was frightened and alarmed but Tilly would be the one to calm him. And yes, it was far-fetched, but that’s how I am with the horses.
Can anyone develop that empathetic approach with horses?
I am absolutely sure everyone could. But I think people can get nervous because they are intimidated by a horse’s size. If you portray that you are nervous, the horses are clever, and they sense it. That’s the amazing thing about animals, isn’t it?
How you treat horses is how you want to be treated as a person. I often say, that if you want to have a good friend, you’ve got to be a good friend, and that is the same with the horses; if you treat them well, they’re really rewarding. You’ve got to be consistent. They’ve still got to understand the rules. We must respect them. They must respect us. But it’s not done in an aggressive, forceful way, which is the same with children, isn’t it? You end up working together to get the very best out of each other. I would say the horses bring out the best in me, too.
These books are, obviously going to be read by pony-mad enthusiasts, but there’s a life lesson here for all of us that can be applied across many different aspects of life.
In the second book, Red Admiral, you introduce a racehorse…
With Red Admiral, the point I was making is that horses are athletes; like human athletes, they can pick up injuries in the field. Red Admiral has a bad injury that requires rehab, and it takes time and a lot of patience to get him back up to that top level again. It’s about the importance of the horse’s wellbeing and creating a feeling of teamwork with many people helping towards the ultimate goal.
There are lots of tips in the books about very specific things that you do with horse care, or learning how to ride. It’s not a manual, but readers will pick up a lot of information along the way.
I do try to put tips in because I think, if children who are reading these books have a pony or go to a riding school, they need to be aware that no matter how good or sensible or kind a horse or pony might be, there are situations when you need to be aware that they are bigger than us. When I say they can be dangerous, I mean, if you are a young child brushing up your pony, who’s to know something will not jump out of a hedge and spook it? It might be a fly, that bites it on the bottom, and suddenly it kicks out at the fly. If you happen to be stood in the wrong place, you’re at the end of a glancing blow.
I tried to explain in detail how to tack up a horse. I talk about the bridles and the different brushes and how to use them and how important it is to feel horses’ legs. What I’ve loved is the people whose kids have read the books, who tell me that they have learned these things from Tilly. It’s amused me, but that’s what I wanted the books to do.
You learn so much from fiction by stealth because you enjoy the story.
In the third book, we meet Rosie, The Perfect Pony. What’s so perfect about her?
She’s perfect because everyone loves Rosie. She is that pony that gives children confidence. The other important thing in this book is that it’s about the sharing Mia and Tilly end up sharing Rosie. It’s not all about just one person, one pony. It’s kind to share, and you get a lot of pleasure from that. Tilly has her friends, Mia and Callie, and the stories show that you can have friends with very different interests.
Have you ever been involved with horse therapy?
I haven’t personally, but I’ve had several people over the years from Make A Wish Foundation, that wonderful charity. I had a lovely girl who was terminally ill who came to me. She was only 16 and very sadly lost her battle with cancer. But she was amazing, and it was the horses that kept her strong throughout her battle but her way of dealing with it was through her love of horses. She was so inspiring.
I also had a young couple who had two daughters. One was completely blind, and the other was partially sighted, and they would only have been about eight and six. I showed them around the yard. Obviously, I know my horses very well. There was one horse, and it was just unbelievable. I opened the door, and these two little girls went in, and he came up to them, and he dropped his head right down on the floor. He was just so gentle and soft with them, and they were wrapping their arms around his legs. I am absolutely convinced he knew,
It’s absolutely a known fact that horses can have a huge therapeutic effect mentally and for the physically impaired.
I’m very lucky in what I do, but I’ve had the odd time over my career when I’ve got very low over certain situations and the horses have absolutely helped me through because when I’m with them, it’s a complete distraction,
I think one of the things that you’re saying is that perhaps for too long, we’ve seen ourselves as separate from the world of animals, whereas we’re just part of the animal kingdom. I know a lot of people adjusting their points of view on our relationships with animals.
That’s the thing I want to try to put across in all these books. Responsibility is huge and a very important thing that children need to understand. If they want to have an animal, whether it be a hamster, whether it be a dog, whether it be a cat, whether it be a horse, they’ve got to be responsible, and they’ve got to understand that their animal’s well-being is absolutely forefront. And I think that responsibility teaches them a lesson, too. You can’t just say I want it today, but tomorrow, I don’t want it. They’re animals; they still need feeding, they still need caring, they still need exercise, they still need loving.
I want to briefly touch on the other two books that are out now.
Samson the Stallion brings in the London International Horse Show and getting ready for that show.
That’s where it had to be updated because it used to be at Olympia. I’ve been closely involved over many years because it was my godfather, Raymond Brooks Wards, who started the whole thing off. And so I always knew what it was like behind the scenes. All the way through my childhood, Christmas started with that show.
By this stage, I had decided that I was going to use a different horse for each book. Magic is the main horse throughout because he is Tilly’s greatest love. But each book is about a different horse or pony, so we cover the various types. So, we’ve had Magic Spirit, we’ve had a perfect pony. Red Admiral is a national hunt racehorse that goes over chase fences as opposed to a flat racehorse.
And then Samson is the show jumper. He is another feisty, very powerful horse, and Tilly has this amazing effect on him.
Coming to the fifth book, we’ve got a young foal, Lucky Chance, who is the foal of a rescued horse.
So we’re now covering the rescue horse because of World Horse Welfare. They do a lot of re-homing not just in this country but abroad as well.
We know horse and pony stories are read a lot by girls, but do equestrian sports appeal equally across the genders?
I’ve had people whose sons have really enjoyed the stories. What is incredible is that equestrianism is absolutely one of the only sports, if not THE only sport, in which men and women compete against each other on equal terms. With football, it’s the women’s football team and the men’s football team, same as swimming, same as running,
I would say there would be a larger percentage of men in show jumping at the top level than women.
I wouldn’t know exactly with eventing, but I would say it’s probably 50-50. If anything, at the European Championships a couple of weeks ago, there were probably more men than girls.
In the books, Tilly’s brother, who is a few years older than Tilly, is a pony-mad lad., He’s got his dreams and his ambitions with horses.
I know that for many readers who read Tilly’s Pony Tales, it will be aspirational for them. Many of them will think that they want to own a pony, and they will be pestering their parents for Christmas ponies.
Realistically, it will be beyond the means of most readers. And so, I’m interested to know what other access points there are for them. Because I’m sure, there are ways that they can get involved without having to own their own horse.
There are many ways. Sure, it’s easier for people who have a stable or a field at home but it’s not impossible to do it.
My mother organised equestrian events, but we didn’t have stables at home. We didn’t have land at home. And the first pony I ended up having was lent to me. As much as my parents were great supporters financially, they weren’t in the situation to go and buy me a pony. The pony was kept at a friend’s house round the corner. It was outside the whole time, really muddy. And then I persuaded them to turn the back of their log shed into a little stable.
The Pony Club is a wonderful means to get into the horse/pony world. And you don’t have to own your own pony for that. There are riding schools all over the country.
I’m not saying I’m opening it up to everyone, but I’ve got a girl who approached me at the London International Horse Show, asked for my autograph, and said she lived just around the corner from me.
And I said, oh, can you sweep the yard? And she said yes, I can. through the holidays, she’s been in here pretty much every other day and she comes at weekends, and that was just from her asking, so that’s her way in.
The message I want to get across is that children mustn’t be afraid if they have a passion.
I think I might know the answer to this, but once you’ve achieved as much as you have, you’ve won so many medals, you’ve got so many accolades, what is it that keeps you going?
The horses. Absolutely. The love of the horses.
Brilliant. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me in the reading corner.