Unseated rider

Dark Horses & Black Beauties: animals, women, a passion

Melissa Holbrook Pierson <em>Granta Books,

I can start only with a confession. I am writing this during the third month of enforced immobility, after I broke my back falling off a horse. I had ridden, off and on, if you'll forgive the pun, for the past 30 years, starting in the damp, prim riding schools of the London suburbs, then on tough white ponies in the mid-Welsh hills, finally taking to the laid-back drama of the trails through America's wilderness.

But, from the start, I had found any suggestion of my being a "horsey type" embarrassing. "How is your seat?" I remember a scathing physics teacher once asking. My mother, from an American Irish-Italian family, where horses were used for pulling carts, looked on with bemusement when, aged six, I was bitten by the bug. In the States - at least, west of the Rockies - you can always claim it is a practical way of getting up a mountain. But in Britain the dubious connotations rear their heads, from Jilly Cooper to fox-hunting to the precious perfectionism of the pony clubs. I had retreated increasingly behind a muttered account that it was "a useful thing to be able to do, particularly in other countries, and quite fun". But lying on the ground after this accident, in the unyieldingly urban surroundings of a riding ring under the Shepherd's Bush spur of London's Westway, it did occur to me that if there were remnants of a childhood fantasy in my reasons for being there, it might be time to give them up.

So I picked up Melissa Holbrook Pierson's book with a mixture of embarrassment and curiosity. The first was rewarded more than the second, sadly. Her previous, widely praised book, on women and motorcyles, an elegiac tour through one of her passions, was compared to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - minus the philosophy. Dark Horses is the same: there are flickers of insight that shy away from deep analysis, but the work is more compelling for its fluent tour of literature, social history and its many personal anecdotes, which will give a jolt of recognition to anyone who has been there.

I did laugh when she described her childhood "Horse Club", with its membership of two and magic-marker inscriptions "Hoof Pick" and "Aluminum [sic] Raceshoe" over its educational exhibits. I liked her sense of betrayal when her friend broke the unwritten rules of their society by getting a real horse. And she is marvellous on the bewilderment of mothers who could swear they have never uttered the word "horse" and yet look down one day to find their small daughters besotted.

Although she goes to great lengths to avoid giving answers for the reasons behind the phenomenon, they do leak out through the chosen examples. Unsurprisingly, she dismisses "the cliche - girls and horses, eh? wink, wink". But while she makes fun of "the anti-cliche cliche - no, it's really about little girls empowering themselves", she comes down on that side. As she puts it, in one thoughtful passage: "Even the males are pretty, as the females are powerful, and so horses seem to bear the same secret a little girl does about her own protean qualities even if the whole world would deny them."

There is a point, though, where reality intrudes. For Pierson, it is when she comes into contact with people who make money from horses for a living; she recoils with a shudder from the trainers and breeders, painted like villains from Black Beauty, who hit their horses in what she sees as unjustified reproof. For me, unsurprisingly, it was the statistics about injuries; horse-riding is, with a few, exotic rivals, the most dangerous way of spending your spare time. People ask me every day, now that I am mobile again, whether I will get back on a horse. Probably, at some point in my life, I suppose, it will prove useful or necessary, but the faith that it will come out all right in the end has gone - and with it any shreds of romantic appeal.

Bronwen Maddox is the foreign editor of the Times