Why are there so few horses in picture books?

Cover of Doctor HoofPony-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 must be horses themselves and the special problems they present to picture book writers and illustrators.

Reason 1
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.

Reason 2
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 and 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:

Reason 3
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.

(You can see how illustrators cope with this in Paeony Lewis’s post on Picture Book Den.)

Do you know a good picture book about a horse or pony? If so, please leave a comment telling me about it.

 

11 thoughts on “Why are there so few horses in picture books?

  1. Leslie Wilson

    Horses are dead easy to draw! I can draw horses, much better than rabbits. When I try to draw a dog it ends up looking like a horse – a horse with spaniel ears, that’s quite something. Maybe a character for a piccy book? Mind, that’s because I was a horse-mad early teen, and spent hours learning to draw them, but surely a professional illustrator can manage it – or maybe not, I can think of several dreadful jacket illustrations from horse books. But how come I can draw horses and real artists can’t? They should pull their finger out, man.

    Horses are really social animals, too. I feel sure that something could be done with that. Diana, you should just write one.

    1. Diana Kimpton Post author

      I can draw rabbits but not horses. Everyone has there own strong points, I suppose. When we were looking for an illustrator for The Pony-Mad Princess, we found artists who drew brilliant horses but weren’t so good at people and artists who were great with people but not so good at horses.

      Doctor Hoof’s my first horse character in a picture book. I’ve got a much more realistic horse in my latest story but no publisher for it yet. Fingers crossed.

  2. sandra horn

    My picture book Rory McRory, ilustrated by Bee Willey and just re-published by our own Clucket Press with new art work by Bee, features horses – but I sort of cheated and made them the wild white horses of the sea, so they can fly. Even so, picking the baby up was a bit of a problem (no hands, as you said) and we didn’t actually picture it. It just happened out of shot, as it were. Magic.

  3. Alan Dapré

    Horses are not the easiest creatures to draw. I would prefer a worm or a slug but there are not many books written for such beasts. Would ‘The very hungry slug’have been a hit for Eric Carle … He has come up with a new book about a horse though – ‘The artist who painted a blue horse’ which kind of riffs from his ‘Brown Bear Brown Bear’ book.

    It is not a picture story book in the truest sense as it features a range of animals drawn with the ‘wrong’ colours – but by the end of the book we realise that nothing is wrong. We can paint what we like.

    In light of this maybe horses are easy to draw – if mine has a broken back leg because that bit is quite hard to get right …., er, then I can always say that I like it like that.

    For the moment I would be happy getting any thing published, horses or nay (neigh?) – the market is so tough these days. Maybe I should become a Z list celebrity or marry a Y lister and then engineer a book deal … About a Princess or Vampire or Pirate that meets a horse with a broken leg.

    Great site, great post.

  4. David Bedford

    Hi Diana,

    Very interesting! I’ve been through the Horse Problem with publishers … one in particular (a very large and experienced publisher, to boot) told me ‘nobody can draw horses really well’. The book was made, though, by the next publisher along, and in fact came out last month! ‘Babies Don’t Bite’ is about siblings’ concern when a new baby comes along, and aims to put their mind at rest – mainly that babies LOVE big brothers and sisters!

    Why a horse, though? Well, I live across from a Shire Horse place, and they put the newborns in a field with their mum, close enough for me to have a regular peek – and how gorgeous they are! They can hop and kick their legs in excitement, and rush about, and be generally excitable – and impressionable! – or that’s how I saw it. The story came very naturally from a horsey situation, so a horse I insisted on!

    Why didn’t Hodder have a problem with horses? Because they made Hegley, my name for the realistic Shire Horse I had in mind, into more of a book character, walks on two legs etc. but Tor Freeman’s illustrations still capture the very horsiness, and the sweetness of the newborn.

    Though I have to say, I think horses are rare also because zebras look better in a book. I chose a zebra for ‘It’s a George Thing’ specifically because I wanted hoofs and a difficulty in the drawing, because the main character has to unexpectedly become a dancer, and I thought it would work with the illustrator having to sweat until he got it right – which he did. I had considered a cow … but a zebra is a ‘good looking horse’ in picture book terms, no?

    Best wishes,

    David

    Do the George Thing!
    funky zebra dance music @
    http://www.childrensauthor.co.uk/george.htm

  5. Malachy Doyle

    My favourites are Snowy, by Berlie Doherty and Horse (by me!). Both are beautifully illustrated, in a very realistic, painterly, style by Keith Bowen and Angelo Rinaldi, respectively. My favourite non-realistic picture book horse is Stripy Horse in the books by Karen Wall and Jim Helmore – a horse with lots of character!

  6. Sarah Barrett

    I’m writing a series of picture books which feature a pony called Conkers goes Bonkers and I have managed to come up with something exciting and unique. I’m currently approaching agents and publishers as the first 2 are written. I’m hoping that there are artists out there that can make my characters come to life. If anyone met the pony we had at my school stables called Dart it would challenge anyone’s perception that ponies don’t have big personalities.

    I’m hoping there is a gap in the market for funny books about a pony that’s a little bit on the wild side. OK totally on the wild side!

  7. Suzy

    That’s a really interesting post – had never even noticed before, even coming from a horse-mad household! We love Clip Clop by Nicola Smee. We’ve read it so many times over the years and never get tired of it.

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