Having mislaid most of my childhood pony books in house moves, I’ve been buying them up again. Many originally belonged to my mum and her sisters, which meant I spent my first eight years convinced that jodhpurs had to be three feet wide at the thigh and that jumping five-bar gates was par for the course when you had only been riding for two weeks on holiday with your outdoorsy cousin Geraldine.
I rediscovered Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and my favourite, Satin and Silk; a 1940s pony novel written by 14-year-old April Jaffe which stars the amazingly-named Anne Gaylord and her military father, Major Gaylord. Anne finds her dream horse in a black gelding, and together they save people from fires, sinking sand, and all the usual stuff you do when you’re getting ready for the BHS Stage 1 exam.
I went to Vegas recently and discovered American Netflix’s stash of pony films, and bemoaned the lack of same in the UK. So I danced a jig on finding Free Rein last week, which turned into a full-on ballet of joy when it turned out that this wasn’t just a one-off film, but a 10-episode TV series starring people who could actually act. This is pony culture luxury on a scale not seen since I used to visit Petersfield library in the 90s, where half the shelves in the children’s library had a bridle on the front.
Ticking all the requisite pony story boxes, Free Rein sees American teen Zoe, her little sister Rosie, and their English mother move from LA to an island off the coast of England (not that one) to stay with their grandfather, whose idyllic country home happens to be spitting distance from an incredibly glamorous stables named Bright Field.
Zoe’s mum won’t let Zoe ride because of secret reasons of the past, but because pony culture lore dictates there must be an equine best friend. Zoe meets Raven, an incredibly glamorous black number straight out of the Lloyds adverts, cursed with staggeringly incompetent yard owners who fail to look after him beyond whispering dire warnings about Raven being a bit tricky.
The cast is compelling – fashion-conscious Rosie is the series’s MVP, but Zoe and her new stable friends Becky and Jade are so watchable I want to be in their gang. And it is a JOY to finally have non-white characters, plural, in the very white environs of pony entertainment, and even more so that this is never mentioned, it’s just a thing that is.
But the addictive deliciousness of Free Rein is that so much about its horsecare (other than Bob, a splendidly recalcitrant cob) is so magnificently, awfully wrong that it’s like watching the cast of Game of Thrones trying to organise a Sunday school picnic. Brilliantly enough, the dippy pal Becky is actually played by Kerry Ingram, who played Shireen Baratheon in Thrones. It would take the BHS less than 20 seconds to put this stables into remedial measures, and playing “what is GOING ON?” bingo is one of the joys of the show.
Okay 9 minutes into Free Rein and I’m cringing so hard but I also refuse to stop watching
— Sarcasm in Spurs (@punsandponies) June 30, 2017
Non-rider Zoe turns out to be Monty Roberts disguised as a teenage girl, and the ONLY PERSON in this professionally-run stables who can keep Raven calm. His nominal owner, an unbearably snooty girl called Mia with about nine other ponies, can’t bear Zoe taking an interest, even though Raven appears variously to be unbroken, mad as a box of frogs, and enough to overhorse anyone who isn’t Carl Hester.
But never mind! Within the space of one riding lesson (on the bewildering “free lesson list” – where is this list, and how do I get on it?), Zoe is trotting without stirrups, arms outstretched and with her eyes shut. Surely, the Olympics call!
The only accurate thing in Free Rein episode 1 is that the trainer wears a black puffy vest.
— My Barn Child (@MyBarnChild) June 26, 2017
Two minutes later, and without a sniff of a stable management lesson, she is grooming and tacking up, before galloping merrily over the most luxurious hills this side of New Zealand with nary an adult in sight. And after that she’s humping saddle cloths onto a newly-biddable Raven who looks as though he’s finally got the sedative he should have had before this show even started, and leaving the stable doors wide open which everyone thinks is totally okay.
My friend H, who introduced me to hunting last year and is now cooling her heels on maternity leave, has also discovered Free Rein, and fired off a series of increasingly “WTF is happening?!” emails to me as she worked her way through the episodes.
“Those look like some v sub par ways of tying up a horse to me. No wonder they’re always escaping. Also, WHO CLIPS THE LEAD REIN ROUND THE FENCE?! So dangerous.
“Why is Raven always tied up in his box? No wonder the poor thing is always so crabby. But, if he really is so dangerous, why are the kids allowed in there with him?
“How does Miss LA have the foggiest on grooming? And why are they doing it unsupervised? WHO PUTS A SCRUNCHIE ON A PONY?”
Hatewatching Free Rein has become pony Twitter’s favourite occupation, but the thing is you really do get hopelessly hooked. What will happen at the barn dance? Who will catch the horse thieves when there’s apparently only one policeman on this island? Will Zoe choose to date the weirdly ageless Pin, or Marcus of the Unfortunate Gilet? And is this the only yard in Britain with public wifi?
One aspect of Free Rein brooks no argument though, and that is the intense beauty of the countryside where it’s filmed. I’ve just booked my first riding holiday, to Exmoor in October, but after watching Zoe and Raven – and their majestically health and safety-averse pals – bombing across the sunny green, green grass of home, I might have to squeeze in another one beforehand. Ooh, and there’s also nine seasons of something called Heartland on Netflix, which looks like classic American pony fare. Anyone got a scrunchie?