The Horsemasters of Porlock Vale

One of my favorite books as a young adult was The Horsemasters by Don Stanford.   A richly detailed story of life and work at a world-famous riding school in England (Porlock Vale), the book was also made into a movie by Disney (1961) starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk.

U.S. Edition (Funk & Wagnall)

Founded in 1945, the school was the first in Britain to offer a dressage course, the first to build an indoor riding school, and trained many Olympic competitors over the years.   “Horsemasters” were working students who resided at the school, learning by doing every kind of horse related chore from mucking out stalls and picking up stones in the fields to braiding manes and tales, with riding instruction in-between.  Every task had to meet the school’s exacting standards.

British Edition (George Harrap & Co. Ltd.)

I read The Horsemasters over and over while growing up, and organized a a group of my riding friends into a team called the Horsemasters.  Together we schooled each other in riding, jumping, grooming and horsekeeping, modeling our tasks after those in the book.  What fun memories I have of those days!   I was smitten with the idea of attending the Porlock Vale school myself after graduating from high school, but instead I put in a working apprenticeship at a stable north of Toronto.

Stanford’s book is written from the point of view of a young American woman who goes to Porlock Vale in hope of  passing the British Horse Society’s examination for a Preliminary Instructor’s Certificate so that she can take a position as a riding teacher at Wells College back in New York and eventually put herself through college there.  Her challenging experiences at Porlock Vale as she learns about responsibility and courage, and the friendships she forms with both humans and animals are unforgettable.

The first edition (American) was published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1957.  The first British edition was published by George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd. in 1958, and was illustrated by Michael Lyne.  Scholastic Book Services also published a paperback edition in 1964.   In later years, other publishers have reprinted the book in softcover editions as well.  The first editions are collectible, and there are currently two copies of the Harrap edition available at Old Scrolls Book Shop.

Sadly, the school no longer exists.  It’s heyday was 1946-1961, but it was officially closed on December 31, 2006 due to financial difficulties and crippling insurance premiums.  The long and storied history of the legendary riding school can be further researched here and here.

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