“My Animals and Other Family”: A Coming-of-Age Book for Animal Lovers
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Clare Balding became a darling of Britain’s horse-racing scene. The broadcaster and former amateur jockey and event rider is the U.K.’s go-to sports presenter — and two-time recipient of the Racing Broadcaster of the Year award.
But before she made a name for herself covering such illustrious events as the London Olympics, Balding spent a rather unconventional childhood as the daughter of a champion horse trainer.
And we don’t use the word “champion” lightly: Balding’s father trained the royal family's horses and her first pony, Valkyrie, was a gift from none other than Queen Elizabeth II.
This month Balding’s first book, My Animals and Other Family, hits American stores. Balding has summed up its premise best: “Horses and dogs were my family and my friends. This is their story as much as it is mine.”
Vetstreet reached out to the author to discuss her literary venture — as well as what it was really like to live on an estate in the English countryside surrounded by more than 100 horses and plenty of dogs too.
Q. At what age did you realize your family life wasn’t exactly typical?
A. Clare Balding: “It was actually at school, when I was about 6 years old, and I said that the Queen was coming over [to my house] for breakfast. The other children thought I was lying, and the teacher told me to stop showing off. I was saying it as a statement of fact — I didn't realize that it sounded like boasting or a lie.”
Q. The title of your book is a play on the iconic Gerald Durrell book, My Family and Other Animals. Was this intentional?
A. “I was a fan of Gerald Durrell and also of James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small. I wanted to capture a bit of that madcap British rural life, where animals are more important than people.”
Q. As a child, what were the more valuable lessons you learned from animals?
A. “I think that I learned about unconditional love very early on. I loved Frank — my multicolored, badly behaved pony — despite the fact that everyone thought he was ugly and had no manners. I knew that we understood each other. He was my soul mate. I also learned from horses and ponies that patience and consistency are virtues that will be rewarded. If you are short-tempered or confused in your messages, a horse doesn't know what to do — and will do the opposite of your wishes.”
Q. Growing up with horses is a fantasy for many. What was it like for you?
A. “I loved the escapism of riding on my own, jumping fences and galloping with the wind in my face. I loved the warmth and solidity of horses, the smell of them and the softness of their noses. They are big beasts, and it's such a thrill when they listen to you and respond to your commands.”
Q. Speaking of horses, you received your first pony as a gift from the Queen of England!
A. “Valkyrie was a round, fat-tummy, hairy Shetland pony who had taught Prince Andrew and Prince Edward how to ride. When they grew out of her, the Queen gave her to my parents for me to learn how to ride. She was a fantastic character. It was always a little nerve-racking when the Queen came to see her horses, as I would invariably forget the protocol!”
Q. Who was your single-most best animal friend growing up?
A. “I loved Frank very much, but I was also very attached to Candy, my mother's Boxer. She was the first face I remember seeing, and I learned to walk by balancing myself on her hips.”
Q. Inquiring minds want to know: Are you more of a horse or a dog person today?
A. “I have a very spoiled Tibetan Terrier, Archie, whom I adore. I don't ride much anymore, but I always love being around horses. My mother runs a stud, so it's great to see the newborn foals.”
Q. How have U.K. readers responded to your book?
A. “I’ve had a lot of letters and emails from readers saying that they have made life decisions after reading the book, which is so gratifying. I hope it fills people with the joy and confidence to be themselves, to be kind to animals and other human beings, and not to be satisfied with just fitting in. It's good to be original.”
Read more Vetstreet author interviews and book reviews.