A certain degree of affection for Tolkien and his works is almost a geek shibboleth, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time feeling bad about my almost total indifference towards The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party, but absolutely could not tolerate the Mines of Moria, or whatever it was they had to trudge through for, like, ever to get to I don’t even know where because I gave up. I never even tried the rest of the trilogy. I thought the movies were OK, but kind of long. I don’t think this makes me a bad geek. I’ve read Diana Wynne Jones’s description of Tolkien as a lecturer at Oxford, and I don’t think I’m missing that much.
Out of respect for the traditions of my people, I have read The Hobbit, and read it to my children. It’s an enjoyable enough piece of light entertainment. I understand that the work has found an audience of devoted fans. But I am a reader with different priorities—and JRR Tolkien is almost unforgivably bad at horses. Tolkien will go on to do a better job with horses in later books: Samwise and Frodo named their ponies, and Frodo tries to rescue his from some trolls; Shadowfax is pretty cool; the Riders of Rohan seem like they would pass muster with the Pony Club. The Hobbit, however, is an equine abattoir.
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit and he didn’t own a pony. I can tell because Tolkien provided a tolerably thorough description of the hobbit’s house and the hill in which it is embedded, and he didn’t mention the paddock, the grain shed, the bales of hay, the buckets and wheelbarrows, Bilbo’s devotion to maintaining his fencing, or the faint but pervasive smell of leather and sweat. Bilbo is also averse to adventures, which his family regards as disreputable. This strongly suggests that he’s not galloping over hill and dale jumping over sheep, or traveling long distances, or routinely engaging in other activities which would make the care and maintenance of a pony a worthwhile investment. Bilbo is not entirely a Hobbit of Leisure—he does his own cooking and washing up—but he doesn’t seem to be a Hobbit farmer either, so he doesn’t need a pony to pull his plow. Hobbits usually go barefoot because, Tolkien informs us, their feet are very sturdy. I have concerns about whether or not a Hobbit’s feet are really hardy enough to withstand having their toes trodden on by a shod pony. I concede that it’s possible that Hobbits do OK with that despite my concerns. But nonetheless, Bilbo neither owns nor routinely rides a pony, and Tolkien never tried to claim that he did.
So what is he doing riding off to the Lonely Mountains on one? Ponies climb up and down mountains every day. Turning a horse (or pony) out on mountainous pasture is a decent way to build some muscle before putting an animal into training or work. However, there are some issues that need to be taken into consideration when combining ponies and long rides to (and eventually up) mountains, and the first of these is Bilbo. Our aspiring burglar undergoes a significant transformation in the opening chapters of The Hobbit, but he doesn’t have time to pack his pocket handkerchiefs, let alone take riding lessons.
Historically, riding lessons were a luxury not available—or even considered necessary—by many people who rode. But historically, one began one’s riding career with short rides in early childhood and progressed slowly from that point. One didn’t borrow a cloak and hood and then hop on a horse and ride far into the Lone-lands from May into June. Stirrups offer some further complications for hobbits. Stirrups aren’t an absolute requirement for riding. If you’re not trying to shoot arrows from horseback, you can get by without them. A substantial school of thought insists that beginning riders should not use reins or stirrups until they’ve developed a strong seat. Hobbits who don’t wear shoes might have a hard time finding stirrups that they can comfortably shove their leathery toes through. The major benefit to stirrups is that, with a little practice, they can help mitigate concussive forces. Whether he’s using stirrups or not, Bilbo would be too crippled to walk (and acutely aware of all of the seams in his trousers) by the end of the first day.
Tolkien is also unclear on the number of ponies involved in the dwarves’ treasure-retrieval project. There are thirteen dwarves, plus Bilbo and Gandalf. At their departure from the Inn in Hobbiton, the ponies are laden with “baggages, packages, parcels, and paraphernalia” as well as riders. The quantity of goods required for the journey probably requires more than 15 animals to carry. The dwarves are planning to return with more goods than they are carrying at departure, so it would make sense to bring additional pack animals. It’s a wild guess, but I feel comfortable with an estimate of no fewer than 20 ponies for the journey. These ponies are supernaturally well-behaved. They don’t do anything worthy of comment until one of them spooks, runs away and drops the packs full of food in a river on a windy night. Later that night, the entire Dwarvish party is captured by trolls. While their ponies stand around quietly on the picket line, attracting no attention whatsoever. Indeed, they’ve been very quiet for the entire journey. Tolkien pops out the fourth wall to let us know that Dwarves seem noisy to Bilbo, because Hobbits are much quieter, but the entire party—thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, sometimes Gandalf, and twenty or so ponies—could pass by a few yards away and you, the reader, wouldn’t notice. Because somehow, in this book where no one has so much as mentioned a hoof pick, the dwarves are maintaining such high standards of horse care that the ponies are not only noiseless and invisible, they also don’t smell.
Tolkien makes a nod at the difficulty of traveling with ponies when the dwarves reach Rivendell and the elves point out that the ponies need shoeing. I’m not surprised the elves have noticed; They’ve been on the road for over a month now. In general, horse shoes are good for 6-8 weeks, with some variation for intensity of work. The dwarves work with metal, so I’m willing to believe that at least one of them can shoe a horse. And the elves probably have a guy. We don’t get to hear about it, though, because somehow a party of thirteen dwarves, one Hobbit, and a wizard can ride all the way from Hobbiton to Rivendell without developing a healthy obsession with horse shoes and hoof health. They have bigger fish to fry than the care and handling of ponies. There’s a map and some trolls and a horde of fascinating treasures of dubious provenance. There’s no point in the reader forming an emotional connection to the ponies. They don’t even have names.
The ponies are a soulless, uncomplicated means of transportation until chapter four, when they are eaten by goblins. At this point, Tolkien finally acknowledges that they were really excellent ponies. They were, and they didn’t deserve to die unlamented.
The next leg of the trip involves emergency evacuation from goblin territory by giant eagles, who get far more consideration than the ponies despite being significantly less comfortable. A few days later, Gandalf finds Beorn, who replaces the ponies for the dwarves’ trek to Mirkwood. Then they have to send them back because Beorn won’t let them take ponies into the wood. Beorn has a rational understanding of the limitations of ponies, and he’s watching over them in the shape of a bear.
Once everyone escapes from the wood-elves and travels down the falls or the river or whatever in barrels, the people of Lake-town provide Thorin and his crew with two more ponies. Each. Thirteen dwarves, a Hobbit, and twenty-eight ponies are headed up the mountain to Smaug’s lair. Smaug eats six of them. Three are found later and sent riderless back to the south, which is ridiculous because ponies aren’t homing pigeons. Bilbo brings one strong pony to carry his treasure on the way home. It also goes unnamed, and what he does with it Tolkien never says. I hope he boards it at the stable three hills over where they have a lot of turnout and good access to trails. But I doubt it.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.