Horses Are Not Machines: On Writing the Steeds of Fantasy Fiction

by Rosalind Moran

rosalind_moranWriting novels –and fantasy novels in particular – is an undertaking filled with pesky logistical hurdles.

Sometime characters get wounded, and there are no ambulances in fantasyland. Other times you need a hero to carry spoils back from the dragon’s lair, but you’ve already established that he is a hero of the weedy, unlikely kind. And then there are the times when your assassin needs to pretend to be in two places at once and return to the city before nightfall – but there’s an irksome desert in the way.

Enter the horse.

In what concerns many car-free fantasy worlds, horses are the perfect solution to transport issues, barring flashier options of teleportation or dragons. Yet a regrettable trend across much fantasy writing is that of a horse not really being a horse, but simply a plot device; a vehicle to help carry a story along.

Horses, however, are not vehicles.

Unless you have had experience riding and working with horses, it can be easy – and it’s entirely forgivable – to unwittingly make mistakes when depicting your protagonist’s steed. What’s more, while this could appear a trivial issue, anyone with basic equine knowledge will be able to identify such errors, and may grow sceptical of your authority as a storyteller. On the plus side, however, such errors can also be avoided relatively easily, once one becomes aware of them.

 

  1. Horses Are Not Machines

Long journeys are common in fantasy novels, and can make great panoramic montages in the cinema of one’s mind. Unfortunately, however, horses are not capable of galloping day and night without food, water, or rest (and nor is any rider). What’s more, horses always need to be cooled off after exertion.

Unless rigorously trained for endurance, the most ground a horse might be able to cover in a day is about 30-40 miles – and they’d likely be tired afterwards. Terrain also affects a horse’s stamina.

Essentially, remember that horses are living creatures; they tire, they grow hungry, and they get sick. They also have minds of their own – and these aren’t always on the same page as those of their riders.

 

  1. Nobody Learns In A Day

No amount of natural talent can make a horseman in a day. If one’s horse is tolerant, one may be able to hold on over flat terrain after a few hours in the saddle. Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between not sliding off immediately, and being able to ride competently. It can take months – even years – before one is truly balanced enough to cope with a horse moving at various gaits, and occasionally acting up. Yet it’s not uncommon in fantasy novels for characters to pick up the handy skill of horse-riding in one day.

Furthermore, handling horses on the ground is also a skill requiring time. When one first begins working with horses, one can’t read their body language; flicking ears, shifting legs, squeals and snorts. The initial reaction when faced with a horse also tends to be one of intimidation – they’re big animals. So for your protagonist to be confident catching horses, feeding them, tacking them up… that all takes time and experience. You don’t need to devote pages to your character learning relatively mundane skills, but you should acknowledge that these are skills which they are learning, or which they have somehow acquired at another point in time.

Additional note: horses aren’t domesticated in a day either. Worth remembering next time you chance upon a handy herd in the wilderness – sorry.

 

  1. Not All Horses Are The Same

In the same way in which all humans are different, and all dogs have their own personalities, no two horses are the same. This not only means that some horses are lazy and others eager, for example, but also that each horse-and-rider relationship will be unique. Sometimes riders really can’t tolerate their mounts, and vice versa. Frankly, it’s perfect comedy fodder.

 

  1. Horses’ Emotions Are Different From Those Of Humans

It’s worth remembering that horses operate on a far more instinctive level than do humans. Considering, therefore, that horses in the animal kingdom exist as prey, not predators, it’s unrealistic to have a horse crushing people under its hooves unless by complete and utter accident. Horses are not vicious creatures – ones which lash out are generally either scared, or have a history of poor treatment – and they rarely attack humans. This is especially true when they are under saddle.

What’s more, various behaviours you’ve seen expressed by horses in pop culture are wrong. Horses do not sniff the ground like dogs. They do not rear if the only cause for doing so is cinematic aesthetic. And they usually only whinny when calling to one another while separated, or anticipating food; they are not vocal in the same way as humans.

 

  1. …None Of This Is Problematic

Yes, you may have to wonder how your peasant can afford to feed a horse. Yes, you should probably re-evaluate whether your assassin will get back to the city in time. Yes, it might be advisable to read up on details which aren’t especially thrilling but which are well worth getting right, such as that horses can’t vomit.

Yet variables and variety regarding the horse needn’t be perceived as foiling one’s story; indeed, such variables can translate into additional conflict. You may not have a car on which to burst a tyre, but you can write about a lame, cantankerous steed – and your protagonist will end up stranded in The Forest Of Darkness either way.

What’s more, approaching a story element often considered mundane with an attitude of awareness and curiosity, could also help generate ideas in other areas. What might be the physical quirks of dragons? Is there more life to depict in the world of the trusty steed?

One never knows – and you’re the writer, so you tell me. Just don’t get complacent, and put a perfectly good opportunity out to pasture.

•••

Rosalind Moran is an Australian writer and student who has spent much of the past year learning Mandarin in Taiwan. Her non-fiction has been published on various websites and online journals, and her creative work has been included in several print anthologies, including the upcoming Kindling III. She enjoys polyglottery, obscure etymological facts, bizarre analogies, and working with animals. She also wishes you the best of luck in strengthening your horse knowledge and terminology. Further details of her publications can be found at www.ganymedesmirror.blogspot.com

12 Responses

  1. Judith Tarr

    Excellent, and concise. Thank you!

    I will add a revision: Horses can and will trample humans if trained to do so. As will stallions in defense mode–the myth of the stallion is mostly that, but they are designed by nature to protect their herd, and they have the mass and the testosterone to back it up. Even mares and geldings can be very aggressive under certain circumstances, which can be turned to advantage in war or for defense. But do research them thoroughly before making assumptions about how they will behave. Better yet, get to know a few. Visit a local horse farm, talk to horse people. Get a feel for how the species operates.

    1. Janet Morris

      Hi, Judith. Did you here about the Thoroughbred stud in 2009 who was being led to the breeding shed by his trainer? He reared once, knocked her off her feet. She fell face down. Before she could get up, he knelt with his forelegs on her n=back and stated savaging her with his teeth. Of course, they oput the stud down, and of course, I used the scene in a book — but you wonder what that woman did to that stud to make him hate her enough to do that. Horses, like people, learn what you don’t want to teach them as readily as hat you want to want to teacn them. – JEM

  2. Kit SPRINGS

    I have as a child been run down by a pony that we were trying to catch. And yes, a hoof, even pony sized, in the stomach can do some damage. Yes, they can have wonderfully different personalities. That pony would run away for hours to prevent a short time of being ridden. And every male that I ever knew of who tried to ride her was bucked off. She was a pistol.

  3. Caley Woulfe

    I’m 58 and I’ve been riding on and of since I was 7. I can ride both English and Western, and jump a horse up to 3 feet. I also know how to drive a single horse and a pair. I’ve been laughing at horse stuff in fantasy novels for years. It used to bother me, but now I just sigh and let it go.

    Most fantasy authors, and their readers, don’t know anything about horses. But then at some point they decide to ride a real horse, and…. The stories are innumerable. And very funny.

    1. Janet Morris

      Rosalind Moran, nicely done. As someone who has ridden horses from the age of five, I despair when some fantasy writer has his hero’s (or villain’s) horse rearing up and the rider pullsback on the reins to bring the horse down on all fours– in fantasy, pulling back on the horse’s mouth may make a horse drop to all fours but in reality usually causes the horse to go over backward, often crushung the rider underneath. In several books I started to read recently, the horse-related scenes in the beginning were so poorly done, and horsemanship so completely lacking when war horses are key to the plausibility of a story line, that I lost all faith in the writer’s fact checking and put the books aside. Chris Morris and I have bred over a hundred horses, including race horses, reiners, western and english show horses, and won a number of breed-specific world championships for horses we owned or horses we bred, including 2014 World Champion Western Pleasure, and 2016 World Champoion Junior Mare, and Training Level dressage horses. Does riding and/or breeding horses make your writing better? If there are horses in the fiction, it certainly does: write what you know about; if you don’t know, learn. If you can’t get hands-on learning about that precise thing, approximate. And of course, for drama, nothing beats a life with horses. By the tenth time your best mare decides to give birth to a foal that’s wrongly positioned inside her at three in the morning during an ice storm that has frozen the doorhandles of your truck solid and glued the trailer doors together so you need a blowtorch to get the mare to the vet, you’ve learned as much about Nature and human nature as about horsekeeping. If you don’t know, ask someone. There are writers in SFWA who could help people make a scene at least plausible; and a writer can always call the local livery stable, schedule a one-hour lesson, and pick the brains of the horsemen there while they find out what your body feels like after that first one-hour ride. No matter how fit you are, riding makes you use different muscles, and use them in a special manner. And of course, if your horse steps on your foot that first day, you get an extra dose of reality: no horseman who has reached adulthood hasn’t had every toe broken, at the very least. So, again, thanks. Due to your article, I look forward to improved use of horses in stories by SFWA writers.

  4. Jim Aikin

    Oh, darn — I need to think about this. Thanks for the advice! At the end of Book I of my upcoming fantasy series, I have the heroine hopping onto a convenient horse (white, of course) and riding bareback, at a gallop. She has, as far as I’m aware, never ridden a horse in her life. I think I can wallpaper it over with a couple of sentences about her previous experiences. That will have to do.

    1. Nicole Gonzalez

      Just a quick note—there is no such thing as a “white” horse. In reality, horses with “white” coats are considered grey due to the color of their skin. Many people—both inside and outside of the equestrian world—don’t know this, though. If you do say “white,” most readers will understand and only a few, such as myself, will sigh at the word choice.

      Good luck with your novel!

      —an aspiring author (who has spent many long hours at barns across the country)

      P.S. It’s incrediblly difficult to stay on while riding bareback, even at a walk. A horse’s coat is quite slippery, and their moving muscles render it difficult for most riders to remain seated. Tell your heroine to grab the mane, lock her legs around the barrel, and pray.

      1. Janet Morris

        Nicole Gonzalez, good point. Another point about gray/white horses is that they are much more susceptible to melanoma, particualr around their hairless (reproductive and elimination parts), and will show the melanona by getting a black growth that simply keeps growing. Although not fatal, once you know what it is, it’s disturbing. I have a group of gray horses in one of my book series — another thing about grays, is they start soot-color or black, and get progressively lighter; so a black horse with some roaning will turn increasingly gray with the passing years, and may end up a light dapple gray, but the mane and tail will stay whatever color they begin with. One breed, however, starts out white as a suckling but when it sheds its first year hair coat, will shed out black or bay or chestnut. As for bareback: I bought an appoloosa when I was twelve, and he had a saddle sore the size of a contemprary metal dollar. The only way I could ride him was bareback for a over over a year. Over that winter I turned 13, which meant I competed in “12 and over” that summer and forever after, which included adults. I won bareback egg and spoon with him, which inclued getting off and back on again, and he was about 15.1.

        I think for Jim Aidin, the fellow with the white horse, it’s important to mention that the hrose will sweat everywhere your butt and legs contact his hairy hide, and you’ll come away with an imrpint of where you sat him made of his hair and the sweat you both generate. A shower will get rid of it easily, but it fouls clothing and it’s not easy to get off by rubbing your butt and inner things. The issue you’re not addressing, Jim, is how does a rank amateur guide a horse she’s found when she doesn’t have a bridle, or even a halter lead or a rope she could tie into a mecate? You must guide the horse with your hands and/or your knees, tighs, calves, and heels: it doesn’t know your spoken language — and many horses will resent a stranger coming up to them and jumping on them and then expecting the horse to magically do what is desired by the rider. when something jumps onto its back, an unbroken horse gets frightened; when they’re scared, they run; while they’re running, they may kick out or buck. So have a great ride, Jim. Someday we’ll tell you about the day we took Jim Baen, his then-wife Maddie, and their preteen daughter horseback riding through the dunes near Provincetown. Suffice it to say that not a single New Yorker was still astride when the trouble stopped.

  5. Anne-Marie

    Awesome article Rosalind! So true – it really kills a story to not have the horses portrayed realistically. A funny side to that – the movie Krull – which I recently had the pleasure of seeing – has magically horses called “Fire Mares” that can run / fly 100 leagues in a day. Loved it. I would encourage any author writing about horses to revisit the classic Black Beauty, which is a very detailed story about the life of a horse in the 1800’s.

  6. Lisa Spangenberg

    Equine fans are at least as friendly as fannish fans. Ask questions! There are national and international groups of all sorts, including things people may not be aware of as equine specialities, like groups for mule riders, draft equines, and endurance riding. Lots of them have public-facing Facebook groups too. Offer to clean stalls or cook a meal or buy ’em dinner, or coffee or a few beers and listen. Listen to them argue even—asking some questions are like asking editors and writers about the sanctity of the serial comma.

  7. Becca

    Nice summary, and some good info in the comments too. I miss horses! My takeaway: being able to get horses again and write-off their expenses as research for more realistic horse behavior in my stories. Yay. 😉