Writing about horses ~ a word or two of advice…

Not unrecently, I opened a novel of historical fiction and in the initial paragraph came across the protagonist admiring his horse’s “silken flesh.”

First impulse:  laugh like a drain, embarrassing self in bookstore.

Second impulse:  repeat same to female horsey friend who dissolved into giggles, then asked with a degree of indignation, “Why was he looking at the horse’s willy at the start of the book?  Because that’s the only place you can see a horse’s flesh…”

And there you have it in one two-word phrase:  the pitfalls of writing about horses when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Because it shows.

So I thought–since horses form an essential part of much historical fiction writing and also fantasy (a cast of thousand horses in Lord of the Rings, wasn’t there…) –that I’d put in a few do’s and don’ts.  For the equinely uninitiated.  And I trust some of my horsey friends will add their sixpenn’orth as well…

One, you don’t squeeze with your knees to get a horse to go forward.  No, no, no.

Squeezing with the knees inhibits the animal’s movement, slows the blighter down if you’re already moving, hardens your backside so that you bounce in the saddle, and generally achieves nothing.

You want the stinker to go, you give him a nudge with your heels, or a kick, possibly you say something like, “Walk on…”  Or give a  double clicking noise in your cheek.

Ideally, your knees are only in contact with the horse when you’re nudging him to go in one direction or the other, where they can act as a kind of tiller–as in pressure from the right knee will send him left.  Other than that–no knees.

You don’t ride with reins hanging like loose washing lines (unless you’re a Western rider).  Nor do you pull or tug on his mouth.  Unless you need to stop him hard…

However, yanking on the reins may possibly set up a match of wills between you, and given his strength, you’ll lose.  That means you on the ground.

So, he’s getting wound up, you give a little, relax, sit back, and above all don’t give him something like the bit to pull against…Because he will.  And you’ll feel like you’re having your shoulders ripped out in the process.

When you get thrown, often there will be a time lapse in your memory.  You’ll recall being in the saddle, and the next thing you know, you’re on the ground.  It happens that fast.  And you never get back those moments of flying through the air with the greatest of ease.

Does it hurt?  Sometimes.  Depends on how you fall and where you fall.

Does one get back up on the horse?  Usually.  And especially if you’re relying on said horse for transportation.  So 200 years ago, you definitely got back on the horse.

How do you get horses to go?  Well, if you’re out and about, generally they walk in whatever way you direct them.  If you’re out with another rider, they’ll go together, because horses are herd animals…if one starts trotting, the others will follow suit.  Same with cantering or galloping.

Also, their great fear is being eaten…so anything that looks even remotely like a lion (see Stubbs’ paintings of the lion chomping on the grey horse for an illustration) which means a shrub, a set of jumps, a small yellow dog, a person with a camera, can set them spooking and charging off in the other direction.

The idea is that their eye searches out what is abnormal and unexpected, not what they expect and know…

Equally they don’t plow into streams or puddles without a care in the world.  A horse’s eye cannot discern depth.  So if your horse sees a puddle, he doesn’t know if it’s an inch deep or three feet deep and he’ll fall in.  Those horses who plow right ahead, they’ve got riders on their backs whom they trust and they’re trusting them to get them through that water–and they have experience with water.

And finally, a horse is a prey animal.  If you–the predator animal on his back–are getting tense and worried, he thinks, “I’m just a little grey pony-snack for a lion.  If my predator is nervous, that means it’s scary and I so SHOULD NOT BE HERE!”  And he bolts.

Some basics:  horses have hair not fur; they sweat and their sweat is very salty.  They used to dock horses’ tails very short as seen in old paintings (see below) and etchings, but now it’s illegal–they use their tails to swat flies off themselves and other horses.

The usual colour is dark brown, called bay, with a black or very dark brown mane and tail–as in the portrait of the bay by George Stubbs (above).  Chestnut is redder.  White horses aren’t called white, they’re called greys.

Also horses don’t neigh nearly as much as fiction writers seem to think they do, but they do snort.  A  lot.  (Think of all that hay dust they’re inhaling…)

I’ve only heard a horse whicker once or twice…and that was a female in season.

They’re very affectionate, very tactile, and like being brushed…and horsey people tend to derive a great deal of pleasure from the physical interaction of grooming their horses…

And horses have all got very individual characters and frequently they also have a sense of humour.

Anything else?

Well, the way I look at it is, I wouldn’t write about flying an aeroplane without even taking the trouble to go and have a good look at the control panel or talking to a pilot.  Perhaps even take a flying lesson or two.

If only people incorporating horses into their work would take the trouble to go meet a horse or two or go have a look in a children’s book on horses…well, it’d save me from embarrassing myself in bookstores is what it would do.

For, to be honest, not bothering to get the basics right can put horsey readers off…I didn’t buy the book I mentioned at the outset–I couldn’t.  I just made me laugh too much.  And it wasn’t a comedy.

So…any questions?  (If there are, please don’t hesitate to ask.)

And an addendum:  the average horse poo’s 12-16 times a day.  So when you’re talking about a city the main mode of transportation of which is horse-power, you are therefore talking about a place which smells strongly like a stableyard.  You’re also talking about a whole army of people whose job it is to sweep the streets, which are filthy, and remove the piles of muck…

If you’re writing about a cavalry regiment of 400 men, that’s at least 800 horses.  Multiply that by 16…and now you’re getting the picture of the countryside through which these men travelled…

Righto.  Carry on.

N.B. A friend of mine, Jonathan Hopkins, just posted this rather fine blog about the early years of veterinary medicine, farriers, etc. elsewhere, which is full of enormously useful and helpful information, so do have a look by mousing on his name…

35 comments on “Writing about horses ~ a word or two of advice…

  1. Very good! that’s how I used to do it… sniff. Miss horses so much.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Look upon this as no more than temporary lapse…another horse will find you. I’m certain of it. That’s how it works.

  2. Rowenna says:

    Great pointers–made me miss the “next door neighbor horse” I grew up next to. She liked apples and ear scratches.

    I remember reading about how a horse is most vulnerable at its back–predators dropping from trees–and being amazed at the trust required for a horse to let some squinty-eyed predator on its back.

    Thanks for this post!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      That squinty-eyed so and so is me, squinting into the distance to look out for rabbit and badger holes so we don’t fall in! Of course they trust me…also, I have carrots and polos in my pockets. This helps too.

  3. Garalt Canton says:

    My ignorance precedes me.

    Thank you MM, for inspiring me to write in more detail about the dread of bouncing up an ddown at speed upon a large animal whose head is bobbing up and down and whose ears are flicking all over the place in the middle of a battle.

    Of course I forgot the poo question. I must add Horse poo in the flammable material used as firebombs by the logistica soldiers.

    I truly hope the house gets it’s buyer soon because I have so many technical questions for you when I get tover to the UK.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      People who ride often and well don’t bounce about in the saddle. We have learned to keep our bums in the saddle, usually by relaxing and sitting in deep…it’s only fear that makes you tense your muscles so that you bounce.

      Also, in the period you’re writing about, the saddles had very high cantles, so high they were almost a chairback, so the rider was wedged into the saddle in a way we can’t imagine today. They have several 13th and 14th century saddles on display at the Musee d’Armee in Paris, so the fear of falling off the horse probably wasn’t as great…

  4. Aha! A subject very dear to my heart.

    I once read the opening chapters of one of the top-rated books on Authonomy – set in 14/15th century Scotland as I recall – where the hero’s horse whickered to him as he was lobbing along towards a castle at the end of a long ride. Now – horses never do this, unless they’re ill; why would they need to communicate verbally when they’re in physical contact with the rider?
    Fair put me off the piece, that did. A heinous crime, akin to writing ‘the redcoat loaded his rifle’ or somesuch. Or slating the cavalry on the flimsiest of evidence.
    It’s a crying shame we’ve lost more than 2000 years worth of accumulated knowledge and horselore in less than 100. After all,’All our history is his industry’ and all that.

    I like Elizabeth Chadwick’s signature on http://www.historicalfictiononline.com

    ‘The Brave and the valiant
    Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
    For never will cowards fall down there.’
    Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

    (Told her I was neither brave nor valiant but was quite often found down there. Unfortunately.)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, I did have a comment from someone elsewhere and she said her horse is always whickering. And I did hear a horse last Sunday who had a great deal to say when his rider was atop him…and it does depend upon the horse.

      I know one huge lad, doesn’t like hills–he’s tremendous on the flats, but he just doesn’t like hills. So, if he’s got a novice on his back, he will wheeze, he will cough, he will splutter all the way up the hill, and break out of canter at the earliest possible opportunity…the way he carries on, you’d think he’d been down the mines since he was a lad. And it’s all a show to get the novice to feel sorry for him and not make him canter. And it works brilliantly…I’m not so nice and don’t fall for it though.

  5. authorsanon says:

    Nice reminder . . .and as for Bustles . . . . well, side-saddle. Preferably with some winch thingy . . oh no, that’s Mulberry Toots again, sorry. Mind you, a post on side-saddle might also not come amiss, again for writing reference . . .

    Not so much whickering, eh ? Right, off to edit in a few snorts . . .where’s that pot-boy . . .TOM! TOM! bring a bay or two into the yard . . .we have work to do, testing their snorts . . . Bring out the Snortometer – I wish to calculate the exact number of snorts to the second . ..
    Enter Tom with embarrassed looking horse.
    ‘Well, Tom ? And what’s amiss with yon stallion there ?’
    TOM : ‘E says, yer lordship . ‘e says . . as how he ain’t feeling too strong in ‘isself today, and can he be excused life class ? Feels a bit shy to be standing there, in the flesh, as it were, when he’s got diarrhoea . . .

    ‘Strewth – fetch the brooms . . .’

  6. Noelle Pierce says:

    Okay, about the herd animal bit. I used to help exercise the Sherrif Department’s horses for them (too many horses, not enough riders, and two of the younger horses were show horses and needed training). I remember riding once when I was seated enough to handle a canter on my own and wanted to try galloping, but I was with my best friend, who’d NEVER ridden before. And there was this stretch of packed dirt road before me…

    …well, I don’t think she got on a horse again. Ever. Not even if it was walked by a trainer/guide.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I have a theory that galloping feels faster than it is because there’s nothing between the rider and the clear blue…

      The one time that the herd thing really kicked in for me…I was teaching someone, out for their first time hacking, the ropes of this particular ‘game’ we play on the Downs, called the hump game. It’s a long, long canter, and if you don’t know where you’re going, you can get lost, or the horse can mislead you.

      So fine, we set off together, me in front, her about ten paces behind. Unfortunately, the horses in question were well-known to each other and kind of had a friendly rivalry going on. So the horse behind HAD to catch up.

      And as we were approaching the final long rise, the race really took off…and it was neck and neck, stirrup to stirrup, full gallop up a kind of steep hill. And all the time I’m thinking, “No, I’m supposed to be being good! No racing, you lads! Behave!” And no matter how hard I tried to pull my lad off to the right, he just wasn’t having it.

      So we roared to the top of the hill…fortunately, most fortunately, the rider in question turned out to be a speed merchant, so she wasn’t put off at all. She was laughing. Phew!

  7. junebugger says:

    I laughed so hard reading this. I love your wit, MM!

    Oh dang. So all this time, when my heroine would see the hero riding overn, admiring the silken flesh, she was admiring the horse’s willy. Never thought my heroine was a perv. But…characters…sometimes they turn out to be someone you don’t know at all.

    Actually, I wrote “Silken coat” rather than flesh. Does that make any difference?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      If a horse is well-brushed, yes, their coat has quite a sheen, so they could definitely be said to have a silken coat.

  8. Tom says:

    I was directed to this site by a fellow writer. I would like to know how best to describe a horse that has been ridden long and hard, as would a horse ridden by a courier.

    Thank you.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      He’d be sweating, or be coated in dried sweat (mostly around the numnah and the chest)–that might depend on the weather conditions. If it’s been in the pouring rain, he’ll be wetter than anything ever encountered–like he’s just come out of a washing machine that has no spin cycle. Ha ha. The sweat is very salty, it cakes or dries like a white crust on his numnah (saddle pad or blanket); he’ll be soaking with sweat all around where the girth has been, there’ll be sweat down the inner legs, especially in front, and there may even be sweat along his cheeks. If there’s been mud, his legs and underbelly will be coated, it’ll be hanging off his fetlocks in chunks and the end of his tail will be thick with it. There may even be mud on his face and he may look as though he’s speckled all over with it. Best not to allow him to drink for a little while–about half an hour, while he cools down. But he’d want to feed right away. As he stands, feeding, he’ll lift one hind foot, just to rest it, and then, he’ll change feet.

  9. Tom says:

    Thank you very much. This provides a great set of data from which to draw. I appreciate your response.


  10. sonia says:

    Hey this is was very interesting. Informative, too, and I needed to be informed. I had no idea silken flesh was really the horse’s willy. lol I seen horse’s hair, sometimes it is shiny, but it is never been soft the few times I’ve been close enough to touch a horse (at a fair years ago. they kind with horses they trotted out so kids to pet them). Wouldn’t call it silky.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s the only part of the animal where flesh is exposed to be seen…and that, obviously, only some of the time. The rest is, as I say, covered in hair. And yes, it is, er, well, soft…I wouldn’t call it silken, myself…I suppose it depends upon what’s meant by silken, if you see what I mean.

      Digging myself in, here, aren’t I? Mn-hmn. Will shut up now.

      • sonia says:

        I think of silken as in like silk. Shiny, soft, a pleasure to touch. lol Yeah

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Righto, well, since there will be no witnesses to me turning bright red, I shall say, that, er, in the sense of soft, the word silken might be the correct one to choose for that part of a horse’s anatomy wherein the flesh is visible. But, er, my experience with cleaning said part could not in any way be deemed pleasurable, but is rather a necessity.

  11. Judy says:

    Love your blog. Sooo true about writers not riding right in their books. Buggers me too, as you Brits would say. As for herd animals, I remember riding my horse Val along a dirt road which are few here in the Midwest USA. They come usually cut by a barbed wire fence. John a friend riding with me, took, off at a gallop and Val wanted to charge off with him. Racing worried me but he wanted to catch up so badly. Well, I let him go and found myself flying over the tops of the corn stalks. He had jumped so smoothly to cut corners. He landed smoothly too. Not being trained in jumping, I figured I was a goner. It was fun, thrilling, exciting…something so few ever get to know or experience. Horses are a blessing.
    Thank you for this article and letting me know I’m not alone. I hope you stop by my blog on WordPress and let me know what you think. Thank you Jonathan Hopkins for the information about you. Best wishes.

  12. […] know whether your horse is bolshie or timid. I know whether he nips or nudges. I know why he is off his food. I know why he […]

  13. Cass says:

    Okay… I’m an aspiring writer who knows a bit about horses but I’m definitely no expert.

    Now, I read this as being possible in one of Terri Farley’s Phantom Stallion: Wild Horse Island books a while back, but I thought I’d better double-check before I did it. Can a horse be trained to “kneel”? Like, if I have an older woman and she can’t quite “get up there” can the horse be trained to kneel down either in the front or by going down all the way so that she can get on, and the horse will stand up?

    In the book I’m remembering, I think it was an appy named Prettypaint who was trained to put one front leg in and the other out as her front half was lower the the rest of her for the grandma, who had owned her for a number of years. I believe the author in question knows her stuff when it comes to horses but I thought I’d double check….

    And one more thing… I’ve seen somewhere an Arabian Horse (mare) was listed as their coat being “Flaxen Liver Chestnut” and she had a dark, black-brown colored coat and a light colored mane and tail, kinda ivorey-like. Is that really possible?


    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, horses can be taught to kneel. Parelli training (you can probably find some vids on YouTube) sometimes includes teaching the horses to kneel and allowing the rider to mount or dismount from and to the ground. I’ve seen it several times. Horses are a great deal smarter than most people give them credit for. Usually though, it goes hand in hand with a horse and rider who have worked together closely for a long time and have a very close bond.

      Don’t know about the official terminology for the Arab mare. A liver-chestnut is generally kind of russet or rusty in colour; one might call them a Big Red…The flaxen obviously was intended to refer to the colour of the mane and tail–and I know the colour you mean. It’s common enough in palominos. If you were to look up some of Stubbs’ paintings of horses–like Whistlejacket–I think that’s what you may be describing. And he was just known as a palomino.

  14. Cass says:

    Okay, I’m back with yet another question… at what age must you stop refurring to a female horse as a “filly” and start refurring to it as a “mare”? I’ve seen, somewhere in the world, a mustang that was still called a filly even though she was being trained and ridden, and somewhere I heard that a filly became a mare one she reached breeding age, and somewhere else I read that it didn’t make any difference depending on the region you are in and whether it is Western or English riding.

    Which of these is actually right?

    And secondly, How would the average barn be laid out? I know you can’t have a stallion next to a mare, but I mean, how is the average Western-riding barn arranged? It would be on a cattle ranch in Texas where they also keep many horses, for riding in the pastures and for transportation between ranches because it’s cheaper than gas and they (the main character anyway) likes to ride horses beter than drive cars. I was thinking it would be like a giant hallway with stalls all down either side, and maybe a big wide stall at the very end. I am thinking that the stalls openfrom the outside into the horse pasture, and I think there’d be a room for tack somewhere, and would it have a loft? Or would it more likely have a hay shed some where else?

    (And who knows, I may be back later with more questions… I want to make sure that my first horse book is right in all ways. Hope you don’t mind)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, filly is to put it bluntly a female horse which has not reached puberty. So that’s the term from new-born to when she comes into her first season. After that, she’s a mare.

      I don’t know anything about barns in Texas. Those in the UK where I live are pretty much vast buildings the inside space of which is divided as the owner wishes. So, for example at the stable where I ride, there are sort of three sections, one where a great deal of straw and all sorts of rubbish are stored. On the other side of the entrance there’s a fenced off area–quite large–where the floor is covered in straw, and one pony or other is often in there. Then there’s another lean-to at the far end, where proper stalls have been built, and there are about four horses kept at that end. But any stable owner would break up the space so that it works for him and accommodates the numbers of animals he has.

      A stable block here is usually a row of what we’d call box stalls–that’s fairly large, big enough for the horse to be in there untethered and to turn around freely or lie down–with a row of Dutch doors facing in on the yard. Horses like to watch what’s going on, they’re curious, and it can keep them from getting bored and therefore fretful.

      As for separating males and females, yes…I don’t know much about racing horses–those are the horses now who are usually kept as stallions. Regular riding/hacking horses, if they’re male, have generally been gelded. Though that doesn’t mean that they know they’re gelded, so that if a mare is in season, there will often be, among the herd, a bit of competition to be her new boyfriend. Though obviously, there will be no little foals to follow.

      If you’re writing historical fiction, the number of horses which are gelded is probably much less, since allowing your mare to have a foal or two was part increasing your herd or increasing your income through sales. Also, the willingness to geld varies tremendously, here in Europe, country by country. Here in the UK it’s common, but for example, many of the police horses in Spain are stallions and they don’t seem to have any problems with misbehaviour because of that.

      Hope this helps.

  15. […] on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and […]

  16. […] Writing about horses ~ a word or two of advice… […]

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