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.
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…