Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

Recently I read a book.  (I know, shocker!)  A work of historical fiction, it was.

stubbs bayAnd in this book which was set at a time when horses were the only means of transportation, we had our hero, who was meant to be a tall lanky fellow over 6′ tall, riding a little mare who, according to the author, was just over 14 hands.  And our hero was so entranced by her that he hoped the dragoons wouldn’t steal her for their own.


Well, when I stopped laughing, I mentioned this to another horsey friend of mine…and when she stopped laughing like a drain, she said, “Obviously the bloke was wearing roller skates so his feet could run smoothly alongside…”

It was an image, I will confess, I had not thought of myself.

So let’s talk hands, shall we?  Because that’s how one measures a horse’s height.

For a start, a horse’s height is measured at the withers–think the tallest bit of his shoulder.  A hand is the linear measurement of a horse’s height which is equal to four inches.

dragoon1812So according to our aforementioned novelist, his 6′ hero was riding a horse which stood 4’10” or so at the withers.  So in fact our hero was towering over this poor little pony is what he was actually doing.  And if you think that it would be good for a little ponio’s back to have a great lug of 6 foot on his back–no matter how lightly the chap rode–you should think again.

Now, yes, when one is talking about some of the  hardier breeds of pony–the New Forest ponies, here, or some of the Russian ponies that the Cossacks rode, for example…the Connemaras and those sure-footed little lads that go up and down the mountains in Spain, yes, they’re sturdy as all get out.   They’re hearty, they’re fast, they’re smart.  I love them to bits!  And I love riding them.  But I am NOT 6′ tall.  I’m nowhere near that.

Moreoever, dragoon regiments of the Napoleonic era all had height requirements.  Some of Napoleon’s were required to be no smaller than 6′ tall.  And they weren’t shrinky dinks on the British side either.  Not to mention the weight of their kit…which would mean they weren’t looking for neat little ponies–no matter how clever or quick–they were looking for the big lads of 16, 17 or even 18 hands.  (That’s 5’4″, 5’8″ or 6′ tall at the withers…)

And finally, whinnying.  A word of advice to those who haven’t met a horse–do not get your information from cowboy movies.  For in this very charming novel to which I referred earlier, every time the author mentioned horses, he had them whinnying.

dragoon2Now, whinnying is a bit of an individual thing with horses.  Some do.  Others almost never do.  But for the most part, they don’t do it much.  They’re actually very quiet animals.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for the benefit of prey animals by saying, “Hey Lion-face, here I am…aren’t you hungry?”

They may do it occasionally/rarely to say to another horse, “Oi!  Here I am, matey.  Boy, this grass looks good.  Pity you’re not here…”  And sometimes when their friends are missing–as in the other horses from their herd are off doing stuff and they’re left at home–they whinny.  But they’re not talkative toddlers.

As for whickering?  I’ve only heard it once in my entire life–and that was when a mare was in season and her boyfriend du jour was getting a little resty at not being as up close and personal as he would have liked (I was on his back, so this wasn’t possible…)  So don’t even use the phrase.  Please, oh, please, don’t use it.

They do snort.  A lot.  And I know a few horses who have this nifty little trick of wheezing heavily when they’re on the uphill, so that the novice on their back thinks they’re about to croak and doesn’t make them canter.  Clever, very clever.

Also, they do this shakey thing, rather like a Labrador just out of the river, shaking off the water–and when you’re on their back, this jiggles you something chronic.

But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…)



19 comments on “Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

  1. prue batten says:

    Love it, absolutely love it. So true on so many levels. Especially the shake when one is on board… every sinew, bone, cell, you name it … shaken not stirred!

    But I must take exception to the whicker or nicker. Every time my last horse caught sight of me after an absence, or if I emerged from the barn with a feed, he would nicker and continue to nicker until I had spoken to him or until his feed bin had been filled. It was a very deep in the chest sound, but his nose would ripple as he did it and we even learned to copy him and even funnier, his paddock mate, a retired border leicester ram, began to try to make the same sound. Sadly, Spot is no longer alive but Rambo is, and when I appear he still attempts the ‘nicker’ to me.

    I sometimes think it is very hard to ‘write’ horses unless one has actually ridden or handled them. It’s a reality that is hard to deliver. The same with boats and the sea.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, I was thrilled to hear it when I finally did hear it. And I love that your lad whickered to you. It’s such a wonderful sound–unmistakable. But as I say, all horses are individuals…just like people. (Some more than others. Ha ha.)

  2. m.m. Fahren says:

    Hands and shakes. mmmhh. (she whickers, rather nervously, prancing to the nearest wall. . .splat!) Quite good, Bennetts. Graci would like it. She never approved of all those silly human imitations of horse sounds, and, being –ummhh– ALMOST 14 hands, she is glad when a certain rider has finally dropped a few pounds and inches. (whinnies, hopefully, and paws ground at no returning sound)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha! That’s Tomtom’s size. He likes me just the way I am though–I ride seven stone. Don’t know what that is in US terms. If I get any lighter, says he, he’ll think I’m a flea…

      Snorts, though. He does snort frequently enough… *wink* He snorts hallo to Graci…

  3. Elin Gregory says:

    Love this post. I try hard to be horse conscious when I’m writing and make it realistic, but I’m also using archaeological info and sometimes that seems very much at odds with modern horsemanship. Is it better to ignore the archaeology – such as bones of fully tacked ponies in graves with Scythian horse archers whose long bones confirm a height of well over 6 feet – to avoid it sounding all wrong to modern horse owning readers? In the case of the scythians they rode in a peculiar fashion with their pelvis tipped forward and their legs curled back around the pony’s barrel, but that’s very hard to get across in prose.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      They were amazing horsemen, the Scythians. Just well cool! Watching the films of modern Cossack riders is a bit like that–they’re doing all these tricks and manoeuvres without the benefit of a vaulting saddle and I just watch and gawp. But part of the reason the French troops were so frightening of them on the retreat from Russia, was because of the way they rode–to the French, it just looked barking mad! So ya, it’s always a trick when writing fiction to keep it believable for the modern reader…

  4. Fun post! I’m just writing some scenes now with horses. I’ve ridden only one horse in my life, and it was the oldest, slowest mare in the barn, so I’m no expert here. But my young heroine loves horses and desperately wants a mare of her own, so a-horseyin’ I had to go. Fortunately, I have a great critique partner who raises horses and rides dressage, so she was able to tell me all about foaling and nickering and whickering and such. I did add “snort” on my own, though. 🙂

  5. Suzi Love says:

    Thanks for a great laugh. Yes, I’m imagining the hero with roller skates on his feet.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I was sort of thinking of a Fred Flintstone kind of method myself…Even before the rollerskates…Ha ha.

  6. rappleyea says:

    I cannot believe it! Either we’ve just read the same book, or two authors have made the same mistake! I literally just read a book (an old Judith Lansdowne) with a “six foot tall hero” and, I believe the measurement used was “under 15 hands” for the “horse”. Having been in the Thoroughbred business my entire working career, I definitely took note. And laughed.

    This type of thing was my complaint with Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit – well written, but little things here and there let you know that it wasn’t written by a horse person.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Not the same book. And the measurement here was for just over 14 hands…I wondered if the horse and rider were doing a Fred Flintstone running underneath kind of thing…

      Though a friend of mine who’s a specialist in Napoleonic cavalry has produced the height requirements of the British cavalry at the time, and both the men and horses were shorter than we tend to imagine they were. Only about a quarter of the horses they had were 16hh or larger. The majority of them were 15 or so. And the men tended to be about 5’8″ – 5’10”. Bearing in mind that really, they were only starting to get a hang on breeding–Stubbs paintings of the thoroughbreds are only a generation old at this point…

      • rappleyea says:

        True. I suppose horses, like humans, have gotten taller over the generations. Until for Thoroughbreds, Northern Dancer came along and bequeathed his offspring shortness along with their talent (except for his son Nijinsky II).

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I have a really hard time with this height thing. There are too many historical figures whose height we know who–were we to see them today–would still strike us as very tall. Henry VIII was over 6 foot. Mary, Queen of Scots was 6′. Viscount Castlereagh, Lord Palmerston, Tsar Alexander I–all over 6 foot. They did a thing about twenty years ago, checking the height of all the American Civil War soldiers and their average height was somewhere between 5’8 and 5’9…which is only an inch shorter than today…So maybe we’ve got clumsier and require more space around us? Maybe we don’t sit and stand up as straight because we’re not all wearing corsets? I don’t know…

        Horses certainly have been being bred for a larger size for some time, and that’s not just the Clydesdales and thoroughbreds…and now they’re saying that we’re too fat (as a nation) to ride many horses and we’re damaging their backs…

        Like I say, I just don’t know…

      • rappleyea says:

        This is interesting and it sent me looking at height charts for the last hundred and fifty years. The thing that caught my eye was that height increases weren’t simply a straight line – there was a decrease in height in the late 19th and early 20th century, the theory being that increased mass transit brought more people into contact with people from all over the world and thus increased disease. Also blamed were economic downturns, which would have negatively impacted nutrition. I think the nutrition aspect would explain the taller than average heights of the men you used as examples – all upper class and much better fed than the average. However, Dutch men are now on the average two inches taller than American men, again assumed to be because of the Standard American Diet (SAD for short!).

  7. […] Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it) […]

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