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