blog about reviews writing

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Care and Keeping of the Fictional Horse

(updated 9/16/12 because I've found some new problems that keep coming up

Since I'm at horse camp this week, I thought this would be appropriate.  In this post, I'm going to give you some basic horsemanship advice to use in your novel.   Why?  Because I see horses portrayed unrealistically in books (especially fantasy), and it makes me mad.  You'll have no trouble fooling the non-horse people if you don't do your research, but the horse people will smell your ignorance a mile away, and they will scoff at you.  Just a heads-up.

Care of the fictional horse is really easy, as long as don't do the following(and I have actually seen every example in a book before):
  • Horses cannot gallop for miles on end without stopping.  It's highly convenient to toss your travelers onto some horses, set them galloping, and sha-zam!  They're there in no time!  But it's not possible.  Sorry.  Horses need rest.  Even racehorses need a long time to recover and restore their strength after a mile-long gallop.  
  • Horses can't nibble some grass for five minutes and call it a day.  Grass actually has very little nutrients in it.  This is why horses need to consistently eat on and off all day to get the vitamins and minerals they need.  If this doesn't work for your story, and you want to get moving, then they'll need some grain.  Do your research if you want to know approximately how much.
  • It's harder to fall off than you might think.  If you're just sitting on the horse, walking, or even trotting, you're not going to fall off, unless you're doing something stupid.  I don't care how clumsy you are; it just doesn't work that way. 
  • Don't say the horse is cantering if you don't know what that means.  If you're writing with horses in the story, please, please, please look up your gaits.  Horses have four gaits.  I won't explain here, but if they're in your story, you need to know what they are.
  • You don't have a lap when riding.  So you can't set things on it.  When you're riding, you have on leg on either side of the horse.  You could set something across your saddle, but it'd probably fall off right away.
  • Horses don't whinny and rear whenever it's dramatic.    I was at a horse farm all day today and I heard maybe half a dozen whinnies.  Horses actually don't whinny that often, and they rarely rear.  
  • If you're writing a fantasy novel, your saddle most likely does not have a horn.  Most fantasy worlds are loosely based off medieval Europe, where they would've used English-style saddles.  Which don't have horns.  Western saddles have horns.  Look up the difference.  
  • If you're traveling, you aren't going to gallop the whole way.  Galloping just isn't comfortable for long distances.  Neither is cantering.  Or trotting.
  • You don't use long whips for hitting the horse.  You hit the ground near the horse to encourage them to move.  A short whip is called a crop; you do use it to hit the horse, but again, please look this up.
  • Horses and ponies are not the same thing.  The terms "horse" and "pony" are not interchangeable.   A pony is not just a small horse.  A pony will not grow into a full-sized horse.  A horse is a horse, and a pony is a pony.  There is no overlap.  Learn the difference. 
  • People under the age of 18 are still perfectly capable of riding full-sized horses.  In many books, a kid or even a teenager is given a pony to ride, because "they aren't big enough to ride a full-sized horse".  This is nonsense.  Yes, ponies are smaller and therefore easier for small children to control.  That doesn't mean they're not capable of controlling a bigger animal.  I "graduated", for lack of a better term, to a full-sized horse instead of a pony for riding lessons when I was, oh, around ten.  I was a few inches under five feet tall and probably weighed 80, 90 pounds.  Now I'm a towering 5'1" and can control a 1,400 pound horse with no trouble.
  • You wouldn't use the same horse for racing as you would for battle or farming or hunting.  Well, maybe you would, if you only had one horse.  But if you were, say, a rich noble, you'd have different horses.  Battle horses would be bigger to support armor and weapons, yet agile enough to move quickly.  Farm horses would be big and muscular.  Look these things up.

Don't abuse your fictional horses.  If you learn one thing from this, it's that you need to know your stuff.    You don't need to go read twenty issues of Horse Illustrated, or anything.  Just follow this one rule: when in doubt, look it up.  Wikipedia should be fine for most things.  Keep in mind that horses aren't perfect creatures; they don't always follow your directions.  They each have very distinct personalities.  So you should give them a little respect.    

Of course, if horse abuse is part of your story, feel free to break any of these rules.  Or if you made up your own species of horse.  That'd be cool, too. 

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  1. Diana Wynne Jones on horses in fantasy: "Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a valley while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination."


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