The Pedestrian’s Guide to Writing Horses

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

7: Further Reading

Aside from research, it is a good idea to read some books where the author got their horses right. My favorite example is The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis. Even though the horses are Narnian Talking Animals, they are still impeccably equine. Read it if only for the description of Bree rolling, which is wonderful.

Diana Wynne Jones also does excellent horses. Darklord of Derkholm is probably my favorite example by her. Again, the horses here are magical, but they are still horses for all that. The Pinhoe Egg has a marvelous horse character, and she gets the differences between horses and bicycles spot on. (Not just the “one’s an animal and once’s just inanimate” thing.) There is only one horse in A Tale of Time City, but it is so perfectly horse-like it’s worth reading. A good book to boot. And as an honorable mention: Mini the elephant from The Merlin Conspiracy. Sure, she’s an elephant, but as I was reading the book I thought, “she’s basing Mini’s character on a horse!” If more writers wrote their horses like Diana Wynne Jones wrote her elephant I would be a very happy reader.

Though they are not fantasy books, the horses portrayed in the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters are wonderfully accurate and imaginative. She pushes them to the limit of what is believable—but never an inch beyond. They are individuals with different personalities, and better yet, their actions (dictated by their personalities) have major effects on the plot. Horse lovers will also be relieved to hear that, for all the books deal with human death quite a bit, the horses rarely die or suffer much at all.

Finally, I must mention an author who I believe did his horses a great disservice, and I mention him only because it is so surprising: J. R. R. Tolkien, who should have known better. He worked with horses. He knew horses. And yet I think we can pin the origin of the “horses as bicycles/cars” trope directly to his lapel. The horses of Middle-earth are mostly props, and even when they are given names and songs (Shadowfax, Bill, Snowmane), they still don’t get real characters. And they are killed off so casually it’s chilling. Not that they die (they all die in believable ways) but that their deaths are rarely given the gravity that they deserve. Only Snowmane is given proper due, and his death comes so late it is almost as though Tolkien looked back on his writing and thought “Golly! I really haven’t been giving my horses enough respect, let’s fix that!” (Rather the same way he used Éowyn to make up for his deplorable female representation.) But in my opinion (in both his horses and his women) it was too little, too late. I am sorry to say I rather resent him for it, as I believe it has given generations of writers the idea that horses can be treated like disposable tissues.

This is not to say I forbid writers from having an equine death toll. If your story requires whole herds of horses to be slaughtered then slaughter them you must. But realize how strong a connection real people feel for their real horses. We love them like we would a family member. To someone who has known a horse, the idea of moving on unfeelingly after they have died is abhorrent. Surely anyone who would behave so callously must be a cold-hearted, inhuman monster.

So unless your characters are cold-hearted, inhuman monsters, have them stop and treat the death of a horse with the same respect and reverence they would of any sympathetic character.

One thing I will say for Susannah Clarke: though the manner in which her equine character dies is a bit unbelievable, the way she handles the aftermath is beautiful. This horse’s death drastically upsets the character’s mood and actions, and because of it the whole course of the story is changed. Which is only as it should be. For this reason alone I say, for a good example of the repercussions of a horse’s death, read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I should note that all the books I have mentioned are not principally about horses. They just have horse characters in them. There are other novels which revolve around horses as the central character(s), and these can be illuminating: Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague, spring readily to mind.

I’m also leaving this space open for further recommendations. If any of my horse-savvy readers have books that provide good examples of equine character and behavior, please send me an email and I’ll list it here.

In closing I’d like to say that, really, you don’t have to go into mad detail with your horses to make them realistic. The most important thing to remember is that horses are thinking, breathing animals, and they have ideas and opinions of their own. If you treat them like living things with personalities rather than lumps of clay, you will be doing more than many writers, and the horse-people among your readership will appreciate it.

As for what happens to them in the story… well, as long as you don’t do anything that would make Wendela Horselady recall them, you’ll be just fine in my book.

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Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

*

The Horselady looked slowly around the space by the river. By this time there were not only a large number of people there but two dozen horses, too. “You’re all using my horses,” she said. “I’ll talk to you first and then to Wizard Derk when he comes. I’ve had enough trouble finding this camp—someone’s put it in quite the wrong place—and I may as well make it worth my while. Now, listen. So many of my horses got killed last year that I had trouble meeting my quota for this year. I’ve had to send out some of the breeding stock. And that means fewer foals next year—a lot fewer, because those darned Pilgrims are so careless. Six tours have lost all their horses already, and I’m not providing them with new ones just to have those broken down—”

“Madam,” Umru managed to interrupt, “I assure you I cherish my horses, particularly the only one that can carry me.”

“—by stupid fools who think they’re just some kind of walking chairs,” the Horselady swept on. “And now you’re all coming up to this ridiculous round of battles, and there’s bound to be absolute carnage amongst the horses, because there always is, and I shall have practically none left, and most of those will be hurt in some way. Why you people can’t be more careful—”

“This really isn’t our concern,” Titus said stiffly. “Our legions mostly fight on foot.”

“Yes, I know they do!” the Horselady retorted. “Your lot is the worst of all. Your beastly legions go for the horses every time in order to get the riders off. Well, I’m warning you, if they do that this year, if a single horses gets maimed or killed—”

“Look,” said King Luther, “you can’t have a battle without horses being hurt—”

“Yes, you can if you fight on foot!” the lady contradicted him. “And you’re going to do that, because as I said, if one single horse gets hurt, I shall simply recall the entire lot.”

“That’s surely easier to say than to do,” King Luther said. “For a start, you’d have to—”

“I’d just do this.” The Horselady put her fingers to her mouth and gave a long, warbling whistle. The heads of all the horses turned toward her. Then they all, even Barnabas’s horse, and Umru’s, and those that had been tied to stakes by King Luther’s men, trotted eagerly toward her over the shale. The bard’s horse came out of the dome at a canter and reached her first. The noise, for a moment, of hooves crashing on stones, was horrible. “You see?” the Horselady said, out of the crowd of horses. “Nothing simpler.” She patted necks and rubbed noses. “There, my loves. Go back to your borrowers for now. I’ll call you again when I need you.”

Darklord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

6: Illness and Injury

First, a basic Cover My Back announcement:

I am not a vet. I have twenty-odd years of experience with horses and I’ve seen a lot of things in that time, but I do not have the training, the skills, or the expertise of a real vet. The descriptions of common equine ailments and their treatments that follow should be used only for reference when writing fiction and not applied to the real world. If you have or encounter a horse you believe is ill or injured contact a licensed veterinarian immediately. 

With that out of the way…

*

Horses can suffer from a variety of illnesses found among humans as well. They can get cold viruses, the flu, even rabies (though this is rare). Today there are effective vaccines that, provided they are administered regularly, render these illnesses practically nonexistent. (Horses are vaccinated once or twice annually, depending on the vaccine and the risk factor; consult a vet for details.)

Bacterial infections, such as pigeon fever, have no such vaccines, and must be treated with antibiotics. If your story is set in a pre-penicillin era without an alternative, such infections could quickly become life-threatening.

Though horses can contract equine versions of human illnesses, they do not pass between the two species very often.

When kept up-to-date on their booster shots horses are usually healthy animals, sickness-wise. But they have other ways of keeping your life interesting, such as…

Colic

Colic is probably the most common life-threatening injury a horse can suffer. I call it an injury, even though most colicking horses are described as “sick,” because colic just means there’s something wrong with their digestive tract that’s causing them intense pain. Causes for colic that I have personally encountered include:

  • Gas. Just like in humans; this will usually clear itself out in a few hours.
  • Fecal compaction. Basically this is just really, really bad constipation. Usually easily treated with muscle relaxants (injected) oil (by mouth) and enemas (guess where).
  • Sand. Collects in the horse’s hind gut if not flushed out with fiber; can cause a compaction (blockage) of the intestines, or make them crimp, or even tangled. If the intestines are merely blocked, it can be treated with muscle relaxants and mineral oil to wash the sand out. If the intestines become compromised, it is a life or death situation and very painful for everybody.
  • Entroliths. Like kidney stones, but huge! They form from the distilled clay of the horse’s diet, slowly growing larger as they accumulate more layers. Common in horses with a history of sand colic. Small entroliths can pass with little or no trouble, but large ones can cause blockages, and therefore colic.
  • Benign tumors. These are more common in older horses; they grow globs of flesh along their intestines. These growths are not cancerous or are not harmful in of themselves, except that they can interfere with the functions of the intestines, and therefore the horse’s life.

There are many other ways in which a horse can colic I am sure. Consult a veterinarian if you need inspiration.

Colicking horses will present as under the weather, uninterested in food, and tired. They will lie down flat out, and sometimes roll in pain.

Standard treatments for colic start with forcing the horse to walk: walking makes their bowels move, and will help work out the muscle cramping. Muscle relaxants can also be administered. In extreme cases sedation, anesthesia and surgery are also options. Obviously not options if you’re in a pre-industrial society—unless you’ve got some very specific magic spells.

A horse coming out of colic will be given free access to water and gradually reintroduced to food—especially fiber-rich feed like grass or oat hay. Alfalfa and grains are usually avoided for a few days.

Horses who have had colic in the past are more prone to subsequent episodes, but with proper care it can be avoided—mostly. Colic is sort of like lightning, and can strike at any horse, anywhere, any time.

Colic is scary, but it passes quickly. Either the horse gets better… or they don’t. Unlike another common injury…

Hoof Abscesses

Just like a regular abscess, only inside the horses’s hoof! Hoof abscesses can be caused by anything from a stray shoe nail, a stone that has become wedged deep in the horse’s hoof, untrimmed feet cracking and splintering, to internal bruises becoming necropsied and infected.

A horses with an abscess with let you know. The pain is intense and acute: they will not walk on the foot that has the abscess. This can be quite alarming to see, but abscess are fairly easy to treat, and as long as they are not too big or too close to the bone they are not life-threatening.

Once diagnosed, vets will start by attempting to carve a drain into the horse’s hoof, so that the infected fluid can drain out, relieving the pressure (and thus the pain) and the hoof may begin to heal. Even if they are unable to tap the abscess, soaking the foot in epsom salt water can help draw it out.

Once an abscess has burst the horse will immediately begin to feel better. If little or no damage has been done to the rest of the hoof by the abscess, they may even present as sound. However, you will be able to see the fluid draining from their hoof, and this is moderately disgusting. Most abscesses will drain through the bottom—across the sole of the hoof—but some will burst along the coronet band and spill down over the outside. Both kinds of wounds must be kept clean to prevent re-infection. For bottom-draining abscesses, you can douse them with betadine, pack with gauze, and then cover with a cast made of duct tape. Yes, duct tape. I have also heard of vets packing larger abscess holes with betadine-soaked sugar, to lessen the sting and prevent bacterial growth.

The last time my horse had an abscess, it drained through her sole and her coronet band. I had to use gauze soaked in betadine for the sole, and a human diaper to cover the cornet band—before securing the whole assemblage with duct tape and vet wrap.

A good duct tape bandage can last for days, but often it will need to be removed at least once a day to dress the wound.

Once burst, abscesses can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week to drain thoroughly. If the infection hasn’t spread to the bone, most horses make a complete recovery in a matter of weeks.

The other most common cause of acute lameness in horses is…

Laminitis

This is also known as Founder. But though they are related, they are actually two different things.

Laminitis is inflammation of the laminae, the little fibers that connect the outer shell of the hoof to the coffin bone (the hoof-shaped bone inside the hoof). Laminitis can be brought on by many things, such as a sudden influx of rich food into the horse’s system such as tender green grass or a lot of sweet feed. The exact mechanics are too complicated for me to explain here, but the gist is that the horse has trouble metabolizing all the sugar, and this causes an imbalance in their blood chemistry, which causes the laminae to become inflamed. Laminitis can also be caused by stress injury and by lack of blood flow.

Horses with laminitis will present as tender-footed—sore on both front feet, and hind feet as well. If it is really bad, they may even look like they’re trying to walk on their hind feet, to take some weight off their front ones. If the laminitis is only present on one hoof, they will favor it as they would any other sore foot.

Laminitis can usually be halted or reversed by judicious application of anti-inflammatory medicine, a change of diet, and special hoof-care such as barefoot trimming or corrective shoeing, and dietary supplements.

Left untreated, laminitis can be fatal. With the laminae damaged, the coffin bone is no longer fully supported and can begin to sink or even rotate within the hoof. In extreme cases, the bits of the coffin bone will even poke through the sole of the hoof. This is when laminitis turns into founder. It is torturously painful for the horse, and usually the only recourse is euthanasia.

In rare cases, instead of breaching the sole of the hoof, the coffin bone will begin to chip off and disintegrate. This is also incredibly painful for the horse, and since there is no way to grow the bone back, the poor animal usually has to be put down.

There are many more reasons for a horse to go lame: everything from a stone caught in the hoof to horrible things like ringbone. A vet once told me that 95% of all lameness is from the coronet band down, and in my personal experience she was right. However, abscesses and laminitis are probably the most common, and in the interest of not using up all the words on the internet, they are all I’m going to cover here. For other fun (read, horrifying) ways horses go lame, try googling the words “ringbone” “navicular syndrome” and “keratoma” in conjunction with the words “horse” and “hoof.” Or consult the nearest vet.

Other ways horses can injure themselves (without any help from humans with pointy sticks), are by getting themselves tangled up in their fencing (lacerations, torn ligaments, friction burns), becoming stuck under a fence or wedged in their stall (anything from abrasions to broken bones), and running headlong into things that leave them with huge, gaping wounds.

I once showed up at the stables one morning to find my horse had acquired a four-inch-long gash in her flank. I don’t know how she did it. The vet who cleaned and stitched it up said that it went so deep she could get her whole hand inside. They had to install a drain and everything and I had to give her (my horse, not the vet) injections of penicillin twice a day for three days. Took almost a month, but it healed up nicely and aside from some loose skin there’s nothing even resembling a scar. But still. I have no idea how she did it.

To give them due credit, horses can be incredibly resilient and come back from horrific injuries. There are some things, however, that even the best intentions of humans cannot save them from.

You may have heard of race horses breaking a leg and having to be put down. This can be startling to someone who doesn’t know horses, so let me explain:

The horse’s circulatory system requires them to spend most of their time standing on their feet. Having the pressure of supporting 1,000 + lbs. of weight on their hooves is how they get blood into and out of them. Without being able to stand, indeed without being able to walk, they loose circulation in their feet—which can lead to laminitis and all sorts of other bad things.

So once the feet are irreparably compromised, there is no way for the horse to live without pain.

A horse cannot simply spend a month on its butt with its foot in a sling while it waits for the bone to heal. It must be kept standing. Today there are intense, expensive procedures involving pools of water and slings, but even these don’t always work.

So most of the time horse owners will spare themselves and their animals the agony and just have them put down. It is one of the harshest aspects of horse-ownership, but people don’t do it without a reason. Usually, a very good one. Google “ruffian race horse” if you want a heart-wrenching example.

While most euthanasia is performed by vets using a combination of drugs (much like what is used to euthanize dogs and cats, just on a larger scale), sometimes it must be performed in an emergency in the field. This is why so many people who own horses in isolated, rural areas own and know how to use guns. To kill a horse humanely with a gun (DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME KIDS!) requires you to shoot it in the head between the eyes—but that’s not always easy, especially if they’re thrashing around in pain.

Keep that in mind before you casually write your horse into some horrible accident.

I want to take a moment here to talk about certain injuries horses rarely suffer, and injuries that their riders commonly do.

Horses do not rear up, fall over backwards, and break their backs… very much. Oh, I’m sure they do, but it would be considered a bit of a freak accident. Like someone tripping over a laundry basket and tearing their ACL. What is common is for horses to rear up, never minding that they are in a small space, and crack their heads open on whatever is directly above them. Also more common: horses rearing up, falling over backwards, rolling to the side and getting up with nary a scratch… and leaving what is left of their rider a bloody pancake.

Falling from a horse can cause a rider all sorts of injuries: from strained muscles to bruises to broken bones to concussions. Falling from a horse and then getting landed on by your horse usually means you get an ambulance ride. If you’re lucky. If not, you get a ride in a hearse.

If a horse lands on your leg, you are lucky. You just have a broken leg. It might not even be a compound fracture. If a horse lands on your lower half there is a good chance you’ll have a fractured pelvis. If it lands on your upper half…

Well, remember back at the beginning where I said horses are so big and heavy it takes a backhoe to move a dead one?

What do you think that weight will do to the pitiful human ribcage?

Yeah.

So if your villain falls under his horse don’t think he’ll be able to get up again. Unless he is secretly a robot. And only then if he’s super strong robot.

If you take away anything from this chapter, let it be this: never underestimate the amount of damage a horse can do to itself or its rider or the things immediately surrounding it.

Backhoe, remember?

Of course there is a lot more to the ailments of horses—many people have made careers out of studying them—but this should give you a solid grounding. In the next and final chapter I’ll be closing out this series by going over the books that, in my opinion, got the horses right—and I’ll also mention a few to be wary of because of how wrong they were.

On to Chapter 7: Further Reading ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

5: Care and Maintenance

Horses require a great deal of work, especially if you want to use them in your Quest to Defeat the Dark Lord. The easiest way to care for a horse is to leave it out on a grass pasture with easy access to water. There the horse may graze all day, drink freely, and get enough exercise that it will not go mad. However, the situation of the average horse-owner/protagonist may not allow for this.

The first thing to remember is that horses are natural nomadic grazers. This means the moment you take them off the plains and put them in small paddocks you need to start doing things to make up the difference.

Instead of foraging on grass and roughage all day, the domestic horse is fed hay. Hay comes in many forms, but the most common are alfalfa (high-density, sweet hay; good for performance horses); oat (more fiber, less sweet; better for their digestive system since it takes longer to eat and therefore is closer to the experience of grazing all day); and grass (the mildest hay; horses may eat this all day with no ill effect, but will need to eat more of it to get enough nutrients). As mentioned earlier, all hay today is bound into brick-shaped bales the size of small sofas, which when opened will come apart into flakes. A flake of hay is anywhere from two to four inches thick, and can be comfortably carried in one’s arms—if one doesn’t mind shedding stalks and leaves everywhere as they walk.

Alfalfa has small, hard stalks, but it mostly made up of dried, clover-like leaves. Good alfalfa smells wonderful—almost like tea—and is green on the inside of the bale, while the outside bleaches to a pale gold. It is the densest of all hay, and so is mostly used to feed working horses. The disadvantage is that horses can gorge themselves upon it and make themselves sick.

Oat hay looks a lot like straw, and is about the same color. The crucial difference is that oat hay contains just that: pods of oats mixed in with the stalks and leaves. The flakes tend to be bigger, looser, and in general more messy. Oat hay is less rich than alfalfa, and some horses will disdain to eat the stalks at all.

Grass hay is made up entirely of grass, and fades to a light grayish green. It is the least common in my area, and so I don’t know as much about it. It is even more loose and messy than oat hay, and smells even fainter. I have been told it is the best for horses with sensitive digestive systems, since it more closely replicates their natural feeding habits: eating grass all day.

In addition to hay, a domestic horse’s diet may be supplemented with sweet feed such as oats, oats and molasses, and other concoctions. This is very rich food indeed, and is usually given in amounts of three or less cups at a time, once a day. A horse can easily make themselves very sick from eating too much grain at one time.

Some alternatives to hay include hay cubes or pellets, which are commonly used when traveling—as they are easier to transport.

Today there are also a multitude of supplements that can be added to a horse’s diet to help with joints, coats, hooves, and even temperament. This writer feels a lot of them are only so much magical paprika, but some do contain useful things like mineral oil (which creates a glossy coat and helps with clearing out the hind gut) and iron (helps with red blood cell count, and therefore energy levels).

It is common practice to leave a block of salt available to a horse, especially in hot weather when they will be sweating a lot—and in cold weather, to make them drink more and not become dehydrated. Horses will self-administer as much salt as they need by licking the block. Some people like to use salt blocks with other trace minerals, but I prefer straight salt: a horse needs more salt than anything else, and might get too much of the other minerals if everything is mixed together.

It should be noted that straw is not feed (though a horse may chew on it if bored) and is generally used for bedding. It makes very, very poor bedding. The moment a horse urinates on it it begins to form a fetid mat, and manure is almost impossible to remove without taking huge clumps of straw with it. Better kinds of bedding for stables are dry wood shavings or pellets; better yet is plain, dry sand. However, all stalls suffer from the excrement of horses and must be cleaned every eight hours or at least once a day if they are to be kept decent—unless they are exceptionally well engineered, which they never are.

Horses drink a lot of water, especially in hot weather. They must always have access to water when at home, either by manually filled barrels, self-refilling troughs, or even natural streams.

There is a lot more to the day-to-day keeping a horse, but this should be enough to get you by for any story that does not revolve around said keeping of horse.

In addition, horses require regular hoof-care. In the wild their hooves are naturally worn down by the constant pounding over hard ground. But even the hardest-working domestic horse needs its feet trimmed every so often. How often depends on the horse and the type of work they are doing. Every six to eight weeks is the average, though some schools of thought follow the principle of trimming the horse’s feet a tiny little bit every couple of weeks.

A horse may be half-shod (metal shoes on their front feet only), full-shod (metal shoes on all four feet) or barefoot (no shoes). Having shoes on the hind feet only is almost unheard of, unless the horse has some sort of deformity in their hind feet alone that requires corrective shoeing. Even then, this is uncommon: the majority of problems occur in the horse’s front feet, which bear the most weight.

Horse shoes come in a great variety of sizes and shapes. They are held on the horse’s hoof with small nails driven through the outer edge of the hoof wall. A correctly attached shoe causes a horse no pain. An incorrectly attached shoe can cripple a horse. Consult the nearest farrier if you wish to have your ear talked off. I actually recommend this: farriers are interesting people and usually have some great stories of their own to tell.

Though as a general rule a horse is better off with shoes on when presented with rough terrain, some horses don’t take well to shoes: their feet grow strangely, or do not grow at all, and very soon you run out of places to put the nails. Even without shoes, there are still a myriad of ways to trim a horse. Contact a bare-foot trimmer (or bare-footer) again, for an earful. Barefoot horses will do better over stone (less slippage) and snow. They will also have better circulation in their feet, and therefore better hoof growth.

Note: metal shoes are terrible in snow. The snow will freeze and stick to the cold metal, clumping up into icy balls and making it impossible for your horse to walk.

A modern compromise is to have a barefoot horse, and outfit them with rubber boots when they are taken out to be ridden. This barefoot-and-boots approach is fairly new, but it is not unimaginable that someone might have thought of it before.

It is typical for a horse to receive a visit from a veterinarian once a year for a checkup. The vet will look them over for signs of disease, give them what booster vaccines are due, and float their teeth if necessary.

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A pair of vets float the teeth of the author’s horse. Most vets will give the horse a sedative prior to the procedure to make it easier on everyone.

Ah yes, teeth floating. And you thought going to the dentist was bad.

Horse teeth grow constantly because they are meant to be worn down by near-constant chewing. A horse on a diet of soft alfalfa hay, therefore, will not be chewing enough to counter their tooth growth. Oat hay and grass hay, again, are better, as they take longer to chew. Even so a horse can develop uneven wear patterns that result in nasty spikes, hooks, and waves that can cause serious problems if left unattended. To prevent this the vet will take a rasp and manually grind down the horse’s offending teeth. In doing so they usually check for rotting teeth at the same time. Because their natural diet contains almost no refined sugar, horses generally do not suffer from cavities or infections. When they do, however, it can be a very bad thing and you want to know about it right away.

Today vets have all sorts of elective grinders and rasps, and will sedate the horse so they can more easily do their job. But I’ve seen it done with a hand rasp by a 130 lb. woman on a horse with only a halter and twitch (a sort of clamp that holds on to the soft tissue of the horse’s upper lip, and gives them more of an incentive to hold still). It was quite a sight.

Vets may also be called in at any time to treat lameness, illness, or AFR (“Ain’t Feelin’ Right”), but that is a matter for the next chapter.

Horses are usually given “wormer” regularly to combat the growth of parasite larvae and eggs in their intestines. These are made from a variety of compounds, most commonly ivermectin. Horses contract the eggs from eating contaminated food, so a horse on a large pasture is usually better off. When given the choice, horses will not eat food that has been anywhere near their dung, but a horse in a small paddock usually has no choice.

A horse being ridden requires grooming every time it is used. Stiff-bristled brushes are used to brush their fur, cleaning it of dust and dried mud. You may also brush their manes and tails with a human hair brush. Most importantly, they need the soles of their feet checked and cleaned before and after riding. This is done with a hoof pick; a handy metal hook like a crooked finger attached to a handle.

Horses may be given treats. These usually take the form of carrots, apples, and handfuls of grain. They will also eat cookies and peppermints, if given the opportunity. However, all treats must be fed in moderation, or else you risk hurting the horse.

There is a lot more to the care of horses than what I have described here; but it’s enough for now. If you need to know more than this for your story, it is time to get a horse of your own and learn from experience.

In the next chapter I will go over the most common ways horses injure themselves, and how one might respond. Ever wonder why racehorses who break a leg get euthanized? I explain how that works, too.

On to Chapter 6: Illness and Injury ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

 

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

4: Practicality

Let me make one thing clear: Horses are NOT bicycles. As you may have learned from the previous chapters, horses are large, unpredictable, and opinionated. They are also surprisingly injury-prone (see Chapter 6: Illness and Injury). All this makes them (by modern standards) an unreliable mode of transportation even when they are decently trained and have a good rider. But the best trained horse under the best rider will not be able to avoid bad luck such as stones lodged in hooves, strained muscles, or surprise bouts of colic. So while it would be annoying and likely detrimental to the story to have horses constantly going lame/sick (which they do not), it is a good idea not to assume they will perform like modern automobiles. Instead, salt your story with riders being late because their horse picked up a stone (much more common than throwing a shoe, though this is also not unusual) and went lame. Allow your horses to take fright at things, to balk at crossing water (most horses can be trained to cross water with little or no fuss; key word: most), and to pause mid-stride to take a bite out of the shrubbery, bit or no bit. Even if you don’t intend to develop your equines into fully fledged characters, scattering some of these quirks into your herd of horse-bicycles will help sustain the illusion that they are, in fact, animals, and not just the sword and sorcery fantasy version of a moped.

To help, here is a rundown of what can realistically be expected of horses when used for transportation.

On a flat, well-paved road, a horse walks at about the same speed as a human. They can, however, carry a lot more weight. So if your character is transporting some bulky Quest Objects, allow them a horse but don’t expect them to go much faster than if they were walking themselves.

To get a horse to go faster than a human walk they’ll need to be trotting: either a slow, relaxed trot that can be sat with little effort and that the horse can keep up all day (commonly called a jog or a Western Trot, as the cowboys preferred it for crossing long distances); or a brisk trot that the rider must post or be shook to pieces. Posting is when the rider raises and lowers their seat in time with one of the horse’s forelegs (when in an arena, it is proper to rise as the outer foreleg is moving forward). It is a lot more work than merely sitting a trot, but it’s much more comfortable if the horse is trotting fast enough. Posting is easiest when you have a pair of good stirrups to support your feet, but can be done without them. Indeed it can be done bareback, but that is much harder.

A horse at an extended trot is about equal to a fast human runner—but again they can carry more weight, and the average horse can keep the speed up longer than the average human.

These two gaits (the walk and varying speeds of trot) are what most riders will use to get about on. Only rarely will they canter or gallop, as horses can get hard to control at those speeds, and everyone gets tired more easily. However, when horses get into a gallop they can cover a lot of ground. So if you’ve got an express messenger needing to get from A to B in a hurry that’s what they’ll use. If A and B are too far apart for one horse to gallop the whole way, the rider may rely on stages—switching their mount for fresh ones at prearranged points.

This is all for horses on reasonably flat, well-maintained roads. Off-road is a whole other story.

On horseback the rougher the trail the faster they will go in relation to humans—even at a walk. Uneven ground, high grass, steep rises—these pose no great impediment to a horse. They will happily stomp right through low bushes and trees (sometimes scraping off unwary riders in the process), that would severely hinder a person. A nimble horse can even navigate rocky river bottoms with little difficulty.

Generally, however, the rougher the trail the slower the horse goes: so although it’s very well to want your hero to gallop through the river, sending streams of frothing water to either side, this is highly unadvisable unless you know the depth and power of the water, and can assume the bottom is even and firm. Things that, in my experience, river bottoms tend not to be.

Similarly, you’re not going to gallop all-out along a narrow, winding mountain trail—unless the forces of the Dark Lord are right there in hot pursuit, in which case one could argue necessity is the mother of improbable feats.

Keep in mind that the faster you ride and the rougher the trail, the more likely your character and their horse are to sustain an injury. As mentioned before, the horse may pick up a stone, twist its leg, or in extreme cases suffer a stress fracture. A rider is more likely to have bits knocked off by passing scenery, or get thrown from their mount completely—an action that can understandably result in everything from bruises to sudden death.

Horses can traverse a variety of terrain. Though they’ll want shoes for going on cobbled or stone-paved roads (or asphalt or concrete, while we’re at it). A barefoot horse can have good grip on rock, but will go tender-foot unless they have exceptionally hard hooves. A horse with metal shoes will be more comfortable, but is more likely to slip. Metal shoes are also a no-go in snow, as the snow will freeze to the metal and create balls of ice than can damage the horse’s hoof.

Horses do NOT like mud. Nothing will spook a horse like feeling its feet getting sucked into the ground. Conversely, horses tend to like sand. Whether it is the hard-packed sand you find under the breakers at the beach or the soft sand of the dunes. Horses like soft sand so much, they may stop and try to roll in it even with someone on their back.

Horses are variable when it comes to water. Some horses love water, and will enter it unasked. Others will sooner walk through fire. All horses can be trained to tolerate it further, though the less experienced the rider the harder it will be to get them to obey (this goes for everything). Most horses will, however, at least pause before crossing water, as they cannot always tell how deep it is and they will want to go slowly.

Rain will not disturb a horse one iota. It is much more likely to disturb their rider, whose thighs and shoulders will get very wet very fast unless they have a great coat on (cloaks do not work unless they are magical and/or elven).

A horse in good condition can go hard all day, have a good night’s rest, and be up for it again the next. Older horses (over twelve or thereabouts) will tire sooner and sooner the older they are; the same goes for horses who have not been kept in exercise—though any healthy horse off of pasture can be good for a reasonable day’s work. But the harder a horse is worked the more care they will need afterwards.

You cannot just throw the horse into the stables—unless there are some obliging grooms to take care of it. If a horse has been ridden hard (galloped for more than a few minutes) it should be cooled down by either walking or very slow trotting for at least fifteen minutes. If it has worked up a sweat and it is a cool day, it should be walked until the sweat has dried (this is to prevent it getting a chill). Wet, sweaty horses should not be blanketed, as the blanket will keep them wet. Walk until dry, then blanket. If raining, put in stall and give lots of hay. Digesting food creates body heat, and will keep the horse from over-cooling.

If wet, sweaty, and it’s cold out, do not give large amounts of cold water. This can super-cool their insides and bring on hypothermia (goes for humans as well). If horse is thirsty, walk and give small amounts of cool water at intervals of about 10 minutes. If warm water is available, however, let them drink as much as they want of that. It is a matter of temperature, not hydration. In hot weather all this is moot: horses should be allowed to drink as much as they want whenever they want when it is warm (except when they are seriously dehydrated; see Chapter 5: Care and Maintenance).

Also, after riding one must brush down the horse—this can aid in sweat drying, but it also settles the hair that may have been disrupted by the tack—and check their feet for stones (this should be done before riding as well; brushing and hoof-picking, as well as saddling and bridling, are generally covered under “Perkins, go saddle Thunderbolt for me, will you?”).

After the horse has been cooled, watered and groomed then it can be put away to feed and the characters may get on about their business. You needn’t cover this process in detail, but it can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes, so make allowances for that if there is no handy groom to take over.

All in all horses are somewhat cumbersome as transportation: they are moody and accident prone, they can take fright at the smallest of things, and they are, on the whole, not much faster than a human—unless galloping, which is difficult to ride for long periods of time. Yet you need not dwell on these shortcomings so long as you have your horses perform within reasonable capacity and make at least a couple references to the faults I have outlined here.

In the next chapter I will go over the day-to-day care and maintenance of these animals. While not likely to be important while your characters are out Saving the World, if they live in a pre-industrial society that uses horses as beasts of burden they will probably know these things—and so so should their author.

On to Chapter 5: Care and Maintenance ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

3: Personality

The idea of the loyal mount is not a myth. Horses are, in their way, as loyal as dogs—but at the same time so unlike dogs that when they are depicted as such I get very upset. If cats are independent and dogs are loyal, then horses are somewhere in between and off to one side.

On the one hand they can be as loyal and loving as dogs—but in a standoffish sort of way rather like a cat. Horses will do what they want unless you prove you’re the boss and make them do what you want. To a greater or lesser extent. I have ridden horses that were pretty much like bicycles for all the personality they had—but these were the exceptions. The vast majority of horses I’ve ridden, including my own, definitely have minds of their own, and have their own ideas of what we should do. Usually these ideas have something to do with running home, eating the nearest plant, or arbitrarily deciding that trash can (or garbage bag, or truck, or piece of paper) is actually a horse-eating monster and is out to get us!

These general attributes aside, horses vary individually just like human beings. My advice for writers is not to think of horses as a species, but as individual characters in their own right. Because that is what they are: one horse might have had a bad experience with a black dog once, and now always takes fright at black things of that shape and size. Another might have had good experiences with dogs, and will greet even the most viciously barking dogs with perked ears and a friendly knicker.

Point is, different horses will react differently to different things. While there is a paradigm of horse-like thought, you can pretty much make any exception to it as long as you qualify it as being a “character quirk.”

Consider this, then, the default horse character, and modify it as needed:

A horse is always hungry. Horses are browsers, and tend to want to eat anything that they consider edible. If a horse is uninterested in food, it is usually a sign of illness. Typically horses consider it food if it is: grass; hay; plant life in general; fruit (especially apples); grains; pastries; candy.

Horses spook easily, as they are prey animals. They are also one of the fastest land animals at distances greater than fifty yards. This means they can outrun just about anything provided they have a fifty yard head start. So while they are naturally alert and may stop to stare at something they are uncertain about no matter how near or far it is, if something surprises them and it’s closer than fifty yards away, their first reaction is to put some distance between it and themselves. They do this by spinning around and running off at top speed (retaining the rider is considered optional at this point). This is called bolting, and is something to be avoided.

The things they can take fright at vary from the understandable (large trucks, tractors, cranes, canons, bulls, trash compactors, sirens, and—one might assume—dragons, gryphons, werewolves, Rodents Of Unusual Size, people suddenly transforming into birds or another animals, wizards shooting lightning at each other), to the surprising (a piece of paper, an oddly-shaped trash can, a man with a stick, a stick without a man, and—I imagine—talking ravens, pixie sprites, and probably Hobbits). (Things that are like but not like something a horse knows are just as bad as something new: horses will take fright at mules if they aren’t familiar with them, let alone donkeys.)

However, if the thing is beyond fifty yards off, horses are much more relaxed, being confident that they could get away if it proved to be hostile.

A horse can be trained to put up with just about anything. So you can get away with having your horse fearlessly carry its rider into battle against a lightning-shooting dragon wizard, but you might want to mention that it was specifically trained not to spook at lightning-shooting dragon wizards. And of course a horse that has spent a lot of time around Hobbits will be used to them. But even the best trained horse can still get a bee in its ears about the silliest things; they are just less likely to.

Horses are naturally lazy, unless they are excited in which case they have plenty of energy, just unlikely to channel it in the way you want them too. They will drag their feet until you turn for home, at which point they will be eager to run (but it is good horse etiquette not to run your horse home). Horses like to trot or gallop up hills, but will prefer to walk down hill. They will only do what you make them do, unless they are special magical horses or they have a Deep and Profound magic bond with their rider.

Horses are naturally gregarious creatures and prefer being in the company of other horses. Unless, like some horses, they take a set against each other when forced into close quarters. Beware especially of mares and stallions. Even horses that know each other can get into snits if forced to stand too close together. This can make doing things like attaching a lead to a horse’s halter while riding another one quite difficult. They will toss their heads, squeal, and try to bite or kick each other. It is most distracting.

Horses also have a good homing instinct. If left unguided far from home their first instinct is to return to their barn/stall/pasture. This they will usually accomplish with ease by galloping home, barring unforeseen collisions with cars or dragons.

Horses can develop friendships with other animals (including fellow horses). Cats, dogs, donkeys, and humans being the most common. Therefore it is not unimaginable that a horse might befriend a gryphon or a wyvern, given the right circumstances.

And that is about the basics of it. You can build as much as you want on that armature, especially if it’s a fantasy setting, but keep in mind that the more extreme additions should be offset with disclaimers. It is also worth noting that other equines, such as donkeys and zebras, though similar, definitely have their own unique characters.

In the next chapter I’m going to talk about practicality. What you can and cannot use a horse for, its strengths and weaknesses, and why you cannot gallop full tilt all day across a desert.

On to Chapter 4: Practicality ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

2: Physicality

The thing that most people notice when they meet a real life horse for the first time, and the thing that a lot of writers who have never met a horse get wrong, is their size.

Horses are big animals. They are big enough that even the strongest man cannot overpower them with his bare hands. You need tools to be able to really hurt a horse (unless you get them in the eyes). The only reason they will move away if you poke them is if they’ve been trained to. There is nothing more frightening to me than a fully grown un-trained horse; they are literally loose canons, capable of immense damage and even more unpredictable.

They are, I will say again, so big you cannot kick their bodies into trenches. An average horse weighs about 1,200 lbs. A large horse could weigh twice that. Their heads alone are so heavy it takes a 100 lb. neck full of muscles to hold them up. They can break your toes if they step on them.

For all that, horses are nimble creatures. A careful horse can pick its way through piles of rocks, and most trained horses will do their best not to step on you—and for the most part they do a good job of it. Horses can stop and turn on a dime, they can jump sideways or back up sharply. Above all they can run. A running horse is a formidable sight, especially if its coming straight at you. For all that, horses are not vicious animals—far from it—and they will not try to hurt you. Most of them, anyway. However, they are so big and strong that if they accidentally hurt you, you can get hurt very badly. So you need to be careful around horses: no loud shouting, no sudden movements, no running at them waving your arms. Not at least until you know the horse and know what it will and will not tolerate. (More on this in Chapter 3: Personality)

But horses are not so big that they are like suburban cars. An average horse carrying more than 250 lbs. will feel the weight. Much more and it could injure its back. Two people, unless they are small and the horse is big even for a horse, cannot comfortably ride astride at the same time.

Still, most horses are tall enough that the average person, unless they are highly trained or athletic, will not be able to mount without either stirrups or a mounting block.

*

Horses are quiet. If unshod (barefoot) they walk almost silently. Only when they come on to a full gallop does the classic thunder of their hooves become significantly audible. A horse with metal shoes on, however, even on a dirt road, will produce a distinct “clop, clop, clop” sound.

Horses will snort frequently, even sneeze. They cannot breath through their mouths (they also cannot vomit), so keeping their noses clear is important.

Horses do not vocalize unless they mean to communicate something. They will make an adorable knickering sound (kind of “muhuhuhuhuhu”) when they anticipate being fed. If they are impatient sometimes they make a very odd sound between a squeak and a quack. It sounds rather like two pieces of wet rubber being rubbed together, and to be honest I have never found out what it is called.

The whinny does not sound like “neigh.” It sounds more like: “NnnnnheeeheheheheeHHHEHEHEEEHEEHAAAAAGH!” In varying degrees of length and volume.

Horses whinny either in greeting a friend (equine or human) or in objection to that friend leaving. They can, if they want, whinny so loud it hurts your ears if you are nearby.

*

Horses are herbivores, so their teeth are flat and square, but they eat tough food so their jaw muscles are very strong. A horse’s bite can seriously damage you. I was bitten once in a friendly, “I’m not actually trying to hurt you, I just want you to feed me that carrot, and this is just a love bite really” way, and it leaft a huge blue and purple bruise on my arm that lasted for weeks and I had to do a lot of things one-handed. And that was a friendly bite.

I have also been kicked. Once. The horse thought I was a fly. I thought my lungs had been punched out of my chest and I would suffocate. As it turned out I hadn’t even broken any ribs.

If a horse wants to hurt someone, they can. They are used to biting and kicking at animals that are either (A) trying to eat them, or (B) just as big and as tough-skinned as they are. By comparison we humans are small, squishy, thin-skinned weaklings.

If you get on the wrong side of a horse, particularly a stallion, it can kill you.

A horse can kill you by accident, if the accident is bad enough.

Horse people do not treat horses as inanimate objects. We talk to them. We let them see us, smell us, get used to us. Even so we don’t pass behind them within kicking distance, unless we are close enough to keep a hand on their rump as we walk around, so the horse knows it’s us and not a fly.

Most horses that have been trained by people like people and do not want to hurt them. If a horse is particularly attached to a certain person (and they do become attached to their riders) they will go to great lengths to keep that person from harm. The classic example is of a horse who throws her rider, then comes back over and nuzzles at her until she gets up, wanting to make sure the rider is okay. I also once read of a woman who was attacked by a “problem” stallion. The horse bit down on her arm and lifted her up into the air and was preparing to shake her like a rag doll and then presumably trample her for good measure, when another stallion (her stallion) saw what was happening and jumped out of his paddock, galloped over, and attacked the “problem” stallion, driving him away and saving the woman’s life.

*

Horses are warm creatures. They sweat (some of them sweat quite a lot), but it is still harder for them to keep cool in hot weather than it is to for them to keep warm in cold weather.

Horses are hairy. Even in the summertime, when they have short coats, the hair gets everywhere. The only reason I could imagine riding a horse naked and bareback (without a saddle) would be if someone was running after me with a cattle prod threatening to rape me with it… and then I would probably be left feeling much the same either way.

Horses are naturally alert at night and tend to sleep as much as they can during the day. Except for brief periods of lying down for their deep sleep, horses will doze standing up.

Horses like to roll in soft dirt or sand. This is adorable and hysterical to watch—see The Horse and His Boy for a wonderfully accurate and realistic portrayal of horses rolling—but horses will also roll if they’re in pain. If they’re rolling from pain it means something has gone seriously wrong.

The greatest physical weakness of any horse are their surprisingly delicate feet and easily compromised digestive system—and their propensity to finding the most innocuous artifact and seriously maiming themselves upon it (see Chapter 6: Illness and Injury).

Healthy horses have a particular smell: of salt and dirt and fresh grass. Their manure only has a strong smell if it is fresh, and horses only smell of it if they have been confined to a small stall. It smells rather like cooked grass, if you can imagine that.

This rounds up the basics of equine physicality. In the next chapter I’ll talk about their personality, the little (and sometimes big) quirks of character that make horses behave like horses.

On to Chapter 3: Personality ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

1: Terminology

The world of horses carries a language of its own which can seem confusing to an outsider. Let me start by saying that I think terminology is the least important thing to get right (as long as your mechanics are solid and I know what you’re talking about, I don’t care much what you call a horse’s pole), but because I’m going to be using rather a lot of it I thought I’d start off with a glossary of sorts.

It is a good idea to have this chart on hand so when I start talking about the hocks and the croup and the coronet band you’ll know what I mean.

Also worth noting: horses are not measured in feet and inches, but in hands. A hand is four inches, so it’s a fairly easy conversion. The height of a horse is measured from the sole of their front hoof to their withers (see chart), but horses can appear much taller if they raise their head up (with effort a horse can hold its head at an angle that a giraffe does normally, though this is usually done only if the horse is excited or alarmed). An average horse is about fifteen and a half hands. A tall horse is sixteen hands or higher. A horse under fifteen hands is called a pony, unless you’re in England in which case a horse is a pony regardless of height as long as it is being ridden by a child. (This isn’t confusing at all, really.)

Horses come in many colors, but the most common are chestnut (brown all over) and bay (brown body with black mane and tail). Even within chestnuts and bays there are a great variety, and I direct you to google “equine coat colors images” for some excellent charts and pictures that will describe the myriad of colors and combinations better than I ever could. A few things, though, that should be mentioned:

Normal horses are very nearly never brindled. If you have brindled horses in your story, there had better be a reason (it’s a new breed! It’s magic!).

A gray horse does not look gray, but white. The gray refers to the skin under the white fur. Horses of this color are usually born a solid brown or black, and fade to white in the first few years. Gray is an extremely beautiful coloration; a clean gray will be blinding white in sunlight, but with a silver sheen from their dark skin that makes them look silvery.

A true white horse has pink skin and brown eyes, and is just as blinding in direct sunlight as a gray, but without the silvery undertone.

An albino also has white hair and pink skin, but likely has red/white eyes as well, and will have all the problems attendant on any albino animal.

(All horses with white or light fur will show dirt very easily, so unless your horse has a good reason to have been recently/regularly groomed and washed, your gray will likely show stains of brown and green.)

A buckskin and a dun are not the same thing: buckskin just means a horse with a beige body and black mane and tail, whereas the dun is a style of markings that can come in many colors. So a buckskin can be a dun, but a dun is not always a buckskin. Once again google images is your very very good friend.

It should also be noted that horses can have a variety of white markings: socks, stockings, stars, blazes, snips. Once again I direct you to google images rather than typing out an exhaustive list.

Tack is all the equipment used between the horse and the rider: saddles are what you sit in, girths are what keep the saddle on the horse, bridles are what hold the bit in the horse’s mouth, and the reins are what go between your hands and the bit. Again, google “horse tack images” and you will find all the information you need.

A mare is an adult female horse. A stallion is an intact adult male horse. A gelding is an adult male horse that has been neutered. (There is no special word for a sterilized mare; the surgery is expensive and not always safe, and generally not performed unless there is a pressing need.) A baby horse is called a foal; a female foal is a filly and a male foal is a colt. A breeding mare is called a brood mare. A mother horse is a dam and a father horse is a sire. A donkey is not a horse at all (but a fellow equine).

Horses move in four gaits, mostly (from slowest to fastest): a walk (one… two… three… four…), a trot (one-two one-two one-two), a canter (one-two-three one-two-three) and a gallop (oneoneoneoneoneone). A jog is a slow trot, and a lope is a slow canter—both terms commonly used in western (cowboy) settings. To complicate matters there are certain breeds called gaited horses, which have their own unique and outlandish gaits. (See Tennessee Walkers.) But for the most part the walk, trot, canter and gallop are all we need worry about.

I think that’s about all you need to be getting on with. Again, this is not a comprehensive glossary, but merely a preface so you will know what I’m talking about.

In the next chapter I’m going into the physicality of horses, their size and shape, and how they interact with their environment.

On to Chapter 2: Physicality ->

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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PGWH - Intro

HORSES are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when 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. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. It also explains why the ANGL-SAXON COSSACKS and the DESERT NOMADS appear to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones

INTRODUCTION

One of my pet peeves in fiction (mainly fantasy, but this problem does arise in other genres) is the depiction of horses. Not only that horses tend to die faster than any red shirt, or that their owners seem to take the loss with less emotional upheaval than one who has lost their favorite pen, but that in some instances they are written in such a way as to appear so un-horselike that I must assume the writer has not gotten within a mile of an actual horse, and has only done the most rudimentary research—if any has been done at all.

My favorite example of this is in Stardust, a novel written by one Neil Gaiman (who it must be said is quite excellent in many other areas and this does not in any way detract from my high opinion of him). In it there is a unicorn—which is alluded to be a horse-shaped creature of good size—it bears two human-shaped people upon its back at one time—but whose corpse (again with the high mortality rate) is later kicked casually into a trench by a withered old witch.

Now, a healthy person could easily kick the body of a dog, maybe even another human, into a grave, but unless this witch had some unmentioned magical power that gave her kick all the power and force of a backhoe (which is what you need to shift the 1,200 lbs. of weight that is a horse’s corpse), all that should have happened is the witch would have hurt her leg. Or perhaps gone flying backwards at comical speeds.

This is not all. Earlier (when this equine of uncertain mass was still alive), our young hero leaves it in a meadow—presumably covered with grass—while he goes to town. There he buys food for himself, and a “small bale of hay” that he brings back to the unicorn. Which he left in the meadow. Which, unless it was the special kind of meadow that grew pork chops instead of the usual fare (grass and other greenstuff) should have provided the unicorn with sufficient fodder. This is ridiculous enough, but that our hero easily carries a “small bale of hay” was enough to make me put down the book and un-cross my eyes with a pair of pliers.

Hay is essentially dried grass; it is packed into bales on average about five feet long, two feet wide, and maybe one and half feet tall. This author can lift a bale if she has a pair of hay hook or some good gloves, and carry it maybe five feet. Seven, if it’s an emergency. More than that and she needs a wheel barrow or a small tractor. So even a load half this size—I have no idea what a “small bale” is—would be unwieldy at best and finally: a regular horse eats about two flakes of hay (and there are about a dozen flakes in a standard bale) a day. Four, if they are a high-energy thoroughbred or performance horse getting a lot of exercise. Presuming a “small bale” is about six flakes, that is far too much for a single equine in a single feeding. Our hero would have been waiting for a half a day for the unicorn to eat it all, after which it would not have been able to carry him and his heroine anywhere because it would probably have developed a nasty case of laminitis (see Chapter 6: Illness and Injury).

This error is so comical I can only imagine some wires got crossed somewhere and “bale” replaced “flake.” Carrying a small flake of hay back to your unicorn (which you left in a meadow where we must presume it has been doing what any self-respecting equine would do) (eating it) is much more understandable, if still a bit superfluous.

Of course, you can make the excuse that the story was set in a different time and place and these things don’t mean exactly what they mean today… but it is being read today, and this is what people who know horses and know hay will think—they will be like me: utterly bemused and suddenly not inclined to pay much attention to the story because the medium by which it was brought to them (a book) is currently being smacked against their forehead in frustration.

There are many more idiosyncrasies of horseflesh in other books I could mention. The tendency of horses in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to rear up, fall over, and break their backs. Shadowfax from Lord of the Rings whom I’m convinced was actually a very cleverly disguised car. But if I were to go through all the flubs I’ve caught I’d never get to the point of this article: which is to provide anyone who reads it with the basic knowledge necessary to write horses in such a way that readers like me (who know their stifle from their fetlock, the difference between a running and standing martingale, and what laminitis is) will not break off reading your story to laugh, cry, or slam our faces against the nearest hard, flat surface.

This is not meant as a exhaustive course. I cannot tell you everything. If you really want to write horses well you have to get to know them well, and to do that you are going to have to spend a lot of time working with them (not just watching from a safe distance—don’t let Norman Thelwell fool you). In fact, if you’re writing a book with a lot of horses, I would recommend finding a stable near you and leasing a horse for six months or so. Learn how to feed it, groom it, clean up after it, ride it, and care for it when it inevitably injures itself. You will learn so much, and it will allow you to add little details to your story that, far from causing horse-savvy people such as myself to throw your book across the room, will give us a warm, glowy feeling inside; the feeling that we are in good, knowing hands who have put in the work to really think out the difference between a horse and a bicycle, and to use the knowledge to add depth to their story.

This experience may also make you rethink the wisdom of killing the poor things off when they have reached the end of their usefulness, which we horse-lovers would also appreciate.

However, horses are expensive. They require a lot of time and energy, and not everyone likes being around them. So I will not say you must have hands-on experience and I completely understand not having the resources to do this diligence duly. I’m just saying this way is the best way.

The next best way is to find someone who knows a great deal about horses, and bring your specific questions to them. However, what they tell you will be their own opinions, colored by their own experiences. It is still better to get to know horses for yourself.

But that, like I said, is hard. So I do not expect every writer whose work contains a horse to go out and become a master equestrian as a routine part of their research. But I would like to see horses portrayed more accurately in fiction, and to that end I have compiled this: a guide for writing realistic horses. It is not meant to take the place of hands-on experience, and it is in no way comprehensive. It should, however, point you in the right direction, and give you at least an idea of the kind of creature you are writing about.

Fantasy writers enjoy great liberty when it comes to their worlds: they can always brush things off as “magical” or “alternate”. But horses are a real thing, and if too much is lost or altered they lose their horsiness. They become walking bicycles that breed via pollination, mindless automatons easily acquired and just as easily discarded. And my forehead gets sore from all the books being used to smack it in exasperation.

So, without further preamble, allow me to present:

 

THE PEDESTRIAN’S GUIDE TO WRITING HORSES

For ease of reading I have broken it down into six chapters, each dealing with different aspects of horses—and one with links to books that got their horses right. I will be posting them over the course of the next week, and as they go live you can reach them by clicking the corresponding link below.

INDEX

1: Terminology ~

2: Physicality ~

3: Personality ~

~ 4: Practicality ~

~ 5: Care and Maintenance ~ 

~ 6: Illness and Injury ~

~ 7: Further Reading ~

Goldeen Ogawa has been working with and around horses since she was five years old, has been a horse-owner since 2000, and currently rides every week. If you have any questions about horses not answered here you can email her at goldeenogawa@gmail.com or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets. There you can also follow her weekly horse pictures under the #TweetsFromHorseback hashtag.

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