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Writing Horses Well

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Thu Nov 11, 2010 6:50 pm
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Merlin34 says...



Horses, the most common animal in fantasy (second place is raven, then rat, then wolf). You’d think, since they’re often central elements in the plot and present during a lot of the story, that authors would do some research on them, right?

Most often, wrong. Horses in fantasy (especially amateur fantasy, but even some published works) are treated like Jeeps with fur and legs.

This is wrong. And authors who do this should be kicked by a horse.

Horses are living creatures. They need sleep, food, water, proper care, and medical attention. Did you know that it can cost over $10,000 per year to own a horse?

Here are some of the most common problems I see with horses.

Travel: This is the main one. Too often, horses in fantasy are shown to be able to ride for hours or even days at full gallop over all terrain with no sleep and minimal food and water.

No. Just no.

Horses can keep going for a while, but not at full gallop. You might say that the Pony Express managed 2,000 mile-routes in 10 days. That is true. However, the riders did not use one horse the whole way. They got “fresh” horses every 10 miles at one of the Pony Express stations.

The main gait that traveling horses will use is likely the trot, which averages about eight miles per hour. A fit, healthy horse can sustain a trot for hours. However, due to the “bouncy” nature of the gait, it may be hard on the rider’s spine and will require some getting used to. The canter and gallop can reach speeds of 10-17 mph and 25-30 mph, respectively, but the horse can’t keep it up very long.

When it comes to different kinds of terrain, horses are capable animals, and can choose their own gait and path with little to no help from the rider. Because of this, the rider needs to let up on the reins and let the horse do the work. They can handle most terrain. Sand can be tricky, and wet grass with no rocks or sand mixed in to provide traction is treacherous. Cobblestones, especially when wet, are also hard on shod hooves. Water, unless it’s extremely cold or fast-flowing, is not an insurmountable obstacle for a horse. They will typically stop and inspect the water (as well as a lot of other things) first and then take tentative steps in. Despite all appearances, they are natural swimmers, and can go at it for several miles, although they will need rest and a warm blanket (sometimes referred to as a “rug” when talking about horses) afterwards. The rider will probably tire before the horse does, since he or she must dismount and swim alongside it. A horse’s legs will churn frantically while swimming, so the rider must take care to avoid them.

Horses can sleep standing up, but must lie down for at least a couple hours every several days to achieve their minimum requirement for REM sleep. Horses that don’t get this will become ornery.

As for jumping, horses should be able to clear 2-3 feet from a standstill or 5 feet with a running start.

Food and Water: Horses cannot graze on grass forever. If they are working or traveling, they will need some kind of specialized feed like hay or oats, which your characters will have to buy. Even if they’re at a standstill, they’d have to be a hardy breed to stand it for long. A horse that was originally wild might be able to keep going on grass for a while, though some special feed certainly wouldn’t hurt. But a royal warhorse? Forget it.

Horses shouldn’t go more than 12 hours without water, and typically will drink about 12 gallons a day, more if it’s hot or humid out.

Some people have said that horses can’t eat with bits in their mouths. This is not completely true. They can eat grass and treats with bits on, but when dealing with large amounts of hay or grain feed, they could choke, so it’s a good idea to take the bit out.

Equipment and Terminology: It takes a while to prepare a horse for riding, even longer if your character is arming it for a battle. It can take about 20 minutes to put all the equipment on a horse, maybe longer if the handler is inexperienced or the horse objects. There’s a lot of equipment involved. Riding bareback is an option, but it’s harder and more uncomfortable for both horse and rider. Typically your character would want the following:

The saddle, obviously, to provide a seat.
Stirrups to provide greater stability for the rider.
A halter, for leading a horse or tying it to a post.
A bridle and bit for guiding the horse while riding.
Reins for the rider to hold onto.

A breastplate may also be handy piece of equipment. Despite the name, it is not armor. It is a strap that attaches to the saddle and around the front of the horse. This prevents the saddle from sliding back during fast-paced activities.

Behavior: Cars do not have distinct personalities. Horses do. They are not just dumb animals. Some horses are docile and submissive, others are wild and headstrong, and still others are mischievous and sly. Some are friendly around strangers, others are more aloof. Make your character’s horse into more of its own character. Maybe his horse has a habit of creeping up behind him and nosing him in the back, or likes blowing in his face when he’s trying to sleep. Even if it can’t talk, it can still have a personality. Just watch the movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”.

One last thing: Warhorses. It takes years of training to make a horse into a warhorse. Normal horses will typically not kick or bite an enemy. Normal horses will be freaked out by the noise and the smell of blood. Normal horses will be unaccustomed to the seemingly erratic movements of the rider as he or she uses, avoids, deflects, or is hit by weapons. Normal horses will want to get out of there.

With that being said, do horses right. Capice?

And while this article is mainly about horses, some it this information could also apply to other steeds. If you’re basing it off a real-life animal, research that animal. If it’s made-up, just don’t treat it like a machine (unless it actually is).

http://maxhelmberger.com/ecologyhorses.html
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Fri Nov 12, 2010 3:10 pm
Idraax says...



Nice! This is very through. I'm not using horses in my story right now, but if I ever do I know where to go. :)
Check these out please! :)
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Sun Nov 14, 2010 3:41 am
Ranger Hawk says...



Merlin - thank you so much for posting this. It does drive me crazy when people treat horses as just a mode of transportation without going into particulars.

And Spirit was my favorite movie for a while - I still want to own a buckskin mustang from that. ;)
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Thu Dec 09, 2010 7:26 pm
RachaelElg says...



Also something for writers to note, after they get the horse-specific stuff that you mentioned straight:

It takes years and regular practice for someone to be able to ride long distances or frequently without being too sore to move the next day or two. This is because riding a horse isn't just sitting in a saddle and flicking the reins to telling that horse where to go. No, if you want to be more comfortable and you want to the horse to be comfortable, you have to use them muscles--and they're muscles not used in pretty much any other activity. It can take months to build those muscles, and that's just for "normal" riding. Your character's mad midnight dash fleeing from Evil Dark Lord is going to be another story.

Also to consider, in regards to this point: Your main character may be an excellent rider. His horse might be a marvelous one and marvelously well trained and conditioned at that. Perhaps this character is some sort of Western-style bandit-hero dude and so both horse and rider are very much accustomed to long rides.

This does not mean the damsel he rescues from the clutches of that bad sheriff is immune to being beyond sore and uncomfortable for the next several days of her life. This should be taken into account when she decides how grateful she is to this Western-style bandit-hero dude.
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Thu Dec 16, 2010 6:47 am
MeadowLark says...



This is awesome! Fortunately, I've never had the pleasure to read a story where the horse was treated as a jeep. But may I add a few more things?

It actually isn't all that uncomfortable to ride bareback. For horse or rider. Well rider maybe if the horse as a very bony spine or high withers. All the rider needs is excellent balance and absolute trust in his mount. And the horse, it must be a relief to not have that cinch tightened across its belly. But balance is the key to riding bareback.

Horses have an inborn fear of pigs, snakes and tigers. We have wild boars where I live and my brother and I came across a pig trail while out riding. My two horses had their noses to the snow, sniffing and snorting and kept their ears perked the whole time. But horses react differently to all sorts of animals. My old gelding threw a complete hissy fit and gave out the loudest of snorts I had ever heard from him when we encountered a moose. And that same horse froze and wouldn't move when he and I encountered a wild boar out on the trails. And he was one of the most sensible and unspookable horses I had ever had the pleasure to know.

And some horses will not cross water. Some will cross a river, but will jump to the side when they come across a puddle. It's natural for them to be weary of water, for they don't know what is lurking beneath. It takes training and trust in their rider for a horse to willingly cross a river or stream.

But like Merlin said, horses are like people. They have their own distinct personalities. They have their good and bad days. And can be so very stubborn when in the mood.

Thanks for this Merlin! Hope you don't mind me putting in a few more things.
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Sat Dec 18, 2010 1:53 am
EloquentDragon says...



So I noticed a few things that are not exactly correct, but since it is for the most part completely accurate, I won't comment. It helps to go and read books about anything you are trying to write about. Sure, the internet is great, but any Joe John So-And-So can post on the internet, you actually have to PAY to get a book published!
Most people are afraid of horses, so it would seem logical if the MC had some background with horses before he jumps on that bronc and starts riding away!
Also, it doesn't necassarily take years for someone to become accustomed to riding, because it all depends on the person. (Also some styles are easier to learn than others, E.G.: Dressage as opposed to Western.)
I would imangine that medieval style riding would be extremely difficult and impractical. (The stirrups are usually all the way up to the horses shoulder!) You can look up some pictures to see what I mean. So, when I write fantasy/medieval w/ horses, I usually invent my own saddle for the character to use. (Gasp, shame! I'm not being historically accurate!)

#1 biggest mistake when writers put horses into their middle aged setting? They have a horn on the saddle.
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Sat Dec 18, 2010 2:41 am
Merlin34 says...



"you actually have to PAY to get a book published!"
You actually don't.
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Tue Mar 15, 2011 4:37 pm
Gladius says...



I may come back to elaborate more on some helpful pointers (wonderful job with this, by the way, Merlin!), as I don't have much time, but...

Eloquent Dragon wrote:#1 biggest mistake when writers put horses into their middle aged setting? They have a horn on the saddle.

While there may not have been horns on the saddles as we know them today, per se, jousting saddles *did* have a higher pommel than we're used to in order to keep the rider on the horse after more-powerful blows from the lance. Made it a lot less common to see a man knocked off (a very useful thing, because then the opponent couldn't win your prized jousting horse!).

Eloquent Dragon wrote:(Also some styles are easier to learn than others, E.G.: Dressage as opposed to Western.)

I would also like to disagree with this. Western is a lot more comfortable and easy to learn than Dressage due to the simplified riding style. But this could just be my 2 cents (Dressage=a pain in the butt. Why I prefer trail riding.)

Edit: (I'm back!)

Eloquent Dragon wrote:I would imangine that medieval style riding would be extremely difficult and impractical. (The stirrups are usually all the way up to the horses shoulder!) You can look up some pictures to see what I mean.

I'd like to see these pictures. Because I know for a fact the horse-focused art of the time was not drawn as the horses were actually ridden. Unless you're a jockey, stirrups that high would not just be uncomfortable, but impractical (especially for knights, who wore their stirrups longer like today's Western style).

Eloquent Dragon wrote:Also, it doesn't necassarily take years for someone to become accustomed to riding, because it all depends on the person.

Only if they're on a crash-course and doing it everday for a few hours. I've been riding since I can remember, and it took me a good many years (granted, there was a break in between of not-constant riding) to become confident enough to travel cross-country. (And. Becoming "accustomed" to riding is a totally different matter than learning to do it well under stressing circumstances...such as rescuing that damsel in distress Meadow mentioned.)

Merlin wrote:Make your character’s horse into more of its own character. Maybe his horse has a habit of creeping up behind him and nosing him in the back, or likes blowing in his face when he’s trying to sleep. Even if it can’t talk, it can still have a personality. Just watch the movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”.

Epona from the Legend of Zelda comes to mind. :P

MeadowLark wrote:And some horses will not cross water. Some will cross a river, but will jump to the side when they come across a puddle. It's natural for them to be weary of water, for they don't know what is lurking beneath. It takes training and trust in their rider for a horse to willingly cross a river or stream.

Related to water: it usually takes a lot of training to get a horse to actually walk through water, or a lot of time to coax them in...at least if they're not used to it. Again, though, personality will definitely play a part; some are more terrified of water than others. I had a mare once who went in the water and swam beautifully through about fifty yards of lakewater and come up fine on the other side; the next year, we had a gelding who started kicking off the bottom because he was so terrified. We had to turn him around and get him out, and he wouldn't move for a long time after that.

Again, just my 2 cents. Hope you don't mind, Merlin! ^^;
Last edited by Gladius on Tue Mar 15, 2011 5:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Tue Mar 15, 2011 5:30 pm
Rosey Unicorn says...



Gladius wrote:
Eloquent Dragon wrote:(Also some styles are easier to learn than others, E.G.: Dressage as opposed to Western.)

I would also like to disagree with this. Western is a lot more comfortable and easy to learn than Dressage due to the simplified riding style. But this could just be my 2 cents (Dressage=a pain in the butt. Why I prefer trail riding.)


Seconding the Western vs. Dressage thing. Past the fact a Western saddle is much heavier/bulkier (makes saddling up just a bit more awkward), you actually *sit* in a Western saddle while in an English one you tend to sit off it a little.

And Middle Eastern saddles did have pommels. Probably not in the same incarnations as they do now, but I'd figure they needed something in front of the saddle to grab onto.
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Fri Apr 08, 2011 5:17 pm
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Stori says...



I just have one question. In Eragon, at one point they have Saphira lift the horses and fly them across the river. In ordinary circumstances (without a telepathic dragon-rider), wouldn't the horses bolt at the more proximity of a dragon?




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Sat Apr 09, 2011 11:02 pm
Merlin34 says...



You bet your gluteus maximus. Wolves and cougars make horses flee. Unless your dragons are the size of insects, your horses are gonna bolt like crazy.
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Mon Feb 13, 2012 3:38 pm
cosby says...



Great article, but several things stood out for me. Firstly is the part about preparing a horse for riding. You said it takes twenty minutes; I can tack up in about five - unless your talking about other equipment as well. The only reason it might take longer is if your horse is fussy, you're not familiar with the tack, or there is more equipment. If your character is familiar with horses (as they should be if they can ride for as well as most of them do) then they'll be used to looking after them, including tacking up.

One more thing is the reins: they're not for holding on to. I apologise if you already know this, but it's something that really gets me. They're for guiding and steering and sometimes leading, nothing else. If you use the reins to hold on to or to keep your balance, you're going to hurt the horse and it's going to protest. Imagine someone placing metal in your mouth, then jabbing it uncomfortably and painfully for absolutely no reason at all. If you're going to hold onto anything, hold onto the mane. There aren't many nerves in the horses mane and so it doesn't hurt them.

As Eloquent Dragon also said, many people are scared of horses. This is because they are (usually) big and large. They're also very strong, a lot stronger than the rider could ever hope to be. A horse will always win a battle of strength. Humans have every right to be afraid.

And lastly, the dressage thing in the comments above. I have never ridden Western, but I'm fairly sure dressage is harder. Western is a much more relaxed style although it has finer points that I'm sure are hard to learn. Dressage is harder; you're horse is supposed to be soft and supple, listening acutely to the rider and doing as it's told. The rider has to be very careful in his movements and signals so that the horse does not get confused. There is a certain way of sitting, holding the reins, placing your legs and holding your body. Anyone who has ever ridden a dressage test will appreciate just how hard it is.

Very good article though and I hope that anyone placing a horse in their story reads it thoroughly! I've read far too many books where the authors obviously haven't known a thing about horses... *shivers*
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Fri Mar 02, 2012 3:33 am
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EloquentDragon says...



Oh yeah, sorry, grammar confusion there^^^ I meant western is easier to learn than English...a LOT easier. (but then, I learned as a kid so...) Even though english may not actually be "more natural" to the horse. (But that's another topic entirely...)
Yeah, that is a REALLY old post of mine...heh heh
One of the biggest things that gets me now when reading about horses? The dude jumps on the horse, and chases after the bad guys, (who are on some faster moving object) they then proceed to chase each other for DAYS. No colic, no stopping to pick stones out. Just a five minute break for the horse to tank up on feed and water.
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