On my list of favorite things, fantasy books rank right up there with dark chocolate ice cream smothered in hot fudge. Part of the reason I like fantasy books is because, as one of my critique partners pointed out, many of them take place in a Vaguely Medieval Land Where Everyone Rides Horses Always,* and I love horses. Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy writers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about horses, which can result in cringe-worthy errors.
Not every writer has to be a horse expert (we can’t all be experts on everything, after all), but the reason getting horse facts right is important is because this is a real life example of what happens when people who know nothing about horses decide to go on an Epic Quest: (WARNING, GRAPHIC PHOTOS). The men responsible have since been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Here are a few useful facts to help avoid common horse-related pitfalls in writing:
- Horses do not whinny and paw all the time to express themselves to humans. Movies are full of this rubbish, and it makes me want to hurl manure at the television. Horses whinny to communicate with one another, particularly when they are at a distance from the herd. They may nicker when you show up with treats, or if another horse is approaching. A horse with a fractious personality may paw if tied at the hitching rail for a long period of time, or bang on the stall door with a front hoof when impatient for his dinner. Beyond that, horses are extremely quiet for such large creatures.
- You can’t gallop your horse all day. The four basic gaits that the average horse has are walk, trot, canter, and gallop. One of the mistakes I see most often is horses galloping over rough terrain or for extended periods of time. It’s definitely possible for a horse to gallop for a few miles, but it’s very strenuous. The absolute limit is about ten miles, and that horse is going to be exhausted at the end even if it started out in peak condition. A brisk trot is a good, ground-covering pace for a long ride, even if it’s likely to make your characters’ butts sore.
- Horses can’t vomit. It is physically impossible. If a horse ingests something poisonous, they’re most likely to colic (get a stomachache). Part of the reason colic is such a serious problem is that horses can’t throw up to get rid of whatever toxin they ate. A colicky horse may lie down and refuse to get up, roll, or bite at its sides. Many horses are also fussy eaters. Unless they’re very hungry, they aren’t likely to eat something toxic that is offered to them (i.e., moldy hay or a poisonous plant).
- Horses eat a lot. You know that saying, “eat like a horse?” It’s true. A horse in regular exercise is probably going to need a minimum of about 10lbs of hay or grass per day. On an Epic Quest, where a horse is being ridden heavily, it would need more than that. Grass is more important than grain, so a handful of oats isn’t going to cut it when your heroes are winding through a treacherous mountain pass for days on end.
- Horses are claustrophobic by nature. Even an exceptionally trained horse is probably not going to want to go into the Scary Dragon Cave, even if it’s the only way to hide from the Impending Stormpocalypse.
- Tying horses by the reins is unsafe. If your characters are knowledgeable horse people, they should always tie horses by their halters. A horse that shies and tries to run away while tied by the reins could do devastating damage to its mouth and even slice through the tongue depending on the type of bit it wears. (A halter is what you put on the horse’s head to lead it, with a rope attached under the chin. A bridle is what you use to ride, and the reins are attached to a metal bit in the horse’s mouth).
- Stallions: just say no. Most colts should be gelded at a relatively young age. There are not that many horses that should be passing on their genes unless they are truly stunning examples of their breed and are also accomplished in the discipline for which they were bred. Stallions tend to be sensitive, hormonal creatures that are 95% focused on breeding the nearest breedable thing. They certainly can make good riding horses, and often compete at the top of their disciplines, but they require consistent, expert handling to get there. Your King or Your Hero should not go charging into battle on a stallion unless he or she is an exceptional horse person.
The moral of this story is that if horses play a significant role in your book, try to keep things at a broad, high level, and fact-check carefully. The best solution is to find a beta reader who is an experienced horse person and can let you know where you may have gone astray. If you’re more the do-it-yourself type, consider taking a few lessons at a reputable stable near you. That said, there’s only so much you can learn in a short period of time. I’ve been riding and training horses for over twenty years and there is no limit to what I still have to learn. That’s what makes horses so magical.
Have a horse question? Drop me a note and I’ll write about it for a future post!
*The lack of diversity among fantasy book settings is a problem in and of itself that deserves another post.