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Horses in Writing: Make Them Believable

Perhaps it is just my belief, but I don't think there is anything as foundational in true fantasy as the horse.

Whether it is epic fantasy or low fantasy, sword and sorcery or grim dark, the horse has its place. It travels through pages, perhaps with a bit of character or perhaps only as means of transportation, but it is a part of fantasy that always intrigues me.

But, as an equestrian myself, it can also annoy me. Why? Well, more than once I have read books--not just fantasy--where it could not be clearer that the author has little to no grasp on anything about horses. They may have watched a hallmark-style movie and decided "that's what a horse is" or are basing their writing on the writing of other authors who, indeed, didn't know about horses.

This is one thing I always am aware of in my books and it has made me realize that, in all things writing, we as authors should try to learn a bit about the pieces of our writing. If we are smithing in our works, we should learn about metals, quenching, and basics of forging. If we are using a bow, then we should learn about the dominant eye, basics of aiming, the equipment that goes with a bow (because if you ever fired one without an armguard and got yourself with the string, you will remember an armguard in your writing.)

And, if we are writing a book where the character swings into the saddle, we should know what a saddle is, how a horse works, and the dos-and-don'ts of basic horsemanship. This isn't just for the fantasy genre, but all genres that the character is riding.

We don't all have horses to practice feats on, however. So, I thought I would outline some of the most common things that strike me, as an equestrian, as unrealistic when it comes to horses.

I do this in hope this might help others in their writing

  1. Steering With Your Knees

Please don't. This isn't how we steer horses, ever. We do steer with our legs, yes. It is possible to ride a horse without any tack at all (please look up the Stacy Westfall Bareback and Bridleless video, you won't regret it.) But we never steer with our knees.

How do we steer with our legs?

Well, with our full leg or with our calf.

A horse will yield away from pressure so, when I am out riding my horse and need to steer left, and I will hug my right leg to the horse's side. If I need to move the horse in a side-pass left, my leg will stay in the middle of the ribs. If I need to move the hip only left, the leg presses further back. If I need to move the shoulder, my leg moves further forward. Think about it if someone pokes you in the ribs suddenly. You will yield away from that pressure. That calf is the pressure.

If the knee provided that steering, it would be unable to ask for fine movements and, likely, wouldn't be felt at all since it would be too high up on the horse (if someone poked the left side of your back, you might wince but you wouldn't likely step right.)

You can find some great youtube videos about steering with your legs or basic articles. Or you can simple say "steered the horse with his/her legs" rather than knees and you already sound more skilled in all things equestrian.

2. You can't just fight off any horses.

I've learned this from experience. Throughout high school, we would buy foam swords or noodles and try battling from the saddle when bored. We had some horses that were great at it, steering with legs to ensure that both hands can be used in combat.

We had other horses that, try as you might, you'll more likely be killed by the horse than the sword because horses are alive due to being flight animals. When scared, they'll run. And they are scared of a lot of random stuff. Plastic bag? Scary. A mirror? Terrifying. Flailing a foam sword? That must be how we all die.

This doesn't mean they can't be trained out of that but, if you main character vaults onto a pasture pony and charges toward a fight bareback and bridleless, and by some stroke of luck that horse listens (because most won't listen, they need trained to listen) then you are likely going to be thrown when you draw your sword because that is scary and a new object. Horses need trained for battle, as anything else. It's like police dogs are trained to attack, so horses are not naturally born with this instinct for medieval battle.

3. Stallions

Historically, stallions are a popular choice for your warhorses and that is fine. They are more aggressive, more likely to fight, fiery. Most my horses in my works are stallions (who have had proper training) because they are meant to be the fiery and battle kind of horse.

The Ranger is the exception, of course. He likes his mares because they are clever and see no issue in outsmarting their rider.

They are not, however, what every single person would ride. The cart horse in the paddock is unlikely a stallion. The horse the queen rides? Unlikely to be a stallion. Stallions are a lot to handle and not everyone needs to be riding one. Most can ride geldings (stallions who have been cut so they can't reproduce) or mares (female horses) and be fine. Mares have a lot of spice and I honestly will pick a mare every time because they are smart, witty, and fun to work with.

There is an old saying in the horse world along the lines of:

You can tell a gelding, you can ask a mare, but you have to discuss it with a stallion.

Keep that in mind as you write, regardless of the genre. I recently had to DNF a book because it was a modern ranch and everyone rode stallions. I live on a ranch. You don't keep stallions often because they fight more, they need better fencing because they'll break it, and they are more dangerous. We want horses who focus on the job, not on finding a lady. We like geldings and mares. Don't be afraid to sprinkle some of them into your writing.

If you write with stallions in your book, just bear in mind that they are a bit more of a handful often.

4. Tack

Just pull up a basic diagram of tack used on horses. The pieces you need are a halter (for catching a horse,) a bridle, and a saddle. Have those on hand for when your character is riding.

5. Sore muscles

If you haven't ridden before and get on a horse, the next day you will wonder if you will ever walk again. Long rides are much the same. It takes a lot of muscle to ride a horse. It is not simply a car. It is a workout to balance through your core, steer with your legs, and hold with your thighs to keep from launching into the great unknown.

6. Color.

Like tack, please have a color diagram. If you are riding a palomino, they do not have chestnut mane that blows back in the wind.

Overall, a great few resources are books about horses and YouTube videos. There is a lot to learn about horses if you care to go into details. If you don't, that is fine too. But I know these are things I've heard from readers and have witnessed myself as a reader. They simply flag as showing the writing has little or no experience in the horse world and these mistakes are often easy to avoid.

I do encourage you to write with your heart, always, but if your book contains horse facts, double check them.

Another way to make sure your horses are realistic is to find Beta Readers who are Equestrians. Simply go on Facebook into Beta Groups and say you are looking for an equestrian beta reader to run things past. They will help catch and educate on what isn't believable in your story--regardless of genre.

If you have horse questions for your writing, you can also reach out to other authors if your answer isn't easily available on google. I know I've helped authors who weren't sure what age a horse could be ridden at (for the sake of their bones, please no earlier than late two-year-old, but better at three or four.)

Please reach out with questions, I'm always happy to help.

But, otherwise, I do hope this helps you as a writer in avoiding the common pitfalls of horse-knowledge in writing.

Below: The first time touching my wild Mustang, Altivo, after months of work in taming him and finally managing to halter him.

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