Obvious, right? I mean, I sound like an idiot even saying it, but it’s an important thing to remember writing speculative fiction. And think about it—how many writers have first-hand experience with horses? In the late 20th Century, maybe many, if the pool of fantasy/historical writers was limited to upper-middle-class college-educated suburban white* girls with Black Stallion fixations and the money to join pony club. But as the writing field expands to include more than just the wealthy elite, and the middle-class shrinks to almost non-existence, the number of authors who’ve actually been on horseback is likely shrinking. If you are writing historical fiction, fantasy-medieval fiction, or post-apocalyptic-cars-don’t-work-anymore fiction, chances are, your characters will be riding horses or in horse-drawn vehicles. Which is a hell of a lot different from putting a key in a car, or weaving a motorcycle in and out of traffic. So here are a few observations on how horses behave and fit into world/scene building, from my long studies of history and my life as a (formerly) rich, (still) white girl.**
1. Horses are not cars/motorcycles: You don’t just point them in the direction you want them to go in, and expect them to get there, unless they are REALLY used to the route and could pretty much do it in their sleep. And you don’t just hop on and relax. You WILL fall off if you don’t actively maintain your posture and adjust your body position with the movement of the horse. You WILL get slammed in some inconvenient places if you don’t learn how to “post” (rise up and down in the stirrups as the horse moves). You WILL get tired. And you don’t yank a horse around by the reins, unless you are a crap rider on a horse that has been ridden by many crap riders and has therefore developed scar tissue all over its poor mouth (aka “has a hard mouth”). Once you know how to ride, you will know how to handle your body while on a horse, and how to use your posture and legs (not your hands, at least not exclusively or roughly) to let your horse know when to go, when to stop, and which direction to take.
2. Horses are not stupid, under certain circumstances: They are prey animals who have evolved to run the hell away from predators. When given the option, they will flee back to their barn/home when threatened. They will not walk/run into dangerous circumstances, unless they trust their rider very well, and/or have been trained to do so.
3. Horses are stupid, under certain circumstances: A horse’s idea of a “threat” is pretty much “anything large, loud, bright, smelly, or unfamiliar.” This includes large women in purple track suits. True story. Training horses for warfare is something that was, in the past, begun very early in the animals’ lives, and included not only training horses to be ridden but also exposing them to all kinds of loud, smelly, scary stimuli, and teaching them to trust the human on their back to get them back to the barn safely no matter what kind of hell they put them through on the way there. Horses also do equate their home/barn with safety. It is, in fact, sadly true that a horse will sometimes remain inside a burning barn.
3. Stallions are not majestic creatures, no matter what Walter Farley*** may have told you: Male horses, un-neutered, are rage-filled sex monsters. Their entire outlook on life is “screw it, eat it, or kill it.” Their evolutionary purpose is to first, make as many little horses as possible with as many female horses as possible, and second, kick and bite the life out of anything that comes anywhere near above-mentioned little horses and females. They are nervous wrecks. They have no sense of self-preservation when it comes to a fight. They will hump anything that doesn’t stay still. Yes, they CAN be trained past these instincts, or trained to employ them as humans wish, ie, war horses being trained to bite and trample the enemy, but it is about 1000% harder to deal with a stallion than with a gelding. A gelding is a neutered male horse, preferably one who has been neutered young, before entering “horse puberty,” so that he doesn’t have any residual hormones or bad habits. Geldings are probably the best horses, all-around, for domestic use. Apply these observations to contemporary politics as you will.
4. Mares are not delicate visions of girlyhood: Female horses (which are highly impractical to neuter, even with modern technology) can, most of the time, be equivalent to geldings in temperament; in other words, ranging from lovey-dovey cinnamon rolls to utter bichtacular drama queens, depending on the individual creature (usually leaning towards the “bitch” end of the spectrum). However, they go into heat multiple times a year, and when they do, they become, like stallions, sex monsters: squirting their urine hither and yon to attract prospective mates with the scent, whinnying “Hey, Big Fella!” to every horse that passes, and generally behaving like prostitutes looking for work. Do not shame them for this; like stallions, their purpose in life is to make little horses and then kick the crap out of anything that comes near them.
5. Horses can’t barf: OK, I’m not going to go into a full course of equine veterinary medicine here (I’m not that much of an expert, and y’all don’t want to read it anyway), but it’s downright amazing the number of seemingly simple things that can kill a horse. Indigestion can kill a horse. Constipation can kill a horse. Diarrhea can kill a horse—all of the above can be loosely labeled as “colic,” and all are an equestrian’s nightmare. Horses can even develop a condition similar to diabetes, called “foundering,” due to over-feeding, in which their hooves can fall off in extreme cases. Again, fatal. The upshot of this is that owners of fine domestic horses (feral/wild horses are tougher than, and less-highly “bred” horses are not as persnickety as, race horses or war horses) are incredibly fussy over what their animal eats, when they eat it, and how much water they get (hint: a LOT of water, because not enough water = constipation = death).
6. Due to the above-mentioned incredibly demanding nature of horses as domestic animals, even in Ye Olden Days, unless you were part of a nomadic culture where every man had a horse and loved it more than his wife, only the rich and elite had horses—and they probably loved them more than their wives, too. Who ruled the Middle Ages? The knights. Why? They had horses, and could trample your peasant ass into the mud. Many weapons of the late Middle Ages—spears, lances, all those gruesome left-handed can-opener looking things—were designed expressly to disembowel horses and take away the knights’ tactical advantage. But until the advent of reliable tanks (I say “reliable” because some tenacious Polish cavalry took out some German tanks in WWII by riding alongside them and shoving spears into the tanks’ treads), horses were a superweapon, and one that not everyone had. The present day military divide between officers and enlisted men had its roots in the distinction between the medieval nobility, who were rich enough to own horses, and the peasants, who weren’t.
I work this information into my fantasy writing to try and give it a more believable feel. When the Edward Red Mage series opens, Eddie is common-born; even though he has the ability to use magic, he still doesn’t have the wealth or social standing to own or ride a horse. When he needs to get across town, he walks, just like the rest of the peasants. As the series progresses and he’s granted a title, he’s also given a horse, Rowan, to go along with his new rank. Eddie has to learn how to ride him, and he falls off a lot at first, because he’s a shlub with a beer gut and no core strength. Eventually he does learn to stay on, but he gives most of the credit to Rowan, who is a very well-trained and experienced gelding—I couldn’t write Eddie handling a stallion, or probably not even a mare, because he’s just never going to be as good at handling horses as someone who was born noble and learned riding from childhood. Frequently Eddie trusts Rowan’s experience to get them through difficult terrain, while Rowan trusts Eddie not to point him towards certain death. But Rowan’s training and experience can also lead to trouble; if a situation arises that reminds Rowan of battle, by sight, sound, or even by smell, he’s going to become tense and aggressive, ready to fight. Eddie simply doesn’t have the experience to control Rowan under those circumstances, and I have to keep that in mind while plotting. A horse in a historical or fantasy novel isn’t a vehicle; it’s a character, with motivations, intentions, fears, and quirks like any other, and a good writer needs to remember that.****
*I’m not saying Persons of Color don’t like horses, or don’t ride them. Native Americans were better to horses, once the Europeans brought them to the continent, than the Europeans were. I’m saying that as the automobile became widely used for basic transport/hauling, horses became mainly pets for the upper-middle-class. Therefore, in the 20th/21st centuries, race-based economic status precluded and still precludes many Persons of Color from having horses (and if you were/are rural and still had/have horses, you were/are unlikely to be rich enough to have the time to write fantasy novels).
**None of this applies if you are Mercedes Lackey, in whose world horses are reincarnated magic-users and more intelligent than most people. Nor does it apply to Tolkien or Lewis, because they are Gods among authors, and They Do What They Want. If you are writing magical, talking, or otherwise super-human horses, in other words, ignore all of this.
***Prolific 20th C. author of romanticized “boy and his horse” novels, bane of parents who don’t like going bankrupt.
****Thanks to my sister, Eleanor Anne Phillips of Blackwater Farm, for sharing years of experience with horses-as-definite-characters. She trains horses and their riders in advanced equestrian techniques derived from cavalry training; she works too hard to support her horses to have time to write fantasy novels, though she has been known to yell at the screen when fantasy movies get stuff wrong.