Recently, I was reading Lit and Scribbles (a great blog). In a post on world-building, Jae wrote:
There are things that you’ll do when you worldbuild that you shouldn’t. You’ll take the things that you are familiar with and put them in exactly as you’re familiar with them. Take for example horses. If you’re writing a fantasy story, odds are horses will show up sooner or later. But let me ask you this question. Does your horse behave like a horse or like a motorcycle?
Because most of us aren’t around horses we tend to treat horses in our stories like motorcycles. It’s an object that gets us from point A to point B. We ride it from one location and park it, like a motorcycle and carry on. But that’s not how people typically treated horses back in the day. They were companions, they were been given names, and treated more like another person than an object.
I don’t know what Jae’s experiences with horses are, and I know there are many people with more experience around horses than I have. However, I think I have enough experience with real, live horses to be able to help those who’ve only seen horses in pictures, TV, and movies.
To assist fellow-writers, particularly fantasy writers, I’ve put together some notes touching on what real horses are like, and how they can better portray horses.
Part 1 includes my own history with horses along with the mythos of horses. Part 2 includes how fictional horses compare to real horses, and how that reality can be mixed with fiction.
My History With Horses
My two older sisters, Katherine and Julia, adore horses.
This meant that during our childhood the VCR was often running a horse movie, be it The Last Unicorn, the My Little Pony movie, and, usually, The Man from Snowy River. (The following scene is awesome.)
While driving past fields and rural areas, their faces pressed against the window as they cried, “Look at the pretty horse!”
During games of 20 questions, Katherine’s answer was usually, “A black horse.”
When playing, they often ignored their dolls and focused on the Breyer horses (which usually had at least one broken leg), and the plethora of My Little Ponies.
When Julia graduated from high school, she worked at a local resident Girl Scout camp. Due to her pure love of horses, she learned everything she could in her first year, and was quickly promoted to be a wrangler. She then spent a few summers as Riding Director. This meant over-seeing the care and maintenance of 25 camp horses, supervising riding staff, and running basic horse lessons for about sixty girls.
Katherine worked two summers, never as riding staff, but often working with the horses. Many hours were spent helping tack and un-tack the horses, mucking stalls, catching horses from their pens, helping girls mount, and so on.
Coming in as the Riding Director’s sister, it came as a surprise to some that I’m not as passionate about horses. I like to see a pretty horse, I don’t mind working with horses or helping with the work, and I know my way around camp horses – horses that are generally docile. However, I’m not leaping up every time I see a horse go by.
Working as a camp administrator, and covering post-resident camp activities, I spent many hours helping with horses. I spent a week and a half in 2008 helping run the horses for troops who were coming up for a few days, including tacking, picking hooves, grooming, and leading trail-rides. I’ve spent many other afternoons and evening helping to tack and un-tack, feed, and muck.
Mucking, by the way, is the glamorous job of using a shovel or pitchfork to gather all of the horse poop and get it out of the pen or stall. The test of a true horse-lover is proven by their attitude towards mucking. If the girls are eager to do it, they are a true equestrian at heart.
The Mythology of Horses
On NPR a while ago, they featured an article titled “Why Do Girls Love Horses, Unicorns, and Dolphins?”
My answer is simple: Horses are cool.
Horses are magical. (Unicorns and pegasi are super-magical.)
In Greek Mythology, Poseidon made the first horse to impress a lady, the pegasus was invented, all of the gods with chariots had horses (sometimes Apollo’s had flaming hair), and there were centaurs. If we look beyond Greek Mythology, I am sure there are many other references to horses.
Horses are noble and strong.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Riders of Rohan are one of the coolest elements of Middle Earth. The scene of their arrival in The Return of the King is magnificent and awe-inspiring, especially as they gallop across the field “toward ruin.”
Horses are loyal, stalwart companions.
In War Horse, the horse travels thousands of miles, passing through unspeakable danger, and returns to his boy.
Horses are intelligent
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy, the horses talk and are able to help the hero and heroine on the journey. Their spunky personality is another story.
Also, in The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas, the horse is clever, often outsmarting his rider.
Horses are fast
Think of the many, many racing movies: National Velvet, Seabiscuit, The Secretariat. Think of the chase scenes as horses are barreling towards the goal, enemies chasing each other. A horse at full gallop is awe inspiring.
Horses are beautiful
What better example than the quintessential horse book: Black Beauty. While the horse goes through many trials and hardships in Victorian England, the horse’s main quality comes back to its beauty once cleaned up and given good and friendly owners.
This brings us to a second note:
Black horses are (usually) the most beautiful.
Black Beauty, Black Stallion, and Flicka are all black horses.
When girls arrive at camp and are waiting to find out which horse they will ride for the next week, they say, “I want the black horse,” even if the black horse is an old nag who needs to be retired.
Horses often carry studly gentlemen.
Whether it’s a knight in shining armor, a lone warrior returned from battle, a mountie in full uniform, a trail-worn cowboy, or a Rider of Rohan (or Aragorn), they are far better looking if on the back of a horse. The horse is a noble companion, a trusted friend, and the man better for riding the horse with respect.
Tune in later for Part 2.
Do you have any additions to fictional horses? Do you have any questions I can address in part 2? Are you horse lover? What do you think the appeal of horses is? Do you cry when Artax sinks into the Swamps of Sadness during The Neverending Story like my sisters? What is the best horse movie?
Also, if you haven’t already done so, check out the Summer Movie Bingo page. Real prizes are available for real people!
10 thoughts on “How To Keep Fictional Horses Real – Part 1”
Thank you for this excellent post! You couldn’t know how much I need this! Could you elaborate on the sounds horses make to show their emotion? Whinnies, snorts, etc.
I’ll try to cover that in the next post – I do have to say they portray more emotion through their body language than their sound. Most of their snorts are just them standing around, trying to keep flies off their mouth.
I work with horses every other week and I, too, was one of those who loved them when I was younger. I can ride pretty well, but not great. You did nail it regarding why girls love horses though. I just loved how majestic they were, plus the whole fantastical background to them.
Do you agree that black horses are the prettiest?
Mmmm…I understand their appeal but I always liked Thoroughbred horses, with their brown bodies and black socks.
Ooh. Throughbreds can be gorgeous.
I don’t tend to write the kind of fantasy or other genres where horses would be super relevant, but I do appreciate realism in all kinds of fiction and appreciate having a guide like this for folks who want to portray horses realistically. Thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge!
Horses are squishy.
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