How To Keep Fictional Horses Real – Part 2

These horses are looking for a good dinner.

These horses are looking for a good dinner.

Welcome to Part 2 of How To Keep Fictional Horses Real.  If you haven’t already, check out Part 1.

A lot of this post is centered around my own knowledge and experience of horses.  Some of the information may need correction, so please let me know if anything is out of place.

Also, for someone who knows a lot more about horses than I do, check out The Wind Horse Blog.  This blog was featured on Freshly Pressed a few months ago, and has great poetic prose.

The Reality of Horses

Horses are like giant dogs 

A horse may appear a noble creature, but, in reality, even the finest thoroughbred is similar to a giant dog.  They like treats.  They like a good scratching and petting session, even if their size can knock you over.  They have individual personalities, and will sometimes answer to their name.  They can be trained to do whatever task that is needed, whether to race, pull a cart, or do tricks and jumps.  They will bite and kick each other in order to determine who is the dominant horse.

The most exciting moment of a horse’s day is breakfast and dinner.

They will also roll on its back and enjoy a good rub in the dirt.

Horses are not magical (We remain without conclusive proof to verify the existence of unicorns and pegasi.)

Horses are real creatures who eat, poop, and pee (sometimes for about 4-5 minutes, while you are leading a trail, and you are raising yourself off the saddle so you aren’t putting weight on their bladder).  (Also, see mucking from Part 1).  (Did I mention your weight in the saddle is usually on top of their bladder?  Seems uncomfortable to me.)

If on trail, many walk as they poop, leaving a trail of road apples behind.  Some will attempt to walk as they pee, but generally they spread out their back legs and try to keep from being hit by the liquid.

It bears repeating that a horses’s favorite part of the day is breakfast and dinner.  When out on the trail, the horse will often try to nip some food from a bush or some grass off the ground.  Here, the rider often has to keep jerking up on the reins, trying to keep the horse from eating the brush around them.

These horses are looking for a good dinner.

These horses are looking for a good dinner.

Horses know who’s in charge

At camp, this is often the horse and not the 9 year old rider.  Once the rider establishes themselves as the dominant force in the relationship, the horse will follow what you want to do.   Some horses will continue to try to assert themselves, and, like children and teens, push the boundaries of what you will let them do.

You don’t have to be mean to the horse, but, remaining in charge sometimes does require a quick slap, jerk of the reins, kick of the heel.  Horses are tougher than humans are, and can handle it.  Don’t be excessive, but also don’t be afraid.

UPDATE: Earlier today, I remembered a good example: When I was mounting my horse for the fifth trail ride of the day, he decided he was done and ready to go without me.  I was hanging on the side, one foot in the stirrup.  At that point, my only choices were to climb up or jump down.  Jumping was less sure, so I swung my leg up and took hold of the reins, retaking control of the ride.

This is called a riding mount, which is a hard-core, cowboy-esque thing to do.  I felt pretty awesome.

Horses are dirty and stinky

Horses may be beautiful, but they often smell bad, and make you smell bad too.  They smell like dirt and horse sweat.  The stable smells like manure and urine – if you keep it clean, it’s better, but it’s still stinky.

At the end of a day of riding a horse, I would be moderately dirty.  Then I would do horse maintanence (see next point).  After washing down several horses, I would smell like horse, my clothes would be thick with dirt, my skin beneath the clothing even covered in dirt and horse hair.  The post-horse shower was a great moment.

Horse Maintenance

Before a horse can be ridden (obviously, this is a trained horse), there are various steps to be taken:

1. Pull the horse out of the pen with a lead rope.  Only the most docile and loyal horse isn’t going to wander off.  Also, if you have more than one horse, make sure to space them out while tacking (putting on the equipment).  Some horses get bored and decide to bite and kick each other while waiting.  This is worse if you get in the middle.

2. Groom the horse – brushing with a curry comb in circular motion (this gets the dirt and pebbles out), then brushing off the dirt.  This step prevents saddle sores on the horse.

3. Pick the hooves – This can often be a force of wills, as the horse tries to keep their foot down, and you’re tugging up on the leg.  You can’t pick the hoof until the horse agrees to work with you.  They have the muscle-advantage.  Then, as your prodding the frog of their hoof – which, unless they have thrush or some other medical problem, they can’t really feel it.  They will try to stamp their foot down, but it’s important to finish picking their hoof.  If there is a rock or anything else large in there, it will can cause the horse to be injured and go lame.  Imagine carrying someone on your back while you have a large rock in your shoe.

4. Tack the horse – put on the saddle blanket, reins, and actual saddle.  The blanket needs to be placed so there is breathing room for the horse’s back.  Also, the blanket is like a sock for the saddle – something soft between the flesh and the leather.

At the end of the day, the reverse process happens – the tack is removed, the horse groomed, the hooves picked.  Often, the horses are at least sprayed down so they can cool off.

This follows with the evening serving of hay, and remember horses eat a lot.

The stall or pen needs to be mucked out at least once a day, if not two times, depending on the number of horses.  If a horse stands in its own mess, its hooves can become diseased.

As a depressing side note, one of the major killers of horses is colic, which is an intestinal issue.  This is indicated by the horse attempting to lay down and get back up repeatedly, as well as rolling around.  You can tell if they are just doing a nice back scratch (see video above) versus clearly being in pain.  Typically, the best solution is to get them up and walking around so their intestinal track can work itself out.  If someone owns horses, they should call a vet at this point.

I’ve seen this process start at least once, and it is not pretty to watch.  If you want drama and suspense with a horse, this is a good way to go.

I should note that according to my two older sisters, a story isn’t good if the horse dies.

Horses can be noble and strong

Some horses do appear noble, and most horses are strong.  I’ve been pulled into a fence by one, and I’d not recommend it.  However, most horses are not noble.

First, most horses spook fairly easily.  If there is a snake, a hose, a suddenly moving cardboard box, something runs past them, they will jolt or buck.  We’ve had girls fall off of horses because of this.  War horses and others are trained not to do this, but a typical farm horse would act this way.

This is a real, live rattlesnake on my desk at camp.  Horses would not be pleased with this.

This is a real, live rattlesnake on my desk at camp. Horses would not be pleased with this.

The horses I worked with were trained pack horses, or, as Julia puts it, “Plug-em-in-butt” horses.  You place a nose near the next horses butt (with enough room to avoid one horse kicking another) and send them on trail.  If they had no lead horse, the horses would still wind through the familiar trail.  However, instead of returning to the mounting/dismounting area, they would return back to their pens, where food will be served eventually.

These horses were great for their purpose: To allow a little girl who knows nothing about riding horses to live her dream. And if the girl is jerking back on the reins, or constantly thumping their heels into the horse’s side, the horse generally ignores it.  Now and then the horse will lurch forward, scaring the child.  However, they generally just plod along.

A few horses are reserved for lead horses, because they are independent enough to not need a front horse.  These also tended to be the problem horses who might throw an inexperienced rider.

I do not know as much about racing or show horse personalities, nor about real work horses.  However, I am sure they bite, kick, and slobber just like any other horse.

Horses get tired

Sometimes horses need to do some recreational activities, like volleyball.

Sometimes horses need to do some recreational activities, like volleyball.

This is an important plot-point in True Grit (which [SPOILER ALERT] is not a good story because the horse dies, despite the high quality of the rest of the story).

I’ve only worked with Western tack.  At camp, the tack weighs about 40-50 pounds, which is why Riding Staff usually had the biggest muscles.  Place an adult on top of that, and you’ve got 200-300 pounds loaded on the horse’s back .  Horses are strong, but will get tired with that much work.

At the end of an 8-10 hour workday, with a water break in the middle, the saddles and blankets are pulled off, and underneath is a dark layer of sweat.  When those horses go into their pens and get their feed, it is well-deserved.

Horses can’t gallop for days on end, as it often appears in movies.  They need a break.  Typically, if my facts are correct, the calvary would trot or canter for a while and then walk, rotating through to keep the horses in good condition.

Horses have 4 speeds

50 Coolness Factor Points if you can name why this series of images of a horse galloping is important for film.

1. Walk – just a leisurely, strolling pace.  As a rider, you keep your legs firm in the stirrups and try to move with the rhythm.

2. Trot – Like a jog for humans, a little faster, and a little bouncier

3. Canter – a little faster than a trot, not as fast as a gallop

4. Gallop – like lightspeed for horses.  Maybe, not quite that fast.  This is a full, epic run.  Few things are as awe-inspiring as a horse at full gallop.

I’ve only ridden at a walk and a trot.  In the crash-courses I’ve been given, I’ve learned a little about posting.  Posting is where you use your legs in the stirrup to lift yourself up and down along with the horse’s gait.  This makes it so you’re not bouncing and flouncing in the saddle, and you’re not irritating the horse.

Horses are many colors, sizes, and breeds

File:Paint Horse REFON.jpg

Horses come in gray (there is no white,) blue (black and gray peppery color, sometimes with spots), bay, chestnut, brown, black, spotted, palamino, and more.  Most horses tend to be a bay or chestnut base, but can vary.

Horse sizes range from miniature horse (the size of a large lab) to a draft horse like a Belgian or Clydesdale (the Budweiser hores, and the male horses in My Little Pony [Not all Clydesdales in the real world are male]).  In between are the many other breeds – mustang, Andalusian  Lipizzaner  Thoroughbred,  Arabian, and more.  Each breed was designed for a different purpose, so research that when you’re developing your characters and world.

File:719 Dark Ynte neu.jpg

This is one of my sisters’ favorite horses – the Fresian.

Other equine variants are donkeys, ponies, zebras, and mules.  Mules are only born through the inter-breeding of donkeys and horses.  They make strong work animals, but are infertile.

Horses show emotion

This is partially to answer L. Marie’s question from the previous post.

While sound may be the first thing we associate with horses – the clopping of hooves, a whinny, snort, or neigh – horses are more likely to show emotion through body language, especially their ears.  Horses are herbivores, and their body is designed to watch for predators – their eyes are on the side of their heads to get a wider view, their ears can move directions to listen for different sounds.  If a horse feels threatened, they will pin their ears back and tense.  This also indicates they are irritated and are likely to give something behind them a swift kick.  Sometimes they will kick if they don’t know what is going on behind them.

If someone is walking behind a horse, they need to touch the horse’s side and talk calmly to let the horse know they are there.  If the horse pins back their ears and their mouth tenses, get out of the way.

If a horse is attempting to assert itself, it will whinnie and rear.  It will knicker if happier.

I’d recommend, if you can, finding someone locally who owns a horse and hanging out if a horse is a main/major character.  Also, use Youtube and search the internet.  There’s probably plenty of tutorials on horse basics that can help you.  Being a writer requires research.

Writing Horses

File:BÜNTING, Heinrich. Asia Secunda pars Terræ in Forma Pegasir (Magdeburg, 1581).jpg

Similar to any other character or object, how you write a horse depends on what their purpose is within the story.  The horse in a fantastical world where horses can sing and tap-dance is going to be different from a horse in a gritty war story.  Even the most ridiculous portrayals need to have some grounding in reality, even if it is just a tenuous line.

For my current Great Novel / Work In Progress, horses are a tool to get people from point A to point B.  They’re not quite a motorcycle, because the horses wander off, breath, etc..  I had hoped to make horses more of a character, but it would bog down a streamlined adventure plot.  Maybe, if I do a sequel within the same world, I can play with horses more.  Two words: Centaur cowboys – I was not able to pull that into the plot.

Feel free to use the principles of horses into creatures used like horses – For example, dragons, tauntauns, bears, giant dogs, dinosaurs, and anything else you can imagine riding.

Well, this post was a lot longer than I planned.

Pardon me as I put on my hat and ride off into the sunset now.

My friend Cheyenne, a true cowgirl.

My friend Cheyenne, a true cowgirl.

UPDATE: I also missed my favorite story – When I was driving a van past the horse pens at the camp, the horses got loose and I had a herd of ten horses galloping towards me.  I stopped and just stared.  There are few things as terrifying as ten horses charging towards you.  Once the road was clear, I called other admin staff on the radios and proceeded to close the gates.  When I returned to assist with catching the horses and returning them to their pens, the waterfront staff were catching the horses while wearing swimsuits (most with shorts).  The Camp Director had been giving them a ride to dinner when I sent out the radio call.

All horses were safely returned, and no one was injured.  Altogether, it was an epic excursion.


Is anyone else bewildered by Amazon’s new service for legal fan fiction?  I don’t know how I feel yet.

Also, there is a new Star Wars animated series coming out – if only it could be as awesome as Batman: The Animated Series.

Check-out this LIFE-SIZED X-WING!

And a Life-Sized Springville (As in the Simpson’s home town)

13 thoughts on “How To Keep Fictional Horses Real – Part 2

  1. This post was a nice one for me to relax over and read while eating my breakfast. I had to laugh at this: “Some horses will continue to try to assert themselves, and, like children and teens, push the boundaries of what you will let them do” because this was so true the last time I was in the saddle. Equine contempt isn’t pretty.

    Thank you for answering my question! Perhaps if I had known the language of horses, I would have fared better. But I enjoyed my ride, ignorant as I was (and am) about horses. And yes, four people piling into a sedan after an hour’s ride will stink!

    • Fortunately for those who work with horses, the smells tend to just blend together after a point. Sometimes, it’s not till after the shower and fresh clothes you realize just how stinky you were.

      • Blend? When you are an authentic horse person the very smell of horse manure is ambrosial! As is horse sweat. You love horses for what they are and who each horse is individually (they are all different, one of a kind, just like us dunderheads) These naïfs think horses are like other “people” or cars. Thank God they are not! Horses, though, suffer greatly for this ignorance on the part of the biggest predator at the top of the food chain. People know or understand almost NOTHING about other life forms other than their own tiny selves. MY BIGGEST PEEEVE AND THE REASON HORSES SUFFER? Little girls’ romantic dreams and illusions about horses, which they carry with them into adulthood (if they can’t con daddy into buying them a “horse” before). The unrealistic horse books and movies. They so want a horse! And when they have the money, they buy some poor horse-victim and find it doesn’t fulfill their romantic notions, find it is something else altogether, because they didn’t take the mandatory years to learn about horses, what is natural normal horse behavior, so when a horse doesn’t measure up to their fuzzy adolescent fantasies, they pass judgment on “horses.” I have had horses for over forty years, raised them, shown them, trained them. I know whereof I speak (and am too old to worry about offending anyone, my turn and time to “teach” 🙂 — if this helps one poor horse it was worth it (wink)

  2. Yeah, I heard about the fan fiction amazon deal! Personally, I’m interested. I have never read much fan fiction but I remember my sister loved reading the Harry Potter ones when not all the books were completed. She loved seeing where different fans took the story so I understand the appeal of it, though it’s not for me. So – thought I won’t be reading any of the fan fiction, I think it’s an interesting and possibly fruitful step that Amazon is taking.

  3. I have a basic knowledge, covering most of what you mention here, but I tend to not be too specific, so I’ll say some people are talking while the horses are groomed in the background, or whatever. If I have a specific question I ask my niece, who is a devoted horsewoman, if she will read the relevant sections and comment for me.

  4. I love this. It debunks so many myths which persist because horses do look jolly noble. I would not dare ever write a horse as I know very little about the whole subject.

      • If you were a camp horse and had to carry people all over the place all day long who knew nothing about horses and who pulled on your mouth until it bled, kicked you in the ribs and who screamed bloody murder in fright when you stomped your foot to get a fly off your leg, you’d look goofy too, We all look noble staring off into the distance, BTW:) It also makes you feel better. Try it! (wink)

  5. Dammit, I had no idea you were a horse person too. All my life my “real” life familiars have been real snorting, barking, kicking, licking horses and dogs! One of my horses in fact stepped on my cell phone, and not once but twice, when I dropped it yesterday (I know he was trying to tell me something. I think I got it) Your blog is so smart and funny and kind I love it

    • Most of my knowledge comes from being surrounded by horse people, but I do not consider myself a “horse person.” I like horses, but my top animals rank as follows: dinosaurs, dogs, and then horses – penguins, bears, and octopi are somewhere in this top range too. I’m really more of a “spaceship person,” but horses are much more accessible in the real world.

      Most of all, I respect horses, and the people who absolutely love them.

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