The horse was a game changer in human history, and writers tackling historical fiction or high fantasy will be tempted—or required—to have horses in their stories. If only for transportation. High Fantasy also faces the appealing notion of writing a super-smart, super-fast, horse like Shadowfax. Did you look up how to cook a rabbit to write that one scene where they make rabbit stew on the road? Treat your transportation or super-horse with the same care. There are readers who won’t notice your poor horsemanship, but are you really satisfied with being subpar? If you’ve barely touched a horse, and possibly don’t want to, don’t worry! Here are some tips for writing a believable horse:
Horses are prey animals
They like to eat grass and sometimes play. Their first instinct when something startles them is to put distance between them and the thing. Horses can be trained to think first and can be taught not to react to scary things–like, you know, cannon fire–but it is taught, not inborn.
That said, some horses are better suited to this than others. Steady behavior also requires either a great deal of trust in humans in general or one human specifically.
This is also why war horses are so valuable. Remember when Bree (The Horse and His Boy) said his normally cruel master was actually fairly good to him because he was a war horse? That’s why.
Horses are athletes
Think about human fitness for a moment to put things in perspective. Top speed for the horse as a species is 45 mph. This is a very fast horse. A very fast horse in peak condition can probably do 45 mph off and on for maybe two miles before needing to slow down. The great majority of horse racing is over distances one mile or less.
Endurance racing is an entirely different animal, sometimes covering hundreds of miles, and mostly done at a much gentler pace. Look it up to get a feel for the timing and pacing of urgent travel.
The pony express is a decently documented courier service if you need a quick model for king’s messengers getting around.
Since horses were once our primary transportation, and also an important part of agriculture, it’s fairly safe to portray any healthy horse as fit. But, just as Dwayne Johnson isn’t going to be winning an Olympic sprint, the local plow horse is not going to out distance the king’s messenger rider no matter how fit it is.
When director Peter Jackson filmed the first three Lord of the Rings movies, he used stallions for key equine roles. Shadowfax was played by two Andalusian stallions, Asfaloth was a different Andalusian stallion. And of course, Aragorn’s horse, Brego, was played by a stallion. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem (though there was a reason there were two Shadowfaxes). But you know that scene at the Black Gate in which one minute they at the head of a cavalry, and the next shot all the horses are gone and they charge the army at the black gate on foot?
The day they filmed that scene one of the cavalry mares was in heat and the stallions got downright dangerous. Now, on a film set, there is a lot of standing still. If there had been a lot of galloping, it probably would have been fine. A little hair raising, but fine.
However, Jackson learned his lesson. There was not a stallion in sight when they filmed The Hobbit trilogy.
Historically, the Bedouins preferred mares as their war horses because the mares were quieter and less likely to give away surprise attacks. Stallions like the world to know they exist–especially other stallions. A well-trained stallion can still be an excellent mount, and I imagine a world where horses work daily for a living would produce more good citizen stallions than this one does. (There are a few breeds more prone to gentle stallions than others, but on the whole, they have a lot of testosterone and need to be very well trained to be safe. Most professional trainers advise extreme caution when handling stallions.)
Mares can also be noisy. When they meet geldings, or get close to geldings, they touch noses and then squeal. It’s a very annoying form of flirtation. Again, a well-trained mare who is focused on her human is much less likely to engage in tomfoolery with another horse while working.
Geldings are neutered males. Stallions are gelded to limit unwanted horse production, but especially to make the males more manageable. While granting that horses are individuals, geldings are extremely reliable creatures. There is a modern adage, tell a gelding, ask a stud, discuss with a mare.
While we’re on the topic, baby horses are foals (not ponies). Females (up to age 5) are fillies, males (up to age 5) are colts. After that it’s mare and stallion or gelding. Ponies are horses under 14.2hh* but there are also pony breeds (see Shetland) and there are a couple small horse breeds (Icelandic Horses, Norwegian Fjords, and miniature horses, for example) which are called horses. Exceptions make the rule, as they say.
Whinnying isn’t a thing
Movies love to make horses whinny. They whinny when they take off, when they get pulled up, when they are frightened, when anything happens that needs punctuation.
Except for domestic stallions, horses don’t actually whinny often. See “prey” above.
Here are some circumstances in which a domestic horse might whinny:
- The horse is alone and uncomfortable in unfamiliar territory and smells another horse.
- The horse is alone, approaching home more slowly than he wants and smells a stablemate (this is rare among horses who are accustomed to traveling alone).
- The horse is completely terrified and can’t get away (such as in fire or a fall).
- The horse has attachment issues to another being (probably a horse) and is separated from that being.
- The horse is home, but smells another horse coming and for some reason wants to say hi (especially in stallions or geldings gelded late).
- Stallions making a statement; see below:
Here are some circumstances when a horse might squeal:
- Play fighting
- Real fighting
Here are some circumstances when a horse might nicker:
- Favorite being’s arrival
From what I’ve read, wild or formerly wild horses really don’t whinny ever. They take the world too seriously to risk attracting predators.
When you personify horses, think through just how sentient you want this creature. Refer back to item 1 and set your ground rules. You can give your horse a completely human personality, but make sure you actually decide that. Disney/Pixar’s approach to the personified horse is usually to pretend the horse is a personified dog (see Maximus and Bullseye).
If you have chosen not to personify your horse, don’t personify your horse
I describe Midas, my project horse, like a person when I talk about training. He has a distinct personality. He’s smart, knows and cares what I want him to do, and sometimes looks me straight in the eye and does the forbidden thing on purpose. Horses in real life are a lot like toddlers.
They gut react to strangers, they get antsy when they are bored or cooped up. But if they have a job, they love having a job to do. They also love being done with their job and free to do what they want. If they know you and trust you, they’ll be happy to be around you and more willing to do whatever you ask.
Horses recognize people and remember events and feelings. They can be resentful. They are excellent judges of people–for lack of a better descriptor, they pick up vibes from people and react accordingly. That said, a well-trained horse or a beaten down horse isn’t going to react hugely unless the person’s behavior sets them off.
Horses are problem solvers; some have developed this characteristic more than others. Some are hyper curious, some are super sociable, some are pranksters. Scientists in Europe documented horses creatively trying to communicate with the nearby human to persuade them to move the treats within reach of the horse.
Some horses are braver than others. All horses are still prey.
Horses are reasonably loyal, but they are not dogs. Herd, not pack. When a horse spooks its brain turns off and the horse gets the hell out of Dodge. Later on the horse will realize that it had a rider once, and now the rider is gone and they aren’t sure where they parted company. Horses live their life in circles (read up on Monty Roberts if you’re curious) so chances are they will eventually circle back to their rider. Unless they know their way home, then they’ll go back to the barn and find some dinner. A lazy horse might not go far from where it lost its rider, and if it didn’t go far, it probably won’t go far. A good rider can usually stop a bolt right when it starts, it’s a bit harder to stop once a horse is fully underway, but it is still possible to regain control. If you can stay on, eventually the horse will stop, and you can try to find your way back home.
There are exceptional horses. There are always exceptional bonds. There are miracles. I read a story about a horse who charged a bear with its rider to save another horse and rider (it’s a great example of horses and riders in a scary situation). I’ve read about horses staying with fallen riders and taking them to the nearest house where they could get help. I’ve experienced a bolting horse stopping for a traffic signal when she was in sight of the barn and had no horse reason to stop (on a related note: God answers prayers).
Don’t be afraid to have exceptional horses, bonds, and miracles, but be aware that they are exceptional.
It happens. A horse who is lame is called “lame” or “off,” a horse who is not lame is called “sound.” If, for the sake of plot, you need to deprive your hero of his mount there are a number of ways. Horse thieves are always an option. As are spooks and bolts. If your hero has a really strong bond with his horse, don’t use the spook/bolt (yes, it still happens, but it feels like a betrayal of trust and a good horseman is really hard to unseat). Assuming your hero is not in a position to lose his horse thusly, or plot demands it for another reason, your horse could come up lame. The possibilities here are endless but here are a couple common options:
- Lose a shoe. Unless your hero carries around special pliers for pulling off all the other shoes, your horse will be gimping along pathetically. This is a very fixable and temporary lameness, but it still makes the horse unrideable until you can get it fixed.
- Pick up a stone or get a stone bruise. This usually involves a stone being wedged by the shoe against the hoof and leaving a bruise. It can be an injury you walk off, or an injury from which you cannot recover due to complications or severity. Black Beauty picked up a stone which made him fall on his face and dump his rider. I once had a horse step on stick–the stick actually impaled his hoof a little–he was a very smart horse and didn’t put his hoof down the rest of the way. He gallantly tried to walk on three legs, but I jumped off and pulled the stick out of his sole. He was lame for a few minutes and then walked it off. If we’d been galloping when he stepped on it, things would have been worse. Incidentally, hoof bruises are usually red.
- Mystery reason. Heat/inflammation in the leg(s) plus lameness means something is wrong. The average horse owner today would have a list of guesses, but if your knight doesn’t have a local vet to call for a diagnosis, I wouldn’t worry too much about specifics.
- Ever heard of cattle trops? These are devastating. It would be theoretically possible for a horse to live, but I find it unlikely that the horse would ever be sound again.
- Pull a tendon or ligament. This is fairly serious, and you probably retired that horse from the story–unless your story spans months and months and months.
- Receive a wound in the saddle or girth area. This also probably retires the horse from the story as wounds take time to heal. If the wound is too deep, the horse will die or be killed to end its misery. This could happen in battle…or the pasture…horse people have lots of stories about the weird wounds their horses got somehow in their pasture. Sometimes it’s from roughhousing a little too hard with the other horses (this is most common with males).
- Broken leg. This could come from stepping in a hole at a gallop. Common tragedy of cowboy stories. Broken leg means they shoot the horse. This does actually still happen, just with drugs. A broken leg doesn’t necessarily mean death these days, but if the leg is shattered it still might. A horse must be able to stand to survive. This is a biological fact which is only partially tied to being prey. If a horse lays down for more than a few hours, its organs cease to function, and it dies. Horses do nab a few hours of sleep laying down but get up long before death becomes a problem.
Age probably won’t matter for your story. However, just in case your character visits a horse breeder and gets a princely gift, you should not be tempted to give your hero a 2-year-old. For most breeds of horse, it takes 5 years for all the bones in the body to fuse. Prime is generally ages 8-18. Some horses stay fit and healthy much longer. Some horses are overused early and burn out before age 8. I think the current oldest horse in the world is in his 50’s (happily retired in the UK). These days, horses “used up early” are typically on the show circuit, and I have a hard time imagining it happening in a world where they are work animals and a finite resource rather than competition animals. Though that does assume responsible resource management.
Granting the variety of personalities in the world, young horses in general tend to be higher energy, prone to forget their lessons, and get bored easily. They are even more prone to doing silly or stupid things than horses in general (toddlers, remember?). Some horses stay this way forever, but most gain wisdom with age.
There was one memorable spring day a few years ago when all the horses were high as kites–the colts especially–except the 30+ year old Shetland pony who just watched them all the way Yoda watches Luke Skywalker.
Ponies are the best things ever. They are not young horses; they are simply small. The official cut-off is 14.2hh. * Ponies are very clever. Much cleverer than your average horse most of the time. They also tend to know they are clever, and know they are cute, and are openly willing to use those traits against you. But they are still the best ever. You read Black Beauty once, remember Merrilegs?
Hardy, long lived, sturdy. A few small breeds are still strong enough to carry a grown man. If your fantasy story includes mining, research the ponies used for mining. A number of breeds originating in Scandinavia or similar climates are small, stout, man-carrying pony sized beasts.
Tack (horse equipment)
Every part of the world has their own version of saddles and bridles, sometimes with different names and always with unique looks. But in the English language, the thing you sit on which is strapped to the horse’s back is called “saddle,” and the thing on its head with reins attached is called “bridle.”
Bridles are for riding; halters are for handling on the ground. The rope for leading a horse is called lead rope. If you don’t have a halter, you can hobble a horse—e.g. use a rope or something similar to tie a horse’s forelegs together so the horse cannot go far or go fast. Cowboys, in particular, used hobbles. Cowboys are also the ones best documented using their lassos to make halters when needed.
Grooming essentials are a brush for dust/dirt, a curry comb of some sort to deal with crusted mud (there will be a lot of crusted mud), and a hoof pick for cleaning out hooves.
Realistically, you probably don’t need to know much more than this unless you’re writing a period piece.
Saddles have stirrups for the rider’s feet, and a girth to hold them on. They have a pommel at the front, and the back is called a cantle. and the thing that hangs down between the stirrup and the horse is a flap.
A bridle usually holds a bit in the horse’s mouth, has reins attached, and is specifically for riding. The part that goes across the horse’s forehead is a browband, the part behind the ears is the crown, the part under the throat is the throat latch.
Halters take many forms, some more simple than others, but the main thing is that it’s for handling the horse (or cow, or sheep, for that matter) from the ground.
Usually, a harness only refers to the trappings hitching a horse to a cart/plow/chariot:
Most travel will be done at walk, and trot. Trot is a two-beat gait which can be quite bumpy, the rider sits or posts (a sort of controlled rise and fall of the rear) the trot. If the rider is riding bareback, he’s sitting the trot and it’s probably not comfy unless he’s a really good rider or riding a really smooth horse.
Canter or lope is next on the speed scale, and then of course we all know gallop.
There is such a thing was a gaited horse–this is a horse with an extra gait, which is some form of running walk. There are different names for the different cadences of running walks, but one foot is always on the ground. This is an exceptionally smooth riding experience, and it looks weird. Just google “single footing horses” and you’ll see what I mean. Most breeds have their own special term for what that breed in particular does with its feet. You can look up Icelandic Horses and Tennessee Walking Horses to get started.
Someone like a circuit rider or traveling monk would love it if you gave them a gaited horse to ride. These horses are ideal for long distance traveling. They are not ideal for knights unless he’s rich enough to have a separate charger.
If you’ve made it this far through the post you’ve probably learned or googled all the terms you really need to know. More than this, and you’re just flaunting to your reader that you’ve done research. Unless:
- You’re writing a period piece; in which case I encourage you to look up the names of the gear used in that time period. Just to give you incentive: If your piece is before the Mongols, no one had stirrups. The Romans had shoes, not stirrups.
- You’re writing a horse story. In which case I strongly recommend spending seriously huge amounts of time around horses and horse trainers. The more the merrier. Read every single Marguerite Henry book you can get your hands on. Also buy an equine encyclopedia and use it as a reference book. A good one will go over major tack and include a selection of breeds with some basic information about confirmation, country of origin, and uses.
- You’re writing a character who would know such things (such as a horse trainer, a groom, a horse enthusiast-even a racehorse owner). In that case, read up on the particular sport or discipline, or what life was like for horses in a comparable time period (if you’re writing fantasy).
- If you need the carriage to break down, wouldn’t hurt to learn what the parts of a carriage are called just in case it’s relevant. If someone poisons the queen’s favorite horse, it would be important for you learn more about how much of what kind of sick a horse can actually take.
After all that talk about horses as prey, why do cavalry charges work? Training. A horse doesn’t generally prefer to run over or kick humans, but a horse can be trained to do so. Training a warhorse takes time and discipline. They don’t just grow on trees. Even a cruel man would take care of a warhorse, because they are simply too expensive to treat badly if you ever intended to ride it into battle (CS Lewis got that one right!).
I’d recommend researching the Spanish Riding School, the Mongols, the Cossacks, the Bedouin, and reading about the Winged Hussars of Poland, if you’re interested in cavalry or mounted combat. Japan also has a rich mounted combat style. For cool videos, check out stunt performer Ben Atkinson. He puts some Classical Dressage in it’s original, warlike, context. Looking up videos of the British cavalry training–especially old WW2 videos–also gives you a vivid picture of the horsemanship and riding ability required of the men. Another fun story to look up, Sgt. Reckless of the U.S. Marines.
There you have it, a full-on crash course in writing a believable horse! I do, obviously, encourage getting out and riding a real horse at least once for research. You might even find a new addiction.