I Bet You Can’t Write Horses…

That title was a wind-up…..have you come here annoyed?……

Since my last post I have been thinking about horses and horses in writing. There were some mammoth discussions on Facebook after my last post and I could see there are a lot of people who know a lot about horses. However, I am still aware that horses can be a big subject and some people find it hard.

The thing is because people rarely ride these days or have anything to do with horses, who were once the dominant source of power on the planet, it can be all to easy to write a rather ‘sketchy’ description of a character riding a horse and end up writing it inaccurately. This can be a large (as big as a horse if you will) stumbling block for historical writers, therefore I thought I would right a few tips out for those who have an equine friend appearing in any of their work.

Here’s a heads-up on a few basic horsey things for those of you who NEVER want to meet a horse in real life but still want to write one:

1.  There are four gaits (paces) which a horse has: walk, trot, canter and gallop. (If you are writing a story based in the American West then you might include ‘lope’ which is a slow canter). These gaits work like so:

  • Walk is four beat – When you’re sat on a horse it feels like a beat of one-two-three-four
  • Trot is two-beat and bumpy – Think of a quick one-two, one-two – The horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs
  • Canter is a three beat pace – Think of up-and-down sort of like a boat or something, you have to seat deeply into the saddle – one-two-three, one-two-three (or like a waltz but much faster!)
  • And gallop is a four beat pace again with a moment of suspension when all four hooves of the horse are off the floor – yes, you are actually flying….. Don’t get canter confused with gallop, it is a totally different sensation. When a horses moves into gallop, instead of an upward momentum everything goes forward, you can feel the horse stretch it’s neck low, reach as far as possible with it’s legs and it’s ears flick back making it totally streamlined (except the bumbling rider on top 😉

2.  Side-Saddle was hard – I don’t know if everyone appreciates riding side-saddle was not some dainty, simply form of riding, it meant the lady rider had to be able to go with the horse’s movement while compensating for the fact that all of her weight was favouring one side of her horse. (Plus side saddles have two girths – straps holding the saddle on – not one).

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

Side-Saddle or Aside riding

3.  Jumping side saddle was harder – I’m not just saying it, look at a video on youtube and you will see. When a rider is riding astride they stand up out of the saddle to allow the horses body free movement when it comes up and forms (hopefully) a lovely bascule (arch) beneath them over the jump. You don’t get that with side-saddles, oh no, the woman first leans forward into the jump, then is jolted backwards when the horse lands before being jolted forwards again one the first stride out of the jump.

4.  Mares and Geldings and Stallions are different – DON’T get them confused – It sounds basic but they all have their idiosyncrasies. I never really understand why books go on about mares being a ladies horse. They can be rather sharp (not all of course) and are known to be rather a handful when in season. Stallions are reserved for GOOD riders. These are horses with their entire manhood and with that comes a far higher physical development in terms of muscles – they are MUCH stronger – and an altogether heightened attitude which can be vicious. Geldings, are to me, a happy medium. They are male horses that have been castrated; they tend to have a more laid back attitude than mares whilst retaining the boyish fun of a Stallion (on a far more MUTED level).

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

Stallions can be somewhat of a……handful, though this is a trained Lippizaner stallion 😉 Author Tom Hammer

5.  Horses don’t just go beserk e.g. Buck, Rear, Bolt for NO reason. Horses are a flight animal. That means that in the wild, they are designed to run when they sense danger – now the fact they go fast makes sense doesn’t it? Well, horses are not dumb either, I have ridden classic cobs which have not batted an eyelid at flapping tarp, gigantic tractors, banging doors, chickens and screaming people. Other horses would have gladly dumped my round butt on the floor if they had so much as thought of one of these things.

My point is, there has to be a reason usually they’re naughty, excited or scared. Bucking can just be a sign of excitement when a horse starts a gallop – they are easier to sit to. Bronc-ing however, is where a horse rounds it’s whole body and their head will literally DISAPPEAR while it pops it’s nose between it’s toes and broncs (bucks) – this is much harder to sit to and cannot be confused with bucking. Rearing is very dangerous (not as romantic as Zorro) as the horse can fall back on itself if the rider pulls the reins….eeek! Bolting is probably my favourite as I prefer the horse going forward than standing still and deciding what he wants to do to have me off 😉

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

YEHAWWWW COWBOY! Author Daniel Johnson

6.  There are such things as GOOD riders and BAD riders even in history – NO not every person in Regency England could ride a darn horse! Just because one had an estate in the country did not mean one could ride well. It’s like today, you have people who just have a natural ability with horses, it’s not magic, they just understand them, can move with them and can work with them. There are riders today who bump around on top, yank the reins and fall of rather too frequently – they’re bad riders.

7.  Horses don’t go around neighing and wickering all the blinking day! – Life is not the movies. This is something which always bugs me about Hollywood – whenever a horse is in a movie it makes noises ALL the time – and you want to make sure you don’t do it in your novel. Horses neigh for two reasons – 1. They have been separated from their friends and want to find/hear them 2. They are scared and it comes out more of a scream than a neigh/whinny. Horses whicker, or at least I think they do, for one reason alone………FOOD (Please fight me on any of this if you don’t agree).

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

Horse Neighing……FOR HIS FRIENDS

8.  Horses cannot simply gallops for hours and hours so don’t expect that if you’re writing an escape or chase scene. Even quarter horses in the Wild West are so called because they are quickest over a quarter of a mile. It takes a fit horse to gallop over a sustained amount of time and when I say sustained, I’m not talking about hours.

9.  Horses WERE and ARE expensive so make sure you know who would own one. For instance, carriages were a massive luxury item in the Regency era, especially if you were in a city where horses could eat you out of house and home quite easily. Therefore only the richest of people could own a carriage and team and many would think twice about bringing it to Town.

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

Horses are tres expensivo – Author Newlitter

So, I hope that has given you some help with writing horses. I know I may have made mistakes or forgotten bits so please don’t bite my head off if I have 😉 I just wanted to help those who might never meet a horse but definitely need one for their hero to swan-off on……

Writing Horses - Philippa Jane Norman - Author

The Devil’s Horseman are like this guy and I’ve seen them in action – Totally AWESOME – Author Mark Robinson

Philippa Jane Keyworth – Author

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32 thoughts on “I Bet You Can’t Write Horses…

  1. Pingback: Film Horses – Do They Neigh Too Often? Our Reporter Investigates… « Cavalrytales Blog

  2. Judy

    Great post here. I totally agree that sometimes in todays writer’s world it’s easy to ride horses like you drive a NASCAR. Not so. I invite you to my blog on Writers Riding

    Reply
  3. Darlene Williams

    Thank you for very this so very relevant post. I know absolutely nothing about horses but they will be heavily involved in one of my novel concepts.

    Reply
  4. luf4s

    Not as critique, but rather as an interesting point (at least I find it as such), I’d like to mention, that in the Finnish language canter and gallop are not separated as different gaits, but gallop (in Finnish, kiitolaukka) is just a form of canter (laukka). Same thing goes for bucking (pukittelu), no matter how big the bolt, it’s still a “pukki”.

    Nevertheless, awesome post! I hope as many writers as possible who want to incorporate a horse in their story find this article.

    Reply
      1. Judy

        i’ve alway thought a canter as a slower gallop and a gallop the same as a ‘run’. Used interchangeably. But I did learn that it is seen differently around the world. Thoughts?

      2. ridiculousauthor Post author

        Canter and Gallop have different foot-fall patterns so I always differentiate between the two. I don’t think I could say they were the same. Plus, Cantering is what you do in a school and you have to gain the correct canter lead etc but Gallop cannot be done in a school unless it’s pretty large 😉 but it is interesting to hear how it’s viewed around the world. P x

  5. cavalrytales

    Although the 18/19th C military don’t mention canter (it’s always gallop after trot) my 1820 copy of The Modern Farrier says ‘The canter is a pace peculiarly accomodating to the sensations of the rider…’. So – not so hard on the bum then!
    Just out of interest the author also splits gallop into two paces, ‘hand gallop’ and ‘full gallop’, which is interesting.

    Reply
      1. cavalrytales

        Ebay!
        It was a deliberate acquisition – one of my MC’s is/was a farrier’s apprentice so I needed to know what he should have. Some of the old remedies and treatments are particularly revolting 🙂

      2. ridiculousauthor Post author

        Brilliant – I might get on there for a few books then, I had no idea they stretched to historical works 🙂 I bet they are rather revolting, after all, at one point in history they were using leeches on humans – just think of what they used on the poor horses!

  6. mesmered

    If memory serves, a hand gallop is asked for in some phases of a certain level of dressage test. it has to be accomplished on the long side or across the diagonal (can’t remember, long time since I rode dressage) but one must come down to a halt from same. All in a small dressage arena. I always felt the hand gallop implied control, whereas a full gallop could end in a bolt, but that may be my nerves!

    Reply
      1. mesmered

        it’s 40 years since I road a dressage test. And you’ve jogged my memory. Of course it’s an extended canter. Had completely forgotten. Would forget yesterday if i wasn’t reminded!

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