Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Horses for Writers:
Just the basics

By Mary K. Wilson

2002, Mary K. Wilson 

A staple of fantasy novels, the horse often demands to be written into tales.  As a source of transportation, recreation, or a magical being, nearly every fantasy novel has at least one horse.  When they're written well, horses add sparkle and life to a story.  When they're written badly, the writer may find his or her book thrown across the room with a disgruntled cry.

It isn't important that the writer knows a lot about horses. She needs only know as much as the material demands.  Fantasy, as a genre, demands much more from its authors than the knowledge that the horse is a four-legged mammal.  With horses playing such a prominent role, many knowledgeable readers will be quick to point out an author's error.

When looking to add a horse to a tale, consider what purpose it will serve.  The carriage horse needs to be built, and written, differently from a riding horse, and will have a different personality than a child's pony.  The war steed for a valiant knight differs considerably from a lady's palfrey, though ladies are often found riding war steeds instead.   Sadly, the latter is often one of the most glaring errors I find in the fiction I read.

Horses come in two basic sizes: pony and horse.  Ponies range from only a few feet high to their maximum height of 14.2 hands.  A hand equals four inches, and before rulers, was considered to be the width of a man's hand.  Therefore, anything over 58 inches is a horse.  Horses are measured to the withers (the raised area where the neck meets the back).  Although riding horses can be as tall as 17.2 hands (70 inches), generally anything taller than 17 hands needs to be ridden by a very tall (or very brave) character. 

Although there are no universally accepted terms used for the build of a horse, for the purposes of this article, I will use light, medium, and heavy.  A light horse (or pony) would be one of very fine bone structure and conformation.  Think of the refined Shetland ponies, Arabians, and racing thoroughbreds.  Medium-build horses are those of sturdy build that were meant for every-day work.  The majority of carriage and riding horses fall into this category, including Morgans, Walking Horses, Warmbloods and Quarter Horses.  Heavy horses are those with thick bones and structure.  Mostly draft breeds, many of the warmbloods used in competition also would fall under the category of heavy breeds.  All draft horses, such as the large Clydesdales (the horses that pull the Budweiser wagon), fall into this category.  If you research into the history of various breeds you'll find that draft horses and light horses were crossed to create many of the medium-built horses.  Modern warmbloods, for example, were developed from a cross of light Arabian horses (among others) with native draft (or war) horses. 

With this knowledge in mind, the appropriate horse can be selected for its job.    A peasant working in the fields of a fantasy book may choose a draft horse, which is commonly used for hard labor such as plowing and heavy hauling.  The peasant may also use this same horse to pull a cart to go into town, as it is unlikely that a peasant would have more than one horse.  Keep in mind, too, that horses meant money in ancient societies, so that same peasant may have had to survive with a heavy pony, or perhaps a badly put together carriage horse for the same jobs. 

A knight readying himself for battle will find himself better mounted with a heavy draft horse, or a draft-cross that will bear up well beneath the weight of man and armor.  Calvary horses will also need to be heavily built; however, keep in mind that a fighter needing speed and agility will have to sacrifice armor for this, and would mount himself on an appropriate lighter-breed horse.

Although the horse must be the appropriate size and build for its job, the horse also needs to be the right gender.  Horses, like most domestic animals, come in three genders: male, female, and neuter.  Male neuters are known as geldings.  Female horses are rarely spayed; there is no female-specific term for the neuter gender.

It may seem noble to have the lady who is running the keep all on her own riding a stallion; however, keep in mind the personality of these animals.  Although I once worked with a Dutch Warmblood stallion that followed me (and others) around like a kitten, I also have worked with stallions that would prefer to kick you first and ask questions later.  Stallions have two things on their minds: sex and food.  Since our characters do not fall into either one of those categories, it takes a rider with a strong will and even stronger arm to keep the stallion in control.  In addition, stallions sense hormonal changes in females of all species, which means a human caretaker can find herself in danger rather quickly.  This doesn't mean that the character can't ride a stallion; in real life many people show and ride them.  However, the levels of training for both horse and human need to be considered, as well as the type of mount appropriate to the character.

It seems wimpy to mount a hero on a gelding, which is probably why they tend to be underrepresented in modern fiction, but geldings have their merits.  A young hero out questing will find himself far better mounted on a gelding, as will the lady who wishes to hunt or hawk, because geldings make better work animals -- their minds aren't distracted by their hormones (though they are still distracted by food).  This lack of hormones also makes geldings less aggressive than stallions, and because of this they don't need as strongly reinforced corrals and can safely be stabled in communal barns.

Mares, too, get underrepresented in fiction.  In the horse world, mares have the reputation of being "marish," the equine equivalent to PMS.  When their hormones are fluctuating, male horses, even geldings, can easily capture their attention.  While it is true that equine females, like human ones, can have changes in mood in accordance with hormone levels in their body, mares also make great workhorses.    Mares make good mounts for ladies, completely avoiding the dominance issues associated with mounting a lady on a stallion or gelding (in ancient times, Celtic goddesses were mounted on stallions to show their dominance over men, and even today, some men feel affronted if a woman handles a stallion better than they.) 

Once the three issues of size, build, and gender are determined, then the writer can adequately equip his character.  Further refinement can be added to the process by researching various breeds of horses and basing a fictional breed on ones found in modern day.  However, it's best to reserve the discussion of breeds for another article. The next article will explore the different breeds and how to use them properly in fiction.