This article is the second in a new weekly blog series I’m calling Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy. Each post will tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi or historic/real-life aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Karlie Hart
I met Karlie when I joined as a co-blogger on Trouble the Write Way, a blog about writing craft. I knew I had to befriend her right away, because she knows about horses. Karlie has been a rancher/horse trainer for several years, growing everything from cows and chickens to hay and tomatoes down in Mississippi. Currently, she’s working on getting a degree in English and Creative Writing, with full intent to pursue a new career in publishing. She’s written six novels to date and hopes to one day see them in print.
Today, Karlie’s going to help us get the facts straight on those sturdy animals that pervade fantasy novels: horses.
What things do authors get wrong about horses?
First, up, here are some misconceptions about horses that have come up in books.
Misconception #1. Shin splints are serious
This is such a little thing, but it’s a dead giveaway that the author has spent no extensive time around horses. I read a novel in which the horse “came up lame” from a shin splint, and the character told the boy to stable him for a month or the leg would be permanently damaged.
Shin splints are harmless “stress knots” that show up on a horse’s front legs. If the splint is in the joint, that would cause him problems, but I’ve never seen one like that. Any horse that is worked/ridden (say, a roping horse, or a trail horse that covers rough ground) to any extent will develop them. In fact, the only horses I’ve encountered without them were show horses, who were only worked very lightly in preparation for the ring.
Misconception #2. Breaking a horse to saddle takes months
It should never take months to break a horse to saddle. Like, ever. If a trainer tells you that, he’s taking your money. The longest it has taken us to gentle a horse is two weeks. Why? We don’t “break” them. We use the old method of trust and respect, built on a foundation of solid training.
Misconception #3: Mares are “moody”
Mares are not moodier than geldings, any more than geldings are moodier than mares. I run into this quite a bit, and it is absolutely not true, and crazy how many people believe that. Stallions are unsafe and unpredictable; you can count on that. But really, there is no basis to the other.
Misconception #4: Horses scream when injured
Here’s something I straightened out for Dan. Horses are fight or flight animals. Yes, they can scream, but I’ve never heard a horse in pain make that sound. I’ve seen mares struggling to give birth, horses tangled in barbed wire, and other awful situations, and they might emit a long, drawn-out groan, but if they’re trapped or compromised in any way, their energy is going to be spent trying to get away. They can’t handle being helpless, it’s ingrained into them.
Getting the Details Right
Here are some details about horses that an author could get right, to impress me.
1. Give them shin splints.
As I mentioned above, most horses will get them, but they’re harmless.
2. Forget about loyalty.
Horses are not inherently loyal to their owners, especially in the face of danger. Yes, there are some horses that will stand between their owner and a predator. But chances are you won’t own one in your lifetime. I know the horse has been romanticized, but when it comes down to it, they’re looking out for themselves. So if they would have the horse balk, perhaps putting the owner in greater danger, instead of bravely charging out among the swords/spears/bayonets….
3. Keep whinnies to a minimum
Horses are actually relatively quiet animals; they don’t communicate with the snorts, whinnies, squeals etc. If you sit down and just watch a group of horses, they do all their “talking” with body language. Usually, they eat/drink in peace, unless one of them steps out of line.
4. Even horses need a nap sometimes
Horses don’t only sleep standing up – they get most of their rest this way, but they do need to enter REM sleep, just like humans do. They can’t achieve that state while standing. A horse will only need to lie down for a couple hours every four to five days to ensure they are getting the minimum of REM sleep they need. Also, they rest easier in groups than when they are alone because of the inherent predator instincts they possess.
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Great information. I’ll be sure to keep these horse facts in mind for future writing! Thanks for sharing.
Karlie H. says
You’re welcome, and I’m glad it was helpful. 🙂
One clarification on horse communication. They will whinny for each other when separated. I’ve observed this many times with our own horses.
I’ve also heard the Texas Rangers used this behavior to their advantage. When they were closing in on a concealed fugitive they would split up so their horses would whinny for one another. The fugitives’ horse(s) would supposedly chime right in. 🙂
Interesting stuff, R.C.! I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing.
Anne Lipton says
Great article, Karlie!
And R.C.—That nugget of information is golden.
Thanks to you both!
I have a question related to something I’ve seen often in fantasy fiction where the author treats a horse basically like a furry motorcycle. About how long can a horse be ridden normally? What about the action scene trope of full speed to arrive in the nick of time?
I have that same horse question! And I’ve just lined up another horse expert who’s going to come help answer it. Stay tuned!
Thank you for this post! I am a fantasy writer and a ‘newer’ horse trainer. It has always driven me crazy how loyal horses are in books. As much as I love my horsies, I know I can’t depend on them to go get help or rescue me. They just don’t have that protection built into their brains. 🙂
Kaitlin Wells says
Great article! I’ll be sharing this with my writing community. 🙂
Emily McC. says
Glad to see someone came out with an article like this. I’m a horse owner/trainer/riding instructor as well as writer, and I find horse scenes in books are usually very inaccurate, unless the writer is specifically a horse owner. Thanks for writing this up!
Great advice. besides Mares are more moody than geldings, especially in heat. i owned horse my whole life. Great article, especially that horses are loud and make a lot of noise, not true. 🙂
Also what i see in a lot of books are people always getting bucked off their horses when training, if they have ground manners, they shouldn’t buck or rear. i liked when you said it only takes a short time to train, so true.
Definitely agree with you on the moody mares. Every mare I’ve boarded has been moody at times. The geldings? Solid as a rock!
She must have GREAT experience from mares. (I’ve had 1 try to kill me. That was fun.)
Having a degree in equine science, and having owned, trained, bred and raised horses for 30 years, I would have to lean towards the Moody Mare stereotype. Yes, stallions can be unpredictable and dangerous, but I have worked with studs that were mannerly and trustworthy. I have also worked with stallions, mares and geldings that I would never let my guard down around, or take my eyes off of if they were within reach of me. Geldings are generally solid and predictable. Mares are predictable too! I had a few that were sweethearts regardless of their cycles. Most, though, would either get cranky periodically, were territorial and very choosy about their neighbors and pasture mates, or would damage property to try to get to the studs when in season. All of them can be working horses, but it is good to know their temperments and triggers, and respect their limitations, certainly.
This is one fantasy writer saying Thank You!!
There is always an exception. My cousin’s horse git stuck in barbed wire. He pushed at the fence until it came loose and snapped and then coiled around him. My uncle said he heard the horse basically screaming. He went down to the field thinking the horse would be all cut up. But the horse was fine. It had been smart enough to yell for help. He said he checked the horse over and couldn’t find any cuts. The house was a good ways from the field so I’m certain the horse had been loud in his calls. Her mare was also very moody.
I think alot of these things are not ‘common’ I know from my horse that he likes to snort alot and he actually whinnies alot more than other horses but most of these I think are purely dependant on the horse. as is a question asked earlier about maximum speed and length of time they can be ridden for
I am loving these two posts I have seen so far. I write only as a hobby but I also realize I know nothing about many things. I can use some of the knowledge from posts like this to better my writing and at least look like I know what I’m talking about! <3 Keep the blog posts coming please.
Sam B says
Stallions are only as dangerous as you train them to be, coming from someone who works with horses.
No horse is unpredictable, bad behavior even in stallions is the result of bad training. I’ve been around multitudes of stallions that were all very kid-safe.
I came down here to say exactly that. I prefer studs over geldings to own myself because I feel they are often haven’t lost their natural charisma – it’s all in the training and handling.
Also, if you find a mare that is no less moody than a gelding, hold into her for dear life – she’s a rare gem.
Agreed! I’m wondering what breed of horses she has. It might be different depending on breed, but all my OTTB geldings and mares are noticeably different.
Great points about REM sleep and training time! As far as protecting the owner – it’s much more likely if the “aggressor” is another horse. My huge gelding will “hide” behind me for any scary noise or cat or strange tree, but when another horse galloped right at me, he jumped in front and stomped the ground. Chased them off without a second thought and came back for reward pets.
A few of these don’t match up with my experience owning horses – nothing but moody mares over here – but that might because of the wide range in breeds and learned behavior. It’s fascinating how many horse behaviors exist.
“Horses can’t get all their sleep standing up.”
Well yeah, that’s just common sense.
“They need a couple hours of REM sleep once or twice a week.”