This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific concepts pervasive in sci-fi or cultural/historical topics relevant to fantasy, with input from a real-world expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Amy McKenna is a biological scientist by training, and is here to share some of her horse expertise. She’s been riding for 20 years now and dipping her toes into everything from Endurance to Eventing to natural horsemanship. Amy is also an aspiring writer, though for now she writes for pleasure (her two publications are in science journals, not the fiction sphere). Her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy.
This is the final of three #FactInFantasy posts that she’s written for us about getting horses right in fiction. Be sure to also check out her other two on how to describe horses and horse gaits & anatomy.
Horse Terminology: Tack and Riding
In this final installment of horse terminology from myself, Amy and Gwyn, I’ll be bringing to you today terms used to describe horse tack and also giving you some advice on distances that a horse can travel in a day as well as what that might feel like to a rider who is either conditioned to ride frequently like that, or very VERY out of shape!
Distances horses are capable of traveling in a day vary, as I’ve mentioned, on fitness of both horse and rider as well as pace. While a gallop could get you farther, the horse is unlikely to maintain the speed. A trot can be very easily maintained by horses, even ones that are not in shape.
If you look to the endurance world for guidelines on what a fit horse can travel in a day, endurance races that are completed within a day can go up to 100 miles in distance. In that case, the horse and rider are traveling before sunrise and finishing long after sunset in the summer when you have the longest hours of daylight. 25 miles in four hours is easily accomplished by competent riders and a healthy horse. More is definitely possible if you consider a whole day of riding.
When it comes to tack there is a gamut of selection available. If you’re working in a medieval setting, you’re going to have a saddle that is very basic, and unlike what’s available today to the modern horse and rider. The core of every saddle is basically the same. There’s a tree that provides the structure and then the saddle is built around the tree. The very basic saddle was little more than cloth wrapped around that wood. There were no stirrups (where the feet rest) on the early saddles.
The saddle is attached to the horse by a strap that wraps around the barrel, or belly, of the animal. In english riding, this is called the girth. In western riding it is called the cinch. Western saddles for regular riding (like the one on the right) tend to have simpler details.
Additionally, there can be pieces added to help keep the saddle in place on the horse. A leather piece that goes around the front of the chest and often clips onto the girth is called a breastplate, breastcollar or martingale. This helps prevent the saddle from slipping back.
Leather that goes around the butt of the horse is called breeching. This keeps the saddle from slipping forward on the neck and can be especially useful if the horse is being used on steep terrain. You can also have a simpler piece that attaches to the tail and that is called a crupper.
Wikipedia has a great resource about horses in the middle ages.
A halter is a basic leather or rope piece used for general control of the horse. Unless the horse is particularly well trained, you don’t use the halter for riding. There’s little stopping power unless the animal responds well to seat aids.
Types of Bridles
For riding, the leather headpiece is called a bridle or headstall (note the spelling, please for the love of Cthulu) with a metal bit that rests in the horse’s mouth in a gap between their front incisor teeth and back grinding teeth. The reins (again, spelling) are attached to the bit and are what the rider holds. Bits can have several different types of action to control a horse. They can also have different severities.
For the most part, you won’t have to worry about specifying a bit type, that’s a level of detail that, while appreciated by someone familiar with tack, isn’t going to be vital for a reader. What is good to know is that even the mildest bit can be very severe in the wrong hands.
Here is an example of a simple leather bridle, English style, again modeled by Gwyn.
In this case we have the bit resting in her mouth against her gums, not tighted up against the corners of her lips. Her noseband isn’t too tight, allowing her to breathe normally and without restriction. The noseband is optional, it is not often found on western headstalls. The browband goes up over her forehead and the throat latch goes around her neck and is loose and not tight, again, we don’t want to restrict her ability to breathe.
With this setup, when I exert pressure on the reins, I’m directly affecting her mouth. This is why soft hands are important. The mouth should be the last place I give my horse a cue because it is so sensitive a place. In western riding, there generally isn’t any direct contact between rider hand and the horse’s mouth.
They use neck reining, where pressure of reins on the neck indicate direction. This type of riding is very handy when you need one hand for something other than controlling the horse. If the horse and rider are good enough, you don’t need any reins and can direct the horse by the shift of your weight in the saddle alone.
To steer in this manner, you do the following. Left leg pressure along the girth line and a leading rein to the right and pressure on the left side of the neck with the left rein should cause a turn to the right. Doing the opposite will allow the horse to turn to the left. I can have a very loose rein and turn my horse quite tightly this way.
Once again, if you have any questions, I am happy to answer them, or find a good resource for you! Gwyn and I thank you for reading!
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