This article on injuring horses to fiction is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Rachel Chaney
Rachel Annelise Chaney spent her childhood inhaling every scrap of horse information she could find and riding every equine she could climb on. Since adopting an ex-racehorse, she’s ridden, trained or cared for everything from Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses, Drafts to Arabians, Warmblood jumpers to Paint barrel racers. She recently wrote a wonderful post on matching horses to settings, uses, and characters.
A reader and writer of SFF, Rachel currently languishes in the Eternal Pit of Revision. You should follow her on Twitter. Send coffee. Ignore frustrated screams.
How To Injure or Kill A Horse In Fiction
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a main character in possession of a compelling narrative is going to have a bad time. If nothing goes wrong for your MC, how can they prove they’re the best?
If your work features horses, great news! There’s no end to the number of things that can go wrong for your character. Horses hold the ironic position of being some of the toughest animals on earth AND the most fragile. Nature finds a way.
Want to fact check your fictional horse’s mishaps? Need a new way to make your main character’s life more awful? You’ve come to the right place. For a quick-and-dirty reference, think H2G:
Hooves – High Likelihood, Low Fatality
On the most basic level, horse hooves are just thicker, stronger fingernails. The difference? Horses have to support half a ton (or more!) on four tough fingernails. With every mile your horse walks, he risks damaging that fragile payload.
So let’s dig into those health risks!
Abscess – Have you ever had a blister form UNDER your fingernail? If you haven’t, picture a pocket of infection trapped under the nail, trying to break through to the surface. (Ew. I know) That’s a hoof abscess.
Hoof abscesses are fairly common and can be triggered by everything from stress to an infected cut to a sudden change in diet. An infection forms in the hoof, works its way through the tissue, and bursts out the hoof wall. Just like the Alien (1979) scene!
Because the infection forms inside the hoof, it’s almost impossible to detect unless the horse shows pain. But horses are tough customers. Many horses show no signs of distress, so you only know there’s a problem when the infection breaks through or the horse is suddenly lame. Depending on the size of the abscess, it can take days, weeks or even months for a horse to get back to normal speed – even with rest and proper treatment.
Puncture – If you’ve never seen the bottom of a hoof, you might think the whole thing is a hard, impenetrable structure. Not so! A vital part of the hoof is the frog. (Don’t forget this. We’ll come back to it!)
The frog is a softer, v-shaped pad of flesh in the center of the hoof. Kind of like the pads on a dog’s paw, the frog feels rough and calloused but can be punctured by sharp objects.
Puncturing the hoof frog can lead to soreness, limping, or even an abscess.
Lameness – A catch-all term, lameness encompasses all health issues that lead to sore feet, including but not limited to abscesses and punctures.
Making those hooves cover rough ground all day, every day? High chance of lameness!
Sloppy horseshoeing? You’ll probably shove a nail into the soft part of the hoof or crack the hoof wall. High chance of lameness!
Lameness of all types is common. If your character continues to push a lame horse, they’re in for a bad time! Like, you know, equine death.
Bottom Line: Hoof injuries are Mini-Bosses. They’re annoying, painful, and slow your progress, but are generally non-fatal. They can be deadly if they get infected or go untreated, but they are not meant to kill. Only to maim or seriously injure. If you need your character stranded or delayed, throw them a hoof issue!
Heart – Moderate Likelihood, High Fatality
In my experience, the 100% most misunderstood part of horse health is the seriousness of leg breaks. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said or heard something like this:
“When a human breaks their leg, we don’t put them down. Why do people do it to horses???”
Here’s the deal, horse physiology is different than a human’s. (Please. Hold your applause at my brilliance.) And, I know what you might be thinking. That heading says “Heart.” Why am I talking about leg breaks? Because horses are weird.
Remember that hoof frog? It’s a vital part of the circulatory system. When a horse puts force on the hoof and presses the frog down into the ground, it pushes blood up the leg to travel back to the heart.
Without consistent pressure placed on the frog, the heart cannot pump blood up and down a horse’s legs. The result? A nasty inflammatory disease that sets into a horse’s hoof: Laminitis.
Laminitis is aggressive, painful and destructive. Even today, there is no cure for laminitis. The pain can be mitigated with heavy drugs. Mild cases can be treated to the point it poses no issue.
But it cannot be cured.
If your fictional horse breaks his leg so badly he cannot put pressure on the hoof, do NOT have your characters spare him, wrap his leg up like you would a human, and voila he comes back to perfect health. I’ll repeat: DO NOT DO THIS. Not only is it medically inaccurate, it’s insulting to everyone who’s had to choose between putting their horse down or watching them suffer from an incurable disease.
Laminitis can also develop if those pesky abscesses or puncture words keep a horse from walking on the injured hoof. An illness can also lead to laminitis if the horse cannot stand for an extended period of time.
I cannot stress this enough. If your fictional horse is injured so badly he cannot put weight on all four hooves or, worse, can’t stand at all, the chances he’d develop laminitis are high. Insanely high. Snoop Dog on top of Mount Everest high. Horses just don’t survive that in real life.
BONUS FACT: Horses are also susceptible to heart attacks. While not as common as laminitis, it’s not unheard of for a horse to collapse during intense work. Survival is rare.
Bottom Line: Heart-based conditions are Side-Quest Bosses. Not inevitable but extremely difficult. Except in rare cases, they’re fatal.
Gut – High Likelihood/High Fatality
Welcome to the #1 medical cause of equine death. Forget battle wounds. Forget heart attacks. Forget exhaustion or falling over a cliff or any number of creative injuries. The most common, most effective cause of death in horses is simple digestive distress: Colic. (No, not baby colic.)
You know how I said horses were weird? It’s about to get weirder.
Unlike nearly every animal on earth, horses cannot throw up. Seriously.
Things that make humans vomit (stress, poison, sickness, eating too much/too little, extreme exercise, rapid body temperature changes) make horses colic. So what happens when a horse colics? A mild form is bloating, which may or may not work itself out. In deadly cases, the horse’s intestines twist around themselves and kink, either as an involuntary reaction or because the horse rolls in distress.
So how could your fictional horse colic? Ingesting poison, being pushed to extreme lengths or forced to trek through a climate it wasn’t bred for can all result in colic. The most likely culprit? Lack of forage.
Horses can’t exist on a scoop of grain. They need 10-20 lbs. of forage (grass, hay, etc.) every day to stay healthy. Without forage, they’ll get a stomachache. Stomachache = Colic. So if your horses are traveling hither-and-yon without any forage and they DON’T colic . . . yeah, horse-knowledgeable readers are going to side-eye that.
But good news! You can improvise forage. My crazy horse suggests leaves.
Bottom Line: Gut issues are Final Bosses. It’s almost impossible to completely avoid them and the fatality rate is no joke. Good luck.
Final Note on Horse Injuries
Obviously, lots of things can kill or injure a horse. On the flip side, remember I said horses can be some of the toughest animals? It’s true. Horses shake off stuff like cuts, abrasions, heavy hits, and puncture wounds all the time!
Horses are vicious with each other, even in play; it’s where we get “horseplay” after all. They kick, body slam, and rake their teeth down each other. They’re used to surface injuries.
So if your character gets in a scrape and their horse takes a few hits, don’t sweat it. Those are just Enemy Minions. Clean those cuts, get some rest, and keep moving.
Your character has bigger bosses to worry about.
*Disclaimer: No horses were injured in the making of this article. The title card horse is not dead. Just lazy.
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