This article on matching 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.
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.
Casting Horses in Fictional Worlds
If you’re on this blog, you care about getting your fictional horses right. Congrats! This puts you ahead of 90% of Hollywood.
Here’s the deal, most writers get horse terminology (gaits, colors, tack, etc.) right. These are universal facts. Unchanging truths. Correct regardless of breed or worldbuilding. If you don’t know this terminology, check out the excellent horse articles by Amy McKenna & Karlie Hart!
Matching your mount to your world and/or character is a trickier business and Hollywood will steer you wrong every time. Using the wrong horse may seem like a little thing, but it will rip horse-knowledgeable readers right out of your story. Three key issues to consider when writing your fantasy-land horses are:
- The horse’s use or purpose
- The climate the horse lives in
- Your character’s horse experience
Matching Horses to Use
Misconception: Horses are all-purpose.
Reality: *stifles laughter* Um, no. Like dogs, humans developed horse breeds over centuries of selective mating. Each breed was created for a specific purpose.
The first thing you should do is pinpoint your horse’s purpose. Are they a knight’s mount? An over-rough-terrain horse to take your character on a trek? A nobleman’s hunter or a cavalry steed?
Each purpose takes a different kind of horse.
A Knight’s Horse
So you’re writing a Medieval Fantasy and have armored warriors that need to charge into battle. You might be thinking they need a big horse, tough and muscled. Something like the Budweiser Clydesdales, perhaps?
Sorry, but no. Contrary to popular belief, most armored knights did not use giant, heavy draft horses. Based on recovered equine armor and illustrations, knights’ mounts (known as chargers or destriers) tended to be short to average height at 14-16hh tall and stocky.
Reason: If unhorsed, an armored warrior needed to be able to leap back on his mount. Those 18hh drafts? Not happening! A 15hh horse? Absolutely!
The smaller, stocky build is also better for sharp turns, kicks, rears and charges in the heat of battle. Most draft horses are known as Gentle Giants. The fire needed for battle? Not their thing.
The closest modern equivalent to the medieval charger: the Irish Draught.
Horses for Long Treks
The most common mistake I see in books, movies, and TV shows is the use of fine-boned horses on long treks, frequently Thoroughbreds. When most people think of horses, the thoroughbred tends to be the default view of how they look, move and act. Thoroughbreds are great. I own them. I adore them. I harbor no illusions about them.
Like most thoroughbreds, De Vedras and his buddies have lots of heart, so they would go on that long trek over the mountains and through the woods if asked. But they would drop weight, probably get injured or dehydrated, and definitely suffer from fatigue.
If your character is going on a long trip, give them a sturdy mount, like the hardy Mongol horse. Or Napoleon’s small but intrepid Marengo, an Egyptian Arabian, who carried the French dictator through the Alps. The smaller horses may not be able to whisk your character away from danger or magnificently rear, but they’d laugh in the face of exhaustion or hazardous conditions.
Still love thoroughbreds? Rejoice! Here’s their optimal placement.
Both hunting horses and post-Medieval cavalry horses shared similar job descriptions and necessary skills, so I’m lumping them together. For hunting, a horse needed to be energetic enough to leap obstacles, fast enough to keep up with prey, and cool-headed enough to listen to its rider.
After the rise of gunpowder weapons and the fall of armor, the physical conformation of cavalry horses shifted. Instead of short, stocky chargers, cavalry mounts got taller and leaner. They had to be fiery enough to charge into the fray, nimble enough to get their riders out of lethal situations, yet calm enough to obey commands immediately.
The closest modern equivalents to these horses are Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods – the same breeds that compete in the equestrian sports that evolved from cavalry training.
If you’re writing a nobleman’s hunter (from any era) or a for-pleasure mount or a Flintlock Fantasy, stick to thoroughbreds and warmbloods. They’re tall (15.2-18hh), muscular, fast and agile.
What You Learned From Hollywood
THROW A FRIESIAN IN IT. When a Friesian stole the show in Ladyhawke (1985), movie producers decided Friesians were the best thing since peanut butter. So now they cast them. In. Everything.
*exaggerated eye roll* No, no, no, no.
If you find yourself describing your character’s horse as big and black with a flowing mane and tail and feathered feet: stop, collaborate and listen. Friesians are extremely costly. Always have been. They’re amazing animals, but they are NOT cart, commoner, or insane asylum carriage horses. Looking at you Beauty and the Beast (2017).
The Bottom Line on Horse Use
- Does your horse have a specific use? Keep descriptions in line with the breeds intended for that.
- Do not give your commoner a Friesian. Don’t give anyone a Friesian unless they’re A) rich B) need a Warmblood.
Matching Horse to Climate
Misconception: Horses are hardy and can weather harsh climates.
Reality: Horses are both surprisingly tough and exceptionally fragile. If your world features harsh or unusual climates, match your horses to that world.
Horses for Hot and Dry Climates
Are your characters moving through a desert, rocky wasteland, or otherwise hot and arid world? Don’t pull a Game of Thrones and put heavy horses in there. You wouldn’t stick a Siberian husky in the desert, would you?
Big, muscly horses need lots, lots, LOTS of water, food and forage to maintain that size. In reality, those Friesians the Dothraki ride across wastelands would likely die of dehydration and heat exhaustion..
If you’re writing a desert-esque world, go for a breed that snorts in the face of extreme heat and lack of vegetation – like Arabians, Akhal-Tekes, or Marwaris. Like these breeds, your mount should be lean, compact, and light on their feet. On the shorter side (14-16hh), the desert breeds are masters of endurance. Need to go a couple thousand miles? They’ve got you covered!
These smaller, leaner equines can take you for longer distances, with less food, than a heavy mount!
Horses for Cold and Snowy Climates
On the flip side, don’t put that Arabian in a wintry climate! You wouldn’t put a Husky in the Sahara, so don’t put a greyhound on the Alaskan sled team.
Most horses can weather cold temperatures (Pun intended. I kill myself.) with blanketing and care by their owners. But if your setting features below zero temps, snowstorms, or persistent wintry conditions, you may need to consider going with a horse breed designed to live in freezing climates.
Cold weather horses tend to be heavier than the average riding horse and grow out a thick, fuzzy coat in the winter. While a big draft horse fits the bill, smaller breeds like the Icelandic Horse or the Fjord are great examples of a horse designed for cold winters and mountainous terrain.
If your setting is mountainous, icy or subject to freezing temps, the best match for your world is a horse with strong hooves, thick muscles, and super fuzzy winter coat. How tall or short they should be depends on their purpose.
The Bottom Line on Climate
If you have an unusual setting or climate, pick a breed that matches. If your setting doesn’t have extreme weather or unique terrain conditions, refer to the prior section on matching your mount to its purpose. Nearly all breeds can survive just fine anywhere that doesn’t have extreme hot or cold.
What You Learned From Hollywood
Use whatever breed you want! YOLO.
*points back to Game of Thrones Friesian* I don’t think I need to further explain why Hollywood’s wrong here.
Matching Horse to Character
Misconception: Horses are living bicycles. If you learned how to ride, you can ride any horse.
Reality: Every horse has a will, emotions, personalities and quirks. They think, feel, act and react.
Matching your specific character to a complementary horse is a case-by-case issue, and not necessarily important unless horses are a vital part of your narrative. There are, however, a couple of big issues you should avoid.
If you’re character is not an experienced rider, do NOT put them on a stallion! Don’t put anyone on a stallion without a solid reason.
As much as Hollywood likes Friesians, books and movies like stallions even more. Most stallions are temperamental, aggressive, and dangerous. Calm, attentive stallions do exist, but they’re the exception to the rule. When in doubt, go with a gelding or mare.
On the same note, don’t give your character a cool, spirited horse if they’re a nervous or excitable type. Horses are incredibly perceptive, and however a rider is feeling translates through their body and language and down the reins to the horse.
Is your character a confident, skilled rider? Sure, throw them on that fiery steed! Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Horses are strange and frustrating creatures. Even horses of the same breed, sex, and age can behave like totally different animals. Case in point, my off-track Thoroughbred (a breed known as “hot” and “spooky”) snoozing away as he gets his hooves trimmed and a thunderstorm passes through:
So there are no rules that are true 100% of the time. Ultimately, you know what’s best for your story, including your equine characters. But remember this good rule of thumb:
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“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
– Pablo Picasso?
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