This article on writing realistic horses is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the cultural, historical, or world-building aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Debby Lush
By day, Debby Lush is a UK based professional trainer of dressage horses and riders. A former International competitor, she has published two books on the subject, and an informative blog begun during lockdown when she was unable to meet with clients in person.
By night, (or inclement weather!), she transforms into award-winning fantasy author Deborah Jay, whose Five Kingdoms series is popular with (amongst others) horse riders, for the characterful equines inhabiting its pages. You should follow her on Twitter.
Writing Realistic Horses: Horse Psychology 101
Are the horses in your fantasy novels nothing more than a mode of transport?
Any character who keeps the same horse for a long time will form a relationship with it, even if only to preserve its health and usefulness. Many will take it further. Even if your characters change horses regularly, you can add a layer of authenticity to your work by deepening your knowledge of how riders interact with their horses, even if you’ve never ridden yourself, because you will undoubtedly have readers who are also riders.
One of the most annoying traits of many writers (and plenty of the general public), is that of anthropomorphising animals. Horses do not, and never will, think like human beings. (Unless, of course, your fantasy horses are really people in disguise – looking at you, Mercedes Lackey).
To understand equine behaviour and how it influences the way we handle and train them, first it’s useful to have some understanding of horse psychology, and the ways they interact with each other in a natural situation, which can inform us of how they will interact with us.
- Horses are herd animals; they always feel more comfortable in company
- Horses are prey animals; everything might be out to eat them
- A horse is not a machine. They are all individuals, with characters, and although you can beat them into submission, as you can a slave, if you train them that way you will never have anything more than a dull means of transportation that might react—or not—unpredictably to danger.
In the wild, horses live in large herds with a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Contrary to popular belief, the herd is not led by the stallion, but by the dominant, or lead, mare. She leads the herd between grazing grounds, while the herd stallion drives from behind, keeping all his wives together and seeing off other stallions seeking to steal his mares.
Apart from these two, hierarchy within the herd is determined by position and attention, and not, as used to be believed, by aggression, or ‘pecking order’. The nearer to the centre of the herd, the safer the horse is from predators. The ones on the outside are most likely to be eaten.
Gaining a safer, inside space, is achieved by either moving in when a previously more dominant horse loses attention, or by jostling – shoving the weaker-willed horses to the outside of the herd, using those big shoulders they have.
To relate this to horse training, gaining a cooperative and safe equine partner means two major things:
- You need their attention
- You must gain control of their shoulders. Not their heads – their shoulders.
Novice riders make the mistake of trying to turn a horse by pulling on the rein on the side they want to turn towards. All this does it to turn the head that way, while the shoulders can go in completely the opposite direction!
How do you gain their attention?
This is a matter of training – at its best, achieved with a reward-based system. At worst, by the use of punishment, or by equipment that keeps the horse’s head down in a submissive posture.
Head height denotes dominance – the more dominant the animal, the higher the head carriage.
The dominant horses in a herd have responsibility for keeping watch for predators, so their heads are held high for a clear view. Submissive horses have their heads right down on the ground, grazing. If your horse is startled, his head will shoot up as he gazes around, seeking danger. If his head is up all the time, you don’t have his attention, or a submissive ride.
When we talk about submission to a rider, the most desirable result is a sublime cooperation where communication is so subtle horse and rider appear to be one creature. This is only possible if the horse trusts his rider to be the one responsible for watching for threats (i.e. the dominant one), and this can never be achieved by force. Gadgets that keep the horse’s head down artificially only create an illusion of control, not the real deal.
An additional factor in attention is that of BALANCE.
An unbalanced horse will always be nervous, because it is in danger of falling over and getting eaten!
As soon as you climb onto a horse’s back, you compromise its natural balance. We sit towards the front of the horse, overloading that end and making it more likely to stumble. Training a horse to carry the rider in a biomechanically functional manner is the only way to ameliorate this situation, and is limited by how fast a horse learns, and by the development of the muscles needed to cope with this artificial situation.
Only when a horse feels confident in its balance with a rider on board, will it be able to pay full attention to its rider. Before that, its natural instincts will keep it outwardly focused, watching for predators.
This also demands that the RIDER is balanced in the saddle! An unbalanced rider will raise a horse’s anxiety levels, causing distraction and a lack of attention to the rider’s demands.
Controlling the shoulders
Shoulder control, and consequently steering, is a matter of training, but also of riding technique. While it seems counter-intuitive, the rein on the outside of the turn must be the dominant one.
A horse’s neck is very bendy. Not so much the rest of its body. Turning the neck does not turn the body, Conversely, keeping the neck fairly straight makes it more possible to turn the entire unit. This is done by pressing the outside rein against the horse’s neck.
In English riding, we do this with a small inside bend in the horse’s neck. This means allowing a tiny bit forward with the outside hand to permit the bend, but maintaining the contact to the bit, so the outside rein pushes the shoulder in the direction you want to turn.
In Western, it’s done by neck reining, where you take both reins to the direction you want to turn, usually with both reins in the one hand. This results in the horse turning its head away from the direction you want to go, but turns the shoulders efficiently, so the entire animal will go where you want.
How do horses learn?
One other useful aspect of equine psychology to understand, is how horses learn.
Horses learn by memory.
They have no ability to synthesise ideas, or to connect concepts (unless the trainer’s response/reward is immediate).
A horse does not spend time thinking. His only occupation is eating, or reproducing at the appropriate season.
This must be taken into account when training: only if the trainer/rider is 100% consistent in how they interact with the horse, will training be fast and successful.
If, for example, you teach your horse to go in a particular way one day, then the next you are too tired to be bothered, you have only a 50:50 chance of the lesson sticking. It’s a numbers game. Horses have excellent memories, so if you are not consistent, their response won’t be either.
This is why purchasing a well-trained horse doesn’t always work for the amateur/inexperienced rider. For one thing, the horse is used to consistent signals from its trainer, and can become confused by the erratic movements of the less experienced rider, causing anxiety and, guess what? Distracted and unpredictable behaviour. For another, that excellent training may well begin to unravel as the new rider’s demands do not conform to the consistency of the professional.
Plenty of scope here for adding some humour!
Gender differences in character
There is a relevant saying amongst horse people: “Tell a gelding, ask a mare, negotiate with a stallion.”
Stallions are by nature more aggressive, and don’t take well to being told. A previous post on this site rightly pointed out that you need an experienced rider to handle a stallion. Impressive though they seem, don’t mount your character on a stallion unless there’s a dammed good reason.
A stallion is alternately called an ‘entire’ (unlike a gelding, he still has all his ‘bits’). What might not be so obvious, is that mares are also ‘entires’, and some may be as difficult to handle as a stallion. If you want an easy ride, pick a gelding.
I hope you found this short insight into horse psychology of interest, and hopefully, some of you will find it of use in adding a more authentic layer to the horses in your fantasy worlds. Let’s face it, most of us have horses in our worlds, so why not use them to add more flavour!
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