The Horse Panel
At ArmadilloCon and at WorldCon, I was on panels on how to write horses. Since each panel was only 50 minutes, we got through like .05% of what a writer needs to write realistic horses in a fantasy novel. And that was with both panels combined. What this blog post is here is the best advice I can give to authors writing horses, and to also talk about how the one question everyone asks is the wrong question.
But to start: What is the best way to learn about horses?
- If you can’t go back in time and start as a seven-year-old girl, then read children’s books about horses, both nonfiction and fiction. There are literally zillions (yes yes, don’t @ me for both literally and zillions) of books. There are horsemanship books, my first pony books, Black Beauty, the Black Stallion Books (in Australia there are the Wild Brumby books and I am infuriated that I didn’t know about these until I was an adult), there are the Thelwell ponies, there are books and books and books. Go get you one or several.
- Wikipedia. Yeah, I know, but you can find diagrams of horses and the names of body parts. That’s a start. YouTube videos are great too. There are videos about foxhunting, racing, rodeos, show jumping, farriers, training mustangs, everything.
- If you are comfortable talking to an 11-year-old about Minecraft, find you one (your own or somebody else’s) to ask about her (or his, but mostly her) horse obsession.
- Even in cities, you can find horses. Philly has a polo club for inner city kids. There are places where you can learn about carriage horses (bonus – you can learn about carriage horses and their harness, which is helpful if you are writing secondary world Regency-inspired fantasy). Go out to nearby stables. Ask to pet a horse. Ask to groom one. Smell them. Some people don’t like the smell of horses and manure. Fine, if you are one of those people, I judge and judge hard, but most importantly, now you know what a horse smells like and you can put that sensory detail in your writing.
- It’s research. Pony up (like I was going to let that one go by) and pay for a trail ride. Now you know how painful it is to sit in the saddle for a few hours. You know what it’s like to try to ride a barn-sour trail horse who doesn’t give a shit about you and your “research.” Now you know that horses are a literal pain in the ass. Now you can write a character who is riding a horse and trying to avoid being scraped off into the trees or is constantly getting yanked forward by a horse who keeps dropping his head to graze. There is no creature so blasé about using his or her tonnage to put a human in its place as a trail horse.
Now for the question that is the wrong question to ask. In both of these panels this question was part of the description: how far can a horse travel in a day?
The reason why this is the wrong question is that it reduces a horse to transportation. If I can impress upon authors anything, when you look at horses as only transportation, you miss an opportunity build a world that is full of detail and dimensionality. Sure, you have to get your characters from Point A to Point B, but if you write horses with personality and character, you’ve just upgraded your fantasy novel from run of the mill to something special.
A better way to approach the question of horses is like this: What is it about horses that completely obsess a seven-year-old girl?
Then listen to what she has to say.