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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Missy and me. She’s a really sweet little mare.


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