Thursday, August 23, 2018

Having a Horse in Your Story

I slipped a fresh clip into my revolver and slipped off the safety... and every firearm aficionado reading this story rolled his eyes and stopped reading, then gave the whole sorry business a one star rating on Amazon and explained why - the author is willfully ignorant.  The same thing happens when horseman reads about horses.

Lucky for writers everywhere, Blake Smith, an irregular member of the Mad Genius Club, has written a three part article on horses specifically for authors.  I read all three parts, and it's an informative, easy read.  I'll give it four stars out of five.

I grew up on a horse farm. We had American Saddlebred show horses; at first Palominos, then chestnut three- and five-gaited horses, along with fine harness horses. My mother rode side-saddle, and was accounted to be a very accomplished side-saddle equestrian.

While all three articles are good, and if your story involves horses these are a good, easy read that will keep your story accurate, there are a few exceptions which I think Blake should have noted. I've written about them below and provided links to his articles.

A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part I by Blake Smith on July 25, 2018

From the article:
A horse will usually wear a halter on his head when handled from the ground. It’s made of nylon or (historically) leather, has no bit, and instead of reins, a lead rope (6-8 feet long) is tied or clipped under the horse’s chin. This allows the handler to control the horse more safely than by holding the halter directly. Horse people are taught to tie a horse only by a lead rope, never by the reins of its bridle, but your character might use the reins if he’s in a hurry (if the horse yanks on the reins while tied by them, the bit can bruise his mouth).
While it's true that modern tack tends to be made of nylon, a knowledgeable horseman will use leather or cotton rope. The reason is that nylon won't break, but your horse's neck will. If a horse rears back hard enough against the halter so as to break it, the owner wants the halter to break. The halter can be mended or replaced; the horse can't. Use of nylon for tack is unsafe at any speed.

When you tie your horse to something so that he'll hang around until you get back,  and if you think there is a good chance that he'll get spooked by something and break loose, you use a leather halter and a cotton neck rope.  The neck rope goes around the horse's neck with a non-slip knot, then is attached to the halter, and is tied to the hitching post.  When the horse spooks and lunges back, the halter may break but the neck rope will hold him tied.  Should the horse use sufficient force to break the rope, you and (we hope) your friends can still catch him.  Cotton rope won't withstand the force a horse can use to break it, which is that whole point.  It's also soft and so won't cause rope burns on the horse.

Horsemen will also use hobbles to prevent the horse from running away.  The horse can walk, but not trot or run.  Mind you, hobbles won't keep him from walking away from you at a brisk pace, and many horse do this.  A teenager can catch the horse easily, but an elderly adult cannot.

From the article:
Western bridles are simpler than English ones, with no cavesson. Split reins are also used, which are longer and so called because they don’t have a buckle at the ends to join them together. The reins are held in the left hand and used in conjunction with a curb bit, which is recognizable because of its shanks. In the picture below, the arrow labelled ‘bit’ is actually pointing to the shank of the bit.
Cowboys would adorn their tack with whatever they could, and that included the bridle. Many western style bridles include a cavesson both for decorative and practical reasons. You need a cavesson if you're going to use tie-down.

Other western bridles don't use a bit at all. They use a bosal or just a hackamore, both of which serve the same function as a bit, but the horse has nothing in his mouth.

A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part II by Blake Smith on August 8, 2018

From the article:
The American colonies also had a few specific breeds. Narragansett Pacers were favored by wealthy landowners, because they’re smooth-gaited, and the Morgan was developed in Vermont around the time of the Revolution, then went on to become an all-purpose horse favored by the US Army’s cavalry divisions. The wealthy gentleman in your novel set in the antebellum South will ride a smooth gaited and high stepping horse like a Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse, or Saddlebred.
The Tennessee Walking Horse (also called Tennessee Walkers or Walking Horses) of today look nothing like they did in the antebellum South.  The breed is practically deformed, with huge disproportional shoulders and chest.  The reason for this is the desire for the big lick gait, a man-made gait called the running walk, which is unique to the Walking Horse.  Horse trainers hurt those horses to make them perform, and I, personally, have no use for someone who abuses animals.  I've been there and seen it, and I turn my back to the class when the Tennessee Walkers go into the show ring.  You can read about the practice here, in The Sad Cruelty Behind The Tennessee Walking Horse (Feb 10, 2017) by Alison Ocallaghan.

A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part III by Blake Smith on August 22, 2018

From the article:
More on equine vision. Horses don’t distinguish red from other colors, so a red apple looks gray to them.
Horses are supposed to be color blind, but I'm not sure that all are. My father had a mare that reacted to the color red, and I've heard similar stories from other horse owners and trainers.

It's common for horses to wear blinkers or blinders, especially in harness. This keeps the horse from seeing things that would ordinarily make it shy and run away from danger, and thus much more difficult to control. When breaking a colt to ride, we'd put blinders on the colt to decrease the chance of the rider (me) buying a little real estate.

The author doesn't spend a lot of time on a particular breed of horse, which I can understand.  Suffice to say that individual horses have individual personalities.  In point of fact, some will try and rid themselves of the rider and are recalcitrant to perform as desired.  Others are an absolute peach to ride until they see a fly on the fence post, then they'll turn the whole show into a rodeo.

If you're going to write about horses, spend some time with one or more professional horse trainers and get them to talk about horses and riders.  After a few days you'll have enough knowledge to keep your horses in the background until the horse and rider are called upon.

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