Ramblings from the Desert

The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either. ~Benjamin Franklin

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Location: New Mexico

Author of the urban fantasy novel, The Music of Chaos, and the paranormal romance, The Canvas Thief.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Horses For Dummies and Writers

(...And Editors)
I've said it before. It would be nifty if authors wouldn't think that all you needed to know about horses could be derived from movies.

*Horses don't neigh all the time. They rarely neigh. Though not mutes, horses communicate primarily through body language. And when they do vocalize, it usually isn't the ringing, generic neigh heard in movies. Horses don't neigh when you get on their back. They don't neigh when walking down a quiet path. They also aren't ventriloquists. I.e., most neighs in movies seem to come from horses who haven't even opened their mouths.

*People don't leap on horses' backs. First, it pisses off the horse. Most horses are trained to stand quietly while the person politely mounts via a stirrup. Leap on your average horse's back and he will assume you are a cougar and launch you to the moon.

Men, especially, are unlikely to like the consequences of leaping on a horse's back. Mixed nuts, anyone?

And, finally, it's nigh impossible to leap onto a standing horse's back. You know how riders in movies spring lightly on and off a galloping horse's back? They are using the momentum of the fast-moving horse to launch themselves into the saddle. A knight in full armour can't jump on a horse's back under any circumstances.

*Horses are not machines. They don't come from the factory with all the controls working and software loaded. Your hero can't run into a stable, grab a horse at random and steal away into the night. The horse may not be very well-trained. It may be deaf or blind. It may be lame. It may be a carthorse. Carthorses can't be used as riding horses, or vice versa, unless they have been trained to do so. Carthorses will buck a rider right off and riding horses tend to panic when attached to a cart ("Eek, it's following me!").

*SHAKING THE REINS DOES NOT MEAN "GO." This one bugs the shit out of me. Technically, you can use any cue to train an animal. But not all cues are sensible. The standard "go" cue for a riding horse is a tap with the heels. That's why folks wear spurs on their heels. Some riding traditions use a whip. The reins are used primarily as a directional cue (right or left), and to signal "whoa." Why would a trainer confuse the animal by associating the forward cue with the direction cue? In many riding traditions--dressage, reining--the rider keeps the cues as subtle as possible, leading to the illusion of "one with the horse." No rider worth his salt would want to be flapping the reins.

BTW, I think the notion that shaking the reins means "go" comes from depictions of carthorses. Because there is no rider, the driver snaps the reins on the horse's rump (like a whip) to cue for forward motion.

*Learn the physics of a fall before you have the rider fall from the horse. In A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur's Court, the protagonist falls from a pony, into deep sand and sprains her ankle. Wrong. Ignoring the size of the animal (short) and the deep sand (cushioning), there's the fact that the rider flew over the horse's head, and should have landed head or torso first. Although leg injuries are possible in a fall, they are relatively rare. That's because most of us end up landing on our butt, torso or head, no matter how we are ejected.

My tally: busted hip, two concussions, cuts and scrapes on arms and bruised ribs.

*Horses are prey animals. This means they are afraid of everything. The idea that just any horse will gallop into battle is asinine. Without adequate training, many won't put up with stuff swinging at and around them. Don't believe me? Get on a horse's back and start swinging a broom around its head. Some horses may tolerate this behavior, but many will skitter away from the scary swinging thing. If you want a big reaction, have a friend try the same thing on his horse and then try to attack you. Don't try this without health insurance. Expect pain and a hospital visit.

*Horses are big, dangerous animals. More people get hurt on the ground, than from falls. Horses will spook and plow over anything in their path. They will kick. They use their big jaws as weapons and clonk you in the face. They bite and those blunt teeth will rip off chunks of flesh.

*Rearing is a dangerous behavior. It looks pretty but is only trained as a trick (movie horses) or within the classical dressage tradition. Riders in the know consider rearing to be a dangerous vice.

Oh, and horses don't rear and then gallop away. They just gallop away.

*Even if the horse is a sweetheart who puts up with any rider's incompetent shit, there's still the rider. Scenario from one dreadful book: The heroine, a moron throughout most of novel, with no weapons training, leaps on a horse's back and fends off many attackers with a lance. Do you have any idea how hard it is to maneuver a big stick on a moving animal? She would have been more a threat to herself and the horse than to any attacker.

*Just because your protagonist has a "gift" with animals, doesn't mean he or she can actually ride. Riding is hard. Experienced riders--think Christopher Reeves--get seriously hurt. In fact, nearly every pro has had a serious accident. Some insurance providers won't pay for riding injuries, claiming riding is a dangerous activity like flying an airplane.

Many riding stables offer low, introductory classes. Our local continuing education program has a beginner horse classes. With a little effort, even the un-horsiest writer can sound like they have clue.

Else, risk me skewering your book when I hit the equine inaccuracies.
Cheers, P.K.


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