The Romance Writers Guide to the Noble HorseOur guest blogger is Adrienne Regard, who has owned and ridden eventing horses for many years, and has been an organizer for United States Pony Club. She writes contemporary romances and women's fiction.
Show of hands: How many of us live in the 18th century? And how many modern writers have in-depth exposure to horses as transportation? Some years ago I wrote a pamphlet to help the uninitiated get started, called “The Romance Writers’ Guide to the Noble Horse.” It’s available through my home chapter of RWA in San Diego.
The use of the horse in historical periods, as well as in modern horse sports, is a surprisingly vast topic and every reader thinks (rightly or wrongly) that they know something about it. The unwary author can make mistakes about the nature of the animal, its use, its tack, its correct use in the 1800s which differs from today’s use — room for error abounds! The good news is, a lot has been written. The bad news is, a lot of what you will find on the web is wrong. So, my advice is to go to printed source material, and run your eventual draft past a knowledgeable friend. By that, I mean someone deeply versed in horse study, not someone who had a backyard pony as a kid.
It’s true that horses are beautiful and they are romantic and the temptation is great, but generally speaking, I’d encourage writers not to land their story on the back of a horse unless they know quite a bit about horses. If you must use a horse, I would also advise that you don’t try to dream up the most unusual animal you can think of. An 18-hand black Arabian stallion with a white mane in Regency London will result in your book being thrown against the wall. Whereas a sturdy brown horse of undifferentiated lineage and sex will probably get your hero from point A to point B just fine, without upsetting horsey readers.
The list of what NOT to do is huge. Here’s Julia Ross's list as a starting point.
Having disposed of types of mistakes writers make that cause horse people to groan aloud, let’s talk about what you can do with the horse for the purpose of forwarding your plot. Horses, even when trained, are still animals that respond to instinct first. If you need something unexpected to happen, make it the result of an instinctive behavior.
A horse may shy or bolt at an unexpected noise, or a frightening vision. A prey animal will ALWAYS choose to run away first and ask questions later. ‘Shy’ means jumping sideways very quickly, which can easily unseat a rider. ‘Bolt’ means to run off at high speed, uncontrollably. Here's a video of a horse shying.
Bucking is intentional behavior the horse engages in to rid himself of what’s on his back. The rider, the rider’s clothing, something the rider is carrying, the tack or any irritant beneath the tack, all are fair game. A good rider can survive bucking but a beginner? Probably not.
Runaway carriages are great disasters — much more dangerous than runaway horses. 1. Carriages make a lot of scary noise. 2. At speed, they are unstable and can easily overturn. 3. A runaway carriage off the road surface will bounce around like popcorn in a pasture. 4. When it comes to fear, horses egg each other on. The left carriage horse is convinced by the galloping right carriage horse to run even faster. The right carriage horse thinks the same thing. (See this link for photos and reports.)
Falling. Even in the 1800s, gravity worked. It’s not so hard to dream up a way for your rider to fall off a horse. And since helmets were not in use until the 1900s, many falls were serious or fatal. You can have a rider fall when jumping, when a horse shies, when a carriage crashes, when a horse runs away through a wooded area or when the tack fails.
Even with care, a good writer can still get things wrong according to their readers who may themselves have imperfect understanding. The old saying goes, “Ask two horsemen about an issue and you’ll get three opinions.” But at least you will have tried!