Monday, October 31, 2011

New S. A. Bolich website

My new website is up and running today at You will recognize the background! This one I did not design, which means it's more interesting in the code. Yeah, interpret "interesting" however you want, but while I am a fan of style sheets, I use them a bit differently. And for some reason there is one element I absolutely cannot get to center! I'll send a free copy of Firedancer to the first person to identify which one it is. :)

Nonetheless, I love the look of the site. The designer was really easy to work with and I'm really happy with it overall. Let me know what you think, and please tell me if you find weirdness or errors.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Horses in Fiction: The Frightened Horse (and Terrified Rider)

One thing that bugs me a lot about Hollywood is how the riders (especially the females, because gur-lls just can't stick on, you know) are always so easily dislodged from their mount. For dramatic effect, of course, but still. Let the horse raise both front hooves off the ground together, and plop goes the rider with a loud "eek!" and the horse jets off into the sunset.

Oh, please.

There is nothing difficult about riding a horse that rears. They go up, you lean forward a little and squeeze a little harder with your legs, and that's that. Unless he staggers and goes over backward, or starts plunging forward, or does something else spectacular, any decent rider is going to stay on unless he was totally asleep in the saddle.

On the other hand, the unexpected bucking fit, the two-leap jump to the side when surprised, and the sudden bolt are all genuine rider challenges. Most riders will stick with the first leap, but being surprised and perhaps off balance over the shoulder or to one side, the second leap sideways will often finish them. Down goes the rider, off goes the horse.

Remember that a horse's first instinct when faced with the unexpected or frightening is to run, not fight. Very few will stick around to investigate a threat. The wonderful loyal horse bravely stomping the rattlesnake to death? Eh, not so much. I watched the reaction of our horses the first time they heard a rattler, and it was "tuck the tail and get me out of here!" That dry buzz was creepy and the horses wanted no part of it.

When surprised from the front or side, most will do a spin and bolt (or attempt to bolt); from the rear, a sudden acceleration forward. Well-trained horses will leap sideways (sometimes spin in place), and stop, answering the rider's tug on the reins. Really scared ones will fight you for the bit, which can lead to interesting circles and a lot of backing up as he tries to get away from the rein or the pressure of the bit in his mouth. He will keep it up in direct proportion to the perceived size of the threat. If the bird flies off he may quit pretty quickly; if the bear or whatever remains, he may really panic, especially if the rider shows signs of being frightened as well. Bear in mind that it doesn't take boogey-men to set him off. Crossing water or mud or a hollow-sounding bridge can be really scary for him. In water he can't see his footing; when he feels himself sinking in a bog he will start to plunge, often ending up over the trail or in the brush or across a log or wherever. He doesn't care. He just wants out of there.

Panic in a rider induces panic in the horse. The calmest old nag gets upset with a rider up top going "Ooh! Ooh, stop, horse, stop!" every two seconds. The constant unfair yanking on the reins will set him prancing and sidling and eventually bucking or running trying to get away from the pain. It is in direct contradiction to what he has been taught, so he's confused, and the rider is making it worse. My neighbor got dumped by every horse she rode until she finally gave up riding altogether, even her husband's staid 30-year-old gelding who was so stiff it was surprising he could muster a buck. But buck he did, and she would never believe it was because she was so scared she had his head cranked back into his chest. His mouth was hanging wide open in an attempt to get rid of the pressure, and no amount of coaching her to lighten up on the rein would get her to turn loose of her death grip. When the old guy dumped her, she finally gave it up, to my relief and no doubt to the relief of all their horses.

Many horsey wrecks are the result of the horse and rider at cross purposes. Either the rider miscues the horse or he's trying to brute force his way to control and the horse quite naturally takes exception. Sometimes a cagey horse is the instigator, resisting whatever the rider is doing, which may be nothing objectionable at all. His back may be sore; he may not feel good; or he'd just as soon not do another damned circle in the arena or face one more jump, thank you. Horses do get sour doing the same stuff over and over, and the war can become intense if the rider is insensitive enough not to recognize the signs and vary the routine.

A truly frightened horse will plow through anything on his way to Anywhere Not Here. I had an excitable 4-year-old Thoroughbred rip a rail off a fence and then bolt through a 3-wire fence, snapping a steel T-post off at the ground on the way. I doubt he ever saw it, he was so panicked. The one time they will reliably run over a person is if they are really scared; the rest of the time they will try to avoid you. A horse that trusts you may respond to your voice, but keep it calm! Shout to get his attention and then sweet-talk him down. Continuing to shout at him just gets him more upset.

Much plot mayhem can come from a single horse that is either frightened or badly managed by a rider. C.J. Cherryh gets this right in her Foreigner series, when the main character must learn to manage his horse-like mecheita. Incorrect tugging on the rein snarls the whole group and greatly embarrasses the rider. Now, imagine the mess when a pack string that is roped together has one animal encounter something nasty. A leap sideways could take the whole string over a cliff, or snarl them up in thorough fashion. One out-of-control horse can plow through a whole traveling group without regard for who else gets rammed or dumped, and trust me, you will see horses scatter to the winds when that happens, quite on their own, startling their own riders. Civil War soldiers wrote that the surest thing to get exhausted troops up off the ground was when the cry "Loose horse!" went up.

Bear in mind the fact that most horsemen and women of earlier ages spent a lot of time in the saddle. Beginners were prone to the same mistakes as today, but experienced riders were and are far less likely to be surprised onto the ground by anything their horse does, if they are paying the least bit of attention. So, don't go the Hollywood route and assume that any little twitch is sufficient to unhorse your lady fair or the warrior who grew up in the saddle. Make the surprise spectacular! What a fun scene you will get out of it.

Until next time.

Do check out my novel Firedancer (alas, horse-free, I fear, but a 5-star alternate world fantasy, according to the reviews).

All content and photos on this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Guest Author Karina Fabian: Zombie Exterminator

For something a bit different today, and just in time for Halloween, which, yes, I confess is a favorite holiday of mine, here is award-winning horror author Karina Fabian talking about her life as a full-time writer. Karina's latest offering is Neeta Lyffe Zombie Exterminator, and if we know Karina, it is going to be a fast-paced romp. What better stress reliever could there be than whacking zombies in the near future...that might just be coming?

Neeta Lyffe Zombie ExterminatorKarina says:
When I first dropped writing nonfiction to concentrate on my fiction in 2003, the thought was that I'd free up some time and cut down on my stress because I wouldn't be dealing with deadlines, finding markets, etc. to the degree that I would when writing novels. Eight years later, I can tell you I was so naïve!

Writing fiction has proven to be a greater commitment than magazine writing ever was. Now, I have to keep a regular writing schedule on my novel, work on the pitch materials for conferences or queries to agents and publishers, edit books that are already written and work with editors for those accepted, and make promotional materials for those already published. Add to that book tours, signings, conferences, chatting up bookstores and readers and all the other publicity stuff you do to draw attention to your work in this flooded market, and it's a 40-hour job.

The worst of it for me is that now that I've given myself over to my muse, the ideas won't stop! I have written two and a half books this year and am starting a fourth while I wait on critical information I need for the third (even with fiction, I still need sources!). I'm working on collaboration with my very patient friend, and have another that I need to revise. Nonetheless, my brain is processing three more novels, my computer holds the notes for a couple more on top of that, and in addition to that are others that are ideas or suggestions, but are not much more than a "I'd like to write…" I'd like to clone myself now, please!

The upside is, I adore what I do. I am excited every morning for what my imagination will bring. Even when I'm overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have to do, each task brings its own energy--and getting them done is always satisfying. I often have to remind myself to prioritize and relax, but there's nothing better for your health than loving your job. And for me, writing novels is the best job in the world.

And this is how Karina entertains herself all day:

By the 2040s, the shambling dead have become and international problem. While governments and special interest groups vie for the most environmentally-friendly way to rid the world of zombies, a new breed of exterminator has risen: The Zombie Exterminator. When zombie exterminator Neeta Lyffe gets sued because a zombie she set afire stumbles onto a lawyer's back porch, she needs money, fast. So she agrees to train apprentice exterminators in a reality TV show that makes Survivor look like a game of tag. But that's nothing compared to having to deal with crazy directors, bickering contestants and paparazzi. Can she keep her ratings up, her bills paid and her apprentices alive and still keep her sanity?

Here's an excerpt:

The workout room had a weights set and an elliptical in one corner, but Neeta ignored them. She needed more vigorous exercise than that if she wanted to burn off her emotional funk.

None of the plebes had done the routine she'd just set for herself. It didn't really reflect the reality of zombie movements, either. Although the crew had designed the targets to look much like actual undead, they moved too quickly, changed direction too suddenly, lunged and retreated in ways zombies couldn't imitate. They zigged and zaggged, dropped from the ceiling to zoom back up, flung themselves from the ground to trip the unwary. For once, this wasn't about training.

Neeta steeled herself, found an opening and dove in with a roar. She swung high, tagging the first zombie with the edge of her blade just as it got within her reach.

This was about reflexes,

She jumped over the arm that sprung up in front of her, doing the splits as she brought down her chainsaw to slice the hand off at the wrist.

…about burning aggression,

She spun a full circle, moving the saw in a sine wave. She took one target out at the knees, sliced another sideways across the chest, beheaded a third.

…about moving beyond thought and planning and negotiations with writers and directors and people who cared more for ratings than lives,

She lunged, spun, kicked and swung, her battle cries a perfect accompaniment to the pounding music.

A buzzer sounded, and the lights brightened and steadied. The targets stopped their frenetic motions and presented themselves for her to examine. She dropped the saw where she stood and braced her hands against her knees to catch her breath. Her arms felt like lead. A good feeling. She moved among the grimacing targets, noting the strikes that would have severed limbs, the ones that would have beheaded... When she came to the long-haired one with the pot belly, she gave a feral grin.

She's landed the blade in perfect position to slice Dave's manic smile right off his face.

From zombie exterminators to dragon detectives to nuns in space, Karina Fabian's universes make readers laugh, cry and think. Winner of the 2007 EPPIE Award for best sci-fi and the 2010 INDIE Award for best fantasy, she lets her characters take her where they will and is never disappointed. Karina Fabian is married to Colonel Robert Fabian. They and their four kids call home wherever the Air Force sends them. Learn more at

Friday, October 21, 2011

Horses in Fiction: We Love Our Warhorses, Yes We Do!

Let's face it. Fiction and Hollywood love a warhorse. That big (preferably black or snowy white) beast, champing and shaking his head so fearsomely, tossing his mane in wild allure like Justin Bieber on crack.... Oh, yeah. We all want one of those.

Except...except those are mostly a figment of Hollywood's imagination, and hence, many writers'. The massive, 17-hand destrier never existed. "Great horses" were a little bigger, a little stouter, than the average beast ridden by the lowly man-at-arms. Even as late as the 16th century, King Henry VIII found the state of horse breeding aimed at producing very large horses in England dismal enough that he actually issued a decree that all horses under 14.2 hands should be destroyed. Fortunately, it was widely disobeyed, or we would not have Shetlands and Welsh ponies and a good many other native UK breeds.

What is true is that horses, especially those large enough to create an intimidating war platform, have always been cherished by the warrior, from the Scythians on the steppes right through to the 1940s when the last cavalry units in major armies saw action. You will still find irregular cavalry going into action in some places of the world even today. The horse gives a tremendous advantage in weight and speed over even a determined mass of charging infantry, and one-on-one the guy on the ground better have lots of nerve and be really good with his weapons to score on the horseman. The archer and crossbowman have it all over the poor guy with just a sword, but the pikeman can defend himself so long as he is not outnumbered. As noted previously, horses are not keen on impaling themselves.

Horses of all types were cherished because they were expensive, and the warhorse even more so. English armies were careful to note every single animal shipped on campaign by size, color, and sex so that the owner could be properly compensated if it got killed. The average horse ridden by the man-at-arms was well broken to saddle and responsive to the rider but was not a destrier, a knight's mount. This beast's training was lengthy and specialized, so the knight who lost in the tournament took a huge hit by having to hand over his horse and armor to the winner. He knew this horse. The horse knew him. They were a team. It had been trained to fight, to ram another horse, to savage a man on foot. Its temper might not be sweet but its rider loved it anyway. From the way that medieval epics tend to associate named horses with heroes, we know that a) the nag was appreciated, b) was considered an integral part of the warrior's persona, and c) was usually a character in its own right, with attributes and qualities that gave it some advantage and made its rider genuinely mourn its loss.

As with all horse/rider relationships, the warhorse served best when he had learned to trust his rider, so why is it the Bad Guy is always portrayed as a brute? Yes, he can force his animal with whip and very nasty spurs into the thick of the fight against its will, but the willing horse will charge in there with him and fight for him on its own, leaving him free to concentrate on the real enemy. Smart Evil Overlords understand that trained horses don't fall off trees and that his chances of survival are much, much better if he doesn't alienate the beast he's on. Trust me, even the most cowed beast will find a way to dump you at an inopportune time if he is frightened and/or miserable enough.

Cherishing the horse for its value does not mean it was coddled, historically. However, as early as Xenophon 2400 years ago, military men appreciated the need for taking decent care of their equines. As horses grew more common and more military tactics depended upon their use, their care and feeding became highly codified. BUT - they were still expendable. This is one thing that many, many writers get wrong. The hero always rides the same horse through the entire epic, charging at high speed cross-country, or plodding relentlessly on for weeks and weeks. Or, the cavalry makes some epic journey...and never loses a nag. Never do they have a horse break a leg, founder, colic, develop saddle sores or even throw a shoe. Clearly, these writers have never heard the term "remount" nor given a single thought to the logistics of keeping a large group of large animals fed, watered, healthy, and sound.

In reality, the military went through horses like three-year-olds through candy. It is dreadful to think of entire transport ships full of helpless horses lost at sea, of countless millions of horses sacrificed like the mounts of the Light Brigade that charged into the valley of death and died with their riders. Mules and draft horses were conscripted and died in equal or greater numbers; artillery horses had especially short lives. But the men who rode and drove them loved them nonetheless, despite their often casual attitude toward life in general. The cavalry horse made a mounted warrior special; it gave him advantage; it saved his life on many occasions. It gave its all, and it was not unappreciated, or the mystique would never have survived for thousands of years to populate our literature.

Be careful with your warhorses, but remember they had a purpose, grim and focused. And, oh yeah, most of them were short, shaggy, and surly. Forget Shadowfax if you want to be realistic. Lovely beasts undoubtedly were sought after and highly prized, but much less common than the rest. Prince Charming and the Evil Overlord might ride one, but the troops - heh, they rode what the lord could afford.

'Til next time.


Check out my novel Firedancer if you are looking for fantasy fiction with a whole different perspective.

All pictures and text on this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

New website coming!

Heh, heh, heh. Note the new background of this blog! It's a sneak peek at my new web site which I hope will be up very soon. The designer has been oh so patient and great to work with. I can't wait until it's all finished. Now, if I could just force Blogger to stop repeating it down the page...

Can you tell I write fantasy? :)

Just had to drop a note to ease the shock and let you know that, yes, you're still on the right blog. We return to our regularly scheduled horse posts tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Horses in Fiction: Making Your Horse a Character

As promised, it's time to talk about how to really entwine your fictional horses into your story as genuine characters in their own right. This does not mean they need to talk, act human, or be anything but what they are--equine critters with their own instincts, needs, desires, and habits.

There has been a lively discussion over at Broad Universe of late, sparked by this blog, about taking fantasy horses into new territory such as making them carnivorous. That would really leave the realm of being an equine, so I am sticking here to real horses, or at least, to creatures that act like horses.

Real horse characters need to act "real." Imagine that. As much as we long to be able to talk to our beasts and have them talk to us (Damn it, where does your leg really hurt??), that's only going to happen in fantasy, and then you had better have a really good evolutionary pattern for giving your world a horse with such abilities. Or else, really really potent magic.

Every horse is an individual. Some are bold, some are timid, some aggressive, some curious. Depending on the situation, they can be all of the above. They are herd animals; they don't like being separated from other equines and will stand as close to the ones they can see as they can, even if those horses are two pastures over. They are not predators, but prey, and nature equipped them with speed to get away from danger. Thus they will jump and turn away from an unexpected threat, and often bolt in panic, or at least take two or three big jumps before the rider can regain control. This often puts said rider on the ground, entailing lots of plot mayhem.

Horses need to graze constantly by nature, so they are always thinking about food. They will poop on the fly but must stop to urinate. Their hides itch when shedding winter or summer hair or after you've unsaddled, so the first thing they want to do is roll. Sometimes they won't wait for you to get off. That bridle is itchy, man! They will rub on anything to relieve that itch, including their own front leg, a post, or you. I used to hold my hand out, palm flat, to Kalup (described below) and he would do the rest. A horse's head is mostly bone, and it's hard, so a persistent and ill-mannered nag can do damage in his single-minded quest for relief.

A horseman can tell a horse's mood instantly. Really. Horsey body language shows up most clearly in:
  • Ears: Forward is alert, back is trouble. One cocked forward means they're paying attention but not worried; both ears up can indicate eager attention (Where's the food, Mom?) or wary assessment on the way to departing at high speed. You will always see the lead horse in a group with his ears up while the rest shamble along half asleep. The one in the lead absolutely knows something around the next bend is likely to get him. He never stops paying attention. Beau here wanted very much to see what was in my hand, hoping for food, but wasn't sure it wouldn't eat him.
  • Eyes: Horses sleep standing up but with their eyes half-lidded or shut. This is relaxation. Of course, the white-rimmed eye-rolling is obvious fear or distress, and crusted eyes indicate illness, bad dust, or something in the eye. If they don't respond when you touch them they're either deeply asleep or ill.
  • Lips: Beware the curled upper lip of a horse in a rotten mood. Compressed lips mean he's nursing a bad day or a grudge, and when he's angry that lip literally curls in defiance. It's very sensitive to smell, so you will often see foals and stallions with their head up and their lip curled up, smelling other horses. And if you rub a horse's belly or scratch hard at his withers or neck, he will curl his lip out in vast pleasure.
  • Legs: A horse standing "hip-shot" resting a hind foot is very relaxed, bored, and likely asleep. If his hind legs are tucked far under his body, call the vet; he's hurting either in his back, his belly, or his hooves. If he's holding a front foot up, something hurts. The trick is finding out whether it's the hoof or the leg.
  • Stance: A horse that won't look at you is one that doesn't trust you or doesn't want to work. If he turns his hindquarters to you, he really doesn't want to be bothered. Watch out.
  • Tail: A whipping tail is evidence of a horse under duress. It reflects his every mood, from lazy switching at flies to "wringing" his tail, an intense shivering reflecting his resistance to what he's being asked to do.
As with reading human body language, the writer can incorporate all of this onto the horses in the story to indicate one that is about to blow up, a friendly creature, or one in pain who must be taken care of before the group can get on with the day.

To illustrate how different horses can be, let me "show" you some horses I have personally known, loved, and occasionally sworn at with great feeling:
  • Vixen: The mare I grew up on was a full-blooded Saddlebred. I watched her being born and owned her until she died. She was sensitive and stubborn and oh-so-loyal. She put a foot through a wire fence and cut it badly, yet, when turned out to heal up, she hobbled in on my heels from the pasture when I walked out to catch another horse to ride. She was game for anything I asked her to do, but she was so excitable that she once ran me into a post and removed most of the skin on my upper arm for me. She would completely ignore me if I went out and sat in the corral (her half-sister Lightfoot, on the other hand, would come shove her head in my lap in sympathy if I was in tears at the moment). Yet when I went out to sketch her anatomy from life, Vixen came and stood over me. I have incredible close-ups of her front legs.
  • Kalup: Vixen's firstborn son. Oh. My. God. He is still a legend among everyone who knew him. This picture is him to the life (He's the one in the background behind the fence, fiddling with a string and unhappy because he's been blocked from where he wants to go. The mare is Vixen, the colt in the foreground Kalup's full brother.) He got up off the ground when he was born, got his wobbly legs under him, and immediately struck at my mother who was trying to take his picture. He wasn't frightened; he was showing her who was boss. An alpha male to the max, he did not even have to lay his ears back at other horses to have them kowtow to him on sight. It was the most amazing thing to watch loose horses charge up to challenge the newcomer, get to about 20 feet away, slam on the brakes, and slowly back away, acknowledging his vast superiority. He took poorly to discipline but absolutely loved trashing everything in sight. He was a fiddler, which means he knew how to untie himself, open gates, and loved open doors. Nothing was sacred to him, and he was fearlessly competitive. A mountain horse, I taught him to jump and evented him, but he would never jump into water with elan, because he knew from long experience there would be big nasty rocks under the surface. Geez, he was a pain, but oh, man, he was a great horse.
  • Beau: Another Saddlebred (yes, my favorite breed). He stood 16.3 at the withers, taller than I am, so people always asked how I was going to get on him. Fortunately, I'm really limber and just stepped up. Also fortunately, he had wonderful manners and just stood there. He was gorgeous and gentle but had lots of life, loved kids and would go anywhere you asked him to go. He would stand with perfect patience while wee ones wandered between his legs, but get between him and his food and he got quite pushy. When he got hungry enough, he would calmly dismantle the fence and head for the hay pile. And unlike Mr. I Am God Kalup, Beau instantly made friends with every horse in sight. They never laid their ears back at him; he would reach over (or down) and nibble on their mane, and I never saw even a crabby one object to him. Horses read body language very, very well, both yours and that of other equines.
  • Gypsy: My sister's horse when were kids was a 14.3 grade (no particular breed) mare with one interesting quirk: she hated cows. That was a born cowhorse. All my sister had to do was point her at our cows and Gypsy would lay her ears back and instantly give chase, expertly cutting them out on her own.
  • Nellie: My Thoroughbred mare is a sweet and gentle creature--on the ground. She spent years in a brood mare pasture before I bought her, among 100 other mares, so she had never been alone. She was and is the most herdbound creature I've ever owned, though vastly better than when I bought her. She panics if left alone, and the first two days in my corral she pined so intensely for her old owner I wanted to cry. She would perk up when I walked out to pet her, see who it was, and instantly droop and look away. I am "hers" now, and she's happy again, but wow. Being sold is a traumatic experience even for a horse if they have been long in a certain place, with familiar people.
Once again, I could run on for days, but hopefully this gives a little foundation for fleshing out your horsey "characters" without making them human. They're not, and they're always going to act like horses, even if they can talk. It's instinct, and you can't take that out and still have a horse.

Until next time!

Do check out my novel Firedancer if you get the chance.

All content and pictures on this site copyright 2011 S. A. Bolich. Please use by permission only.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Horses in Fiction: How Far Can I Travel?

The response to last week's post was so excellent that I've decided to continue with the series on horses in fiction and how to make them more authentic even if you are not blessed with a horse out your back door to study.

A question I hear a lot is "How far can a horse travel in a day?" Oh, my, do you want the dissertation or the short answer? Since this is a blog, here is a short list of questions to ask yourself about your characters and their horses in trying to decide how fast your group can really travel:
  • How large is the group?
    The larger the group, the greater the logistical problems and the slower you are likely to travel over sustained distances. The abilities of the horses will vary, and the slowest horse sets the pace, or dies trying to keep up.
  • How fit are the horses?
    You CANNOT let a horse stand for weeks and months and then leap on him and ride away into the sunset (or even 20 miles) without risking serious consequences to the poor beast. His back muscles need to be conditioned, his wind needs to be built up, and generally all the rules of conditioning human athletes apply to him. Well-conditioned animals, like well-conditioned humans, can go farther and likely faster, but of course they cannot sustain it indefinitely without rest even when perfectly fit.
  • How fit are the riders?
    Hoo, boy, this one's fun. Even fit riders will feel a long day in the saddle. Fitness, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean conditioned to ride, however, but also how well they ride. A fit rider who doesn't know how to help his horse, or who slumps in the saddle like a sack of grain, will create a sore-backed animal or possibly contribute to a disaster on the trail that might not have happened if he'd had a clue about riding.
  • How well trained are the horses?
    Are your horses "trail broke" or stable-pampered dandies? Do you have any "green" horses just barely broken to ride? Are you likely to incur bucking, balking, panic, or bolting at every slightly weird situation you encounter? This does not have to be fairy tale monsters; this can be a cow ambling out of nowhere or a small creek running across the road. Good trail horses don't just happen; they result from many, many miles in many different circumstances. The rider can try beating his horse over the obstacle. He may even win. Until the horse gets tired of it, pitches him, and leaves him stranded. I do recall vividly approaching the last jump of a cross-country course and having my horse suddenly start to panic at sight of a herd of distant cows he could see on the other side. His very first cows, and it had to be right there...
  • What is the availability of grass and water?
    No, it is not logistically possible to carry enough feed with you to sustain a group of horses, or even a lone mount, for more than a few days. The pack animals have to eat, too, leading straight to the law of diminishing returns. Grain is dead weight, and you can't carry enough to sustain an animal that eats 10 pounds of it a day. Plus, grain alone does not give the horse what it needs from a dietary standpoint. He is a grazing animal, accustomed to eating often and consuming lots of roughage, plus he drinks 10 gallons a day on average, more when it's very cold or very hot. Your travelers must take time out to graze their animals. They will get full after an hour on good grass, up to 2 or more if the feed value is low, so there's 2-4 hours of traveling time shot right there, because at a minimum you need to allow them to graze twice a day. Leaving them loose all night risks waking up to find the whole bunch departed for more interesting places come morning. It is well to keep one tied or picketed. Use it to look for the rest.
  • What is the terrain like?
    You can travel much faster on flat, grassy ground than over steep hills, rocks, and through mud. In the mountains, 20 miles is a loooong day. On the flat, you can average perhaps 30 if the horses are really fit, but you can't keep that up indefinitely on the same horse. If the trail looks like this one (Cascade Mountains), you are going to be moving a whole lot slower. It took us all day to go 7 miles on this trail, between the rocks and the deadfalls.
  • What is the weather?
    Snow, mud and rain all made the generally poor roads of history even worse. A horse cannot slog through snow up to his knees without wearing out really fast, and slipping and straining through mud is a killer. Ice risks the horse's legs. Hot sun means dehydration. Horses can go a couple of days without water but you're not going to get far, especially if you're asking for an all-out sustained effort.
  • How much weight is the horse carrying?
    The rider, the saddle, all his junk, and where it's positioned on the horse's back all make a big difference to the rate of travel. Even a light rider has to factor in his food, water, whatever's in his saddlebags, his blankets, pots, weapons, clothes.... You get the picture. The horse has to carry all that, in front of or behind the saddle or draped over the rider. Some will be dead weight.
  • How fast does he need to get where he's going?
    The Pony Express covered 2,000 miles in 10 days, changing horses every few miles and traveling very light. A letter could travel 250 miles a day over terrain without roads, but the system was in place to achieve that. Your rider cannot ride a single horse that far in a day, or even a significant fraction of it, at a gallop (and he's going to be very sore himself if he travels that whole distance, in a day or two, at a dead run). By varying the gait between walk and fast trot you can cover a lot of ground, but once again, it is not a sustainable effort over the long term.
  • Do you have wagons?
    Your rate of travel just dropped from 30 miles a day to 15 or so, unless the roads are very good and the weather is fine. Coaches changed teams pretty often to sustain any decent mileage per day. A merchant trundling his goods from market to market likely only had a couple of horses and had to use them carefully, which meant a plodding pace that slowed to a turtle's crawl in mud. Pioneer wagon trains averaged 10 miles a day. Long baggage trains for armies managed about the same.
Our ancestors (those accustomed to traveling by horseback) were, in general, much fitter and rode animals accustomed to long days under saddle. They were still constrained by the limitations of the animal and the availability of replacements, so factor that into your fictional journeying. Err on the slow side if you don't want your knowledgeable audience hooting and rolling their eyes at your impossible distances traveled, with horses that never break a sweat and riders that never look frazzled, or smell of horse sweat, or need to stop and pee.

'Til next time!


Check out Firedancer, my quite un-horsey first novel!

All contents (text and pictures) of this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Horses in Fiction--What Writers Get Wrong

Where to start with this topic? As someone who grew up with horses (yes, that's me in the saddle, oh so long ago), horses have been a continuing part of my life and generally figure prominently in my fantasy fiction. I have done everything from teaching a horse to joust to packing into the wilderness for days at a time to 3-day eventing and dressage. I rode in a mounted drill team as a teenager, performing at rodeos and parades, and did 4-H and playdays and horse shows and everything in between. I rode bareback until I was big enough to hoist a saddle up onto my 16-hand mare. As an adult I was a DC and regional vice supervisor for the United States Pony Clubs, took up jumping, and still own 2 Thoroughbreds. I tell you this to establish the fact that I have indeed been there and done that when it comes to riding, horsemanship, and stable management and horse care. And why am I doing that? Because so much fantasy is set in pseudo-medieval worlds where horses are used--and because so many times the writer has clearly never touched a live horse and has no clue how to write them with any authenticity.

I have begun suggesting horse-related panels at conventions of late and I've been delighted to see several take me up on it. There are a lot of fantasy writers who do know their stuff when it comes to equines, like Patricia Briggs and Sara Mueller and C.J. Cherryh. Unfortunately, I see egregious Hollywood stereotypes creep into fantasy fiction all the time. Here are some of the worst:
  • The horse is a machine. It never requires feed, water, or unsaddling. It can go forever without rest, leap from the stable at a dead run and never strain anything, and its back will never, ever be sore from packing a couple of hundred pounds of rider, armor, and gear all day. Check.
  • The rider is never sore (Cherryh, notably, gets this one right in her Foreigner series). You think you can jump on a horse and ride for miles without being abysmally sore and literally chafed raw in sensitive spots? Think again. The wrong clothes (too thin, too loose) can rub painful sores on legs and derrier, your knees will scream, and your thighs will be ungodly sore from stretching muscles in directions they don't normally stretch. The broader the barrel of the horse you're riding, the worse it is. Give me a lean-built nag any day.
  • The group rides from sunup to sunset, ties the horses to trees, and goes to sleep. Oh, please. The horses need to be turned out to graze or picketed for a couple of hours at least, morning and evening, because in most fiction the rider never carries any rations for the poor beast he's riding. Even if he carries grain, that is dead weight and he can't carry much of it. So if he's depending on grain alone to keep his horse going, he's going to be walking in a few days. You camp before dark, in a place with feed, and you keep close guard on your beasts so they don't wander off and leave you stranded.
  • The horse will go anywhere it's pointed. I cringe whenever I watch Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers" because of the dramatic scene toward the end when Gandalf leaps Shadowfax into the teeth of orc spears. Horses are somewhat dim-witted but not entirely suicidal. Those pointy things in their face? Huh-uh, boss, not me, I ain't impaling myself on those. There is a perfectly valid reason why infantry formed square in the days of cavalry and pointed bayonets at the charging beasts. Very few infantry squares were ever broken, and it wasn't by a horse leaping bravely onto the bayonets, because few horses will ever trust a rider to that extent. Nor would most cavalrymen who wanted to live waste their mounts like that.
  • The horse is always obedient. I have to laugh whenever a fiction writer rides his horse into danger and it never flinches or shies. Well-trained animals will indeed brave things that their wild counterparts will not, including charging into the teeth of cannon. However, a good deal of that comes from herd instinct, and if the whole mob charges they will mainly stay together. One can never discount the unexpected, as you are riding a live creature with a brain and survival instincts of its own. Ergo, the unexpected appearance of a predator on the trail, a bird bursting from a bush, or even someone flapping a hand in the face of an equine half asleep while plodding down the trail can evoke unexpected and deadly problems. Imagine what will happen on this trail if the horse goes gaga (and this is actually a very good trail). Also note that the lead horse has already stepped through his reins while his rider got off to take the picture. Add bear. Watch the mayhem. Writers severely under-utilize the potential of the horse as plot device.
I could go on and on and on, and likely will in future posts. I am thinking of shifting the focus of this blog to talk about the perils and potentials of horses as characters and props in fiction. Anyone want to weigh in on whether this is a good focus?

Wouldn't you know, my first published novel, Firedancer hasn't a horse in sight? Check it out anyway if you're curious about my writing. Until next time!

All contents (text and pictures) of this blog copyright S. A. Bolich. Use by permission only.