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).

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