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.


Trisha Wooldridge said...

Right on target, as always, Sue! :)

The really big horses, like Shires and Clydesdales, were actually bred for farmwork, not battle, too. Freisians were created as warhorses, but up until the past few years, their standard has been no more than 15.2 or 15.3 in height (slightly above average height). The massive Warmbloods and Thorougbreds we have competing now are relatively modern breeding results.

Arabians, oft' cited as "the world's most beautiful horse", are also often the most valuable. They were war horses, and it's still looked down on if they get much taller than 15.3 hands tall with toned muscle as opposed to bulk. (Freisian's do have some body-builder in their physique.) The Nez Perce, who were key in creating the Appaloosa breed, preferred them small and slender (with sparse mane and tail, too-no luxurious locks to get caught in prairie grass and brambles--something I much appreciate in my horse who is Queen of the Burdock and requires about quarter to half an hour to get burrs from her mane & tail).

It's also good to remember that _humans_ were not as tall in medieval or Victorian times as they are now, either. So, a horse that was even 15 hands would be big by those standards.

Another fun fact, during the Civil War, there were more equine dentists and doctors on record than human medics. That's how important the mounts of the mounted cavalry were.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Trisha,

Yes, the average guy in medieval times stood my height: 5'6". Look at old Roman friezes and you see the (stirrupless) rider with his feet hanging around the horse's knees. So not only was the rider shorter, but the horses were too. And indeed, the draft breeds had nothing to do with being warhorses. They're ponderous and slow, despite the weight value they might have in a charge, it would be just too slow. They were made to pull, not to run.