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.
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!
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