Friday, February 24, 2012

Horses in Fiction: No Hoof No Horse

Radcon was fun but left me with a serious case of con crud (rumor hath it that it was a norovirus. You fill in the details.) which has left me hors de combat this week. But, since the farrier was out yesterday, I had to drag myself out to hold horses for him anyway, which naturally put me on the topic of hooves.

While this is, of course, an unprovable assertion, I would guess that more horses have been lost to service from hoof ailments throughout history than any other cause. Xenophon wrote the first definitive tome on the horse 2400 years ago, which is kindly available from Project Gutenberg. Some of his advice is as cogent now as it was then. Seriously: no hoof, no horse, a Pony Club creed even today.

Indeed. Does anyone besides me cringe whenever I watch old Westerns where the horses are running flat out over some rocky hillside with the hero shooting back over his shoulder (never mind that he's never going to hit anything like that)? The potentials for broken legs, bowed tendons, and hoof damage never seem to occur to people unfamiliar with horses. Once again, the uninformed "horse as machine" mindset rears its ugly head and assumes that horses can do anything the rider wants them to do and just keep going like the Energizer bunny.

You can lose a horse to hoof ailments from:
  • Hard ground
  • Wet ground
  • Too-rich food
  • Enforced standing
  • Unsanitary stalls and stabling
  • Too much tannin in the shavings
  • Mud
  • Poor shoeing
  • Nails and other foreign objects
  • Disease
And any number of other things. I've had horses pick up nails, rocks, and roofing screws. I've had one founder (more on that below). I've had quarter cracks from pastures that were too wet and horrendous chips from ground that was too hard. Last summer Pilot had a quarter crack (a vertical split that usually, but not always, occurs about a quarter of the way around the hoof) straight up the front that began growing hoof over it instead of new growth from above. This forced the whole hoof together so tight inside the shoe he went lame until the vet pulled it. He widened the crack significantly to allow growth and Pilot was fine. It's still growing out, by the way.)

Really rocky terrain is especially tough on horses because, being by evolution creatures of the steppes, their hooves are just not constructed to cling to hard surfaces like stone. The problem is compounded by the very shoes put on to save their feet from rocks. Metal horseshoes can be very slippery, and as noted in a previous post, they can compact snow against the hoof until it is nearly impossible for the horse to get traction. Medieval smiths used to leave the heads of the nails protruding a bit for traction (hence the term "riding roughshod"), which did nasty damage to enemies on the ground, and presumably, to other horses and even the poor beast wearing them, as horses can overstep and strike themselves with the rear hooves.

Losing a shoe means losing time, because letting your horse hobble on three can produce lameness on anything but soft ground. Ergo, your traveling party may look this like at some point, presuming the party actually wants to stick together and isn't being chased by bad guys. (Yes, my dad could nail a shoe on anywhere.)

Horseshoes as we know them (the nailed-on kind) were not invented at all until around 500-600 AD, so slapping shoes on your Roman or Greek nags is not going to cut it historically. Many horse cultures had some sort of leather strap-on boot, but those last about as well as you would expect, rawhide somewhat better. There are about a hundred ways you can shoe a horse to correct a problem, and a dozen more that will lame him temporarily or permanently. A lousy farrier can cripple a horse unintentionally and a good one on purpose if he really doesn't like the rider and doesn't care about the horse.

It takes an hour or less for a good, industrious farrier to put all four shoes on a horse if he is not actually creating the shoes from scratch on the forge. Like people's feet, horses' hooves fall roughly into standard sizes and modern horseshoes are mass manufactured and sold that way. The horseshoer/blacksmith/farrier/marshal (yes, marshal was originally a term for a guy who put shoes on horses) then hammers the thing around the anvil until it fits the actual shape of the hoof. Hot shoeing means he heats it first, slaps the hot shoe to the hoof (emitting a truly acrid stink and smoke) to see if it's flat and truly shaped, and then cools it off and nails it on. All this is preceded by a session with nippers and a file to trim off the excess growth, rough-shape the hoof, and file it flat so the horse does not end up walking unevenly on that bar of iron. Filing and trimming also keep the hoof at the proper angle to the coffin bone.

The coffin bone is critically important to hoof health. It is a needle-shaped thing pointing toward the toe at about the same angle as the front of the hoof slopes. When a horse "founders" (develops laminitis) from eating too rich food or hard use or illness, rush of blood into the liminae of the hoof often forces the coffin bone to turn downward toward a sole that has become too flat from internal pressure. This is agonizing for the horse, like walking with a knife jammed into his foot. Many times the horse has to be put down because the damage is too great and the likely return too little (Secretariat, Barbaro). Even if the very long healing time (a year or more to regrow a normal hoof) results in an actual sound horse, the poor beast is now susceptible to laminitis and may never stand up to hard conditions again.

Horses in constant use on tough campaigns on hard ground are far more likely to break down with hoof problems, and keeping enough horseshoes on hand was an issue for any cavalry element. True horsemen start a grooming session at the ground, checking the hoof first to see if there is anything in it that will preclude the ride. Even a small pebble can be a huge irritant when it gets stuck between the fleshy, arrowhead-shaped frog and the sole of the hoof, or gets caught under the shoe. Letting the poor animal hobble along like that for hours (say, in a pack string), is pretty much a guarantee the beast will be lame in the morning. Even if caught early, hooves can be bruised by stones and be sore, and form abscesses inside that take weeks or months to grow out. Sometimes the farrier or the vet gets to dig for them to relieve the pressure, like lancing a boil. Most times you won't know it's there until the horse goes lame, weeks after the injury. Then you get to spend a jolly half hour trying to figure out where he's sore.

Okay, that's the crash course in the two thousand things that can go wrong with your horse at ground level and keep your hero from getting where he's supposed to go on time. Be aware that all those exciting old Western movies were filmed in handy California and Arizona, which is not only why many people assume all the action in the Old West occurred in the desert, but why they assume everyone can ride like the Lone Ranger and nothing will ever happen to Silver. One presumes your heroes will be riding through more varied terrain, but mud can be as much your horse's enemy as those rocky hills.

Oh, by the way, here's a factoid that will really make you sound like an in-the-know horsey author: every dog ever born, even if it never laid eyes on a horse before, thinks horse hoof trimmings are candy. They will dash in under the farrier to snatch them and go away to contentedly chew and slobber. All I can say is...yuck.

Until next time!

Did I mention that Firedancer is now out in paperback? Woohoo! Check it out if you've a mind. And Windrider will be out this spring. Yeehah!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Firedancer is Free Today!

Today only, my publisher is dropping the price of the Kindle edition of Firedancer to zero, nada, absolutely free! Today is the day to go download it and check out this offbeat love story between masters of Wind and Fire, two people as incompatible as the living fire and clever wind they battle to keep their people safe.

Come check out a world that is not your average fantasy setting, where fire thinks and hates and wants very badly to be out in the open air, venting its rage against the Firedancers who keep it from sweeping the world clean. Today only... free.

The price goes back to $2.99 at midnight, so get it today while it is $0!

Go straight to Amazon and check out Firedancer--free!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Radcon Bound

I will be at Radcon in Pasco, Washington this coming weekend (February 17-19), sitting on several panels, doing readings from Firedancer and other published work, and watching my publisher blush (she's the publisher guest of honor this year). Come on along and get a sneak preview of Windrider, the second book in the Masters of the Elements trilogy!

My schedule at Radcon currently looks like this:

Friday, Feb 17: Panel 4:00-5:00, "Core Editing Skills" with Ben Bova, Patrick Swensen and Deby Fredricks (Sage Room)

Sat, Feb 18: Beneath Ceaseless Skies reading, 10:00-11:00, Reading Hall

Sat, Feb 18: 11-1, Lunch as a Book Signing, Silver Front

Sat, Feb 18, Panel 2:00-3:00, "World-Building" with Jaleta Clegg, John McDonald, and Christine Morgan

Sun, Feb 19, Panel 9:00-10:00, "The Rewriting of History" with Anna Snyder, Michael Ehart, Kara Helgren, and the incomparable Cthulhu Bob.

I will also be hanging out in the small press room and wandering the halls looking dazed, I imagine. Track me down. I'm happy to stand and chat!

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Guest Today: Coral Russell

I am pleased to welcome writer Coral Russell to Words from Thin Air today. Coral is a versatile writer who won the 2003 McCaleb Peace Initiative, which produced the non-fiction articles Peace on the Peninsula, about South Korea's view on reunification. You can also find various articles written by her on Technorati and BlogCritics. After winning a fiction writing contest (a fluke), she caught the fiction bug. An encounter with something paranormal on a local ghost tour inspired her to start writing her ghost hunter series.

And she has her own personal ghost story to share! Read on...

I have had strange experiences in my life that have led me to believe that there is 'something' beyond this life. One of the most memorable experiences was with my husband. We bought a one hundred year old house. It was 2400 square feet. The upstairs and downstairs consisted of a wide room at least thirty feet long with two ceiling fans. The foyer of the house was done in oak and had three flights of stairs. My husband worked during the day and I worked part-time at night and would get home about 11 p.m.

Our house was on the corner and for weeks now I had driven up to a house ablaze with light. My husband had turned every single light in the house on and there were many windows, so you could see it from a couple of blocks away. I begged him to think of the electricity and please turn off the lights. Surely he didn't need every light in the house on when it got dark.

He mumbled something or other and I still came home to find the house all lit up. It was welcoming, but I dreaded receiving the electric bill.

One night we were watching TV downstairs. The TV was in front of a big picture window at one end of the big room downstairs. We had a loveseat in front of the TV and to our left was the foyer. I'm not sure when we became aware of footsteps overhead, but they were at least twenty to twenty-five feet behind where we were sitting. My husband and I both turned and looked up. The footsteps were walking straight down the middle of the room and the ceiling fan directly behind us shook a little as they passed.

Then the footsteps proceeded down the stairs. The staircase was old and every step creaked loudly. As the footsteps continued down the three flights of stairs, my husband and I leaned forward and looked into the foyer fully expecting to see a person enter the foyer. The footsteps stopped. Only there was no one there.

For the first time my husband and I looked at each other. We had been speechless this entire time. Then my husband jumped up, turned to me and said, “See, that's the same #$%* that's been going on every night in this house!”

I never asked him to turn off the lights again.

Her titles include Peace on the Peninsula, Twelve Worlds, Playing with Fire, The DIY Guide to Social Media Marketing and eBook Publishing, and Amador Lockdown:
Something has moved into the Amador Hotel. Hector, Marcos, Bev, and Tony of the Paranormal Posse are called in to either debunk the haunting or get rid of whatever is causing the problems. With the surprise arrival of Hector's son, he tries to keep his professional and personal lives separate, but whatever is haunting the Amador Hotel has other plans.
You can join Coral's mailing list to find out about new releases and updates, and view the trailer for this spooky novel on YouTube.

Ms. Russell also runs the blog alchemyofscrawl at Stop by for the latest in Indie book reviews, news, and resources. You can stalk her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Google+.