Thursday, March 22, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Vernal Horse

Oh, horses in springtime! Hair, hair, and more hair, all over your clothes, in your face, on the ground in gobs, wrapped around your tack...

Can you tell my horses are shedding, despite the 5 inches of new snow today and the 3 inches Tuesday? The calendar says spring, and the air holds just enough hint of warmth to induce their winter coats to give it up.

Spring is not a fun season with horses. Perils of spring among the barnyard set include:
  • Mud
  • Horse hair
  • Boggy roads/trails/arenas
  • More mud
  • Filthy tack
  • Filthy riders
  • Mud rot
  • Over-energetic horses
  • Over-enthusiastic riders
  • More hair
Spring is, of course, the season of mud, at least where I come from. There is an interminable wait for the snow to go off and the outdoor arena to dry up enough you don't end up with strained muscles and pulled tendons on the muddy slip-n-slide that can develop in any arena, even one with decent footing. That would also apply to pre-20th century roads. A lot of horses stomping down a muddy byway can churn it to impassibility. Add wagons and you end up with Burnside's famous "Mud March" during the Civil War, wherein the roads were so awful that horses and mules dropped dead trying to drag loads through it. Your intrepid travelers may not get far with all their worldly goods in a rainy season or wet climate.

This, of course, leads to impatience, both in the horses stuck pussyfooting around in the pasture and the rider desperately wanting to get on and go somewhere. Anywhere. Around here, there is so much snow all winter that riding is difficult, and my arena is situated such that it has lovely shade in the summer and takes forever to melt off in the spring. Being stuck in the barn leaves both you and your horse staring longingly over the fence hoping the snow in the woods has sunk enough to make even a short stretch of the legs possible.

That first ride in the springtime can be a thrill the rider should plan for. This applies to any situation where the horse has been cooped up for days or weeks awaiting a break in the weather or the rider to pay attention to him. My old Thoroughbred Gallow was a fright to ride for the first three days every spring, then a perfect gentleman thereafter. I tried to time it so there was enough snow left on the ground to take the edge off his enthusiasm if he got too cocky. He and my current Thoroughbred Pilot share the same desire to simply run and run and run that first ride, stretching out the kinks. Of course, neither horse nor rider is usually in shape for this after a long layoff. There are far too many riders who suppose the horse is indestructible, and ride 20 miles that first day. The rider is usually too stiff to walk the next day (serves him right) and the horse may end up seriously injured. Imagine how your back would feel after packing a couple of hundred pounds of rider and tack 20 miles after a three or four month lay-off.

Horses that are not blanketed and stabled in a nice climate-controlled stall all winter grow hair. Lots of it. From September on they are building their winter coats, and come late February or March off it comes, a few hairs at first, then in gobs. You can swipe your hand down their necks or backs and come away with it coated in hair that sticks like glue. Grooming a tall horse in the spring is interesting. My 16.3 hand Saddlebred Beau was exactly as tall as I am at the withers, which meant his long Saddlebred neck and beautiful head were much higher than mine. I could not see over his back, so I got a nice facefull of hair any time I wasn't standing on something to groom him. If the wind blows while you're grooming, it's twice the fun. You'll be spitting out hair and rubbing your eyes for an hour afterward if your barn is at all drafty.

This, of course, can make for an amusing scene wherein your fastidious heroine or fussy hero ends up looking like a Thelwell pony. It really does not matter how thoroughly you brush your horse down before you get on; there will be more hair working off as you ride. The girth (cinch) usually ends up with a nice sweaty mat of it coating the underside that has to be scrubbed off. Since Western saddles generally use rope cinches, this is a more interesting process. Maddeningly, however, the horse sheds less after the ride when the hair is a bit matted and damp, and it can be very hard to groom out all the saddle marks with so much hair trying to curl in every direction but the right one. An evildoer would have a hard time claiming his horse had been in the barn all night if the pursuit was close behind him.

Loose hair itches, and that winter coat is hot, inducing Horsey to roll wherever he can find to lie down in an attempt to get rid of it. This makes him happy but leaves you with a "where do I start?" moment, standing there facing a thoroughly mud-caked beast with a brush and a sweat scraper. Let him dry off before you start; otherwise all you'll do is grind it in. Pale-colored horses are, of course, miserably hard to clean up, from green tails to mud-matted forelocks. (Did I mention that shifting a horse too abruptly from dry hay to grass in the spring does icky things to their digestion? The result is really soupy and green.)

Horses left to stand in muddy conditions can end up with serious hoof and skin problems. Mud rot is the non-technical but accurate name for a rather nasty condition wherein the hair on the horse's legs simply strips away and he can develop open sores. Thrush, a disease of the hoof, also occurs in poorly drained stabling. Your prospective horse buyer should pay close attention to the conditions in which the seller keeps his nags. (Buying horses is a whole 'nother blog post!) Any puncture wound can go undetected and end up badly infected if the rider is careless about stable management, or if there is simply never a dry spot where you can scrape all the mud off the poor beast.

Many horses that run happily through muddy pastures and runs will balk as though they had encountered the event horizon of a black hole upon encountering a puddle or a muddy spot on the trail. Honestly! It's two inches deep but to the horse it looks like the Laurentian Abyss. If the puddle stretches side-to-side of the road and there is no way around it, this can delay your whole group of travelers as the balky beast prances and dances and lathers himself to exhaustion trying to keep from getting his feet wet. Be aware that very often the horse resolves his dilemma with a prodigious leap over the obstacle instead of (horrors!) simply walking through like a good fella. The unprepared rider may get a close acquaintance with the puddle instead. Many an international-level three-day event rider gets an unexpected bath when trusty Horsey takes an aversion to the water obstacle.

No army of times past moved on a major campaign without available feed for the horses, which meant that the grass was up and growing, or they had raided every barn for miles around for last year's hay. And of course, in societies with a limited road structure that restricts the choice of routes, that spring greenery is going to be cropped short at every campsite and likely up and down the verges by travelers with hungry horses, until the latecomers are left to scrounge. In wilderness areas in late summer, finding grass enough for the horses is a real problem if there is a lot of traffic through the area. (Ain't it amazing, the stuff Hollywood leaves out?)

Like winter, spring presents a whole new set of possibilities for your fictional horse and rider, from travel delays to thoroughly chilled animals drenched in the pouring rain to the everyday misery of dirt, hair, filthy equipment, and lack of feed. Your shaggy, energetic creature is a plot development waiting to happen. Go for it!

Did you know that I also write science fiction and fantasy? Check out my website at to find links to my novel Firedancer and my other published work. And don't forget to watch for Windrider, the sequel to Firedancer, coming in May!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Group Ride

Contrary to the fact that millions of horses around the world are pastured alone or stabled in individual stalls and runs, horses are herd animals, herbivores that nature gave strong herd instincts to foster survival. You seldom see the results of this in fiction (although C. J. Cherryh's excellent Foreigner series with its herdbound mecheita is a great exception). However, let me tell ya what really happens when you put horses in groups.

The very well-broken horse can generally be ridden anywhere without fuss. Not all horses achieve this standard. In my experience, unless the rider is paying attention, you will get interesting displays even from the most staid animals. We almost always see well-behaved horses on the silver screen. The hero's beautiful beast never misbehaves, never takes a swipe at another horse, never kicks, never so much as farts (on camera). In real life, only equines who have already established the herd pecking order get along this well, and even then you will find threatening behavior from a higher order animal toward one that invades its space by design or accident. They will still fight over food, with the dominant horse driving off the rest and sometimes guarding the feeder even after its belly is full. These rotten beasts are a misery to have around and sometimes must be fed or stabled separately to keep peace in the barnyard. Individual stalls were invented to prevent exactly these problems.

Say that your heroes have come together at the start of a journey and are equipping themselves with horses. Or perhaps they already each have their own mount, but none of those beasts have ever seen each other before. The usual get-acquainted routine between two strange horses involves much sniffing of each's other breath face to face, followed by one or both laying back its ears, tossing its head with a squeal and sometimes striking at the other one. Let me tell you how much it hurts when that hard hoof hits you at the speed and with the force a horse can shove it out there. They can do real damage to knees and legs but somehow seldom do.

If one horse does not proceed to kowtow to the other, acknowledging a more dominant animal, the fight may escalate to a kicking match, wherein both whirl around and go to flailing with both hind feet. This is exciting and dangerous and anyone who wades into the middle of it to separate the battling beasts is asking to get hurt. It does make for an excellent plot distraction or a bit of cruelty from a nasty lord toward a subordinate. As a test of courage or a way to get someone deliberately hurt, it's very plausible. I once saw two mares back toward each for twenty yards down a fence line to commence hostilities in this fashion.

The one good thing about this is that it seldom lasts long. The squealing and ugly ears part may go on for a few hours or a day or two, especially if the beasts are separated by a fence where they can't get a really satisfactory shot at the other one. The kicking lasts a couple of minutes, ending with a clear loser, who will generally forever after take the subordinate role to the other. That does not, however, keep the loser from turning around and laying into the next guy down on the totem pole. In this way the herd order is established without question, and it is only disturbed when a strange horse shows up.

Oddly, the subordinate beast may pine for the other when they are separated. Herdbound means exactly what it sounds like. Horses can stick like glue and become exceedingly anxious when separated, to the point they will balk at leaving the barn, whirl and try to run home unexpectedly, or nicker continuously hoping for an answer from their lost stablemate. Patience and a firm hand overcome this, but it is a bit pathetic to watch. A nice, subtle detail to incorporate into your story background is the fading sound of a horse looking for its friend, or the quiet battle between a rider and his new horse as it tries to turn back.

Two strangers meeting in the road to chat and ask directions are very likely to find their horses taking exception to each other without warning. Even well-trained animals who have been chided for this still have instincts at work in their narrow little heads. Look at crabby Shadowfax in this shot from the Two Towers. I love watching him take swipes at the other horses as they come over the hill. They are in his space and he doesn't like it. I have only ever seen one horse beat this ritual and that was my wonderful Saddlebred Beau, who never, ever was challenged even by dominate horses. He just walked up and thoughtfully began nibbling their manes, and that was that. Quite weird. Of course, it might have helped that he was generally much taller than they were...

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kalup, another Saddlebred of mine, who was a pure original and an Alpha male of the first caliber. All he had to do was walk into a strange place and every other beast in the place practically got down on its knees to him. People used to marvel at it. He never even looked at the others. His body language spoke quite plainly: Don't mess with me. I am God. This urge to dominate, however, also made him no fun to ride in groups, because he always wanted to be in front. When forced to be back in the pack he pulled hard and fought the rein every step of the way, pranced and danced and swung his hindquarters around trying to make space for himself, and generally made himself a general pain in the patoot.

In any group of horses going down the road, you will invariably have:
  • The grazer, the one trying to snatch a bite of grass at every opportunity
  • The gawker, the one that will NOT pay attention to where it's walking, being far more concerned about the birds, the bees, the other horses, the wind...
  • The creeper, the one who just cannot be persuaded to stay in formation and incessantly crowds the horse in front of him
  • The ambler, the one who will not be forced to a faster pace upon pain of death
  • The road warrior, the one who cares not a farthing for the rest and will leave them in its dust
  • The born leader, who is not happy anywhere but out in front
  • The gutless wonder, who is convinced it is going to die and balks at every slightest hint of strangeness around it
  • The crab, who takes exception to the very existence of other horses around it and is not shy about expressing it
  • The Nervous Nellie, who is afraid of all the other horses and can't bear to be in proximity to any of them
The wonderful horse who just goes down the trail and ignores everyone else is worth its weight in oats.

Often it is the rider who incites thoughts of murder in his fellow travelers. It takes experience to set a pace for the group that will accommodate the whole bunch. The leader who lets his horse walk much faster than the others will earn the wrath of everyone with a slower nag. This inevitably spreads out the group and starts horses that haven't been taught to "walk out" jigging to keep up. This is not actually a trot but more of a prance, and it is a killer to the rider. A sideache is almost always the result, not to mention that if you can't control your horse in a group you invite retribution from the rider (and mount) in front of you as your horse anxiously crowds up on its tail. This can incite kicking, and if the horse in front is really serious, it will involve both hind hooves at a height that can actually catch the trailing rider in the shoulder or face or knee. A fight on a narrow trail is bad news. Most well-broken horses will display their displeasure over such social faux pas but not pursue it seriously. Once in a while, however, discipline is meted out, swift and sharp. The horse behind usually realizes his error pretty quickly. Unfortunately, many riders are not as swift on the uptake, so you have a continuous running fight down the road.

Stabling a bunch of strange horses together is a noisy affair the first night, and you might wake up to a few injuries. The cavalry picket line, with the horses tied side by side, was an efficient use of space and kept the animals handy for a quick saddle-up, but horses tied all night do not necessarily spend all night sleeping. Some spend it scheming how to get loose (Kalup), fretting about the horse next door, dreaming about food, or pawing large holes in the ground from boredom or nerves. The "MOM, he's looking at me!" syndrome comes into full play here.

A highline stretched between two trees can put a stop to a lot of this. Tie the horses far enough apart they can't kick each other, which will stop a lot of the self-preservative instincts about guarding food from each other, as well. The lead ropes attach to the highline well above the horse's head, so he can't step over it and tangle himself up in the night, solving many difficulties. Be aware that a bored horse may chew the rope in two or spend all night figuring out how to untie the knot (or, conversely, pull it so tight you spend an hour getting it loose). We took a horse to the mountains once we ended up chaining to a tree every night because he had eaten his lead rope and all the spares we had.

Just because your horses are herd animals doesn't mean you can happily turn out a bunch of loose horses together and expect them to stay together. The strangers may take off at high speed looking for home. Yours may stand and watch, or decide there are aliens around the corner and follow them at a dead run, discretion being the better part of horsey valor. I honestly don't care how well-trained your horse is, how well it ground-ties, or how much it loves you. Tie it up at night. Your neophyte travelers may make this mistake, to much plot mayhem, or even end up the beneficiaries of someone else's similar error. We've had loose horses show up in camp before.

The traditional warning for a kicker is a red ribbon tied to its tail, but unless you are writing in a modern setting I can't see using this as a warning to the rest of your group. For plot purposes it is far more fun to discover this trait without warning. Very, very often horses will go along for hours with nary a blink, and then something will surprise one (a bird flying up, a muddy spot, a stream crossing, a big scary rock) and suddenly you have mayhem. The horses in the rear take their cue from the ones in front. The leader's ears will always, always be up and he will be looking for the boogeyman around the next corner. The rest figure he's going to get eaten first and go to sleep, slogging along with heads down and ears drooping. When one spooks, all the rest instantly come to attention and may jump away from the commotion, leaving their unwary rider suspended midair. A frightened horse will leap straight into the one beside it, wheel in the face of the one behind it, or crowd the one in front of it, creating a nasty ripple effect in the whole herd. Inexperienced riders will scream and react inappropriately with reins and legs, confusing their horses, and in general create more problems.

You might think that the longer the ride, the more tired the horse, the fewer the problems. You'd be wrong. Kalup could keep it up all day. The horses trailing tiredly in the rear may become anxious as the rest pull farther ahead and begin to jig or trot or nicker. The less well-conditioned horses may begin to balk and droop, and the tireder they get, the crabbier they get. You can as easily have a fight at the end of the day as at the beginning, especially if they are very thirsty or hungry and sense an end to their misery.

Horses in groups have infinite possibilities for your plot beyond simply getting your heroes from Point A to Point B. The state of training in your horses and the experience of the riders can make or break the journey. And remember, there is a reason the cavalry put a clear horse-length between the animals when riding in file down the road! It spared a lot of unpleasantness from the remounts.

Got horsey anecdotes to share? By all means, leave a comment about your experiences. I'd love to hear them.

'Til next time!