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!


Unknown said...

Another great write-up, Sue. I promise to be at the head of the line if you ever put these posts together in a single volume and offer them for sale. I'm quite serious!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Thanks for that. I may do that one day.