I've been remiss of late, stealing time on the horses over time on the computer. Having satisfied my craving today with a good long ride on my green and impatient Nellie (next time, The Green Horse), I'm back and musing on why the horse continues to have such a firm hold on our imaginations that epic fantasy is hardly complete without them.
Alexander had Bucephalus. Robert E. Lee had Traveller. The Lone Ranger had Silver. Young Alec Ramsey had the Black Stallion. And millions of little girls play with their My Little Ponies and pine for the real thing. Millions more actually have the real thing, forming a bond that lasts a lifetime. If you have ever been fortunate enough to have a horse for a partner in any endeavor, you never get over it.
Why? What makes horses so dang special that long after their commercial usefulness has been bypassed by modern machinery, tens of millions of people keep them as really expensive pets? Mucking a ton or two of horse poop every year really isn't that much fun. The feed is expensive and the vet bills can turn your hair gray.
But, but... Oh, yeah, that but is huge. Huge, I say!
world-record jump of 8' 1¼" (the one in the picture is not official), which has stood for over 60 years. It's the little stuff.
My farrier came the other day, at exactly the same moment an email arrived needing something done ASAP. Hot deadline...long-scheduled appointment...horses needing holding. Ah, the perils of freelancing. Thank goodness for modern technology. I took the laptop to the barn and worked while holding Pilot, who stood sweetly to get his hooves trimmed and his shoes put on. The whole time he hung his head over my shoulder, blowing on the keyboard and the screen (thank you so much for the sneeze and the snot, good buddy), into my ear, and kissing my cheek in friendly affection.
Was he doubtless also hoping I'd feed him munchies? Probably, but the odd taco (compressed pellets made of timothy grass, alfalfa, corn, and oats) isn't what gets a horse to jump a solid wall it can't see over, circle back to nose you in curious puzzlement after you fall off, when it could go galloping gloriously free, or come hang over your shoulder in anxious commiseration when you're blue. Nor does fear of whip and spur take a horse into battle with you. You CANNOT afford to be concentrating on driving your horse forward when there are people coming at you with nasty pointy things.
Trust is what bonds horse and rider, even in the scariest situations. This is built through a thousand little moments, from scratching the itchy spots under his mane to doctoring his sore foot to soothing his fears when the boogeyman pops up. And like comrades-in-arms, those moments add up to an odd sort of friendship across species. Horses are capable of great affection, loyalty, and courage above and beyond the call of duty. They will often go willingly into danger of their own accord. They will greet "their" approaching rider with a loud whinny of welcome. They will stick like glue in hardship and danger when no natural reason bids them stay. They will lend heart and soul to the race, to the effort, to the moment, often seeming to read your mind. Many great horsemen claim that horses are at least mildly telepathic. More likely, they are highly attuned to your body language. But whatever the reason, there is no greater thrill than asking your horse to do something difficult, and having it go beyond even what you expected. The unity of horse and rider accomplishing something together is what drives the storied relationship.
The bonds run deep, and often expose themselves in unexpected ways and at odd times. My old mare Vixen, who was born when I was 9 and lived on our place until she died at the age of 20, never had another regular rider but me. She was cantankerous and often difficult, doubtless in part because of a young rider's mistakes, but nonetheless we were inseparable and she would go anywhere for me. When she cut her fetlock badly on barbed wire and was healing up, she hobbled after me in protest when I caught another horse from the pasture to ride. I walked away in tears, feeling like a traitor. Then she stood and nickered over the fence as I rode away. Egad. Talk about arrows to the heart.
The bravest of warhorses were greatly prized in all the old epic sagas, but what is seldom mentioned is all the work and training that went into their fearlessness and the genuine affection that must exist to get a horse to try its best for you. A well-trained horse may dump a rider it doesn't trust. A poorly-trained one is never trustworthy. This is why I always snort when someone's fictional hero buys a strange nag at the livery, mounts up, and goes down the road in perfect confidence, thinking heroic thoughts. This mythical beast never falters through fire, flood or ambuscade, jumps ditches and hedges without hesitation, and runs eagerly until it drops.
The spiritless nag shuffled from hand to hand, livery to livery, owner to owner, expects abuse and may be too cowed to object if pointed at a cliff. He can be driven by shouts, whips, and pain to do things he would not do on his own. This does not mean he won't abandon you at the first opportunity. However terrified of being hurt by his rider he may be, it is doubtful that he would run blithely into gunfire if he had never heard it before, or take unflinchingly to the noise, smoke, blood smells, crowding, and violent movement of battle. On the other hand, the superbly trained jumper will at least start toward that 7-foot puissance wall in confidence under a new rider. He knows what he's supposed to. The question that arrives at the critical moment is--does the rider? Here is where things get sticky, when horsey expectations and rider expectations part company. Often, so do horse and rider.
The rider who simply expects his trained horse to jump and who makes all the right moves on the way to the point of decision instills confidence in his mount that Horsey is not going to die accommodating his wishes. This is all Horsey really wants. He can't think much beyond that. He has a job to do, and someone who interferes with his expectations of how to do it is going to confuse hell out of him. This leads to last-minute, brakes-on stops leading to the rider flying over his head in solo splendor; sudden swerves to the side, with rider projected sideways; poorly-timed attempts at the jump and subsequent splintering disaster; or magnificent leaps that somehow get both rider and horse across but come to grief on the landing side.
When Horsey disappoints the rider unexpectedly, which happens all the time, the same results occur. The horse may take exception to a shadow, the footing, a blowing bit of grass, an obstacle that suddenly looks like the Great Wall of China, or a hundred other instinctual things that combine to overcome his training that day. In either case, it is a failure of the essential trust that makes the bond with a horse so special.
I can count on my horses to cheer me up after a difficult day. It is more than the simple affection of a pet. Even when I get after Pilot for cribbing on the fence (drives me crazy!) he comes right back with ears eagerly raised and an inquisitive nose poked into whatever I'm doing. He always comes to the fence to meet me even when it's not feeding time and he's stuffed to the gills anyway. It's not just boredom; he genuinely likes people. Nellie ignores food to come say hello, hoping for a little scratch or a taco. She, who had to make a difficult transition from her old pasture to mine, has learned to trust that I won't throw new kinks into her life, and is rapidly becoming a really good horse. I make no great claims about my abilities as a horse trainer. What she gives, I have won bit by bit by teaching her that she can trust me.
The thrill that comes from a good bond with your horse never quite goes away. You will remember that horse your entire life, brag about it forever, look back with special fondness at what you accomplished together. It is not because you managed to persuade or coerce your horse into
accomplishing something difficult, but because he made a gift to
you of his very best.
The people (and there have been millions in the course of history), who treated horses as simple commodities, easily discarded and replaced, regarded them as we do cars, as simply things that served their needs of the moment. They did not mourn their passing, but neither did they ever accomplish anything spectacular with them. Professional riders who get on whatever horse the sponsor has bought for them often do very well, but few will attain the lasting fame of a combination like Mark Todd and his little mare Charisma, who won back-to-back Olympics in 3-day eventing, the most difficult of equine sports. No one has done it before or since. Like jockeys who bond with a particular racehorse and ride it to eternal fame, the magic is made from familiarity and trust.
If you are going to ask your fictional horse to do something spectacular, you had better build a believable relationship between horse and rider before crunch time. Stealing the hero's wonderful nag seldom worked in the great epics, and it won't work for yours either. Our horse-loving ancestors knew the great warhorse loved its own rider and distrusted anyone else. Keep it in mind when your riders are undergoing their own journeys.
If you haven't checked out my first novel, Firedancer, yet, for the next week you can sign up to get a free, autographed first edition at Goodreads. Don't dawdle; the giveaway ends on April 30. Thanks for reading!