Friday, May 11, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Green Horse

It is amazing to me how most fictional horses are just so, so well broken, perfectly attuned to the rider, and know just what to do in any given situation. This is not true of the majority of horses. There are indeed lovely mounts that would stand quietly while a bomb went off in close proximity. Highly-trained show horses and other "working" animals have to be able to cope with new places, new smells, crowds, noise, movement, and all sorts of funny-looking stuff as a matter of course. They are trained to listen to the rider no matter what and to concentrate on getting the job done. A basic level of trust has been established in these animals that what the rider is asking them to do is not going to get them hurt, which makes them willing to give even the weirdest stuff a go. A warhorse was asked routinely to face up to waving swords, screams in its face, roaring cannons, gunfire and smoke, blood, and squishy bodies underfoot. It is doubtful that the wicked spurs worn by knights were the only reason these beasts could be persuaded to enter the fray. The green horse would take one look and bolt.

This trust in the rider can actually make the well-trained horse astonishingly stupid under saddle, however. When I was a kid our old stallion, Gay Bandit Chief, was a champion five-gaited Saddlebred who had been campaigned everywhere in his youth. He would, literally, charge unhesitatingly off a steep bank or over anything in his path if his rider pointed him at it. Bandit was a nasty-tempered creature but oh, so well trained.

The green horse, on the other hand, knows nothing, nothing! Take them out of familiar surroundings and you cannot predict what they will do. I would just love to see a story where the author's intrepid hero unwittingly got his hands on a barely-broken creature of the type so well portrayed in many Charlie Russell paintings. That "Bronc to Breakfast" was a staple of the cattle drive, when half-broken mustangs were expected to sweetly accept saddle, bridle and rider and go right to work. Check.

"Bronc to Breakfast" by Charles M. Russell
Brute force will only get you so far with the young or inexperienced horse. Letting them "buck it out" is fine if you're a really good rider and enjoy having your spine compressed into your skull every morning. Besides, does your hero have time for this? Is it really a good idea to put up with a bucker or a balker or a flighty, green-broke neophyte in the middle of a crowded market square, or on a mountain trail, or just before a battle with the enemy in sight? There is a definite "oh crap" moment when you settle into the saddle and feel the horse hump up under you (I just reluctantly axed a scene like this from a book I'm revising). What happens after that is a matter of rider skill and horsey sensibility. While I love the possibilities for distraction, running gags, and plot mayhem in these scenarios, practicality demands that we get the horse past this stage as quickly as possible if he is going to be of any use to the hero.

Horses have associative memories, so it is, unfortunately, possible to imprint exactly the wrong thing on them without even trying. Your defensive reaction to his playful grab for the treats he can smell in your pocket (a smart smack across the muzzle instead of the neck), may make him head-shy for a week. Your desperate grab for the reins as he leaps a ditch may make him anxious about approaching the next one, not knowing what he did wrong the first time. There is a huge difference between "training" and "subduing" the horse, and the difference comes out in how the poor beast reacts to strange situations.

The green horse is just...dumb. The rider must pay attention on these creatures. He might flounder his way over a young tree rather than around it because, hey, you pointed him at it and he trusted you to keep him out of trouble. On the other hand, he might decide that the young tree in the trail is from Mars and do a quick, amazingly agile swap of where his head and tail used to be and depart smartly back down the road toward home. You may or may not be with him when he goes.

Horses raised in pastures or in the wild are much smarter about these things, but conversely, they don't know about stalls, stables, wagons, cars, trains, wheelbarrows and other modern conveniences. These things are Monsters lurking to assault Horsey so far as he is concerned, and he will react to them, if only to give them a good, long look as he goes by. The flightier beasts will decide the bucket hanging on the wall over there is actually the portal of doom and refuse to walk by it, or be dragged by it, or be beaten past it by three stout grooms. The power of any given horse to defend itself against what it perceives as danger is immense, and should never be discounted.

So how do you get his attention and/or trust? When do you pick the fight and when do you wait it out? It is sometimes difficult to tell when the horse is truly frightened and when he's just playing head games with you. Patience is always best, but sometimes the horse just doesn't want to cooperate that day, and having won the battle, will remember it for next time. This can lead to much retraining if you don't get the drop on him and put an end to it quickly. Sometimes he will walk past the bucket just fine ninety-nine times, and on the hundredth approach pitch an epic fit. Why? Who knows? Maybe the bucket is swinging ever so slightly in the wind. Maybe somebody hung it up with the logo showing. Maybe this is the first time he actually noticed it, and now his little world is oh my god! DIFFERENT! Whatever. You now have a problem.

This is the time to engage the fight, when you know he knows better. If gentle soothing and sweet talk don't get him past it, find a whip. A gentle tap or two on his hind leg usually readjusts his attitude. If it escalates into a pitched battle, you really do have to win it, which may involve enlisting help, or simply waiting him out until he gets tired and walks past it. The more excited he gets, the worse off you are, as you are now making this a Big Effing Deal in his mind. The more excited you get, the less trust he has in you. The vicious circle in motion.

Welcome to horse training.

Remember that the green horse really doesn't know what you think he should know. His vision is different from yours, his sense of smell and hearing more acute, and he is unaccustomed to not reacting in whatever way he pleases to what he smells, sees, and hears. Your reflexive check of his instinctive reactions could send him into orbit. Nor has he learned the meaning of the confusing signals he's getting from the twitch of the bit in his mouth, the shift of your weight on his back (which he may or may not know how to balance without staggering), the creak of the saddle and the touch of the reins on his neck. He is nervous, anxious to understand what you want him to do (or sullen about the whole affair), and totally unpredictable. He may step over a four-inch pole on the ground or take a mighty leap to the moon. He may stand like a rock when you get on, or nearly fall over on top of you trying to adjust for your weight. He may accept a bird flying up in his face with wonderful equanimity, or have a meltdown over a motionless boulder beside the trail. He is constantly listening and watching for danger (and expecting it, too), with half his attention forever on the strange thing clinging to his back.

Put your hero on a green horse deliberately to create plot tension or to shape a scene around the horse's reactions (or the rider's reaction to the horse). Do not just put your rider on any old horse that comes along and expect it to be perfectly well broken and up to any situation. That is unrealistic, and contrary to how the real horse world works. Riding stables, dude ranches, and liveries might have an entire complement of broke-to-death horses in order not to incur lawsuits. It is doubtful that any large stable, traveling group, or horse dealership was ever stocked that way. Like the rest of us, horses only acquire experience by doing, which means that sometime, somewhere, someone is going to end up on a green one, with all the attendant, and interesting, consequences.

Have fun writing them! As always, I am open to your questions and comments. Please do share your personal experiences. I'd love to hear them.

14 comments:

claredeming said...

Hah! This brings up some memories. One green-ish horse decided that the signal to canter meant she should buck-buck-buck. And yes, it's amazing how something as innocent as a line of paint on the road or a piece of paper can inspire complete terror.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Oh, yes. Actually, Pilot was in a bucky mood tonight, no idea why. He had an extreme case of the gawks, staring at everything in sight, and took exception to my leg at every opportunity. Then he wanted to go up and down in place, or failing that, to jet off and run home. And he's not exactly green! The worm turneth in their little brains sometimes, sparking who knows what.

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Sara A. Mueller said...

I laughed and nodded my way through your whole post. I'd like to add that there are some horses that can NEVER handle new situations or freakish human things (for instance, the ever-deadly white plastic bag).

I look forward to seeing a hero with a really skittish horse some day!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sara, I will never forget a certain fair when I was about 14. Middle of a HOT August afternoon, waiting with my Saddlebred mare Vixen to go into a halter class. She was asleep, bored out of her mind, and I was fearful I would not be able to get her awake enough to impress the judge. About a minute before I had to take her into the arena, Providence intervened in the shape of a woman with a white plastic umbrella she was using as a sun shade. She walked past, Vixen took one look and stood up so straight I could walk under her throatlatch without so much as brushing my hair. She was wired and snorty and oh so pretty when we went through that gate. We won that class hands down!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

It is ironic, I suppose, that my first two published books have no horses in them. All the rest have every imaginable sort of horse, and some of them make life difficult for their riders!

Elisabeth Christie said...

These blogs are Sooo helpful! I'm working on a medieval fantasy quest where the hero, used to long days of riding, has a fine, well-trained palfrey. The heroine, who hadn't ridden in 10 years, has a placid, older mare, a farm horse. I know I'm going to have to go back and add some horse-action. But what and where???

Kathryn Scannell said...

Another fun thing to remember is that a lot of horse behavior is training, not inherent reaction. Pair a rider who has learned one set of cues and a horse who learned a different one, and hilarity is likely to follow.

I used to have a lovely little Arab gelding, with whom I did some training level dressage. He was sweet, mostly willing, and we'd been working on being sensitive to the aids.

Then I let a friend who hadn't been able to bring his own horse to an event ride him. He was a self-trained, backyard rider, with a half-trained, stubborn stallion. He got on Sticky, and clamped his legs around him, and they were off doing leg yields back and forth and pirouettes, and all sorts of things, all of which my friend asked him for, without having the slightest idea he'd done it.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Elisabeth, as Sara said, sometimes even the staid old reliables can succumb to surprise or take exception to something they hate. The old farm horse is doubtless not accustomed to armed robbers flying out of the woods shouting and screaming and waving pointy things around. There is also the unexpected dog bursting from an alley yapping its brains out, a child pitching a rock at the gentry before fleeing, the bird startling up underfoot, or a half-asleep horse spooking from the sudden flutter of a skirt or cloak. Think about where your people are riding: in town, in the country, through the woods? Then think about the hazards that might lie in wait for a horse to get excited about. Sometimes all it takes is a branch poking out on a narrow trail to jab him in the belly.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Kathryn, yes! The very first article I ever got published was on a horse's mindset, in Horse Illustrated about 20 years ago. You have no idea what your new horse knows, or how he's been cued, or what lurks in his past that haunts him. I am giggling at the thought of your hapless guy wondering why his horse is suddenly doing beautiful, graceful circles on his haunches--and how to get him out of it!

Elizabeth Barrette said...

This is a good description of inexperienced horses, particularly in formal styles of riding like English and Western, which rely a lot on tack and training. The distinction can be less dramatic in more naturalistic styles, with less tack and more reliance on the rider really understanding horses. It makes a difference if you're putting an armored knight into a war saddle vs. putting a ranger on a blanket. That's tricky because almost everything written about horses and riding is either English or Western. Even finding Arabic is a pain in the tail, and much of Native American tradition is either unwritten or only described by outsiders.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Elizabeth, so true. "Horsemanship" was not even thought of as a codified training regimen until about the 16th century (discounting Xenophon), so no one really cared, I suppose, about training techniques before that except as they worked for the individual. Dressage is the direct descendant of all those early riding schools, so how we ride today is what gets written about. But as you say, the less formal methods depend upon someone who knows horses very well, and that is not always going to be the case when rider meets horse, especially if we're using the green horse as a true plot device to accomplish something in a scene. I like your perspective, though. There are indeed many ways to approach the animal even today. I always wanted to train a horse with a tack collar, because I like to ride bareback anyway, but never attempted it.

Terri Bruce said...

As always, awesome article!

Oh God, yes, on all accounts. The green (especially young!) horse who hasn't yet learned to balance a rider under saddle yet; the green horse that doesn't know what cues mean; the dead broke horse that does exactly what it's told, even when it shouldn't. My trainer and I started trying to "untrain" or possibly "train to think" the horse I was leasing. We made an opening with barrels and asked him to walk through it (with me on his back) and we gradually decreased the size of the opening. When it got so narrow that there was a danger I would get brushed/knocked off (or hurt if it had been something other than barrels) I would kick the barrels as we went through. This horse had a very expressive face and he looked so worried/confused like "what?! What did I do?!" Eventually he understand and would stop and refuse to go through. But that took a long time to get into his head - "hey, you have a choice here. Make good decisions."

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Oh, Terri, your poor baby! Poor, sweet guy. He was just doing what he was taught. I will never forget the first time my jump trainer lunged Kalup over an X. He went trotting smartly around the half circle, approached the jump without hesitation, and slammed on the brakes, carefully stepped over (the highest part of the X because it was in front of him) and trotted on. We looked at each other and fell over laughing, because he had been a trail horse his entire life, taught to step over obstacles rather than jump them, no matter how high. If you've been following this blog, you'll see from pictures I've posted why that is. We've been over some *bad* trails. Bless 'em all, I love horses.