Monday, March 4, 2013

Horses in Fiction: The Noisy Horse

I apologize for being so long absent. Some of you may know I have been fighting cancer since November, which has gotten into my bones and made life sort of miserable this past year or so. I'm better now, ergo, I'm resuming some sort of normal writing schedule.

Photo courtesy of ezeedictionary.com. Note that the horse
has to have his head up and extended to really sound off.
Have you ever noticed that any movie or TV show with a horse in it inevitably uses a horsey sound effect of some sort? Usually it's a whinny, sometimes a snort, less often a plausible whicker. Most Hollywood directors seem to assume that the audience cannot grasp the presence of horses without an audio announcement. Either that, or they assume that all horses stand around and make noise all day.

They don't.

The horse has vocal chords with which he can deafen you, oh yes, but it is actually rare for a horse to "talk" without a reason. The friendlier types (like Pilot) may greet the sight of "their" person with a friendly nicker or a "huh huh huh" flutter down the nostrils, and hungry horses may indeed set up a racket when they see the source of breakfast coming. My sister's mare, Lightfoot, was rightfully nicknamed "Pigatha" (her brother, Chief, being Pigathee) because she was one of those nags whose head is constantly down hunting food. She never stopped eating. On pack trips the other horses would go quietly to sleep after we all turned in for the night; Lightfoot would give a hopeful announcement every time someone turned over in their sleeping bag, and really start in toward dawn when she decided she had been patient long enough. There is no such thing as "sleeping late" when camping with horses.

It always kills me whenever someone in a movie approaches a horse and you instantly hear a horsey sound effect. Come on! Those horses running in the herd being driven by the cowboys? They're too busy breathing to whinny. Those guys sneaking around the horse lines looking to turn them all loose or steal one? Those horses will turn their heads and watch with interest, but unless they're hungry, you likely won't hear a peep from them. Nervous stamping of hooves and snorting, perhaps, if the guy smells funny or looks weird to their night vision. Noisy nickering, no, not unless he somehow really scares them and they're anxious to get away. Horses are likely to get squirrelly if you walk out into the pasture at night and they're not used to it, but they still won't squeal or nicker before they cut and run. They will, however, often stop at the far end of the pasture, stare back at the danger with head up and ears glued forward, and blast a snort down the nose that you can hear for miles.

The only time they're likely to get upset enough to whinny in the barn or picket line or corral is when one of their buddies is actually led away, but even that is fairly uncommon. It's more usual for the beast being led away to raise a ruckus. The more herdbound they are the noiser they will be, which then might get the others upset enough to start running and responding, certain that there is some hidden danger around that Herdbound is reacting to. Unusual activity in the barn may upset them as well. I remember once when I was a Pony Club district commissioner my club decided to play a prank on me. Most of the adults were relaxing around a campfire; several of the older kids were moving horses around in the barn, sneaking them out for a midnight ride. The adults in the know were tasked with keeping me at the fire, but I could hear horses snorting and "questioning" in the barn and finally got up to go see about it despite their best efforts. So, your horse-savvy hero is probably subconsciously tuned in to his beast(s) all the time. In the same manner that I can walk out to the barn and instantly tell from their body language if one of my horses has a problem, so any noise from the horse lines will instantly alert the horseman.

Why? Simply because it is so rare for horses to get vocal. Squealing and nipping accompany any get-acquainted overtures by two or more strange horses. That is normal. What is not normal is for  well-acquainted horses to suddenly start snorting and fussing unless one is trying to steal the other's food or otherwise invading his space. The sleeping horse tied to the hitching post does not wake with a mighty bellow, nor are you likely to hear much from the whole herd of horses grazing in the meadow. A mare will cry for her newly weaned foal; the foal will likewise be frantic for a few hours or a day. A lonesome horse will sometimes call to horses he can see in another pasture; he may even run up and down the fence in a frenzy trying to get to them and scream the place down. A ridden horse may call out to a newcomer he senses headed his way. This is herd instinct, an announcement that one of his kind is in the vicinity and they should get together, or a challenge that the stranger is entering his territory. But again, these are all reasons to make noise. The casual whinny as Hollywood uses it just really doesn't exist. Why would it? It would be counterproductive to horsey survival in the wild.

When they do talk, horses make a wonderful variety of sounds, from that soft, questioning huh-huh-huh to loud, frightening squeals and bellows of rage. A good, loud whinny carries a really long way, so it is not implausible to find the enemy camp this way. And, of course, you can always embarrass your hero with a horse that sounds like a yearling instead of a mighty stallion (some horses just never develop a deep neigh). Horse people always crack up when the gorgeous 17hh gelding opens his mouth and what comes out sounds like a pony foal. Horse sounds are somewhat underrated as plot devices. :)

Next time you're watching a show with horses in it, pay attention to the sound effects. I'll bet you will find that scarcely does a horse appear on the screen before you hear a whinny in the background. Movie directors may think this lends authenticity to the scene; in reality, it's not authentic at all. If you are going to have your fictional horses make noise, stop and think about why they would become vocal, and whether it enhances your characters' chances of survival or gives the game away to the enemy. And yes, you can stop a horse from whinnying by forcing his head down toward his chest. He needs his head up to get enough breath and flexibility in his neck to sound forth. Pinching his nostrils together is not a good idea. He's not stupid; he's going to fight you for air and make more noise thrashing around than he might have if you'd left him alone and just stroked his neck or his nose to keep him quiet.

Just remember: horses can be noisy, but they are not noisy by nature.

Until next time...I promise it won't be as long between installments!

If you've a mind to help me pay the medical bills, check out Firedancer and Windrider. If you've already read them, tell your friends! And reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are always welcome. Thanks!

16 comments:

Unknown said...

I had forgotten how much I enjoy your horse commentary. I think of it as horse sense. Thank you, again! Glad you're feeling better. I look forward to future posts (and a chance to add the collection to my writing reference library). Any plans to launch that this year? Can I help? (Smile)

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

I'm glad you enjoy the posts. I'm trying to figure out my writing schedule for the year, as I do have some contractual commitments. This is something I'd like to do, though.

widdershins said...

Never having had the pleasure of being around horses I find your posts a wonderful window into another universe! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Squealing, screaming horses in movies are one of my huge pet peeves. I boarded at a tiny private barn for a while, and the other mare called for mine whenever we left the property, but as you said, that's pretty much the only time you hear that. Otherwise it's just those lovely low nickers. They're a prey animal. It's not in their best interest to walk around advertising their presence.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Widdershins, that's why I do it. In this modern age you just don't get the same opportunities to get up close to horses as our ancestors knew. I'm glad they're helpful to you!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Indeed, announcing their availability to every cougar and wolf in the neighborhood would be dumb. And they don't go around like sheep blatting every second in protest of being driven, either. They just run.

Sylvia Kelso said...

Right on post, Sue. My pet peeves are literary bloopers, where some horse whinnies because the rider jerks the reins, or "whinnies in fright" when some action happens. I don;t know about in the presence of a lot of blood, but even when confronted with the smell of a dead animal, horses don't call out. WE rode on a freshly dead cow in the bush once. When the horses got close to catch the scent, they started to crouch and sidle, but they never made a sound.
The one noisy occasion you might have mentioned is when a mare in heat and a stallion get together - or near together, or catch each other's scents across a yard or such. At least, for our bush-run horses, it was always the case.

Sylvia Kelso said...

Right on post, Sue. My pet peeves are literary bloopers, where some horse whinnies because the rider jerks the reins, or "whinnies in fright" when some action happens. I don't know about in the presence of a lot of blood, but even when confronted with the smell of a dead animal, horses don't call out. We rode on a freshly dead cow in the bush once. When the horses got close enough to catch the scent, they started to crouch and sidle, but they never made a sound.
The one noisy occasion you might have mentioned is when a mare in heat and a stallion get together - or near together, or catch each other's scents across a yard or such. At least, for our bush-run horses, it was always the case.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sylvia, you're right about the mare/stallion thing. Lots of snorting and interested whuffling and squealing going on there, for sure. And I, too, can't recall a single instance of a horse "whinnying in fright" as they encounter the bogeyman. They shy or tuck tail and run from the threat. Quietly!

Winnie S. said...

Glad you're posting again. And very glad you are feeling better. Cheering for you.

Loved this commentary because I never really thought about the noises horses make. Sadly, I think movie directors do it b/c it's what people expect- and since many people don't have contact with horses they assume that it's real behavior.

I hope you consider putting all this together in a book:)

E. F. Watkins said...

The Black Stallion is one of my favorite movies of all time, and one of the most exciting scenes on the island is when the horse is tangled up in ropes and the boy frees him with a knife. The Black is on the ground thrashing against the ropes, with these ROARS such as I'd never heard from a horse! It makes you really afraid for the kid. I read later that the roars were actually of a stallion being led to a mare, and the sound guy said, "To a horse expert, they're going to sound all wrong, but they worked for the scene." They really did--the horse sounds like a volcano ready to explode!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

I love The Black Stallion, both the books (I have the whole set) and the movie. I'll have to watch it again to see what they did. The only time I have ever seen a truly killing-mad horse was when I was a kid. We had a big black gelding named Dude who took exception to something Dad wanted him to do. I forget what it was, but Dude commenced to stomp and scream and throw himself backward, fighting the lead rope, making these deep, angry grunting roars. Everybody bailed out of his way and left him to fight it out with himself. I'll never forget that episode. It was awesome and scary and I hope I never see a horse get into such a rage again.

Melinda Bennington said...

This is an excellent post. Fore five years I lived behind an eight hundred acre horse ranch in Colorado. I was constantly amused by the social activity of the horses. They definitely had their "cliques" and BFFs. :-) But you are so right about their sounds. Sending best wishes for comfort and healing.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Thank you, Melinda. That's very kind. I'll bet you had fun watching the horses. Did you ever see the yearlings playing tag? Back when we had about a dozen horses the young ones would "tag" one of the mares and then run off, chasing each other, then get brave and do it again. They were endlessly entertaining.

Elisabeth Christie said...

Excellent post, Sue. Yesterday I deleted 2-3 "whinneys" from my WIP.
So glad you're feeling better! Hope you stay well.

Christie Maurer, aka Elisabeth Christie

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Christie: whatever I can do to help trim that word count! :)