I spent last weekend at Norwescon happily meeting fans and sitting on panels, among which was (gasp!) one about horses in fiction. My fellow panelists were all fun and interesting and I am hoping to beg some guest posts out of them on jousting and what it is really like to take horses into combat, with elephants around, no less. Stay tuned!
After a lovely week of sunshine, the first all year, we are back to sun and rain fighting it out in fierce little contests throughout the day. This makes for, you guessed it, the muddy horse in the pasture and the filthy beast you have to untack and put away at the end of the ride. Funny how rarely you see that in fiction. Historical novels of all stamps that incorporate upper crust characters may loftily speak of handing off the horse to the lowly groom while the hero or heroine goes off to do hero-type things; seldom do you actually see the groom at work (unless he's a handsome fella the heroine has her eye on). Even less often do the traveling heroes stop to scrape the muck off their all-important means of transportation.
This makes me angry both as a horsewoman and as a matter of practicality. Good horse owners take care of their animals, which means you don't leave them standing around in knee-high slop to get mud rot, a nasty condition in which the hair literally rots off their legs and leaves open, running sores. Thrush, another condition often born in mucky conditions, affects the hoof and can leave the horse unsound. Not to mention that if the poor beast is picking his hay out of the mud he's likely to ingest a lot of crud with it that doesn't do his digestive system any good. Then you end up with colic, which is often deadly.
In the spring when the wind is blowing as you're trying to groom, it really isn't that much fun to stand out there grooming horses. Loose hair and flakes of mud end up all over your face, your coat, your hair, in your eyes, and littering your clean stable floor (which is why I try to groom mine outside whenever possible). Yet leaving all that loose hair and mud under the saddlepad is a certain recipe for nasty open sores. Horse hair tends to ball up into clumps with the friction and motion of the horse's movement under the saddle. You will be able to collect great long strings of it from the edge of any surface that touches the horse when they are in full shedding mode. Combine that with mud and salt sweated out by Horsey, and you have, essentially, a pebble grinding against the horse's skin for hours and hours.
It doesn't take long for open wounds to form if the horse is carrying much weight or if the saddle fits poorly. Then you have a sore-backed horse who will eventually object strenuously to the weight of the saddle (and you). Those old Charlie Russell paintings of broncs attempting to unload their riders every morning may have been occasioned as much by sore horses unaccustomed to long hours under saddle as to being only half broke to start with.
The traveler on the road had better thoroughly groom his horse every night, from picking the loose pebbles out of his hooves (one lodged under his shoe or against the frog can certainly make him lame), to removing all the accumulated sweat and gunk from his back and everywhere else. A horse that is really hot and working will often form lather between his hind legs and sometimes across his chest, and he will drip sweat in long runnels off his belly, down his front legs, and trailing back from the rear of the saddle, following the lay of the hair toward its flanks. A small stick with the bark on works admirably for a sweat scraper, just don't press too hard.
If your horse cringes away from the touch of your hand along the muscles to either side of his spine (sometimes they squat right down in pain), you have a sore-backed horse and it could seriously affect the next day's travel if you choose to ignore his pain and push on. "Hot spots" will be perceptible if the saddle has rubbed too hard at any particular place, and often the hair will fall out and grow in white. This is generally a sign of a poor-fitting saddle or a bad rider who slumps in the saddle like a sack of sand, settling his fat bum atop the horse's spine as though clamped to it and not helping poor Horsey at all as he goes along.
Even a walking horse will kick up mud and water that ends up all over his hind legs and tail, and if he splashes through mud puddles and sloppy spots he will be coated above his knees in the front, too. Draft-type horses with lots of "feather" above their hooves are especially miserable to clean up, especially if you let all that stuff dry into mud balls. Those can cling to tails and fetlocks to the point where it practically takes a jackhammer to get them off. And trust me, you really don't want to get swiped with a filthy, muddy tail.
Bear in mind that the practice of body-clipping or "trace clipping" horses in the winter, removing all or part of their natural winter coat to help them stay cleaner and dry off faster after a ride, is a modern invention. Your usual historical and fantasy travelers should be carrying grooming tools (a brush and a hoofpick at a minimum), or be shown improvising such things from grass, leaves, and sticks at night when they stop and unsaddle. If you "show" your reader your riders thinking about the condition of their horses and actually taking care of them at least once in the course of your story, you will establish much higher credibility in the minds of your horse-savvy audience, and educate the rest a little bit.
Okay. I'm off to knock some mud off my nags, for all the good it will do, as they will be rolling to get even more hair off five minutes later. And then they'll stand and look at me, coated in mud again, with that eager "Look, Ma! Did I do good?" prick of the ears. Sigh.
Till next time!